Merton and Contemplation

March 11th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

John 3:5-8, 14-21

Frontispiece

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

In the North Country (New York State just south of Montreal) I knew where I could find my people, mostly men, some women, in a mood to talk.  In the month of March, between milking times, you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim.  The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely, and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap:  have a donut, dip the donut, drink the syrup. Fathers and sons, aunts and nieces, talking. This is the month for north country, maple syrup…contemplation.

One of our dearest north country friends bore five children in a border farm house and raised them there, including the month or so of ‘sugaring’ each year.  The children danced in the steam and sweet air of forty gallons of sap becoming a gallon of pure Vermont maple syrup, brewed in New York State, but canned and bottled due east, to gain the Vermont mark-up.  She had been raised on an Indian Reservation in Washington State, was graduated from Bellingham College, and then scooped up by Senator Scoop Jackson to work in his Washington DC office, from 1968 to 1975 or so.  How she met her dairy farmer husband and moved to the banks of the frozen river St. Lawrence was never clear. One winter evening, with a light snow (6 inches) and some cold (10 below) she hosted our family at a lavish, gourmet dinner.  Her farm house, astride the barn, and 3 miles south of the Canadian border, had bare studs for the walls and an ancient linoleum flooring, warmed with a great hearth. The table sat their seven and our four and was laden: with pickles, with flowers, with simple china and silver, and with a king’s meal.  Ham lavish and delicious and presented with beauty. The vegetables of all varieties. Dessert, not just a pie, but some elegant tort. In the impoverished cold, she set a magnificent warm meal. It must have taken days to prepare. You can have all the money in the world, with shining golden buildings across the globe emblazoned with your name, and still make life ugly and tawdry and small.  Or, with her, having nothing, you can create beauty. She worshipped every Sunday, in season and out, with family or without. In the summer, with good weather, she rode her horse to church. She practiced contemplation of the Merton variety by writing long letters, hand delivered to the minister, after the benediction. In a fortnight of enforced hibernation this January, there emerged some time, digging through old boxes, to find those contemplative letters, to reread and rethink them.  One of them, in part, will conclude not this Sunday’s but next week’s sermon, which is set in some contrast, or at least in contemplative dialogue with today’s. We leave her just now, saddling her horse and heading home after church, August 1982.

Barry

In contemplation, many of you, this Lent, have been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN.   As a way of honoring your communal contemplation of this, we quote here on of our congregation, David Barry, who writes, “This search for peace continued periodically for Merton, until the day he surrendered to it completely and decided to become a monk at twenty-six. Years earlier, still young and looking through a picture book on the French countryside, he was captivated by the beauty of the ruins of old churches. He felt drawn to the peace and solitude of these old places. He describes, “… my heart was filled by a kind of longing to breathe the air of that lonely valley and listen to its silence” (48).  The physical has awakened the spiritual…

“(One night Merton) had a powerful sensory experience. He felt the presence of his father and believed that his father’s spirit was trying to help him to escape from the directionless life that he had been living. “The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me” (123).  Merton thought of the visit from his father as a “grace” (124). “I sat outside, in the sun, on a wall and tasted the joy of my own inner peace, and turned over in my mind how my life was going to change, and how I would become better” (125). Basking in the glow of the sun and remembered religious experience, he had found some peace at last.”

Merton’s Contemplation

Step by step, up the seven storey mountain, Merton finds his way.  One foot ahead of the other, or, better, on phrase ahead of the other, he plods along.  Howard Thurman had a sermon, not a famous one, but a good one, title, ‘Fear not the Fallow’.  It is sometimes in the quiet, snow covered, cold, non-descript patches of time as well as space, that something new and decidedly good is preparing to emerge.  But you cannot see it or hear it or sense it or feel it or touch it. Here, again, a leap of faith is needed. Listen to a few of Merton’s contemplative steps, phrases preparing him for the contemplative life, which begin to appear, in his autobiography, about 2/3 of the way through the book:

I was living.  I had an interior life, real, but feeble and precarious.  And I was still nursed and fed with spiritual milk. (303).

After Latin, it seems to me there is no language so fitted for prayer and for talk about God as Spanish (306).

It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence (at Mass in Havana, following the performative language in the creed, at the Consecration) (311).

It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness (311).

God often talks to us directly in Scripture (321).

God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that sprung from deep within me. (331).

O America, how I began to love your country! What miles of silences God has made in you for contemplation!  If only people realized what your mountains and forests are really for! (339)

And over all the valley smiled the mild, gentle Easter moon, the full moon I her kindness, loving this silent place (351).

Renewal of Spirit

Contemplation is attention to spirit.

A nominal belief is not much better than no faith at all.  Not a nominal belief in God, but an active awareness of God is born of the Spirit.  The Spirit creates an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing your thinking and deciding.  The Holy Spirit, God with us, is at work today, to refresh your heart and to quicken your life and to banish your fear.

Spirit is calling us today to move on from a nominal belief in God to the faith of a new birth, an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our movements and our attitude.  Such a rebirth, the wind of God inspires. ‘Let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are re-fashioned and made new (people), though the way he does this is hidden from us’ (Calvin).

The Gospel of John is calling to you.  At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith.  To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith?  Nicodemus thought that until he saw he was wrong. The woman at the well said so, until she, her ownmost self, was revealed.  Those feasting on fish and loaves learned something else. Those in harsh debate with Jesus did as well. The man born blind, given sight, thought maybe all he would have was his illness and the pool of Bethsaida:  not so. And Lazarus, to top it all, was dead, down in the catacomb, four days. And a voice: Lazarus! Come out! The Gospel of John is calling to you. At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith. To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith? Take a step up.

And how so?

First. The new birth, a gift of the Holy Spirit, refreshes our hearts and makes us new people.  It is a pity that this passage, born from above or born anew, has so often been shouted out harshly, as a command.  You must. Yet the verb is passive, ‘be born’. You had little control over or management of your physical birth. You did not choose it, profess it, decide it desire it, plan it or supervise it.  Without your reasonable advice and comment, you were born. One wonders how it could possibly have gone off all right without our advice. Just so, affirms the Jesus of John, you are reborn by the Spirit, without which rebirth you will not see the area of God’s peace and love.  This is not a harsh word, but a gentle one, not a hurricane command but a light Lenten wind, gentle to refresh your heart today.

The leaves on your tree will never dance if they are forever sodden with the cold rain of the mind alone.  The mind rides the horse, but the power of Godly living, the horse herself, the great steed of the new birth, is the heart. ‘An entire change of heart as well as of life is necessary’ (Wesley).  The spirit is moving you from a nominal belief to a sense of transcendence, an active awareness actually at work in your life.

Second. The wind of Christ is gusting and blustering around your house now, quickening you and bringing you truly into the present moment.  Some parts of the past need to be blown away for a new day to dawn, for you. Let bygone hurts be bygone. One has been hurt by love, another by family, another by job, another by church, another by nature, another by accident, another by words, another by deeds.  As my friend wrote, ‘if everyone had a sign on his or her back listing all of their personal sorrows, we would all be kinder to one another’.  We can and should show each other our scars.  Pain shared is therapeutic. But let the dead bury the dead.  Pain is shared in order that it be buried, not given wings, be killed not perpetuated.  The Scripture warns us about the past, unfettered. It is no substitute for the present.  Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back. Jesus taught, ‘he who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for the kingdom of God’.   New occasions teach new duties. The Spirit is giving us another birth, shoving us away from nominal belief and toward an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our thoughts and decisions.  The past is no substitute for the present. Nominal belief traps us in the past.

Third. The Spirit gives you rebirth as the Spirit banishes fear, and replaces fear with faith.  A nominal belief, a kind of superstition, only multiplies our fear. In faith, we have an active awareness of God in Christ, which is actually at work, influencing our thought and choice. “He who is born of the flesh fights to defend himself, looks hither and thither, employs his reason to make a living.  But he who is born anew reasons thus: ‘I am in God’s hands, who has preserved me and nourished me before in a wonderful manner: he will also feed and preserve me in the future, and save me from all sorrow and misfortune’.” (Luther).

Coda

A faith that takes you away from the adventure of life is a false faith.  You desire—and if you desire it one day you shall have it—a faith that sets sail on the adventurous sea of life, a faith that does not long lie in harbor or at anchor, a faith that lives freely, a faith that really lives, a faith willing to change, to risk, to move, to grow, to face life and to face death fearless and free.

It is faith you can ride to church on, and ride home on, and ride all week long.  So, saddle up, and ride back next week!

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Merton and Sacrament

March 4th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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John 2

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Merton and Sacrament

John 2

 

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

Scripture

 

Martin Luther taught daily devotions, morning by morning, to include recitation of the ten commandments, which we just heard, of the Apostles’ Creed, contours of which round out the service, and of the Lord’s Prayer, to be lifted in a moment.  To which, this morning, we append a mediation on John 2.

Right away, we sense something loose in the Scripture.  We are used to something ‘loose’, because day by day we know from our bones and ears that there is something loose in the universe, as Gardner Taylor used to say.  Yes, we believe in God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  (That by the way in its creedal asperity is all Luther’s favorite creed says about God the Creator).  But along with the brute reality of all there is and all that is there, to honor both Plato and Aristotle, we know in our bones and ears that all this creation around us shakes, and rattles, and rolls, and has abiding in it something big and loose.  The Decalogue, come Lent, brings us up short.  Creation is one Christian doctrine, or set thereof.  And so is Fall. Creation, and Fall.  The goodness of Creation is shot through with the fallen-ness of Creation:  sin, death, meaninglessness, pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.  Something loose, in the universe.  With blood soaked floors in public high schools far and public libraries near, we in tears do quietly nod.  We weep as we pray. What a world.  It is God’s world.  That’s creation.  It is a crummy world.  That is fall.  Somehow, by the gift of faith, in the light of Christ, we try to live with both.   Hence, Sacrament.

