Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

August 1

All of Us are Better When We are Loved

By Marsh Chapel

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Romans 5: 1-11

Ride On

One Tuesday, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9 year old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. We do. But on Monday she fell off, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast straight pitch. Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.


In October of 1997 my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40 degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless,
heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is , to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

Love alone has the grace and power savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we’re loved.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

July 25

The Rubber Duckie Book of Meditations

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6: 1-13

There will be no sermon text for this week.

~ The Reverend Charles W. Lightner, Senior Pastor (Ret.),
Bel Air United Methodist Church, Bel Air, MD

July 18

God Gives But Does Not Share

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25: 14-30

We call the story that Jesus tells “the parable of the talents”. Talent is an unfortunately misleading word---we think of talent as a skill, an ability. When we think of talent we think of athletes like Serena Williams, or reaching farther back, Ted Williams, who was always my father’s favorite baseball hitter, and it just feels right to say his name here in Boston, or poets like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins or musicians such as Alison Krauss or Bono or Ray Charles or Yo Yo Ma. Or maybe we think of someone closer by: “she does this well, he is good at this”.

In the ancient world, those listening to Jesus would have known that a talent was the approximate value of fifteen years of wages, a substantial sum of money. In the story a man goes on a journey and gives each of his servants a gift. One receives five talents, one two talents, the last servant one talent.

Each is entrusted with something that is significant and each receives a different sum. The distribution is neither even nor fair. Like other stories that Jesus told---the workers in the vineyard, for one, where everyone is paid the same, but for differing amounts of work---this is not about fairness. It is in reference to a gift that we do not deserve or earn.

The gospel, someone has said, is not good advice; it is, literally good news and so we begin with grace, not law; with gift, not obligation. We begin with an appreciative inquiry into our assets, strengths and talents, or to frame it theologically, we reflect on the prevenient grace of God.

The resources belong to the master, who goes away, and the servants are left to work out, for themselves, what they will do with these gifts.

The church that I serve has had the blessing of being in Haiti for the past 30 years in a partnership and friendship. There is a medical clinic. Jesus was a healer. There is a school. Jesus was teacher. There is an emerging microcredit partnership, and Jesus is in that as well.

For two years a young man named Jack, from Haiti, lived with us. He is now a college student. We often talked about Haitian proverbs. One that I came across went this way.

God gives but does not share.

“Jack”, I asked, “what do you think this means?” He chose his words carefully, as he always did. Then he spoke: “God gives us everything, but we have to work out how to distribute it for everyone.

God gives, but it is up to us to share.

On a hillside in the Galilee a boy had a basket with five loaves of bread and two fish. These were the gifts of God, amidst a hungry gathering of seekers. “Send them away”, the disciples advised Jesus. “You give them something to eat”, he responds. God gives but does not share; that is up to us. When Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving, with the bread and wine placed on the table, we say these words…

let them be for us the body and blood of Christ for us,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

It helps to remember that the gospel transforms the world, indeed that the gospel, in the language of the Magnificat, has already transformed the world. This is the gift. The wisdom in the beautiful proverb that Haitians tell each other is that everything is a gift from God, and yet God leaves the details of distribution up to us. God gives but does not share.

The gifts belong to the master, and these are God’s to give. I do know this: from the perspective of the world, this planet that we share with six billion people, all of us have received a very generous harvest of talents. Warren Buffett commented recently to someone who had made a fortune, “you’re not a genius, you were just born at the right time and in the right place”. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, notes that most of those who are successful are “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky---but all critical to making [us] who [we] are.”

And so the master gives. Why does one receive five, and one two, and one one? The master gives to each “according to her ability”. Sometimes we are ready to receive a gift, and sometimes we are not. Jesus told other stories about this as well----some were invited to a party, but they declined----“We are too busy...please ask us again”. Others were invited---“Please keep us on the guest list… but for now we cannot accept”. Please ask us again. The master gives according to the receptivity and ability of the recipient. As Augustine said,

“God is always giving good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

The story moves on, and a story does need to move on, and we shift our focus from the master, who has now left the scene, to the servants.

We move from gift to response, from blessing to responsibility. In the same way that the talents are not distributed uniformly, the responses are not all alike. The one who is given five doubles her share; the one who is given two doubles the portion as well. The third servant, the one who receives one talent, buries his in the ground. At some point, a great time later, the master returns, to settle accounts. There will be a judgment, an accounting that we will give to the One who is giver of all things. Call it an audit. Why? Because the talents originally came from the master, who wants to know how it has gone.

To the one whose five talents became ten, the master says, “well done”. To the one whose two talents have become four, the master says, “well done”. To both of these servants the master says, “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master”.

You have been faithful over a little. It is interesting, in that five talents---seventy five years wages; two talents---thirty years wages---was not really “a little”. It is also significant that two of the servants respond with creativity and faithfulness. In the way the story gets told we do dwell on the third servant, but the first two multiply their gifts. Well done, the master says.

Now, the third servant: He comes before the master, and offers a justification for his behavior, why he has buried his talent in the ground. I knew you were a harsh master, and I was afraid. What we think about the master, what we think about God shapes what we will do our gifts. And what we think about God shapes what we believe about human nature.

Here is the crucial question: Do you think people are basically selfish and stingy, or generous and gracious? If you think we are basically selfish and stingy, then giving is a great
challenge, it is unnatural, it is manipulating us to do something that is against our nature. But we believe that we have been created in the image of God? Which leads to another question: what is God like?

I knew you were a harsh master, the servant blurts out, and I was afraid. The servant’s response is rooted in fear, grounded in a flawed understanding of God (who is love, whose love casts out fear) and an equally flawed vision of neighbor. One of Jesus’ most memorable stories was a parable inspired by a simple question: who is my neighbor?

I mentioned Jack Lamour, a native of Haiti. As we mark the six month anniversary of the earthquake in Port au Prince, Jack is a reminder to me that the Haitian people are our neighbors.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, reflected recently the general question of how Haiti is doing and what needs to happen next, and he focused more specifically on the question of development in the nation of Haiti. He noted that Haiti had been plagued by a development policy that had not matched the aspirations of the people and for this reason it had failed. Factories were built in one major city, Port au Prince, and when the capital markets shifted the resources would dry up, the jobs would disappear and the people had become destitute.

He noted that Haiti is in need of a development policy that matches the aspirations of her people. What are those aspirations? Education. Food. Health. I would add: the gospel.

In prior centuries, when missionaries went into the countries of the world, they were often allowed in because of these skills. A medical doctor or a nurse. A teacher. An agricultural specialist. On a mission field, these resources would often make the difference between life and death.

A development worker in Haiti, interviewed last Sunday by the New York Times, commented, “I wish all of those aspirational plans would become operational.”

