February 5

Communion Meditation: Ad Interim

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:13-20

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‘Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice?’

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

James Baldwin spoke, eloquently, of the death of the heart.

We are both and landing pad and a launching pad here at Marsh Chapel.  Rev. Holly Benzenhaver has guided our quiet prayer, faithfully and gently, before Sunday worship.  Now she goes to work for a time with the First Baptist Church of Needham.  We send her off with blessings and best wishes, and wish her well, grateful for her gifts in ministry with us.  Each of us by baptism is given gifts for and invited into forms of ministry.  How would you currently describe yours?

There are many ways of keeping faith.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms.  The world’s varied religious traditions cradle treasures, precious and distinct.  At birth, our nation affirmed this.  We are a country founded by immigrants.  Founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution.  By immigrants fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom.  Immigrants fleeing religious persecution, seeking religious freedom, and determined to expand the circle of that freedom to include others, many, all.  The sights, symbols, sounds, statues, and landmarks of Boston, of New England, stand in sharp contrast to our current, gratuitously cruel, ban on some immigrants.  We know better.  This is not who we are.  We are invited to be rememberers not forgetters, to receive fresh every morning a newly remembered gospel, a gospel that in a word is love.  One such Boston, or New England, reminder is found in the love of Amos Wilder.

Our Town

Our guide ‘ad interim’ today is Amos Wilder.

Following, though, the longstanding advisement, in preaching, to move from the familiar to the different, we perhaps could start with his brother.

Perhaps know him, or his name, through his brother, Thornton, who wrote OUR TOWN, including the letter addressed to the ‘Mind of God’ and delivered all the same, including Emily and George and love and death, and including the graveyard out of which Emily travels to return to the land of the living on her 12th birthday, February 11, 1899.

Recall Wilder’s Emily Webb returning from the dead.  She asks, just once, to return to Grovers’ Corners, to see and hear and taste and touch and feel.  “Choose the least important day in your life.  It will be important enough.”  She picks her 12th birthday, at dawn, early in the morning.

Three days snow, in Grover’s Corners.  Main Street, the drug store.  Mr. Webb coming home on the night train from Hamilton College.  Howie Newsome, the policeman.  Mrs. Webb (“how young she looks!  I didn’t know Mama was ever that young”).  10 below zero.

I can’t find my blue ribbon

Open your eyes dear.  I laid it out for you.

If it were a snake it would bite you.

The milk man arrives.  Mr.  Webb kisses Mrs. Webb.  Don’t forget Charles it’s Emily’s birthday.

I’ve got something right here.  Where is she?  Where’s my birthday girl?

Breakfast, early in the morning, in New Hampshire:   ‘A very happy birthday to you.  There are some surprises on the kitchen table.  But birthday or no birthday I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow.

I want you to grow up and be a good, strong girl.

That blue paper is from your Aunt Carrie

And I reckon you can guess who brought the post-card album

I found it on the doorstep when I brought in the milk–George Gibbs.

Chew that bacon good and slow.  It’ll keep you warm on a cold day.’

‘O Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me.  Mama 14 years have gone by.  I’m dead.  You’re a grandmother Mama.  I married George Gibbs.  Wally’s dead too.  His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway.  We felt just terrible about it–don’t you remember?  But, just for a moment now we’re all together, Mama.  Just for a moment we’re happy.  LET’S LOOK AT ONE ANOTHER’

‘So all that was going on and we never noticed.  Grover’s Corners.  Mama and Papa. Clock’s ticking. Sunflowers.  Food and coffee.  New ironed dresses and hot baths.  Sleeping and waking up.  Earth! You are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

And earlier in the play…

I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
What’s funny about that?
But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.
What do you know!
And the postman brought it just the same.
What do you know!

Amos Wilder

“Amos Wilder occupies a unique position in American literary history, combining the vocations of poet and scholar, critic and pastor. He brought together the heritage of the Bible with the visions of the 20th century. His wartime experience recorded in his early poetry opened him up to the catastrophic depths of humanity, while his vision of hope, derived from his biblical story, allowed him to press beyond the negative limits of his time. His poetic eye enabled him to see connections between the Bible and literature, the Kingdom of God and modern ethics, religious experience and contemporary symbols.” (the source of this citation has been lost)

He knew and reminds us that the Gospel, in the freezer for 2000 years, cannot merely be taken out, to let it thaw then eat it raw.  It needs cooking, seasoning, preparation, and presentation.

Poet and Scholar.  Professor and Pastor.  Mind and heart.  Reason and Imagination.  Amos Wilder, across most of the 20th century lived a unity of that pair so long disjoined, and disjoined to the harm of both:  learning and piety.

A child in China.  A student at Oberlin, Oxford, Yale.  A minister in North Conway.  A teacher at Harvard.  To begin to embrace the Good about us, in us, around us, sustaining us—the good from all sides which we shall need gently to continue to nurture over the next decade of humility acquired through humiliation, national humility acquired through national humiliation—we shall need both in full.  Salt and light.  Salt and light.  Salt and light.

Here is his poem, about the modest wedding of a poor couple, in the Conway parsonage, during a snowstorm:


Brother and sister in this world’s poor family,

Jack and Jill out of this gypsy camp of earth,

Here is where the injustice is greatest

And you feel it obscurely,

And you have a right to storm within yourselves

And seek sanctuary in one another’s shabbiness.


This boy and this girl with all their abandonment and futility,

Folly and dereliction,

Whirled from ignominy to ignominy,

Condemned to all the wretched chores of the community-

O tribute of forlorn humanity! Come for his benediction whom they have


And somehow sense that they touch- what?