Part of what was shaking loose in the community of the Gospel of John echoes here in John 2.  There is a really odd way of speaking about the Jews in this Gospel.  ‘The Passover of the Jews was near’… That is a strange way of saying something, like…When the Fourth of July of the Americans was near…When the Christmas of the Christians was near…When the Patriots’ Day of the Bostonians was near…When the Spring Break of the College Students was near…When the Bastille Day of the French was near…The Passover of the Jews…Well, it is not like fifteen different religious traditions in antiquity or in modernity celebrate the feast of Passover.  I know of no Mormon Passover.  Nor of any alive among Southern Baptists.  Hindus, Muslims, and many others have marvelous traditions in festival, but no Passover.  So, even in this early passage, where the term, ‘the Jews’ carries an untypical, non-normal, frightfully odd meaning, the Gospel does not handle the term with ease, or grace, or courtesy.  Yes, John, here may be helping his Gentile readers with reminders about Judaism, its feasts, for instance.  But there is, as the Gospel unwinds, a fuller, and tragic manner of speech, here.  You think of Yankees fans mentioning those who have season tickets at Fenway, or the way we speak of them:  ‘Others’. You think of Robert E. Lee, referring to the inhabitants of Boston and other places due north of him as ‘those people’.  You think of a humorous play from a few years ago, in which one woman says something about men to three other women, one of whom responds, ‘Oh…them’.  There is a lurking animosity here, and behind that a great dark shadow, something loose in the universe.  Bishop Hapgood once said ‘the only factually demonstrable Christian teaching, about which there can be no doubt, is the doctrine of original sin’.   There is something loose in the universe.

And there is more that is loose, this morning.  Now you are keen Bible readers, so you know that normally in a Gospel the cleansing of the temple happens right at the end of the Gospel, just before the cross, and is the spark, the catalyst, or the cause of Jesus’ crucifixion. As in Matthew.  As in Mark.  As in Luke.  Well, here the writer has brought up the temple, with its cattle and sheep and doves, with its money changers and tables overturned, with its sheer public conflict right in the heart of ‘the Passover of the Jews’, has brought the temple right up to the very beginning of the Gospel.  This should teach us something.  A Gospel is a stylized memory, a preaching of the resurrection by way of reminiscence about Jesus, not a history nor a biography nor a deposition on the way to a legal brief on the way to an indictment.  You know this.  Even if you didn’t, you would know it now, because of what was read a moment ago: after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered…and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  It is the resurrection that carries the Gospel and the Gospels, not the other way around. You could call it a saving reminiscence, embedded in the simplest of elements.  Resurrection precedes Gospel.  And all else.

By the way, along the way, in the reading of the Gospel of John, we pick up some sideways hints of what sort of community produced this sort of Gospel.  And one of the little hints, glimmering in the big dark, is that this Gospel has a bone to pick with some folks it is close to, a bone to pick with, of all people, its close knit extended family, ‘the Jews’.  ‘The Jews’ then said, ‘this temple…’.  Please.  Who else at Passover in Jerusalem in 30ad was around to talk to?  Other than Jews?  Methodists?  Flat Earth Believers?  Methodist Flat Earth Believers?  Everyone in this scene is Jewish, from Jesus on up or on down.  You see.  There is something odd, something sliding around, something loose, something revealingly strange about the way this Gospel, including by the way, right here, in chapter 2, speaks of Jesus, of his family and friends, of the twelve disciples, of John the Baptist, of the earliest Christian church community, of Paul of Tarsus, and many, many others…all Jews.  Something else is going on here, and it is crucial for us, year by year, carefully to hear it.  NOTA BENE: It is likely, highly probable, that the author has in mind not ‘Jews’ in general, but, rather, some other familiar group, closer at hand, down the street, in the synagogue, out of which John and his small early church group of Jesus worshippers, have been exited, due to the, by Jewish standards, dire heresy of ditheism, and with whom they are engaged in something of a family feud.  You know.  Others. Those people.  Them. Those we oppose.  You cannot read merely with a flat nasal honkey reading any of the usages of the phrase, ‘the Jews’, in John.  And our failure, as Christians, as a religious community, our failure in teaching the Scripture rightly over centuries, right up to this morning, our failure to see and perceive and interpret and communicate about what is loose in this Gospel—its depiction of ‘the Jews’—has had monstrous consequences.  While the horrific historic tragedy of Christian antisemitism has more roots than those in this fourth Gospel, it has no deeper roots than these.

Those who wrote John in 90ad, who bowed before the Risen Christ, whose glory and magnificence and exaltation and divinity they had only dimly perceived for some time, and whom they had only painfully come to recognize as ‘My Lord and My God’, were coming out of an experience of odium theologicum, theological and religious sheer hatred, conflict, difference, with—well, with whom do you get angriest?—their family, their kin, their closest friends, their former prayer partners.  Let us pause for some contrition, lament, compunction, confession, this Lent, in the same year that we honored Elie Wiesel from this pulpit and across this University on September 17, 2017.

 

Merton

 

The advantage of our conversation this Lent with Thomas Merton, who died fifty years ago, sails into view here.  His autobiography is titled ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, and his lengthy, vital account therein, with one notable exception, explained in the Introduction,  gives full measure to his own experience of the fallen-ness of Creation.  On one hand, his journey courses through the most beautiful and culturally gracious spaces from his time, and, to some degree still, from ours.  Southern France, the Long Island Sound, London, Cambridge, Oxford, New York, Columbia (the University), Bermuda, and Upstate New York.  You could argue that his relative ignorance of New England is a failure.  But in his study and reading, as well as his travel and culture, he stays with the best.  All of it, finally, fails him, and, it must be emphasized, fails him not for his own failure to embrace, hold fast, honor, respect what is there and what there is.   His parents die young.  His brother dies before he can really know him as an adult.  His young friendships wither and fade.  He departs Oxford without a degree.  His various relationships with women, faintly even coyly recollected, provide no happiness.  His reading, apart from William Blake, disappoints.  His teachers, apart from Mark Van Doren, fall short. His inherited religious backgrounds in Quaker silence and Episcopal liturgy leave him empty and discouraged.  His critique of Protestant Christianity, as practiced, is scathing, but not for that matter unfair.  He mistakenly or ironically or both refers to Riverside Church as Rockefeller Church. But he finally comes home to Sacrament, he finds, finally, a home, in Sacrament.

This happens on a little side street in the Upper West Side of New York City, quite familiar to those of us who attended Union Theological Seminary.  Through a strange course of influences, he finds himself one hot August Sunday in 1938, sitting in a pew at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on 121st street.  From that very sanctuary, I weekly or bi-weekly saw my teacher, Fr. Raymond Brown, emerge, having said the Wednesday mass.  There was a time when most theologians were also ordained, and so pressed into service, when and as that was possible.  He would amble down the slight hill there in Morningside Heights, circa 1978, as we now remember in 2018, in black suit and white collar, and pause to talk, to check the progress of his advisee, to smile, and return to the intricacies of John 2, read a moment ago.

On that August morning, 1938, Merton was overcome by grace, by community, by prayer, by liturgy, by sermon, and by Host, so overcome that he stumbled out into the bright New York sunlight without receiving the sacrament.  He knelt next to a young woman, perhaps a fellow Columbia student, who was clearly and sincerely praying.

It has been forty years since I have stood on the steps of Corpus Christi on 121st street.  It seems a day ago, though.  This is the strange thing about time, about recollection, about the passage of time, about memory, about how close things are that nonetheless are at a great distance.  For Thomas Merton, his emergence from purgatory came in Sacrament.  May this be so, this morning, right here, just now, for you.  Here is the burden and the delight of ministry on, at, or near a University campus.  You just never know who may be coming home, now in Word, or now in Sacrament, in the very quotidian, utterly simple, spare, nothingness, really, of prayer, of worship.  Of Sacrament.  Touch helps, familiarity helps, music helps, some words help, repetition helps, taste helps.  There is a physicality that helps.  We understand God, if or as we do, in a ‘supermental’ way, as Cyril Richardson regularly put it.  In a supermental, sacramental way, we might say, today. In prayer.  Today: in Sacrament.

Like those who wrote John 2, Merton was astounded by the Height of Christ.  They began to see, once they saw.  And he began to see, once he saw. That is, once the resurrection glory, in the cross of Christ, gradually became clear to this Gospel of John group, once they began fully to realize who this Jesus was and is and was for them—both human and divine—then things began to fall into place. That is, once the resurrection glory, in the cross of Christ, gradually became clear to Thomas Merton, once he began fully to realize who this Jesus was and is and was for them—both human and divine—then things began to fall into place. And out of this drastic dislocation, in John, came a new religion (there is really no other way to put it), the Christianity of the Christ, which would then take wing in the second and third and fourth centuries, in direct dialogue with the terms set by John.  And out of this drastic sacramental dislocation, in Merton, came a new spiritual life, the Christianity of the Christ, which would then take wing in the next five decades, in direct dialogue with the terms set by the Sacrament.

 

Reminiscence

 

On Thursday evening this past week, about 6pm, at the cooling end of a bright warm day, I walked slowly across the lawn here next to the Chapel, known lovingly as the BU ‘beach’.  As usual I was lost in some errant thought or three when I stepped forward, and found my foot resting on top of a scittering Frisbee.  Two kind students, far left and far right, called out, one saying ‘you can throw it to us’.  It was not clear—you need friendship to know inflection and implication in speech—whether that meant ‘please feel free to throw it’, or ‘against all appearances you seem like you might actually be able to throw it’, or ‘we are not playing some game where you have to leave the Frisbee where your right foot stepped upon it’.  It did not matter, because I had every intention of throwing it, long left or long right, and that was not premeditated deliberation.  I bent down, picked it up, and threw it, to the right, before any thinking.  It sailed out and up, and there was bemusement that it did so, so well, or even at all.

It took another block of walking before I was melted into emotion and reminiscence, brought out of that simple touch, that old feel, that muscle memory from fifty years and more ago, that gliding motion, so unfamiliar and yet so utterly familiar.   We spent all summer, in 1962, at age 8 throwing a Frisbee.  It is all we had, and all we needed.  You had breakfast, and were expected home, in that small college farm town, when the street lights came on.  You could come back for lunch and dinner if you wanted, but it was assumed someone would feed you.  The iron matriarchy that ran Hamilton NY decreed only one inviolable summer law:  get home, when the street lights come on, or else.  And so, ball and bat.  And so, Frisbee.  And so, decades later, this week, in a throw, the far off rural, agricultural, bucolic small town world, is become, by revelation, not only at hand, but in hand.

