Archive for the ‘Guest Preachers’ Category

Sunday
July 31

Litmus Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:13–21

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Have you ever used a litmus test? A litmus test is a test using a special colorized paper. You dip the paper into a liquid and the color of the paper will change to blue or red, depending on whether the liquid is an acid or a base. The blue part of the paper will turn red if placed in something acidic and red paper will turn blue if placed in something basic. Many schools use the litmus test as a hands-on science experiment for students. It’s a relatively easy science experiment for kids that is still fun.

The term litmus test is used more broadly as a way of determining whether something will pass or not. It is widely used in politics, especially concerning court justices and presidential candidates. Hot button issues can be polarizing litmus tests which supposedly determine party affiliation or other meaningful political information. A lot of times certain issues become a sort of litmus test for things like dating, friend groups, or voting. Litmus tests are also used in churches. What is a sacrament, how often should communion be celebrated, and do you baptize or dedicate an infant? Calvinism or Free Will? Depending on the results of a litmus test during a sermon, we might tune in more closely or think harder about what we should have for lunch. The simplicity of a litmus test is helpful for making quick decisions. It recognizes that our pre-judgements often shape how we experience what is going on around us.

As a science project, a litmus test is straightforward. The results are either acid, base, or neutral. The paper shows the results of what is present. It is a fairly objective process; however, when the idea of a litmus test gets applied to other realms, like politics and theology, the process becomes much more subjective. That means that our experiences, identity, and other elements factor into the process. The results are rarely as straightforward as acid, base, or neutral and almost always some element of choice is involved. The subjective element allows for nuance and situational aspects to be accounted for, but too often the limitations of subjectivity are taken as objective fact. What I mean by that is something grounded in the perspective and experience of a person is taken as truthful constants; rather than, as something interpreted from a particular point of view. Interpretation always extends from who we are. It extends from our points of view, even as it comes back to shape our point of view. What we see in a text or in life, is partly influenced by our experiences of life.

To give this a concrete context, think about the national debates over what is currently written about in history books, especially with regard to race and racism. States and school systems around the country are banning and altering curriculum in dire dystopian fashion. On the one hand, this is wrong, untrue, and harmful. And on the other hand, it is actively shaping the point of view of younger generations so that their experiences of the world are marked by a certain understanding of the world and events. When I was in high school, a history teacher made it a strong point that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. We were told multiple times that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. We lost points on essays and exams if we claimed otherwise. We were told the Civil War was fought “to preserve the Union” and over “States Rights.” To use this litmus test from history is to lose all nuance and complexity over past events while allowing a present system of injustice to persist.

The stakes are high when it comes to history books, which is why the conflict is so important and strong. The danger is not only misinformation but a complete inability to engage truthfully with the past so that present oppression can continue. Prior point of view largely impacts present understandings and experiences of the monuments. And this is where the metaphor litmus test breaks down a bit. Because of elements like choice and experience, a litmus test outside of science it is not simply a means of determining acid, neutral, or base. It is often a choice to interpret the information or experience filtered through prior beliefs. The metaphor litmus test is popularly used as a way of testing beliefs or views on a matter. In practice, the litmus paper interacts with a solution to show you what type of solution is present, but in everyday practice, the litmus test actually reinforces preconceived beliefs to avoid honest and difficult engagement. While there are necessary reasons for this detachment, especially the survival of people constantly threatened by policies and views of others, there are consequences. Rather than deny point of view, experience, and subjectivity, we can account for the ways they influence us as we engage in discourse, especially the ways we approach differences.

Colossians 3:11 says, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” While some of the particular markers of identity may not be readily recognizable to modern readers, the summary solidifies the point. “Christ is all and in all.” Some have taken to interpret this text as a denial of earthy identity. The only identity that matters is that which we have in Christ. Others have cited this text as a defense of color-blind approaches to race and racism which deny the significance of race or the presence of modern racism. For these approaches, difference is an obstacle that gets in the way of unity. In a vacuum, these approaches might have more merit than detriments but in our actual context, they have more detriment than merit. They become a litmus test, a tool which denies difference an opportunity to flourish. They also deny subjectivity to marginalized people and creates maladaptive identities in those with power. Our unity in Christ does not come at the cost of diversity and uniqueness. In fact, it is our differences and uniqueness which lead us even further into the divine mystery. At the same time, our unity and diversity in Christ also does not claim that all experiences of the world are equal. Some, lead toward justice and equity, while others lead toward hate and oppression. Perhaps, a better litmus test for politics and theology would be one that determines whether the course is loving or not. If only it were that simple…

The prophet Hosea lived in a contentious time in Israel’s history. He was a contemporary of the prophet Amos, whose words against the rampant social injustices are so strong. Amos denounced those who hoarded wealth unjustly and those who participated in harmful economic policies which kept the poor in poverty. Amos was especially critical of those who did so with a veneer of theological legitimacy. Those who built large barns off the backs of the poor, all the while, referring to their wealth as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus’s parable, and Hosea’s message to these people are similar. That which is given, can be taken away and God desires justice not sacrifice. God desires faithful obedience not gifts that are lessened by how they were acquired. Hosea warned that the Assyrians would be a means of God’s justice for the injustice he witnessed. Where Amos rallied for social well-being and justice, Hosea emphasized faithfulness and knowledge of God. Two prophets, each revealing a part of God’s heart. Each complementing the other and trying to guide a people to live justly.

As you know, Old Testament prophets were not people who possessed crystal balls that could predict the future. They were God’s messengers, often in words and deeds. They discerned the word of the Lord and passed it along to the people. But this was an interpretive enterprise. The life of the prophet, the experiences of the prophet became a part of the interpretive process. The prophets were not passive people who recorded a voice they heard from beyond but active interpreters of their historical and social situations in light of their understanding and encounters with the Divine. The Word of the Lord came to them, but they were intimately involved in discerning and interpreting the Word. More often than not, the prophets of the Old Testament responded to their social and historical situations rather than making predictions about the far-off future. This means that prophets were far more human than popular imagination can make them out to be but also that we are invited to the same interpretive activity of the prophets. We interpret and discern the time we are in, in connection with others and the faith of ages past.

By nature of their inclusions in our Scripture, it can be easy to miss that the prophets were not always accepted by the people. They did not always champion popular views and they frequently engaged in polarizing prophetic ministry. What Hosea claimed of God was not readily accepted in his day, partly because there were other prophets who made opposing claims to Hosea. It is not surprising that a study of the prophets shows that often the most popular prophets, those who do not have books named after them in the canon, were the ones who predicted good things for the people and required very little change.

Some of these other prophets made their claims by virtue of other deities, like Baal as the Hosea reading says, but some prophesied differently from the canonical prophets and still in the name of YHWH. When we peer beneath the surface of our prophetic literature, we see communities in tension over how to interpret the times and God’s involvement in the world. We see different voices, sometimes even competing voices vying for legitimacy. Just as those who put the biblical cannon together had to ask, which prophets authentically spoke for God, we too have to discern between the myriad of voices in the present who claim to speak about God in our time. This is no easy task.

Hosea’s prophetic ministry began around 745 B.C.E. The book which bears his name utilizes many metaphors to discuss the relationship between God and God’s people. Metaphors are helpful in that task because we need something which helps us describe in human speech something that is greater than human speech. While still limited, metaphors help us grasp the mystery of the divine. Hosea uses the parent-child metaphor for God and Israel throughout the book and in the passage we read today. “11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The passage continues to note the ways God nurtured the people of Israel. Mention of Egypt and the Exodus, teaching Ephraim to walk, holding the people in arms, and providing healing.

We see that Hosea claims God is not only a parent to Israel but a good parent. A parent who loves and cares, a parent who helps develop the child into adulthood. God is faithful in steadfast love for the people. Hosea draws from the covenant tradition here. His imagery is either a reminder or a further development of God’s covenant with Israel in the wilderness after Egypt. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” This is the level of care that many would desire from their God. Love, care, and nourishment. If you have taken care of a parent, child, or pet perhaps you can relate to the connection between love and care.

But, Hosea also claims that the people were not steadfast in their faithfulness to God. “11:2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” Because of their unfaithfulness, Hosea warns the people that they will return to Egypt and that Assyria will rule over them. Hosea speaks of God’s love and God’s steadfastness but also of impending wrath and destruction. Hosea sees the historical rises of Egypt and Assyria as a real threat to Israel but interprets it in light of his understandings of God’s desired faithfulness. In other words, Hosea interprets the international scene from theocentric and Israel-centric standpoints. He engages the past and the history of the people to interpret the present.

When I teach this passage to Old Testament students, we take a long pause here to discuss the connection between history and the present with God’s action. Many students are quick to embrace Hosea’ theological methodology, connecting events around him with beliefs, and engaging the times with God. Sometimes these events are specific and other times they are more general. Such efforts, I think are commendable. Because I believe God is active in Creation, I too want to make sure my beliefs and theology reflect the possibilities opened by that posture.

However, after some time, I like to play the devil’s advocate with them. I bring up examples of pastors who have made claims of God in the aftermath of events like Katrina or Supreme Court cases which I assume are in opposition to the student’s beliefs about God and Creation. They usually see the difficulty. When Christians claim God is not bound by the pages in a book but active in the world, much can be claimed of God that is not noble, true, and right. When Christians claim the totality of Euro-American centric theologies, even ones grounded in the genuine experiences of those peoples, harms take place. But then the question rises, how do we discern the word of the Lord among the cacophony of those claiming to be prophets?

