March 16

Calvin for Lent: Letters of Recommendation

By Marsh Chapel

John 3: 1-17

2 Cor. 3: 10

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‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)

Freedom and Melancholy

In July of 2003 my dear best friend and family doctor drove us to a nearby book sale, an annual event, in a converted barn, along a country road, nearby to–nothing.  We go every summer.  He is an historian by temperament and some significant private reading, largely English history of the 17th century.  We browsed among the mildewed racks of lost tomes, lost to their original readers and lost on a generation growing impatient to reading.   For 25 cents one could buy the 1200 pages of Marcel Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, volume 1.   For eleven years, now, 2014, and now into the second volume, about page 230, this strange, difficult work has provided me some occasional early morning company.  You can see that progress has been slow.  Some months go by without a page being read.  In fact, after some real difficulty with sentences a page long, a whole year went by.

On page 233 of volume 2, Proust pauses mid remembrance to remark that with the onset of real adulthood, with the arrival of the experience of genuine freedom, with the sudden realization that one’s own life is in one’s own hands—an experience not unknown in college life—there comes melancholy.  Melancholy, for students for parents for retirees for all, melancholy comes in part from a full feeling, full thought of freedom, of the responsibility, the unique and unrecoverable responsibility of life, of living one’s own life.  Melancholy is a whole lot more than homesickness.  We sometimes presume that young adult ennui comes from homesickness.  Not so.  The real root is spiritual melancholy.  Though we respect Frederick Beuchner’s astute meditation, years ago, on the resemblance of homesickness to faith, a real rehabilitation for homesickness if ever there was one, what gives one pause in coming of age, at whatever age, is more—it is Proust’s melancholy.  Proust’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:

But by these very words which left it to myself to decide my own happiness, my mother had plunged me in that state of doubt in which I had been plunged long ago when my father, having allowed me to go to PHEDRE and, what was more, to take to writing, I had suddenly felt myself burdened with too great a responsibility, the fear of distressing him, and the melancholy which we feel when we cease to obey orders which, from one day to another, keep the future hidden, and realize that we have at last begun to live in earnest, as a grown up person, the life, the only life, that any of us has at his disposal.

Dear friend.  Your melancholy has a good in it.   Your avoidance of others, reluctance to engage, willingness to self medicate, endless sleeping, absence from worship, repetition of the verbal sign of the age, ‘whatever’—your melancholy—comes in part from a deep, perhaps pre-conscious awareness of life, of freedom, of responsibility, of the chance and necessity and dangerous challenge of really living.  Take heart if you are down.  Down is the marrow of up.

Calvin and Nicodemus

At least, that is what Nicodemus found.  Melancholy kept Nicodemus up at night, too, and one night he found, or was found by, Spirit.

This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant.  It is fitting to hear of Nicodemus at night, this morning, as we consider Calvin, this Lent. (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

Calvin’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi: Christ mans that the movement and operation of God’s Spirit is no less perceptible in the renewal of (the human being) than the movement of the air in this earthly and outward life, but its mode is hidden.  And we, therefore, are ungrateful and (miserly) if we do not adore the incomprehensible power of God in the heavenly life, of which (God) shows us so outstanding an example in this world, and if we asbribe to Him less in restoring the salvation of our souls than in preserving the estate of our bodies:  Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed (person). (vol. 4, p, 68, NT Commentaries).

Calvin and Corinthians

Likewise, John Calvin emphasizes, rightly, in 2 Corinthians, Paul’s own stress upon the ‘fragrance’ or the ‘scent’ of the gospel.  Of course, Calvin means this both happily for the graced and sadly for the reprobate, both of whom are known in response to the preaching of the good news.  His ease in naming the ‘reprobate’ is hard for us, I expect, and makes sense only, and only in part, underneath his overarching celebration of the glory of God, God’s glory, known in all things ordained by God, both gain and loss, found and lost.  “The power of the Gospel is so great that it either quickens or kills, not only by its taste, but by its very (fragrance).’ (vol. 10, p. 35).

Calvin carefully follows Paul’s thought:  Continuing with the same metaphor, he says that the epistle was written by Christ, because the faith of the Corinthians was His work.  He says that it was ministered by himself, likening himself as it were to the ink and the pen.  In other words, he makes Christ the author and himself the instrument…(and later) For by the letter he means an external preaching which does not reach the heart, and, by the Spirit, life giving teaching, which is, through the grace of the Spirit, given effective operation in (our) souls. (p. 42)

‘You yourselves are my letter of recommendation’. (2 Cor. 3:1). Such a marvelous, supreme, beautiful commendation to you, hear at Marsh Chapel, to you, listening by radio signals, to you the community of Christ, near and far, old and young, visible and virtual.  You are a letter of recommendation!

So the Apostle Paul addresses his beloved Corinthians, and replies to those who seek a more formal epistle of reference.  You are… the recommendation.

Letters of recommendation—their solicitation, composition, delivery, reception and perusal—litter the academic landscape.  Graciously to request one is a delicate art.  Honestly to compose one is a delicate art.   Critically to assess one is a delicate art.  Over many years, having benefitted from the kindness of others who wrote them, I now, as writer, much more fully appreciate the effort therein invested.  Long before cyber files, e files, and electronic mail.  Each letter written, typed, enveloped, stamped and sent, over a kindly personal signature!   Letters of recommendation.  A pause:  may those this week composing such receive a personal blessing for a quiet labor, a thankless gift, a generous portion.