Brothers and sisters, we who live in North America in the 21st century have been planted in a mission field. Many do not have access to a basic education, really. Or to food on the weekends, if they are poor students. Or to health care, increasingly. And many find themselves spiritually hungry, and our response echoes the disciples of Jesus’ day, in so many words, to anyone who will listen: “you give them something to eat!

As we enter into the parable of Jesus, we reflect on our own gifts, talents, abilities….and we are more aware that we are grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances.

I came across a sociological study in which 50 people over the age of 95 were asked a question: If you had your life to live over again, what you would do differently? There were three primary responses.

“I would reflect more.
I would do more things that would live on after my death.
I would take more risks.”

What would you do differently? That is almost the question the master asks the three servants when he returns.

To share our gifts is to take a risk. As Christians, we know that our sharing is grounded in relation to One who has shared deeply and profoundly with us, in fellowship with One who loved the world so much his Son became our Savior. That is the risk of the incarnation. The aspirations that our creator has for us, in the word made flesh, have become operational.

At a basic level, our identification with this God implies that we take the name Christian, in baptism, which says less about our own merit or goodness and more about our awareness that all that we are and have and aspire to be is a gift; it is grace.

And our identification with this God implies a risk that we take for the sake of others. We open our baskets and share the bread and the fish, we open our homes and welcome the stranger, we open our table to welcome all who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness. As followers of Jesus we take our web of advantages and inheritances and extend them, Howard Thurman would insist, to the “disinherited”.

The parable does end on something of a downer, in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would be possible to gloss over that, to ignore it, such a stark ending, and yet it may be the storyteller’s way of getting our attention, keeping us awake: there is much at stake, it is a question of life and death---our gifts, our talents, our financial resources, our abilities have the power to bless or curse. They can be instruments of light or darkness.

God gives---this is the good news.
But God does not share. God leaves that up to us, to you and me.

Let us respond, let us give, and let us enter into the joy of our master. Amen.

~ The Reverend Dr. Ken Carter, Senior Pastor
Providence United Methodist Church,
Charlotte, North Carolina

July 11

A Sacred Fire

By Marsh Chapel

The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this, Jesus says. And then he tells three vivid stories, which we find collected in the 25th chapter of Matthew: next Sunday we will focus on the parable of the talents. In a mid week conversation we will reflect on the parable of the great judgment. The one story has to do with our gifts: do we take a risk and share them, or do we bury them in the ground? The other story has to do with our actions: have we been compassionate?

In each story we are given opportunities, for a time, and then the door closes, and there is an accounting, a spiritual audit, a final answer to the really big questions: what did I do with my money, with my time? How was I in a relationship with the poor, with the stranger, with the prisoner, with the sick?

Deeply embedded within these two parables there is the presence of Jesus, himself. What if Jesus is the treasure that we share with others, what if the good news cannot be suppressed, what if the gospel is the gift that is multiplied? What if Jesus is the woman who is sick or the man who is homeless or the young adult who is in prison? What if Jesus is there, in plain sight, waiting to be noticed? “When did we see you?”, he is asked, at the great judgment. “We were not quite prepared for your coming!” What if Jesus is the One to whom we are accountable?

Well, there is another story in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, it is less known, and yet it too is about time that is drawing to a close, the kingdom of heaven impinging on life. It is, most scholars believe, more allegory than parable. Parables have one meaning, one point, but allegories have multiple meanings, each facet of the story representing something else, something visible pointing to something beneath the surface.

The teaching of Jesus is set in the context of a marriage in first century Palestine. We are not sure about all of the customs of a wedding in that context, but we can draw some parallels with weddings in our own time and place. In the congregation that I serve weddings tend to be sprinkled throughout the late spring, summer, and sometimes into fall. All sorts of customs and questions surround these weddings: Who will light the candles, will the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom? Who took care of which preparations? Did anyone forget something? The marriage license? The rings?

In the story there is a bridegroom, who is Jesus. There are ten bridesmaids who take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish and five are wise. Here the bridesmaids represent the church, which is always a gathering of the wise and the foolish, of, as the movie title had it, “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Jesus seemed to grasp this: the church is always weeds and wheat, growing up together; or imagine building one house on a rock, and another on sand.

Jesus was a realist. The church was always a mixed bag of motives, pure and impure intentions, true and false beliefs. How could you tell them apart, the wise from the foolish? Well, that is what makes it all so interesting! You can’t really. They all purchased the bridesmaids dresses at the same shop. Externally, on the surface, it is all going according to plan, everyone following the same playbook.

Years ago I was helping a couple to prepare for their wedding. They were fine young adults, having benefited from the advantages made possible by their parents, having spent some time passing through higher education, I don’t recall how much or where, good people, in love with each other, but something was not quite right. I could not put my finger on it, and even though we had two wide-ranging discussions, it never emerged. It was just beneath the surface.

The day of the wedding came. The service began. The father gave the daughter away, he kissed her, walked
to the first pew, sat beside her mother. The couple joined hands, walked to the altar area with me. They said the vows, they exchanged rings, they knelt in prayer, they stood up, a soloist sang the “
Lord’s Prayer
”, and I pronounced them husband and wife. They walked down the aisle, arm in arm. There was a tension there, but I chalked it up to a nervousness that is natural in a large gathering of people.

Later I stopped by the reception, and it was almost a different world. Everyone seemed so happy, so joyous, so relieved! I gave it a brief thought but went about my business, mingling, saying hello to friends. Finally someone in conversation, as an aside, spilled the beans. It seems that this was the third (and gladly successful) take on the couple’s plans for a wedding. The first time the bride had called the wedding off three months before the date; the second time, one week prior. All along, things had been fine, externally. But internally, something was happening, something was missing. Weddings can be that way. We are caught up in the externals! But what was going on inside of the bride and the groom, just beneath the surface? What is going on inside of us?

In the gospel everyone is making plans for the great wedding feast, and in the tradition of Jesus, this was a sign of the coming Messiah. A wedding was a significant event---it still is---but there was more going on than a promise between two human beings. It was all about the union of God and the people of God.

On the guest list there is this cast of characters. How is it that some are wise and some are foolish? In the story, this has to do with whether there is oil is in the lamp or not. In the Old Testament oil can represent deeds of love and mercy, it can point to the scripture, and it can symbolize the Holy Spirit.

The problem in the gospel for today is not that the bridesmaids fall asleep in anticipation of the coming of the groom. They all sleep, the wise and the foolish. The issue is in their readiness, and externally they are indeed all prepared---every detail has been cared for, with one great exception.

Is there oil in the lamp? Did theym do we find ourselves running on empty? We will most likely live through a series of energy crises, our consumer needs depleting the oil reserves as our collective automobile gauges move farther and farther toward “e”. We remember the anxiety of all of that, even as we anticipate it again.

And, of course, the obvious always points to the not-so-obvious. I heard a professor once speak of preaching by using the imagery of a lantern, the oil being used up, the flame getting dimmer. The speaker, from the African-American tradition, said it plainly: “you have to keep oil in your lamp”.

