Power by Example

August 14th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:49-56

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Heart’s Treasure

August 7th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:32-40

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Last Sunday we worshipped in a Baptist Church, the Mother Church of Colgate University, in Hamilton, NY.   The pews, windows, edifice, organ, and structures have not overly changed in fifty years.  The kindness, grace, joy, reverence, humility, and care of the congregation roundly resemble those from decades ago.   It is a rare chance, a gift of some significant dimension, to be welcomed into a community of faith, come Sunday, particularly when such opportunities each year, given one’s vocation, are limited.  The Baptists welcomed us, mere Methodists, as they have regularly in the summer in the past in the Spirit.

It should be noted that the welcome required the welcome of six children/grandchildren as well, who happily explored the pews, hummed the hymns, joined in the children’s moment and, with some sharp exceptions, impeded not the liturgy of the day.  It takes courage to open your doors in a Baptist church, or any, come Sunday, not really knowing what sort of Methodist others might descend upon you,  a baker’s dozen with their kids.  

The children are immersed in summer, with its changed schedules, alternating child-care systems, and various other forms of mayhem.  They are busy with 8 year-old things, and the things of childhood, wonderfully overheard in their jokes.  You know these, but maybe you have forgotten.  What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence? What is the biggest pencil in the world (or biggest boss or biggest ant)?  Why is six afraid of seven?  And endless ‘your momma’ jests.  See me following worship if you have forgotten these.  Those who care for children, such a noble and beautiful career and calling, deserve our salutes, particularly come summer.  Thank you.  Thank you Aunt Millie.  Thank you Uncle Fred.  Thank you in the day care.  Thank you at home child care.  Thank you Mom.  Thank you Dad.  Thank you Gramma.  And thank you for those who agree to work at summer camp, especially church camp.

The bell tolled, as it does on the hour, every hour, in that small town.  We sang familiar hymns—Crown Him, Seek Ye First, O Zion Haste.  We heard the interpretation of the Scripture from a venerable pulpit known to Harry Emerson Fosdick, Adam Clayton Powell and Colgate students beginning in 1819. (Colgate that began with ’13 dollars, 13 men, and 13 prayers’.)

In the prayers for the day was included the Lord’s Prayer, as you would expect.  Also, by tradition, the wording was slightly different therein to the venerable usage employed here at Marsh Chapel, and elsewhere.  That is, we prayed forgiveness for debts, not trespasses.  Forgive us our debts.  And following worship, we returned home, as we say, the Baptists to their debts and the Methodists to their trespasses. (☺)  Except that there is something truly good about hearing a familiar prayer in a different mode.  These good American Baptists use a version of our shared prayer that emphasizes the substantial, material, physical nature of what is to be forgiven.  Yes, it misses the larger, varied multiplicity of the more common translation—trespasses—it is more narrow, more hedgehog than fox, say—but, for all that makes a strong point.  There is a treasure, a heart’s treasure, a treasured physicality in the grace of the gospel.  When you have to throw yourself on the mercy of the court, it is a great gift to experience that mercy present to you in all its substantial, material, physical nature.  Speaking of which:  We are coming to the Lord’s Table, to bread and cup, to thanksgiving, presence and memory, after all.  Forgive us our debts…

A Lukan Horizon on Treasure

Given the cultural prominence in America this year of the rhetoric of racial hatred, religious animosity, and rhetorical ugliness, the ‘gift’ to our time and culture from one particular candidate and now, sadly, too, his party of record which has disowned what can only be disowned, a grand, even an old party, we may be open to a reminder, a gentle one, about the heart’s treasure, about treasure in and from, from within the heart.  Life is brief, rounded by a little sleep.  What we say lasts longer than what we do.  So, damage already done, it is a travesty and a tragedy to have a beloved culture arrested and assaulted this this year by the rhetoric of demagoguery, birtherism, demagoguery, America Firstism, demagoguery, misogyny, demagoguery, racism, demagoguery, xenophobia, demagoguery, bigotry.   You perhaps remember that this candidate, given to vitriol, recalled demolishing his earlier adversary, saying, yes, that was great, I really got him, with one phrase, ‘low energy’, that phrase destroyed him, that was ‘a one day kill’.  A one day kill.  And then: words are beautiful things.  My, oh my.  And people seem to like it.  One wonders what the children in New Hampshire and Ohio and elsewhere will hear, remember, and make of this, and how they will think of their parents and grandparents, regarding this, in years to come.  ‘Grandpa, what did you say, what did you do, in 2016?’

The Gospel of Luke, a multi-layered Gospel of compassion, today takes us to a moment of preparation, and to a holy call, to a holy calling, to a holy experience, to a holy readiness, estando listo, a word for you today,  to a quickened courage even in the face of dark death, cultural and existential.  Luke has prepared us.  You know how to live.  Fear not.  Sell and give.  Hold onto what lasts.  Foxes have holes but the Son of Man no place.  A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves.   Give us this day our daily bread.  Woe to you, if you neglect justice and the love of God.  This night your soul is required of you.  So we are not entirely surprised by today’s gospel.  The way has been prepared.

Treasure is important to life.  The heart’s treasure is the importance of life.  Treasure has its place in life.  The heart’s treasure is the point of life.  Treasure makes a way for life.  The heart’s treasure is the way of life.  Eternity gracing time—here is the heart’s treasure.

Horizon and Shadow

Purses that do not grow old…treasure in the heavens that does not fail…so you also must be ready…

We are cleaning through, now, the papers and photographs in our mother’s home, since she has been moved to assisted care.  Many of you have done the same.  Which pictures do you save?  Which documents?  Which furniture?

When I was 13, my mother chastised me for something I had said to our neighbor, a woman of her own age.  The infraction itself is blessedly forgotten, but not the cure.  ‘You must go and apologize to her’, she said.  I did so, reluctantly.  But I did so, at her direction.  ‘You must tell her that you are sorry’.  I did so, not happily, but in person, up the porch, to the door, knocking and speaking.  (Later she became quite a good family friend.  In meeting the couple, my parents went to dinner in their home with others.  The host was carving a turkey, having no success.   To make light of the moment my mother said, ‘What we need is a surgeon.’   Silence followed all around followed by my father’s laughter and honest whisper:  “He is a surgeon”.  (☺) ) All the materials in our mother’s house, letters and books and yearbooks and newspaper clippings and cards and Christmas cards and photos and photo albums, all of it, and all of them, and we are still moving through them, are as nothing compared to that word—go, apologize.  Forgive us our debt.  There is a word that is substantial, material, physical.  