There is no litmus test to determine definitely just as the people of Israel had no litmus test to determine a true or false prophet. It is one reason; we speak of being cautious while making universal claims about God and all the unknowns. With the biblical witness, we have the advantage of time and those who have discerned for us in the past. We look back as modern interpreters who can discern and interpret God’s activity over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. Scripture guides us through the past and offers direction for the present. I do not think we should not be tempted by approaches to Scripture that claim to speak absolutely about absolute matters. Scripture does not speak in one voice but in many. It is among its many voices that we are called to witness the work of the Holy One. This invites us to discern, the multiple voices and traditions present within our tradition, even as we recognize that not all voices are good. Just as ancient Israel had to discern which prophets to listen to, we too are invited to this process of holy discernment among the myriad of voices claiming to speak for God today.

Perhaps, a key to a healthy Gospel is not so much the absolute surety of a litmus test but an openness to keep dipping beliefs and experiences into the living water as a means of being transformed into God’s likeness. It might mean we need to change pre-conceived notions and deeply held convictions, but it might just start us on a journey to a more equitable and just world. Led by the hope of the Gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH

Sunday
July 24

Ask. Seek. Knock.

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 11:1-13

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On a Sunday in February of 2019 my hospital pager went off when I was sitting in my home. My wife and I rarely watch the Superbowl, but the Patriots were playing and we lived in Quincy. It was half-time and the ICU requested that I come in to see a dying patient and support the family. I made the trip in and said a prayer outside the ICU doors. You never know what exactly you are stepping into in a situation like this. I found my way to the room, opened the glass door and moved the curtain. The room was decorated with Patriots gear and filled with people wearing Patriot’s Jersey’s. An older patient lay in bed with a large Patriots blanket. I thought, “well this visit might be a bit different.” The family expressed their thanks that I had come but rarely took both eyes off the screen. At the same time, they were attentive to their loved one. Frequently speaking, squeezing hands, and sharing a memory during a commercial. By the time I arrived, it was the third quarter. We watched the game for a while. Talking during commercials and downtime—gasps, and squeals during plays. The patient going in and out of consciousness but was surprisingly alert for end of life.

At one point I said, “Big fans,” “How could you tell” was the response. They shared that watching the Patriots together was a family ritual. They lived near the stadium and frequently went to games in person or gathered in someone’s house on a rotating schedule. It seemed that this family ritual would not be interrupted even at the end of life. This family ritual helped us navigate the end of life situation. I chose not to fight it but embrace it as a part of our end of life ritual. Eventually, the fourth quarter came and while everyone mostly watched the TV screen, I kept an eye on the other screen in the room. The screen which recorded vitals. Aware that the patient might not make it to the end of the game, especially with the stress of a 3-3 tied Superbowl, I asked if we could do the prayers they requested during a commercial. The family came fully to the reality of the situation at that moment and said yes, but someone did request I put in a good word for Tom Brady while I was at it.

We prayed and read the commendation of the dying liturgy, which includes the Lord’s Prayer. The family participated and recited many of the familiar prayers, especially participating during the Lord’s prayer. Prayer was also a family ritual. One that was passed down from generation to generation. Another familiar path in an unfamiliar time. One that connected them to each other and to God. By the time we finished, what would be the Patriot’s touch-down drive was in full swing. The room anticipated that this could be big and celebrated with great enthusiasm when they scored. Lots of high fives, lots of “did you see and they are going to do it.” Because the drive started during our prayer, they told me I had to stay to watch the rest of the game with them. They didn’t want to risk it, they said. I stayed. We watched the game and the Patriots won. The family celebrated, smiles on the patient’s face whose eyes were more often closed than not toward the end of the game. The next day, I discovered that the patient passed not long after I left, still surrounded by loved ones, still basking in the ritual of gameday, and the practice of prayer.

On my drive back home from the visit, I reflected on how the ritual of prayer and the family’s gameday rituals intertwined. They worked together in this instance. I thought about the liminal space between the sacred and secular that ritual can mediate. End of life is a fragile liminal space. Patriots and prayer were reminders of the family bonds in that space. Like a child who brings a favorite stuffed animal or toy on a long trip, the familiar can guide us when we are in unfamiliar territory. Part of the depth of meaningful rituals is the way they imprint in our consciousness when engaged with intentionality.     They become a sort of grammar for our lives. Not the feared grammar of elementary school but like the way of first learning to speak.

When we first learn to speak as, we hear words recited by others, mostly unsure of their meaning. Infants, babies, and toddlers hear a variety of words every-day for months and years. They hear them for a long time, sometimes even trying to repeat words with coos, grunts, and garbling. Eventually it comes together, and the sound of words comes out, even if adults do not fully understand. Then, little by little, the words make more sense. Intention and meaning become clearer. Full sentences eventually come and the connection between speaking about what is in the world around us becomes even stronger. Just as we learn to speak through practice, through use, our faith rituals are also embraced through practice and reflection. We learn the Lord’s prayer by practice and reflection. We embrace it through the memorization of words and the enactment of their meaning in the world.

The Lord’s Prayer is a familiar prayer. Most of us can recite it by heart. We’ve heard it, read it, and hopefully lived it in one way or another. In many ways, it is a paradigmatic prayer of Christian prayer practices. It is frequently one of the first prayers memorized, either intentionally or learned through weekly use. While the memorization of the prayer is one way of internalizing the meaning of the prayer, the significance of the Lord’s Prayer should not words alone. Rituals are rarely about the words alone. Do not get me wrong, the words matter. Words matter and written rituals are frequent examples of words that do something. Like a couple who says I do at a wedding to enter into marriage, the Lord’s prayer changes how we relate to God, the world, and each other.

For many of us, we learned the Lord’s Prayer as it is recorded by Matthew rather than Luke. Luke’s account is different. When I come to Luke’s, I have to slow down. I have to remind myself to read the words on the page because my mind so quickly jumps to Matthew’s account. If I do not read slowly, I miss the differences, especially because most of the differences are subtle. They would likely go unnoticed if not for the ingrained memorization of Matthew’s account.

Like other sections of scripture, ancient manuscripts themselves do not always agree on the words of the prayer, in both Matthew and Luke. Lines are different, some lines that are considered stock to us seem to be later additions. The changes are illustrative of one of the first Latin phrases many in theological studies learn, lex orandi, les credendi which means, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.    The rule of prayer is the rule of faith. What we pray shapes what we believe. Pray can be a form of primary theological speech, not just secondary reflection. Prayer is a crucial element of the grammar of Christian faith because it is a central practice. It is a practice which connects us to each other, Creation, and God. Prayer tells us what we think about God and the world. It has a way of reflecting our core beliefs and values. And, as the ancient Church taught, , lex orandi, les credendi. Prayer shapes our beliefs. Prayer shapes our attitudes. Prayer not only informs it also forms. It forms our beliefs, values, and actions.

Luke’s account of the Lord’s prayer places the Lord’s prayer in the context of Jesus’ own prayer life. Jesus was praying in an unnamed place and the disciples requested Jesus teach them to prayer as John taught his disciples to pray. Luke situates the Lord’s prayer in Jesus’ prayer life but also underscored the catechetical nature of the prayer. It is an example of how to pray and what to pray.

Following many Psalms, the prayer begins with honor to God’s holy name. “Father, hallowed be your name.” Jesus prays to God, the father. The prayer then moves to welcome God’s kingdom coming. “Your kingdom come.” Missing, although present in some ancient manuscript’s the line “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Nonetheless, this line is truly, one of the most radical prayers in all of scripture and one that is incarnated, to small degrees, every time we allow the Lord’s prayer to shape our lives and situations. To pray for God’s kingdom to come is to recognize our common need for the divine. It recognizes our dependence on God’s love and activity. It is also a call for Christian unity. We desire God’s Kingdom not our kingdoms.

A petition for daily bread. “Give us each day our daily bread.” The grammar of Greek here is interesting. Give us daily bread—each day. The bread is daily bread, the request is to have it each day. Daily bread each day. Perhaps, a reminder of when the people wandered in the desert and relied on God for mana. Mana came each day but it was daily mana you could only collect what was needed because it spoiled. Storing mana led to spoiled mana. Praying for daily bread is a reminder that God is Creator and Sustainer.        The prayer shapes us attitudes around sustenance and possessions. Another radical value formed through this prayer is contentment with what we have rather than the insatiable desire for more. To rely on God for daily bread is to trust.

A few months ago, my two year old and I were in a rhythm every morning. He would wake up and almost always ask for Blackberries for breakfast. It was a new food item to him and quickly became a lasting favorite. We only give him a couple at a time, and it was fun to watch the enjoyment on his face while he ate them. On one particular morning, I woke up well before he did, so I put the blackberries at the table where he sits on his placemat. But without thinking, I left out the plastic container from the story on the counter. When my son woke up, he ran out and he saw the Blackberry container on the counter. He immediately started asking for blackberries. I tried to get through to him that I had already gotten him some, that they had been washed, and that they were ready for him to eat at the table. He was so focused on the containers on the counter though. No matter how many times I told him that I had already given him some and that he could just go to the table to get them, he just kept reaching for the containers. He couldn't see his portion which was ready for him because he was so focused on what he didn't have. The Lord’s prayer is a Christian practice that helps shape contentment. It enables us to see what God has given us and what God has worked around us. It is easy to miss what we have longed for stuff that we do not really need but nonetheless holds power over us. Daily bread is a form of contentment.

