June 28

A Reading Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10: 40-42

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Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.


At Marsh Chapel in June, we have a fairly long-standing set of Sunday traditions, honored this year, for the obvious reasons, in the breach.  On the first Sunday of June we gather for Holy Communion and monthly dish to pass luncheon, with a presentation by Sharon Wheeler of BU on planned giving, and a review of forms of ministry in our midst.  On the second Sunday of June we gather ahead of worship for a discussion of “suggestions for summer reading’, led by the Dean, or a staff member or a lay leader in the congregation.  On the third Sunday of June we gather for Fathers’ Day brunch, welcoming all of every age and station, fathers or not, ahead of worship.  On the fourth Sunday of June we offer a foreshortened Vacation Bible School, after worship and over lunch, with one leading the singing and another teaching the Bible.  Well, this June 2020, none of this has come to pass, a bit of a loss for or community, June being the optimal time, before vacation and after graduation, to focus on the congregation itself, University and Summer notwithstanding.

Still, though, it has been pleasant to think of these none so rare as a day in June rituals, amid pandemic and pandemonium.  More, it seemed perhaps fitting to offer a sermon, this Fourth Sunday in June, to pick up at least one of these threads, that of reading.  At least, in a fallow time, we may find more time to read.  Who taught you to read?  Not how to read, but to read, to love to read?  Who taught you to read?


In 1965 our sixth-grade teacher, Marjorie Shafer, began each morning by reading to the class.  She read for about thirty minutes, standing in the middle of the front of the room, glasses fixed and eyes down (though she could readily spot any movement, misbehavior, drowsiness or discourtesy).   While other books remain in some misty memory (Harriet the Spy for example), only one of the books she read from stem to stern hangs in the mind to this day.  This was JR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  My seat was somewhere in the middle rows, somewhere mid-way back, neither by choice nor personal assignment, but by the luck of the alphabet and a last name starting with H.  Jill Hance sat right in front of me as she had, more or less, every year of grammar school.  The Hobbit captured my imagination.  The figure of Bilbo Baggins.  The setting out on a journey from home to somewhere.  The various tangles and intrigues.  The mystical setting.  The return.  It was a sad day when the book ended.  In the spring, I learned that our family was moving out of town, the only town I really knew, and the place of school and friendships since kindergarten.  For some reason I became sick, and unable to go to school for about ten days.  One afternoon Mrs. Shafer came to our home to read to me from the last book of the year (Harriet), to make sure I did not miss the conclusion.

A few years later, rummaging in the ten-year old pile of Saturday Evening Post magazines in our summer cabin, there appeared a simple story.  The title, author, and details are gone.  Only the plot remains.  The high school quarterback and class president is challenged by his friends to date a very plain, bespectacled, socially awkward girl, a loner in their class.  On a bet and on a whim, he does so.  At first all goes well:  he is able to take her out and return to his friends and laugh with them about their trick.  But then something happens, or some things happen.  Given his attention, her attire and appearance change.  She starts to dress, well.  She doffs her spectacles.  She dotes on him, and is enthralled with his stories.  In short order she becomes something of a beauty.  Given her transformation, his own behavior changes.  The dates are no longer tricks, the words no longer jokes.  He stops seeing his friends afterward.  They fall in love, they fall fully and passionately in love.  Well.  Behold the power narrative.

One summer in high school, 1971, Tolkien struck again, this time in the form of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If memory serves, I read the three books that one summer.  They carried me away, into another place and kind of place, and into another mind and kind of mind, and into another story and kind of story.  The struggle of light and darkness, of what is good and what is not, compellingly conveyed, stayed in memory and in heart.

Then, two summers later, heading into a Great Books of Russia autumn course, taught at OWU by Dr. Ruth Davies, a Professor of fearsome reputation, I took to lifeguarding work at church camp The Brothers Karamazov. It seems as though it took me the whole summer to read it, and to savor it, and to capture and be captured by it.  You could feel the power in the pain of Raskolnikov and the love in Alyosha, without knowing much of anything, yet, about life and books and all.  Needless to say, the book served as a fitting preparation for an introduction to the course, which, of all college courses, in its readings, requirements and sessions, was easily the best, and the hardest.

I skip to For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in the hills up outside Segovia, Spain, where I lived and studied 1974-5, the last year in the life of Francisco Franco, and of his Spain, and where I read this perhaps my favorite book.

During the fall term of seminary year one, when I should have been reading the detailed notes about the 39 books of Hebrew Scripture, about which prior I knew next to nothing, and during which season my relationship with my soon to be wife Jan was settling and congealing, heading toward marriage the next summer, I found myself up late at night reading, for the first time, Moby Dick.  In another sense, my reading life began with this book, though, in detail and in full, it would be hard to say why.  Yet it proved to be an excellent backstage for theological study of the formal sort still proffered at Union, NYC.