In Grace, God holds us by hand, at hand, in hand. Sacrament told Merton who he was.  Reminded him of who he was meant to be. Made sense of his memories! Brought a recollection, in touch and muscle and taste and sight and hearing, of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ.  You could call it a saving reminiscence, embedded in the simplest of elements.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

 

 

Power, Mutuality, and #MeToo

February 25th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 17:1-7

Genesis 17:15-16

Mark 8:31-38

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Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Some years ago, I was at a clergy training. For those of you who have attended daylong trainings, you will have some sense of what this felt like: forgettable food, unlimited caffeine to counteract the effects of a too-warm room, and wide swings between sparkling presentations and somniliquy. But one brief moment from that day is seared into memory. The trainer had just finished explaining the practice of having open door or glass-door one-on-one meetings with congregants. We were using a video series from the FaithTrust institute, which offers the gold standard for ethics and boundaries training for faith leaders from a variety of traditions, from rabbis to ministers to Buddhist monks. The trainer decided to go a bit off script, and he shared that a male bishop he worked with would not drive to any district meeting, church visit, or other event alone with a woman. This male bishop would share a car for the ride with a male clergy colleague, but in order to be “above reproach,” he would make sure to take separate cars when driving to a meeting with a female clergy colleague. In this midwestern setting, the circuits were long and the districts far apart; this is the part of the country where travelling 100 miles can take 100 minutes, with flat farmland as far as the eye can see. True heirs of the Wesleyan heritage, the bishop and the cabinet would often put 50,000 miles a year on their cars.

Something felt wrong about the comment, and I felt the sudden urge to ask “why?,” but a number of ways in which I had been socialized held me back. He stood at the front of the room as the teacher, and I sat in the back, a student. Unless I could explain why his statement was problematic, I would be interruptive, and besides, I could sidetrack the conversation and drag out an already long day. He was my elder, and I was surrounded by clergy with decades more life and ministry experience. I was barely of legal drinking age, and the forty and fifty-something second career pastors seemed to not even blink at the comment. I must be too young to get it. As a child, I had been an incredibly curious and loquacious little girl who had learned that asking why too many times was a great way to annoy your parents. I had learned to be more precise in my language, and that adults responded better to a question with more detail and less emotion. This reaction felt too sudden to be rational. And he was a man, married for nearly two decades, and I was a woman, a newlywed, who had recently been given a hotel room with twin beds instead of a queen at annual conference after a snafu where the front desk could not understand why I hadn’t changed my last name. What did I know of what made a marriage over the decades? And what did I know of the world of men and the choices they made to act ethically and keep boundaries?

All these thoughts and more ran through my mind so quickly that it would take months to disentangle them from one another. All of these anxieties were tamped down internally, and I said nothing. The moment passed, as these sorts of moments so often do, in silence.

And later, as I fumed in my room, the “why” of why I had felt the urge to shout “why” finally emerged into the forefront. Why was the bishop only moving through a world of men? At the time of this training, a single district superintendent was a woman, and the cabinet, nearly two dozen conference level officials, had just three women on staff, one of whom was the bishop’s assistant. Why were there so few women on the conference staff? Even if it was not deliberate exclusionary practice, and I didn’t think it was, this bishop would regularly spend hours upon hours one-on-one with his fellow male clergy. Three hours each way to a district meeting leaves a lot of time for talking about ministry, for asking advice, and for networking. Those hours add up, and leaders frequently choose those whom they know, trust, and have spent time with to elevate to positions of authority. This attempt to behave “above reproach” had hurt the career opportunities of countless female clergy. Why couldn’t the bishop just keep a policy of not travelling one-on-one in a car with anyone? To travel in groups or alone? This attempt at ethical leadership was not ethical and not leadership, and it propagated a more homogenous clergy, a more homogenous cabinet, and a more homogenous church.

But weighing my options, I decided not to speak up. I was not even commissioned, let alone ordained, and I did not have the security of an appointment. I did not expect any kind of formal retaliation, but I did not want the headache of the confrontation. The comment itself, and the hundreds of micro-decisions I needed to make about whether or not to respond in the moment, were exhausting. I did not want the additional exhaustion of drawing out the moment. Besides, the moment had passed, and I had not spoken up in the moment. Silence often begets silence.

 

But the gospel, the good news, is a spoken word, a good, true, spoken word. And God speaks to us in a good word of relationship, of covenantal relationship, of the potential for relationship with God and with one another. The God who spoke us into being and sent a Word to live among us gives the freedom and enlivening Spirit to speak to one another. And the time is always right to speak right.

Our text this morning from Genesis 17 is the foundation of the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah. “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” From God’s offer of relationship with us, we learn three important things about how we are to live with God and with one another. First, God offers covenantal relationship to women as well as to men. It is not just that Abraham is our father in faith, but that Sarah is our mother in faith, the mother of the covenant. When we limit the imagination of our leadership in our faith communities and in our other work communities we close off the divine imagination that calls women and men equally.

Second, covenantal relationship is based on mutuality and freedom. The covenant into which God calls Abraham and Sarah is the definition of an unequal power dynamic. After all, God is God and we are not. But God does not abuse that power. God doesn’t force Abram and Sarah to do what God wants. God calls and invites humanity into divine relationship, and we are given the freedom to respond, to live up to the high calling to which we are called, to “walk before God, and be blameless.” God honors the divine image that we bear. God offers to and does hold up God’s end of the covenant. God also offers us divine freedom for humanity to do what God asks of us.

Third, God models how to have relationship with others when there is a power imbalance. Whether it is a doctor-patient relationship, a teacher-student relationship, a pastor-congregant relationship, an employer-employee relationship, or any other of the myriad ways in which we humans have structured ourselves into intrapersonal dynamics where power is not shared equally, we are called to exercise authority with responsibility. Power does not naturally lead to abuse, but power that is abused does. God, in relationship with Abraham and Sarah, does not demand a cult of personality, but instead offers a covenant of mutuality.

Jesus in our Gospel also has something to say to systems of abusive power. The cross, the method of execution used by an abusive, oppressive state, was intended to crush those whom it killed and the hopes of those who watched. The cross was meant to cut off air to resistance, to speech, to breath, and to life. Jesus has something to say about that. To Peter, who attempts to change the subject, who denies the possibility that an abusive system could ever harm his teacher, Jesus says, Get behind me Satan! No one is too smart, too kind, too anything to be above risk when abusive systems of power and abusive persons are elevated to positions of power. To those in authority who abuse their power, who create a system to prop up their own power by crushing others, Jesus, asks, pointedly, For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And to those who would hope to lead, who might be at risk, in taking power, to abuse it, Jesus warns, “Deny yourself, take up that cross.” Too often, this catchprase has been used abusively, by pastors urging people to stay with their abusers. To them, I say, As one of my colleagues, a brilliant pastor and biblical scholar puts it, “you ain’t reading it right.”

The cross is an attempted abuse of power. To pick up a cross, to push against its strain and weight, and to keep breathing, is an act of resistance, it is a speech-act, and it breathes life even in the midst of death. Following Jesus requires not abusing power, and it also demands that we strain against those human systems we have created which attempt to crush through abusive power. For Jesus also tells us here that the cross is not the end, and that the grave is not victorious. The façade of abusive power will, at some day, even if it is on the great lasting day, crumble and fall.

 

The #MeToo movement, first begun by Tarana Burke in 2007, has brought to the fore the

pervasive problems of sexual abuse and harassment. From hotel cleaning staff to assembly line workers, from judicial clerks to academics, women have been speaking out against the ways in persons have abused their power and the ways in which systems have ignored and enabled that abuse to continue, sometimes for years. And faith communities have not been above the fray. One only has to follow the hashtag #churchtoo to hear stories from women and men who have been harassed and abused within their church communities.

#MeToo is about the basics. It is about naming the problem of power. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are ultimately about power, not sex. And sometimes it is good for the church to go over the basics.  Religious organizations need to be able to talk about the problem of power, to teach that it is wrong to abuse power, and to develop theologies about power. We need to teach our children these things, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves as well.

The things that we know are wrong, we should still take the time to say are wrong. The things we don’t think need repeating do need repeating. We must remind ourselves, and teach our children, that abuse is wrong. Physical abuse is wrong. Emotional, spiritual, verbal, and psychological abuse is wrong. Intimate relationships must have mutuality as their basis; one should be able to share strength and vulnerability in equal measure with a partner. This is why it is unethical for a person who is in an authority position over another to enter into an intimate relationship with a person who is reliant upon them, whether for medical treatment, classroom learning, spiritual guidance, athletic coaching, or a paycheck.

There is another facet of the #metoo movement, and it relates to the problematic ways in which men have tried to “protect” women. How can a military man, for example, who bemoans a time when “women were considered sacred and looked upon with great honor” praise the integrity of a man who has been accused of physical abuse by three former partners? It seems to boggle the mind, but with a theology of mutuality, of covenantal relationship, we are able to see through the fog of obfuscation and name the ways in which this statement and those actions are two sides to the same coin.

“Women are considered sacred and looked upon with great honor.” This lament for a halcyon bygone era is a description better suited to objects than people. You might describe a precious possession this way, perhaps a family heirloom set on display, a piece of art hanging ona wall, or an artifact donated to a museum. In this logic, women are first and foremost objects to be protected, not colleagues who are presumed to be persons of integrity, whose word should be believed. In a workplace dominated by men, with certain expectations of what roles women play in society and in the workplace, a man’s word is seen as stacking high against the claims, even of multiple women. This, of course, is an extreme example, but behind every #MeToo story of extreme abuse and harassment lie hundreds of smaller moments, of opportunities missed, invitations not extended, and mentoring overlooked, hundreds of off-handed comments at daylong trainings which reveal the problems we have concealed for too long.

The Lenten season is a time for introspection and preparation. It is a good time to take stock, to look squarely at the troubles of the world, and to prepare ourselves for the great mystery of Holy Week that encompasses all of the hurt and hope of creation. Perhaps, this Lent, you can think back to your own relationships, both personal and professional. Is there a place of hurt that you have buried? Perhaps this Lent, think about speaking, to a therapist, to a close friend, to yourself in a journal, or perhaps just to God in prayer. Is there a relationship in which you did not act in mutuality, where you took for granted or even took advantage of the power you had over others? Perhaps this Lent you will take time and space for an examination of conscience, repentance, and change.

In preparation for this sermon, in this Lenten series, I’ve been doing a lot of swimming around in Thomas Merton, who was a truly prolific writer. One only needs to consider the bibliography page on the Thomas Merton society website to get a sense that there are far more stories than seven in the Merton mountain. But when I think about power, mutuality, and the complex ways in which we relate to one another and to God, I found comfort and meaning in Merton’s famous prayer on direction and discernment. Would you be in prayer with me?

