Archive for the ‘Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†’ Category

May 24

The Gospel According to Elmo

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Norman Rockwell could have painted the scene: Two parents and a child at the dining table, hands held, heads bowed, thanks given: for home, for family, for food. At the end of the prayer the parents say a solemn amen. Then, with gusto, verve, and vigor the child enunciates: Elmo!

Now, for most parents, this might be cause for amusement or even delight. But when one of the two parents is a priest, the thought that immediately crosses the mind is “Oh dear, what will the congregation think!?” Upon further reflection, however, there are certainly far worse models of God roaming around in human psyches than that of the soft, red, furry Sesame Street character Elmo. Perhaps this episode might even make a good sermon illustration!

To be sure, Elmo wins the sweetheart award on Sesame Street. Big Bird is anxious, Grover is inept, Cookie Monster is fixated, and Oscar the Grouch is, well, a grouch. Elmo is sweet. Elmo wants everyone to be kind to one another. Elmo asks forgiveness when responsible for something going awry. Elmo is deeply attentive to relationships and feelings and the wellbeing of everyone in the neighborhood. Elmo assiduously avoids pronouns, speaking exclusively in the third person.

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the arrival of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter and the birthday of the church. The liturgical color of the Holy Spirit is red. Is not Elmo, the red Muppet, very much the embodiment of what God the Spirit is for us? The Holy Spirit is the comforter, who reconciles and renews, and the advocate, who attends to the building up of the community of the church.

Our poor, soiled, broken world is desperately in need of such reconciliation and renewal. Our world in which a train crashes, quenching the lives of eight and derailing the lives of hundreds. Our world in which felons on Wall Street seek to impoverish instead of enrich their clients, saying that “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Our world in which radical Islamists rape women and children in the name of God in order to produce more radical Islamists. Our world in which the president of a university cannot even bear to look at, let alone shake the hand of, a graduating student because she carries a mattress. Yes, we desperately need an advocate and a comforter.

Of course, all of these situations, and the very predicament of the human condition if we are being honest with ourselves, are hardly unambiguous. Ambiguity makes the ministry of the Holy Spirit hard to discern; it makes the Gospel according to Elmo hard to apply. How, for example, are we to balance kindness with justice? How can we ask forgiveness when doing so requires admitting culpability, which could get us sued? How are we to attend to relationships, to the feelings and wellbeing of all in our community, when our own feelings and wellbeing are far from secure? How are we to speak when seemingly any word we might say will inevitably offend, hurt, or otherwise piss off someone?

Human life is ambiguous. Consider Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Michael was unarmed. Michael was black. Michael’s family said he was a good man. Michael stole cigarillos and shoved a store clerk. Michael was wrestling with an experience of the divine, and his rap lyrics revealed his struggle to reconcile an experimentum tremendum et fascinans. Consider Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Eric was unarmed. Eric was black. Eric’s friends described him as a “gentle giant” and a “neighborhood peacemaker.” Police approached Eric on suspicion of his selling loose cigarettes that had not been taxed. Eric was unable to work as a horticulturalist due to health problems. Consider Freddie Gray, who was arrested and placed in the back of a police van under the supervision of six police officers, and by the time he arrived at the police station, he was dead. Freddie was arrested for carrying a small knife. Freddie was black. Freddie was remembered at his funeral as loving, caring, and respectful. Freddie had been involved in twenty criminal court cases at the time of his death. Freddie was a childhood victim of lead poisoning. Three ambiguous lives. But if living an ambiguous life is a crime punishable by death, then who among us can be saved?

In addition to the plague of ambiguity, the human condition is also plagued by the inability to cope with ambiguity. Just as Cookie Monster fixates on cookies, we human beings fixate on the worst parts of one another and reduce each other to those parts. Much of the focus on the personal lives of Michael, Eric, and Freddie in the media fixated on their criminal pasts and the criminal circumstances that caused them to encounter the police. In most cases, these three men were reduced to being criminals. Clearly, thugs one and all, and there can be nothing ambiguous about a thug. This fixation is only exacerbated by the projection and transference of the taken-for-granted criminality of black persons onto each and every black life and black body even as white lives benefit from the projection and transference of the taken-for-granted competence, integrity, and nobility of white persons onto each and every white body. Any perceived fault, no matter how inconsequential, makes a black person a criminal, while white privilege covers a multitude of sins.

Reduced to criminality, Michael, Eric, and Freddie, among so many others, have been cast as monsters. Their faults have been taken as constitutive of their whole being. Regardless of any good they might have done in their lives, regardless of the love they might have shared with family and friends, regardless of the circumstances they may have endured, the sum total of their lives is assigned the label of monster. Now a monster is an aberration, a sign of something deeply wrong with the world. Monsters are evil. Monsters are morally deformed. Monsters do not belong, cannot belong, must never belong because their very being is incompatible with the goodness of the world and the moral order.

It is under this banner of rooting out and destroying monsters that millions of black men have been disappeared from American society. The New York Times got their reporting wrong here. They report that there are 1.5 million missing black men. Further, they report that “more than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.” The problem is not with their statistics. It is with their rhetoric. They make it sound like there is no cause for these absences or that these black men simply disappeared of their own volition. Poof!

NO! Here, for once, it is necessary and right to use the passive voice. These black men have been disappeared. They did not disappear all on their own; their disappearance was done to them. Because they were identified as monsters they were killed or incarcerated. It is convenient for us in northern North America to think that the phenomenon of “the disappeared” is a result of the metaphysical realism of Latin America. On this weekend when Oscar Romero is beatified we are attentive to the pervasive plague of disappeared persons throughout most of the twentieth century in Latin America. As it turns out, the phenomenon is home grown as well.

You too are part monster. You too have monstrous parts of yourself. We all do. Boston College philosopher Richard Kearney notes that the English words hostility and hospitality share a common root in the Latin word hostis, which in turn has the ambivalent meaning of either enemy or host. What hostility and hospitality have in common is that they are both possible responses to strangers, to others, to those we have not encountered before, to those we cannot account for, to those we do not understand. Hospitality assumes the best but is prepared for the worst whereas hostility assumes the worst and cannot comprehend anything else. We have the capacity for both, for hostility and for hospitality, within each of us.

Right now Oskar Gröning is on trial for three hundred thousand counts of accessory to murder for his activities during the Shoah, the Holocaust. This may very well be the last trial of a Holocaust-era Nazi. How is it that so many people could be convinced to participate in such cruelty, such inhumanity, such systemic evil, such gross monstrosity? It turns out that we all can. We are all susceptible to the ideas that if others are doing it, it must be okay, that if an authority is ordering it that it must be okay, that we are not the monsters, they are, and that the monstrousness of others justifies our own monstrousness in return.

The conviction that we are not in fact monsters creates the need to somehow cope with the experience of monstrosity in life. A typical human response is to create a scapegoat. In ancient Greece, a criminal or poor person was cast out of society in appeasement of natural disasters, which were taken of signs of divine displeasure. Some things never change, it seems. In ancient Israel, the sins of the Israelites were ceremonially placed on an actual goat, which was then driven out into the desert. Both cases are example of the human inability to cope with our own monstrosity and so the need to cast blame elsewhere.

Here in the city of Boston we know something about monsters. For the past five months our city has relived the monstrous actions and reactions of the 2013 Marathon Bombing. We have collectively empathized with the pain and suffering of the victims of that day, including Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi. We have explored the motivations, influences, and acts of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of thirty counts stemming from the events of that day and sentenced to death for six of them.

In the coming weeks Dean Hill will have more to say about Tsarnaev and his sentence, but today we must ask whether sentencing him to death, or even to life imprisonment without any pretense of rehabilitation, has as much to do with his being a monster as it does with our own need to insist that we are not monsters? Surely a central function of scapegoating, of shifting the locus of the monstrous, is to assure that monstrosities reside elsewhere and not with us. No, we are not monsters, we have killed all of the monsters. No, we are not monsters, we have a special place for the monsters over there. We are not monsters because we did not do anything as bad as what he did. We are good, he is evil, no ambiguity, end of story.

Do not forget, friends, that the Holy Spirit can be monstrous too. The Holy Spirit is not scaled to human life, to human interests, to human desires, to human ideas and concepts. In explaining the chaos resulting from the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, Peter identified the coming of the Holy Spirit with the words of the prophet Joel:

And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Our Psalm affirms that the creation of all things is accomplished in the sending forth of the Holy Spirit, including the creation of the Leviathan, a great sea monster often associated with Satan himself. Contrary to calling us to cast out the monsters from our midst, the Holy Spirit calls us to convert hostility to hospitality and to recognize God in the playful sporting of the Leviathan.

This vision of God as wild, capricious, and dangerous is hardly comfortable. The conversion of hostility to hospitality requires resisting some very basic human impulses in order to attend to the unruly, uncouth, disruptive, monstrous presence of God. Christian faith in fact teaches that the inability to resist the impulse to hostility is sinful, and moreover is the very sinfulness that resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion, the crucifixion of the unruly, uncouth, disruptive, monstrous incarnation of God. But we have not learned. We continue to fail to convert hostility to hospitality. We persist in the sinfulness of hostility that cannot embrace the Gospel call to kindness, forgiveness, attentiveness to relationships and the wellbeing of others.

And so on this feast of Pentecost I ask you: Shall we then also crucify the Holy Spirit? The Gospel of John promises that the Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” In spite of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we persist in sin, unrighteousness, and judgment. We continue to cast others into the totalizing category of monsters while failing to recognize our own capacity and actual practice of monstrosity. Just as human sinfulness, unrighteousness, and judgment resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus, is it unreasonable to wonder if we are not, in our persistence in hostility, participating even now in the crucifixion of the Holy Spirit?

For much of Christian history, the Holy Spirit has been identified with the church, largely on the basis of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today. Theologically, the idea is that the Holy Spirit calls the church into being to enact God’s ongoing work in the world. The problem is that too often the church becomes convinced that the logic of this theological view works in both directions such that not only does the Spirit call the church to enact the work of God, but also whatever work the church does is therefore the will of God.

Anathema! The church is just as capable of distorting, rejecting, ignoring, and even inventing what the Holy Spirit calls it to be and do as any other flawed human institution. Thankfully, quite a few people have come to realize that this is just what too many churches have done and continue to do. Just last week the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life reported that the percentage of the population who do not identify with any particular denomination has grown by over 3.5% in the past seven years, from 12.1% in 2007 to 15.8% in 2014. The hypocrisy of too many churches in claiming to know the will of God, who is a saint and who is a monster, is increasingly incredible and intolerable to many. Thanks be to God! Are these folks giving up on God? Perhaps, but I would venture to guess that it is more likely that they are giving up on the flawed human institutions that hypocritically claim to have a handle on God and attempt to tell the Holy Spirit that she may blow where she wills so long as it is through the eye of their needle. Churches too can be and sometimes are monsters.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today: the gospel according to Elmo. Do not forget that Elmo too is a monster. If you look on his Wikipedia page, under “species,” Elmo is listed as a “Sesame Street Muppet Monster.” Like the call of the Holy Spirit, the gospel according to Elmo to be kind, to forgive, to attend to relationships and the wellbeing of others, to convert hostility to hospitality, to confess that we are usually wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment, is monstrous good news. From the perspective of human brokenness, ambiguity, and inability to cope therewith, this good news must seem a monster. Shall we crucify Elmo? Shall we nail his furry little hands and furry little feet to a cross, as monstrous human sinfulness brought about the crucifixion of Jesus, whose Gospel was just as unruly, uncouth, disruptive, monstrous as Elmo’s? For my daughter’s sake, I pray we do not.

Shall we crucify the Holy Spirit? Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand and we are wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because we do not believe Jesus; about righteousness, because Christ ascended to the Father and we see him no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world is condemned. Convert your hostility to hospitality: the gospel according to Elmo, and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC +, University Chaplain for Community Life

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July 6

Dance, then

By Marsh Chapel

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'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

-Elder Joseph Brackett


Wisdom: to live is to turn.  This is the wisdom cultivated by the Shakers, from whom we receive the song “Simple Gifts:” to live is to turn.  Life is not lived in its fullness by rejecting the body for the spirit, but rather in turning, turning body and spirit to God.