The Lord’s prayer moves from physical sustenance, daily bread, to forgiveness. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” First, the forgiveness of sins from God, then the language changes from that of sin ­amartia to debt opheiló. The Lord’s prayer reminds us that we need to be right with God and we need to be right with our neighbors. The term, Opheiló, debt initially carried more legal and economic weight than moral implications. While not exclusive to Luke, we see Luke’s emphasis on human social relating here, especially connecting social relating with economic relating. Luke consistently reminds us that how we interact with other people, and how we interact with money are directly connected, further emphasizing the need for contentment. The communal language is also present throughout the prayer. Give us, forgive us, as we. Community

The final line in Luke’s account is “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” We are so used to saying, and deliver us from evil that it is hard to stop there. Some scholars see this line in cosmic terms while others see it as more mundane. Is it some present hardship, or a final ultimate battle? Many scholars argue it is not a request to avoid hardships altogether but a request for God to see us through hardships and trials. A request that even when the valley of the shadow of death is near, God is present with us with rod and staff to comfort us. Like the Gettysburg address, the Lord’s prayer is short but every line conveys depth.

A popular understanding of prayer is as a means to influence or shape God. This is one view that is supported by Scripture but another view of prayer reminds us that God shapes our through prayer. Prayer is a guide which invites being shaped, like clay in the hands of the potter. Prayer places us into the hands of the potter.

The Lord’s prayer is Catechetical, which means it was used to teach the early followers of Jesus what to pray and how to pray. This use of the Lord’s prayer continues today. It is taught in catechism and Sunday school rooms. The prayer informs us.

The Lord’s prayer also became liturgical. It was recited in worship services. It was used in baptism and the eucharist. We recite the Lord’s prayer when we gather for worship. The prayer forms us.

The prayer is also enacted through faithful living. These are not only words on a page but an invitation to live into the reality of God’s kingdom on earth. The prayer is performed by living. Inform, form, and perform. Each captures different uses and facets of the familiar prayer.

The passage in Luke continues with a lesson on the importance of perseverance in prayer. which Jesus summarizes by saying, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Ask, search, and knock. Inform, form, and perform.

 

-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH

Sunday
July 17

Woven Promises

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:38-42

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In the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston, there is a tapestry room. The room is grand with walls displaying enormous tapestries. Many of the tapestries depict images or scenes, one even showing parts of Abraham’s story. These textile artworks are woven together thread by thread to make their images and tell their stories. They may not always have the vibrancy of oil and canvas, but they are commanding. At its essence, a tapestry is a collection of dyed threads. Because the thread is dyed before being woven into the final product, it takes an enormous amount of precision and patience. It takes vision to see the final product and precision to actualize the vision. When connected to the whole, each thread becomes a part of something larger. Colors work together to form beautiful images.

I’m struck by how each individual thread alone is small. Just a piece of thread. A single piece is easily broken or blown away by the wind. These individual threads are vulnerable to tearing. When they are woven together into a tapestry though, the threads become stronger together. The small thread vulnerable to tearing alone is less vulnerable when surrounded by a community of threads woven into each other. On a tapestry, the horizontal threads, the weft threads are woven through the warp threads, that are the vertical ones. Horizontal and vertical, weft and warp, hold each other tightly to prevent the tapestry from coming undone or fraying. They work together to hold one another in place.

When I was young, whenever I had a thread break away from a piece of clothing, my mother would tell me not to pull it. I generally did it anyway but pulling it risks making a minor snag into a big problem. Because of the way cloth is woven together the threads hold the other together but it does not make them invincible. So, pulling on loose threads can risk the safety of nearby threads as well. Tapestries are similar. Despite their strength, when threads fray or get pulled out, sections of the tapestry can be weakened.

Perhaps, the tapestry can serve as a metaphor for community. Ideally, threads work together, holding one another up. Each plays a part, drawing attention to each other. Each thread contributes in its unique way to some image or scene. Each thread matters to the whole but no one thread dominates the others. They are interconnected and interdependent. At the present, our social tapestry is frayed and fraying at a rapid pace. Loose threads are visible, and many have been pulled threatening the whole structure. The more this occurs, the greater the potential for continued degradation and destruction. Loosening threads threaten our social tapestry. We are coming to see what many around the world have experienced for much longer, societies are not always safe or stable. Many of you are already aware of the fraying tapestry. Perhaps, many of you also feel a sense of paralysis over what to do. Let us listen to the Gospel according to Luke for the inspiration of the Spirit who has weathered ages past and will see ages to come. We turn to Luke, not to escape our world and troubling situation but to remember the promise of the Gospel. Let us search for the good news.

Directly following the parable of the Good Samaritan, last week’s Gospel reading which ends with “go and do likewise” is a short scene involving two sisters, Mary and Martha. The text says that Martha invited Jesus to her house. Jesus was presumably traveling with the disciples and others so this may not have been a small invitation. A good-sized entourage was likely with Jesus. There was no texting so maybe Martha knew she would be hosting but perhaps she had no idea. Either way, it seems Martha was busy trying to get everything that involved hosting together. I sympathize with Martha here. Hosting is hard work. Cooking, cleaning, filling drinks, making sure it is not too hot or too cold, hoping the conversation, barely audible from the kitchen is entertaining for everyone present. Hosting is a big responsibility and has social norms and expectations. Hosting can be a high-pressure activity, even if a lot of the pressure is self-imposed.

The social norms and responsibilities were even greater in the 1st century than they are today. In ancient Greek literature, we read about hosting in language reminiscent of the sacred and friendship. We also see examples of the high place of hosting and hospitality in the Hebrew Bible. Acts of hospitality or inhospitality feature prominently in the Genesis patriarch stories and in other places throughout Scripture. Hospitality was more than good manners, it was meeting the needs of guests’, often considered friends when under the roof. Meeting guests’ needs goes above and beyond warm smiles and being polite. It is caring for the person. Amid trying to get everything done and be hospitable, when Martha saw her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet, she questions what was happening. Perhaps, she wants help, perhaps she feels the impropriety of a woman learning at the feet of a man should be questioned. Possibly both.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Martha would like help. Hosting is hard and she might be used to her sister doing the work with her. Interestingly, she turns to Jesus for that help. She questions Jesus about his care over her sister leaving her to do the work, even while it is her house. As host, Martha had the authority to request Mary’s help, but she defers to Jesus, her guest but also the Lord.

Teeming with gender roles and expectations, Jesus’ response, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, defies typical roles. Women were not to learn at the feet of teachers, but Mary sat at Jesus’ feet choosing to defy the social and gender norms in normal circumstances, let alone when hospitality was involved. Expectations were flipped. Even still, it is important not to create a binary system of womanhood from this Lukan text. We should not go around labeling people Mary’s and Martha’s when it seems to me that Luke was pushing back against gender norms and societal expectations not creating a system of labels and boxes. This passage shows that there is more than one way to be but, perhaps we should go even further to remind ourselves that life and situations are complex. We embody a myriad of roles or positions throughout our lives, none of which have to be raised to ontological necessity. Sometimes, we embody the role of host and sometimes we embody the role of learner, and sometimes even both at times. Personhood, identity, and roles are more complex than labels. Labels can be useful, especially as they provide orientation. But it is important to recognize the role of the situation in our actions. We all perform different roles and actions in different situations and contexts. Rather than threatening our core senses of selves, the very situations we find ourselves in are the places where action and being come to fruition.

Along with homilician David Schnasa Jacobsen, I see this with the Gospel too. The Gospel is not completely understood as something apart from the situations we find ourselves in but speaks to, from, and with situations. That means that our present situation of a fraying tapestry is not without the Gospel. It pushes us to hold up where we are, context with our faith, text and belief in the hard work of discernment. In this way, the Gospel becomes something more than ancient creeds and words on a page, it incarnates through us into the world. This mode of discerning the Gospel has less surety and more openness which can make it uncomfortable, but it also holds the potential to be revelatory in this day and age.

After the parable of the good Samaritan, where someone typically looked down upon was the paragon in the parable, Jesus once again defies custom. He responds in favor of Mary. “10:41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Martha is concerned with hospitality. A good concern. A needed concern. God bless those concerned with hospitality. She wants to care for those who have come under her roof. Martha is actively doing. Like many others who invited Jesus to their house and showed hospitality, Martha does not want to miss the opportunity to show hospitality but unlike many others who order servants to do the hospitable work, Martha seems to be doing it herself. Feeding, washing, and caring are holy work.    Mary wants to learn from Jesus. Both are worthy and often Luke pairs a parable or a narrative with another parable or narrative which inform the other.

Maybe the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with its emphasis on action and the story of Mary and Martha, with its emphasis on listening, form a sort of pair. The Good Samaritan emphasizes action and this narrative listening at the feet of Jesus. Perhaps, each in unique and varying situations are needed. What is “better” for Mary may not have been better for Martha and vice versa. Perhaps, it is the very situation which determines which is “better” to use Jesus’ words. But no matter what, like the weft and warp of a tapestry they mutually inform and hold each other in place. The strength of the tapestry is not the weft or warp alone but their interconnected woven nature. The strength of faith in belief and action is also in their interconnected woven nature. Take away “Go and do likewise” or take away faith at the feet of the Lord and the tapestry falls apart. Each person contributes in their unique manner to the whole in a way that fundamentally matters. Uniqueness and diversity give the tapestry its beauty. Threads woven together, lend the individual strands their strength.