It helps to see the 25th chapter of Matthew as a whole, Jesus making one extended argument, you and I placed on this earth for a purpose: to love and work, to worship and play, to take care of the needs of our families and those beyond us. And there does seem to be a note of urgency in these three stories, the parable of the oil in the lamps, the parable of the talents, the parable of the sheep and the goats.

We convey this sense of urgency in the Great Thanksgiving, the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.

From a human point of view, the cliché has it right, “time is of the essence”; and so, John Wesley would say, “don’t trifle it away”. Be ready, be prepared. As a child, I understood this as being about having my life in order in case the Angry Judge came today. I heard this in more than one revival service. But today’s story has a different tone: pay attention, or you will miss the great celebration!

So whatever became of that couple? I did talk with them about it all later, and they laughed. This had been the right time for them. They had lived through their share of heartburn, on the way, their relationship had been the cause of sleepless nights for their families. Somehow the inner conviction had to catch up with the external event. And it did.

It was their time. These three stories of Jesus are very much about timing. They got passed around among the earliest Christian communities for a simple reason: Jesus had promised that he would return, but this did not seem to be happening. Where was Jesus? They remembered the word in Matthew 25. 5, “the bridegroom was delayed”. Was the bridegroom haggling with the bride’s family over some economic aspect of the wedding; more than one scholar sees this as likely. But the delay of the coming of Jesus was a crisis of faith. Is God trustworthy, is the word of God trustworthy?

We answer that question by learning to be patient, by persevering, by giving thanks even when the future is uncertain, by preparing ourselves to wait a very long time. And so we set aside that extra flask of oil, the reserve, so that our faith is able to carry us through the darkness. This teaching has echoes in almost all of the later writings to the first Christians: do not be weary in your well-doing, the author of Hebrews says; do not neglect to meet together. And the author of II Peter, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years”.

The church in its wisdom places these three stories in Matthew 25 just prior to the season of Advent, which seems far removed from us now, but for the Christian we are always living in Advent, we are always anticipating a new birth. They were stories about patience, but not a passive patience. In the meantime, while we are waiting, while Jesus has been delayed---- ---and our patience becomes protest (!)--and on many days we ask, where are You?-in the meantime we consider the lamp that is our soul, that is our heart, that is the interior life. It is, Jesus reminded Martha once, the one thing that is necessary.

Along the way there are questions.

Is there a flame there? Are we running on empty? Is a fire burning? Are we burning out? And how do we keep that fire alive? And here, for me, the three stories in Matthew 25 merge into one. The oil is a burning desire to love God and neighbor, to worship God, to take risks, to share our gifts, to make our lives mean something, even if we do not have the future figured out, even if we are discouraged because something has not worked out as we had planned.

We cannot control the external circumstances, the markets rise and fall, the wars do not come to an end and peace is delayed, the creation groans amidst the degradation of the gulf coast, the church disappoints us, those we love struggle with chronic disease while we hope for an intervention, an outbreak of peace on earth, a scientific breakthrough, an awakening or a miracle.

It would be easy to give up, to despair, to become passive. And yet each of these parables in Matthew 25 is a call to do quite the opposite. Do not be weary in your well-doing. Keep the oil in your lamp burning. Do not bury your talents in the ground. Use them for the glory of your generous master. Do not withdraw from those who need your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service. In moving toward them, you may indeed meet Jesus. All of this may be your salvation.

And in doing all of this, the kingdom of heaven will come a little closer, the flame of justice will burn a little brighter, the sacred fire will be kept alive for yet another generation, the warmth of the lamp will remind us that God loves us, if we had forgotten, the Messiah, and the reign of justice and peace is not delayed forever.

So pay attention. Be prepared.

Keep the oil in your lamp burning.

~ The Reverend Dr. Ken Carter, Senior Pastor
Providence United Methodist Church,
Charlotte, North Carolina

July 4


By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 66: 10-16
Luke 10: 1-11, 17-20
Galatians 6: 1-18

Oh good! You’re here! You have made it this far, anyway, to the wooden pews amidst limestone walls and stained glass in the nave of Marsh Chapel. Or, at least you’ve managed, on this glorious holiday weekend, to set your radio alarm dial to 90.9FM, and you have been blessed to awaken to the sometimes playful, always joyful strains of organ and choir. A holiday weekend is a nerve-wracking endeavor for any preacher, but perhaps especially when the holiday itself falls on Sunday. Will anyone bother to show up? Indeed, you have come to glory in the opening days of July in beautiful Boston, and we welcome you here at Marsh Chapel on your way to hear the Pops and watch the fireworks this evening. What a rich blessing. May we pray?

Holy and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, guide our hearts and minds into ever deeper knowledge and love of you, that at the last we may find communion with you and one another at the banqueting table of all good gifts. Amen.

Oh, goodness. This is uncomfortable. Well, yes, it is rather warm in an un-air-conditioned nave on a hot summer day in Boston, but no, this is not what I was referring to. Even more uncomfortable for the preacher of the day than heavy vestments on a hot day is the task of wrestling with apparently contradictory texts. What are we to make of this?

Well, what shall it be? Are we to rejoice with Jerusalem, as God has declared victory for her and accounted divine sanction to her future success, as with Isaiah? Or, are we to follow the command of Jesus: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you”? To rejoice or not to rejoice, that is the question, at least for today. And what finer day to ask the question than on the day we celebrate the victories and successes of the United States of America, from its founding to the present day?

Yes, we would be remiss, on this at least as much on any other day, to glory in our triumphs, victories and successes without acknowledging and grappling with the concomitant ambiguity inherent in such accomplishments. Noah Feldman, of the law school at a neighboring institution, put it poetically when he titled his recent contribution to the New York Times Op-Ed page, “The Triumphant Decline of the WASP.” Indeed, as Feldman points out, should Elena Kagan be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, then the great vision of meritocratic achievement and inclusion bequeathed to this country by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants will be accomplished precisely by delivering a bench devoid of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Or, given the recent proliferation of vampires in the media, I am hoping that a reference to the recent film Daybreakers may not be too far off mark: the central problem of the film is that once the vampires have bitten everyone and turned them into vampires, they have effectively cut off their own food supply. Oops!

These are, of course, both extreme cases of the colloquialism, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” While in the former case we may wish to affirm the outcome, and in the latter case we may find some amusement in the irony, it is almost certainly the case that the successes achieved were not quite what the instigators had in mind when they started the snowball rolling down the hill. (Do we have enough metaphors going on here? Are you keeping up? Oh, good.)

Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that President Obama should have nominated a vampire to the Supreme Court. Vampires and the Supreme Court have nothing to do with one another.

What I do want to put on the table for consideration is the ambiguity of success. Politicians and pundits would have us take an apocalyptic view with regard to virtually every issue of our day. If we go one way, the world will come to an end. If we go the other way, we will enter a utopian paradise of harmony and bliss. To be honest, life would probably be easier if it actually worked this way.