 

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-The Rev. Jen Quigley

 

A Word in the Wilderness

February 18th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1: 9-15

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May the Gracious God, Holy and Just

From whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

The source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, this Lent, 2018, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

May God make of us an addressable community

 

May God make of us a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

May God make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

 

May God make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

And take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

 

 

Today we are again a land, culture, people and country drenched in sorrow, now due to the unspeakable horror, the unnecessary American carnage in Parkland, Florida. In a decade of deepening humiliation, wherein our current elected leadership readily chooses to exchange long term moral judgment for short term political opportunity, we can but rise up, come Sunday, and face God. One way, this morning, will be to start simply by naming those dead, those children and others sacrificed on the altar of hideously exaggerated individual gun rights:

 

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14

Scott Beigel, 35

Martin Duque, 14

Nicholas Dworet, 17

Aaron Feis, 37

Jaime Guttenberg, 14

Chris Hixon, 49

Luke Hoyer, 15

Cara Loughran, 14

Gina Montalto, 14

Joaquin Oliver, 17

Alaina Petty, 14

Meadow Pollack, 18

Helena Ramsay, 17

Alex Schachter, 14

Carmen Schentrup, 16

Peter Wong,15

 

Wilderness Theology

 

Lent is indeed a time of wilderness travel, reflection, theology and preaching. Over a past decade, 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, here at Marsh Chapel, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  For this current decade, 2017-2026, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin, that is, in the earlier decade, we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over the last ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin), (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), and, of course, himself, John Calvin.  But beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, did turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we in these years will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen (2017). We continue with Thomas Merton (2018). Next year, St. John of the Cross (2019).

 

Thomas Merton was born in 1915 and died in 1968, fifty years ago. This Lent we follow his thought by following his life, most famously recounted in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (storey being an English way of spelling what in American English we call story—meaning the same, meaning a level in a house or building). His compelling account of conversion and vocation, placing him for life in a Trappist monastery, holds us in part because of his global engagement with global and local culture, and personal and family life. He reads. He loves art. He travels. He learns. He fails. Most heavily, he loses to death his mother and his father at quite early ages. Another sermon or another occasion might compare and contrast his testimony to that of Augustine of Hippo from the late fourth century. More immediately, though, his personal travels along the terrain of spirit and spirituality, far more in vogue today, we might say, than they were fifty years ago, may illumine a dark corner for a frustrated undergraduate, or challenge a heedless pride for a wise academic, or inspire a new-found energy in a lapsing person of faith, or, say for you, call you again to faith, to the gift of faith, to the reception of the gift of faith. We travel with Thomas Merton this Lent.

 

Wilderness Scripture

 

As Merton reminds us, the body and its habits, in collusion with the unconscious and its rhythms, takes us where we habitually go, to do what we ritually do. We are creatures of habit, guided along by our suppositions and assumptions. Lent arrives to wake us up, to make us aware. Lent arrives to challenge us to move from sensation to reflection, from activity to awareness. Hence the overwhelming response this past Wednesday by Boston University students and others to eight Ash Wednesday services, all heavily attended, half Protestant, half Catholic. This affirmation of ritual in worship will need further attention from us, in the days ahead. Our millennials are teaching us and telling us something.

 

Jesus meets us today in the long experience of the wilderness. The wilderness where reflection quickens. The wilderness where discipline begins. The wilderness where the great questions—freedom, immorality, God, all—may touch us. The wilderness where there is quiet, space, silence. I invite you this Lent to journey with me, one beggar among others, to travel from sensation to reflection.

 

We begin this morning, taking stock of our sources (or media?) of authority, upon which we shall base our coming Lenten teaching. In the Gospel, Jesus hears Scripture, Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased. That is Psalm 2: 7. You are meant to recognize the divine voice echoed here from Holy Scripture. In the Gospel, Jesus honors tradition—baptized by John in the Jordan. In the Gospel, Jesus is driven by the spirit, the breath of God, the spirit of truth, reason and reasoned. In the Gospel, Jesus struggles, and suffers, he experiences depth and height, as do we: tempted, endangered, in need of angelic support. These are the sources of authority on which the gospel is proclaimed—scripture, tradition, reason, experience.

 

Your move today from sensation to reflection involves a recognition of sources for authority.

 

Tread lightly. Your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. You are lovers and knowers too. We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine. In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love. We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty. It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence for the security and protection of certainty. But faith is about confidence not certainty. If we had certainty we would not need faith.

 

Wilderness Bath

 

Here is a Lenten question: Did you ever feel the need to take a spiritual bath? The layers of accumulated anxiety and estrangement call out for removal. A little steam, a filling tub, some quiet and peace, moments of grace. Did you ever feel the need to take a spiritual bath?

 

Even as the early church had need and experience to remember Jesus as the one who first experienced our communion, in the last supper, so for the same communal reasons, this early legend of Jesus’ baptism met the needs of the primitive church, and so, we may hope, shall meet our own. They too knew alienation. They too estrangement. They too sin and ennui. All that separates you from yourself, from others, from God—this is sin.   All that separates you from your best hope, the real hope of others, and the divine hope in which the world was made—this is sin. The early church found it soothing, healing to be immersed in the water of baptism, and to think of Jesus as the first baptized. Ours is not a biographical account, but a story of faith.

 

Surely, with many generations fore and aft, the early church would have remembered the cleansing holiness of the ten commandments, as they read these words.

 

Likewise, with two thousand years of saints to follow, this same church would have remembered the cleansing compassion of the beatitudes.

 

When they heard the splash of water, they might have thought again of Noah, and the flood. The promise of God’s care, to follow such hurt, they would have seen again in the rainbow: I establish my covenant with you and your descendents after you…This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations. I have set my bow in the clouds…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

                 

                  When they heard the banishment to the wilderness, the school of experience, of hard knocks, to which every great religious leader from Moses to the Buddha has been sent, they would have recalled another blessing. The blessing of nature in the rainbow would be matched by that of experience in the Psalms. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long…Do not remember the sins of my youth…according to your steadfast love remember me…

 

When the moment of baptism came, John holding Jesus, both of the prophetic tradition, both of a certain courage and calling, both to have tragic fates, both to know and need each other—brothers, really—they would have had something to say, now, a blessing of an emerging sacrament. Every sacrament and every symbol need interpretation. For that reason, the whole of 1 Peter is written as an essay on baptism. Remember what the letter says: And baptism, which the ark of Noah prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. Baptism—an appeal to God for a good conscience. How timely.

 

When the story, the faith legend of Jesus’ baptism was then told, in a small Mediterranean church, they again would meet their Lord. As do we. Jesus, from Galilee. Jesus, baptized. Jesus, related to John. Jesus, spirit touched. Jesus, beloved. Jesus, tested and tempted. Jesus, tough against wilderness and beasts and Satan. Jesus, guarded by angels. Jesus, preacher. Jesus, preaching good news. Jesus, whose time has come.

 

Wilderness Failure

 

Jesus particularly meets us today in supplication. In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication, a confession of failure:  Free our land of horrid, tragic, gun violence. How will this happen? We see no easy way.

 

But then our minds begin to move. Gun violence is a matter of public health. You have lifted your voice in chorus with those who attack gun violence not as an issue of individual right or freedom, but as an issue of public health and safety. We have had success in other improvement to public health. Reductions in death from smoking. Reductions (some) in death from drinking. Reductions in highway deaths.   Here is a different evil, so we shall need to think differently.

 

How shall we do so?

 

Maybe we shall restrict the sale of ammunition: keep and bear arms all you want, but ammunition we will lock down. Maybe we shall make those who make money on gun sales pay a stiff price for every misuse of their product. Maybe we shall hold households and home insurance responsible for mayhem that emerges from a house.

 

Congress regularly supports the so-called gun lobby, fearing to contradict ist champtions. Oddly, though, they are mistaken about what Americans, and particularly gun owners, think about gun restrictions and gun safety. They mistake the faux representative voice for the people’s voice. ‘85% of Americans and 81% of gun owners favor gun show background checks, which Congress rejected…Since 1960 1.3 million Americans have died from fire arms, which amounts to 80 gun deaths a day.’ The broad swath of the American people, in harmony with the Book of Hebrews, offer prayers of supplication for an angelic deliverance.   And here and there, there is change: ‘In 1970 ½ of all US homes had guns. Today it is less than 1/3.’ Our tendency to conformity, our over-eager deference to authority, and our too willing adaptation to imposed roles weaken us over against these and other challenges. Yet…

 

You have agency and influence. As you pray. As you think. As you speak. And as you vote. You have power, agency and influence. You cannot see the unforeseen future. You do not know what may, against all current expectation, suddenly emerge. Decades ago we lived in a little cottage parsonage in Ithaca, once inhabited by Pearl Buck, she of THE GOOD EARTH, while her husband took a degree at Cornell. It was fifty yards from Fall Creek, a good size river, frozen solid for the cold months. No amount of waiting and watching would shift that ice, and for those years it was Easter, usually, before anything happened. Just block ice, wind, snow, cold, silence. No movement. And then, with no warning, like a sudden angel thunder from heaven itself, in a great cataclysmic whoosh, all that ice would pound down the hill into Cayuga Lake, in ten minutes. It was terrifying to hear, and to see. What combination of underwater thawing and freezing, what combination of sun and shadow, what combination of tiny little changes finally ushered in that apocalypse? Who can say. But you never know when change, even big change, may well arrive.

 

Wilderness Faith

 

We now receive Jesus. Because we are loved, we can love. Marsh Chapel, you have been love for this community for many generations. What you have said and done, stood for and stood by, we now repeat, even as we kneel before God and unknown. In fact, I believe that if you were to write a creed together, it might sound something like this:

 

  1. God is love.
  2. Love is both mercy and justice, both compassion and holiness.
  3. Compassion is more important than holiness.
  4. God loves the world (not just the church).
  5. The church lives in the culture. The church lives in the culture to transform it. (Not above it to disdain it, not below it to obey it, not behind it to mimic it, not before it hector it).
  6. The church is the Body of Christ.
  7. Christ is alive. Wherever there is way, truth, life…
  8. Life is sacred.
  9. Life is a sacred journey to freedom.
  10. The Bible is freedom’s book.
  11. The Bible is a source, not the source, of truth
  12. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath
  13. Women and men, people all people, need each other
  14. There is a self correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.
  15. God’s love outlasts death.