I spent the first summer in seminary working for the seminary grounds crew. There were about 6 of us Master of Divinity students who did everything from mowing to weeding and trash pick-up to planting. We spent one whole month weeding and mulching, weeding and mulching, weeding and mulching. Into the second week of mulching, we confessed that each of us had felt job envy at some point. You see, on the first day of mulching we all selected a part of the overall job. I used a pitchfork to get the mulch off the dump truck and into the wheelbarrows, three people moved the wheelbarrows from the truck to the flower beds, and two people spread the mulch in the flower bed. We all played our part but after a few hours of this day in and day out, it was easier to focus on the ease of other tasks and escalate the hardships of our own. We referred to this feeling as job envy. Envious of the desirable parts of others’ roles while neglecting the desirable parts of your own job. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”

We tried rotating jobs but really came to see that the initial jobs we had all chosen were the ones we wanted to do. So, we stuck with the same jobs and tried to keep the job envy at bay. The six of us all played a part in the overall work. Even while our attitudes toward each other and the work impacted our experience of each other and the work.

Community takes work and a desire or commitment to community. As I read old accounts of Methodist camp meetings and society meetings, lately I have been struck by the communal aspect of discernment. Faith and discerning the promise of the Gospel was not something done in isolation, it was communal by purpose. People gathered to read the ancient text, sing, and share their lives together. It was personal and communal balanced together. People affirmed, challenged, or illuminated in community with one another held together by a common desire to love God and neighbor and interpret the times. What I sense in these old accounts is an understanding that God’s promises to Creation, God’s promises to us are woven together. Because God is not my God alone and because I am not the only person in Creation, discerning the will and promise of God should be communal because the tapestry is strongest when the threads are interconnected. My understanding of God and life are enhanced through engagement with others. Woven promises connect and form strong bonds.

This is a different view of faith and spirituality from the strong “personal relationship with Jesus” language of my youth. I still see some merits in that image and language, but I also think it has its limits. God is not my personal God but God over everything. My view and understanding of God are enhanced by listening to others and engaging others. I think if faith is going to continue to be a voice of goodness and purpose in the world, it will do so through more communitarian ideals. It will do so by returning to a vision of faith discerning in community and with community; rather than, highly individualistic manners. At a time when the social tapestry is frayed and fraying, the church can lend strength to the threads of life. No matter what isolated individualism would have us think, our lives are woven into Creation and into the lives of others. Just as my family, friends, and people I’ve encountered are a part of my memories, I am a part of other’s memories. The social tapestry is complex.

Colossians invites us to be reconciled with Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all Creation. The one present at Creation and who it is through that Creation came to being. “1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” To be a part of God’s tapestry is to recognize that Christ is part of what holds the threads of Creation together. Christ’s promises are not ours alone to possess but are directed toward all of Creation. Which calls us toward responsibility. We are not responsible for the whole tapestry but perhaps, with wisdom, guidance, and love we can be threads which strengthen; rather than, fray. Perhaps, we can be threads that help hold the threads around us together in strength and love.

When we care for one another, the tapestry of Creation strengthens. When we listen to those who need to be heard, the tapestry strengthens. When we encourage and promote self-care and mental health, the tapestry strengthens. When we participate in loving communities and churches, the tapestry is strengthened.

Amos knew something of the need for a strong tapestry. In fact, the Amos passage for today begins with fear over a frayed social tapestry. Fear that inequality was irreversible without divine intervention and fear over how God will intervene to end the inequality of the day to right the iniquity of the time. Amos speaks of buying the poor for cheap prices, using weighted scales, and padding grain with useless bit unfit for eating.

 

-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH

Sunday
May 8

Recognition. Relationship. Representation

By Marsh Chapel

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John 10:22-30

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As an elementary school student my parents took my siblings and me on a weeklong trip to Washington D.C. We spent most our days in and out of museums and monuments. I was particularly in awe of the National Air and Space Museum and remembered being captivated by the planes and rockets. We were in the gift shop, and I was mesmerized by a small triangular prism that fit in the palm of my hand. I kept turning it over and over to see how the prism would refract the light. On one side, ordinary light entered the prism through a translucent pane and on the other side out came visible parts of the color spectrum. If you like music, think of the image on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. White light enters one side of a triangle, and a rainbow comes out the other.

My mom bought the prism for me and wherever we went, I would take it out to see if it would work. Without fail, wherever there was light, the prism would make what looked like a rainbow to me. Whether we were at the zoo or the Lincoln memorial my prism would show me something present but unrecognizable. Without the prism, the light looked clear to me, just like the light in this room. It seemed like normal light. But with a triangular prism with precise panels cut at just the right angles, I could see something more than with just my naked eye. While there are a lot of scientific tools that do similar things, the simplicity of the prism stands out to me and it changed the way I engaged with the world. It is not as if I go around always aware that the light I see holds a spectrum of colors not visible to my eye by direct observation alone; yet I know that beneath the observable surface is a reality infinitely more complex than what it seems at the first glance. There is more to world and life than meets the eye.

At times, we catch glimpses of the depths of reality. We get lost gazing at the stars and wonder of it all, our breath is taken away by the view of a mountain top. We are overwhelmed by a hug at the right time, or the perfect mother’s day gift which makes someone feel seen and heard. Sometimes, we witness death and destruction or receive life altering news. We experience transcendence or even recognize our own finitude at such moments. These moments can invite us to deeper recognition. They shape and mold us. It would be nice if there was some sort of prism that we could keep in our pockets and hold up to those moment or some devise that would allow us to capture the way they make us feel. When life feels too complex or we just need a little more surety, we could hold a prism up to and go beneath the surface. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize what is going on beneath the surface or even that more is going on.

For some, prayer, Word, and Sacrament might be like prisms which invite us to marvel at God and Creation. They are means of grace which can be centering. In a curious sort of way, they ground us on the solid rock. A wonder, is that these means of grace are in some ways, just ordinary. Water for baptism, bread for communion, ink and paper for Scripture. Hands and words for prayer, food for fellowship. Ordinary, like how there is nothing special about the light that goes through a prism. In a certain sense, there is nothing special about water, bread, ink, and food but through scripture, reason, tradition, and experience we can see that they are extraordinary. The mundane can disclose the Divine. Many of our deepest understanding stem from realities that cannot be seen with the eye alone. Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience can reveal the unseen bonds are there. We might need a sort of prism to recognize them but they are present.

Our Gospel reading invites us to consider recognition with regard to Jesus. Amid winter, perhaps replete with cold breezes, at Solomons portico during the festival of dedication— people gathered around Jesus. They inquire whether he is the Messiah, first asking how long he will keep them in suspense. The question seems straightforward. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” A simple yes or no would suffice. But Jesus does not answer the question in the way the group would have liked. He answers it in a way that preserves tension, ambiguity, and mystery. He answers in way that maintains suspense, not necessarily for the sake of suspense, but because of the way recognition and faith relate. Faith is not proof but belief and trust. Jesus responds to the question, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

Sometimes, to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, we need to belong to the sheep. It is perhaps not as linear as that suggests. Belonging leads to belief. There is a danger to this sort of thinking when it is closed. The danger of circular reasoning. Faith sometimes falls victim to circular reasoning which confines it. And yet, so many through history and now are able to keep the circle open through exposure to change and life. Yes, sometimes, to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, we need to first belong to the sheep. Belong to believe. I believe Lord, help my unbelief. But perhaps, Jesus words should not be taken so linearly or even circularly but as a spiral which moves up and down, as well as side to side. A spiral is not confined to one axis just as faith is not confined to the mind, the page, or circular reasoning. It is where faith and life intersect that Jesus’ words come to be true. The very situations and contexts we find ourselves in are not obstacles to believe in Jesus as the Good Shepherd but the time and place where the words take on truth in time.

Perhaps, many first learn to seek, then learn to recognize. We learn to take out our prisms and hold them up to the light to make sure the color spectrum is still present. Through time, we learn to trust in the consistency of the presence of the other such that we do not always need to pull out the prism to know that God is with us. A trouble though, is that moments are fleeting. The experience we once had of the divine that we were so confident of, passes into memory. The cobwebs of the mind settle fading the original passion and experience. Life goes on and the circle is more comfortable than the spiral. Belong to believe but keep belief exposed to God’s ongoing presence and work enlivens faith. At some point, we recognize the Good Shepherd not only because we are the sheep, but because God relates to us as the Good Shepherd.

Recognition invites relationship. It stems from relationship and points back toward relationship. When we are in relationship we trust in the presence across unseen bonds. After years of relationship with someone, we learn to recognize their responses, body language, and other subtle clues about what they are thinking or feeling. I do not always need to be present with my spouse to know she loves me and to trust her even as I do seek to affirm these realities when we are together. Eventually, relationship informs recognition, even self-recognition. In other words, it is through recognizing ourselves as the people of God that we come to learn about what it means to be people. To love. To be loved. This type of being must be opened by the world to break out of well-worn circles and go into unknown spirals. Recognition invites relationships. Relationship with a present but elusive God.

Paul Ricoeur wrote, “The small miracle of recognition, however, is to coat with presence the otherness of that which is over and gone.” Recognition is not just about seeing but also relationship and presence. It is a mode of thinking or being which relates in the world differently as a result of engagement and it allows difference. “The small miracle of recognition, however, is to coat with presence the otherness of that which is over and gone.” Applied to God we might say that God is bigger than my preferences, positions, and predilections. That God is present but also other than presence.