The heart treasures forgiveness, either given or received, because pardon comes by grace alone.   Like the gift of life, and like the promise of eternal life, forgiveness is the gift of God’s grace.   This gift we receive again this morning in Holy Communion.  Whether the forgiven is debt or trespass, the forgiveness is lasting treasure, treasure buried in a field, the imminent and immanent presence of God.

Your Treasure

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  Sometimes the forgiven is substantial, material, physical.  Even financial.

This summer, near and far, people are giving of their time, energy, talent and money to give children a week at summer camp.  

And what a gift it is!   To see a boy or girl learning to swim, learning the prone float for the first time; to see a girl or boy who has never held a fishing pole before, catch a fish or two or three; to see a boy or girl view the whole firmament at night for the first time; to see a group of young people across many divisions of background, race, gender, orientation, class, temperament and personality come to friendship; to hear prayers and songs and hymns and psalms lifted in young voices morning and evening—what a privilege, what a gift.

Our granddaughter spent her first week at camp, at a campground at which her great grandfather, her grandfather and her mother had worked long before her arrival.  A place, you might say, for the discovery of the heart’s treasure.  It is not a small thing for a nine year old to go away for a week, to sleep away at camp.  It requires levels of trust, confidence, and assurance in multiple directions.  

She went with a friend, whose family had only recently become involved in church.  Her friends parents themselves had an experience at camp.  It happened this way.  The parents went to pay their bill.  Like many, they had paid half the tuition, but had to complete their payment.  So they stood in line in front of a desk, out on a lawn, looking on a beautiful long lake.   In front them was a mother, alone.  Her turn came.  They watched as she went slowly to the desk, and stood, silent.  The camp worker waited.  The mother said nothing, but finally held out her hands, empty.  She had paid the first half, hoping to have enough to pay the second, but, as happens, pay check to pay check, something happened.  She couldn’t pay the bill.  But she had brought her daughter, hoping.  Hoping that her daughter could go to camp like others were going.  Making the drive, taking the chance, hoping against hope, that there might be a way.  Love has a hidden strength.  Or, she might have reasoned, it is a church camp, even a Methodist camp.  When you throw yourself on the mercy of the court, you just hope there is some mercy there.  She just stood, hands out, and whispered, ‘I’m sorry’.  

In a fast motion, the woman at the desk came forward, took her arm, saying, ‘This is no problem.  Just come with me.   Your daughter is going to camp this week.  You come with me.  What is your name?  Where are your from?  Do you have a home church?  We will take care of this.”

I have a lover’s quarrel sometimes with my church.  But then, sometimes, sometimes in the summer, sometimes in the simple things, sometimes there is a reminder of who we hope we are, who we think we are, who we have promised to become.   Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you know God to be a pardoning God?

I know you can’t run an economy on these terms.  I know people have to pay their bills.  I know you can’t run a business or a school or a city, or even run a church if people don’t pay their pledge.  You can’t keep a campground open very long if that is the way things go.  I got it.  I know.  But you know what?  Sometimes people need a little help.  Sometimes there needs to be a space made, an opening, a little forgiveness.  I am really proud of that church camp, Camp Casowasco, where we grew up, worked, learned, and over three summers lifeguarding chose to go into the ministry, because of the ministers we met there.  ‘Somebody let you grow up’ my parents would say.  There was room, there.  There was a place, there.  There was a forgiveness, there, not just of trespasses, whatever they are, but also, sometimes, of debt.  Forgive us our debts.   

It was the story of the bursar line, by the way, the account of a passionate moment in the lineage of faith, like that in Hebrews, the moment of a mother’s faith when faith is really faith which is when faith is all you have to go on, her faith that somehow her daughter would get a bunk and take the swim test and sing at campfire and be like the rest of the kids, it was that account that her friend’s parents recalled and retold.  ‘No problem.  We will take care of this.  Come with me.’

What is going on with us in this country, anyway?  Have we forgotten who we are?  A cultural amnesia?  A Christological amnesia?  Have we forgotten the love we had at first?  Have we forgotten how to make a place for someone left out, someone somewhat different, someone ‘other’?  Have we mixed up our heart and our treasure?  What is our heart’s treasure?  What do we stand for, when push comes to shove?  There is a reckoning coming for us, as people and as a people.

If you leave that camp ground on Owasco Lake, and drive southeast for a while, either on the road four hours or in the mind’s eye four minutes, you may come down to the Hudson River, and then right out toward the Atlantic Ocean.  There is harbor down there.  In the harbor there is a statue.  On the statue there is a statement.  It reads as follows:

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The restless refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the lost, the tempest tossed to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

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

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From Vanity to Beloved Community

July 31st, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:13-21

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Other Sheep I Have

July 24th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 11:1-13

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Christmas and Easter in July

July 17th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:38-42

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Revealing Compassion

July 10th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:25-37

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Good morning. I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak to you as a part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series focused on a Lukan Horizon, drawing out the themes of compassion and justice within the Gospel of Luke. These messages are always relevant, but seem even more pertinent in our current situation.

Who would have thought that at the beginning of this week, amidst the fireworks and barbecues and time spent with family and friends celebrating ideals like freedom, democracy, and independence, we would end the week with these great tragedies? Here we are again. Mourning loss of life again. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the violence in our world again. Again. Again. Again. I don’t have words to express my outrage and brokenness in light of recent events. In the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”   

It took me a long time to prepare for this week’s sermon. And by a long time, I mean it took me a long time to actually sit down and write. Repeatedly this week we, as a nation and members of a global society, woke up to news of violence and death from the night before in our own country. By Friday, I became afraid to check social media. The previous two days my news feed was filled with videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and accompanying lament, anger, and sorrow from my friends. It was devastating to realize that this is happening, again. Not that it has every really stopped happening. We’re just highly aware of it now because of our access to social media, phones with cameras, and live streaming. Our nation is steeped in a history of racism which perpetuates the same systemic injustice and hate toward people of color generation after generation. Friday was no different from the previous two days – I woke up to the news of 11 police officers shot, 5 of which were killed, while on patrol at a rally protesting the police shootings taking place in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Photos from earlier that evening showed police officers and protesters taking photos together – a peaceful gathering that was shattered by gunshots aimed at police officers. After weeks and weeks of horrific news and terror in our own country (Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas) and around the world (Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and yesterday in Balad), we are in crisis.

In all my grappling with the news this week, I turned to our gospel reading. I wanted a word of hope in this seemingly relentless barrage of death and destruction. What does the gospel have to offer us in this time of need? What is the good news of God given by Jesus that can help us in our lament?

Today’s gospel invites us to see and do.  We love the parable of the Good Samaritan. It exemplifies the message of Christ to us – to love God and in so doing, love our neighbors as ourselves.  It has permeated our culture so much that the term “Good Samaritan” is something that we find in news stories and even in our laws. In those contexts it means someone who helps someone else who is in a dangerous or life-threatening situation without expectation of recognition or acknowledgement. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of what is happening in this passage from Luke.

