Love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:35)
A. A Sociological Perspective: Safety on Campus
Our siblings at the Bossey Institute in Switzerland focus weekly on Bible, Church, and World, while we do the same here at Marsh Chapel, as lenses upon the love of neighbor. With our theme today we take them in reverse order, World, Church, Bible.
Religion on campus today is blessed with sociological, ecclesiological and theological opportunities, on a grand scale. To all three of these blessings we will return during the rest of the year, for more detailed attention. Today’s sermon is meant as a map of the whole territory, religion on campus, in three dimensions, social and communal and spiritual, on behalf of this marvelous Marsh community, for whom Jesus is our ‘beacon not our boundary’.
First, in the very present, with increasing attention, our nation has recognized a pervasive malady within student life and culture, certainly not limited to any one college or city, a callous disregard for the safety of women. This is not a women’s problem, this is a men’s problem and a community problem. In this past year, appalling renditions of campus life have gradually brought about a ‘raised consciousness’ (a phrase whose currency we owe to the women’s movement of a generation ago). Read again the March (Caitlin Flanagan) Atlantic article on fraternity life. Look once more, if you can endure it, at the New York Times early August account of assault and rape in Geneva, NY, at Hobart William Smith. Peruse the various columns on acquisition and education, excellence and sheep, like that of William Deresiewicz. Assess the attention last week to Harvard’s administrative change, and the objections of their law school faculty. Sift through carefully the daily details of what young adults recount of their own experience. A young friend this week related the chilling experience of being chased for blocks in the early evening on a well-lit street, through no fault of her own. One student at Columbia now carries, cross-like, day-by-day, from class to class, the mattress on which an assault occurred some months ago. Groups of students readily volunteer to help. No campus across this land is free from the responsibility and the opportunity of facing and addressing, in real time, the issue of safety on campus.
Unlike many other problems—tornados, cancer, mortality—these are problems that need not occur and have both consequences and cures. One reads that 20% of college women are harassed, attacked or assaulted during their student years. That is going to change. That has to change. That will change, if only because those funding college tuition payments over time will make sure it does.
The voice of religious life (history, community and leadership) has everything to offer to this dilemma. Where there are still religious voices to be heard, on campus, where that is there are still pulpits, on campus, (a mere fraction of the number a generation ago, a tiny fraction of that two generations ago) religion has been consistently, faithfully and aggressively engaged with issues of safety on campus, in concert with many good people and leaders across campuses like this one.
At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will continue to provide sacred space that is a safe place. Come Sunday, in worship wherein we remember that life is lived before God, and that our experience rests in the presence of ultimate reality. And on weekdays, by employing and deploying sexual and other minorities in ministry and for ministry—the Inner Strength Choir, the LGBTQ work, and all manner of life affirming and spiritual enriching groups, events and programs. Spend a Friday evening with the Seventh Day Adventist student group and you will feel and see this in action. Learning, yes, but also virtue and also piety. Knowing, yes, but also doing and also being. Mind, yes, but also heart and also soul.
A few years ago I met with a group of theologians at Yale. At dinner, a highly accomplished professor approached. ‘I picked up that you work with religious groups. What can you tell me about Intervarsity?’ His question carried a nervous apprehension. I replied that they were a campus group, more conservative than I, and my tradition, but reliable and experienced. ‘Why do you ask?’ I responded. ‘Well, my daughter goes to that group here at Yale. She was raised a Presbyterian.” I asked why she chose Intervarsity: ‘did she like the bible study, or the leader?’ ‘Oh, no’, he answered. ‘I think she just was looking for a group her age who were not drinking every night’.
At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will also continue to uphold a vision of a beloved community among women and men on campus. A beloved community, and nothing short of it!
A while ago someone asked why religious leaders on campus weren’t saying more about campus safety. It took most of what little self-control I have not to blurt out: ‘where have you been? Are you interested in these things? Really? Then why aren’t you in church with us on Sunday? If you were, you would see, hear and know just steadily we have done so. So if you are really interested in a beloved community of women and men on campus, then I expect to see you in church on Sunday. Put your body where your mouth is! Come to Marsh Chapel.
Here is a community of faith living weekly in the shadow of a monument to Martin Luther King. His dream is greatly deferred, we confess. But the dream lives, we affirm. The dream of a beloved community, including such a community among women and men on campus.
Here you might be greeted by an African American woman from Atlanta, like one of our former ushers, Jennifer Williams, now researching her PhD dissertation in urban planning at the University of Michigan, with a winter in South Africa. Here you might be greeted by an Asian man like Maadiah Wang, one of our former ushers, now in business in Toronto, who was baptized by immersion on Easter Eve, on the side lawn here, last spring. Here you might be greeted by Dominique Cheung, one of our former ushers, a BU graduate who taught for a year in Taiwan, and who has now returned this fall for a Masters degree in Education, and is an usher again, an usher both former and current. Go ushers!