Every year my undergraduate school would print an “April fools” edition of the school newspaper. I confess that I looked forward to that edition more than any other throughout the year. It was the one I read with the most care and derived the most joy from. One year, the front-page headline was in reference to the school’s science building campaign. The school had been trying to raise funds for what felt like a decade to renovate and update the facility. It seemed that every major event would end with a drive for the science building. I was not a science major so I did not care much for the efforts or pay close attention, except that it felt like the campaign would never end. I did my science liberal arts credits but spent most of my time with the theology crowd; although, I wish I had better equipped myself in the sciences too.

The April fools front page had a big picture of the current science building with a headline that said something like: “God answers prayers for new science building” and underneath in slightly smaller letters  “The answer is no.”    “God answers prayers for new science building: the answer is no.” In one swell swoop, the headline provided a succent zinger that still makes me chuckle when I think about it, and says something profound about God. God does not always respond the way we would like nor does God always respond in ways that we would like.

God is present with us, especially through Christ in Word and Sacrament and in the caring actions of people around the world, but God also remains something other than what we can conceive or imagine. There is an otherness of God that keeps a tension with the closeness of God. Recognizing the otherness of God is important to keeping faith living. A living faith is one which draws from the rich images of Scripture, history, tradition, experience, reason, and other sources. It is not threatened by difference and does not succumb to ethnocentric tendencies. It is enlivened by a diversity of opinions, expressions, and images. A living faith is one which lets God be God and us be human. It trades degrees of certainty and closedness for more porous boundaries and explorations. It does not force itself onto others, especially by taking rights aways. It knows that sometimes, God answers prayer with “no,” that God is sometimes more elusive than we would prefer, and sometimes Jesus refuses to break the suspense and tension we desperately want broken.

And yet, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Put differently, my sheep recognize my voice and are in relationship with me. Recognition, relationship go together and extend over into representation. When we are counted among the sheep recognizing the shepherd and in relationship with the Good Shepherd, we become representations. That is the root of Christians afterall, little Christs. We represent Christ when we act justly, love faithfulness, and walk humbly with the Good Shepherd.

Across our lectionary texts today, we see the common pastoral images for and used by Christ. We hear Christ refer to his people as sheep. The Johannine passage follows one of the “I am” sayings. Christ refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. “11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The Psalm for the day is perhaps the most familiar. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Revelation invites us to behold Christ, the lamb of God, around a host of worshippers. A diverse host from across boundaries which emphasizes diverse and universal aspects of the people of God. These bucolic and pastoral images invite us to reflect on the nearness of God. The presence of Christ. They invite us to peer into the world and boldly affirm Immanuel- God with us. They invite us to recognize through relationship and to represent.

There is, of course, a caution though. God is not mere light which a prism can fully reveal. God is greater than that which we can imagine and therefore, we must also hold onto the otherness of God.  We relate with God and the world as an unfolding spiral where we are invited into deeper love.

We live in the suspense that Christ refused to do away with. "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." It might not be that exact question for you but perhaps it is something similar. How long do I have to live with the unknown of unemployment when I trust in God’s provision? How long do I have to lament over the lost pandemic time and losing loved ones? How long will machines of war rake in profits while food rots unused.

We live in a world full of suspense. I cannot break the suspense for you today. There are times when irresolution speaks louder than resolution but amid the suspense, I offer you the prism and the spiral. Recognition – Relationship – Representation

 

- Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, PhD Candidate in Homiletics at BU School of Theology

Sunday
October 3

Boston University Baccalaureate for the Class of 2020

By Marsh Chapel

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This year’s Baccalaureate speaker is Yolanda Kakabadse, former president of the World Wildlife Fund International (WWF).

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Sunday
August 8

For the life of the World

By Marsh Chapel

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John 6:35, 41-51

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For our anniversary back in 2015, my wife and I stayed at a small resort on a finger lake in upstate New York. It was one of those places for us that we really only go to when special anniversaries come around. We had a splendid time. The place started as an estate for a wealthy family, was a monastery for 25 years, and underwent numerous renovations to turn into a hotel. It sits on the waters of Seneca lake and was built in the style of the Italian renaissance. At the time we went, the hotel offered guests the opportunity to see the lake on a nightly boat cruise. We went on the ride with one other couple and the boat driver. We spent the time chatting with the boat driver who made us feel that we belonged there. It was clear that he loved the water, the estate, and making guests feel welcome. He offered insights into what we were seeing and the two of us talked about church architecture. In short, he was an extremely hospitable guide focused on our comfort.

The next morning, my wife and I were waiting for breakfast. We looked at the wall and noticed pictures of some famous people who had stayed there over the years. As we looked through the photographs, we noticed that the boat driver was in many of the pictures. Through a simple Google search, we discovered that the man who drove the boat and made us feel so at home was a former owner of the estate. He and his family had lovingly restored and managed the property for decades. For years, they poured themselves into the estate, making it a beautiful and welcoming place for guests. At the time when we went, and still today, the man who drove the boat is the general manager of the hotel.

His love for the estate and for making guests feel welcome has stuck with me through the years. His kindness and non-ostentatious way of leading the nightly cruise was a bit of grace at a time when people tend to point toward themselves. It struck me, when I learned more about the man, that he was doing what I think makes him happy. I imagine there were other people who could lead the boat ride or interact with guests in such a personal way, but these interactions seemed to bring him genuine joy, so he made time to do them personally. There might have been other things he could have been doing, some of which other people might think were more important, but a trip over the fresh waters of Seneca lake with a genuine host stands as a moment of beauty in my memory. There is joy in doing what you love and in loving what you do. The whole trip, including the estate and interaction, was a reminder to search for beauty along with the good.

We have had to cling to such moments of beauty in the current state of things. We have lived off good and beautiful memories, waiting for new ones to be formed. We continue to wait with hope for a new season where COVID is the distant memory. In the meantime, though, we live in a state of paradox. We live in a time of trouble even while triumphs do exist. Perhaps, this paradoxical state can help us connect with a paradox from the Gospel of John. In a simplified manner, the paradox is, what is the relationship between those who believe and the world? Theologians are not in agreement as to whether this paradox is primarily pessimistic or optimistic. Do we reside in a irredeemable world fallen and marred by sin moving toward destruction, are do we live in a world loved by God seeking redemptive transformation? A similar paradox can be said of people and God, are people sinners in the hands of an angry God as Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermons says, or people for whom Christ has already taken on flesh to connect with the love of God?

On the one hand, the gospel account begins with a strong affirmation of creation and flesh through the incarnation of Christ, “The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” John 3:16 indicates that God so loved the world. Our lectionary passage today ends with sharing that the bread of life Jesus offers is given for the life of the world. This bread is identified with the flesh of Christ. These Johannine passages suggest an optimistic understanding of flesh and the world. They connect the incarnation of Christ with the love of God in the world. They are a reminder to search for good, truth, and beauty in the world because the life of the world is the flesh of Christ. They suggest a sacramental quality of flesh and the world which draws us closer to God and companionship with one another.

The Gospel of John also uses the world and flesh in pessimistic manners. It recounts that being born of the Spirit is different from being born in the flesh, priority is given to the Spirit in these passages. Heavenly things are more significant than earthly things. Late in the Gospel, Jesus says that he chooses disciples out of this world, indicating that they no longer belong to the world. He warns that the world will hate the disciples as it hates him and prays that they be, not of this world as he is not of this world…

Tension and paradox need critical faith, not pithy pietistic platitudes. The world and flesh, according to John are not straightforward. They should not be dismissed nor romanticized. It is clear the Gospel account is using the world and flesh in paradoxical and complicated manners. It can be the place of the incarnation, the flesh of Christ with which the love of God is directed, or a place of antagonism against Christ and Christ followers. Commentators note the multi-layered uses of flesh and world throughout the Gospel. The world offers many good and beautiful things, but the world also offers evil and ugly things. It is not within our power to obliviate the tension, so we need to find ways of navigating the tension.

To explore the tension, we might turn from literal language and literalized language to the language of metaphor. Metaphors help us navigate tension because they are built on the logic of tension. Metaphors hold concepts together by creating tension between a literal meaning and a figurative meaning. This tension does not make metaphors untrue, in fact, Paul Ricoeur argues that this tension allows metaphors to say things about reality that not would otherwise be possible. Through a figurative throwing together, metaphors disclose aspects of reality and being to us; however, this revelatory process requires constant tension. Once the tension of a metaphor is lost, the metaphor dies. So long as the metaphor lives, it requires people to interpret through the tension. Metaphors allow us to peer through glass to see dimly what one day we hope we see clearly.

The central metaphor of the scripture passage today comes from the mouth of Jesus multiple times. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life. This is a rich metaphor and one that should be kept alive. It plays with the intersections between bread being a basic food for survival and Christ being foundational to the life of Christian faith. Jesus also emphasizes part of what it means that he is the bread of life by using the phrase Ego Eimi, I am. In doing so, Jesus reveals the intimate connection between himself and his father in Heaven who said “I am” when Moses encountered the burning bush. Christ also compares himself to the manna that fed Israel while they were wandering the desert. Jesus as the bread of life is a metaphor rich in nutritive potential for the world.

