February 26

Lift Every Voice

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 4:1-11

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Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.

Every journey begins with a single step.  Our Lenten journey 2023 begins with such a reminder, and a step forward, in the reading of the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

We could not begin at a better Scriptural doorway than with the Matthean account of the Temptation. As one has said, ‘The accounts illustrate Jesus’ habitual refusal to allow his sense of mission to be influenced by concern for his safety or for merely practical interests’ (OAE, 1174). Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness, according to this legend which Matthew and Luke share. The passages from Hebrew Scripture remind us that the Messiahship of Jesus is set in the history of God’s chosen people, Israel, and the sort of disputation read today was quite common among the rabbis of old. The temptations Jesus faces have been perennial temptations for the community of faith, and for the children of Israel. The devil appears here, in good apocalyptic fashion, and in a way similar to his roles in other texts of the time. Jesus resists the charms of wealth, power and fame. Rather, he says, quoting scripture: One does not live by bread alone. You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Serve God alone. (repeat). Let us read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…We shall pass by the long consideration we might give these dominical sayings as they arise in our time, culture and setting, which are not at all foreign to interests in wealth, power and fame.  We are not unfamiliar with, even connected in some measure to earthly, even worldly wealth, power and fame. We may aspire to learning, virtue and piety, but we also know the influence of wealth, power and fame.  And in truth we need to, have to become bilingual, able to speak both languages, along the road of life…without forgetting which is our mother tongue, and without letting the penultimate eclipse the ultimate.

That is, come the forty days of preparation, come this season, come Lent, In our tradition, we begin our spiritual discipline with a long hard climb, up a high mountain, straight into the headwind of temptation. There is a cost in discipleship. There is discipline in discipleship.  James Weldon Johnson sang it best, a hymn with so much else and other that is a gift to all out of the history of our African American siblings, but which, in depth, speaks for and to all, bringing a durable unity to our natural diversity.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

That is, our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. Augustine, a passionate Christian if ever there was one.  Let us recall where we have been, whence we have come, come Lent. In this Marsh Chapel pulpit, from 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition, so important to the first 200 years in New England.  With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), John Calvin himself, (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013) (whom with gladness we shall greet in the flesh here at Boston University April 11, please come), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin) (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), summarized with the help of Paul of Tarsus (2016).

For the next decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England.  That is, in this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turned left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we have preached with, and learned from the Roman Catholic tradition, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen (2017) Thomas Merton (2018) John of the Cross (2019), Teresa of Avila (2020),  St Patrick (2021), and Dorothy Day (2022). In future years, it may be Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, or others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.

Yet something about these past three years and their hurts, something about Covid life in Boston and around the globe, it may be, something about the events and outcomes of this winter, something about immersion in the home of the bean and the cod for several years, something, a connection say with our many Roman Catholic friends, listeners, correspondents, partners in the fellowship of the Gospel, this year brought Augustine of Hippo onward.  His may be a very timely voice for us, in winter, 2023.  For this Lent we mark three years of Covid, costly, costly years.  Our physically present Sunday congregation has slowly and gradually come back near to the levels of 2019, though the very, actual people present are some 70% different people from three years ago.  One has yet to see, to read a piercingly full analysis of just what has happened, by Covid, to patterns of gathering, to habits of assembly, to rhythms of worship, to life.  One undergraduate described her two high school Covid years in a single word, ‘disconnected’.  It is that disconnection, shared disconnection, that we have yet fully to understand.

Yet life abounds.  Yesterday, on route to Coach Jones’ BU basketball contest with Lehigh on West Campus—Senior Day by the way, and attended by among others the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester, with the Associate Dean of the Dental School passing out tooth brushes and tooth paste, for whatever reason—we paused to photograph our Marsh Chapel choir ascending their bus to New York City, outside Nickerson Field, headed to sing this afternoon, 3pm in…yes, Carnegie Hall, for listeners present and live streamed.  We are very proud of them.  But, you ask, how is it that we also and still have a robust, excellent choir here today—I tell you in full measure, I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted, and well you are too not to have the preacher singing a solo: it is musical magic conjured by Ms. Weckworth, Dr. Jarrett and Mr. Blackwell.  After the game, Coach Jones victorious, The Pharos Quartet offered a full afternoon program in Marsh Chapel, and then the ROTC annual formal party and dance, all present dressed in tuxedos, uniforms and gowns, dressed ‘to the nines’, filled out the evening with prayers, speeches, and nourishment. Yet life abounds.