 

Let us bring who we are to this moment, remembering the wilderness desire, theology, Scripture, bath, failure, and faith, along with promises and gifts of faith, and trusting in Almighty God to heal and sustain in this new season.

 

Merton wrote, I was to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God (SSM, 208)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

The Bach Experience

February 11th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:2-9 

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Hill

                        Last Sunday our worship service of Word and Table conclude with the singing of an old hymn, written by a Massachusetts minister J. Edgar Park, who was President of Wheaton College, Massachusetts. He was born in Belfast, Ireland, March 7, 1879 and had his theological studies at New College, Edinburgh, The Royal University, Dublin, and Princeton Theological Seminary. His principal pastorate was in the Second Church of Newton, Congregational, West Newton, Massachusetts, which he served 1926 to 1944, going from there to the Presidency of Wheaton. He was the author of many books, including one of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale.

You may not in fact remember the hymn we sang, to conclude our service, which is not any detriment to or criticism of you. The hymn title is ‘We Would See Jesus’, number 256 in our venerable Methodist Hymnal, which Hymnal is about to be revised this coming year with all the attendant disagreements, disputes, and ultimately, we trust, a happy and useful outcome for the use of singing Methodists near and far. One of our own faculty here at Boston University is a member of that committee.

The hymn fits our readings from Mark, and fits Epiphany, the season out of which we come, and traces the ministry of Jesus.

We would see Jesus, lo! His star is shining, above the stable while the angels sing

There in a manger on the hay reclining, haste let us lay our gifts before the King 

We would see Jesus, Mary’s Son most holy…

We would see Jesus, on the mountain teaching…

We would see Jesus, in his work of healing…

We would see Jesus, still as of old he calleth ‘Follow me’… 

                        In a few simple verses, the hymn traces the earthly ministry of Jesus, birth, growth, teaching, healing, calling.   This is the Jesus most of us most of the time are most comfortable with, and the Jesus, one could add, that most seminarians prefer to study, the Jesus of parables, of the lilies of the field, of the various healings, of the preachments in valley and on mountain—in short, the human Jesus. This is the Jesus known and heard in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with some occasional exceptions, like today’s reading. We can fairly readily approach this Jesus, we would see him as the hymn says, in the verses and chapters of the Synoptic Gospels.

Now pause, for a moment, and hear again the Gospel today, which is none of this. The Mark 9 Transfiguration is like an invasion of the gospel of John into an other-wise happy earliest Gospel of Mark. A high mysterious mountain. Strange choices about booths. The sudden acclamation of Elijah and Moses. A blinding light. MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM. The Holy. Suddenly not just a teacher or preacher or healer or rabbi, but…This is the Jesus of your life and death. Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human. This is the Jesus of whom it is said, ‘My Lord and My God’. This is the Jesus to whom we turn in the Lenten challenges, whether or not they come in Lent, the Lord of life and death.   So, our Charles Wesley hymn, in a few moments, is quite different: Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the only light, Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night, Dayspring from on High be near, Daystar in my heart appear

It is this holy grace, this gracious holiness, to which we turn our ears, not our eyes, on the Sundays, like this one, upon which we hear the Gospel as spoken, but also as sung: A day is coming that will judge the secrets [of humankind], Before which hypocrisy may tremble. For the wrath of His jealousy annihilates What hypocrisy and cunning contrive.

                        Dr. Jarrett: how shall we listen, this morning, with particular and careful attention, to today’s cantata?

 

Jarrett

 Thank you, Dean Hill. At first read, the texts of today’s cantata surely align more with the MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM depiction you’ve just described. Cantata 136 warns of the day of judgement when our own hypocrisy and cunning-ways threaten to undo us. The bass soloist tells us that the heavens themselves are not clean, and that all are struck by spots of sin, brought upon us by Adam’s Fall. These depictions endure for much of the cantata, until, mercifully, we are reminded that Jesus’s wounds cleanse and redeem. In the final chorale we sing that even a drop of the Blood of Jesus can cleanse the entire world. The image is one of humankind ensnared in the Devil’s jaws, set free and at liberty by the blood of the lamb.

 

Bach’s anonymous librettist was surely trying to amplify the themes of the lessons heard earlier in the Leipzig service — for Bach these were lessons from Romans and Matthew. They call the Christian to live according to the spirit, not the flesh, along with an admonishment to beware false prophets and hypocrisy. These are the subjects of the internal movements – two recitatives, an alto aria, and a duet for tenor and bass. Bach highlights a few words here with extended melismas for the singers: erzittern or tremble referring to the sinner on judgment day, vernichtet or annihilate describing the wrath of God’s jealousy. In the duet, as if to number our spots of sin, Flecken is set as a melisma. Later in the duet the redeeming Strom or stream of Jesus’s blood is similarly treated, all of which offer aural anchors throughout these two remarkable movements.

A typical cantata libretto draws on several sources for texts. The internal movements were most often newly written poetic texts by someone in close working relationship with Bach. It’s in these texts we find the most theological exegesis worked out. Most often the cantatas concluded with a Chorale by one of the famous Lutheran hymn writers, frequently by Luther himself. The opening movements were typically direct quotes of Scripture, drawing on the Psalms more than any other Biblical source. Bach follows this exact design in Cantata 136, opening his cantata with the 23rd verse of Psalm 139: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. In the German: “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz; Prüfe mich, und erfahre, wie ich’s meine.” Modern German translations of the Luther Bible replace erfahre with erkenne. Regardless, listeners can recognize these four imperative verbs that begin each line, imploring God’s true examination of our inmost thoughts.

Hill

                        I rely with gratitude on John Ashton, a great NT scholar, to keep the Jesus of Mark and also the Jesus of John, who makes an invasive appearance here in Mark 9, both before us. Both Christmas and Easter. Both Life and Death. Both teaching and crucifixion. Both healing and resurrection. Jesus both human divine, both Mark and John, both Mark 1 and Mark 9.   Both ‘We would see Jesus’ and ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’. Both last Sunday and this Sunday.

No doubt the Synoptic Gospels held their place; but for them Christianity might well have rapidly vaporized into some form of speculative Gnosticism. It did not; the parables of the kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount continued to be regarded as indispensable elements of the Christian message, and—more importantly—the Jesus who preached them remained ever present to the Christian consciousness. 

                        To most modern eyes the portrait painted by the Synoptists is both both simpler and more attractive.   It is the portrait of a man with a special relationship with God, whom he addresses by the intimate name of Abba, Father…He was a man of his time; his teaching and preaching, even his healing miracles, can readily be placed in the context of first century Palestinian Judaaism. If he were suddenly to reappear as he really was he would no doubt seem to us, in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase,’ a stranger and an enigma’, but a recognizable human being nonetheless.

                        Not so the Johannine Christ (we add, here, not so the Christ of the Transfiguration). He does not belong to this world at all: it is almost true to say that he enters it with the purpose of leaving it. He is a pre-existent divine being whose real home is heaven. He enters an alien world with an unprecedented confidence and assurance, knowing who he is, where he comes from, and where he is going…He orchestrates his own passion…he can read Pilate’s heart. There is about him no trace of uncertainty. Master of his fate, captain of his soul… his head bloodied but unbowed, he never had to confront either the fell clutch of circumstance or the bludgeonings of chance. (Ashton, 1991, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 239)

                         Well beloved, that is, there is a full and deep mystery here, an unfathomable, an uncanny deep, right here in our Gospel, of the sudden appearance of a Jesus who would fit well in John, but not so well in Mark. And is that not, for us, come Sunday, this Sunday, in the hearing of the word and music, a part of our needed reminder, a reminder about the limits of life, about the mystery of life, about the God gift of life, given us well beyond our capacity to understand it? Perhaps we can carry from the beauty and holiness of these precious gospel and musical moments, a sturdy reminder of the great strangeness, the great mystery, the great, tremendous, yes, unearthly voice and presence and grace of our Lord, who comes to us, this morning, interrupting the rest of his more human appearance in Mark, with this scene befitting John, and interrupting our forgetfulness about mystery. In that spirit, let us pray:

Gracious God, Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

Take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

 

 

A Winter Communion

February 4th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Psalm 147

1 Corinthians 9

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Preface

    ‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

            So, Abraham Heschel, whose mighty labors to interpret the Hebrew Prophets were drenched themselves in tears—the joyful tears of adoration, the bitter tears of confession, the heartfelt tears of thanksgiving, the worried tears of supplication.

Prayer is at the heart of communion, especially a winter communion, and its languages are the tongues of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

‘Pray without ceasing’, we are taught in the 5th chapter of the earliest document in our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians.  Without ceasing.

We pray in silence before our worship begins, come Sunday.  Here, in this sacred hour, we set ourselves for the week to come, and set before ourselves what we hold dear, and all in which we are dearly held.

Then: Monday noon in meditation, Monday evening in Compline, Wednesday morning in theological community, Wednesday evening in communion, Thursday noon, both in sanctuary silence and then over an outdoor common table, and privately, meal by meal, morning by morning, we pray.

Prayer is to sit silent before God.  Prayer is to give utter attention.  Prayer is to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer, like a poem, is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ (Frost).   Prayer is our winter communion.

Adoration

            A language learned in prayer is that of adoration.   Here is the tongue of aspiration, delight, hope, imagination, wonder and praise.   In the dim-lit daily world, adorational language can be hard to hear, hard to find, for it is the exuberant utterance of ‘why not’?, of ‘how about?’, of ‘oh my’!, sentences concluding in question marks and exclamation points, more enchantment than disenchantment

Our gospel reading, at heart, is an aspiration, a high hope about human being, human loving, and human life—especially about healing.

Here in Mark 1, the early church remembers forty years later a very high view, an aspirational hope for human healing.   A prayer in aspiration that demons–begone! That upon this earth there yet might be—real friendship, real fellowship, real love, real marriage, the reality of the union of hearts, for which we are made.  For a hint of the eternal, a glimpse of the divine, a glimmer of joy without shade.   How we need that hint in our time of humiliation.  How we need that height in our culture of degradation.

All this takes time and practice. Our aspirations take the support and help of a community to last.

So, in the same breath, and in the same paragraph, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, and the Lord of Mark’s community, heals the sick, and offers their innocence (not their ignorance) as aspiration.   Innocence is not Holiness.  Holiness comes after Innocence, in the aspirations known both in celebration and in defeat.  Behold Jesus lifts them, lifts us, in his arms.