Unfortunately, life is not made up of black and white issues. Life is complex, interconnected, and messy. In contrast to the apocalyptic view of life and its issues, we might call this the whack-a-mole approach to life and its problems. Every time you solve one problem, WHACK, one or possibly several more pop up that you could not have expected.

Even when we do manage to pull off what would amount to a clear victory, we are often left with a feeling of ambivalence. It may be that the Union North defeated the Confederate South in the Civil War, but then what exactly are we to make of the hundreds of thousands of casualties along the way? Or perhaps even more immediately distressing, it may be that you graduated first in your class from BU Law, but now there are no jobs for lawyers! Did I make the right choice? Did I follow the right path? I have achieved my goal, but was the goal really worth pursuing in the first place?

And not only are you stuck with both the good and the bad mixed up in whatever path you followed, you are also stuck with the outcome at which you have arrived, and not any other. After three years of law school you become a lawyer, which is also to become not a doctor, not a teacher, not a journalist, not an historian. After three years of seminary… Well, actually, it’s still not entirely clear to me exactly what you become after three years of seminary. But whatever it is, that is what you are, and not something else.

“Do not be deceived,” says Paul, “for you reap whatever you sow.” Is this not precisely the problem? Dare we to sow anything, for fear that we might be forced to reap it?

What, pray tell, are we supposed to do with all of this ambiguity? Let me assure you that you have come to the right place. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that all of the ambiguities of life in the world are in fact taken up in God, whence they are judged. God does not judge us for clarity and decisiveness: “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you.” No, we are judged based on the gracefulness with which we pursue righteousness: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The trick, you see, is not to be right; the trick is to be grounded and oriented such that as ambiguous successes and failures come our way we can navigate successfully between Scylla and Charibdis. As I am wont to say to my colleagues in higher education administration, if our students somehow manage to learn nothing in the classroom but learn to fail and recover gracefully during their time at Boston University, we will have succeeded in achieving our educational mission.

And how better are we to learn to cope with ambiguity than by coming to the communion table? There is no more ambiguous space. What exactly are we consuming when we come to the table? Bread and wine, or flesh and blood? And if indeed it is flesh and blood, how so and how is this possible? We do not know. There is and never has been an entirely unified answer to this central question in the life of the Christian church. And yet, the ritual act of sacrifice at the center of the Eucharistic rite remains at the heart of Christian life and practice, in all of its ambiguity.

In one exchange at the fraction between priest and congregation, the priest proclaims, “Behold what you are!” and the congregation responds, “May we become what we receive.” As we
turn to Christ’s table, may we become what we receive. Let us become people whose ambiguous lives are yet sources of rejoicing, not in absolute successes on our parts but in the glory of God who loves us in the midst of ambiguity and ambivalence. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

June 27

The Call to Ministry

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 9:51-62


The sermon today is an unapologetic, unabashed, direct appeal to you to consider whether you are meant to preach. To see whether or not this is so, you will look at your relationships.

Things that really matter are ultimately relational, whether that relationship is with others, with self, or with God. Our friends give us ourselves. Our sense of presence gives us ourselves. Close relationships count. So too does relationship to the divine.

1. Close Relationships

First, close relationships. Here is one quiet account, one testimony, no worse nor better than any other.

We learned to love Jesus in the simple rhythms of the ordinary. We learned to love Jesus in the pause before meals, with grace in his name. We learned to love Jesus singing hymns to Him, in church, at camp, in the car. We learned to love Jesus as we read about his life in the Bible. We learned to love Jesus by celebrating his birth in snowy December, and his destiny in snow melting April. We learned to love Jesus by seeing older people love him, really love him, with their hands, and their money and their time and most especially with their choices, and within that, with their choices about things not to say, not to be, not to do. We learned to love Jesus like we learned to speak English, one lisp at a time, one dangling preposition at a time, one new word at a time. The music of Jesus played the accompaniment to all of the growth and decay of life around us. There was no wall of separation, neither artificial, nor sacramental, nor communal, between our life and his. His was our life, and our life was his.

This sounds romantic, but it is not meant to be. Conflict, envy, hurt, gossip, anger, misjudgment, unfairness, tragedy, hatred, fear, abuse, neglect, betrayal, addiction, and loneliness sat around the table too—around the kitchen table, around the picnic table, around the coffee table, around the communion table.

Still there was a closeness in the Christ who raised us in a nearby, the Empire State—a pine needle Adirondack Christ, with the dawn scent of the forest primeval, a sunlit Finger Lake Christ, a blue collar Erie Canal Christ, a blizzard Christ, an autumn peak Christ, a high summer Christ, a Christ with mud on Easter shoes. You could say that we were more Gospel people than Letter people, more Peter than Paul, more good Samaritan than justification by faith, more Methodist than Presbyterian. There was no forced or feigned distance between Jesus and us, between his life and our own.

He was with us in school. Our teachers attended church, and when they scolded us for talking or not wearing our eyeglasses, Jesus walked past us and smiled.

He was with us at home. Our parents entertained college students, all then of just one gender, with sandwiches and pickles. The men stood when their hostess entered the room. They wore ties. Jesus sampled the pickles, with us.

He was with us in the summer. He felt the glow of a warm campfire on a cool mountain night. When the ministers worried whether there was too much kissing, too much holding hands, Jesus worried too, and then you could see him, almost, holding a young couple as they held each other.

He was with us when we grew up and became teenagers ourselves.

He was with us when all hell broke loose. When older boys, or younger men, went off in pressed uniforms to someplace on a map we had seen in school. When some came home, and when some partly came home, and when some did not come home, He wept.

He was with us in college, at marriage, in studies, at work.

You go with your friends. So if your friends go off to college, you may too. If they enlist, you may too. If they take a job in the south, you may too. It is a natural thing.

If people you know and love go into the ministry, you may too. If you respect somebody who is in the ministry, you may be inclined to preach. If your parents, with pride, have the pastor to Sunday dinner, you might think about taking that seat, and holding that fork, and intoning that prayer. If you grow up with Rev. Jones, and sense she is a real human being, you might try to become one such yourself. If the kind of people who are your kind of people enter Christian service, you might, too. And if your mother, father, grandparents, spiritual aunts and uncles, and a boyfriend or two study for the ministry, you may too.

Trust your experience. Honor your instincts. Listen to your heart. Mostly, attend to your relationships.

Your relationships are crucial, crucial in the dawning of a sense of vocation.

It takes a long time to grow a preacher. Relationships hold the key.

Our gospel calls you to serious relationships. Foxes have their holes…Let the dead bury the dead…Who sets his hand to the plow…

2. A Relationship with God

Second, relationship with God.

