March 17

Filled with Fragrance

By Marsh Chapel

John 12: 1-8

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Our mentor and friend Rev. Russell Clark, a Colgate and Boston University graduate, served a small church in Oriskany Falls , NY for many years.  He dodged and weaved as appointments elsewhere were offered, to bigger churches and salaries.  He stayed.  He fell in love with a quieter life, natural beauty, the intrigue of pastoral ministry, the mystery of the cotidian. The Clark home sported a large twirling book shelf in the living room, filled with novels and histories and poetry.

His lay leader died after some years, to the regret and lasting hurt of the community.  People are not replaceable.  The widow, usually of regular perfect attendance in worship, stayed home, for some time.  At last in Lent she appeared.  Russell asked her how she found her way through the morass, the mess, the maze of grief, and got back home to church.  “Well, it was not the scripture, though I love all the scripture.  It was not the hymns, though I sing them to myself day by day.  It was not your visits, though they were most gracious.  It was not the family care and feeding or that of the neighbors.  It was not my personal faith in the resurrection, though I do have faith.   It was not even prayer, though I practice formal prayer, evening and morning, at meals and at bedtime.

“It was just this:  the chickens had to be fed every morning.  So I had to get up every morning.  Once I was up, the rest of the day—and at last, over longer time, the week and month, including Sunday morning—seemed to fall in line.  It was the chickens.  The clucking of those hens.  The clucking of those hens meant more to me, in healing, than all the hymns of Easter.  The regularity of feeding them, early in the morning, restored me, over time.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.”


Come Lent, here at Marsh Chapel, we converse each year with our sibling Christians out of the Calvinist tradition.   We grow and learn, from and with, the slight differences, in sibling traditions, wherein we do not always agree, but agree to disagree agreeably.  Our interlocutor this year, 2013, is Marilynne Robinson—essayist, novelist, Calvinist.  Her love of Scripture, her sense of the eternal, her rendering of John Calvin, her prophetic defense of wonder in our time, her unwillingness to buy the cheap goods of a culture that languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, her celebration of quiet life, pastoral ministry, providential grace, and the deeps of love:  all these human gifts we gratefully receive from her this year.  Especially her sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary, health in the clucking of hens, helps us this year.

On Scripture:  One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded…(227)…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder

On Speech: What should we call the presiding intelligence that orchestrates the decision to speak as a moment requires?  What governs the inflections that make any utterance unmistakably the words of one speaker in this whole language-saturated world? 120

On Sin: It took, for instance, three decades of the most brilliant and persistent campaign of preachment and information to establish, in the land of liberty, the idea that slavery was intolerable. 249

On Salvation: (Calvin’s) theology is compelled and enthralled by an overwhelming awareness of the grandeur of God…his sense of things is so overwhelmingly visual and cerebral, that the other senses do not interest him 221…heaven’s essence for him is that it is inconceivable in the world’s terms, another order of experience

On Service: We should maintain an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know…encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are… The Judeo Christian ethic of charity derives from the assertion that human beings are made in the image of God, that is, that reverence is owed to human beings simply as such….Our civilization believed for a long time in God and the soul and sin and salvation, assuming, whatever else, that meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world. 84…I do not think it is nostalgia to suggest that it would be well to reestablish the setting apart of time traditionally devoted to religious observance… 99 Science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality.71…  137


Speaking of speech, my former teacher Tom Driver recently remembered:

“I was twenty-five years old in 1950, a bachelor newly arrived in New York City to attend graduate school. I bought a single ticket and went alone to see director Harold Clurman’s production of The Member of the Wedding, by the southern author Carson McCullers. With the rest of the audience, I was put under a spell by Ethel Waters singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” There came another spell at the final curtain. The play’s central focus has been the longing of a pre-adolescent girl to escape from her loneliness. Young Frankie Addams (played by Julie Harris) wants to be part of the forthcoming wedding of her older sister. This privilege is not readily granted, but In the last scene, the way becomes clear, and she exclaims with joy: “The wedding will be the we of me.” Curtain.