To turn is such a simple thing.  In fact, it begins in simplicity.  It begins in clearing away our own strivings and yearnings and longings.  Only then can we attend to and appreciate the goodness in the world around us that shows us, in turn, how to be good.  To be sure, the chaff grows with the wheat, but the goodness is there, if we slow down and pause long enough to see it, if we turn toward it, and turn ourselves in response.

And yet, the gift of simplicity is so far from our late modern condition.  Rather than clearing away our strivings, our yearnings, our longings to see what good might be found, we insist that our strivings, our yearnings, our longings are the good.  Ideology rules the day.  Awe, wonder, history, and mystery are pushed aside.

Life becomes like the vacation from hell.  Piled all into the car, the family sets out, bound for swimming and hiking and canoeing and bicycling and golf.  Of course, in order to make the drive all in one day, there is no time to stop.  There is no time to pull off and see the view over and down through the valley, to marvel that someone born and raised in such a small cabin could rise to the presidency of the United States, or to ponder the significance of the world’s largest ball of string.  In fact, the only stopping is to pump gas and take a quick bathroom break.  Lunch is packed in a cooler and will be eaten in the car.  The itinerary for the week is set and it is a tight squeeze.  Monday will be spent swimming and lying on the beach.  Tuesday is mountain climbing.  Wednesday is a canoe expedition.  Thursday is a bike hike.  Friday is golf.  And if it should rain?  Well, it mustn’t.  Then back in the car for a day’s drive home where the family passes out from exhaustion, needing a vacation from their vacation.

For the present generation of emerging adults, simplicity is not even pretended as a virtue, yea, does not even register.  Having been raised on a steady diet of soccer practice, band rehearsal, dance lessons, community service hours, and scouting, on top of school work and chores when they were younger and a part time job as soon as they grew old enough for such not to be illegal, since they were five years old, or really four years old for a large majority, and three years old for more than a few whose parents have a particular competitiveness, the linear life has been the norm for all that they have known of it; life, that is.  It is not even that soccer, band, dance, community service, scouting, school, chores, and work are understood to be goods in their own right, or even goods for the sake of developing a well-rounded person.  No, the ethic is that we must be so overcommitted, overworked, overbooked, and overwhelmed in order to get into college, get a job, get married, build a home, have children, and start the whole process over again.  Most recently, it is not even the case that many parents aspire for their children to get into a top-tier college and then get a high-powered job.  That might be nice, but really getting into any college at all would be an accomplishment and getting a job that pays more than minimum wage would be enough of an achievement.  Our imaginations, our hopes, our dreams about what life can be, should be, might be are reduced to the aspiration to subsist, and we are paranoid that even in the wake of all of that striving, we might not.

What would it look like to turn?  What would it look like to abandon the linear narrative, embrace simplicity, appreciate the world around us, apprehend the good inherent there, align our lives with the grain of the universe?  What good news might there be for emerging adults to abandon this mindset, and what good news might there be from emerging adults for both subsequent generations, and perhaps even their elders?


To begin with, we will need to grapple with the fact that emerging adults are doing just that.  They are emerging.  Most frequently the concept of “emerging adulthood” is simply a category to describe 18-25 year olds who are no longer adolescents but whom we are not quite sure we really want to consider full-fledged adults just yet.  It may do us some good, however, to worry this concept just a bit, to introduce some nuance, some complexity, and to do so by meandering across Commonwealth Avenue and taking a stroll down Cummington Mall to pay a visit to our neighbors in the natural sciences.

Emergence in the scientific community is a technical term for describing the process by which smaller, simpler things, when put together in the right relationships and under the right conditions, become bigger, more complex things, except that the bigger, more complex thing has properties that none of the smaller, simpler things had.  This is to say that the full reality of the higher order thing could not have been predicted from an analysis of the lower order things that make it up.   For example, the full reality of a human person with awareness, language, reason, complex emotional states, purpose, and many more qualities cannot be predicted from the cells, organs, and systems that make up human physiology.  Furthermore, it is not merely that the higher order thing, such as a human person, cannot be predicted simply due to a lack of fully understanding human physiology.  Rather, the unpredictability is there in principle.  Emergence denies the viability of a strict determinism.  Emergence is a messy process.  Putting things together in the same pattern in the same environment sometimes does not generate the emergent property.  And sometimes it generates a different emerging property than the last time those things were put together in that pattern in that environment.

This is good news for emerging adults!  The life that you are emerging from does not determine your life as a whole.  Soccer plus band plus dance plus community service plus scouting plus school plus chores plus work does not equal your life.  There is freedom to become more than the sum of your parts.  You are not destined to become a doctor or a lawyer or a concert pianist simply because your parents put you on what they thought was the track to becoming such.  Just ask Cordaro Rodriguez.  He graduated from the Boston University School of Law, passed the bar, and gave up on the challenging legal market to pursue his passion for music with three other BU alumni in Sons of Serendip, which is competing this season on America’s Got Talent.  Emergence is a turning from the limits of what must be to the power and potential of what can yet become.


Just as emerging adults are emerging, so too are they developing.  “In [Christ Jesus] the whole structure [of the household of God] is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”  Emerging adults are growing, are changing, are developing.

What John Henry Newman said about the development of ideas may just as well apply to the development of persons:

“But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea [or person] is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief [or person], which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

What, you missed that last line?  I’ll repeat it.  “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Engaged, as they are, then, in such a process of development, should we be surprised that emerging adults buck and bite at the chafing of the linear narrative of life?

In his New York Times op-ed last week entitled “Why Teenagers are Crazy,” Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College notes that both the reward center of the brain and the region that processes fear are overdeveloped in adolescents and emerging adults.  The result is simultaneously a tendency toward “risk taking, emotional drama and all forms of outlandish behavior,” and a surge in “anxiety and fearfulness.”  The linear narrative of life provokes the former, and reinforces the latter.  To turn is to take a few risks and to simplify is to ameliorate fear and anxiety.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

Elder Joseph Brackett may have known something about emerging adulthood.


Christian Smith claims to know something about emerging adulthood.  He and his colleagues who wrote Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood are deeply concerned by the moral relativism, acceptance of the socio-economic status quo, routine intoxication, ambiguity about sexual relationships, and political apathy they find among emerging adults.

It is notable that the standard against which Smith and his colleagues are measuring emerging adults is precisely the linear narrative of life.  Given that emerging adulthood is actually a time of emergence and development, however, it seems that a substantial proportion of the beliefs and behaviors they find so concerning should be expected in people who have overdeveloped reward and fear processing centers resulting in anxiety, fearfulness, risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior, all of which are provoked and reinforced by the linear narrative Smith and friends are measuring them against.

Maybe rather than bemoaning the reality of emerging adulthood, we should place some hope in what emerging adults have to teach us.  After all, anxiety, fearfulness, risk taking, and emotional drama, under the right conditions, can emerge into something quite fruitful, that being doubt.  The first thing that emerging adults are likely to doubt is themselves.  Of course, many measure themselves against the linear narrative that no one could possibly actually achieve anyway and that is wildly inappropriate to begin with, so how could they do anything but doubt themselves?  Many emerging adults doubt the value, efficacy, and viability of political and civic institutions.  But then, don’t we all?  Congress has an approval rating of 7%, for goodness sake!  Religious leaders are no better, all too often continuing to exclude women, demean people of color, and excoriate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.  Emerging adults may not yet have a coherent moral framework, but they sure do know what they consider immoral!  Small wonder, then, that so many emerging adults look out on the socio-political landscape and despair, resigning themselves to what little happiness they can find in their little corner.

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,’ said Thomas.  Thomas was clearly an emerging adult.  He had every reason to doubt.  Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried.  After touching Jesus’ hands and his side, Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ He experienced what was possible.  It may yet be that emerged adults will manage to show emerging adults what is possible today, but I find myself siding with the emerging adults and doubting any such expectation.  Rather, emerging adults are left in the position of those who would come after Thomas, of those who would come after Jesus ascended.  ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still dream and enact new realities.


To doubt.  To develop.  To emerge.  To turn.  There is good news regarding emerging adulthood here if we are willing to listen for it.  Measured against the standard of a linear narrative of life, doubt, development, emergence, and turning will never measure up.  The unit of measure is inappropriate.  The appropriate unit of measure is not a line but a dance.  Step, roll, clap, turn.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,

and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

Both the hymn that opened our service and the hymn we are about to sing depict the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life as a dance.  Jesus was born and laid in a manger.  He developed and was baptized by the Holy Spirit and the voice of God.  Jesus was tempted, doubted, and overcame to return to the dance.  He emerged as a prophet, a healer, a savior, beyond any and all ability to predict.   Jesus turned to hell and returned to heaven.

Jesus was an emerging adult.  In Jesus is the hope of resurrection.  Jesus leads us in the dance of life and into the general dance of eternity.

And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,

and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.


~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life

May 25

In the Love of God

By Marsh Chapel

Acts 17: 22-31

Psalm 66: 8-18

1 Peter 3: 13-22

John 14: 15-21

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I. Learn to love what you do not understand – God

So, here we are in Marsh Chapel with its Cram designed neogothic nave, its Connick stained glass, and its Casavant organ.  Just as we have had four deans of Marsh Chapel named Bob, apparently if you want to work on the infrastructure of the chapel your last name must start with “C.” Here we are, listening to texts written neigh on two millennia ago, singing songs sung over the past five centuries, and yet inflicted with a preacher only three decades old.  Here we are, in a chapel dwarfed by its surrounding schools and colleges, at the heart of a great research university, in the midst of the city that Oliver Wendell Holmes cited as “the Hub of the Solar System.”  Here we are, pausing for a moment of awe, groping for a touch of wonder, steeped in the richness of history, and inspired by the presence of mystery.  Here we are, come Sunday, that’s the day.

Do you know why you are here?  My parents and my in-laws are here because I put coming to church on their itinerary for their trip to Boston, but the rest of you are here of your own volition.  You have no excuse!  What are you doing here?  Why have you come?  What possessed you, motivated you, inspired you to either make the trek in to church, or to flip on your radio, or to navigate to our live stream, or to download our podcast?  And on Memorial Day weekend, no less!

Well, the reason that most people come to a major research university is that they do not know.

Now Brother Larry, you’re starting to sound like that student last semester cited in The Bunion, Boston University’s satirical student newspaper: “Rich Girl in Dining Hall Can’t Even.”  Just as a fictional employee in the story wonders, “What can she not even? … That’s barely half a sentence!” so too we have to ask, they do not know what?  What is it that they do not know?

Well, dear friends, particularly in the case of matriculating undergraduates, the answer again is: they do no know.  That is, they do not know what they do not know.  Before you can learn what you want to know, first you have to learn what you want to know.  At the masters level, of course, we expect you to at least have some idea of the general field out of which your questions arise.  Then at the doctoral level we expect you to have honed your question to such a narrow degree that you can write a dissertation entitled something like “The use of the conjunction ‘and’ in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson written between May 1 and May 17, 1841.”  (They’re funny.  They think I’m kidding!).  Of course, the greatest accomplishment of a PhD is learning exactly how much it is that you do not know.

Why would you go to a university if you already know?  Libraries are places where knowledge is stored; universities are places where knowledge is pursued.  But here’s the thing: at their best, churches are more like universities than they are like libraries.  That is, church should be a place we come to pursue God, not a place where God is packed away in storage.  In the life of the church, God is the great unknown for whom, as Paul says in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we would search, and perhaps grope, and find.  Paul identifies the God of Christ with the unknown god of the Athenians.  Then, rather than presenting knowledge about their unknown God, Paul goes on to further affirm God’s unknowability.  God is not like things we can know, like images made of gold, or silver, or stone, “formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  Rather than knowledge, Paul presents a paradox: “God who made the world and everything in it … is Lord of heaven and earth,” and yet God “is not far from each one of us.”  God is transcendent and immanent; God is aloof and intimate.