A longing deeper than the relationships of human being to human being surrounds us, a deeper longing brought our forebears close enough to hear the call to ministry. Theirs, and ours, is a deeper longing, a longing for a relationship with God. Without such, our hearts are tragically, endlessly and painfully restless.

St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. He is with us this morning, in lead and glass, to my right hand. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa about 400ad. He wrote 500 letters, 200 sermons, 2 great books. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.

It may be that the only way God has to relate to some of us, to get our attention, to mute our pride, to kindle our affection, is to get us into the ministry. Baptism and confirmation suffice for most. But for the real hard cases—the guy who wrote the book on pride, the gal whose picture is alongside the dictionary definition of sloth, the one who embodies real falsehood—like us, like Augustine….like you?...God keeps ordination in reserve.

Long ye for God? Preach. Said John Wesley: Preach until you believe it, then preach because you believe it. Long ye for God? Preach.

et tu?

Thirty four years ago today I preached my first sermon, in New Hope, New York. It does not take long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey. Who will come along to take my place?

Think about it…

Our gospel calls yo
u to serious relationships. Foxes have their holes…Let the dead bury the dead…Who sets his hand to the plow…

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

June 20

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 9:35-10:15

Sermon text is not available at this time.

June 13

Go in Peace

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 7:36 - 8:3

“ … we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” This is quite a statement from a well-brought-up Pharisee. And Paul, like Simon in our Gospel story this morning, was a very good Pharisee.

Now Pharisees have a rather mixed reputation in the Gospels, but they were actually good people – devoted to God, and in that devotion very observant of the Law certain kinds and standards of behavior. And, even before Paul writes to the Galatians, like so many good people, some of the Pharisees had begun to isolate themselves in their own goodness, in their own goodness as defined by how well they kept the Law. They had begun to isolate themselves in what they did, rather than in who they were, God’s loved and forgiven and restored people, whose actions came from their love of God and neighbor in response to God’s compassionate love and forgiveness toward them. They began to isolate themselves from others in their community, and to judge them for not coming up to their own particular standards. This same kind of isolation thinking had begun to surface in the Galatian church, and Paul wants to make it very clear that for Christians, it is faith in God through Jesus Christ, the one who loved us enough to share our life and death, the one who lives within us, it is faith in Jesus Christ that brings us to right relationship with God.

Luke’s account of Simon’s dinner party illustrates what that faith might look like in practice. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner. We are not sure what his motives are; Luke portrays Jesus and the Pharisees as already having had numerous discussions, not all of them friendly. Certainly when the uninvited woman intrudes into his home Simon does not evict or stop her, and instead seems to think that Jesus has failed some kind of test that involves her: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him--that she is a sinner." Simon completely ignores what the woman does and has no interest in why she does it. For him, her sin is what defines her in the past and in the present, and her sin is what should define her in her relationship to Jesus and in Jesus’ relationship to her.

The woman, as happens so often with women in the Bible, is not recorded by name, and she is recorded as not saying anything. But what she is when she is with Jesus speaks more clearly than words. She has found him – after she has taken the time and effort to find out where Jesus is staying. She has found him -- so she then intrudes on a private party and proceeds to display towards Jesus an extravagance of devotion. Her extravagance is one of money: she brings ointment, not just any ointment but the kind of ointment that comes in a fancy jar made of highly-prized alabaster. Her extravagance is one of luxury: the ointment is used to anoint Jesus’ feet. Her extravagance is one of emotion: she weeps in Jesus’ presence, to the extent that she can bathe his feet with her tears. Her extravagance is one of physicality: she bends to his feet as he reclines at dinner as was the custom for men, her tears wet his feet, she dries his feet with her hair; she kisses his feet and rubs the ointment into them in an act of respect and comfort. Her whole self is this extravagance of love and devotion, and manifests as extravagant acts of recognition and hospitality as she welcomes Jesus and the possibilities he brings into her life.

Jesus in turn recognizes her: not as the sinner she may have been, but as the woman of faith she now is, a woman who responds to the compassion and forgiveness of God that she sees in Jesus with a change of life that brings a new relationship with God and with other people. In her love and devotion it is she who becomes Jesus’ true hostess, and what Simon, or anyone else, thinks of her no longer matters. Her faith that God’s compassion and forgiveness are for her has saved her from the power of the past, so that she can go in the present and into the future in peace.

Simon is a good man. And, like so many good people, he cannot get beyond his own goodness. He calls Jesus “Teacher”, but he does not take the lesson. He does realize that the more one is forgiven, the more one will love the forgiver, but he does not see that this might apply to himself. He feels no need for compassion or forgiveness for himself or for the woman. He does not realize his own transgression against the law as he neglects Jesus, his invited guest. He cannot recognize the great change taking place in the woman and in her new reality, but persists in trying to keep her in her place as a sinner. He denies not just his own need for change, but denies himself the compassion and forgiveness of God and the possibilities that might open up for him. In a poignant irony, in his refusal of forgiveness he denies himself and others the best of what he can both be and do: “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

The story of Simon and the woman who crashes his party is our story as well. We live in a culture that pays much more attention to what we do than to what we are, a culture that demands retribution, not restoration, if we transgress. We can never be too rich or too thin, and our exposure to an average of 30,000 advertisements a day tells us that whatever we do or have, it is not enough. Our schedules look like train wrecks and there is no place on the planet where people cannot reach us through some kind of technology. Already we are a nation that works more than any other, and in this economic climate many of us come into work even earlier and stay even later now all seven days a week, and we no longer take the time to eat even at our desks. And if we do not have a job, maybe we should just try a little harder. We overmedicate our children to keep them socially acceptable, and over self-medicate ourselves either to bear the pain or to keep all the balls in the air, or to do both. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. Anyone who really tries to change their life will tell you that it’s not the realization of their own mistakes or sin, or the need to change, or the acceptance of forgiveness, or the taking of responsibility for the choice of the good that is the hardest thing: the hardest thing to overcome it is the refusal of other people to acknowledge that any change is possible for him or her or has actually occurred. And as we all know, the hardest person of all to forgive is ourself.

It does not matter how well we keep the law, whatever law we choose to observe. Last October Frank Warren visited Boston to talk about the latest book and news on his PostSecret project. He began the project five years ago when he invited people to mail in anonymously a secret printed on one side of a postcard decorated with art meaningful to them. The secret could be anything, as long as it was true and the sender had never shared it with anyone before. Half a million postcards later and counting from all over the world, and with the postcard secrets posted on a website and on Facebook and Twitter, the project has become a phenomenon, and is still going strong. The secrets are funny, or they sadden, shock, move, or disturb, and they reveal our common humanity and our common desire and need to keep some things hidden, some things we feel we cannot let anyone else know. We are not, and cannot be, perfect: especially to ourselves. And yet our need to reveal, the need for someone
to know, is also there, relieved if only by a stranger’s invitation to let ourselves be fully known without judgment. Frank Warren’s project has grown, and he has become known as “the most trusted stranger in America”, because he does not judge, but accepts each secret confession with respect and compassion. This invites the sharer of the secret also to have respect and compassion for the secret they have shared: many who have posted a secret report that they have gone on to share the secret with those who have needed to know it or with people who can help them with any next steps they may want to take. This also invites the reader to have respect and compassion for the secret, for the sharer of the secret, and for the reader’s own secrets so that the reader feels less alone. When the secret is shared, and compassion is shared, it becomes less a question of what we do than a question of who we are in our common humanity.