“I will never forget what happened next. There was long applause and several curtain calls. And then we just sat there. No one wanted to leave. The strangers sitting next to me were just as slow to move as I was. After a few moments we hitherto strangers began to talk to each other. The theater had become the “we” of us. The performances on stage (and everything that Harold Clurman and the crew did to enable them) had performed something over and above the dramatis personae roles. They had created for that brief moment in time — less brief than most such occasions — a community of people whose lives otherwise did not cross. It is called theater magic, which means no one quite understands it and can never predict just when it will occur. But when it does, our joy is immense. It is similar to an experience of religious transcendence.

“In an age in which the term “public” has been denigrated in favor of “privatization,” when housing is increasingly “gated “if it is affordable at all, when public education and health care and transportation and all manner of intrinsically social services are either neglected or attacked as impingements upon “liberty,” when guns are thought to be necessary almost everywhere in the name of freedom and self defense — in such a time, the liminality engendered by ritual, theater, and religion, carries an important potential.”

Our gospel then raises for us the question of authority.


Religions wrestle with authority, all the time, everywhere.  The current change in Rome, and the ascendancy of Francis, our brother, whom we honor, encourage, and celebrate, recalls for us centuries of struggle over authority.  To the Calvinist right, all authority is vested in Scripture.  The Bible is the only full authority, ‘sola scriptura’, an historic, in some ways tragic manner of interpretation of life and love.  To the Catholic left, final authority is vested in the Bishop of Rome.  Before we, or more specifically I, become too critical of these vested stations, we, or I, must also recognize that at some point, some one has to break the tie, make the decision, guide the church, be ‘primus inter pares’, whether in the form of a breathing holy person or in the form of a spirited, breathing holy text.  My own tradition attempts to have it all or both ways, not always with shining success.  Methodism combines catholic tradition, reformation message, puritan discipline, Anglican liturgy, and pietist feeling.  Methodism interprets Scripture through Tradition, and Tradition through Experience, and Experience through Reason.  Such a separation of powers, by the way, has great advantages in a university setting, like this one.


But what of our gospel?  What form of authority does the Gospel of John prefer, select, elect, prize?  Ah, glad you asked.  No church in John, just a communal experience of Christ.  No leadership in John, just the deeds and words of the risen, I mean crucified, I mean incarnate, I mean spirited One.  No worries about ethics in John, no catalogue of virtues or vices, just a single command, to love.  No hierarchy, patriarchy, oligarchy, ecclesiology in John.  Just this:  Spirit.  Another Counselor.  With you forever.  A guide into all further truth.  How is that going to work?  Exactly.  That is why we have the letters of John, uno dos y tres, because, clearly, it did not.  The letters add in:  leadership, orthodoxy, ethics, teaching, form, all.  They wake from the Johannine dream.  But what a dream!  A spirited dream of spirit befitting any high Calvinist view of Scripture and any high Catholic view of clergy.  A dream of Spirit, leading to truth, over time.  A fullness of fragrance, spirit in life.  As in Proust, ‘What matters is to transform common occurrence into art (NYRB, 3/13).’

You will recognize the story of the anointing at Bethany.  Sort of…

It is like the familiar parable (sic):  A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who had fallen among thieves, so he went and he asked his father for his inheritance.  The father gave him seeds to plant, but most fell on rocky ground.  He appealed to a judge, who would not listen, and then to a dishonest steward, who would listen, but who stole the rest of the seeds, and then planted them and they multiplied thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.  But he left 99 of the fold and went after a lost sheep.  On the way, he stumbled on a lost coin, and put it in his tunic.  This will be like a mustard seed, he thought, which is small but grows a big plant.  He went back to his father and said, I am not worthy to be a son, but make me a worker in a vineyard, and pay me as much as you pay those who started at dawn.  Which of these do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?

I know you remember that one.

