April 25

Remembering Howard Thurman

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

John 10:22-30

Two Approaches to Christ in John 10

Two startling, conflicting approaches to Christ accost us in our Scripture lesson this morning. One, the Presence. Two, the shepherd. It may be that you, of a sudden, this hour, will find your way forward walking hand in hand, presence to the left, shepherd to the right. You may find you need a hand one day. WS Coffin: ‘They say religion is a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?’

Our verses were born—hear the coached breathing, the contractions, the shouts of pain—in distress. We shall suppose the following setting: the year 100ce, the place Ephesus, the audience a small, fierce and fledgling church, the cast a group of people who have been thrown out of their community at just the moment that they have lost their main belief. They have lost belonging and meaning in the same breath of contraction. That is, they once happily affirmed Jesus in the synagogue. But that lasted only as long as they were traditionally monotheistic. Once the Spirit said of Jesus, ‘I and the Father are one’ they had to pack their bags. To grow up, they had to leave home. In the same years—I prize the courageous honesty of these early relatives of yours—they had to face up to the fact that Jesus was not coming back, in the manner of the primitive hope, any time soon. The great, primary apocalyptic hope of the primitive church—‘with a cry of command, the archangels’ call, the sound of the trumpet’—proved false. Parousia gave way to Paraclete, Armageddon to the artistry of every day, and speculation to Spirit. Necessity once again gave birth to newness. They had to open the door and unshutter the window, to broaden their religious circle and open their spiritual perspective. You need to feel your way into a moment in life—yours or another’s—in which your community of friends is wrecked and your sense of purpose is destroyed.

For instance, in these days and weeks, we embrace those about to graduate.

As you participate in various community gatherings, and then are cast out or cast out into the real world, you may have occasion to recall the Scriptural witness today to similar experience.

What we hear in John 10 is a sermon, or part of one. You may wonder why modern sermons are not limited to 8 verses. Well, things do not always get better. (☺). Motion is not progress. In this sermon, delivered 70 years after the crucifixion, an explanation of disappointment and dislocation (remember, no apocalypse and no community of origin) is affirmed, to help people. Preaching is meant to help people. To know Christ is to know his benefits. We are out in the snowbank, de-communitized, for a reason, says the preacher. Jesus in Paraclete said: ‘I and the Father are one’. But for the traditional monotheists among us, this presents a problem. One, we got. Two? Not so much. And we haven’t even raised the Trinity issue, the move to three, yet. So it is time to move, to itinerate, to know again the lostness of being outside, starting over, existential commencement.

But. Jesus in Paraclete also says something else. Your greatest freedom may surprisingly be embedded in your most hurtful disappointment. Your truest grace may surprisingly be embedded in your most wrenching dislocation. That door once opened, that window once unshuttered, offer a clean breeze and warm sunlight.

We move to commencement, a new beginning, honoring our graduates, singing freedom into the maw of disappointment, singing grace into the cavernous maw of dislocation.

At least, that is what John’s little community discovered, and called eternal life, resurrection, salvation, truth. You didn’t need that tight knit community after all. You didn’t need that suprerannuated hope after all. Because: the sheep know the shepherd’s voice. ‘My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. I hear the clear though far off hymn that hails a new creation. No storm can break my inmost calm, when to that rock I am clinging. If love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?’ Two Christs: one transcendent, one immanent, one divine, one human, one silent, one shepherd. The Father and I are one. My sheep hear my voice. There is nothing more personal than voice. Not fingerprint, not DNA, not Facebook catchalls. Voice is the personal given life. Hence, preaching, the sacrament of preaching. Romans 10: faith comes by hearing. I wonder whether you are deep enough in disappointment and dislocation to bump into freedom and grace? Every sermon in almost every religious tradition is a call to decision, a dualism of decision: a call to personal loving and giving, a call to communal giving and loving, a call to relational authority and authentic relationship, a call to service and care.

Our Day Today and Two Christological Perils

Our son Ben said once of his grandfather, ‘I love to hear his voice’. Last year, his grandfather survived a nearly mortal illness. There are not words to convey the joy, the gratitude, that we his family experience in his escape. Those who have been on the brink of death can appreciate 10:28, ‘I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’. Not all such deliverance has an earthly horizon. Some freedom and some grace must await us across the river. And I don’t mean Harvard. But some comes to us here. He and my mother lived here in Boston 1950-1953. In 1975, he wrote the following sentences in the back of a book. I quote them with permission.

The temptation for the people of the church in every age is to believe: a) Jesus is only human; b) Jesus only appeared to be human. For those who settle on ‘a’ there is no power, no mystery, no pull to pry them out of much of life. For those who choose ‘b’ there is no hope because mankind cannot ascend the heights of divinity. Both are heresies. The pious wise men of 325ad saw, though they could not explain it, that he was fully human and fully divine.