To understand the meaning of the parable, we must first truly understand the Lawyer and his position within his context. A lawyer in Jesus’ time was a religious official – the law was religious Law, the laws of the Hebrew Bible. In asking Jesus his initial question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lawyer already knew the answer…and Jesus knows that, turning the question back on him: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to him “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he is correct in his reading and understanding of the law. But the Lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. Perhaps in an attempt to trap Jesus into making a mistake, sensing that Jesus’ answer will go against Jewish teaching, the lawyer continues his questioning…”And who is my neighbor?”

The Lawyer’s concept of neighbor is limiting. In Jewish society at this time, there were boundaries constructed by rules about how one was to interact with others depending on one’s place within society. How Jewish people should interact with Gentiles and Samaritans; how women should interact with men; how priests should interact with Israelites. There were clear lines as to who you had to consider as your neighbor, and who you did not. And to act in love to someone who was on the other side of those boundaries was completely out of the question.

In Luke’s writing, Jesus often answers questions like the one posed by the Lawyer with a parable. A parable is a wonderful narrative tool because it requires the listener to actively engage in the story. It begs the question of who you identify with and why. It requires the listener to determine the moral of the story. It answers a question or resolves a situation in indirect ways, putting the onus on the listener to determine what is right and wrong. Utilizing a narrative device like this puts a “face” on the response that isn’t an abstract concept – it’s people in conceivably real life situations. An ethical dilemma.

What we often misunderstand in this story is the Lawyer’s aversion to a Samaritan. Samaritans were viewed as the lowest of the low, unclean people who had perverted Judaism by marrying outside of the culture, taking on new religious practices. That’s why labeling this parable as the “Good Samaritan” is necessary – the “good” is meant to sound like an oxymoron to the initial hearers of this story. The Lawyer would not trust a Samaritan and might not even travel into places where Samaritans were known to live, so for Jesus to set a Samaritan up as the “neighbor” in this story is anathema to the Lawyer. It is completely unexpected.

In contrast to the Samaritan, we have the priest and the Levite, men who are leaders within the Jewish faith. They avoid what they perceive to be a potentially polluting situation because of their adherence to the rules – the ritual impurity of interacting with a potentially dead body. Or maybe they’re afraid – the road described between Jerusalem and Jericho is a steep hill with twists and turns – making it ideal for robbers to hide. What if the priest and the Levite were being set up to fall into the same trap when they helped the man in the ditch? They were not willing to take that chance, for whatever reason, whether out of adherence to the rules or fear of the same thing happening to them.

The Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear. He does not think of what social convention dictates about he should interact with this person – he only sees someone in need. The Samaritan sees another person, a neighbor, someone close in proximity to him, who needs help. He is the one who has compassion, the one who shows mercy. He acts in love. He is able to put himself in the place of the person who is hurting and recognize that what is most important is his safety. He is the neighbor to the man in the ditch.    

The Lawyer recognizes that compassion is the right action – he knows that it is better to care for someone who is hurting than to avoid their pain. He tells Jesus when Jesus asks who the neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.” The Lawyer must learn from this outsider – the one whom he would have otherwise rejected – what the love of God and neighbor truly looks like. The Samaritan’s compassion reveals something far beyond what it means to be a neighbor to someone, it reveals the humanness of those that we stereotype into the other.

But the Samaritan isn’t just a rescuer. He doesn’t just take the beaten man out of immediate danger – he makes sure that the man’s wounds are cleaned and bandaged, that he has safe lodging, and that he is cared for by the innkeeper. He will come back to check in on the man’s safety and wellbeing later in the week. The Samaritan puts himself in a position of healing, of on-going care, along with the innkeeper. He doesn’t just assume that the man in the ditch will be able to find help from others, he connects him with support and comfort. He develops a relationship with him.  It’s the difference between putting a band-aid on a deep cut and expecting it to heal, and carefully cleaning it out, getting medical assistance, and ensuring its continued care.

So where do you see yourself in this story? Are you the man in the ditch? The robbers? The priest or the Levite? The Samaritan? The innkeeper? The Lawyer?

I think we all want to be the Samaritan. We know that what the Samaritan does is what God ultimately wants us to do in the face of tragedy or injustice. We all know that inside ourselves is the capacity to love each other the way God wants us to love. But sometimes our culture, our social systems, our preconceived notions stand in our way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t be the Samaritan, but in many cases we may fall short. In some cases we may be closer to the priest or the Levite. I know I am guilty of this – of occasionally seeing someone who might be in need or hurting and avoiding them because I don’t have time or I’m afraid of being taken advantage of or being made unsafe. I fail to see the people who are in need of help.

In the case of what’s going on in our country today, we have broken and bloodied bodies to account for. These bodies are not the root of the problem, however. In order to properly heal this situation, we need to address the larger systemic issues in our world that contribute to the expansion and intensity of violence between people who perceive the other to be bad, or wrong, or threatening. In a post made today on the Religion Dispatches website, theologian and ethicist Emilie Townes got to the heart of the matter:

“We must stop and look at ourselves—all of us. Take an account of how we sanction or contribute to the madness that has overtaken us—a calculating, hoarding madness that fails to take in the complexity of this nation and our world. The rising death toll and the classism, sexism, racism, heterosexist, trans-sexism, militarism, and more that fuel this disregard for human lives will not stop the violence until we decide to stop them and then act to make it so.”

What is at stake here, today, in our context, is injustice. Racial injustice. Economic injustice. LGBTQ injustice. Religious injustice. We have to acknowledge these systemic causes rather than the isolated incidents that have occurred. Systems of injustice in our country have been never really fully acknowledged or alleviated – we’ve made strides, for sure, but underneath there have continued to be forms of aggression and domination that have increased the distance between people living in the same community. We let fear dictate how we are to respond to situations of injustice – we let it overcome us and keep us from doing that which is compassionate. We skirt by on the other side of the road and shout to the man in the ditch how to get up and help himself, instead of tending to his wounds and making sure that healing is on its way.

Forms of injustice are even evident within the church. My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, continues to struggle with the challenges of systemic racism. The ELCA is the least racially diverse protestant denomination in the U.S. – a staggering 96% of our denomination claims white European heritage. There is currently a movement within the church, Decolonize Lutheranism, which aims to point out the ways that Lutheranism has in some ways held so tightly to its cultural heritage that it fails to see how exclusive it has become. How, in some cases, the theological standpoints of defining oneself as Lutheran, such as justification by faith alone being extended to all, have been superseded by assuming that everyone in the church will be of the same background. So, even sometimes as Christians we can fall short of acting like the Samaritan in this parable. We can create spaces that make others feel unwelcome, or fail to include them and their stories in our communities.

