February 26

Sources of Authority

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1: 9-15
Genesis 9: 8-17


In the autumn each year I have the true pleasure to teach a course on the Gospel of John.  For five years my teaching assistant, a priest and poet, has helped our students to prepare their research papers.  She meets early in the term with each of the twelve or so disciples.  She uses my school of theology office to do so, over a fortnight or so.  We share a key that for those weeks I leave in the Marsh Chapel office, so that the one needing the key, now she now I, may take and use it.  The system works well, or, well, works when it works.  That is, do you know how many times I traipse to my third floor school office, and do what I normally do, fish for the key ring, and pull out the—wait a minute, oh no, oh yes, the key is in the other building.  Over to Marsh I go.  The body and its habits, in collusion with the unconscious and its rhythms, takes me where I habitually go, to do what I ritually do.  Do you know how many times it has taken to become aware of what I need to do to enter the study in the school?  Too many.   We are creatures of habit, guided along by our suppositions and assumptions.  Lent arrives to wake us up, to make us aware.  Lent arrives to challenge us to move from sensation to reflection, from activity to awareness.

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

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

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

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

1. Scripture and Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its psalmic depths.  #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names.  Obededom comes to mind.  You love proverbial wisdom.  One sharpens another comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His holding children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith. Today in worship, we share this reliance and this love.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel.  A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings and for the reading of scripture.  On the other side of the globe, way down in Sydney, Australia, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture.  Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by their love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too.  In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

We want to be aware, though, to move from mere sensation, the stumbling around and rattling of mistaken keys, to reflection, to an awareness, a sturdy, honest awareness of truth.

So we acknowledge that the Bible is errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to remythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples.  The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We love the Scripture as the primary but not sole source of authority in faith. We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  Do you hear that?  It begs to be heard.  Today’s passage from Mark 1 is an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Jordan river.  It looks back forty years.  What do you remember from January of 1972?  Nor was it written for that kind of certainty.  It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class this winter I would buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

We grasp for certainty, but confidence grasps us.

2.Tradition and Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.  Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

An ecumenical summary of this trend toward equality was remembered for us this week: The needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich.  The freedom of the dominated has priority over the liberty of the powerful. The participation of the marginalized has priority over the structures of exclusion.

Boston University has long and strong history of expanding the circle of equality to include the poor, laborers, immigrants, former slaves, women, and, in our time, with work still to be done, gay people, those otherwise abled, the interreligious community, and the citizenship of the globe.

It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out.  But it has no future.  Equality will triumph over exclusion.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a Lenten study in suburban Washington DC I would have the group read S Turkel, Alone Together, for some perspective on the way traditions change.

3. Reason and Evolution

You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning.  You love the life of the mind.  You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety.  More than anything else, learning to last must finally be rooted in loving.  Our voice here at Marsh Chapel is meant to call the University community, Sunday by Sunday, like a minaret or shofar or village steeple, from sensation to reflection.  Our voice here is meant reasonably to recall for young people that people are to be loved not used.

We are meant to use our minds to explore the world, our selves within it, and the promise of the God who created it.  We shall need to reason together.The universe is 14 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

If I were the chaplain of a small private school in New England I might have my fellowship group read this winter C. Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He can teach us to reason together.

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  Falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.

4.Experience and Existence

You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too.  Isaiah, in looking forward, can sing of the joy of harvest.  We know joy.  Joy seizes us.  Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things.  You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

Give yourself some room to move this Lent from sensation to reflection.

We need to examine our experience, and particularly this Lent, our experience with technology.  Ellul: ‘Technology has two consequences which strike me as the most profound in our time.  I call them the suppression of the subject and the suppression of meaning…The suppression of the subject is transforming traditional human relations, which require the voice, which require seeing, or which require a physical relationship between one human being and the next.  The  result is the distant relationship…the suppression of meaning:  the ends of existence gradually seem to be effaced by the predominance of means…the meaning of existence of ‘why I  am alive’ is suppressed as technology so vastly develops its power…

We want to move from techo sensation to techno reflection.  How?

  1. On Monday, aver: wherever you are, be there.
  2. On Tuesday: before you check your face book, face your checkbook.
  3. On Wednesday, decide: orders need borders:  respond to voice in one day, email etc in three days, writing in one week.
  4. On Thursday, choose: make a Lenten exception: answer your non emergency email all on Wednesday each week.
  5. On Friday, raise the bar: respond to facebook and twitter with email, to email with voice, to voice with letter, to letter with visit.
  6. On Saturday, remember:  email is international, irretrievable, immutable, eternal, so whatever you write make sure are happy to have it appear on the front page of the Boston Globe or chiseled on your tombstone.
  7. Come Sunday, of course:  attend or listen to Marsh Chapel.

If I were reading with a group this month I might read Ellul’s Presence of the Kingdom.

There are indeed theological temptations in the unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience.  As we come soon to Lent let us face them down.  Let us face them down together.  Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence.  The measure of preaching today in the tradition of a responsible Christian liberalism is found in our willingness to reflect on our sources of authority, our love of STRE, and to reflect therein on errancy, equality, evolution and existence.

So we shall join the long parade of those who for generations have faithfully tried to rise above sensation and live in a mode of reflection.  Noah gives us a reminder of the promise of divine care.  You well remember this first biblical covenant, that of Noah, set and sealed in the rainbow.  The covenant with Noah brings promise.  The covenants with Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah do the same.  They make way in us for the new covenant, the new testament, the fulfilling of time promised in today’s Gospel.  I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be sign of covenant between me and the earth.

Wednesday I walked west on Commonwealth Avenue.  A friend came alongside and we enjoyed a several block conversation.  A sermon is like the kind of stepping alongside for conversation.  Then he turned at a corner to head for his office, and we parted and departed.  But two blocks later, he came alongside me again, saying, You know, I have turned at that corner so often to go to my office, that I completely forgot that my office is no longer where it was.  It is up ahead here on the left.  My habits, body and unconscious took me one way, but I should have been going with you. Yes.  We benefit, come Lent, from the journey away from sensation and out toward reflection—kindled in authoritative intervention by Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  Yes, your divergence reminds me of the experience I had this autumn with my school office key, shared with my teaching assistant, a series of moments when sensation would have benefitted from a little reflection…

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

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

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