God, the Higher, all that they have missed:

Innocence and mercy and compassion.


Poor lad, scoured from humiliation to humiliation,

Pressed by dirt and danger, squalor and exhaustion,

And bred in blasphemy and the poison of men’s bitter spirit,

And the maudline imaginations of their lust;

Where else could it end but in this makeshift marriage?

And well may you storm within yourself,

at the same time that you feel the awe of it

God and the devil both have a hand in joining you

And you are hardly at fault.


Poor sister in our earth’s poor family,

Stupid and stupified and hallowed all at once,

Poor creature of poor moments,

Disinherited Eve,

How else could it come out but in the tumble of that first assault,

And yet God has put his finger on even this.


No bridesmaids nor flowers for you,

The groom hasn’t given you these.

You came in an old coat.

One of the gang is best man and witness,

The boy minister goes through with it,

And there is no shower as you go out.

The sleigh waits outside in the heavy snowfall.

It is movie night in the village, and no one

is about to spy you at the parsonage,

And so you go off in the blizzard to the lumber camps.

This is all the world gives you.


But the Son of Man of the wedding feast haunts such occasions

and understands you.

He can turn water into wine and such shame and loss into gain

In some world some time;


Lucy Hanks bore Nancy seven years before her marriage feast.

The Son of Man knows too well what the hells are,

and the dumb wonderings and sicknesses of the soul,

And he is the only one who does know.

So endure these gust and whirlwinds of the night until the morning breaks.


I heard the organ roll behind the snowfall

and saw in it the confetti of the heavenly bride chamber,

Glimpsed the sons of the bride chamber rejoicing

In that City which is full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof,

Before the Father whose face the angels of

little children do always behold.

The Healing Waters: Poems 1943.

(I am indebted to my friend the Rev. Joe Bassett for acquaintance with this poem and better acquaintance with Amos Wilder).

“The appreciation of the depths and multi-dimensionality of language led Wilder to reject any reductionist interpretation of biblical material. In order to understand the historical evidence of the first century imagination and heart, Wilder employed a wide-ranging mode of interpretation, using literary criticism, social psychology, the studies of archetypes and folklore, and anthropology.

Wilder’s inclusive mode of interpretation differed from other New Testament scholars, particularly in the relation of scripture to social ethics. In contrast to the existentialist position of Rudolf Bultmann,  Wilder maintained that an individualistic approach did not do justice to the full dimensions of the New Testament message. For Wilder the revelation of God comes through the New Testament’s varied symbols and myths, which need to be interpreted in their socio-historical context. Once interpreted, these mythological expressions can speak to the social dimension of faith.”

Wilder, as New Testament Scholar, Teacher, Pastor, and Preacher, could combine the rational and the imaginative, the scientific and the humanistic, history and mythology.   His mind and heart were formed in the furnace of WWI. His voice is yours, New England.  He knew personally and well Albert Schweitzer, whose understanding of our passage as an ‘interim ethic’, governed by the expected closeness of the coming kingdom, itself reigns, to this day.  ‘Resist not’ is meant for the time being, for the time Jesus lived and stretched out to when Matthew wrote.  It is meant for a particular time, but not for all time.  For all time, and for our time, we have the staggering responsibility to fit the teaching to a new era, another epoch.  Whether or not ethics is situational, it is certainly epochal.  Our response and resistance to a megalomaniacal Presidential regime can be guided by but not directed by these precious verses of Holy Scripture.  Their application is, to use a marvelous American idiom, ‘up to you’.

Ad Interim

So.  Here is what Amos Wilder, our guide, whose brother, Thornton, is the more familiar, will now say to us, about the Sermon on the Mount:  

Jesus meant the requirements very explicitly…but the radical formulation of the requirements is to be explained by the imminence of the kingdom of God.  The judgment was immediately at hand and an extraordinary ethic was proper for an extraordinary emergency.  We have then in Schweitzer’s term ‘interim-ethics’ immediately relevant only to Jesus’ disciples in the brief period before the end…his insight that the teaching is significantly governed by the drawing near of the new age is today generally accepted. (IBD 161)The teaching comes out of a small world, a rural and small town society of a comparatively simple kind, in a semitropical climate.  Nietzsche, Marx, Others decry it.  Give to him who begs from you (Luther: but not what he asks for).  As did Matthew, we are under obligation to appropriate (Jesus’ words) in a free and responsible way, applying them to our own situation…bearing in mind the disparity between his situation and ours (IBD 164) (Amos Wilder).  

Wilder knew Schweitzer from time shared in England, at Mansfield College.   They corresponded for years.  Wilder’s little church in Conway, New Hampshire—from which town brother Thornton collected scenes and stories, including Huie Newsome’s death from appendicitis on a Scout hike—holds letters from and plaque honoring Schweitzer, or so I am told.

Later in the month, we shall assay to understand a specific portion of the Sermon the Mount, under the aspect of this perspective on ‘interim ethics’.


‘Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice?’

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

We turn now, together, toward the communion table.  Those on the launching pad and those on the landing pad do so together.  We gather at the table of remembrance.  We gather at the table of thanksgiving.  We gather at the table of presence.  We enjoy together a sense of meaning.  We enjoy together a feeling of belonging.  We enjoy together an intimation of empowerment.  We enjoy together an experience of community.

Together, in communion meditation.

The first task of the church is not to speak but to be the church, a community, where object lessons in Christian life and faith are given unintentionally…The effective way of evangelism is to be the church and to pioneer in the field of social relationship and community service. The gospel is not good advice, but good news (Hoekendeijk).

Let us break bread together on our knees.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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