This is why we have come, and more, this is why we were made: to be struck by awe, to be transformed in wonder, to emerge from history into the heart of mystery.  We are travelers on a journey, not dwellers in a homestead.  We are learning, we are traveling, we are growing, here on Sunday, and day by day in the classroom, and the laboratory, and the field site, we learn to love what do not know, we learn to love what we do not understand, we learn to love God.

God is here! As we your people

meet to offer praise and prayer,

may we find in fuller measure

what it is in Christ we share.

Here, as in the world around us,

all our varied skills and arts

wait the coming of the Spirit

into open minds and hearts.

II. Embodied feeling of God - Spirit

On this Memorial Day weekend I remember my childhood friend Marion McCrane.  Now, Marion was my childhood friend because she was my friend when I was a child, even though Marion herself was of an age to be my grandmother.  She and her sister Edna lived across the street from us, and my brother and I would go over to spend time with them, to hear their stories, to explore the antique artifacts of their childhood and family, to pet their three dogs and two cats, and to help care for the flora that proliferated under their deliberate care and guidance in both front and back yards.  Marion died this past fall, and I had the privilege of presiding at her funeral.  In preparing to lay Marian to rest, I found this story in Bernard Livingston’s book Zoo, Animals, People, Places.

One of the more interesting examples of skillful simulation of motherhood for a zoo animal was the experience … of Marion McCrane in hand-rearing a two-toed sloth born at the National Zoo.  The two-toed sloth is a nocturnal creature that spends practically its whole life – eating, sleeping, traveling – suspended upside down in the trees by its limbs.  The infant lies on the mother’s abdomen as she lethargically moves about the forest.  Ms. McCrane, as a zoologist on the National staff, had hand-reared everything from monkeys to snakes, but as far as they knew nobody had ever hand-reared a two-toed sloth before…

Ms. McCrane was equal to the challenge.  After experimenting with a number of techniques that did not quite work she managed to succeed in simulating the precise position that an infant sloth assumes while nursing in his upside-down world.  And a bottle of half-strength evaporated milk did the trick for little Mary Jane…

Ms. McCrane solved the material-contact problem by housing Mary Jane in a strong basket packed with towels, blankets, hot water bottle and a muff to which the infant clung as a substitute for her mother’s abdomen.  The waking nocturnal hours were filled in with feeding and a bit of clinging to Ms. McCrane herself.

Can there be any experience of greater awe and wonder than that of mothering love?  Here was Marion, living out of the history of her own experience and into the mystery of mothering this small, vulnerable creature in love.  As Jesus said, Marion lived, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

For Paul, we do not know God, and yet in God “we live and move and have our being;” God “is not far from each one of us.”  We do not know God, but we feel God, we encounter the mystery of God in our bodies.  Awe and wonder are not thought; they are felt.  We feel God in the quickening of the heart, in the shortness of breath, in the fleeting failure of words and concepts.  It was the great Protestant theologian, and grandfather of liberal theology, Friederich Schleiermacher, who said that religion is “the feeling of absolute dependence.”  We do not know but we feel ourselves dependent on God for our very being and the world in which we live and move.

We do not know God but we feel God and we desire God.  Jesus, speaking in the voice of John the Evangelist, does use the language of knowledge to describe our relationship with the Advocate, the Spirit of truth.  But is this the knowledge of facts or the knowledge of lovers?  Well, apparently we will know the Spirit because the Spirit “abides with” us, and “will be in” us.  This hardly seems like knowledge acquired by pure reason.  Rather this is the language of eros, of desire, of embodied feeling.  “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  To be sure, erotic language in relation to God is dangerous.  There is a reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters prohibit reading the Song of Solomon until you are both married and have passed your thirtieth year.  Nonetheless, what other language could express the intimacy that is the embodied feeling of God other than the language of desire between lovers or the image of the loving and nurturing parent?  “I go and I will come to you and your heart shall rejoice.”  We know, in that we feel, in our bodies, the love of the unknown God in the intimate presence of the Spirit.

O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;

III. Suffering persists – Christ

And yet, suffering persists.  Our feeling the glory and love of God, while it may transform suffering, does not overcome it.  “The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross.  The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection.”  The Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth accompanies us on the journey of life and faith into the never-ending depths divine unknowability, but cannot walk the path for us.

On this Memorial Day weekend we remember too many who have endured suffering and death as a result of human failure: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.  In the end, these seven deadly sins are our human succumbing to fear: lust is the fear of solitude, gluttony the fear of hunger, greed the fear of poverty, sloth the fear of being overwhelmed, (no offense to Mary Jane!), wrath the fear reconciliation, envy the fear of being enough, and pride the fear of being wrong.  Alas, these sins are all too often most deadly to those who surround those who commit them.

In March, Bishop Elias Toume, Greek Orthodox bishop of the Valley of the Christians in Syria gave the keynote address at the annual Costas Consultation on Global Mission hosted by the Boston Theological Institute.  He spoke of the suffering of Christians in Syria, in the midst of the suffering of the Syrian people generally.  He reminded us that Christianity was, in a sense, born in Syria, with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  He wonders whether Christianity now will die in Syria.  Bishop Elias told the story of facilitating a prisoner exchange between the military and the rebel forces, in which some of his congregants were caught in the middle.  At the end he said, “Being a bishop is not about going to parties and presiding at ceremonies.  Being a bishop is about being ready, at a moments notice, to lay down your life for your people.”

“But if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.  Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated… For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3: 14 & 18).

Abide, then, in the love of the unknowable God.  Feel the flaming desire of the Spirit in your heart, in your gut, in your spirit.  And even in the midst of suffering, keep the commandments of Christ, whom God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness.  Amen.


~ Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life

February 23

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Brother Lawrence Whitney:


First: confession.  Second: glorification.  Third: belief.

Here, at last, we turn with Bach in the movement of the Mass to belief.  “Credo…” “I believe…”

“Br. Larry, I’m not sure I believe in hell anymore,” a student stated with no small hint of trepidation.  “So?” I asked in reply.  “Br. Larry, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally down with Jesus,” another student remarked, “I’m just not sure he’s the only way to God.”  “Should you be?” I inquired.  “Br. Larry, how can I believe in an almighty God who let my friend die like that?”  After a period of silence I wondered aloud, “After such a tragedy, can any of us believe in such a God?  Should we?”

There is an underlying concern in these inquiries.  This is the reason to bring them to a chaplain, even one who refuses to give a straight answer.  The concern is what impact these beliefs, at odds with received tradition, might have on the salvation of those who hold them.  If I believe the wrong things, can I be saved?

This reduction of salvation to doctrinal conviction is not classical Christianity but rather a modern phenomenon.  It is a result of the encounter of Christianity with particular forms of Enlightenment rationalism, admittedly itself an evolution of Protestant thinking.  Ironically, Christianity as right belief in this way takes a pernicious turn toward humanistic works righteousness.  It insists that salvation is achieved by intellectual assent and not in the first instance by the grace of God.  Frequently it turns to idolatry by turning the bible, and belief therein, into the gatekeeper of heaven.  As the slogan goes, “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  This is Christianity become Biblianity, in spite of Paul’s injunction that “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

If this misplaced emphasis on belief were limited to the Protestant Christians from whom it arose it would be bad enough.  Alas, given the ways in which belief-oriented Christianity has become a taken-for-granted stream in the American conscious, it has become the predominant paradigm for interpreting all religious orientations in our pluralistic society.

As we speak, the United States Supreme Court is in the process of hearing several religion cases. One regards prayer in legislative sessions.  Two regard the right of corporations to deny birth control coverage on the basis of the religious beliefs of their owners.  If their decisions in these cases follow their track record, and we should expect they will, it is likely the Court will err.  The errors will not be on the basis of jurisprudence, but rather on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of religion as belief at the very foundation of American jurisprudence.  In spite of the fact that there are no Protestants left on the Supreme Court, it is likely that all of the justices will prove themselves Protestant by proxy in making decisions based on a particular Protestant understanding of religion as belief.

Given the transitions in the field of religious studies over the past fifty years, it is unlikely that any undergraduate religion major could graduate without a thorough understanding that belief is but one aspect of religion, and a minor one in many traditions.  Little wonder, then, that Secretary of State John Kerry said, “if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

Religion reduced to belief is dangerous.  Assertions of belief are ways of delineating in-group, out-group boundaries.  Right now, Arizona awaits the signature of their governor on legislation that would allow religion as belief to be cited as grounds for denying services to gay and lesbian couples.  Beliefs become justifications for standing your ground against those who believe else or otherwise.  For most of human history, the function of religion was in fact to just so delineate groups from one another.  In the Axial Age, however, figures such as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus, among many others, were instrumental in the transformation of religion toward a universality that transcends difference.  And so it is that Jesus rejects any justification of “Stand Your Ground:” "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

This is not to say that belief has no place in religion at all.  The “Credo” in its proper context in the Mass setting is an excellent example of belief within the wider framework of the practices of religion.  The “Credo” is sung, that is, it is embodied in the voices of the choir, the tintinnabulations of the orchestra, and the gestures of the conductor.  It is the belief of individuals who belong to a community and to God.  It is belief enacted, not belief intellected.  Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about what we believe with Bach this morning.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

In October we began our journey in this great cathedral of music, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, entering first the narthex with the supplicant Kyrie. In December we joined the mighty congregation in the nave in the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Today we come to the Cathedral crossing – where the tenets of the faith are taught, affirmed and observed.

Written late in Bach’s life, the Credo is an unparalleled compendium of compositional style and skill. Marsh Chapel congregants are now well familiar with Bach’s interest in symmetrical structures and architectures. The nine movements of the Credo unfold in such a way that the Crucifixus text comes as the centerpiece with Et incarnates est and et resurrexit on either side. These three movements, the crux of the faith, form the central portion of this grand Credo setting. On either side, Bach sets extended portions of text for arias – first a soprano/alto duet and later a baritone solo. The first depicts the three in one nature of God. You’ll hear the alto melody as an extension and mirror of the soprano, interweaving and informing one another, as if to depict being of one substance of the father.

The capstones of the Credo are two pairs of choruses. Each set begins with a movement proving Bach’s skill and interest in the old 16th century style of a Renaissance motet. These two movements – ‘Credo in unum Deum’ and ‘Confiteor’ --draw their compositional model from Gregorian Chant melodies. Both movements yield in spectacular display to music in the high Baroque style with trumpets, timpani and full-on display of Bach’s unmatched mastery of the contrapuntal style.

For the performer – and we hope for the listener – Bach’s music impels these texts to leap from the page. As Luther wrote, “The Notes makes the texts live.” And as Br. Larry reminds us today, Bach’s music calls us to a belief re-imagined, a belief quickened, revitalized, and transformed. This is a Credo of cosmic utterance, new realities and possibilities of faith far beyond the sum of the parts.

Brother Lawrence Whitney:

Dearly beloved, what we believe with Bach this morning is the living and breathing of the life of faith.  The words are ancient, the spirit is fresh.  Believe then in God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Amen.

July 7

It Depends

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Don’t you just love it when the Fourth of July, Independence Day, falls on a Thursday?  When it falls on a Wednesday we are expected to go back to work on Thursday and Friday, but on a Thursday most employers just give up and give everyone Friday off as well.  A four-day weekend for the Fourth!  What could be more appropriate!

Independence Day, of course, is the National Day of the United States of America, and on it we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  -That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  Independence Day, then, is a celebration of the rejection of undependable government for a government that will hopefully be more dependable in guarding the nature and rights of men.  (And, yes, most if not all of the signers of the Declaration really did mean to restrict independence to people of the male sex).  Since the beginning this celebration has been enacted in forms such as waving flags, singing patriotic songs, marching in parades, shooting off fireworks, having picnics, attending concerts, giving speeches, and conducting ceremonies.  Perhaps there is no more quintessential celebration of Independence Day than the Fourth of July barbeque, a somewhat tardy version of which we are hosting here at Marsh Chapel following the service today.  (No, no!  I said following the service.  Now, get back in the pews so I can finish the sermon!).

There are a number of ironies associated with Independence Day.  For example, those flags we wave with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field are the same red, white, and blue as the Union Jack, the flag representing Great Britain, that is, the country from which we were declaring independence in the first place.  Also, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith while a student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church on July 4th of that year.

