April 17

Easter Presence

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 24:1-12

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But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

He went home, amazed… (Gk: thaumazon) …He marveled, he wondered, he was rocked by amazement.  Peter, the rock on which the church, and the faith of the church, are built, here, in this verse added by a later scribe, went home…amazed.  There is no God language here.  No G-O-D.  There is no theological language, no God-talk here.  On Easter.  On Easter!  No.  If such God-talk makes you skittish, uncomfortable, makes you question whether you have a place at the Easter table, hear today’s Gospel: Easter sings Presence. Easter sings presence!

One summer some years ago our family made a three-day trip to Maine.  We stopped in Kennebunkport and swam in the ocean.  That day the newspaper carried a little book review of a short book called On Presence.  The review noted that the book had been written by Ralph Harper, an unknown Episcopal priest in Maryland, who also taught a religion course at the local college.  The book won a prestigious prize.  The author was quoted as saying, among other things, ‘After preaching almost every Sunday for the past 31 years, I know how hard it is to say anything honest’.  I stuffed the review in my shirt pocket.  I finally bought the book (though nine months later).  The book is about presence, sense of presence and practice of the presence of God.  It is about being amazed, amazed as was Peter.

Harper writes, we have too short a time on this earth to pass up any chance to find words and images to live by.  I believe almost everyone is capable of being moved by some person, place, (part of) nature, or individual work of art.  Of course, there is instability and incoherence in and about us all the time.  There is also the inexhaustible store of Being to keep us permanently in awe.

Harper writes, “Not everything can be said easily, except claims of absolute affirmation or denial. In time, most things can be said clearly, at least. And some of these things are so important that we should do everything we can to make them clear. Presence is one of those things. It is not a word that we should allow anyone to rule out of our vocabulary.” (120)

This is our first Easter together since 2019.  It is good to see you.  Here is the Easter Gospel after two years in the Covid cave:  Easter Presence.

Howard Thurman, the Dean of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, 1953-1965, found God through poetry, through psalms, and through paintings.  Last week, Samuel Wells, formerly of Duke Chapel, and now in the pulpit of St. Martin the Fields, began his sober sermon, ‘Preaching in Perilous Times’, a meditation on the 23 Psalm, with, yes, Howard Thurman.  Presence, say in a poem.  A sense of presence, say in a psalm.  The practice of presence, say in a painting.

That is, our beloved former dean, Howard Thurman, was a poetic theologian, a theological poet.  Presence, his sense of presence, his practice of presence, intimate to the natural world, made him so.  He was 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, so he is still 50 years ahead of me!  Late at night, along his beloved Daytona Beach, he remembered walking alone and with his feet in the sand.

He wrote, ‘the ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior.  The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of consciousness.  Death would be a small thing I felt in the sweep of that natural embrace.’

Presence.  Presence of mind. (A great phrase).  It happened that a wonderful, beloved professor died in mid-lecture.  Later, the fifteen students from the class were gathered.  After initial awkwardness, there was a full presence in the room as they spoke.  One spoke a soliloquy on trauma and grief.  One gave a soliloquy on connection in hardship. One spoke a soliloquy on pride and love.  One gave a soliloquy on how others, his faculty friends, who had known him so much longer, might be hurting so much more.  ‘Let’s go visit them and offer our condolences’, one said.  And they did.  It was a powerful, poetic moment.  Where did we ever get the idea that 20-year-olds cannot say and do great things?

Presence.  Presence of mind. Last week Gerda Weissmann Klein, died at age 97, a survivor of the holocaust.  Before he was taken from her in 1942, her father implored her, if she was taken, to wear her ski boots, which she protested because it was summer.  But she did so.  By 1945 she was being marched 350 miles.  She survived, ‘in part she said because while many others wore sandals, she had her ski boots…and her imagination’ (NYT 4/9/22).

Today, Easter, 2022, may you discover or be discovered by such poetry, such presence of mind.

Dean Thurman was a lover of the Psalms.  Presence, his sense of presence, his practice of presence, intimate to the natural world, led him so. You cannot find, or know, Thurman without worship, sacrament, prayer, singing, spirituals, preaching—without religion.  And particularly the Psalms.  He had a favorite, or two.  Perhaps you do as well.  Pick two and learn them by heart this year.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

A sense of presence.  Samuel Terrien taught us:  Presence….does not alter nature, but changes history…through the character and lives of women and men….The elusive presence of…a walking not a sitting God, a God nomadic, hidden, elusive and free…a God of tent not temple, of ear not eye, of name not glory…a God who creates and calls out a spiritual interiority, a commission by command…a God of time not space, of grace not place…whose faith allows one to translate love for God into actual behavior in society…(393)