As part of that life, right now, we are viscerally engaged in our own struggles.  We are seeking to support, for instance, what is right and best in Ukraine, with measures both of resistance and restraint, resistance to merciless brutality, and restraint before the prospect of expanded conflict. Further, right now, we are seeking to be engaged in healing for the victims of an horrific earthquake. One pastoral word, among others, might be today to keep us focused on our own circles of influence, the places where we can actually make a difference, over against the global and endless circles of concern which we carry. (One such point of influence, of leverage, is the United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR.).  Amid such struggles, our guide, our interlocutor for Lent 2023, will be Augustine of Hippo, born in 354ce, taught rhetoric reading Cicero 375ce, become Professor of said discipline in 383ce, in Milan, where fatefully he heard the preaching of St. Ambrose, baptized in 387, then ordained priest (and later Bishop), who subsequently wrote 113 books, 500 sermons and 200 letters before his death at age 76 in 430ce.  We have no time, ability or need to offer a comprehensive comprehension of him, in our wrestling with the Gospel.  Rather we pause, along the trail, in earshot of his mind and heart, to listen, to listen, to listen, and to learn.  As a great theologian once said of the purpose of preaching…’to teach, to delight and to persuade’.  Said Augustine.

That is the sermon teaches us to sing out for what yet may be, what yet can be:

My Lord, what a morning

My Lord, what a morning

Oh, my Lord, what a morning

When the stars begin to fall

To begin, quintessentially for Augustine, we begin with Holy Scripture, and within Scripture with the Apostle Paul.  Augustine loved Scripture, taught and preached it, plumbed its very depths, and famously was utterly converted to allegiance to Jesus Christ in the reading of a passage from Romans.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  To begin, for today, let us offer an attempt at an Augustinian rendering of this morning’s epistle.

Romans 5:12-19

It befits Augustine that our Lenten Epistle readings start with Paul, and within Paul Romans 5, the ‘great watershed of the New Testament’.  Romans 5 takes some cooking, some preparation prior to consumption.

It befits Augustine that here Paul explains sin, explains death, explains, sin and death, explains the world, explains the law

As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…

Meaning that existence, our existence, is troubled existence from the very start, from Adam.  Life is troubled life, beginning with Adam.  Troubled by sin, that is distance from, estrangement from God, the good, the good life.  At a gathering earlier this month someone asked, ‘How do you deal every Sunday with something else—Tyrie Nichols, Michigan State, Ukraine, Earthquake, Train wreck’.  We might add and name tragedies closer to home and to our own homes.  How indeed?  Sin may be out of our lexicons but is surely not or our lives.  Sin is the gone wrongness in life, present to us every day.  It is cosmic, far more than personal.  It is our condition.  Sin and death.

It befits Augustine that here Paul explains Adam and Christ, freedom and trespass, grace and gift:

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.

Meaning that our religion, our religious existence, is troubled existence from the very start, from Adam.  Religion is troubled, beginning with Adam and the garden variety search for truth.  We tend to prefer to search in height and breadth, in what we can see and what we can count.  Give us the visible and the measurable, not history and not mystery.  Visibility and countability, not invisibility and accountability.  So, we miss the hidden, we miss the subterranean, we miss the dusky dim, we miss the haunted, we miss the elusive, we miss the darkened, we miss the mysterious, we miss the mysterium tremendum, we miss the aural and vocal, we miss the divine, we miss…God.   How do you measure a full heart?  How do you measure love?

It befits Augustine that here Paul explains Adam and Christ, trespass and righteousness, grace and gift, condemnation and justification, the one and the many:

Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5 on Adam and Christ is challenging reading, but not that endlessly challenging.  It is readily explained.  It is hard but not that hard to render.  Life is trouble, beginning to end, trouble, cradle to grave, trouble, first tooth in to last tooth out, trouble, much to our dismay and dislike, but evident to our experience and suffering: God enters trouble in love, God enters life in Christ.  Religion is trouble, beginning to end, much to our dismay and dislike, but evident to our experience and suffering:  the grace of God reforms even religion in the power of love, God restores religion in Christ, whose gospel, as Bonhoeffer told us, can even be summarized, sung and loved as ‘religionless Christianity’.  Faith, the love of God, begins with a hard look at our actual condition.  That is why the hymns of faith, like those of James Weldon Johnson, grab us so:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears

Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way

Thou who has by thy might led us into the light

Keep us forever in the path we pray

Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee

Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee

Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand

True to our God, true to our native land

The Sunday common lectionary readings, if nothing else, are utterly, thoroughly and painfully realistic.  Their trenchant realism is their ticket of entry into your heart, soul, mind and strength.  You and I may not always understand, or agree with, or enjoy them, but there is no doubting their existential and religious honesty and accuracy.  That is their claim to and for your trust.  As Ray Hart once said, apropos of I forget what: you have to give them something to trust.

In other words, if you want understanding of and explanation of the Holy Scripture, well…look around you.  A part of our lack in depth of understanding of our condition, in life and religion, is a mirror image of our lack in depth of understanding of our condition, in Scripture and tradition.  In that sense, the old spiritual is right, it’s all been written in the book…

Sometimes, a good, hard, honest look at our actual condition is the first, a first Augustinian step in faith.  From such utter realism, as we shall see in the coming weeks, St. Augustine found his way to God.  We can too.  We can too.  We too, at long last, can find a way to sing, to pray as Augustine did:

Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.

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

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