Many of us are quite new here. We hardly know each others’ names, let alone seeing each others hearts. We learn one name at a time, I and Thou.
At Chautauqua in 1999 I introduced myself to a frail saint, who asked my name, heard it, and chuckled. Hill is not a colorful enough name to become much of source of hilarity, but she chuckled still. She explained. “You know, I had such a fear of asking people their names again, once they had told me once, that I came up with a system that invariably worked. Rather than saying, ‘I have forgotten your name, please remind me’, or something equally honest, I would say, ‘now, tell me again, do you spell your last name with an ‘i’ or an ‘e’. My technique succeeded. Chuckle. Until I used it with a man who shares your surname. ‘Do you spell your last name with an ‘i’ or an ‘e’? He blustered. My name is Hill not Hell, you spell it H I L L!
Caught between our own identities, and visions for the future, both heavenly and hellish, we have arrived in Boston. Like Matthew, who in chapter 9 paints himself, as Velazquez did, into his own portrait, we are invited. Follow me. “He comes to us as one unknown as he did long ago, saying ‘Follow me,…”, wrote Schweitzer. The real moment of real invitation and real response is real apocalypse. Paul said he met Jesus ‘by apocalypse’. I am here by apocalypse. Another story for another day. You may be too. What are we doing here?
We are here for matriculation, to begin, to exchange on maternity for another. Here is a matriculation account. Vernon Jordan went to Depauw ( a small Methodist school for small Methodists) in Indiana, lead by various BU graduates. His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off their in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Lousiana. Weeping, his father said, “Vernon, we are not coming back until four years from now. You are here where your future opens. At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row. This is your time. I have one word of advice. Read. When others are playing, you read. When others are sleeping, you read. When others are drinking, you read. When others are partying, you read.” Take, Vernon, take and read.
In mid September of 1976, perhaps 30 years ago to the very day, many of us stood in the common room at the Union Theological Seminary. I stood near Linda Clarke and Horace Allen, and among the ghosts of theologians past that haunted those halls as others of equal tremor do these. George Landes spoke for the Biblical Field. Sanders, Terrien, Brown, and Martyn sat behind him. “There has been some question about whether the Bible is relevant”, he said quietly, this exacting teacher of Hebrew, and noted Jonah scholar. “We in the Biblical field”—here he gestured meaningfully to his esteemed colleagues—“ask that before you settle that question, whether or not the Bible is relevant, that you…read it.” That is what I remember, in sum, from the days of entry into theological study. I cannot tell you, in retrospect, and though those days themselves were not easy, just how majestically meaningful the voices, many now dead, in that room have been to me. They are in my ears. They are here beside me. As the theological voices of this uniquely exciting, young, potent, new faculty of the Boston University School of Theology will be for many, for many years to come. May your retrospective in 2036 be similar. I hope you will remember, three decades hence, something similar. Whatever others do, in these precious days of somehow subsidized freedom, you read. Read. The savings habits of careful reading can become the difference between life and death.
Matthew on Taking and Reading
Matthew says go and learn, follow and discern, take and read. Matthew, the author of a dark Gospel, reflecting perhaps the persecutions of the late first century, has stitched his own matriculation to faith together with an apothegm (that is a word that you never use in a sermon) about reading. His entry involved reading. “Go and learn….” Why should anyone have needed to learn the meaning of such a fine and famous line from Hosea, about mercy and sacrifice? Evidently, the meaning was far from evident, by the time of Matthew’s suffering. More study was needed. Why? The experience of the fragile church of the late first century required new readings of the inherited traditions of the church. Here is the preacher’s task, to translate tradition into insights for effective living.
Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices. There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix. In Matthew 9, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic aversion to pagan inscriptions and iconography. There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community. From Mark to Matthew an insertion has arisen, the citation of Hosea 6:6. Evidently, the earliest church needed the fuller support of the prophetic tradition—mercy not sacrifice, compassion not holiness—as it moved farther out and away from the memory of Jesus. The tenor line is that of the evangelist. Matthew is here, marking his own appearance in the record. His work seems to reflect a connection to school, to scribes, perhaps as Stendahl said from across the river, years ago, to Qumran. The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” ( Adv. Haer., in Richardson, ECF, 377) If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.