Right now is when we need God’s help the most. When we need to be reminded that love prevails over death and destruction. When we remember that God’s only son proclaimed to us the necessity of proclaiming good news to the poor, healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, and freeing the oppressed.

How can we go and do likewise? How can the Samaritan’s compassion translate to our own compassion in seeking justice? How do we translate our fears and mistrust in to love? If we turn to the advice that Paul gives the church in Colossae, we are called “to lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as (we) bear fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:10) We can start by reaching out to those around us. Just like the Samaritan, we need to see and do. Instead of seeing the injustices that have been unveiled for us and letting them continue to harm, we need to act. By making connections with people we encounter on a daily basis. By checking in with those whom we know might be hurting, just to ask them how they are doing. By listening. By standing by. By giving a hug, or holding a hand. But most importantly advocating for justice that recognizes the full humanity of all people, but most importantly those who are oppressed, whether they are Black, Latino, LGBTQ, Muslim or any of the other communities in our country who face outright discrimination and hate. We must see the people in front of us rather than get caught up in abstracted ideas about groups of people which may not even be true.

Let’s start here. Right here. In this very chapel. Let us see and act in the simplest of ways. Our neighbors are those who are in closest proximity to us – the person sitting next to you, or behind you, the people up here in the front, and those out in the narthex. Some of us know each other. Some of us don’t. Some of us have been coming for years, and some of us are visiting for the first time. But all of us are here, now, in a community of worship and fellowship, brought together by our faith. I invite you to seek out your neighbors in this building, right now, and greet them. Share God’s peace with them. Give them a smile, a handshake, if they agree to it, a hug. Take this recognition of those around you right now, and leave this building today reminded that our neighbors don’t have to look like us or even have to be someone that we know in order for us to show compassion to them. Let us remember that in every time, the peace of God is always with us, especially when we are in community with others.

May the peace of God be always with you. Let us exchange signs of God’s peace with one another. Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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Making Our Way Ritually

July 3rd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 24:13-35

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The Gospel according to Luke is very close to my heart in many ways. For example, this gospel’s author was a faithful physician; I married a faithful physician! And so, I am appreciative that our summer preacher series in Two Thousand Sixteen takes the Lucan horizon as its theme.

We are travelers, are we not, you and I? We are travelers together, making our way toward a horizon. It is a funny thing about horizons that they simultaneously serve as a point of orientation and, if focused upon too long, can serve to entirely disorient their observer. We travelers, you and I, as we make our way together, may at times stop and wonder whether we are really still on the path toward our destination. Are we still headed in the general direction of our goal, or has the horizon twisted our field of vision such that we have wandered off the road?

Jesus’ original followers were not known as Christians but rather as “followers of the way,” followers of the way of Jesus, that is. Confucians and Daoists are followers of the way as well, followers of the Dao. Christians, Confucians, and Daoists each have various ways of harmonizing two sides of the way coin, so to speak. The first side is an internal principle expressed in human life. The second is an external norm that sets the principle and measures that life. This is to say that we make our way not only by ourselves according to our own internal principles, but we make our way with others and accord our principles to the principles of these others, and for our collective well-being.

Still, wandering off the path toward the horizon is all too easy, assuming, of course, that we were ever properly on it in the first place. We may wonder, you and I, fellow travelers, whether where we thought we were going is really at the end of the road we are on. We may wonder if it is where we should be going, anyway. We may wonder if the wonders we have been promised if we ever manage to reach that point on the horizon were not, in fact, always only an illusion. Is this the way, or should we be going some other way?

Such is the situation of two disciples, journeying together to Emmaus, in the Gospel according to Luke:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

The way of these disciples, Cleopas and another unnamed, is uncertain. Each of the evangelists had an agenda in writing their particular take on the gospel. In the case of Saint Luke, the agenda was to demonstrate the continuity of the experience of the early church with the life and ministry of Jesus. To accomplish this, Luke wrote not one book but two: the Gospel according to Luke, which tells about the life and ministry of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles, which tells about the experience of the early church. Luke was writing for gentile Christians worried about their place as Roman citizens, and about whether the ongoing story of the church remains in continuity with the way of Jesus as predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Yes, Christians can be good, upstanding Roman citizens; and yes, Christian experience is in continuity with the life and ministry of Christ. Here in the story of the disciples journeying together on the way to Emmaus, Jesus himself confirms for them that they are in fact on the way, in continuity with his own life and ministry, and in fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.

Well, we know that it is Jesus confirming for the disciples that they are indeed on the way. The disciples themselves do not know this. To them, Jesus remains a stranger. Strange, is it not, that the disciples who had invested their lives in Jesus’ ministry and teaching and service would now be unable even to recognize him? Or perhaps not so strange, given that the disciples spent the whole of Jesus ministry misunderstanding him and rather missing the point entirely. Even as the one they had called “teacher” teaches them as they walk together along the road, Jesus remains unknown. The teaching is important, but alone is insufficient to confirm for the disciples that they are indeed on the way.

So the story continues:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Teaching is important, but Jesus is made known and Jesus’ teaching is confirmed, and moreover realized, in ritual, namely, the ritual of the Eucharistic meal. It is only as Jesus performs the ritual of blessing, breaking, and giving bread that the disciples’ eyes are opened and recognition ignites. It is only in the light of this ritually encoded appearance that the teaching on the road is confirmed as authentic and true and reliable.

Ritual often gets a bad rap. Seen as reified and ossified, ritual in our late modern society is often taken as restricting liberty of conscience and freedom of the will. But just as Jeroslav Pelikan noted that tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, so too we may say that ritual is the guide to remaining on the way, while ritualism is a map to nowhere. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are eloquent on this point, and so we listen to the Liji, the Book of Rites, noting that li meaning ritual is here translated “propriety.” I welcome this morning to read the passage my dear friend and colleague Dr. Bin Song, president of the Boston University Confucian Association.


Thus propriety and righteousness are the great elements for man’s (character); it is by means of them that his speech is the expression of truth and his intercourse (with others) the promotion of harmony; they are (like) the union of the cuticle and cutis, and the binding together of the muscles and bones in strengthening (the body). They constitute the great methods by which we nourish the living, bury the dead, and serve the spirits of the departed. They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.