That is, John has somehow combined a story which was also known to Mark, and used by Matthew, with a story from Luke, unused by Mark or Matthew, and has added his own special ingredients, Johnannine special sauce if you will.  Or maybe a redactor re-edited portions of this passage.  For the record: John has added Judas as the stingy knee jerk liberal; John has added Judas’ motive, not so liberal, of greed;  John has not kept Mark’s ethical admonition, ‘For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want you can do good to them’. (But Matthew also apparently erased that sentence, for who knows what reason.)  John also has misplaced or erased the fine conclusion, which Mark writes and Matthew copies, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. John also neglects to repeat that Jesus said of Mary’s act that she has done a beautiful thing for me.  In other words, what has been told in John was not so much in memory of her, though perhaps in the rest of the whole world it was so.  Most delicately, Mark and John both use a rare adjective, rendered her by the English word ‘pure’, which comes in the original from the same root as the word ‘faith’.  The gospels repeated an admonition from Deuteronomy 15, ‘the poor are ever present’, not at all to discountenance care of the poor (so important to us, and rightly so), but to lift the fragrance, the wonder at the heart of the gospel, to the highest level. (Bultmann, perhaps rightly, hears here a reference to the full fragrance of gnosis spreading throughout the world.)

John, alone, fills the room with fragrance.  That is his point, here.  Incense, the sense of the holy, the mysterium tremendum, the idea of the holy, the presence.  Resurrection precedes crucifixion in this reading.  Crucifixion is merely a coming occasion for incarnation in this reading.  Incarnation is a lasting fragrance in this reading, the fullness of fragrance.


My friend Rev. John Holt says of his work in ministry:  ‘we are trying to help people discover their spiritual side so that they can make a difference for good in the world’.  That is what I am trying to do in and from this pulpit, trying to help people discover their spiritual side so that they can make a difference for good in the world.

Our poetic friend George Herbert wrote:

Love bade me welcome: yet my sould drew back, Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here : Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them : let my shame Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame? My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat.

A friend, of some more years than I, brought her children to worship on Christmas eve.  Afterward, she asked each one—6,8, and11 years old—what they most liked.  Said 6, ‘I especially liked the candle, except the wax dripped on my finger and that hurt.  Said 8, ‘I liked communion and the way the choir music drew us forward, together, into it.  Said 11, ‘I like the way you feel after you have been to church’.  6,8,11—they came to themselves.  And grandma did too.

Our neighbor Ron Dworkin wrote before his death: I shall take these two—life’s instrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty—as paradigms of a fully religious attitude to life…These are not convictions that one can isolate from the rest of one’s life.  They engage a whole personality.  They permeate experience:  they generate pride, remorse and thrill.  Mystery is an important part of that thrill. (NYTRB, 68, 3/13).

My friend Frank Halse has written of the presence, recently, a letter and seven poems.  Frank is a double Terrier, CLA\STH, now in his late eighties, a widower, living alone in the great snows of the Tug Hill Plateau.  He was the Protestant Chaplain at Syracuse University from 1965 to 1975.  He drew a short straw and did marvelous ministry.  He is a poet, and now his poetry is all about presence:

Dear Bob,

Joyce’s death left me empty.  Stunned even.  That emptiness stayed for the 1st year.  Then, two years ago, I began to be bumping into something that I finally put a name down. ‘The Presence”.  My first experience with the mystic corners of our world.

I felt unprepared and awkward, but in time, I began to experience what can only be described as whisperings quietly in my ears.  So I began to struggle with poetry as I think I was hearing:

God is as close as my breath

My heart pulsing my breast

No search reveals the Presence;

Only exhaustion, tragedy, and

Failure will temper my vision to

The point where I can sense the

Presence who responds to my

Needs with gifts of patience

From:  F Halse, Epiphany at Kennebunk Pond, 8/16/01


On the Sacred, Marilynn Robinson:  So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.  I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation.  With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.  The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.  In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous.

What is eternal must always be complete, if my understanding is correct.  So it is possible that time was created in order that there might be narrative—event, sequence and causation, ignorance and error, retribution, atonement.  A word, a phrase, a story falls on rich or stony ground and flourishes as it can, possibility in a sleeve of limitation.  Certainly time is the occasion for our strangely mixed nature, in every moment differently compounded, so that often we surprise ourselves, and always scarcely know ourselves, and exist in relation to experience, if we attend to it and if its plainness does not disguised it from us, as if we were visited by revelation.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Not everything measurable is meaningful, and not everything meaningful is measurable.

The greater the sea of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it.

The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.

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

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