We may wonder about recommendation.  What do you and I commend, by our living?  What does our living, our mode of thinking, our manner of working, our habit of being, what does our living speechlessly recommend.  ‘None preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing’ (B Franklin).  What happy shadow, what felicitous echo, what alluring existential fragrance do you cast about yourself as you sally forth on the trail of life?  So that heads turn.  Are you—how are you?—a spiritual head turner?  We may wonder about recommendation.

Let us head off one misapprehension.  The gospel probes what you recommend, not just what you represent.  You represent—this or that.  Good.  Well and good.  But do you truly recommend what you represent?  Recommendation is spirit, representation is flesh, a distinction the Apostle most strongly asserts in Galatians 3, and again here in 2 Cor. 3: 1ff.   Here in Corinthians, Paul says, ‘you are my letter of recommendation’, not merely of representation.  Does your life sparkle, shimmer, quiver, shake, rattle and roll, outflowing in recommendation of what you represent?  In living, do you truly recommend what you dutifully represent?

You are a banker.  Good.  As such you represent savings, thrift, delayed gratification, the long view.  You represent what others can bank on, what others can count on.  As a banker you represent solid investment.  Does your own life recommend solid investment?  Do you save?  Do waste not, want not?  Do you prepare in visible ways for a rainy day?  Does your life shine with a soundness, a reliability, a trustworthy confidence, which others credit, and which others bank on, and which others can count on?  You are a banker.  Good.  But are you a banker I can count on?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?

You are a teacher. Good.  As such you represent curiosity, inquiry, learning, discipline, the converted and convertible life, as Emerson might have put it.  You represent what can be taught and learned.  As a teacher you represent the value of learning.  Do you?  Learn, I mean.  Do you learn something new, every day, and thrill to do so?  Do you seek out new vistas—another language, another land, another literature, another logarithm? Do you like to learn?  If not, what are doing teaching?  Does your conversation simmer in new sauces of tasty, salty apprehension?  Do you know how to ask questions that travel between the Scylla of banality and the Charibdis of the nonsensical?

You are a professor, an educator, an instructor.  Good.  You represent learning.  But do you recommend it in a life that exudes the happiness of understanding, the thrill of discovery, the contentment of mastery?  Are you a decent docent?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?

C.S.Lewis said ‘wake up’.  Sigmund Freud said ‘grow up’.  Paul of Tarsus said ‘show up’.  We ask you today—‘what up?’  What does your life joyfully recommend to others?

You are an American.  Looking at you, would and do others long to be one too?  You are an athlete.  Watching, do others desire to be one too?  You are an academic.  Living next door to you, do others decide to go after a PhD?  You are a political activist.  Does your dentist see and do likewise?  You are an atheist.  Knowing that, do others smile and drop belief?

You are minister.  Good.  As such you represent good news.  GOOD news.  You represent the gospel of freedom, grace and love.  You are a part of the representative ministry.  Congratulations.  You represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages (J Wesley).  You represent love divine, all loves excelling.  I couldn’t be happier for you and for all you represent.  Just one small question.  Does your life at all recommend what you ostensibly represent, what your ordination represents?  In your living, day by day, as you walk the streets where others live too, as you pass by, is there a hint of freedom in your gait, is there a scent—a fragrance– of grace in your cadence, is there a glimpse of love in your stride?  Is freedom something just to talk about on Sunday, or is it something you live out, on Thursday?  So too, grace and love.  You preach liberty, laughter and love.  Good.  Do you ever take a vacation?  Do you keep your friendships in good repair?  Do you give with a happy generosity, a carefree (not careless) abandon?  Ministry is ministry with people.  Do you spend any time with people?  Ministry is with hurting people.  Do you spend any time with hurting people?  Or is it just another day in front of the computer screen?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?  How will others hear the gospel of freedom, grace, and love if they never see ministers of the gospel who exemplify freedom, grace and love?

You are a Christian.  I am glad.  But.  Can others bear witness that you would give them the shirt off your back, go with them a second full mile, offer coat and cloak as well, and love those who make it frightfully hard to love them?  Does your life recommend or merely represent Jesus Christ, and him crucified? Do you set out in the morning to love, to live as a love letter, to live out the knowledge and love of God with mercifully spirited existential letters, sent in multiple copies, and laden with grace, prayer and presence?

Is the print legible in the letter of recommendation, which is your (pl.) life?  Can people read it, read you, read, and reading, there, read gospel?

At least we may take the intensity and zeal of Walt Whitman going forward. Whitman’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:

I celebrate myself

This is what you shall do

Love the earth and the sun and the animals

Despise riches

Give alms to every one who asks

Read these leaves in the open air

In every season of every year in your life

Dismiss whatever insults your own soul

And your very flesh shall be a great poem

Well beloved!  Lift up your hearts!  Let us this season live what we love, behave as we believe, recommend what we reference, be born of the spirit!  Hear the good news:

‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)

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

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