Hence, a few weeks ago we did sing, ‘Come Let Us Adore Him’.   There is a prayer, a prayer in a wonder-land.  What do you adore?  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

Our January preachers, with their manifold winter gifts, foretold it:  remember your baptism, behold plenty good room, save what you love, adore restoration not destruction.

So we sing a hymn each Sunday.

Adoration.  A language of prayer.

Confession

            A language learned in prayer is that of confession.  Such a dialect is much needed, in our time, in our generation.  Contrition, compunction, regret, and lament.  “I am sorry”.  “Forgive Me”.

You probably one day suddenly realized the power of confession.  Bishop James Matthews once said, in a memorable sermon, that he came to a day when he just wanted to write down in a list his most memorable shortcomings. (I was thinking of him the other day, visiting our own C Faith Richardson, now 102 years of age, who was his secretary).  He wrote down his mistakes and his regrets.  His regretful mistakes and his mistaken regrets.  That he did, and tossed the list into the fire, and resolved to live a great good life unrestrained by what was past.  “I gave the list to God and to the fire”, he said, “and I headed out into the future”.  Then he added:  “I’m sure you all have done the same, one way or another”.  I wasn’t so sure we all had, but I basked in the confidence—in the living pardon—of his confidence in us.

We depend on this reminder of our fragility.  It keeps us from becoming naïve about the fragility all around us.  Especially the disguised fragility of beloved institutions.  Many churches are one decade  away from demise.  Some countries are one government away from demise.  Our schools, halls of government, businesses, families—all these are far more fragile than they sometimes seem.  They take constant tending, mending, and befriending.   They take daily, careful leadership.  And when over time the fabric begins to fray, devastation may ensue.  Institutions, like people, are nourished by attention to small things. ‘Yard by yard, life is hard.  Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’.

So we offer confession, KYRIE ELEISON, each Sunday.

Confession.  A language of prayer.

Thanksgiving

             A language learned in prayer is that of thanksgiving.  My friend says that all birds are either robins or non-robins.  Well, the prayer book of the Bible is the Book of Psalms, and in that same oversimplified way, the psalms are either laments or thanksgivings, and there are more of the latter.  So today the psalmist is singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.

We know gratitude in hindsight.  Thanksgiving is the gift of the rear view mirror, of real retrospective.  We learn, and we grow.  But as Ralph Sockman repeated, and we now with him, ‘The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. It is the marrow this morning of our winter communion. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance and in presence.  Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord Jesus, his ministry of preaching, teaching and, today, especially healing, his death upon the cross, and his radiant resurrection, our beacon and life.  Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in presence, an announcement of the divine presence, the real presence of God, here and now, in the humblest of forms.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.

In the humblest of forms.

In the winter of 1982 the Maundy Thursday Holy Communion service was scheduled to occur in the sanctuary of the larger of the two churches, a two-point charge on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, two churches that shared a minister.  And perhaps not too much else.  In fact, to gather the two into one, in communion, was a rare event, with or without the sacrament.  But Maundy Thursday was generally lightly attended, and, for once, all agreed to share the service, one congregation as host and one as guest.  Notice the closeness, the kindred etymology of those to words, host and guest.

Well.  The boiler died in the host sanctuary sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, though its demise was not noticed until about an hour before the service, noticed by freezing choir members there to practice.   In those ancient days there was no mode or media to announce the dilemma, and relocate.  So, after some consider, it was decide to move the service next door into the Methodist Parsonage.  You knew this was the parsonage because of a sign on the porch saying so.  This was an expansive if drafty country house, with two large living rooms, one a parlor with the piano, and the other with couches and chairs, and a large dining room and big country kitchen.   Putting the coats on the porch and the children upstairs, we conjured that we could fit the light Lenten attendance.   Sometimes you generalize, sometimes you specialize, and sometimes you improvise.  A Trustee sat on the piano bench to turn hymn pages for the pianist.  It was crowded.  The children behaved upstairs, at least at the start.  Later you could hear them rustling to run from east to west, giggling as their feet sounded like a small airplane landing nearby.  Then quiet again.

Two churches of people who did not regularly sit together, of an evening, by historical accident and the ingenuity of some lay leaders, sat cheek to jowl.  There was good close singing, in four parts, with the choir dispersed into the community.  There was a warmth quite welcome at 10 below zero outside.  At the time of communion all slowly moved from parlor to living room to dining room into the kitchen to serve and be served.  And at the end a long full silence filled the house.   A long silence, that is, full of thanksgiving.

Thirty-eight years is about the distance in time between the ministry of Jesus and the writing of Mark.  The memory sifts to hold onto what matters, counts, lasts, has meaning.  Of all the worship services in those years, from Christmas to Easter to Confirmation, the one most remembered is the crowded household communion, and the silence, and the thanksgiving.

If you are wondering how to pray, start with a word of thanks, a thanksgiving, a generous recognition of a cause of gratitude.   You will not have far to look.

Sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving, Psalm 147.  I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  1 Corinthians 9.

So we read a psalm each Sunday.

Thanksgiving.  A language of prayer.

Supplication

            A language learned in prayer is that of supplication.   We name what we need.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will open.  Ask and it shall be given.  Not always.  Not frequently.  Not in a timely way.  But…

You don’t easily get what you don’t name as needed.

In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication. How will this happen?  We see no easy way.

In supplication, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are.  Supplication, the honest statement of what we need, the honest desire to return to a deep personal faith and an active social involvement, against all manner of winds blowing against, helps us build the future, a good future.  Prayer is a kind of prop.

Emily Dickinson had her occasional happy moments and happy thoughts and choice, true words of thanksgiving (amid darker hues aplenty to be sure):

            The Props assist the House

            Until the House is built

            And then the Props withdraw

            And adequate, erect,

            The House support itself

            And cease to recollect

            The Auger and the Carpenter-

            Just such a retrospect

            Hath the perfected Life-

            A past of Plank and Nail

            And slowness-then the Scaffolds drop

            Affirming it a Soul.

 

So we offer our common prayer every Sunday.

Supplication.  A language of prayer.

Coda

            ‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, come, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament, this prayerful winter communion, to your lasting comfort.

 

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

“Have you come to destroy us?”

January 28th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:21-28

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Good morning! What a pleasure and honor it is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you this morning. I’d like to thank Dean Hill for asking me to preach today and my colleagues here at the chapel for their support and encouragement.

Today is the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We are in the liminal time between the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Ash Wednesday. It’s not a memorable season like Advent, when we’re so excited to get to the birth of Christ that we sometimes jump ahead into its celebration a bit early. Or one of Lent, during which we fast, meditate, and prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ. No, the season after Epiphany, in some churches, particularly the Catholic Church, referred to as “Ordinary Time”, is when we hear the stories the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry. It’s when we learn of Jesus’ teachings, healings, and interactions with the people he encounters along the way. We use green paraments to highlight not only the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry, but our own spiritual growth and development through hearing and engaging the retelling of Jesus’ ministry on earth. We are then called to go out into the world and share that spiritual growth through the love of Christ that we share with all people.

This liturgical year, we grapple with Mark’s gospel to help us understand this period of Jesus life. Mark is the shortest gospel and believed by scholars to be the earliest retellings of the life of Jesus. The episodes within Mark’s scripture are much abbreviated, or “raw”, as one commentary I read put it. We get the facts and figures of Jesus’ work in the world, but not much flowery description. But in a way, Mark’s gospel is perfect for this Epiphanytide, this “Ordinary Time.” The gospel jumps right into the action of Jesus’ baptism and ministry. There is no description of the birth of Christ or the events leading up to it, like in Luke’s Gospel. Instead, we encounter the fully grown adult Jesus, baptized by John and announced as the Son and Beloved of God who then begins the work of God in the world. Mark is primarily concerned with conveying who Jesus is as the Holy One, the messiah, and that his authority comes from God. This is fully expressed through Jesus’ words and deeds.

In Mark’s gospel, we and the people Jesus encounters come to know who he is through his acts of teaching and healing. The focus is on Jesus’ authority in these situations. In today’s gospel reading, he is unknown to the people in the temple, but commands their attention through his words and actions. It is only the unclean spirit, or demon, or evil force which possesses the man in the synagogue who recognizes Jesus for who he is and the power that he can potentially wield. “Have you come to destroy us?” is one of the questions posed to Jesus by this evil force. The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus possesses the authority of God, and questions how that power and authority will be used. Whether this is a sarcastic comment questioning the power of the Holy One, “Have you come to destroy us?” or a genuine inquiry of fear from the unclean spirit, “Have you come to destroy us?” we are not sure. But it gives us an interesting starting point for understanding the type of authority Jesus brings into the world and how our understanding of this authority can shape the ways we understand our Christian identity.

“Have YOU come to destroy us?”

First, let’s focus on the you in this question: “Have YOU come to destroy us?” The “you” obviously refers to Jesus. But Jesus is relatively unknown to the community he is within. The reaction of the people tells us so – he teaches them as one having authority, but not like the way that they had heard from the scribes. Jesus teaches in a NEW way. Not focusing on traditional interpretation of the Torah, as the scribes do, but by relying on the authority of God. The scripture does not share the words that Jesus spoke, but we know from other passages in Mark that his teachings challenge the systems that have led the participants and the leaders of the service into complacency.

We might be able to relate to this reliance on tradition in our own contexts – we become complacent not only to our styles of worship, but how we find ourselves interacting with the social structures that surround us in our everyday lives. “That’s just the way things are.” “This is the way it’s always been done.” But that blind trust can lead to problems like systemic injustices and oppression. What Mark demonstrates through this teaching is that Jesus points out the inadequacy of the teaching going on in the synagogue to reveal the true meaning of God’s relationship with people on Earth. We are called to seek out justice and righteousness, as the Psalmist today reminds us: God’s righteousness endures forever. God is gracious and merciful.

The people in the synagogue are astounded by Jesus’ teaching. From the immediate recognition of Jesus’ authority the story quickly transitions into the man with the unclean spirit getting up and shouting at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Why has Jesus come to this synagogue to teach? How will Jesus’ teachings change the relationship between good and evil forces in the world?