We suffer greatly from a lack of ritual in late modern life. Just as the disciples recognized Jesus in his enactment of the Eucharistic ritual sacrificing his own body, we recognize ourselves and one another and our shared humanity in rituals as simple as a handshake and as complex as global geopolitical diplomacy. It is in ritual that we commune and communicate; it is in ritual that we open ourselves to the power of presence and partnership. As Howard Thurman reminds us, “people, all people, belong to each other, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves.” Ritual is the medium of our knowing and trusting and belonging to one another. When it fails or when we fail to either properly enact the ritual or even bother to enact it at all, we are severely diminished and often as not destroyed. “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Today we call to mind the life and ministry of Professor Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday. Grant to him eternal rest, O God, and may light perpetual shine upon him. Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, teacher, humanitarian, journalist, author, public intellectual, Elie Wiesel suffered from perhaps the greatest abandonment of ritual recognition of our common humanity in the modern period, and went on to craft and establish and enact so many rituals to restore our common humanity. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Rather than dulling the conscience and the will, ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and allows us to recognize one another.

We have not learned this lesson. We have not learned to not only allow but to invite our selfish desires and neuroses to be restrained that we might see and know and love one another. In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common faith, why are we surprised when nine people are murdered during a bible study? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common love, why are we surprised when fifty people are murdered in a gay nightclub? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common wealth, why are we surprised when a nation decides they know better and can do better on their own? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common dignity, why are we surprised that a plan to build a two thousand mile wall between us and our neighbors has gained such political traction? “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Perhaps part of our problem is that we are afraid of ritual. We are afraid to participate in ritual. Ritual can seem arcane and impenetrable and so high that we cannot attain it. After all, does not ritual require preparation? Does it not require indoctrination into the cult of the ritual actors? Does it not require confession and repentance and absolution? Does it not require that first we go and be reconciled? Does ritual not demand that we participate with a sincere will and a sincere heart?

Actually, no. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are again eloquent on this point, and so I invite Dr. Bin Song to read again from the Liji, the Book of Rites.


Therefore the rules of propriety are for man what the yeast is for liquor. The superior man by (his use of them) becomes better and greater. The small man by his neglect of them becomes meaner and worse. Therefore the sage kings cultivated and fashioned the lever of righteousness and the ordering of ceremonial usages, in order to regulate the feelings of men. Those feelings were the field (to be cultivated by) the sage kings. They fashioned the rules of ceremony to plough it. They set forth the principles of righteousness with which to plant it. They instituted the lessons of the school to weed it. They made love the fundamental subject by which to gather all its fruits, and they employed the training in music to give repose (to the minds of learners). Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity. When it is found in anything and its relation to humanity has been discussed, the possessor of it will be strong. Humanity is the root of right, and the embodying of deferential consideration. The possessor of it is honored.

It is by participating in ritual that we become better and greater. It is by neglect of ritual that we become meaner and worse. The fruit of ritual can be summed up as love. It is not that we must become sincere in order to participate in ritual. Rather, we must participate in ritual in order to become sincere. The disciples were decidedly insincere. They did not know whether they were even still on the way, or if the way they thought they were on was really the way at all. The disciples could not recognize their own teacher and mentor and leader. They were not sincere; they were foolish and slow of heart! After participating in the ritual with Jesus, then they became sincere.

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Go and do likewise. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

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A Summer Pause

June 26th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 9:51-62

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There is no text for this sermon.

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

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Ahab’s Shadow

June 19th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 8:230-29

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“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”  

On this Father’s Day many of us think of our parents who rest now in greater light and on a farther shore.  You think today of your inheritance, your real, that is spiritual, that is familial, that is named inheritance.  What is yours?  What is that quintessential something, that no one else perhaps has to carry forward, that is yours, that you will not, cannot, should not, give away?  And what about our shared inheritance, as a globe, as a country, as a church?

“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

With this terse refusal, Naboth lost his garden, his head, and, in fact, the very inheritance he hoped to protect.  For Ahab—though he sulked, and though he fasted, and though he moaned, and though he allowed Jezebel to take charge—King Ahab at last had his wish, his vineyard.  Just here, Ahab’s shadow begins to fall.

Israel nine centuries before Jesus went sliding down a slippery slope, pushed and pulled by the influence of increasingly poor leadership.  Poor leadership.  After David and Solomon, the nation’s fortuned declined steadily, under other, lesser kings.  Who remembers Jereboam? Or Nimri?  Or Omri?  Or, today, Omri’s son, Ahab?  BUSTH has a long history of excellent teaching in Hebrew Scripture:  Elmer Leslie, Harrell Beck, Kathe Darr.  They have remembered, and helped us to do so, too.  Old Samuel had told them years before:  You want a King?  You want a King.  Everybody else has one, so you want one, too.  All right, you will get your king, and with your king, a whole basket of lasting trouble.

Ahab is remembered in Scripture because, in hindsight, he symbolized the progressive disintegration of Israelite society.   The failings of the leader, somehow, uncannily, were seen in retrospect to represent a deeper and far wider malaise, in a society that year by year increasingly placed the poor at the mercy of the rich.  Ahab’s shadow, part of the lengthening shadow of predatory, mendacious leadership in ancient Israel, has had a long, long reach–right up to today’s newspaper.

Ahab shadow—what was his capricious craving all about?  

He desired, coveted, his poor neighbor’s little plot.  And, in a way, why not?  After all, he was the King!  Hey.  Rank has its privileges.  To the victor go the spoils.  What do you give a 500 pound gorilla? (ANYTHING HE WANTS!)  I mean—this was a personal matter.  It had nothing to do with public policy.  The nation was prosperous and safe, thanks to shrewd management and the alliance with Tyre and Sidon, sealed with Jezebel’s kiss.  This was a small matter.  Kings have stolen a whole lot more.

What did Ahab want with that little, secret, private pleasure?

What would provoke a King, like Ahab, so to desire a tiny vineyard, like Naboth’s?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Looking back at David

Perhaps…the stresses of public life caused Ahab to desire a little personal pleasure.  After all, he might have reasoned, even in the Camelot days of David, there was the matter of the beautiful blonde, Bathsheba.  Even in the halcyon glory days of an earlier generation, still there was a dark side, and Urriah the Hittite and Psalm 51.   If David could have Bathsheba, surely Ahab could desire a little vineyard, the inheritance of Naboth and his faith, and turn a little profit, plowing under the vines and planting a regular garden.  Like they do in Egypt, say.   Did Ahab desire to be like David?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Tired of the Trivia

Perhaps…the trappings of power and leadership changed Ahab.  As Roy Smyres used to say about episcopal leaders, “They hear every day what wonderful people they are and what a great job they are doing—and, amazingly, some of them—START TO BELIEVE IT!”  Visibility, power, position:  they corrupt.  Maybe it takes one to know one.  You get distant.  You don’t visit in the home as much, pace

J Wesley.  You become insulated.  You rise above.  You look down.  You forget what it takes.  Bishop Herbert Skeete, once a kindly and compassionate pastor in Harlem, came up here to lead in New England and then retired.  He referred in his 1996 valediction (July, U Mass, NEJurisdictional conference) to the vast majority of his little New England churches as  (I quote him exactly) “eurocentric havens of mediocrity”.  A little exhaustion, a little frustration?   My, my.  I guess you get bitter, hardened.  The hurts and gifts of the Lilliputians under you fade.  “L’eglise—C’est moi”.  Yes, General Superintendent.  Yes, King.  Those lay folks, clergy don’t need the encouragement of my example.  Naboth can get along without a vineyard.  The heck with his inheritance, the cultivated vineyard.  The heck with their history, of live free or die.  It doesn’t matter that much, really, now, does it?  Did Ahab get tired of the small stuff?