The challenge for us as followers of Christ is to claim who we are in the midst of and in spite of the demands made of us to do. In the great religious and philosophical treasury of bumper sticker wisdom, it is revealed that we are not perfect, just forgiven. What we do or how acceptably we behave does not save us in this world; the demands continue to escalate, all we do is never enough. Instead we are saved by our faith in the promises of God through Jesus Christ, that in that faith we are forgiven, we are forgiven, that the whole process of repentance, compassion, forgiveness, and restoration is at work in us and for us, even us, with our mistakes and our secrets and our sin. And our faith does not save us just once for all, for some place where we will have pie in the sky when we die by and by. Our faith saves us also for our whole life long, for this life here in this world, in this place and time, so that we are freed from the power of the past and can live in peace with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors right now. For when we know that the compassion and forgiveness of God is at work in our lives, we can begin to invite others to experience these gifts as well, and can begin to recognize them at work in others and to support their peace and wholeness as we do our own.

Now this may sound simple. But it may not be easy. Our faith in our own forgiveness may shock others, and may surprise us as well. There are plenty of people like Simon who will want to keep us in the past or in the opinions they have of us. There are people like the other guests at the dinner party, who may question whether our forgiveness is legitimate. People like the other guests at the dinner party who took exception to Jesus’ support of the woman may take exception to our support of others as they move toward a new way of being. Forgiveness comes from change as repentance, and forgiveness results in change as peace and wholeness of life, and, that change may not look like what we expect. It may look extravagant, or messy, or shocking, or outside our familiar categories. We might expect, as it might be assumed it was for the woman whose sins were forgiven, that those who are not respectable will become respectable. What may also happen, that we might not expect, is that those who are respectable may become not respectable. This happened for Mary Magdalene (even though she had already been relieved of seven demons). It happened for Joanna (the wife of Herod’s steward, no less). It happened for Susanna, and for the many other women, who out of their love for and devotion to Jesus found themselves called to leave home and to travel around the country, to keep the Son of God and twelve other men out of their own resources, and to shatter every stereotype of both respectable women and respectable community, just by their very being.

So the key in all this, as the woman at the dinner party demonstrated, is to keep our focus on Jesus, to keep our focus on our love for and devotion to him, and to keep our focust on the possibilities he offers for our own peace and wholeness through the compassion and forgiveness of God he proclaims and embodies. Then, like the woman at the dinner party, and the women on the road with Jesus proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kin-dom of God, we can have faith in our own forgiveness in spite of what others may think, and in spite of what others may think can offer that forgiveness, peace, and wholeness to others.

There’s no time like the present. If we ourselves have not repented or changed our direction and claimed God’s compassion and forgiveness, we can do that now or whenever we choose. If we already have faith that forgiveness continues to work in our lives, we can begin or continue to move out on that faith to build relationships of forgiveness, health and wholeness with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors. If we already have faith that forgiveness continues to work in our lives, we can also begin or continue to recognize where forgiveness is or has been at work in the lives of those around us, and can begin to support them as they become a new creation in spite of the obstacles thrown up by those who have a vested interest in the status quo. No matter what we have done in the past, or if now we make mistakes, or backslide, or just choose the not good out of ignorance or orneriness; it is our faith in God through Jesus Christ, our faith in the compassion and forgiveness of God at work for us and in us, it is our faith that has and will save us, so that we can go in peace into our lives and into the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

~The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

June 6

Healing Remembered

By Marsh Chapel

One wishes that the outset of our gospel were not so utterly contemporary. There are Sundays when it might be a comfort to listen to a lesson that seems utterly innocuous—something about the Jebusites, or the seventh heaven, or camels and loincloths. But here we have an utterly familiar scene, familiar anyway to the remaining readers of remaining front pages of remaining newspapers. A city street. A crowd gathered. A mother who is a widow. The mother’s only son. And he, dead. In all the cities of our residence, over thirty years, New York, Syracuse, Montreal, Rochester, Boston, this story has been, and still is, once the weather gets warmer, regular front page news.

One wonders how those to whom healing has not come receive a gospel lesson like today’s gospel lesson. For healing of the sort provided here, sudden and miraculous, a raising from the very dead, is not routinely a part of our experience. In fact, you and I have not ever seen a man really dead suddenly and really sit up and speak. When healing comes, it comes not like this. And often it does not come. One thinks of those women and men, who have prayed and hoped for healing for their loved ones, and it did not come. A reading like ours might feel like salt in the wound, a needless rhetorical cruelty.

One ponders, even more pointedly, how those whose religion celebrates healing, for whom salvus (health) is the heart of salvation, might receive this kind of story, if in their own experience, the experience has been otherwise. Healing sought that does not come. One imagines a woman in Westfield, whose son is permanently buried, or a man in Marlboro whose wife is permanently disabled, or a daughter in Worcester whose parents are gone and not coming back. And if these three and others had also grown up with a sacramentalism that was revealed as untrustworthy by brute experience? And if these three and others had also grown up with a literalism that was revealed as untrustworthy by brute experience? What then? What would these religious words repeated today sound like?

What is the point of a healing remembered, when so often healing does not come? How are you going to hear gospel, assuming your experience, which is our shared common experience, of loss, grief, sickness to death, dream deferred, and healing that does not always come? What is the point of such a story, such a memory, such a history? How shall we preach about a healing remembered in the midst of so much experience of healing rescinded? The pain, the bruising reminder, of a healing that did not come can last a lifetime. The increased pain in that pain, the wound salt, of misguided religion—literal Biblicism, magical sacramentalism--- can take more than a generation to remove from a family system.

Let us together give our Gospel a moment to respond, in a way that fits the reading’s own intention. We are right to analyze and criticize and demythologize our Holy Scriptures—they can take it. But we also want to give space for the Holy Scripture to analyze us and criticize us and demythologize us. To listen, in other words, to the Word. In our lesson today, healing remembered becomes memory healed. Healing remembered is in the service of memory healed. The account is recalled as a way of remembering again who we are meant to be, who you really are.

Our lesson from Luke is modeled after the longer reading made earlier from 1 Kings. There too, a widow. There too, a son. There too, a healing. There too, a proof of prophetic power. There too, at the climax, ‘he gave him to his mother’. There too, a word about a Word, a word of truth. In the Old Testament lesson, as in the New Testament Gospel, the healing is remembered as a part of the spreading of the word, a word of truth, that sets things right again, and that sets us on our right path again. Like Elijah, Jesus heals, and the healing is remembered. Here we have a clue to the point of a healing remembered.