Jesus’ teaching is founded in God, from whom his authority derives. His speech is powerful and authoritative because it speaks the truth. Jesus is a prophet, because he speaks the truth that is found in God and God’s will for the world. This authority is visible to those who hear him speak, as is obvious from last week’s gospel, in which Jesus promises Simon, Andrew, James, and John that he will make them “fishers of people” and they drop their nets and follow him. Jesus’ authority is unmistakable. But it isn’t what we might expect from the Messiah.

“Have you come to DESTROY us?”

It is established that Jesus is authoritative in his teaching, but do his actions match his words? Let us refer back to our guiding quote for this sermon, “Have you come to DESTROY us?” The word used by the unclean spirit is destroy in reference to how Jesus will use his power. Destruction is a violent word. It conjures images of razed lands, where no building is left standing. Or the complete obliteration of a person, a system. It might be what you would expect that the Holy One of God may bring to the Earth in order to control or subdue it. It might be what you would expect if it was your way with engaging with the world – to seek pain, violence and destruction instead of life-giving, healing, community. That is what the unclean spirits do, even to the point of causing self-destruction to their hosts, as described in Mark chapter 5.

We know from our own experiences that those with authority and power can slip into using that power for their own ends, to the point of injuring others. Without concern for the greater well-being, without that direct connection with the divine will for justice and righteousness, a person can create a great deal of damage by favoring certain groups of people with their power in ways that divide and amplify systems of oppression. Jesus has the power of God on his side, and it is precisely because of this connection with the divine that he utilizes that power to restore rather than destroy.

Jesus does not destroy. Yes, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit telling it to “Be silent” and come out of the man, but there is no destruction. The spirit obeys, albeit putting up a fight on its way out, but it leaves. Jesus doesn’t destroy the spirit – where it goes to, we don’t know. But additionally, he doesn’t destroy the unclean spirit’s host, the man. Instead he restores the man to health. He “heals” the man. Jesus does not seek to obtain power for himself in this situation, as the evil forces might do. He serves humanity instead, restoring the man to his full humanity.

Jesus is a teacher and healer during his ministry; not someone who destroys. Can you imagine describing Jesus as a teacher and destroyer? It just doesn’t seem to fit the conception we have of him. He commands power over those things which are damaging to both the individual body and the communal body. He demonstrates that his authority can overcome the unclean spirits, the powers of evil, through the restoration of the person. We may extend this metaphor to say that this person, who is possessed by the unclean spirit, could also be ostracized from his community if his behavior were to continue. We know as much from the story of the man possessed by the legion of unclean spirits in Mark chapter 5 who is physically removed from the community. Jesus restores both the man in the temple and the man exiled to their communities. And in both instances the communities are amazed.

Jesus has power and authority, but he uses in a way that nonviolently transforms. As the Spider Man movies have taught us “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or as saint Luke states in Chapter 12, verse 48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Jesus is tasked with the greatest power and responsibility. In order to do the work of God on Earth, he must use his power and authority in a way that restores the earthly community to one of support, love, and inclusion.

“Have you come to destroy US?”

The final factor in this question posed by the unclean spirit is, who is “us”? Up to now, I have been talking about an unclean spirit. Suddenly it is multiplied by the spirit itself – “us.” We may understand this “us” as all evil forces, as those things which prevent flourishing in the world. If we read this passage with a historical critical lens, we may side with commentators who situate the Jewish community in Capernaum as a community under the Roman Empire – perhaps then the “us” are the imperialists who continue to oppress those in their community. Or it may be that this unclean spirit is an actual pre-scientific understanding of what a health concern looked like. But one thing is clear – the forces that recognize Jesus know who he is and recognize his potential power when no one else can.

Today we may see the “us” as the powerful forces we encounter in our lives that keep us from having a full relationship with the divine and from completely expressing God’s love to ourselves and others. These forces may be spiritual, biological, societal, or political. They may make us feel powerless and out of control, just as the man who is possessed appears to be. We may feel like there is no way of overcoming them or destroying them, as it were.

But there is hope. Because Jesus displays that there is the possibility of healing and hope in the face of such challenges. By bringing us a new way that is full of love and care for others, the healing and restoration of our communities is a possibility. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, it is love that “builds up.” Love builds up our relationships with each other, and it also builds up our relationship with God. We may not be able to destroy the evil that exists in the world, but we are capable of taking away its authority and power over our lives.

Moving toward the future

The gospel for this week reminds us of the great acts of Jesus but also should spark us into action. Jesus, after all, was a radical. And by radical, I mean the definition which comes out of the Latin root, radix, which literally means root. Jesus comes to fundamentally change the way we understand our relationship with God and with each other. His new way of teaching is simplified and relies less on tradition and more on the authentic word of God found within the scriptures. He astounds and amazes the people by using his authority both to teach and to heal and restore. But we must remember that not everyone accepted Jesus’ teachings or his acts of healing as coming from God. He encounters these challenges again and again throughout the gospel of Mark, eventually leading to his own death. He challenges the status quo in a new, nonviolent, but revolutionary way that scares those accustomed to the old ways.

I imagine people’s reactions to Jesus’ teaching to be like the first time I read James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. As a first year Master’s level student, it destabilized me. It made me question everything I thought I knew about Christianity and emphasized the inherent privilege I possess as someone who is white. It highlighted the systems of oppression found within American society and particularly within the field of theology, which had been primarily developed by Western, white perspectives up until the writing of this book. It felt foreign to me, a challenge to my what I then thought were my brilliant theological ideas, and I just didn’t get it. And, like the unclean spirit in this passage, my reaction, at first, was to reject it. Because it didn’t speak to me. Because it scared me. Because I felt threatened by it. But that kind of teaching is exactly what I needed to grow, to at least try to better understand the lives of those who are oppressed by society. It made me look at the scriptures in a new way. It opened up avenues of many different and varied theological perspectives arising out of theologies of liberation that help shape my personal theological and ethical ideas today. The challenge was a good thing because it opened my eyes to new ways of being in the world. New ways that I am by no means an expert at, but new ways that I can continue to grow into.

There are many times in our lives when I’m sure we wish that Jesus would show up and get rid of the evil and oppressive forces in our lives. That it would be as easy as a command uttered for negative forces to leave us. But it’s not. At least it isn’t for us (it may still be for Jesus himself). We can’t make our personal demons or our societal demons leave us by willing them to go away. But what we can do is recognize them and engage ourselves to reform them. In order to do this properly, however, we must first be able to recognize those forces which have taken priority for us that are in conflict with God’s will. If we can acknowledge the demons then we can take their power away. If we ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, then we allow them to still have power over us. White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, addiction, and hate as well as many other insidious social ills surround us. Our job is to name them for what they are and systematically dismantle the influence they have in our collective lives. This is by no means any easy or pleasant job, but one that speaks to the justice and righteousness found in God.

We are called to be purveyors of Christ’s love in the world. If we recognize Jesus’ authority and how he uses it to bring about change, we can learn from it. Authority and the power that comes with it can easily be mismanaged and improperly used for self-aggrandizement. Jesus is our example – he possesses God’s authority, but uses that authority to serve others. Our power also comes in serving others, as Martin Luther said, being “little Christs” for our neighbors. Through service of others, learning from others, and being in community we can imagine a better future for ourselves. In this Season after Epiphany, this “Ordinary Time,” let us continue to grow in spirit and love.

“Have you come to destroy us?” No, Jesus has come to restore us.

Amen.

– Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

 

Not So Long Ago and Not So Far Away

January 21st, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Jonah :1-5, 10

I Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

         Last weekend I went to the movies.  I saw the eighth and latest episode of the “Star Wars” saga, entitled “The Last Jedi”.  I am a fan of the story, so I was predisposed to like it, and I did.  There were some familiar faces, and some new ones.  Of course there will be a sequel.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t give away any spoilers when I say that the plot continues.  The scrappy ragtag remnants of the republic are up against the relentless and seemingly overwhelming forces of what is now known as the First Order and its Supreme Leader. After incredible challenges and great losses, at least some members of the republic escape to continue the story.  While the plot does thicken, it essentially remains the same.

This time, though, I was struck by two things.  They may not be new to the story, but at least they stood out for me in a new way.  One was that the remnants of the republic were mostly referred to as “the resistance”, by themselves and even by the First Order.  Now those who resist are those who refuse to accept or comply with something, or who attempt to prevent something by action or argument.  Resistance can be violent, but it does not have to be.  In “The Last Jedi”, this time, even in the midst of all the whiz-bang, characters were told that blowing things up was not always the best way to accomplish the goal.  Indeed, retreat could be the best and most viable option in order to resist another day.  The second thing I noticed was that while of course the First Order was out to “crush the resistance”, this time the reason they gave to do that was so that any hope, any hope, for continued resistance against the First Order would be crushed as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope in the last year or so.  For many of us, if our hope is not crushed, it is a little tattered around the edges.  Many of us have faced or are facing personal challenges in terms of health or finances, loss of a loved one or personal calamity.  Added to that is the fact that the world is a much more uncertain place than it was a year ago.  There are many decisions being made in government that seem to make no sense to many of us, no matter what our personal politics:  decisions that will poison the air, earth, and water for generations to come; the escalation of the rhetoric of racism, misogyny, and division; the increased pandering to the very wealthy and to corporate interests;  the dismantling of social safety nets and government agencies that promote the public wellbeing; and the flirtation with increasing militarization in national and international policy and with a cavalier attitude toward nuclear war.  It is hard to know even where to begin to resist these decisions, when it seems that every week there is some statement, action, or scandal that derails any forward movement.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus begins his ministry in a challenging time.  There is resistance to the Roman occupation of the country and to the puppet king.  Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist has been arrested for his preaching of repentance, and his preaching of the coming of the one who is powerful and will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus calls his first disciples to his ministry with the good news that the time is now, the realm of God has come near. They can believe in the hope of a new life and turn to God.  In this case he calls fishermen in the midst of their daily life to follow him, to use their fishing skills to bring others the good news of the realm of God.  And immediately they believe the hope of the good news and follow him.

Now we, as followers of Jesus in our time, are in a little different situation.  Jesus preached the realm of God as near, so near that people could believe in its reality in their own lives, and invite others to join them to live that reality.  The early church, especially after the resurrection, believed as Paul did in his letter to the church at Corinth.   The realm of God was so near that people should live as though the dominant social, economic, and cultural forms no longer operated in this new life. With us, we are more than two thousand years down the road.  While we realize that the realm of God is both present and coming in our lives, we live in the midst of a changing, wonderful, and sometimes scary culture. It often promotes a reality that is in direct opposition to the ministry of Jesus and to the reality of life with God in Christ.  So how do we as contemporary followers of Jesus keep our hope, keep our belief alive in this challenging time?  And just as important, how do we share our hope and our belief with others who may still feel like the least, the last, and the lost, and could use a little hope?