My country, 'tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims' pride,

From ev'ry mountainside

Let freedom ring!

Of course, we sing it to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom.  Apparently we’re no better at coming up with original tunes for our patriotic songs than we are at coming up with original color schemes for our flag.  And for some reason we celebrate the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was supposedly signed, when in fact it seems it was probably actually signed on August 2nd, and it was on July 2nd that the Second Continental Congress voted a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June.  On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”  Amazingly, we do precisely all of those things, on the Fourth of July, two days after the event Adams meant to commemorate.  Oh well.

Independence is a wonderful thing, but I must confess that over the past couple of weeks my meditations and considerations have turned much more to the alternate side of the coin: dependence.  You see, on June 20th, at 5:53pm at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston, my daughter, Lilly Alma Whitney, was born, weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces, and 20.5 inches long.  In the past couple of weeks she has more than regained her birth-weight, and she takes seeming delight in keeping my wife Holly and I from getting any sleep.  She is a bundle of joy, and I am learning an entirely new dimension of love.  It is a great joy, today, to welcome Lilly’s grandparents to the service, and particularly her grandmothers reading the lesson and the gospel.  Lilly and her mother are here too, Lilly making her church debut, likely as not sleeping through the sermon, as I am sure are many of her pew-mates.

Lilly, being a newborn infant, is entirely dependent.  She cannot eat without help attaching to her mother’s breast.  She cannot sleep without being rocked while rubbing her back.  When she poops, daddy has to clean her up and change her diaper.  Like all newborns, Lilly’s head is approximately 30-40% of her bodyweight, meaning that her neck is not strong enough to support it properly.  When we pick her up and hold her, we have to be very careful not to let her head flop forward or backward or left or right, any of which could at least prove detrimental to her ongoing development.  Lilly has a completely undeveloped immune system, so those of you who would like to greet her following the service will first have to participate in the ritual of hand-washing, employing the vat of hand sanitizer I brought with me this morning.  (Her mother is an infectious disease physician, after all).  Lilly cannot walk, or even crawl or turn herself over, so we have acquired all manner of devices to help carry her, from car seat to stroller to sling to Mobi.  Dean Hill was disappointed that we did not name her Roberta, but he perked up a bit when I pointed out that we bought a stroller named Bob.

We do of course anticipate that Lilly, over time, will achieve her own independence, but doing so is a process of us as her parents accompanying her on the journey of life and faith, not only to be independent physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.  This movement from dependence to independence is the process of maturation.  It happens over time.  Undergraduates who will start in September at Boston University are emerging out of the process of being accompanied by parents, but still aspire on toward greater levels of independence and maturity.  College students learn to set their own alarm clocks, manage their own bank accounts, and find their own food.  A year or so later, when they move from the dorm to an apartment, they may even learn to cook that food for themselves.

It is not the case, however, that this movement from greater dependence to greater independence is ever entirely linear or ever reaches an absolute at either extreme of the spectrum.  Many young people, as their personal independence grows, discover that it can be helpful to have a partner with whom to share the responsibilities of life.   Some find such a collaborator with relative ease, while for others it can take quite some time to find someone who is appropriately dependable.  And so, every year we host myriad weddings here at Marsh Chapel, particularly in these summer months, in which people commit to one another in a life of mutual dependence, of interdependence.  Just last week the United States Supreme Court struck down key components of the Defense of Marriage Act and let stand a ruling overturning Proposition 8 in California, marking further steps toward marriage equality in these United States.  What a heartwarming juxtaposition to have such celebration of the right of so many at last to enter into relationships of mutual dependence only one week before our national celebration of independence.

The same balance between independence and dependence holds at the socio-political level as well.  It was not the case that the founding fathers sought to overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain in order to establish an absolute anarchy.  They explicitly said in the Declaration of Independence that once the old, oppressive government was overthrown, then it was incumbent upon the people to institute a new government.  So it was that the leaders of the day turned their intellectual focus to designing a new democratic government that they believed would be more dependable in enabling its citizens to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  This is precisely what our brothers and sisters in Egypt are struggling toward as we speak.  Nevertheless, even upon the achievement of the founding fathers’ best efforts, there were some cruel restrictions on who could be considered independent in this new country.  If you did not own land, you were not independent.  If you were a woman, you were not independent.  If you were a slave, you were certainly not independent.  Yet, socially and economically, the white landowners who had supposedly achieved independence were in fact quite dependent on all of these classes of people.  So it was that A.G. Duncan wrote alternative abolitionist verses to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” only a dozen years after the original verses were penned:

My country, 'tis of thee,

Stronghold of slavery,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Where men man’s rights deride,

From every mountainside

Thy deeds shall ring!

Interesting, is it not, that at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted not this verse but the original to inspire the nation to end segregation?  In the end, however, it makes sense.  The original verse is a hymn to independence while the alternate is a reminder that every new achievement of independence is yet also an arising of new levels and manners of dependence.

Here, then, the theological turn.  It was the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who claimed, in his monumental tome Glaubenslehre, The Christian Faith, that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Strange to think, is it not, that the great liberal American pulpits that have for so long emphasized the freedom offered for a life lived in the light of the Gospel, can all trace a lineage back to the liberal lion Schliermacher and his principle that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence?  Or perhaps not so strange that in a country that puts such high value on independence we would cast our final dependence onto one who is ultimate, infinite, and so utterly dependable.  For Schleiermacher, Christian freedom arises out of the matrix of absolute dependence on God.  This is the final outworking of Martin Luther’s insistence that experience of God for Christians is unmediated by human institutions.  We can depend directly on God, in prayer and in song and in breath, and so are free and independent from any worldly power and institution.  Or at least we would be, if we were living in the kingdom of God.

Alas, when we come back down from the mountaintop of absolute dependence, we find that we are still living in this fallen, broken world.  Our lessons today have something to teach us about living in a fallen, broken world.  In the conclusion to his letter to the Galatians, Paul is coming at the problem from the side of independence:  “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.”  In eternity we are absolutely dependent on God, but in the present life we are responsible for ourselves, for sowing what we will in our own work.  Nevertheless, Paul indicates that we can begin to feel what it will be like to depend on God absolutely in eternity: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”  We participate in the feeling of absolute dependence, as though seeing it through a glass dimly, as we experience interdependence, or mutual dependence, in our lives.

If Paul was approaching absolute dependence from the side of independence, Jesus, in our Gospel reading, approaches it decidedly from the side of dependence.  Over the course of the Lucan narrative, the disciples have become increasingly, persistently, and stubbornly dependent on Jesus.  Just prior to the reading we heard, many are offering to join Jesus if they can just run and take care of one more thing before they do.  But Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the passion and the cross, so he sends them out, cutting them off from their many dependencies: “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”  Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is announced not so much in words but by entering into relationships of interdependence, of mutual dependence, in each place the disciples go: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”  From the side of dependence, as well, it is through interdependence in this life that we receive a foretaste of the absolute dependence on God that is a hallmark of the kingdom.

It is little wonder that so many in our world have adopted a preference for independence over dependence, making relationships that are truly interdependent that much harder to achieve.  After all, submitting to some level of dependence requires that there be a certain level of dependability in the one to whom we submit.  Alas, our human experience is that people are never quite as dependable as we would hope, and institutions seem utterly incapable of a reliable degree of reliability, made up of less than dependable people as they are.  Deplorably, there seems to be no less dependable institution in our time than the church.  How do we know this?  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that at this point 20% of adults in the United States are religiously unaffiliated, and that number jumps to one third if considering only those under 30 years of age.  These are the so-called “nones:” not members of religious orders, but rather those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, check the box marked “none.”  It is notable that the “nones” are not so much questioning the dependability of God, as those who identify as atheist have only ticked up slightly.  Rather, they have declared independence from institutions that purport to provide the opportunity for cultivating relationships of interdependence but fail to do so.  A significantly higher percentage of the unaffiliated than the public in general believe that religious institutions are too concerned with money and power, focus too much on rules, and are too involved with politics.  At the same time, a significantly lower percentage of the unaffiliated than the general public believe that religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds, play an important role in helping the poor and needy, and protect and strengthen morality.  Many churches are trying desperately to deny that they are as undependable as the “nones” claim, but the response of denial misses the point entirely.  Dependability can never be demonstrated in words, but only in actions, and the actions of too many churches belie their words.  The “nones” own experience is of the lack of dependability in the church, and insisting that the church is otherwise than their experience smacks of hubris and hypocrisy.  Whether it is financial mismanagement, exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, or tolerance of sexual abuse by clergy, who can blame the “nones” for disaffiliating, or demurring from ever affiliating in the first place?  In all honesty, there but for the grace of God go I, and I am convinced that at least some who do go, go with God.

In these summer weeks we are hearing from the voices that inhabit several of the most significant pulpits of northern Methodism.  I am not one of them.  I am not a Methodist, although I grew up one, and I only ever occasionally inhabit this pulpit, in the chapel of an historically Methodist university.  My role in this preaching series, then, is not to speak to Methodists or for Methodists, but rather as a finger pointing at the moon, providing some orientation as to what you might listen for in the weeks ahead.  The question that must be posed to Methodists, at least as much as to those who remain affiliated with any other religious institution, is this: How will you go about demonstrating your dependability such that you may faithfully provide a foretaste of absolute dependence on God, that is, of God’s kingdom?  How will you declare interdependence?  Amen.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go change a diaper.

~Br. Lawrence A Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life


May 26


By Marsh Chapel

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Please, be seated.

Remember with me, will you?  If you are seated here in the nave of Marsh Chapel you may want to find a comfortable posture, if such is possible in wooden pews, and fold your hands in your lap and let your eyelids drift downward just a bit.  If, on the other hand, you are driving a motor vehicle on Interstate 90, I think it would be better for all concerned, and on Interstate 90 there will be many concerned, if you just kept your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes open!  Let us, together, then, as a congregation called into fellowship on this Memorial Day weekend, remember.

We remember one year ago on a sunny Memorial Day weekend walking over to Boston Common and seeing a sea of American flags that had been painstakingly pounded into the soft earth.  A bride and a groom were making final preparations for their nuptials.  Nails were polished, shoes were shined, suits were pressed, dresses were shaken out, hair was done up, and yes, small vials of bubbles were unpacked and laid out in baskets for guests to retrieve and blow after the ceremony.  On that sunny Sunday afternoon, the bride and her father made their way down the aisle, this aisle in fact, and she joined hands with her betrothed.  Declarations were made, readings were read, a sermon was preached, Bach was sung, vows were vowed, rings were exchanged, prayers were said, and the priest proclaimed, “You are husband and wife!”  Yes, one year ago today Holly and I got married right here at Marsh Chapel on the glorious Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  It has been a year of delight, of learning, and most of all, of loving.  Happy anniversary, love!

If only all of our memories of the past year could be such happy ones.  For us here at Boston University, there has been far too much tragedy.

We remember on a cool November evening when Chung-Wei Yang, known at the University as Victor, who had come to BU from Taiwan to study international relations, collided with a bus while riding his bicycle and was killed.  His family arrived in Boston and on a Saturday morning, again here in the nave of Marsh Chapel, hundreds of students, friends, family, and members of the Taiwanese community in Boston joined to remember and pray.  Again, readings were read, a sermon was preached, music was sung, prayers were said, memories were shared, and tears, oh so many tears, were shed.

Then, only a couple of weeks later, the phone rings: “I’m driving down Commonwealth Avenue.  There’s a body in the road.  It’s not another one of ours, is it?”  Christopher Weigl, a graduate student in photojournalism in the College of Communications collided with a tractor-trailer just in front of the CVS across from Student Health Services.  Again on a Sunday afternoon, students and family and friends gathered, this time in the nave of the First Congregational Church in Holliston, Massaschusetts, in whose fellowship Christopher grew up.  BU alumna and senior pastor of the church, Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder, who pastors three generations of the Weigl family, led another service of readings and prayers and memories and music and tears.