Ahab’s Shadow: Accomplishment

Perhaps…the endless contention and intractable difference of leadership in a republic—in any institution really—“got to” Ahab.  After all, he was King!  Couldn’t he even organize and execute, on his own, the purchase of a vineyard? Some years ago thirty UM pastors from large churches gathered in Minneapolis.  We worshiped at Hennepin church.  Rod Wilmouth, the lead pastor there, preached a great sermon on the theme of faith that moves mountains.  His sermon title, though, was accidentally printed not as intended, “Faith that Can Move Mountains”, but, rather, as “Faith that Mountains Can Move”!   He said, “And I thought I was in charge here!”   As a public leader, sometimes, you can’t win.  You don’t succeed.  You fight city hall, tooth and nail—and you are the mayor!  Did he just want a sense of accomplishment?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Marital Dynamics

Perhaps…this all has to do, then and now, with family dysfunction.  Jezebel, an early enabler, acts out for her sulking mate his lust for the vineyard.  Isn’t that a picture?  I can imagine the political cartoons of the day—“Impeach the King–and her husband too!”  She orchestrates the media, the courts, the public opinion of the day, the powers that be.  So the nation becomes a messy place.  A place where it’s hard to tell who is telling the truth.  A place where the spoken public word is not always verifiable.  A place where innocent are found guilty.  A place where the apparatus of state is used for personal gain.  ‘Hard to imagine such a nation, isn’t it?  Or is it?

Jezebel is not really to blame here.  She just executes her husband’s, her King’s desire.  The shadow is his, not hers.

Be careful dear friend.  We become the servants, unwittingly, of those whom we most want to please.  It is important for Jezebel and for you to know whom we are trying to please in life.  We are slaves of that one.

Faith in Christ, the faith of Jesus Christ better said, is God’s gift and frees us, radically and truly frees us from all forms of enslavement to pleasing others.  Paradoxically, the faith of Jesus Christ does so by re-enslaving us—to Christ alone.  In Him.  See where you are—in the cosmic apocalypse of Christ.  See what time it is—the time when new creation supplants creation.  Hear the Gospel:  There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male or female.  There is no longer gay nor straight.  No one can serve two Masters.  The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of Christ.  You are His.

Who do you want to please? Did Ahab become caught up in unhealthy family systems?

Ahab’s Shadow: Convenience

None of these, finally, is the marrow, or the buried treasure of the Scripture today, nor the truth of our own time either.

In spite, or perhaps because of his military success and material surplus, Ahab desired…at depth…and this is the tragedy of his tale… a more convenient God.  Ahab desired a less inconvenient deity.  Ahab desired, through all these other lesser cravings, a more compliant Lord.  One more in the mold of the nations, more Jezebel and less Elijah.  And here the shadow truly lengthens and fully falls.

Ahab shadowy desire, apocalyptically revealed here as truth, in the manner detected and discerned by the wise through the ages, by W James, L Martyn and St Paul, in the odd moment, by apocalypse truth happens, his desire was for a less austere God, one less inclined to invade human space with haunting, troubling questions about life and death and meaning and love and…especially… JUSTICE.

A little Elijah goes a long way.  He walks into the King’s court and shouts, “One of us is cursed and I think it’s you!…Look…there…dogs will lick your blood.”  A little of that goes a long way.


Ahab’s Shadow:  Our Own?

Israel remembered Ahab’s shadowy desire for a more convenient God, not out of reverence for Ahab, but because his desire somehow revealed the waxing national desire for a little lower heaven, a little lighter covenant, a little more convenient God.   As the distant mirror of the Scripture may teach us, we are so interested because we know this figure and this desire so well.

We, too, want a little more convenient deity.  One who will affirm our proclivities and ignore our cruelties

We know this Ahab well.  Always a little sideways to the truth…Politically able, morally twisted…at heart faithless…looking for more convenience than the “inheritance of the fathers” allows…at heart hoping for an easy chance, the lottery of life, something for nothing, a quick pleasure, a garden delight.

We get the leadership we deserve.

On the horizon today we hear and see demagoguery—America First, Birtherist, Misogynist, Racist, Xenophobic, Narcissistic (don’t you love all these Greek rooted words?) bigotry.  I sure did that well. ‘Low Energy’.  That was a one day kill.  Words are beautiful things.

Some express surprise, a sense of mistake, regarding the nomination in question.  Yet there is no surprise or mistake about the nomination in question.  80% of voters in one party—grand?, old?–agree with these three propositions:  Muslims should be banned.  A wall should be built along the Rio Grande.  Undocumented immigrants of all ages and stages should rounded up, arrested, jailed, and deported. (New York Review of Books, p 8-10, June, 2016) If you are in conversation with a member of such a party, chances are 4 out of 5 that you are in conversation with these views.  No surprise.  No mistake.  You see?  The shadow falls on us.

Over time, we get the leadership we deserve.

Today we pray for the Orlando dead.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so, as in gathering, and vigil, and silence, we have done all week.  First, and foremost,  we turn our spirits toward their loved ones and families and friends.  We return to the very themes preached exactly one year ago here, following Charleston, regarding gun violence.  Our BU SPH Dean Sandro Galea has furthered that argument, with strength, this very week.  