For the community of faith, this one healing does not eclipse all of the others that did not come, that do not come, that have not come in the desired mode. How could it? After all, even all of the wonderfully typical compassion of the Lukan Jesus, who saw, had compassion, touched, spoke and made right, happens, let the reader understand, at sunset, in the twilight, under the shadow of the coming Cross. The healer is the crucified, from whom no pain and no hurt and no failure, and no loss are kept. On his way to the cross, Jesus has compassion. On his way to powerless failure, Jesus shows a healing power. His resurrection power is remembered even in the shadow of the cross.

Here there is something unexpected which unexpectedly occurs. Life can be like that, and that is good. Here there is something which stitches together family sundered and life ended. Here there is a mission, a desire, a thrust into the future. We come to church, listen for the word, and receive the sacrament, for just such a moment of memory, right remembrance, reclaimed. This one healing—a great joy and wondrous gift, however it may have happened—is meant to teach us, to remind us, that we are a part of the healing work in the world. We have something to learn from this, something to recall. The recollection is offered for all—healed and hurt, well and ill, recovered and removed. In some ways it is meant especially for those whose first dreams have been deferred, and for those whose initial hopes have been disappointed. Today, that may be you. In healing rightly remembered, our memory is rightly healed, and we have the chance again to be who we are meant to be, healers. Healers who remember that sometimes surprising, unexpected, good things happen. Healers who are not willing to give up on hope for what is not yet seen. Healers who relish the chance to heal, and be healed. Healers who recall the long parade of healing, with Jesus in the midst --the Great Physician. Healers who see in moments of health a sign of God’s loving presence in the world, ready and willing to heal and make new.

One wonders if there has ever been a time that more needed such a word, such a healing remembered bringing memory healed. Police battling city street crime need that memory. Diplomats battling the urge and surge to war need that memory. Discouraged engineers battling the deep cut into the earth gushing oil into the future need that memory. Spouses of those with tough diagnoses need that memory. In remembering past healing, we learn something -–something saving and true--about ourselves.

Lee Woodruff spoke for an hour in April, just down the street, about a healing remembered. Those who heard her left in tears because our memory was healed. Lee is a journalist, married to Bob Woodruff, who is a journalist, too, a national television anchor man. Bob nearly died in Iraq, coming home in a deep coma, with near fatal head trauma. Lee spoke at the Sargent School, our college for physical therapy. She told the future healers her story…in order to remind them of who they are meant to become. She related her terror and fear a a young mother with a husband whose wounds seemed incurable. She described the day by day routine of visiting a comatose spouse, 35 days with no response. She critically witnessed about those, mainly doctors, who spoke only of the worst possible outcomes: ‘the nurses were truer, saying that no one knew, but they had seen cases of healing’.

She was reminding by remembering. Her healing remembered became memory healed: Illness affects a whole family not just a patient. Do not be afraid to offer hope. Give information slowly. Touch him like
a person. Rub his feet. Keep the whole family in view. Tell it like it is.

And. Have faith. Faith is not some icky, scary, non-PC thing. It is one of the tools in recovery. Recognize that things happen randomly, that there is not a set plan whereby all things occur. Yet believe that God’s desire is for healing, healing in every setting, in every trauma, in every illness.

Lee read him letters that came from all over the country. Day after day. No response. One letter came from Bruce Springsteen. She added a few sentences of her own to what was written, saying that Bob was invited when better to go on stage and play with E-street band. No response.

Then on the 36th morning of his coma, following her usual swim and Starbucks stop, Lee Woodruff walked in to find her husband sitting up and saying, ‘Hi Lee, where have you been?’

For months later they battled aphasia. One day he gestured with his arms, not remembering the word for guitar, but making the motions. ‘Why do you want a guitar?’ ‘To get ready to play with Springsteen’, he replied. And today he has almost fully recovered. But the burden of her sermon, and it was such, a powerful sermon which might have had as its text Luke 7:11, was to remind us that we all and we each have some role in healing. You are meant to be healers. You were baptized into the community of healing. You have grown up to faith in a tradition of healing. You are those who are hopeful for healing. You gather regularly around a simple table, to share the bread and the cup, to taste the new wine of memory healed, which is today announced in the account of a healing remembered.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

May 30

What Shall We Say?

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Well, this is just fantastic. The dean decides to take Memorial Day weekend off and leaves me stuck attempting to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Oh sure! No problem! It’s only the most complicated and contested doctrine in the history of Christian thought. Piece of cake! Nothing we can’t get sorted out in the next twenty minutes.

May we pray? Holy God; Holy and mighty; Holy and eternal. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.
Oh dear. What exactly are we supposed to do here? Or more precisely, what shall we say? After all, to declare with the ancient creeds of the Christian church that divine life is one God in three persons is precisely that, a declaration, a form of speech.

To speak of God is always difficult, if not outright terrifying. What if we get it wrong? If we say something out of line, will God smite us where we stand? More importantly, what if someone believes us? If we are wrong, might we have sent them down a dangerous path? That there is so much at stake in our speech about God is hardly made easier by the fact that the object of speech, God, often seems so inaccessible. It is not like describing a stone that we pick up at the beach, washed ashore by the crashing waves. We can describe the stone to a friend and the friend can look and see whether or not our description meets up with their experience of the stone. But God does not fit in our hands. Saint Anslem said that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” One of the implications is that God is so great that the power of human speech to be meaningful in describing God is compromised.

So, why bother to say anything at all? Why not just remain silent in the face of God, who we can barely comprehend? Is it not sheer hubris to attempt to speak of God at all? As a matter of fact, yes, it is sheer hubris to speak of God. Not that pride has ever been a particular deterrent to people going ahead and doing whatever it is they are determined to be about anyway. But there is more to it than pride. It seems that there is a human compulsion to speak. The very first lines of the Tao Te Ching say that “A way that can be walked is not The Way; a name that can be named is not The Name,” but it then immediately goes on to say that “Tao is both Named and Nameless. As Nameless, it is the origin of all things; as Named, it is the mother of all things.” Similarly, with regard to the Trinity, Augustine notes: “Yet, when the question is asked, What three? human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer, however, is given, three "persons," not that it might be [completely] spoken, but that it might not be left [wholly] unspoken.” To fail to speak, it seems, is as great a sin as the pride of speaking.
This should not be entirely surprising to us. We gathered here in the nave of Marsh Chapel and listening over radio waves and internet signals are a community, and communities are formed out of shared experiences that are then shared again and again in common patterns of speech, in the telling and retelling of stories. Without speech, we would not be. This is the truth of the beginning of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the word.”