We made it through January and February unscathed, but then on the first Saturday of March, in the wee hours of the morning, Anthony Barksdale died after attending an un-registered, off-campus party.  He was a freshman engineering major from Amherst, New Hampshire.  Due to the cold and the rain, a vigil was held indoors in the George Sherman Union.  Students gathered in the Towers dormitory to share memories.  A memorial service was held in his high school.

April 15.  Tax Day!  Patriots’ Day.  Marathon Monday.  You remember, don’t you?  Just a little warmer than the runners may have wanted, but perfect for spectators who came out in droves to line the course, particularly the last few miles as the runners came down Beacon Street, through Kenmore Square, and then zigged and zagged over to Boylston Street to the finish line.  Some of us gathered in the Deanery, that is, the residence of the dean, for a brunch of eggs and fruit and Dunkin Donuts.  Dean Hill recited Longfellow and the Gettysburg Address, as he is wont to do sometimes.  Out we processed to Kenmore Square to watch the elite runners come through, thinking that we were only taking our lives in our hands by boarding the rickety elevator down to the ground from number 10.

How little did we know.  My wife and I walked from Kenmore Square back home and I lay down to take a nap.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I detest being rudely awoken from a sound sleep.  So it was that when Holly shook my shoulder and announced, “there are bombs at the marathon!” all I could think was, “That’s ridiculous.  Bombs don’t belong at marathons!”  I looked at my phone: missed calls, missed texts, missed email.  We called our parents.  “I have to get to the chapel,” I announced.  “How?”  Good question.  How do you get from Beacon Hill to Boston University without going anywhere near Copley Square?  Thank God for Hubway!  I grabbed a bike, carried it over to the Esplanade, and rode hard.

You know, when you stop a race before it is completed and throw the runners off the course, it gets a bit confusing.  Runners came over to Commonwealth Avenue from Beacon Street, many of them hoping to catch the T, only to find that the T was shut down.  What did they find?  A church!  Marsh Chapel.  In they came and hospitality we provided: water, food, blankets, phones, rides, directions, counsel, prayer, patience.  We planned a vigil for that evening.  News broke that there was an explosion at the JFK library.  We cancelled the vigil.  The vigil finally happened the following evening and hundreds gathered on Marsh Plaza in front of the chapel for readings, and prayers, and words of comfort and strength in times of trouble.  Another evening hence we gathered here in the nave for readings, prayers, sermon, song, hymns, and Eucharist as we continued the search for healing.

“Is there a student at Boston University named Lu Lingzi?” Dean Hill asked.  I typed her name into the computer.  “Yes.”  “Oh.”  Lingzi was no longer missing.  She was at the morgue.  One of the three killed by the bombings.  The media frenzy was intense as the news broke.  Over 400 students, most of them Chinese, gathered in the Burke Room at Agganis Arena to share memories and process together.  Her parents arrived from China and were greeted at the airport by the Ambassador from China and a delegation from Boston University.  1400 people, including many dignitaries, gathered in the George Sherman Union for Lingzi’s memorial service.  4000 watched a live stream over the Internet.  $560,000 was gathered in the course of a morning by the Trustees of Boston University to begin a scholarship fund in her memory.  Her father gave a poignant and moving eulogy.  Her mother was inconsolable.  More readings, more prayers, more music, more memories, more tears.

The phone rang.  “Br. Larry, I know it’s Sunday morning and you have services, but there has been a fire, and a student has died, and several are in the hospital.  Can you go to the hospital?”  More death.  More trauma.  Binland Lee was a senior in the Marine Science program at the College of Arts and Sciences.  This time, students traveled down to Brooklyn, New York for a Chinese Buddhist wake and memorial service in an Italian Catholic funeral home.  More readings, more prayers, more music, more memories, more tears.

Remembering a wedding is wonderful.  The heart soars as the feelings of love and joy and belonging together, so intensely felt on that day, return to the forefront of the mind’s eye.  Remembering death and violence and vigils and funerals is hard.  It is painful.  It is rubbing salt in a wound of the spirit.  Each one of those American flags pounded into the common might as well have been pounded into the flesh of those who loved the one whom the flag represents.

Remembering a dead loved one is painful precisely because we know that the person cannot be re-membered.  It is not possible that grandma or grandpa or mom or dad or brother or sister or, God have mercy, son or daughter should be re-membered, brought into membership again, in the family.  It is not possible that friend or neighbor or colleague or teammate or pew-fellow should be re-membered, brought back into the fellowship of the community.  Our grief and our pain as we remember those we have loved who have died arises from the helplessness we feel and the loss of control we experience when we recognize that there is nothing we can do to re-member them.

There are bombing victims in Boston who are struggling to re-member themselves right now.  Some lost arms and legs in the blasts of the bombs and they grieve the loss of their limbs as they remember what life was like before.  Thankfully, many of those who lost limbs will be able to re-member not their own arms and hands or legs and feet but prosthetic limbs that will empower them to reclaim at least a portion of the life they had before.  Nevertheless, the sense of helplessness and the terror of being out of control without the ability to walk or the ability to pick up a fork is something that will haunt many for the rest of their lives.

So too, there are those who lined Boylston Street on April 15, and especially many who worked in the medical tents, and many of us who perhaps were not there and yet somehow feel that this happened to us.  We too struggle to re-member.  We remember what we heard: explosions, screams, cries.  We remember what we saw: fire, broken glass, blood.  We remember the smell of smoke, the taste of bile, the touch of those jostling to get to the wounded or away from the area.  Holding together the pieces of the mind is a struggle to re-member in a spirit of hope what we remember of a time of terror.

Why do we remember?  Why bother to become involved in the work of memory with its attendant pain and grief?  Why not just forget?

We remember because we have hope that we ourselves will be re-membered.  Today is Trinity Sunday, and in the life of Christianity this is the day we remember that God in Godself is a community of members.  One of those members became incarnate in Jesus Christ and was thus, for a time, dismembered from God.  Today, on Memorial Day weekend and Trinity Sunday, readings and prayers and sermon and song teach us that God knows the pain of dismemberment as God experienced the pain of the passion.  And yet, God also knows the healing and joy of re-membering in the glory of the resurrection.  The Holy Spirit of God testifies today that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion; that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering; that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross; that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.  In the life of faith the work of memory is part and parcel of the work God does in us, in the example of Christ and in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, that we may withstand what we cannot understand.

So far, so good, but we cannot stop there.  The testimony of the church on Trinity Sunday is that the love of God, and the grace of God, and the forgiveness of God, and the healing of God, and the redemption of God that re-members us into relationship and partnership and family and community and society and world belongs not to us but to God who extends the partnership of Gospel to the ends of the earth, to all peoples and all times and all places, and not only to people but to the whole of creation.  It is out of this belief that Howard Thurman said that “people, all people, belong to one another, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut another away destroy themselves.”  Just this week Pope Francis said in a weekday Mass sermon that, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this [one] is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”  You see, by caring, helping, giving, we may true disciples be.  The hard work of remembering prevents us from shutting ourselves away and from shutting others away that we may all be re-membered together.  It is in the work of remembering that the Spirit draws us in her tether that we might touch the garment hem of God and be healed and re-membered.

It would probably be wise for me to stop there, but the wisdom of faith is foolishness to the wise and on Trinity Sunday, when I remember my ordination to the priesthood four years ago, we are reminded that we are called to be fools for Christ.  For you see, if we believe with Howard Thurman that all people belong to one another, and if we believe with Pope Francis that God has redeemed all of us, then it cannot be the case that we are re-membered, returned to fellowship, having left anyone or anything behind.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with the driver of the bus that collided with Victor.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with the driver of the tractor-trailer that killed Christopher.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with the students who threw the party that Anthony attended.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with those responsible for the conditions that led to the fire that killed Binland.  And dear friends in Boston, we cannot be re-membered as a city and as a community and as a society until we are re-membered with Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev.  All people belong to one another, not merely the ones we love or who love us.  It was a sinful, sinful thing to attempt to deny Tamerlan the small dignity of burial, and we must all repent, for until we can confess that we belong to Tamerlan and Dzokhar, and they to us, we cannot be re-membered, and our search for healing continues.

Lingzi’s parents buried her here in Boston.  They did so because they believe that her spirit will help to bring peace to our community.  She will certainly abide here in our memory, and in remembering all of those we have lost, may we be re-membered, returned to fellowship, with one another, with all people, with all creation, and ultimately, with God, whose re-memberment we celebrate on this Trinity Sunday.  Amen.


~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life

November 25

Te Deum

By Marsh Chapel

Revelation 1: 4b-8, Psalm 93, John 18: 33-37

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

May we pray.

We praise thee, O God:
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee,
the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud;
the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim
continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy :
Lord God of Sabaoth,
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty
of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world
doth acknowledge thee;
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honorable, true, and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man
thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants,
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints in glory everlasting.

O Lord, save thy people
and bless thine heritage.
Govern them, and lift them up for ever.
Day by day we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name ever, world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us
as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted;
let me never be confounded. (“Te Deum,” Book of Common Prayer)


The great hymn of the church known as the “Te Deum” is perhaps the greatest Christian hymn of praise ever penned.  It is certainly the oldest still in regular usage, attributed variously to Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Hilary, and to Nicetas, bishop of Remesiana, in any case dating to the fourth century.  The text, in any of myriad musical settings, is frequently programmed in worship services that extol the greatness of God as reflected in the greatness of some human personage.  The election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, or the canonization of a saint are all highly appropriate occasions for a “Te Deum,” and it has been known to be used on secular occasions as well, such as the announcement of a peace treaty or the coronation of a king or queen.  You may be interested to know, particularly if you are Catholic, that a plenary indulgence is available if you are present in a recitation or solemn chant of the “Te Deum” on New Year’s Eve.

Given the many images of the kingship of Christ in the “Te Deum,” with attendant symbols of judge, governor, and lord, it is also highly appropriate to sing this great hymn today, on Christ the King Sunday.  Thanks be to God for liturgically sensitive church musicians!  Indeed, for the offertory today, the Marsh Chapel Choir, under the direction of Dr. Scott Alan Jarrett, and with Mr. Justin Thomas Blackwell at the organ, will offer a setting of the “Te Deum” hymn by Franz Joseph Haydn.  Commissioned by Empress Marie Therese, wife of Franz I of Austria, this particular setting is notable for being an entirely choral work, lacking in the virtuosic solo lines characteristic of Haydn, and for its setting in the key of C major, often associated with music for great feasts of the church.  Furthermore, this setting is in the hallmark form of the classical era, namely the concerto, with two sprightly passages surrounding a central slow movement.

Okay, end of music history lesson.  What does any of this have to do with anything?  The “Te Deum” is textually a hymn of praise, and this has deep resonances on this day when we extol Christ as king.  The feast of Christ the King is celebrated interdenominationally among Catholics and Protestants on the last Sunday of the Christian year, which is to say the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent.  Furthermore, Christ as king has deep resonances with the Eastern Orthodox symbol of Christos Pantokrator, which may be translated as Christ almighty or Christ in judgment, and is depicted here at Marsh Chapel in our rose window at the front of the sanctuary.

Praise is, ultimately, the most appropriate response of subjects for their rulers.  This is both because rulers provide so many benefits to their subjects and because rulers are in their very nature majestic and glorious, and thus deserving of praise.  It is little wonder that in the pre-Christian Roman Empire the emperors were understood to be gods.  When Christianity came along, the Judaic emphasis on the sovereignty of God over against all earthly temporal powers meant that emperors, kings, and other rulers could no longer be gods in their own right, but could nevertheless rule by “divine right.”  Of course this also meant that God could, in theory, and according to the historical record apparently in practice, withdraw the divine favor of a particular ruler and bestow it upon another.  This is how you get changes of dynasties in medieval European feudalism.  Kingship in Christendom, as it turns out, has its ups and downs.