Yet, as a Chapel in the Methodist tradition, we also have a particular reckoning, now.  United Methodism has been part and parcel of a part of our shadowed culture that has fomented and augmented dehumanization of gay people, bigotry against sexual minorities.  Only two active northeastern bishops (Johnson, Devadhar) put their name this May to a shared letter rejecting in no uncertain terms this abject denominational failure.  Silent, silent were the vast majority of active general superintendents.  Now the chickens have come home to roost.  It’s time.  The time for discussion is over, washed away in the blood of Orlando.  Local churches in Charge Conferences need to stop funding that supports bigotry, as, in one possible example,  in three general funds:  world service, the episcopal fund, and Africa University.  Annual Conferences need to go ahead and ordain and deploy gay people, as many are doing, the silence of their bishops not withstanding—seven now across the country, including the actions taken in New England this week.  Bigotry (largely of southern US and Africa Methodists) is, from this day forward, globally, generationally, and grittily rejected.  Orlando is to Methodism and the Gay issue what Kent State was to America and the war in Vietnam, an apocalyptic moment when those who may still have thought otherwise, people of sound mind and heart, now turn.  It’s time.  What the sad incompetence of the General Church, the General Conference, and the silent General Superintendents has ignored, look! by apocalypse!, the local churches and annual conferences now address.  We at Marsh Chapel adamantly and vigorously marry gay people and employ and deploy gay clergy.  Where we can support others to do so, we shall.

One northeastern bishop this week callously sent out a letter about Orlando without even mentioning the targeting of the gay population.  A minister in his conference wrote him the following:

I was shocked that no mention was made in your statement about the key issue the country

and our church are wrestling with: the oppression of gays. As long as our denomination and its leaders

not only continue the oppression of gays, but ignore their pain in the midst of being slaughtered….

we will have truly made ourselves irrelevant in the healing of the world in this day and time.

With a heavy heart…

No, we want a little lower heaven, a little lighter covenant, a little less inconvenient God.

Israel saw in hindsight that Ahab’s shadow had become their own—the easier worship of a less inconvenient God.

It isn’t about Ahab, it’s about Israel.  It isn’t about others, it’s about us.

Elijah, Are You with Us?

Elijah, in the end, speaks.   Elijah never dies.  His voice is active, coming in forms we least expect, and sitting in empty chairs left vacant by faithful hearts.  Elijah—rumpled and tousled.  Elijah—skeptical of concentrated power.  Elijah—with a passion for compassion.  Elijah—concerned for the left—out.  His voice irrupts now and then.   So we are right to leave a chair, some space, vacant for him.

I have not heard his voice in a while, but he does not die.

Almost forty years ago this spring, on at least one evening, you heard him full of compassion.  This spring has overtones from 1968, all the way to the California primary.

On June 5, 1968, at 8am our phone rang, at breakfast.  My dad had gone to Chicago for a denominational meeting.  Breakfast with three younger siblings at age 13 is not exactly heaven on earth.  ‘It’s for you’ my sister said.  Now that is a first, a phone call, for me, at breakfast.  My father said:  You probably don’t know this yet, but your favorite, your hero, Robert Kennedy was shot last night in California, and probably will die today or tomorrow.  I know how much he meant to you, and I am sorry for our loss.  It is tragic, but we will get through this.  As a pastor he always had a knack for showing up where he was least expected and most needed, least expected and most needed.  Wouldn’t every minister want to be so remembered?

Two months earlier, on April 4, Robert Kennedy was on his way to accept victory in the Indiana primary, five painful years after his brother’s death and just weeks before his own assassination, a few hours after the killing of Martin Luther King.  Galatians 6:14 speaks of a triple crucifixion.  One redeeming feature of our own hurt is that it helps us proffer compassion to others who hurt.  

Elijah keeps heaven high and the covenant heavy and God, God.  ELIJAH!  We wait for your voice today!

Kennedy spoke to an inner city rally of black and Polish voters.  They had not heard the news, which he gave.  There is a generation deep moan that barks from the crowd.  I hear it still.  He stands, rumpled shirt and tousled hair before a single microphone, note-less and alone.  What courage to stand there that night, and then, Elijiah-like, to speak:

*I have some very sad news for you…

*In this difficult time it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are, and what direction we want to move in…

*Do we want bitterness, hatred, a desire for revenge, greater polarization of black and white?…

*Or, with ML King, do we seek understanding, comprehension, to replace violence and the stain of violence with compassion?…

*For those tonight who feel hatred and mistrust, I can also feel in my own heart that same kind of feeling.  I had a member of my family killed…

*But we have to make an effort in this country to understand, to get beyond this time…

*Aeschylus wrote:  “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair and against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

*What we need in this country is not division, hatred, violence, and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion and justice…

*We need to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”


We still need to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

We still need to see thing as the never were and say, “Why not?”

We still need to see wrong and try to right it, see suffering and try to heal it, see war and try to end it.

Perhaps Elijah will take his place, fill his chair, and lift his voice again in our time, and shine some light through Ahab’s shadow?

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

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June 12th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 7:36-8:3

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Please forgive the intrusive nature of this sermon.   For I want to begin by taking a walk with you into the attic of your soul.  Though we are friends, it is not my right to initiate such a visit.  Though we are pastors and parishioners, it is not our right to force such a trek back up through the mist of time.  You would need to make an invitation, yourself.  Even to suggest the climb, without any initiative on your part, is rude of me.  I apologize.

The Gospel, however, intrudes upon our very souls, whether the preacher has a right or not.  As kingfishers catch fire, and dragonflies draw flame, so truth—that light in which we see light—advances upon us.  So we go ahead.  We walk together upstairs to the landing.  You kindly have turned on the hall light.  Thank you.  I wonder if this is a sign from you that you will welcome this joint venture?  We pull down in the chain that loosens the attic portal.  You know how that little door in the ceiling falls open, and slowly a flank of wooden stairs comes down,  and down, and down, and touches our feet.  We are ready to climb up into the darkness.

Watch your step.  You have not been up into the cobwebs and the dust of memory, the mothballs and the coverlets of history, the grime and the darkness of the past.   It is a little slow going.   This is your attic, though.  You know it as well as you know your own past.  In fact, it is your past, box by box, and crate by crate.  I have no right to be here, and if you ask me, I will leave.  A man has a right to his own regrets.  They are not common property.  They are yours, these boxes and labels and shoes and hangers and records and amulets and souveniers from the dusty past.   One of you is looking over at an old service uniform from the great war—brown and rumpled.  Another sees bobby sox and a political poster—I LIKE IKE.  She has stumbled past three old Beatles albums—greatest hits, Abbey Road, the White album.  I notice a Jim Croce tape.  I wonder if it still plays?  He thumbs through a pile of other newer albums.  Of course there are lots of photographs.  What kind of an attic would it be without boxes and records and photographs?

This is the attic of memory.  No, we won’t stop at the wardrobe

Today. The wardrobe is for another day, a day of hope and imagination.  Lions and witches come from wardrobes.  Today we are looking back, though.  We are going to stumble and claw our way over into the back corner.  There is not much light here.  It is a long time since anyone came back in, all this way.  Dust, cobwebs—it makes you sneeze.

