December 3

Communion Meditation- December 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 13:24-37

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Come, thou long expected Jesus

Born to set thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart


Our gospel guides us forward this first Sunday in Advent, regarding ancient persecution, conflicts today, and apocalyptic attentiveness.

 Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

The earliest church was born in persecution, was born under the burden of persecution.

After that tribulation…the sun will be darkened…the stars of heaven shall fall

Those hearing, reading and writing and hearing, Mark 13 in its inception, could nod their heads, could feel the force of the words.  They were coming to faith, and coming of age, in and through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and at the hands of the Roman Emperor Domitian.  So, hence, the power of these lines was, for the first hearers, a validation of their predicament.  So hence, the power of these lines was, for the first hearers, a deliverance from their predicament.  The darker things got—Peter to the lions, Paul to the lions, others to the lions, the edict to choose between Caesar and God, the edict to say that either Caesar was Lord or Christ was Lord, and to live with the consequences—the darker things got, the direr the need for the fig tree promise that summer is near, hang on.

Largely without exception our life in the community of faith is free of persecution, at least of the final, ultimate sort.  So, the apocalyptic language and imagery of these words aside, the force of the Gospel, come Advent each year, is alien to us, or largely so.  We can come to worship, receive communion, hear the music and words, and return to our routines, without the threat or burden of persecution, of empire wide persecution of those who would not bend the knee to Caesar, for whom Christ not Caesar was worshipped, Christ not Caesar was God.

But our existence, if not our faith community, our physical life, if not our religious life, our bodily life, if not our confessional life, we yet know, is fragile, and ultimately frail, and finally mortal, finally to be extinguished.   Here, it may be, the Advent gospel touches us.  With and when there is a quickened sense of our mortality, our own undatable but unavoidable death, then…He is near.  At the very gates.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  So. Mortal. Watch.  So. Mortal.  Watch.  Those who had staked their faith and their lives on Jesus, at the possible cost of persecution, at the possible cost of the lions’ den, could hear these words.  They are likely not the words of Jesus.  But they are surely words about Jesus that carried power for those who were his people, given as Jesus’ words to save Jesus’ people, in extremity.

It is mightily humbling to recall, to realize, that the faith we share was, at first, in the first century, lived out and so preserved but many who suffered for righteousness’ sake.  So, the saying, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith’.  A great dear treasure, our own basis for meaning and belonging and empowerment, the faith once delivered to the saints, and through them to us, was galvanized in the heart of persecution.  In the dark of December, it brings a ray of light.  Others have known, and in far sharper relief and detail, something of what in our own corners of life we also know, the cost of discipleship.

The earliest church was born in persecution, was born under the burden of persecution.

Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

Through this autumn, in the preaching and hearing of the Gospel, we have had in mind, tried to keep in mind,  the tragic conflicts today around the globe, and particularly in the middle east.  We listen with care for the word of truth, some word of truth, in earshot of harm, of warfare, of death, of forms of persecution.  We take a step, one step, then another.  Week by week.

October 15: Elie Wiesel over four decades here at Boston University did so much (for us, saying): “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.” 

October 22: For those more on the left, a question today, and be careful how you answer, will be, first, and last, do you believe and affirm that Israel (in the Middle East, as a Jewish democracy) has and must have a right to exist? For those more on the right, the question, and be careful how you answer, will be first, and last, do you believe God is Lord of all life, all human life, not narrowly divine only to one perspective, one tradition, one religion, one sacred book? 

October 31: Those hunting for a sermon on Christian teaching regarding pacifism and just war both, are referred to the sermon from this pulpit February 12, of this year, “With Malice Toward None”.

November 5: Our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, not unrelated to our fear of freedom, and its demands, and its rigors, and its openness to human flourishing. 

November 19:  Faith does not exclude us from calamity, but faith prepares us to fight it.  Faith does not give us the capacity to understand, but it does give us the courage to withstand.   Faith is not an answer to every question, but it is a living daily question of ultimate concern.  Faith in God is faith in God, not in another creaturely being.  Faith does not protect us from calamity, though it does weave us together into the shared human experience and history of loss. 

November 26:  Any manner of bigotry deserves to be met by condemnation, contempt and resistance.  We have plenty of work to do, and let us not grow weary in doing it.  We will want to sharpen our understanding of the requirement in just war theory of proportionality, of response that is proportionate to the provocation, proportionate to the needed defense, proportionate to the given situation, and those, especially women and children, potentially harmed therein.

Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

Apocalyptic theology in the New Testament, like our Holy Gospel from Mark 13 today, is a language of hope lifted in the face of death, a language of hope lifted in the face of death.  Apocalyptic followed the prophetic hope for justice on earth, and preceded the late platonic hope for life in heaven, building on the former and preparing the way for the latter.  We need them all, to some degree.  The prophets hoped for a righteous earth.  The Gnostics hoped for a glorious heaven.  In between, the apocalyptic hope in the face of death is hope ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, a hope for the apocalypse of heaven on earth.  As Paul wrote, ‘Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’. (Rom.8)

For the gist of today’s gospel is clear enough.  We cannot see or know the future.  We ought to live on the qui vive.  Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic.  Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come.  Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last.  Which it is.  Song and Scripture, sermon and prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come this very morning.  We shall want to be attentive to attentiveness.

One wrote recently: The lament is as old as education itself: The students aren’t paying attention. But today, the problem of flighty or fragmented attention has reached truly catastrophic proportions. High school and college teachers overwhelmingly report that students’ capacity for sustained, or deep attention has sharply decreased, significantly impeding the forms of study — reading, looking at art, round-table discussions — once deemed central to the liberal arts. (D.G. Burnett, et. al., NYTimes Op Ed 11/24/23)

Love, faith and hope all include.  Let us be attentive.

Most of us need more reminder than instruction.  Let us be attentive.

Wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let us be attentive.

Do not remember our iniquity forever.  Let us be attentive.

Restore us O Lord God of Hosts.  Let us be attentive.

Be careful, nostalgia, said Dr. Walton, can eclipse curiosity.  Let us be attentive.

The prerogative of care is love.  Let us be attentive.

Our students are becoming not just intelligent people, but also people who will make the world a better place.  Let us be attentive.

Yet our cyber world and devices are driving addictive behavior.  Let us be attentive.

Covid, Dean Galea just wrote this week, taught three lessons:  the marvelous power of vaccines, the pervasive inequality of and in public health, and, now, the broad pervasive and tragic distrust of institutions.  Let us be attentive.

Look north in New England and see gun violence in Lewiston and Burlington.  Let us be attentive.

We shall meet violence with patient justice, one leader once said.  Let us be attentive.

Born thy people to deliver

Born a child and yet a king

Born to reign in us forever

Now thy gracious kingdom bring

By thine own eternal spirit

Rule in all our hearts alone

By thine all sufficient merit

Raise us to thy glorious throne

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