Bread provides sustenance and strength for daily living. In the ancient world, bread was a staple food for families and communities. It was not just an individual meal, bread was a common food that gathered people around a table. The modern world has lost some intimacy with food and eating in many places. You might be like me, I buy my food from a store largely unaware of where the food came from in the world or all the steps involved to get it to my table. Eating has largely become individualistic, but food reveals the interdependence of life and food systems show how interconnected life is. Farmers grow wheat which requires seed, land, and proper weather. Grain needs to be harvested and milled into flour. Flour needs to be kneaded into dough which needs to be baked. Modern food systems require shipping and processing at various stages as well. It needs to be distributed to places where it can be purchased by consumers before being eaten. Each step along the way is a part of the web of life which connects all of us. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life and willing gives his flesh for the life of the world, he inspires us to see the interconnected existence of faith in the world. He invites us to make good and beautiful ripples in the web for the life of the world.

I was on the wrestling team in high school and one day my coach had the whole team start running around the mats. He took to the strongest individual on the team and gave him a gallon of water. My coach asked him whether holding the water would be difficult and my teammate said no. So, coach gave him the water and told him to hold the jug out with his arm fully extended. At first, holding the water was easy and my teammate laughed at us as we ran circles around him. As time went on though, the simple task of holding water increasingly became difficult. If you have ever had to hold something for a long time without a break, you have probably experienced that the constant tension required to hold something increases the difficulty of holding over time. As muscles get tired, it feels like more and more strength is required to hold the same amount of weight. Right before holding the water became too much for my teammate, my coach handed the water to another member of the team who at first found the task easy. When he was worn out, a new team member took his place holding the water. The lesson, my coach instilled in us that day, was how even simple tasks done in isolation can become grueling over time. When we isolate ourselves from our team or the world around us, we carry burdens and tensions alone. When we remain open to engage in community and interdependence with others, mutual thriving can take place and tension can be shared across lives. By constantly sharing in the task of holding the water galleon, the whole team was able to ensure that no individual person carried too much on their own.

When Jesus said that he is the bread of life for the life of the world, I wonder if this type of mutual interdependence was on his mind. While Jesus is bread of life for me, and for you, he is also bread of life for us. The bread of life provides nutritive sustenance in and through the webs of life. Jesus as the bread of life is a common meeting place for us to engage with one another and the world in life giving manners. In many ways, this type of being seeks to make life hospitable for everyone. Because eating is so central to our existence, it is an apt location for hospitality. Jesus as the bread of life for the life of the world can be a metaphor of radical hospitality where all are welcome. All are embraced. All are given bread for the journey. It is a metaphor where tension exists but does not overwhelm any individual because all hold a part of the tension. In contrast to forms of hospitality which are largely transactional and monetary, Christ’s hospitality is free. The incarnate Word present with God in the beginning enters the world to offer reconciling hospitality. What a gift. The bread of life is a gift. And it is a chance to see good and beauty amid a tensive world.

If you have been following the Tokyo Olympics, you might have seen inspiring examples of good acts. Two stick out to me so far. The Olympics are a great display of human perseverance, skill, and strength. Sometimes though, it takes determination, hard work, and luck to win. Athletes often spend years training and preparing to compete. This past Sunday, 800 meter runners Isaiah Jewett and Nijel Amos got tangled and fell while seeking to qualify for the final race. The two men did not respond to each other with anger. Amos reportedly apologized and Jewett invited him to finish the race together. While standing up, the two men reach out and linked arms. Citing superhero’s as a source of inspiration for how he handled the episode, Jewett said, “And that was my version of trying to be a hero, standing up and up and showing good character even if it’s my rival or whoever I’m racing, or if anything happened, I don’t want any bad blood because that’s what heroes do: They show their humanity through who they are and show that they’re good people.”

Or maybe you heard the story of the high jumpers who were tied for first place, Tamberi and Barshim. After neither had completed the necessary jump to win, they embraced each other. In their embrace, they were told they had to keep going in a final jump-off. One of the two, Barshim, interrupted the explanation of the jump off to ask if they could just share the gold medal. They were told that they could and the pair immediately backed away from the man explaining the jump off. Barshim extended his hand to Tamberi who immediately took it and the two embraced again. You can see the pure joy on their faces when they decided to share the gold medal. It does not seem that sharing gold took anything away from the moment for them, in fact, it seems that sharing added value to their experience. Barshim said, “We just look at each other and we know, that is it, it is done.” The two competitors, met back in 2010 and have been friends since. Their friendship now extends to sharing the gold medal.

John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the bread of life for the life of the world. This bread continues to be available and expressed to us today. The most evident places are in Word and Sacrament but also in the hospitality of boat driver, wrestling teammates, and Olympians. Wherever there is goodness, the bread of life is present for the sake of the world. Where there is need, the bread of life is present waiting to be actualized. When we receive the bread of life, whether it be tasted as the bread of communion, heard through the Word proclaimed, or seen as goodness in the world, Christ’s transforming life is active and present. When we give the bread of life to others and for others, we become co-laborers with Christ.

Earlier I said that the bread of life metaphor plays with the intersections between bread being a basic food for survival and Christ being foundational to the life of Christian faith. I find that true, but the bread of life metaphor also invites us to see Christ in relationship with the world. Whether one sees the world primarily pessimistically or optimistically, Christ, the bread of life is given for the life of the world.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

Sunday
July 25

With Fidelity and Novelty for All

By Marsh Chapel

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John 6:1-21

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       A few years ago, there was a common news trope that began “Millennials are killing.” Over the years, millennials have been accused of killing many businesses or industries. Exact dates range for classifying the millennial generation but millennials were born roughly between the early 1980s and late 1990s. For a while, it seemed that millennials were killing off an industry or product every month. Listen to just some of what millennials were supposedly killing, the restaurant chain Applebee’s, starter homes, the institution of marriage, napkins, cereal, golf, diamonds, department stores, football, oil, and American cheese. Most of the news articles that began with “millennials are killing” noted shifts in general shopping trends among the avocado toast-loving generation and made predictions from those trends. Despite the plethora of articles claiming these industries were being killed by millennials, most have continued or adapted.

Attached to the writings about millennials killing thing, were articles that made even grander claims about the millennial generation. Most of these articles were quick to point out supposed flaws in the rising generation. Articles lamented that millennials have a problem with authority, reject corporations and institutions, are addicted to screens and video games, and do not possess useful skills. These types of articles become a type unto themselves. They took off the same month I graduated college with a May 2013 cover story in Time Magazine titled “The ME ME ME Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitle narcissists who still live with their parent.” The article critiques the so-called participation trophy, entitled, feelings oriented, math averse, Iphone loving generation. At least, the author of that article did mention positive attributes of millennials and ended on a more rounded note. Other sensationalist articles went further lambasting millennial culture as destructive to civilization and predicted that a collapse was imminent. With all of the claims about the millennial generation, it is sort of a wonder that we have made it to 2021 given these dire assessments.

While it is true that millennials and the younger generations are different from their parents that has been the usual way of the world throughout history. Younger generations have a harder and harder time accepting the inherited ways of being and doing. It is also not uncommon for older generations to complain about younger ones. This tradition can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks had to walk uphill both ways to school in the snow, after all. We have all likely heard the phrase, “well back in my day we did it like this” or “when I was a kid, we played outside.” Generational differences are not easy to navigate. It can be hard for waning generations to see waxing ones. Older generations tend to have nostalgia for the way things were, especially when traditions or methods worked for them.

Younger generations sometimes have a hard time listening with empathy to the perspectives of those older. In the present situation, millennials have struck back with the phrase “Ok Boomer.” The phrase “Ok Boomer” on social media and news articles was employed in divisive manners to suggest that the boomer generation was out of touch with unfolding new realities. “Ok Boomer” is a way of dismissing the perspectives and insights of the older generation. It can be hard for waxing generation to engage with waning generations too. There seems to be a present generational cultural conflict. Like many conflicts, this one thrives by arguing on uncommon ground. Talking past each other results in more clicks, likes, and subscriptions than talking to each other. The unfortunate result though, is that strained conversations around dinner tables have gotten even harder, phone calls and zoom sessions have gotten shorter, work-place meetings and memos are accompanied by eyerolls, and apathy has ensued. When apathy reigns though, everyone loses. Even when there are significant difference that need to be addressed, generational conflict should not resort to apathy. Nor should it resort to a winner take all approach.

To my mind, much of the generational angst, on both sides, revolves around anxiety over the future and questions of authority. Many are anxious about the future of the environment, the economy, the world, faith, and a myriad of other areas. This anxiety is increased because many of the traditional houses of authority have fallen in the wake of the postmodern age for younger generations, while older generations can still meaningfully cling to them. Many of the sources of comfort and hope no longer speak transgenerationally. It is almost as if different languages are being employed which speak past each other. Little effort is made to translate across differences in mutual manners. The seams appear to be bursting as what holds us together lessens and what brings us apart grows.

There is still time though. We may be in a moment of crisis but moments of crisis have a way of bringing more out of us than we otherwise thought possible. There is time to listen across the age gap for mutual understanding and mutual care. There is time to stop reading sensationalizing articles that exist for profits rather than to inform. There is time to move past indifference toward mutual accountability that empathetically listens to the perspectives of others. There is time for fidelity and novelty. When novelty meets fidelity productively, genuine encounters can take place. Both novelty and fidelity are necessary ingredients to a well-rounded culture and to a well-rounded faith.