Here you might find a friend like mine who guided me to a column by Emma Green, Atlantic, 11/14: Americans born after 1980 are less likely to identify with a religion. But. Religious people report more satisfaction with their love lives and sex lives. Church\service attendance protects healthy people against death. College grads born in the 1970’s are more likely than non-grads of the same age to identify with a particular faith. Maybe there’s something about contemporary campus life that maes people more, not less, likely to gravitate toward traditional institutions—or maybe college grads have simply learned that religion is pretty good for you.
Here you might catch a glimpse of what love can be, neighbor to neighbor, what loving kindness, chivalry, honor, care can be. We still teach Shakespeare at Boston University:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
In sociology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.
B. An Ecclesiological Perspective: Love and Law
Second, religion on campus has an opportunity with regard to religion off campus, an ecclesiological rather than a sociological responsibility, one of church rather than college. That is, the voices of religion on campus can provide a hopefully humble but also historically nuanced counterbalance to contemporary church vision and leadership.
For instance, as only one example, and turning to our own situation and heritage here at Marsh Chapel, there has been an historic, creative tension between the preaching leadership and the administrative management of the Methodist church, dating back at least to Peter Cartwright and his tangles with various presiding elders. Both are important, both spirit and structure. Our ministry at Marsh this year emphasizes spirit, but structure has its role, importance and place. Today, however, with most of the preachers in many Methodist conferences now lacking full education, and lacking ordination with consequent guarantee of appointment, the balance of power has shifted dramatically in the last generation. Those whose primary weekly commitment is to interpreting the scripture are outweighed by those whose primary annual commitment is to upholding the discipline. The gospel trumpeted in Scripture and tradition, freedom and grace and love, for all, including especially those in minority, including sexual minorities, is overshadowed by the rules and constraints re-voted every four years. University pulpits, the few that remain, bear a significant responsibility to model dimensions of humility, integrity and courage (along with those healthy, strong churches whose northeastern voices you heard a summer ago, from New York, Washington, Rochester, and Boston). As Lou Martyn said, we are free here to set heaven is a little higher. So we need to take responsibility to lead, along the fewer strong, stable pulpits across the land. We have the advantage of resources in interpretation, in memory, in thought, and in reflection that can be of some use, in this particular time.
One illustration. Ministry is now denied to gay people in Methodism. Ordination, that is. But think about this for a minute, in a University chapel. We have spent more than a generation re-learning that ministry belongs not to the ordained, alone, but to the baptized. Entrance into ministry does not begin with the bishop laying on hands, at ordination. Entrance into ministry begins with the pastor laying on hands, in baptism. 99% of ministry is conferred in the sacrament of baptism, and 1% in the sacramental rite of ordination. Those who really would consistently exclude gay women and men from ministry should never have allowed the church to baptize or confirm or commune gay people. That would have been more fully effective and consistent bigotry. But in baptism– the barn door has been opened, and no amount of shutting it will ever work! Gay people are baptized, and therefore are already in ministry! It is a short way from denying orders to denying baptism.
Christopher Morse, my theology professor, and a Methodist minister from Virginia, told us once at dinner about a humorous baptismal moment. Forty years ago you baptized every infant in the northern half of the county, no matter what county, on Palm Sunday. 38 baptisms in a row. He moved down the line, seizing the children one at a time. ‘What name shall be given this child?’ John. Mary. George. Pinundress. A French couple, just learning English, presented the child. So, ‘Pinundress, I baptize…’ A distraught father came up later to show Christopher the pin on the dress, on which the name had been clearly written, ‘pin on dress!’ We are not so hasty now. We have spent a good deal of time on the prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace of God in baptism. All the baptized are all in ministry. Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight. But it is our religious opportunity, on campus, freely and safely to think about these things, with humility but also with honesty.
Another illustration. The rules in Methodism explicitly state that the pastor alone is to decide whose marriage will be solemnized, ‘in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the church’. No local committee decides. No vote of session. No poll of the community or neighborhood. No family habit of a patriarchal auction of a daughter to an opposing family. No. The pastor shall decide. There is an accrued wisdom in this, the leaving of these lasting decisions to those in the local situations, in the contexts in which they are to be lived out. Would you want a General Conference every four years voting on a list of those to be married in Boston, those to be allowed to marry in Los Angeles, those types of people fit for matrimony in Wisconsin? Surely not. That is why the primary directive in the discipline leaves such to the discretion of the pastor.
Marriage: UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a. (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor. So. Do we mean this? Are we going to ‘enforce’ as one general superintendent in the book, FINDING OUR WAY, ‘enforce the discipline’? Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple. There is no shading here, no hem or haw. The pastor decides. After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules. No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different. State law 50 years ago to prohibit interracial marriage was widely ignored by Methodist clergy, who performed interracial marriages in states prohibiting such. Not to marry a gay couple is now to contradict the laws of 30+ states who protect the right of gay people to marry. Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister. “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”. Not the General Conference. Not the General Superintendent. Not the District Superintendent. Not the Charge Conference. The pastor. And that is as it should be. Thanks be to God.
In ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.
C. A Theological Perspective: Freedom to Dream
Third, religion on campus has a theological chance, a spiritual opening, the opportunity and freedom to dream, both regarding creation and regarding redemption.
That is, the remaining significant campus pulpits (Marsh, Harvard, Duke, and just a few others) have the spiritual opportunity to challenge and engage thought forms in college and culture, including some forms of popular atheism and agnosticism, and introduce them, for example, to some religious forms of atheism and agnosticism. Leslie Weatherhead did this already sixty years ago with sermons collected as THE CHRISTIAN AGNOSTIC. Edward O. Wilson this fall wrote: “Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.” But the contrary is true as well: “Love is the one thing that makes otherwise bad people do good things”.
The asperity with which the Holy Scripture summarizes creation is only matched by the asperity which the creeds of the Church summarize creation. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Period. ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’. Period. Scripture and creed say what reason and experience know: we have the brute fact of the brute creation. Period. The rest of the Holy Scripture, all 65.9 other books, and the rest of the creed, the long second paragraph and the shorter third, go on from there. The love of God comes accompanied by faith and hope. Creation is the occasion of love but does not occasion love, does not occasion faith in love, and does not occasion a hope for a loving future. God is Love is more about the second person of the Trinity, the Christ of God, than about the first person of the Trinity, the creation of God, more Fairest Lord Jesus than For the Beauty of the Earth. Love is in the Second Person of the Trinity.
When invited to come to Marsh Chapel, I looked back on the great dreamers, the voices, influential and real, that had formed me. My father-in-law, who built a Wesley Foundation from the ground up in the 1960’s in Oswego, NY. My dad, who served a college town church and helped create an ecumenical form of college ministry, UMHE, in the same decade. My mother and mother in law, who in those years hosted and graced endless fellowship meals for nervous pre-seminarians, bruised freedom riders, troubled conscientious objectors, chastened veterans, and their various boyfriends and girlfriends. Our friend, the Chaplain at Colgate, RV Smith, whose presence and courage, in hard years, were sustained by MOTIVE magazine. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Williams, and then at Yale, before becoming our pastor at Riverside Church in NYC in the 1970’s. Coffin’s preaching ministry, in New York and at Columbia and through Union, continues to be a large part of my model for work here at Marsh, in Boston and at Boston University and through the School of Theology. Peter Gomes, both colleague and mentor, who succeeded at Harvard, as he famously said, by being ‘ubiquitous’. The years and losses have mounted up in equal measure for religion on campus. There are but 1 for every 5 to 10 pulpits now on campus that there were 50 years ago. But we are here. You are here. Where there is life there is hope.
All of these fine ministers, for all of their substantial theological differences, when it came to spiritual theology, shared a freedom to dream. In fact, far beyond their own limited spheres, they kept dreams alive, in decades of confusion, and kept preaching alive, in years when across the land there was, in Amos’s fine phrase, ‘a famine of the word’. They read Paul Tillich and made his ‘depth’ available to others. We can do the same, here, with the great theological minds of our time, some of whom are close at hand.
The Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano said recently, “I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years.” And I have felt the same, preaching or trying to preach the same sermon for the past 45 years. I preach love. God’s love. Love is God. All of us are better when we are loved. Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down. Love God, love neighbor—so the Bible says, today.
Religion on campus can give future leaders, secular and religious, a sense of possibility, imagination, freedom and breadth in the theopoetics of God talk. Those who attend worship at Marsh Chapel over four years as undergraduates, that is, will have also virtually acquired much of the vocabulary and content of the first year of graduate study in theology—biblical, historical, philosophical, and pastoral theology. At no extra charge! What a bargain!
We shall give King the last word:
“Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…. When one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘love your enemies.’ I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.”[i]
If a student, your question is, where are you found on Sunday morning? If faculty, that one, plus a second, where are you on the weekends, when pedagogy gives way to life? If an administrator, both the former, plus a third, how have you planned in finance and leadership for the growth of a beloved community? And if a community member all three of those, plus this one: are you with us or not? We need you. We have not a person, hour or dollar to spare.
In theology, as in sociology and ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.
Jesus, the very thought of thee
With sweetness fills the breast
But sweeter far thy face to see
And in thy presence rest
Jesus our only joy be thou
As thou our prize wilt be
Jesus be thou our glory now
And through eternity
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” in A Testament of Hope, ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), pp. 46-7. Washington notes how King relies expressly on Nygren in his depiction of agape and also amplifies what he finds, p. 16. For an interpretation of King’s account of love, see James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare ((Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), e.g., pp. 120-150.
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