All right, so we can’t speak well, and yet we must speak. But what exactly are we doing when we speak? To speak is not simply to state a fact. Yes, there are what philosophers of language and linguists call locutionary aspects of speech. When we speak we make sounds that are strung together in patterns that comprise words, which are in turn strung together in sentences with grammar and syntax and thus have meaning. However, this is not all that is happening when humans speak. In addition to locutionary aspects, human speech also has illocutionary aspects, in which meaningful words and sentences are spoken in a context so as to bring about some outcome. Human beings speak with intent. Sometimes that intent is merely to describe. “It’s really hot outside.” More often, however, the intent is to more than merely descriptive. After service, if you find yourself standing on the plaza chatting with a fellow congregant, and that person says “it’s really hot outside,” it is more than likely that they are suggesting that the two of you should continue your conversation in some nearby shade. You can tell this because if your response is simply to agree, “yes, it is really hot outside,” your conversation partner will likely roll their eyes and make the request more explicit, “why don’t we go sit in the shade and chat?” Under the illocutionary aspect, we do not merely make intelligible sounds, we ask, request, promise, greet, warn, advise, challenge, encourage, deny and otherwise initiate actions. In speaking, we expect a response.

What kind of action are we undertaking when saying that God is Trinity? And to whom are we speaking? There are two primary contexts in which we speak of God. The first is in the context of worship. It is traditional in the history of Christian worship that following the sermon and leading into the celebration of Holy Communion the congregation would recite together a creed, often the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The creed usually begins, “I believe.” This identifies the creed as what philosopher John Searle identifies as a declarative speech act, one that commits the speaker to the truth of what is said. Entering into a common action of committing to a common truth is a powerful way of drawing people together under what all affirm as the same experience of the same God. This is one way of overcoming the difficulty of the inaccessibility of God to easy perception and thus description.

The other context in which God is spoken of as Trinity is in the context of theological explication. In this context the theologian is enacting what Searle calls a directive speech act that seeks to cause the hearer or reader to do something, usually in this case to believe in God as Trinity as the theologian has laid out the case. Trinitarian theologians seek to make the case that believing in God as Trinity allows for a coherent, consistent, adequate and applicable understanding of God, the world, and our place in the world. Because the account provides coherence, consistency, adequacy and applicability, categories I am borrowing from Alfred North Whitehead, then the hearer or reader is justified in assenting to the theologian’s claims.
These then are the two contexts in which we speak of God: worship and theological explication. In the first our speech is declarative, and is addressed to God and to each other, binding us together in a common community. In the second the speech of the theologian is directive, and is addressed to us, calling us to believe in God as Trinity because such belief is justified. At least, these are the ways that talk of God is classically understood. I would like to suggest that limiting ourselves to these two understandings of God-talk is missing an important active dimension in what we are doing when we speak of God.

Speaking of God is not merely declarative, committing ourselves to the truth of what we say, nor merely directive, asking others to believe as we do. To speak of God is to enact a type of speech act that Searle distin
guished as declaration. A declaration does not merely commit the speaker to the truth of what is said, but changes reality to accord with what is said. In a criminal case, when the judge hands down the sentence, the reality of the defendant is no longer ‘defendant’ but either the one who committed the crime, ‘guilty,’ or the one who did not commit the crime, ‘innocent.’ At a wedding, such as the one at which I will officiate this afternoon, the words “I now pronounce you…” are what make the marriage legal, and so are a significant part of what makes the marriage real.

While I identified the declarative and directive classes of speech acts as the classical interpretations of the nature of God-talk, they are so only in terms of a modern western conception. The idea of speaking of God as a declaration that changes reality is actually quite old when we turn to south Asian religious traditions, and also to some very early Christian sacramental theology, some of which survives to this day. In both cases, the understanding that speech has the power to make reality as it is arises in the context of ritual. In south Asia, it was believed that enacting rituals, and particularly speaking the right words in the rituals, maintained the very existence of the world. This belief was crucial to the religious heritage of the region and speech remains central to Hindu theologies. For Christians, the idea of anamnesis is that in reciting salvation history in the Eucharistic prayers, time collapses together to make the ritual expression of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus one with its first occurrence in first century Palestine and with every other anamnetic retelling past, present and future. Thus, the Eucharistic prayer is not simply a retelling of what happened, but the actual happening of salvation history, the enactment of the reality of salvation history. The declaration of the story makes it so.

Of course, it is one thing to say that declaration makes socially constructed realities so, but it would seem to be nonsensical to believe that simply saying that “the sky is chartreuse” could make it so. Indeed, there is a significant difference between social reality and brute reality. And we run into trouble if we say that the declaration of God as Trinity makes God Trinity because most of us would like to believe that God is a part of brute reality, something given to be experienced, not a projection arising out of common affirmation. But this is indeed what South Asian and early Christian theologies claimed, that the very being of the brute world is dependent upon ritual. Today we may wish to dissent from this strong claim about the capacity of declaration. But perhaps we need not protest too much.

Recent work on ritual by Boston University professors Adam Seligman and Robert Weller make the case that ritual, broadly understood, creates subjunctive, as-if spaces that allow us to cope with the broken, disjunct, fractured experience of life. Ritual gives us the ability to draw together the strewn about pieces of our lives and our experience of the world into something resembling a unified whole. The fact of the matter is that our experience is not normally coherent, consistent, adequate or applicable across the many arenas of life in the world, and we ourselves are not coherent, consistent, adequate or applicable. This is why in religious life we acknowledge the deep chasms and fissures of the human condition. As Stephen Prothero, another BU professor, so carefully points out in his most recent book, God Is Not One, different religious traditions make different claims about the contours of those chasms and fissures, and therefore prescribe different ways of unifying them. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to religious life that there is something wrong with the world, that we ourselves are not well suited to overcoming those wrongs, and that it is only by acknowledging and giving ourselves over to the ultimacy of ultimate reality that we can get by. As Paul says, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”

To speak of God is to create a ritual, subjunctive, as-if space in which all of the chasms and fissures of our broken lives and experience fit together coherently, consistently, adequately and applicably. But our speech about God must in some way acknowledge the subjunctive character of the space. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity does this, as do other conceptions of ultimate reality. The doctrine of the Trinity insists that God is one, thus creating the subjunctive space of wholeness. But the doctrine of the Trinity can only understand God to be one in terms of three persons, three expressions, thereby acknowledging that the reality of God can only be coherent, consistent, adequate and applicable to us in our brokenness and our disjunct lives in a fractured world insofar as God is not one. This is to say that God participates in our desire for unity and God participates in the reality of fractured existence. How God can do this, how God can be both transcendent and immanent, is not something that we can speak as a fact but is something that God speaks as a declaration. The unity of God, how it is that these three are one, is not something that we can bear; it is a mystery. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The declaration of God is that ultimate unity - ultimate coherence, consistency, adequacy and applicability – is not for us now, except in the glimpses of grace we experience when we make our own declaration of God the Trinity. Amen.

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