March 6

Word and Table: Mercy

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 17:1-9

One Step Up: Global Change

Come Sunday we gather from near and far. Driving an hour from the west, a couple finds close parking and happily enters the nave. Rubbing two eyes awake, an undergraduate slips on a coat and hustles across the street. In Rhode Island a regular listener turns up the volume, and pours coffee. A woman makes her way from the T stop, stepping past a bit of ice and a pool of water. For an hour we are gathered before Word and Table.

Peter and James and John his brother have preceded us. It is comforting to hear and know their names. Ahead of us they have climbed the seven storey mountain, the mountain of change, the mount of Transfiguration. They have been led up, as have we. Lead on O Lord, and lead up. A most beautiful phrase.

These winter weeks have brought news of unpredicted and seismic change, across the Middle East. There is more thin ice around in history and politics than we might have thought. We are a part of these events, in some immeasurable but real ways, well apart from what we might see or hear on the news. We hope for the gift of freedom and for the security of order, and wonder how we can expect both.

One step up, climbing the mountain. Lead up, lead up.

Two Steps Up: Personal Loss

The week carries us here. When we come to hear and see, for voice and light, to Word and Table, we come with our clothes on. This is a good thing. Our experience hangs on our shoulders and covers our backs and guards our steps.

Our losses bring us up. We say, ‘that brought me up short’. Our losses put us on notice, as we climb, as we ascend.

We lost a dear friend, in our sister pulpit across the river, this week. Rev. Gomes pitch perfect humor and personal courage, carried on the waves of his unique voice, we shall truly miss. A late sermon began with a conversation with a Harvard Freshwoman, who said to him, ‘I have been here a month, I expected to meet great people and have great discussions, but I have met no one interesting, no one of great fame, no one of stature, no one who has interested me’, to which he replied, ‘Well, my dear, I mean you have met me, and I am not a celebrity but I am institution’. As my friend remembers his saying at her Williams College baccalaureate, ‘I make my living by the sweat of my jaw’. Yet it is personal courage, in naming his identity as a gay man and a Republican to boot, as ‘A Christian who happens to be gay’, and more so his loving but critical interpretation of our Good Book, which we shall cherish. More: love lasts, and we have known love in our friend. But the loss hurts.

We know the stature of our friends most truly when we must bid them adieux. A second step up, lead up, lead up.

Three Steps Up: Discord and Division

A community, including academic communities, involves difference and division. A dollar can be spent only once. A chair filled by one is not filled by another. Decisions are made about who speaks and who publishes and who influences. Debates with religious overtones and undertones reveal serious disagreements: liberty for Israel and justice for Palestinians are both worthy goals, but not just everyone liberally agrees on how best to get to both places at once. In fact, if our experience right here is any indication, there is a high mountain still to climb. Step by step.

A third step up, lead up, lead up.


Now we pause, in Word at Table. Wherever you are: be there. Here we are. We are in worship. In this hour we step up to the worthy from the worthless. In this hour we step up from entertainment to enchantment. In this hour we step up from distraction to presence. In this hour we step from the quasi to the fully human. Together.

Light and voice, photo and phono. Law and prophets, past and future, Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud and the beloved. This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.


Peter rightly says, ‘it is good that we are here’. But then he misinterprets his own truth. It is good, to be here. But not to be doing here. Here is a place, Word and Table, for being, not for doing. Here we are human beings not human doings. Peter things he brings something to do here. But in the face of wonder, in the fury of awe, what is there to do? Our academic community struggles with history and mystery. Yet here they are, and nothing to do about it. “Good it is we are here”: to listen, to watch, to hear, to observe, to receive, to accept, to take. Sin is not taking what is offered.

Rise and have no fear. But do not stay here.

Down, down, down the mountain we go.

One Step Down: Security for Peace

We are given mercy to share and more than enough in Word and Table. We shall need some extra, and some to share, if the endless contention and intractable difference of the conflicts of this age are to give way to the peace of the age to come.

Matthew has added the sun, the bright clouds, the well pleased and the falling to knees, in order to teach us something about the power of mercy, the power of the beloved. One moment of attempted dialogue across difference offers mercy. One resistance to the tempting use of hateful speech offers mercy. One honest recognition of difference without recourse to violence brings mercy. We try to recall, to imagine what we ourselves would want, and how we would wish to be treated. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.

Lasting peace requires both liberty and justice, both security and fairness. We know this from our own experience.

One step down, down the mountain we go.

Two Steps Down: Ode to Friendship

Peter, James and John do not stay on the heights. They come down, step by step, awaiting resurrection as do we.

You know, when we lose close friends, when we lose loved ones, we rely heavily on our faith, our faith that the future will meet us with needed and unforeseeable mercy. Faith is a walk in the dark, said Luther. Loss is a walk in the dark, say we. Climbing down again into life as we know it, we may want to let our experience of loss give us a lift for living.

Keep your friendships in good repair, said Dr Johnston. Friendship requires investment. Invitation. Acceptance. Time. Time wasted. Conversation. Care. Obliged commitment. The long view. As with grandparenthood, every trite thing said about the mercy of friendship is true. A friend in need is a friend indeed. A true friend risks the friendship for the sake of the friend. We may down into age with the hand of a friend or two.

A second step down, down the mountain we go.

Three Steps Down: A Little Discipline

2 Peter remembers our mountain, and that ‘the voice was borne to him by Majestic Glory’.

There is a lingering effect in the community of faith to the experience of mercy. We shall depart as we have gathered: Driving an hour back west, a couple finds happily leaves the nave. Rubbing two eyes awake, an undergraduate again slips
on a coat and hustles back across the street. In Rhode Island a regular listener turns down the volume, and pours more coffee. A woman makes her way to the T stop, stepping past a bit of ice and a pool of water. For an hour we have gathered before Word and Table.

We are transfigured, changed in the presence of mercy, of love.

We are little more able to stand up and walk forward. We are little more inclined to listen, to learn, to love. We are little more inspired to tithe, to pray, to keep faith. We may even be ready for Lent to come, with its call to discipline. We may be willing to keep a green Lent this year.

A green Lent? One opposed to pollution. What are some of the great pollutants of our day? Personal and public debt. Carbon emission. Needless email. So: save your money, park your car, and do not ‘reply all’. Or find your own green Lent variant.

A third step down, down the mountain we go.

Rise up and have no fear.

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

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