Fidelity reminds us that a core essence of knowledge and wisdom is passed down from generation to generation. Fidelity reminds us to heed those who have walked where we walk. Fidelity is a reminder that the God of those who have gone before us, is still with us today. Novelty calls us to consider the present moment with care. Novelty reminds us that we tread on unsodden soil that has never been walked before. Novelty calls us to consider the situation which fidelity arises from and speaks toward. Novelty listens to the new things that God may be doing by discerning through fidelity what God has done. Today, no matter what generation you are born to or feel you belong to, let us listen to ancient voices from scripture with fidelity and novelty together.

Turn with me and consider with me the story of David and Bathsheba. To understand the dynamics of this narrative, we need to understand a bit about King David. King David looms large in the biblical tradition. He is most remembered as the person who killed Goliath when no one else would fight the giant. Despite coming from humble origins, he is often considered the hallmark king of the United Israel. Most of the biblical writers look upon David with favor. I Samuel tells us that God anointed David king over Israel. David is said to be a man after God’s own heart. The biblical narrative tells us that God entered into an eternal covenant with David that his line would rule forever. Christians interpret this covenant from an Christological perspective. Jesus is viewed as the promised messiah in the line of David.

But the story recounted today, of David and Bathsheba, is not a story of triumph but one of terror. It is an instance of abuse of power, position, and sex. II Samuel begins this narrative by saying it was spring when kings would go out to battle. It seems that David, the mighty warrior decided to stay in Jerusalem. Instead of going out with his army, he sent generals in his stead and stayed behind. One afternoon, he saw Bathsheba bathing and sent men to bring her to the palace. Despite knowing that she was married and with no indication that she was given any choice in the matter, the texts says she was brought to David and he laid with her. She became pregnant from David’s actions. Again, with no indication that she was consulted, David devised a plan to hide the fact that the child was his by bringing Bathsheba’s husband back from battle. His hope was that Uriah would lay with his wife and think the child was his. Rather than be accountable to or for his actions, David attempted to create a situation where Bathsheba would have to live a lie for the rest of her life. Bathsheba would have been destined to wake up every day and pretend the child belonged to her husband. David offered gifts to Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, but the plan did not work. Uriah slept at the entrance of David’s house.

David questioned Uriah about why he would not go back to his house to be with his wife. Verse 11 says “Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’” Uriah shows his character here, which is in direct contrast to David’s. He refuses to engage in the comforts of home when his brothers are on the battlefield. Uriah even made an oath not to do such things. What intrigues me about his oath is that he involves the king to give it a stronger sense of sincerity. Uriah does not say, as surely as I live I will do no such things he says, “As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Uriah invokes an oath as a servant of the King binding himself by life the King. Uriah trusts in David’s character but that trust is misplaced. David tries to get him to break his oath by getting him drunk and when that fails, he signs death papers.

David wrote orders to his general for Uriah the Hittite to be placed where the battle is most fierce and then for the army to be pulled back. The intention is clearly preserved in the last line, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” I am no legal scholar, but the plan seems to amount to premediated murder to me, even if David is not the one holding the weapon. It seems that David got a little too used to killing on the battlefield and resorted to it as a means of disposing a loyal fighter. Uriah the Hittite who trusted David, was disposable to David. There may be a variety of reasons for why he was disposable but it intrigues me that the text preserves Uriah’s ethnicity. The text tells us so little about Uriah but it mentions multiple times that he is a Hittite. He is a Hittite, presumably from Anatolia or modern-day Turkey. We aren’t sure what he is doing in Jerusalem or what he is doing fighting for David, but his loyalty to David and his fellow soldiers is well attested in the text.

To David, Uriah was an outsider, a foreigner, someone David could more readily dispose of, perhaps, because of his status as a foreigner. No ancestral family would come looking for the body or asking questions about what happened. No protests on the street corners of Jerusalem. No chalk or candle vigils at the site of the murder. David sent him away to be killed and made the man carry his own death certificate. Cold, cold blooded through and through. In state sponsored killings, the state too often gets away free.

It is hard to sit with this David, especially when most biblical writers do not. Biblical writers gloss over these actions of David to emphasize the regal king. The story of David and Bathsheba is one that tends to be missed. Or, if it is told, it is an example of how even a great man like David can sin. It is often an object lesson on the potential pitfalls of lust and the importance of repentance. Bathsheba tends to be made out to be an opportunist, if not a seductress in these readings. These readings, like versions of history told by and controlled by the victors, gloss the perspective of victims. Rarely is this narrative considered from the perspective of Bathsheba as a real person and not an object of David’s desire. Rarely is this story considered from the perspective of a woman made a widower by a King who brought her out of her home multiple times. Rarely is this story considered from the perspective of a mother who lost her child or a husband who lost his life.

This perspective is hard. It stands in critical contrast to how much of the biblical narrative portrays King David; yet, it is a voice calling out to be heard. It is a voice that should no longer be neglected within our tradition and within history. These perspectives should not be ignored or silenced any longer. The negation of the oppressed, the drowning out of these perspectives, leads to cynicism and apathy. It leads to rejection of the structures which preserve powerful perspectives. The listening to the oppressed can lead to critical accountability. Critical accountability can be a source of change. Critical accountability may be what we need in this present age.

The younger generations are generally skeptical of power, wealth, privilege, and authority. While some of this extends from cynicism, part of it also comes from hope for more equitable ways of living. The cynicism is widely discussed and talk about. It is often a source of conflict but there is also the possibility of hope when accountability mediates cynicism and involvement. Cynicism is strong, hope can be stronger. There is strength left in the older generations for this critical accountability as a place of common ground with younger people. Novelty and fidelity are not without expression in pockets of the world, but the pockets need to be nurtured to grow. Critical accountability can be scary. It might look like challenging cherished notions and asking hard questions when it is easier to stay silent.

This summer, it is hard to remain silent concerning those people who face food and housing insecurity when we are in the midst of a billionaire space race. When some have billions to frivol away and others have little, questions need to be asked, especially when tax codes allow billionaires to avoid paying an equitable share. Wealth inequality needs critical accountability. This summer, we are also all too aware of voices crying out from unmarked graves on school and church properties. The church and history need critical accountability. This summer, we are too aware of what happens when systems and structures lack transparent accountability. Apathy and cynicism are the easy way out. Generational conflict that prevents meaningful change and dialogue serves no one. But, fidelity and novelty can meet in critical accountability through God’s liberating Spirit. This is a vulnerable place. It requires people and generations to be exposed to one another. To find common places to work together for common good.

Countries around the world, including Canada and the United State are undergoing a historical reckoning. This historical reckoning is looking at glossed over acts and policies of domination and violence that have been dismissed and covered up. While some chalk this up to generational or culture wars, it is actually an attempt to be honest about what occurred in the past and how it continues to impact the present. In the present time, we are tasked with assessing not only intent but also action. We are aware that words can be cheap and action can be costly. We assess not as judge and jury but as voices bearing witness to a Gospel seeking to be expressed to each time and place. The Gospel calls us to truthful telling and genuine justice. May we hear with fidelity and novelty for all.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

Sunday
July 11

A Conflict of Interpretations

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:14-29

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I worked as a lifeguard at the Wesleyan church camp in Central New York for two summers during my college years. The days were filled with long hours of sunglasses and smelled of a mixture of chlorine and sunscreen. The teen week was always a rambunctious time, which recalled my memories of teen camp with my cousin at that very camp. On one particular day while lifeguarding during the teen week, a camp counselor was looking to impress someone or just had some extra energy and asked if he could do a flip into the pool. Flips were strictly forbidden, even diving was for that matter. The pool was not very deep and it would only be a matter of time before there was a mishap if flips were allowed. To my surprise, my supervisor, the aquatics director said that he could do the flip. This seemed out of character to me because I knew her to be someone who cared deeply about safety. She was a person of great faith. I recall many a “how is it with you soul today” greetings at the morning pool chemical test or a “what are you reading in Scripture” while vacuuming the pool. She turned mundane maintenance tasks into opportunities of spiritual companioning.

My heart started to beat faster when she gave the OK for the flip. My mind started playing out multiple scenarios, none of which were good. I ran through a mental checklist noting where gauze was for a nose bleed or the backboard if something really bad happened. I watched as the counselor took his steps backward to prepare his approach, teenage campers all cheering with glee. He started to run and leaped into the air. By this time, I was holding my breath and my body was ready to jump from the lifeguard tower. Up into the air he went and down into the water with a splash. It went fine. There were no issues. He pulled himself out of the water. The tension in my body released. I sighed with relief. My aquatics director looked at him and said, “That was a bit of grace.” “That was a bit of grace.” … She didn’t mean the flip was graceful. It was ok as far as flips go. There was nothing particularly bad or good about it. I think she meant that the bending of the rules was a form of grace. The acquiescence to play in an unusual manner due to the expectation of success was a bit of grace. No matter what the original intent was, I spent the rest of the day wrestling with the naming of a pool flip grace.

Just what type of grace is a pool flip? Was it, prevenient grace, the grace the comes before? Justifying grace, of forgiveness? Sanctifying grace of restoration? Cooperative grace which calls us to participate with God as conduits of grace? None of these types of grace fit. Grace. Unmerited favor, acceptance, forgiveness, restoration, hope, none of this matched my expectations or experiences of grace. None of it matched the books that I had read in preparation for ministry or the theology lectures my professors gave. But it was grace nonetheless. In the recesses of my being, this memory recalls an experience of grace that defies expectations and stuffy definitions. Do not get me wrong, I like the safe sometimes stuffy definitions that sit in stacks on shelves in libraries. I take joy in reading and the expansion that occurs through the gift of written language.