Jesus certainly knew about the ups and downs of kingship, as evidenced by the texts read today from the gospel according to St. John and from the Revelation to St. John.  On behalf of Dean Hill, allow me to remind us that these are not the same John!  In the passage from Revelation, we get the upside of the story.  Jesus is king of the kingdom of Christians, and in fact ruler of the kings of the earth, i.e. king of kings.  Here is not the historical Jesus but rather the cosmic figure of Christos Pantokrator, Christ who rides in out of eternity on the clouds in judgment of the tribes of the earth.  In the Gospel of John we get the downside.  It turns out that being a king is a significant part of what got Jesus killed at the hands of the rulers of his day.  The problem, it turns out, is that Jesus finds himself out of his kingdom, and he is not the king of the world in which he finds himself, but this has not stopped people from attributing kingship to him, making the rulers of the world highly anxious.  Let this be a lesson to you kings out there: if you are a king, stay put in your kingdom!

I would hazard to guess that many of you are feeling quite ambivalent about all of this talk of kingship only a few short weeks after we in the United States of America have participated in that hallmark of our democratic republic, namely electing our leaders to office.  Indeed, what could the notion of kingship possibly mean for us in the land that rebelled against King George III?  We noted earlier that kings are to be praised both for the benefits they bestow on their subjects and for their innate majesty and glory.  These notions are nonsensical amidst the logic of our democratic republic.  Surely, here in the USA we believe that people are personally responsible and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps so that they are not dependent on the beneficence of government.  And recently disclosed improprieties of a certain general turned spy-master only serve to remind us that our leaders all too frequently fail to achieve even the standards of basic morality, let alone ever being considerable in terms of glory and majesty.

Or do we?  Do we really believe in rugged individualism and the fallibility of our leaders, or in our heart of hearts do we aspire to something more like the kingship model?

Hanging out in stained glass toward the rear of Marsh Chapel on the pulpit side is the stentorian statesman Abraham Lincoln.  He made it into stained glass here because he fulfilled the abolitionist vision of the founders of Boston University through his work to abolish slavery.  The recently released feature-length film Lincoln chronicles his political machinations and negotiations eventually leading to the passage of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude.  The Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC, dedicated in 1922, was designed by Henry Bacon in the form of a Greek Doric temple containing a large, seated sculpture of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French and inscriptions from Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses.  In some states, Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated as a holiday.  Or should I say holy day?

So, is Abraham Lincoln a king?  Applying a strict definition from political theory, certainly not.  The new film is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, entitled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  The title of the book makes it clear that Lincoln was not a king in the political sense, as it is his ability to get things done amidst competing interests, and despite the limits of presidential power, that makes Lincoln exceptional.  But in other respects Lincoln may best be interpreted as a king.  His rhetorical skill inspired hearts across divisions of race, gender, class, and religion.  His assassination made him a martyr and bestowed upon him mythical status in the United States and abroad.  Looking back across time, Lincoln may be understood as a king in the two senses outlined above.  He achieved great benefit for his people by virtue of his political skill, particularly for slaves, but for the United States as a whole also through his projects of reconstruction and vision for reintegration of the divided union.  And his soaring rhetoric and towering stature have been imprinted on the American imagination as signs of majesty and glory, as evidenced in stained glass, film, and monument.

There are other figures in U.S. history who might be considered under this rubric of kingship: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is not the case that any of these men was perfect or otherwise unambiguous.  However, the particular focus afforded by the lenses of history has left us with visions of them that are truly praiseworthy.

I wonder if, political predilections for democratic order aside, there might not be something far deeper in the human condition and psyche that desires a king to rule over us.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there is, and that the “Te Deum” text points to this something deeper in the symbols of judgment, governing, and lordship.  Judgment is the measurement of the difference between the ideal of grace and the reality of sin.  Governance is the ordering of relations such that grace might be maximized and sin minimized.  Lordship is the power to make changes based on judgments and to bring about rightly ordered relationships.  Judicial, legislative, executive.  Far from the supposed American ideal that we do not need government because we are self-reliant and because governments are made up of other humans just as fallen as we ourselves, the “Te Deum” gives voice to that part of us that desires just what we proclaim to deny.

Peter Berger, University Professor Emeritus here at Boston University, wrote forty-some-odd years ago about religion as masochistic.  By this he means that in religious life we give ourselves over to something else, something greater, that can in some way effect an overarching meaning amidst a sea of seeming meaninglessness otherwise.  Indeed, that is at least one of the things that we do when we gather together on Sunday mornings.  We give ourselves over to God, who benefits us by providing us with a sense of meaning, order, and purpose, and who is majestic and glorious, and therefore praiseworthy.  This probably seems at least somewhat okay in relation to God.  Much more troubling for most of us is the fact that we essentially do the same thing with government.  We give ourselves over to a state that we believe can guarantee us some benefit and that seems to us in some way to be glorious and majestic.  This is the social contract.  In the case of monarchies, that glory and majesty is connected to the divine right of royalty.  In the democratic model, the glory and majesty of government derives from the glory and majesty of the human person, perhaps instilled by God.

The problem with a truly democratic government is that in order to fulfill our desire for kingship in terms of justice, governance, and lordship, 100% of the people must be 100% responsible 100% of the time.  In a monarchy, only one person must be 100% responsible 100% of the time, but if he or she screws it up, or at least if people find out that he or she screwed it up, it’s all over.  The problem is that there has never been a single human being, let alone a whole population of them, who has been able to be 100% responsible 100% of the time.  As the apostle to the gentiles tells us in the epistle to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Modern democratic republics have tried to mediate this problem by allowing for minimal levels of irresponsibility that can be counterbalanced by the checks and balances built into the governance model.  Sadly, as evidenced by the general turned spy-master mentioned earlier, we seem not to actually be able to tolerate the minimal levels of irresponsibility our system of government seeks to afford.  We aspire to more.  We aspire to perfection.  We seek a guarantee of order and meaning over against our uncertainty of each other and ourselves.

This past summer we heard a series of sermons on apocalyptic.  The apocalyptic worldview, that says that the guarantee of order and meaning is not possible in this world but is readily available in the next, is one Christian response to the problem of irresponsible government.  Another is the shift from the divinity of emperors themselves to their ruling rather by divine right, which could be taken away.  A third is the perspective that the image of God in human nature is obscured by sin, thus negating the possibility of fully effective human institutions.  In all cases, the Christian witness is that it is God who is our guarantee.  Ultimately, it is God who is our king, who judges us with perfect justice, governs us with perfect wisdom, and rules over us with perfect power, and so who is glorious and majestic.  No worldly power could possibly aspire to God’s perfection.  And so today, Christ the King Sunday, we give our sinful and broken selves over to God who alone can help us, can save us, can redeem us, can lift us up forever, and open the kingdom of heaven to us.


~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

August 5

Endings and Beginnings

By Marsh Chapel

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Have you heard!?  The world is ending!!  It’s very exciting.  Fires.  Floods.  Hail.  Earthquakes.  Wars.  All manner of natural and human-made destruction.

At least, this is what most readily comes to mind when the language of apocalypse is invoked in our late modern context.  It is a bit distant from the Greek definition of something hidden being made manifest or revealed, which is far tamer.  Interestingly, in the biblical witness it is not the fires and floods and hail and earthquakes and wars that in themselves constitute the apocalypse, but rather they are signs pointing to what will immanently be revealed.  Biblical apocalyptic vision arose in continuity with the prophetic tradition of Israel.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and all the rest spent half their careers warning of all of the bad things that would happen to the Israelites if they did not repent and return to right relationship with Yahweh and then they spent the rest of their careers warning that the nations of the world would come to naught if they failed to recognize Yahweh and the chosen people Israel.  There are at times glimmers of more positive prospects in the prophetic witness, of what good things will come upon turning back to Yahweh.  Apocalyptic follows in this pattern of warning of dire times ahead after which a new, just, righteous age will follow.

Occasionally, as I am returning to the chapel from hither and yon on campus, I encounter an apocalyptic preacher on the sidewalk along Commonwealth Avenue in front of Marsh Plaza.  These preachers usually have a great deal to say about how tragic, unfortunate, and painful events in our world are signs of God’s judgment upon society for all manner of evils.  They have a constitutionally protected right to freely speak their views on a public sidewalk, just as I have a constitutionally protected right to think them wrong.  I have two problems with contemporary apocalyptic preachers.  The first is that the social and cultural evils that these preachers are decrying are the very same sociocultural changes that I take to be achievements over prejudice, violence, and inhumanity.  Gay marriage and a woman’s right to control her own body often top their, and my, lists.  Apart from our contrasting ethical visions, however, my second problem with the contemporary apocalyptic preachers I encounter is that they almost never provide the second half of the apocalyptic vision.  There is much talk of judgment, damnation, and destruction, but no talk of the new order to be ushered in in place of the judged, damned, and destroyed one.  While biblical apocalyptic can be considered good news as it offers the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of the toil and tribulation of today, contemporary apocalyptic seems to offer nothing but toil and tribulation, which is nothing more than bad news.

One of the things that differentiates the apocalyptic worldview in the bible from the prophetic view is that in the prophetic view it is still possible for humans to self-correct, while in the apocalyptic view humanity has passed the tipping point.  The prophets were constantly adjuring Israel to repent and return to Yahweh.  “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Thanks be to God!”  It is actually not the case that apocalyptic figures and writers actually thought things were worse in their societies than prophetic figures did.  Rather, the prophetic figures felt that the leaders of their society still had enough control over the society to bring about changes that would return Israel to Yahweh.  Apocalyptic figures, by contrast, felt entirely out of control.  This largely had to do with the fact that they were living under the occupation of the Roman Empire.  Even if Israel wanted to go in a different direction and become more godly, they could not because they did not have any control over their own destinies.   Thus it is that since humans are unable to rectify the situation, only God can step in and fix things.  Only God can overturn the present order and usher in a new order of peace, prosperity, and right relationship with God.

This feeling of being out of control marks the apocalyptic view in our contemporary context as well.  Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar of religion, spoke at Ithaca College during my freshman year there in October of 2001.  She was extraordinarily helpful in interpreting the events of September 11th of that year in terms of the fundamentalist mindset that inspired and motivated that day of death and destruction.  Her book The Battle for God explores how fundamentalisms across religious traditions are responses by religious people to a loss of control brought about by the apparently secularizing forces and assumptions of modernity.  These religious people then follow their fight or flight instinct, and those who follow the fight path often understand themselves to be instruments of God in righting the world.  Certainly, there is a great deal more to religious fundamentalism that an apocalyptic worldview, and not all people with apocalyptic views are religious fundamentalists.  However, the feeling of having lost control that drives the modern rejection of modernity that is fundamentalism is the same feeling of having lost control that inspired the apocalyptic texts of the bible.

One of the challenges in responding to apocalyptic texts, apocalyptic preachers, and fundamentalists is that the view that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing to be done about it but wait for God to set it right can feel very foreign.  I wonder, however, if we might not be a bit too quick to abide in the feeling of otherness, perhaps as a strategy for not having to face how familiar the apocalyptic view might be.  Perhaps I am the odd ball out, and perhaps none of you have ever felt like things had gotten totally out of control.  Life in ministry, I have discovered, provides frequent exposure to the feeling and experience of things being totally out of control.  Ministry also provides ample opportunity to see how, if people would simply make this, that, or the other decision and act on it, as opposed to the one they did decide on and act upon, things would have gone so much better.  I confess, I have at times found myself daydreaming about how things might have gone had someone wiser been in charge.

Is this really so much different than the apocalyptic vision?  Not really.  After all, the apocalyptic vision is very much an imagination that things do go better when someone of infinite wisdom, namely God, is in charge.  On the other hand, my imagination of how things might have been better inspires me to decide and act more wisely.  This is to say that I learn something from watching how the decisions and actions I and others take work out, as well as from the imaginings of how things might have gone.  At the end of the day, however, my imaginings remain in the subjunctive mood of what might have been or what might yet become.  This is in stark contrast to the way in which the apocalyptic imagination of what might be inspires fundamentalist decision-making and action.  The fundamentalist is so inspired by the apocalyptic imagination that she or he attempts to impress the subjunctive mood of what might become into the indicative mood of what actually is.