The Psalmist suggests we remember that the basis for our hope is our trust in God.  God alone is our rock, our salvation, and our stronghold, so that we will not be shaken from our hope.  We can pour out our hearts to God about our concerns and fears, and God will be our refuge.  Other forms of seeming power are delusion, vain hopes.  They will let us down.  God alone has the power we need and God alone is worthy of our love and devotion.

With this as a starting point, with God’s presence and realm not just coming but present in our lives, we might expect that God might do some things we do not see coming, especially where there is opposition to the reality of our life with God.  Our reading from Jonah describes one of these unexpected actions.

This is the second time that Jonah is sent to Ninevah.  The first time he refused to go, and ended up in the belly of a whale.  Apparently this experience at sea changed his thinking, because this second time he does go to Ninevah and he does preach the message that God gives him:  Ninevah will be overthrown in forty days.  Now the interesting thing is that the word translated here as “overthrown” can also be translated to indicate a turnover or a change of heart.  Sure enough, Ninevah, notorious for its wickedness, repents.  They really repent, with fasting and sackcloth, and they turn from their evil ways.  And in the face of their sincerity, God changes God’s mind, and does not bring calamity to them.

Jonah went to Ninevah, finally, because he was a prophet and that is what prophets do when they accept the call.  It was Jonah’s everyday life that God worked with to change a whole city for the better.  Sometimes it is just doing what we do normally that can foster hope.

I saw another movie last weekend, “The Post”.  This is the story of the discovery and publication of the Pentagon Papers.  This publication was instrumental in ending the Viet Nam police action.  I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that this publication was brought about by a small group of people.  And they did not wake up and intend to start a process of change on a national level.  They were living their everyday lives and doing their everyday jobs.  Then something showed up that they just could not ignore in terms of the damage that was being done to individuals and the nation by the  government process around Viet Nam revealed by the Papers.  So at great risk to themselves and their everyday lives they decided to make known what they had discovered, even though that knowledge was forbidden to the general public.  When that knowledge was made public, the things that had seemed so hopeless for so long around what was going on in Viet Nam began to change.  The police action ended, and there was some measure of hope that now the truth was out, things would be different.

For us, we may not be in everyday positions to bring an evil city to repentance, or to reveal a nation-changing truth.  But there may be for us some things we may think need changing, or may even need resistance.  How do we find our hope, sustain our hope, in the midst of our personal and communal challenges?  How do we respond to Jesus’ ongoing call to believe the good news of the reality of God’s realm, and to share that good news with others?  We already know that it will not be easy, after this last year.  It was not easy for Jesus and the first disciples, either.  Mark is called the “Gospel of Conflict” for a reason, and Jesus and the disciples did not just have conflicts with the religious and political authorities – they had conflicts with each other.  Jonah was a reluctant prophet at best, and after he had served to help bring about God’s work of conversion and mercy, he was angry.  He thought Ninevah deserved to be overthrown in that sense of true overthrow.  He berated God for being too merciful to this foreign city that deserved to be punished.  Those who brought to light and those who published the Pentagon Papers risked the loss of long friendships and the threat of jail.  And while the Viet Nam police action was ended, the revelations and the process of ending the action almost tore the country apart. and still have repercussions today.  The facing of our personal challenges is often fraught with difficulty and pain, as well as resolution and reconciliation.

But we cannot let conflict, or the possibility of conflict, stop us from finding and sustaining hope.  In conflict also we can trust that God is at work to do a new thing, as God did at Ninevah, and with Jesus and the disciples and the early church, and as God is still doing, every day, in this world now.  We cannot stop because without hope, we die.  The First Order and the Supreme Leader are right.  Crush the resistance, crush hope, and then we do nothing.  We do not look for hope.  We do not take the steps we need to take to sustain our hope.  Without hope, we do not resist those things that oppress us in our minds, bodies, and relationships, and so our hope is crushed once again, in a vicious cycle.  The good news is that we can get better at finding our hope. We can get better in what we hope for. We can get better in what we put our trust to sustain our hope.  One of the new characters in “The Last Jedi” puts it this way:  It’s not about destroying what we hate; it’s about saving what we love.”

So what do we love enough to save?  And when we decide that, who else loves the same thing and wants to save it, and where do we find these folks?  And when we’ve found them, what can we do together to save what we love?  Because not being alone, because shared purpose and action, give us hope, and help us sustain our hope.

And the great thing is, we often don’t have to look very far, or in unusual places, to find our companions in hope.  They, like us, live their everyday lives and try to use their skills to save the things they love.  They may be right here at Marsh Chapel.  Look around, at a worship service or a book discussion or a dinner or a service event.  Or they could be in our neighborhoods.  They grow or buy organic vegetables to preserve earth, air, and water that is not poisoned.  They may serve those who could use a little hope and help through their work that is the same as ours, or they volunteer in places in which we too can volunteer.  They may advocate or organize publicly, to expand the voices and presence of those too often ignored or unjustly maligned.  They may produce a movie, documentary, website, or blog, that inspires us to hope and action.  They go where the life is, and we can go there too, or even lead the way.

What do we love and want to save?  What gives us hope, that hope we want to sustain?  It’s not just about what we do.  It’s also about who we are and who we want to become.  There are people we can join for that too.

Mark Miller is a worship leader, a composer and performer of sacred music, and a musical theologian.  He is on the faculty of two universities, is married, and is a father.  And in the wider culture, it is also clear that at least some of his ancestors were not from Norway.  As an aside, for any Norwegians with us, don’t worry, we know it’s not your fault.

Anyway, Mark Miller in his everyday life and in his music recognizes the challenges to hope that we face both personally and communally.  And he presents the perspective that who we are is just as important to the finding and sustaining of hope as what we do – in fact, they are so intertwined as to be inseparable.  His latest composition has become something of a touchstone for many of us:  we sing it to ourselves, we sing it to and with each other, we sing it with and for those who can relate and who also want to find and sustain their hope.  It reminds us that in our faith and trust in God, we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do as our own best selves.  We can save what we love. We can find our hope and sustain it.  The song  is called, “Prayer Chant (We Resist)”, and it goes like this.  (sings):

“We resist.  We refuse to let hatred in.  We rise up.  We won’t back down.

We’re in this ‘til the end.

Pray for your enemies.  Welcome the stranger.  Show love to your neighbor.

We’re in this ‘til the end.”[1]

         Where do we find our hope?  Not so long ago and not so far away.  But right here.  Right now.  “ … ‘til the end.”  Amen.

-Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell

 

 

 

[1] © Mark A. Miller 2017. http://www.markamillermusic.com/product/prayer-chant-we-resist/    Accessed January 29, 2018

Plenty Good Room

January 14th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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John 14:1-7

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A text copy of this sermon is not available.

-The Reverend Dr. Walter Earl Fluker,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership
Boston University School of Theology

By Water and the Spirit

January 7th, 2018 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:4-11

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Good morning friends,

It is indeed a good morning, even if a particularly cold, sub-zero one here on the banks of the Charles River today. Streets are mostly cleared, the T is running on a normal schedule, and even if the sidewalks are more like tunnels and valleys through snowy mountain peaks, we are slowly returning to going about our normal business. The bombcyclone has passed, the Snow Days are over, and the city has returned to winter normalcy. For many of us in greater Boston, we observed a snow day (or two) this week, a brief moment of pause, an interruption in our normal rhythms, a time to observe, to take stock of where we are, to wonder, and to think. In the liturgical calendar, today is also something of a snow day. Yes, the wise ones have returned to their homes in the east. (Yesterday was Epiphany, that day in our calendar when we remember the adoration of the Christ-child by learned ones from afar, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) But as we move into a season of ordinary time, there is also a pause in the calendar (today) to remember Jesus’ baptism that provides us with the opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on our relationship with the divine.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily aunt takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their new baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s off-balance attempt to take the baby turns the squirming to a wail, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in an inflatable pool behind Marsh Chapel on a frosty Easter’s Eve?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head in the warmth of the church you grew up in?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps the words of commitment in baptism are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a partner renew her baptismal vows on the nearly always balmy banks of the Jordan just a few miles north of the Dead Sea.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to a community but also that community’s commitment of thoughtful support and nurturing care to you. You were submerged fully, in a swimming pool or a lake, and you confidently recited your own baptismal promises for yourself.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and they have different ways of doing baptism. Chances are (if you are listening to this sermon) that you will encounter or be joined to a handful or more of Christian communities in your life.  No matter what your experience or expectations about baptism, I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places of thoughtful support and nurturing care.  While the chapel is a community of support for a university community, we understand ourselves to be in relationship with the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment. We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey. And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and further cultivate their relationship with God, we are a community of support and love. If baptism is something you are interested in exploring, please speak with one of our staff after the service today or contact the chapel office by email at chapel@bu.edu or give us a call at 617-353-3560. The next regular opportunity for adult baptism will be at the Easter Vigil service.

In the liturgical calendar, much like the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan about to begin a season of ministry teaching and healing.

Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  Jesus did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  This joins us with Christians all over the world and welcomes us into God’s family; we are not only children of God but we are adopted into a global family of sisters and brothers in Christ. While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people. Baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.” God pursues us for relationship relentlessly, and God loves us unceasingly.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made an heir of the divine kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many, a college graduation may be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded. The Commencement ceremony might rush by in a blur – red robe, black hat, forgettable speeches, and then a 20 foot walk across a stage and a small piece of paper in hand. A small 20 foot walk doesn’t take very long, but it means something, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment.  Receiving a diploma in May but not starting the new job until August 1st might mean we don’t fully appreciate days of sleeping until 10:30 for class until we are up at 5:30 each day to beat the morning commuter rush to arrive on-time to the job we had longed for.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church; it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Most weeks, you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” On Sundays when communion is celebrated we are reminded: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete because it was the baptism of repentance of John.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away. Today is a moment in the life of the church in which we are invited to be reminded of God’s real presence with us.

In a moment this morning, we will observe an order of reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, you will be invited to renew the promises made at your baptism, touch the water, and remember that you are a beloved child of God in covenant relationship with God and the church. As you renew your baptismal vows today, I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew. Amen.

-The Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development