But, experience is often different from well-meaning definitions. Sometimes definitions obscure as much as they reveal, especially with something like grace. Sometimes definitions make it hard to see what is happening before our eyes. Sometimes, what is stuffy needs to be taken outside where the wind blows a little more freely. When the creative Spirit blows in or over or above our experiences, grace abounds in unexpected places. Can a pool flip be grace? Can the grace to play be a Balm in Gilead, a cup for the thirsty, food for the journey, or the courage to be? Try it sometimes and see. See if jumping into cool water on a hot day offers more than just relief from the heat. See if watching children take joy in play is a source of healing in a broken world. By grace, I hope it is so. Beloved, there is transforming freedom in recognizing when events are moments of grace. In our present age, we desperately need grace. To find this grace, to see this grace, even to risk being found by this grace may require us to search differently, to see differently, and to think differently. Beloved, there is orienting hope in being found by grace in unexpected places.

I have pondered the memory of the pool flip most recently as the father of a 16 month old. My son is at the stage where he loves to point at something and he waits for me to name it. Whether it is the animals on his placemat at the dinner table or trees on our walks, the pointing never seems to end. He points, I name, he points somewhere else, and I name something else. Because of COVID, this toddler has not traveled more than 25 miles from Boston, but he is soaking up the world around him. Recently, there has been the joy of recognition on his face more frequently. He sees a cat in a book and points to the cat in the room. On our walks, he remembers and points to the street grandma and grandpa stayed at when they came to visit. He is learning about the world and his place in it all the time. Occasionally, he even says a word or two.

I have come to enjoy the pointing and naming. When my son points, he does so with the trust that the words his mother and I say are correct. His understanding of the world and reality itself is forming through this naming. While it may seem a game to him at times, it is a game of ultimate importance. For eventually, the naming will be more complex. Terms like love, God, and grace will appear. I sometimes wonder, how will these be named for him? I can tell him what Calvin, Wesley, and Tillich said. I can read Cone and Thurman, along with creeds and confessional statements. I can provide a reading list that will keep him busy for years to come. But, these ultimate questions, these ultimate concerns cannot be fully understood through books and in minds, they also have to be experienced in life and in the heart. So, I have come to hope that as we move through life, experiences will come that can be named as grace. Experiences can come that reveal God’s presence in the now. Opportunities to humbly see God at work through people who bear one another burdens. Through people who take up the mantle of justice, faith, hope, and love. I also hope to see grace in other places like sunsets, ocean waves, and learning a new language. The joy of rapidly melting ice cream cones on a hot summer day or traveling to see family. The hope that a new day will come in times of trouble.

Naming and framing what is going on around us is a key part of understanding the world. But events do not come with labels. We are not given an omniscient Hollywood narrator who offers much-needed guidance and perspective. Surely, we are not empty-handed. We have the Spirit, Scriptures, and the wisdom of others as we interpret. We engage in competing interpretations of life and being.  Paul Ricoeur marks the time as one involving a conflict of interpretation. Who is to say whether a pool flip is just a pool flip or something more meaningful? How we interpret makes a big difference. How we respond matters to life and the world.

We bring many voices with us when we interpret events. Voices from the past, some good some not so good. We bring the echoes of favorite teachers, parents, good books, sacred texts, and hopefully the Holy Spirit. Faith communities are an important place where we learn to interpret with care and love for one another. Faith communities are a place where we name these realities for those around us. Just as my lifeguard supervisor expanded my understanding of grace, so can you. We might fumble through at times in our communal efforts to name grace but we fumble together. We tend to the sacred in our midst for the sake of our souls and for the sake of those around us. This is holy work. It is the work of actualizing the Gospel. The Gospel is not merely words on a page, it is experienced in the here and now as radically transforming love. It is experienced as the liberating love that allows all of Creation to co-exist in mutual care.

Mark wrote as one seeking grace in Jesus Christ, amid conflict. Mark wrote when newly formed traditions were in conflict and required careful interpretation. Mark wrote as one looking to discover Jesus and the continuing significance of the Christ event of Jesus. On the one hand, the situation is very different now, and on the other hand, the situation bears remarkable similarities. Throughout the Gospel account, various encounters with Jesus reveal his authority, power, and identity to those who met Jesus and significantly to us. In a very real way, the Gospel is addressed to us. We are not the original audience of Mark’s gospel account, but we are included in the original audience of the Gospel for the Gospel is addressed to all. It is not bound by space, time, or circumstances. The Gospel is a thread that runs the course of history, inviting us to see Christ. Inviting us to be with Christ. When the Gospel is unhindered by the confines of pages, its power to include us in God’s unfolding story is radically realized …When the Gospel is unhindered by the confines of pages, its power to include us in God’s unfolding story is radically realized.

Through grace, the Gospel draws us closer to Jesus and reveals to us the Christ. Mark records many significant encounters with Jesus in his Gospel account. Today’s Gospel story takes place after Jesus sent out apostles who preached and proclaimed healing. These apostles ministered in the name of Jesus and the word spread. The word concerning Jesus spread to the point that it reached the ears of the ruler, Herod. Marks says that Herod did not know what to make of it. It seems that some discernment went on to figure out with this guy was that people followed. Mark’s narrative portrays a conflict of interpretations. Perhaps because he was religious, some associated Jesus with the prophets of old, people like Elijah, others even claimed he was John the Baptist back from the dead. Same person, different interpretations. Mark’s story says that these people were asking just who this Jesus was. Presumably, they were trying to access what it meant for them. People in power generally do not like disruptions and variables in their equations. People in power have a stake in maintaining the status quo and Jesus was disrupting the status quo.

His association with prophetic figures tells us something about the people he hung around. Jesus was clearly an advocate for the poor and powerless. His association with prophetic figures tells us something about the message Jesus proclaimed, that he came to free those in need of freeing and heal those in need of healing. Rather than go investigate further, Herod and the people in power pontificated. People in power tend to believe they can name reality accurately, regardless of whether or not their assertions are true. We all have opinions and interpretations, hence conflict, but privilege and power afford undue dominance to certain positions. They said, he is Elijah, he is a prophet. He is John the Baptist back from the dead. Imagine that, Mark tells us that Herod believed that Jesus was his cousin raised from the dead. This would have been no small thing for Herod who ordered John’s head be placed on a platter. In a certain sense, Herod’s wealth and position of power impacted what he saw and what he was willing to see about Jesus. Herod looked at Jesus as a threat to the status quo.

When we look to Jesus, we also look from our own positions. This is not bad in and of itself, but it necessitates caution. Our positions are not the whole story. Schleiermacher says avoiding misinterpretations is a key to good interpretation. We have to weed out bad interpretations to arrive at good ones. Our voices are one part of a greater song. It takes care not to limit Jesus to our positions and to be open to expansion. We grow in grace with others and through others. Like grace, Jesus is more expansive than pithy definitions. Jesus avoids being domesticated by checkboxes, voter registration cards, and fill in the blank answers. Interpreting the significance of Jesus to our lives and in the modern world necessitates weighing through a conflict of interpretations. Mark and the Gospel accounts are helpful guides in this work. They are a witness to history and in history. They are a key part of our tradition. They are prototypes for naming the mysteries of God and grace in our time.

Along with Mark, let us also hear from former Dean of this Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited. This work invites us to consider Jesus from the perspective of those with their back against the wall. Thurman used the phrase “backs against the wall” to talk about those in need. The poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. Those with their backs against the wall are in a very different position than Herod; therefore, when they look to Christ, they often see more than Herod did. Thurman was the grandson of American slavery. Thurman was the grandson of people who called Jesus friend, despite learning about Christ through white slaveholders and white preachers who used Christianity as a tool of oppression. Thurman knew a different Jesus and engaged in a conflict of interpretations to insist Jesus is among the disinherited.

Despite the harm done in the name of Christ, Thurman was unwilling to give up Jesus. Thurman rejected Herod’s definition of Jesus and those who used Jesus for harm. Thurman was unwilling to allow Christ to be defined by those who do harm, when he knew Christ to be a poor minority Jew who lived under military occupation. This Christ is the one who identifies with those who have their back against the wall because Christ had his back against the wall and continues to be with those who have their backs against the wall. Because Thurman was the grandson of American slavery, he saw something in Jesus that the powerful Herod could never see. Thurman looked to Jesus and saw life. He saw survival for the oppressed. Thurman looked to Jesus and saw existence itself as possible for those who are told day in and day out that they do not matter. For those who hear every day in a million ways that this world is not for them, Thurman heard a different melody from the mouth of Jesus. A song of Gospel love and liberation for all.

At times, I wonder with preacher Fred Craddock, whether it is possible to know the words of this Gospel song but to be singing the wrong melody. In the conflict of interpretation of Jesus, the words of the Gospel need to match the Spirit’s sacred melody for this time. We discern the words and melody together. Sometimes there is conflict in this discernment. Sometimes there is agreement. Let discern together for the sake of love and liberation for all. Let us listen for the Sacred Word to match the sacred melody in our time and for our time.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

Sunday
May 30

A Third Way

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1: 1-15

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The text for this sermon is currently unavailable.

-Mr. William Edward Cordts

Sunday
May 16

Boston University Baccalaureate

By Marsh Chapel

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This year’s Baccalaureate speaker is Catherine D’Amato (Hon.’21), president and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB).

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