 Yet for some, perhaps for you, come Easter, the three letters, G-O-D, may be more fence than doorway.  Not only the agnostics and apophatics, but also, and more-so, the average person, the ‘reasonable man’ of insurance law, often stumbles on those three letters.  And here in part is why:  if God is God, he is not good, and if God is good he is not God.  That is, it is a hard to square the concentric circles of love and power, power and love.  20,000 innocent civilians have been slaughtered this month in Mariupol alone, according to recent estimates. We are tuned in because they lived in homes like those in Boston.  They shopped in stores resembling our own.  They used social media and the internet as do you.  They rode transit, owned cars, vacationed in Barcelona, spoke multiple languages and were part of the new or renewed Russian appetite for slaughter.  If God could stop that and didn’t, he is not good.  If God would stop it and couldn’t, he is not God.  For some, hence, the three letters, G-O-D, are more fence than doorway.  Nor does it help that our halting, partial overtures to a sound, liberal, biblical theology have left us shorn of vocabulary. Sin. We hardly name it.  Death.  We rarely face it.  The daily threat of meaningless.  We barely conceive it.  And then along comes a five-year political crisis for American democracy.  And then along comes a two- year hibernation in the COVID cave.  And then along comes Ukraine, with a whiff of nuclear bombast, nuclear bomblast, in the air.  January 6. 1 million dead. A corpse with hands tied behind the back. Creation, we see.  Salvation, we assume.  But fall?  The fallenness of creation?  The abject, dire, need, one beggar telling another where both can find bread, the impossible possibility in fallenness of salvation?  We were absent that day, or took another course, not that there is any.  Or we thought we had bigger fish to fry.  We in five years, in two years, in five weeks and two days, have had a refresher course in the need for liberal biblical theology.  Sin is the absence of God.  Death is the absence of God.  Meaninglessness is the absence of God.  But you, it may well be, are not at ease with those three letters.  They seem a fancy, a fiction, an antique mistake.

Sometimes they seem so to me, too—though in fact and full I hold fast to the ancient traditions and language—yet sometimes they seem so to me, too, at least given our current cultural, linguistic incapacity, our cultural, linguistic exclusion of the three letters, GOD. So, the Gospel offers an Easter gift, a saving one, another word, that means GOD, but may say so better, at least for some, for a time, in our time.  The word is PRESENCE.   A back porch entry, not a front porch one.   With Thurman, and with Peter today, you may find wonder, marvel, and amazement, in presence.  Peter was amazed…

Today, Easter, 2022, may you discover or be discovered by such a sense of presence, perhaps this season a doorway for you to faith, rather than a fence.

 Thurman was a painter.  He did paint with brush and canvass, and loved to depict penguins, among other figures.  Presence, his sense of presence, his practice of presence, intimate to the natural world, led him so.  But they were the verbal paintings, the metaphors in speech, that were his greatest gifts.  One favorite was ‘a crown to grow into’.  A crown is placed over our heads the for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.

Sometimes, as Ralph Harper wrote, we need the height of presence: “When I am moved by a painting or by music, by clouds passing in a clear night sky, by the soughing of pines in the early spring, I feel the distance between me and art and nature dissolve to some degree, and I feel at ease. I feel that what I know makes me more myself than I knew before. This is how the saints felt about God, and I see in my own experience elements that I share with the saints and prophets, the philosophers and priests.” (6)

Our grandmother loved Brother Lawrence, and his book, The Practice of the Presence of God.  (John Wesley also loved the book).  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Carmelite lay brother, who was injured in battle, and became a household servant, a valet, a cook, a dishwasher.  My grandmother grew up near Cooperstown, driving a horse and buggy to the milk station, skating on the Hudson, once all the way to Poughkeepsie, later on driving a car like she drove a horse and buggy, side to side, born 25 years before suffrage, posting little notes on her kitchen door like, ‘do one thing:  there, you’ve done one thing’, and, ‘do you know who I like to cook a big meal for? ANYBODY’, teaching the Sunday school class no one else wanted, for 6th grade boys, wearing out the Jehovah Witnesses when they came to call (‘can’t you stay a little bit longer’?), with her detailed, exacting knowledge of the Old Testament, and in all and with all, living day by day to ask respectful questions, and then listen intently to the responses.  She loved the dishwasher of the 17th century.

He was all about presence.

Brother Lawrence: ‘the time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees.

Brother Lawrence: ‘do not be discouraged…often, in the beginning, you will think that you are wasting time, but you must go on, be determined and persevere in it until death, despite all the difficulties.

Today, Easter 2022, may you discover or be discovered by such a rhetorical portrait, a word painting, a new favorite or an old one.


Presence.  A sense of presence.  The practice of presence. The faithfulness of Marsh Chapel, its fine lay leadership past and present, the beauty of its sanctuary, and its gifts of friendship for those near and far, are a lasting grace and help us.  In a world in which there is so much wrong, we need one another to help us hold fast to what is good—a poem, a psalm, a painting. Even today.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

He went home, amazed…(Gk: thaumazon)…He marveled, he wondered, he was rocked by amazement.  In Easter Presence, may we too marvel, wonder and be rocked by amazement.  It is Easter!  Can you allow a bit of presence to touch your heart?

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

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