Over in the corner there is a small, low box, carefully closed, and tied around with a little bailer’s twine.  This is yours.  No one else knows it is here, or if they do they have forgotten or never understood or just don’t care.  But you know and remember and understand and care.  I really do not want to be here, and you probably don’t want to either.  I—for it is not my business.  You—because in black ink, now dusty, is penned across the top of the box a single, awful, hellish word—regret.  Regret is a short synonym for hell.   And up here in the attic of memory, off in the corner, sits this stupid box, which means nothing to anyone, except to you.  There it is—a single box labeled “regret”.

Open it.

Go ahead.  Try it.  If you want.  I think you have wanted to come up here, but just never had 20 minutes of quiet to do so.  Remember last summer when you thought about the box?  And remember that early morning dream?  That was a strange thing.  I want to encourage you to open it.  Hold it in both hands.  Untie the twine.  Loosen the top.  Turn it over, and let it all fall out.  

That was a gutsy thing to do.  Good for you.

The reason the box was marked “regret” is that this is one thing you regret.  You have a regret.  That is part of being human.  Can you live with being human?  Can you live with being a little lower than the angels?  How do I know all this?  As my great aunt would say, “If you’re so smart how come you aren’t rich?”  A real good question.  I know because I have boxes in my attic too.  They too are covered with cobwebs.  I too make my visits, my attic climbs, very seldom.  And, yes, I know about regret.  Not just vicariously, either.  There is nothing quite as bitter.  If only…

I asked to come up here with you for a reason.  Up in the attic here, with that swinging bare light bulb and the Johnny Mathis record and all this dust, we may feel God.

Look at the box again, and all its contents spread across the floor.  In the dark I cannot see the floor, but after 22 years and 7 pulpits I truly doubt if any of it would surprise me.  After reading the Bible and Shakespeare and a few decades worth of the New York Times, there is not much that surprises.  But it is different for you.  This is your attic, your memory, your box, your regret.  It is YOURS.  In a way, this box is more yours than any of the others.

In this box are the articles of impeachment brought by life against us.  They are multiple and they are damning and unlike civil and criminal law, the laws of the soul do not give way to lawyerly cunning.  And there is no vote, no 2/3 majority needed.

What is that you say?  Not you?  Never a cutting word?  Never a selfish deed?  Never an unhealthy habit?  Never a compulsive trend?  Never a myopic judgment?  Never a temptation accepted?  Never an ungenerous year?  Never a non-giving decade?   Not you?  Never a misspent dollar or day or dream?  You don’t go to enough funerals.

But the box doesn’t  lie.  Nor does the conscience.  Nor does the memory.  Nor does life.  

It simply spells “regret”.  That, I regret.

God Forgives You

There is something that both can and must be said, as we pack up the regret box.  It is not a human thing to say, though we are the only saying beings around so we do the best we can.  It is a God word.  And only God speaks God words.

First, looking down at the dusty cardboard of past regret—something that if not removed can fester and infect and cripple—first there is this.  God forgives you.  It is, according to the Scripture, the divine promise and intention to forgive and to forgive.  Abraham felt it.  Joseph practiced it.  Hosea proclaimed it.  Jesus taught us to pray for it.  And for 2000 years the church has tried to exemplify, embody this one word.  God forgives.  John Wesley asked his preachers one initial question.  “Do you know God to be a pardoning God?”  Now that, in the face of a box marked “regret”, that is good news.  In the face of the worst rejection and the most regrettable misjudgment on earth, God practices a powerful forgiveness.  

You know in the midst of all the harshness of the religious right and the flightiness of the New Age, it can be hard to hear the central truth about God and about us.  God forgives.  

God forgives before we are up in the attic at all.  God forgives when we realize what we have to regret.  God forgives as we carry the regret around.  God forgives when we hear and when we do not and it does not depend on our hearing.  

Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  If so, you know God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Here are Scriptures worth memorizing about God who forgives….

If you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Lord how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?  … I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Other People Forgive You

But maybe that is not what keeps you awake, not what makes you linger today in the attic.  You may well believe and trust that God forgives.  But what about those you have regrettably hurt?  

This can be particularly hard for those who have grown up around especially hardened parents and other adults.   If you have not heard an encouraging word much growing up, it can be hard later in life to believe that those other humans around you can be gracious.

They can be.

As a matter of fact, most of the time they are.  More than most of the time.  People forgive, more than you know and more than you may think you deserve.  It really delights me.  People have a profound capacity to forgive and forget.  It is God given, and it is real and it is good.  

I think of the waiting father and the prodigal son.

I think of Paul forgiving Peter’s two faced behavior.

I think of Augustine’s mother forgiving his selfishness.

I think of Erasmus forgiving the wayward Popes.

I think of Grant and Lee at Appomatox.

I think of Abraham Lincoln walking through Richmond.

I think of the Marshall Plan and rebuilding of Germany in the 1940’s

I think of women and men, night after day, for millenia.

You may have to ask sometime for forgiveness.  You probably should.  Say, “I’m sorry”.  Like the Fonz, who could never utter the word, “I was wrong..”  But my experience is that most people most of the time when confronted with a heartfelt, sincere apology from a person of integrity will say, “Don’t worry about it.  I forgive you.”  It is one of the greatest things about other people.  You may have to give it a little time.  You may have to pray about it.  You may have to trust a little.  But—other people will forgive you.

Forgiving Yourself

But that may not be what holds you here in the attic.  As a matter of fact, I bet that the box is still up here, wrapped in twine and covered with dirt and marked regret, for another reason.  It’s one thing for God to forgive you.  It’s one thing to accept another’s kindness.  But in the end  that still leaves you a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and a few french fries short of a happy meal.  God has forgiven you!  Your neighbor has forgiven you!  Now comes the hard part.

You have to forgive yourself.  You have to let yourself off the hook.  You have to find a way to admit to yourself that you are not 101% perfect.  You have to, well, accept your own acceptance.  And that can be a lot easier said than done.  Because we have a way of holding onto what poisons us.  We have a way of just wrapping ourselves in a miserable kind of self-conceited self-condemnation.  Up in the attic.

Lent is a good time to dump your guilt.  God doesn’t want it. No neighbor finally has much use for it.  So why is it still in the box?   What good is it?  Get rid of it.  When it doubt, throw it out.

God forgives you.  So does your neighbor.  Forgive yourself.

Matter of fact, while we are here, up in the attic—let’s just take that box out of here.  I’ll hold the ladder for you while your coming down.  You can carry it, with a little homiletical help.  If we hurry we can get out on the curb before noon, and the heavenly garbage truck always comes by this part of your mental world Sunday at noon.  There, it’s out on the curb, and soon it will be gone for good.  William Blake:

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

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

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