Two years or so out of seminary, say 1981, before the long journey into doctoral work, I found myself at the cottage, in dead summer, reading, line by line K Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  It landed with the same demolition on my soul and ministry as it had landed ‘on the playground of the theologians’ earlier in the century.  You cannot speak of God by speaking of Man in a loud voice.  I was not, and am not, a Barthian, but I am a lover of the Bible, in part due to my reading of Barth that summer.  For many years into the next decade, it seems, any free time for reading, not sermonic or ministerial, was flooded into the dissertation.  There was gain and loss in that gain and loss.  I found myself reading less fiction.

That changed again in the 1990’s, for whatever reason.  The two books of Alistair Macleod, Island and No Great Mischief, with their silently beautifully rendering of the geography of Cape Breton, and of the inner geography of its people, stunned and captivated.  And from there I found my way back along the trails of older classics, especially Middlemarch, G. Eliot, whose close reading of close living in cloistered secular culture kept my imagination and interest.  And so many others…The Remembrance of Things Past, Proust…The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley…and on…Who taught you, not how to read, but how to love to read?

The Strange World of the Bible

 Those who fall in love with reading will often, over time, find the pages of Holy Writ.  Because in these there is a durability, a realism, a poignant sense of suffering, and a depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  As this very hour, in our lessons from Holy, Holy Scripture.

Take decisions, for example.  While Genesis 22, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the tragedy of choices.  People choose, but they do not choose their choices.  For three months, you have been choosing, and you have that freedom, and must use it with courage, but you do not choose the context—say COVID 19—of the choices.  So, each day carries a dim reminder that our choices, not fully ours, will have ramifications, even mortal ramifications, in the lives of others.  My friend said last week, in full heart confession, ‘I am suffering from decision fatigue.  I am suffering from decision fatigue’.  Maybe you know the feeling today.  Abraham, caught between faith and love, between God and son, at least reminds us that we are not the first, at this grim altar of choice.

Take change, for example.  While Romans 6, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the great watershed—god, freedom, love, grace, heaven—into which Paul has been washed, and to which, by apocalyptic poetry, he bears witness.  You can change, be changed.  The world can change, be changed.  A country can change, be changed.  The orb of sin, the wages of which are also grim, may be displaced.  Life may become an orbit around the planet of love.  HERE: Love God, Love neighbor.  Love, and do what you will.   Paul, exiled from his god, has now been enslaved in love by THE GOD BEYOND GOD.

Take contagion, for example.  While Matthew 10, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the power of contagious love.  It is a hundred years at least in Boston since the citizenry has been so aware of the dark mystery of contagion.  One finger touches another, one hand by doorknob traces another, one chill cough caught in the breeze catches up to another.  Beloved we are probably many months and tragically hundreds of thousands of deaths away from getting away from COVID 19.  Contagion is our condition.  But read the Holy Scripture, Matthew 10.  Here the power of contagion OF A GOOD SORT is the metaphor for God in the world.  Not, to be sure, the malevolent contagion of infection, virus, illness.  But the power of it.  That kind of power—and you have seen it, here and there, now and then—where one contagious prophet and prophecy touches another, where one contagious justice touches another, where one hand of faith, act of kindness, moment of self-abnegation touches, and gives birth to another.

Before you miss the chance, in a short life time, to befriend the Bible, reckon with its durability, realism, poignant sense of suffering, and depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  Especially today’s Gospel, Matthew 10.

Matthew 10

The authority of Jesus’ ministry is herein transferred to disciples, ancient and modern.  To you.

We meet Jesus today on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel in Matthew 10.  First. Jesus has been about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember Jesus ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect to turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples.

Hold that thought.

The clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.  Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours.

Which part of this ministry draws you?

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.  Many at BU did so, or tried to, this Wednesday June 24.

Reading Today

In consonance with the preaching of Marsh Chapel over long time, and especially in the last three months, Boston University this week offered a full day of teaching and reflection on racism and anti-racism, this past Wednesday.  What was central, and striking, in the rich hours of presentation and discussion, were the many, and extemporaneous, references to apocalyptic, revelatory insights, recalled by the speakers—aha moments!—in reading.  In reading.  Alongside our own ministry through Marsh Chapel and Religious Life, and that of the now beautifully expanded Howard Thurman Center, which you celebrated right here in worship on January 19, 2020, the voices and leadership of the faculty, staff, presidential and provostial leadership of the University, and then that of the African American Studies Program, the Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and the new BU Center for Anti-Racism, came together in a great watershed, a confluence new in my experience.  It was wonderful.  I commend to you its recorded version.  Let me leave you with ten sentences (out of a hundred that might have been quoted) from that day, rooted in a shared, reading life:

There is nothing innate about our racial hierarchy.

The final act of violence is the very denial of violence.

The heartbeat of racism is denial.

Racism creates a group differentiated vulnerability, and premature death.

Freedom, real freedom is a whole lot more than civil rights alone.

It is unjust to ask those marginalized by the current system now alone to fix it.

Even if you can’t do empathy, can you at least do justice?

People are rediscovering their own power.

We are at a point now that comes from a movement fifty years ago.

(And last, as a cautionary note, in a sermon on reading):  We can’t just read our way out of this.  (!!)

Is yours a reading life, liberally fed by what is read?  Happy Reading, summer 2020!

Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.

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

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