They departed in 1953 just as Howard Thurman came to town. Rev. Gomes last week recalled, as he and I exchanged pulpits, that George Buttrick and Howard Thurman used to do the same. Thurman’s voice carries us into two dimensions, two realms of reality. He was 100 years ahead of his time, 50 years ago, (my standard way of introducing Thurman), so he is still 50 years ahead of you (and me). He evoked the Christ of Common Ground, transcendent, universal, shared, unconfined, free. He evoked the Christ of the Disinherited, immanent, particular, grasped, embodied, back against the wall. Two Christs. One and Shepherd. Calling out to you to know the grain of your own wood, not to cut against the grain of your own wood…

Our six ministry associates prepared this sermon, in three hours of mortal combat with me, and three hours of cultural and biblical exegesis, confronting John 10 and April 25. They turned for support to Howard Thurman. To his book, THE SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND. To his book, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED. You can too. But they as a group vehemently argued against processed religion. It worse for you than processed food, they said. I like Wonder Bread, I objected. So they had to teach me to beware processed food and beware processed relgion. They showed me a video, ‘I am Sorry I am a Christian’. They confessed,‘Even though Easter has come, it does not always feel that way’, they said. Late April means more norma
l liturgy, a coming move out of the dorms (‘talk about dislocation’), new life and growth, but also old and enduring challenges. Hear they are, in voice, our 2010 Marsh Chapel Ministry Associates, lifting again Thurman’s Common Ground and Thurman’s Disinherited.

Thurman and Transcendence: The Search for Common Ground

I am Kelly Drescher, Ministry Associate on the Medical Campus:

Our work across campus this year has involved us in many individual lives and many forms of ministry, both with religious and with unreligious people. We have striven to bring a sense of freedom and grace to all, to recognize the ‘common ground’ upon which we walk. As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””. (CG, 40)

I am Jen Quigley, Ministry Associate for Student Affairs:

There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans. Antibodies and antigens. And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

I am Lauren Miramontes, Ministry Associate for the Interfaith Council:

Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’. (CG, 53)

In the voice of Howard Thurman, 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, there is a regard for mystery, silence, presence, the transcendent, where Jesus the Paraclete can say, ‘I and the Father are One’. One in kinship with all of creation. One in kinship with every human being, so that nothing human is foreign to us. One in transformative engagement with the soup of our natural world, our home, our condition, our circumstance. One in openness to the great differences and diversities of personal, that is to say religious, expression, including myth from long ago and far away.

The Presence.

Thurman and Immanence: Jesus and the Disinherited

I am Micah Christian, Ministry Associate for First Year Students (our fourth, he follows Augie Delbert in 2009, David Romanik in 2008, and Larry Whitney in 2007):

‘Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

I am Soren Hessler, Ministry Associate in Judicial Affairs:

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God. If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities. He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

I am John Prust, our other Ministry Associate for Interfaith Work:

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.

The Shepherd, as well.

An Invitation to Faith

Jan and I came over here to Boston four years ago, in order to invest the last quarter of our ministry in the next generation of preachers, teachers, ministers of the gospel. You hear today six voices that will change the world for the better. I asked them, in Thurmanesque fashion, to tell me about their sense of the divine, about presence, about shepherd. Here is what they said:


is all the world to me…
loves me…
is perpetually ripe….
means freedom…
shows us that self giving love is the way to life (John)… is my transforming friend…
has got my back…
is the consoler of the poor…the lamp of the poor …
is unconditional love…
is the constant companion on life’s journey…
My greatest gift…
Patient pursuer….
In love with us….
the Hound of Heaven…
Friend on the Journey….
challenges us because he loves us…
brings out our best self…

Now we ask you, as we sing the hymns of Easter: How will you live out the deep river truths, presence and shepherd? How will you live down its opposition, however you understand it? Have you truly intuited the brevity of life? Have you really absorbed the capacity we have as humans to harm others? Have you faced the dualism of decision that is the marrow of every Sunday, every prayer, every sermon, every service? Are you ready to make a break for it? Are you ready to discover freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation? Are you set to place one hand in that of The Presence, and the other in that of The Shepherd?

As Director Katherine Kennedy once said, “The beauty of Thurman is that he wasn’t trying to convert people to Christianity. Rather, he wanted people to see that there is a common ground we can reach by respecting one another’s differences, while still holding onto those beliefs that are uniquely ours.”
As we reflect on such questions, may we do so in the confidence of freedom and grace

Known in the promise of this season

Reflected in the joys of springtime

Overheard in the words and vows of commitment

Expanded into the lengthening evening daylight

Enjoyed in the gatherings of families and friends

Celebrated in the ceremonies of completion

And carried forward from this hour of worship and day of remembrance

In the words of Emily Dickinson:

I stepped from plank to plank
A slow and cautious way;
the stars above my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
would be my final inch.
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call experience.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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