The work we do together here in this space, week by week, in gathering together in worship, is very much a subjunctive imagining of what life might be like if God were in charge.  The readings, prayers, sermon, music, and sacrament of the liturgy reveal to us the ways in which we ought to live in the ideal world of God’s realm.  Live justly, walk humbly, confess your shortcomings, forgive one another, rejoice in joy, weep in lamentation, and break bread with one another.  Of course, life in the world is not nearly so ideal.  Justice is ambiguous.  Humility is mistaken for weakness.  Confession leads to judgment without forgiveness.  The joy of one is the sorrow of another.  Those we break bread with may stab us in the back.  We learn from these experiences as well as the imagination we return to, week by week, of what would be better.  Furthermore, our worship practice provides a safeguard from thinking that we should attempt to impose the subjunctive mood of worship on the indicative mood of life.  That safeguard is the strangeness of the liturgy.  The clergy wear funny robes.  The windows are made of stained glass.  The pews have no cushions.  These things, and many others, provide a sense of strangeness to remind us that, while much of what we experience here may point to a better way of being, in the end, a worship service is not life.  That better way of being exists apart from the day-to-day walk of life.  The better vision informs life, and so transforms our lives, by reminding us that life is not always and necessarily out of control.  The ongoing work of transformation by information indicates that at every moment of our lives the world is ending, and is beginning anew out of what was and what might yet be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

~Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+


April 15

Thurman and Resurrection

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20: 19-31

The sermon this morning is not really a sermon.  “That is odd,” you may be saying to yourself.  “It says right here in my bulletin: ‘Sermon’!”  And so it does.  Alas, when tasked with considering the careful crafting of the religious and life experience into communicative text undertaken by the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, particularly on the topic of resurrection, it quickly becomes clear that it would be no small feat to attempt a presentation of his thoughts on the subject approaching anything like adequacy.  There are those in our midst who could do so; I am not one of them.  It would, of course, be best, if Dr. Thurman were here in his own pulpit to present his thoughts himself, but even in so hallowed a nave as Marsh Chapel, we do not pretend to be able to fulfill this ideal, even under such an auspicious sermon title as “Thurman and Resurrection.”  Thus, we are left with a less than ideal option, namely that of proffering some meager correlations between the themes of the resurrection Gospel according to John and the thoughts and writings of Dr. Thurman presented in the voice of one untimely born two years after Thurman’s death.


When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20: 19-21).

“Peace in Our Lives,” a meditation of Howard Thurman from his book, The Growing Edge.

I make of my life an offering to God.

Fierce indeed is the grip by which we hold on to our lives as our private possession.  The struggle to achieve some sense of individuality in the midst of other people and other things is grim.  Always we are surrounded by persons, forces, and objects which lay siege to us and seek to make us means to their ends or at least to their fulfillment.  The demand is ever present to distinguish between the self and the not-self.

There are moments of enthusiasm when with mounting excitement we absorb ourselves in something beyond ourselves.  When this happens we fight at length to get back home, to come again into the familiar place, to be secure in our own boundaries.  Again and again the process repeats itself, wearing down the walls that shut us in.

Of course, a man may by early resolution, by frustration, by bitter experience withdraw more and more from all involvements.  By this process he seeks to immunize himself against hurts and from what seems to be certain disaster.  Behold such a man.  His spirit shrinks, his mind becomes ingrown, his imagination inward turning.  The wall surrounding him becomes so thick that deep within he is threatened with isolation.  This is the threat of death.  Sometimes his spirit breaks out in reverse by giving voices to inward impulses, thus establishing by the sheer will to survival a therapy for the corrosion of his spirit.

For all of this religion has a searching word.  “Deep within are the issues of life.”  “The rule of God is within.”  “If thou hadst known the things which belong unto thy peace.”  There is a surrender of the life that redeems, purifies, and makes whole.  Every surrender to a particular person, event, circumstance, or activity is but a token surrender, the temporary settling of the passing and transitory.  They end in tightening the wall of isolation around the spirit.  They are too narrow, too limited, finally unworthy.

The surrender must be to something big enough to absolve one from the little way, the meager demand.  There can be no tranquility for the spirit unless it has found something about which to be tranquil.  The need for a sense of peace beyond all conflict can only be met by something that gathers up into itself all meaning and all value.  It is the claim of religion that this is only found in God.  The pathways may vary but the goal is one.



When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20: 22).

“God is With Me” and “God is Present,” two meditations of Howard Thurman from his book, Meditations of the Heart.

God is with me, in the sense that He is the Creator and the Sustainer of life.  This is a part of my general thought and experience.  There is something so big and vast about God as Creator and Sustainer of all of life that it is hard for me to feel that I am included.

God is with me.  All around me are certain expressions of orderliness, of beauty, of wonder and delight.  The regularity of sunrise and sunset, the fragile loveliness of a wisp of cloud fringed with silver, the wonder of day dawning and the delight of companionship – all these are His handiwork.

God is with me.  Again and again I am stirred by some experience of tenderness, some simple act of gratuitous kindness moving from one man to another, some quiet deed of courage, wisdom or sacrifice or some striking movement of unstudied joy that bursts forth in the contagion of merry laughter.  I know God is with me.

God is with me.  Always there is the persistent need for some deep inner assurance, some whisper in my heart, some stirring of the spirit within me – that renews, re-creates and steadies.  Then whatever betides of light or shadow, I can look out on life with quiet eyes.

God is with me.


God is present with me this day.

God is present with me in the midst of my anxieties.  I affirm in my own heart and mind the reality of His presence.  He makes immediately available to me the strength of His goodness, the reassurance of His wisdom and the heartiness of His courage.  My axieties are real; they are the result of a wide variety of experiences, some of which I understand, some of which I do not understand.  One thing I know concerning my anxieties: they are real to me.  Sometimes they seem more real than the presence of God.  When this happens, they dominate my mood and possess my thoughts.  The presence of God does not always deliver me from anxiety but it always delivers me from anxieties.  Little by little, I am beginning to understand that deliverance from anxiety means fundamental growth in spiritual character and awareness.  It becomes a quality of being, emerging from deep within, giving to all the dimensions of experience a vast immunity against being anxious.  A ground of calm underlies experiences whatever may be the tempestuous character of events.  This calm is the manifestation in life of the active, dynamic Presence of God.

God is present with me this day.



If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20: 23).

A selection from the chapter “Reconciliation,” from Howard Thurman’s book, Disciplines of the Spirit.

The concern for reconciliation finds expression in the simple human desire to understand others and to be understood by others.  These are the building blocks of the society of man, the precious ingredients without which man’s life is a nightmare and the future of his life on the planet is doomed.  Every man wants to be cared for, to be sustained by the assurance that he shares in the watchful and thoughtful attention of others – not merely or necessarily others in general but others in particular.  He wants to know that – however vast and impersonal all life about him may seem, however hard may be the stretch of road on which he is journeying – his is not alone, in an awareness sufficient to hold him against ultimate fear and panic.  It is precisely at this point of awareness that life becomes personal and the individual a person.  Through it he gets some intimation of what, after all, he finally amounts to, and the way is cleared for him to experience his own spirit.

The need to be cared for is essential to the furtherance and maintenance of life in health.  This is how life is nourished.  The simpler the form of life, the simpler the terms of caring…

It is in human life that the need to be cared for can be most clearly observed, however, because here it can be most clearly felt.  There was a lady in my church in San Francisco who felt very poignantly the need to be needed beyond the limits of her family.  One day she went with a small group to visit the children’s ward in a hospital.  She noticed a baby in a crib against the wall.  Despite the things that were going on in the ward and the excitement created by a group of English bell-ringers and their tunes, this little child remained lying on his side with his face to the wall.  But it was discovered that he was not asleep – his eyes were open in an unseeing stare.  The nurse explained that the entire ward was worried because the child responded to nothing.  Feeding had to be forced.  “Even if he cried all the time, that would be something to work with.  But there is nothing.  And he is not sick as far as anything clinical can be determined.  He will surely die unless something is done.”  Then the lady decided to try to do something.  Every day for several weeks she visited the ward, took the little boy in her arms, talked to him, hummed little melodies and lullabies, and did all the spontaneous things that many years ago she had one with her own son.  For a long time there was absolutely no response.  One day when she lifted the child into her arms there was a slight movement of the body, and the eyes appeared to be somewhat in focus.  This was the beginning.  Finally, on a later day, as her voice was heard greeting the nurse when she came into the ward, the child turned over, faced the ward, and tried to raise himself to a sitting position.  Things happened rapidly thereafter until he was restored to health.

Let us keep clearly in mind the issue here.  The need to be cared for is fundamental to human life and to psychic and spiritual health and well-being.  When this need is not met, the individual is thrown into conflict, an inner conflict that can only be resolved when the need is honored.  The conflict expresses itself in many ways, from profound mental disturbance to the complete projection upon others of the hate and violence the person himself is feeling.  The individual experiences the fulfillment of his need in a diffused way, by living in an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging.  It is here that simple techniques of co-operation and adjustment are developed, which in time become the channels through which the intent to honor this deep need in others is implemented.  Unwillingness to accept ill will, hatred, or violence directed toward oneself from another as the fundamental intent is the role of the reconciler, the function of reconciliation.  “Father, forgive them, for the know not what they do,” says Jesus as he is dying on the cross.




But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20: 24-29).

An excerpt from the Baccalaureate Address delivered by Dr. Thurman at Spelman College in May of 1980.

There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself... There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one.

If you can not hear the sound of the genuine within you, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

So the burden of what I have to say to you is, "What is your name—who are you—and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?" There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing of the rumble and the traffic going on in your minds, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough—not quiet enough—still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don't know if you can. But this is your assignment

The sound of the genuine is flowing through you. Don't be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions that you don't hear the sound of the genuine in you. Because that is the only true guide that you will ever have and if you don't have that you don't have a thing. Cultivate the discipline of listening to the sound of the genuine in yourself.



Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20: 30-31).

Selections from Howard Thurman’s The Search for Common Ground.

When I was a small boy I went across the meadow to visit with one of my chums.  I was running around the house when I heard a voice, which came from a knock on the windowpane.  I looked up to see my friend’s father standing in the room.  As soon as he caught my attention, he motioned for me to turn around and come into the house through the front door.  When I entered the room he pointed through an open window.  There I saw his baby girl, less than a year old, sitting in the sand playing with a rattlesnake.  It was an amazing and deeply frightening experience to watch.  The child would turn the snake over on its side and do various things with him; the snake would crawl around her, then crawl back.  It was apparent that they were playing together.

I was sent back into the yard to stand guard to keep anyone from coming around the house to frighten them.  For if their harmony were broken by sudden disharmony created by noise or sudden movement, there would have been violence on earth.  After a while the baby grew tired of playing, turned away, and started crawling toward the back steps; the snake crawled towards the woods on the edge of the yard.  It was then that the father drew a bead on the snake’s head with his shotgun, killing him instantly.  It was as if two different expressions of life, normally antagonistic to each, had dropped back into some common ground and there reestablished a sense of harmony through which they were relating to each other at a conscious level…

The paradox of conscious life is the ultimate issue here.  On the one hand is the absolute necessity for the declaration that states unequivocally the uniqueness of the private life, the awful sense of being an isolate, independent and alone, the great urgency to savor one’s personal flavor – to stand over against all the rest of life in contained affirmation.  While on the other hand is the necessity to feel oneself as a primary part of all of life, sharing at every level of awareness a dependence upon the same elements in nature, caught up in the ceaseless rhythm of living and dying, with no final immunity against a common fate that finds and holds all living things.

Men, all men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.  And all the people said Amen.

~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

July 3

Freely, Humbly, Honestly

By Marsh Chapel


It is good to begin in a spirit of gratitude, and so once again it is incumbent upon me to begin this sermon with a word of gratitude to Dean Hill for his gracious offering of a preaching series in the late spring and summer of 2011.  Yes, whether you like it or not, you have managed to arrive in the nave of Marsh Chapel for the final installment of Br. Larry’s 2011 Secular Holiday Preaching Series.  Some of you may remember when we began, back in May, on Mother’s Day, and then a few weeks later continued on Memorial Day.  And now, here we are, once again, this time on Independence Day weekend, at the conclusion of the series.  For those who, at the conclusion of this hour, will have withstood all three installments, you have my sincerest condolences.


The Lord be with you.


And also with you.


Let us pray.


Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy and eternal, have mercy on us this day, that we may come to live freely, humbly and honestly in the communion of you most Holy Spirit, in whose unity you dwell with Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.
As parts of speech go, adverbs tend to fall at the, “Well, okay, but only if we must,” end of the spectrum.  To be honest, the trendiest aspect of grammar these days is punctuation, as evidenced by the passionate debates on Twitter in the past few days about the use of the Oxford comma.  The bedrock of grammar, of course, is the noun.  Nouns have substance.  We can see, hear, taste, touch and smell their referents.  Verbs help us talk about what nouns do and adjectives help us distinguish the blue nouns from the red nouns.  All adverbs do is to qualify the manner in which nouns do the things their attendant verbs indicate.   We even go out of our way to find ways of avoiding adverbs.  After hearing a politician or a preacher we are likely to say, “Well that was a stupid thing for him to say,” as opposed to saying, “she spoke stupidly.”


It is little wonder, then, that so many in our time struggle to find their spiritual voice, since religious and spiritual life dwells in the land of the adverb.  To be religious or to be spiritual is to be concerned with the manner in which life is lived.  Life is the noun, live is the verb, and the manner in which life is lived is expressed adverbially.  The reality of the adverbial nature of religiosity and spirituality is found in our Gospel reading this morning.  In the first half of the pericope, Jesus is frustrated by the lack of understanding of the ministries he and John the Baptist undertook.  This lack of understanding is situated in the focus placed upon particular actions, or inactions, undertaken by Jesus and John, namely eating and drinking.  Then, the members of the generation Jesus’ critiques ascribes particular connotations to the states of being of Jesus and John, respectively, based on those actions or inactions.  The members of the generation observe the verbs and then classify the nouns according to those observations.  In the second half of the pericope, Jesus indicates that the generation has missed the point, and that what is really important is hidden from them.  Later in the pericope Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  We may ask, what makes people weary?  Too much activity.  Too many verbs!  And those carrying heavy burdens have too many nouns, or too much of a given noun.  When we learn from Jesus, we come to understand that it is not about how many activities we can undertake or how much we can carry.  It is not about nouns and verbs.  It is about the manner in which we do whatever we undertake.  To follow Jesus is to learn to live adverbially.  Not that adverbs are easier than nouns and verbs, just lighter and less frantic.  No, the challenge of living adverbially is garnering the focus of attention required.


There are many adverbs in religious and spiritual life.  On this Independence Day weekend, we will consider three: freely, humbly, and honestly.  First, and the adverb most closely keyed to the holiday, freely.


The notion of living freely as a spiritual manner of life flies directly in the face of how moderns, Westerns, and particularly we in the United States generally think about what it means to be free.  Most often we speak of freedom, a noun, a substance.  Freedom is something we have as a possession, and one of the reasons we celebrate Independence Day is to celebrate the substance of freedom that was won as a possession in the wake of the colonies declaring independence and fighting the Revolutionary War.  It is a bit odd to think of freedom as a substance.  After all, have you ever tried to put freedom in a bag and carry it down the street?  Can you walk up to a street vendor and say, “I’ll have a large cup of freedom with sprinkles on top?”  Admittedly, for a time you could order Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast from restaurants and snack bars run by the U.S. House of Representatives, but that is a whole other story and a whole other sermon.


No, the modern western concept of freedom is not a noun like “book” is a noun, namely something you could carry down the street with you.  Instead, most often what we mean by freedom in the modern west is both the capacity to act as we choose or desire and the lack of impediment or constraint resulting from the actions of others.  This double concept of freedom is epitomized in Isaiah Berlin’s lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, in which he distinguishes freedom “to” and freedom “from.”  Of course, the two may conflict.  After all, every action I undertake may impede the actions of another or constrain them from acting at all.  If I hold a large rock concert on Marsh Plaza in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, this will likely impede the ability of scholars in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, and the School of Theology from being very productive, and will be a significant distraction to students studying there, to say nothing of the Chapel Choir rehearsing in the nave here in Marsh Chapel.  My freedom to hold the concert runs counter to the freedom of others from distraction.  The conflict between freedom from and freedom to, and various approaches to managing the conflict, is the source of much of political, social and legal controversies of our time.


Our religious and spiritual traditions, however, teach us that to be free is not to possess the substance freedom but rather to live freely.  To live freely is to cultivate the capacity to behave in ways that avoid the turn to the frenetic and overburdened.  As Saint Paul tells it in our reading from Romans, to live freely is to live in concert among head, heart and body.  Of course, the way Paul tells it belies a rather unfortunate dualism between body and spirit, but that should not inhibit us from retelling it in a way the expresses the truth of our common desire with Paul to live integrated lives.  Such integration is a prerequisite to living freely.


The Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment is a correlate to this living freely.  It emphasizes that in moving beyond frantic activity and heavy burdens we are able to be more fully present in the present moment.  In doing so we are able to bring our full attention to the reality of the here and now without needing to control for every possible future outcome.  This is not to say that we should neglect future outcomes; that would be irresponsible.  It is to say that living freely means freely receiving what comes and offering back the best synthesis of what we receive in gracious generosity.  We should not become too attached to what we receive, or we will not be able to offer it back generously.  We should also not become too attached to the outcomes we intend in making our offering, as we are never fully in control of those outcomes.  We do our best with what we have, and when our best is not good enough, we offer what we have received and what we have offered up to God in penitence and thanksgiving.


When living freely, it is very possible that the conditions in which we live, some of which are brought about by other people, will resist our best intentions.  In religious and spiritual life, as we work toward living freely, we should not be too concerned when our best intentions cannot be realized.  The religious and spiritual traditions testify that freedom-from is an illusion at best, and a trap at worst.  At the same time, they teach that freedom-to is never absolute and is always constrained by the conditions at hand.  The generation that so frustrated Jesus frustrated him precisely because they thought that the Messiah would come to bring their freedom from the political, social and religious oppression of the Roman Empire.  The Messiah Jesus, however, came to teach them instead how to live freely under the conditions in which they found themselves, which living he believed would eventually restore them out of oppression, as the prophet Zechariah had promised.


What does living freely look like?  Perhaps we should take our cue from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who said of the late Reverend Professor Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Church, “He was the freest man I ever knew.”  I have quoted Governor Patrick on this several times, and many people have looked at me quixotically.  I think that what Governor Patrick meant is that Reverend Professor Gomes lived freely.  He cultivated a way of being that allowed him to be fully present wherever he found himself.  When he found himself faced with a crisis at Harvard over the status in the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, he calmly stood up, taking up the authority of his revered position, and announced that he was gay.  Furthermore, he said that the secret to his ministry of over forty years at Harvard was “ubiquity, ubiquity, ubiquity.”  Reverend Professor Gomes lived freely, and that empowered him to be fully present in situations where he was wanted, challenging those who said they wanted him along the way, and fully present in situations where he was not wanted, opening up avenues of dialogue toward finding common ground amidst difference.


So too, those of us who seek to live religious and spiritual lives seek to live life humbly.  Just as freely the adverb is a far cry from the noun freedom, so too the adverb humbly is a far cry from the adjective humble.  In our gospel today Jesus says that he is “gentle and humble in heart,” but I would submit that the qualifier “in heart” would indicate that he means that he seeks to live his life adverbially humbly.  After all, it would be hard to say the Jesus was entirely humble, riding into Jerusalem as he did on the back of a donkey in kingly fashion, fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah.  This is not what we would associate with a humble person, which is to say one whose entire way of being, one whose life-substance is qualitatively humble through and through.  To be humble is to be of small stature, to be one who refrains from entering the fray, to suppress the desire for the better, to say nothing of the best.


The problem with being humble is that it holds back the integration we already saw was a prerequisite for living freely, which is also a prerequisite for living humbly.  This is precisely the problem with the dualism that Paul sets up by seeking to humble his body that his spirit might be free of sin.  The humbled body can never be integrated with the spirit, which is to say cleansed or justified.  More than simply being integrated as a prerequisite however, living humbly also requires recognizing and respecting the integrity of others.  Integrity requires deference.  To live humbly is to live in such a way that our own pursuit of religiously and spiritually fulfilled lives comes about in concert with the pursuit of religiously and spiritually fulfilled lives by others.  At the same time, living humbly recognizes that religious and spiritual fulfillment for any one person cannot come about at the expense of such fulfillment by any others.  If my salvation can only come about by the damnation of others, it is not salvation, but also, if the salvation of others can only come about by my damnation, it is not salvation.  If the salvation of the mob can only come about by arresting, trying and crucifying Jesus, it cannot be true salvation, but neither can the salvation of the world come through the killing of the mob, as one disciple set out to do by cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest.  Living life humbly recognizes the integrity of others and so empowers us to resist that which would oppress us, often as not by submitting to that very oppression.


The nonviolent activism of Mohandas Gandhi and Boston University’s own alumnus the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exemplifies what it means to live life humbly.  It is in recognizing the integrity of others that Gandhi and King sought to organize those others to resist the attempts on the part of a wider society to oppress them, while at the same time teaching the others to recognize the integrity of the others who made up the wider society.  What it means to live humbly is embodied in the three points of Gandhi’s philosophy, summarized in E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi, that inspired King to take up the practices of nonviolence:


1.     that nonviolence is the method of the strong, not the method of the weak and the cowardly
2.     that it is better to fight than to take up nonviolence through fear or cowardice
3.     that by using the right means, the right result will follow


We should note that the last point is a summary of the principle that religious and spiritual life is concerned with the adverbial character of how life is lived, and that life lived adverbially is the good life, not life lived frantically and overburdened.


Now, what is this integrated self that we have been speaking of as a precondition for life lived freely and humbly?   It is life lived honestly.  If we are to have any hope of the many parts of ourselves abiding together wholesomely, then they must first be acknowledged honestly.  Just as life lived freely is to be distinguished, even opposed, to freedom, and just as life lived humbly is to be distinguished, even opposed, to being humble, so too life lived honestly is to be distinguished, and even opposed, to truth.  Truth is something that is established and stable for all time.  Life lived honestly recognizes that we ourselves are not established and stable, that the way we are now is not the way we always were and is not the way we always will be.  Furthermore, the situation of our lives is not established and stable, is not the same now as it always has been, and will not be in ten days either what it is now or will be tomorrow.  If truth is once and for all, then living life honestly is a way of being in constant discernment of who we were, who we are, who we will be, in light of ever changing circumstances.


Of course, it is the very instability of living honestly, the very continuous and ongoing cycles of change, that gives rise to the adverbial character of religious and spiritual life.  All of those nouns and verbs that pervade our speech and our thought about what is most true and good risk making us participants in the very generation Jesus bemoans in our gospel reading today.  Take, for example, the extraordinarily vitriolic language all too prevalent on the tips of the tongues of politicians and pundits, to say nothing of friends and family, aimed at Muslims and the Islamic world.  Such vitriol can only arise from a clinging to a truth that claims an exceptional character for the United States and a demonic character for all Muslims based upon the actions of a few.  Today, in the midst of Independence Day weekend, we would do well to seek to live more honestly.  How quickly we forget that the modern western world of science and technology would not exist except for the rediscovery of Aristotle, transmitted through the Islamic world back into the west during the late Middle Ages.  How quickly we forget that the Roman Empire once thought itself exceptional, and now it is dust.


Today, in the midst of Independence Day weekend, let us live according to the good news of life lived adverbially.  Let us live according to the good news that we can live integrated and wholesome lives when we seek to live honestly with ourselves and each other.  Let us live according to the good news that we can live humbly, recognizing the integrity of everyone and everything around us.  Let us live according to the good news that we can live freely even in the midst of the constraints brought about by chance and by the free lives undertaken by integral others.  And in living freely, humbly and honestly we experience salvation.  Clinging to a substantial freedom will leave us conflicted socially.  Clinging to a humble nature will leave us conflicted personally.  And clinging to absolute truth will leave us ineptly groping about in a constantly changing and complex world.  Nouns and verbs are the substance and motion of life, but they are not the fullness and fulfillment of life.  For fullness and fulfillment, long live the adverb!  Amen.


~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life