There are two steps in today’s Gospel. Take, Read. The first is invitation, offered and received. The second is education, prepared and planned. You have, somehow, washed up on this shore, out of the ranges of materialism all around. You have set aside more lucrative degrees, you have refrained from taking more reliable paths, and you have stepped aside from entering upon more pleasant routines. What were you thinking? You are here. Thanks to somebody, and some potent word of invitation. Then, too, you are here to learn. To learn what the ancient world still thought was obscure, even following Hosea and Plato: God delights in mercy. I (thelo) desire, delight in, enjoy, am happy for, celebrate, am passionate about…mercy.
One wonders just how pointed Matthew’s reference here is in regard to his own community. Is the contrast between the partnership of the gospel and the willingness to suffer in the coliseum? Or the choice between a hearty entrance into some of the culture around, rather than a sacrificial abstemiousness about the world? Or the happy delight in new deliverance, over against the trudging discipline of mature faith? What of mercy, and what of sacrifice? What pastoral visit, and what new learning has formed this passage? Go…and learn. Take…and read.
Point One: Take
Close reading is crucial to health.
One day, following the morning service, we visited a dear saint in her home. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.
That Tuesday, she prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She is a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.
She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, 129 not 128—such a small difference, a room inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who is deaf as a post. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. We all know the fear of the wrong arm amputated, the wrong knee replaced, the wrong woman put in the stretcher. Physician’s malpractice. But the news, good news, of medical malpractice is that you know soon—an hour, a day, a decade—what has happened, and you can endure it or correct it. So it goes with the physician’s malpractice.
Not so with the metaphysician’s.
Biological error lasts, at most, a lifetime. Theological error resides for three generations, or more. If, as ML King Sr. said, ‘it takes three generations to make a preacher’, then it also takes three generations, or more, to recognize and correct the effects of metaphysical malpractice. You cannot fully see its effect for 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years. And it is a short way from birdie to bogie, from clean cuts to nicks and scratches in innocent organs, mistaken severations and amputations, blood spilled and shed in the wrong bed. Choose the physical mistakes, for the metaphysical are so much more insidious, more damaging, more real. Read carefully the signs of the times, and their distinctive differences…
There is a crucial difference between sacrifice and mercy. There is a crucial difference between holiness and compassion. There is a crucial difference between law and love. There is crucial difference between representation and redemption. There is a crucial difference between incantation and incarnation. There is a crucial difference between innocence and integrity. There is a crucial difference between independence and interdependence. There is a crucial difference between Christology and theology. There is a crucial difference between giving and tithing.
When we let the very worthy interests in representation eclipse the main work of the gospel, in redemption, we are making a surgical mistake…
We risk harm when we replace incarnation with incantation, forgetting that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath…
Integrity and holiness survive beyond innocence, so we might say: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity…
We risk harm when we replace just war with just war, interdependence with independence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq jettisoned our inherited experience codified in just war theory. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, not responsive, multilateral, restorative, and limited…
We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity…
There is a world of difference between habit and mercy, contribution and generosity, giving and tithing. The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in tithing, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in tithing, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of exurban life receives its denial in tithing, not in mere givin
These are crucial distinctions. How are we ever going to make them, and learn consistently to make them well, to avoid metaphysical misdirection?
Point Two: Read
How are we to take up the stressful work, the hard labor of careful practice?
You go and read.
Find yourself in front of the Sculpture of Arthur Fiedler, on a bench. Sit farther along the river, as the sun sets. Make permanent friends with the quiet pews of Marsh Chapel and the hidden crannies of the library. Locate that 2am diner breakfast that helped Fred Craddock become a preacher. Find the Arthur Fiedler reading room, a beautiful spot. When others are at war with administration, you read. When others are cursing their Bishops, you read. When others are finding fault with faculty hairstyles, you read. You may especially want to read those who have lived through other times of ruin. Reading frees you from the 21st century. Reading cuts you loose from your own time and place. Others too have taught and preached in the ruins of the church….
I picture a bright autumn day. You are walking the emerald necklace, with lunch and a bag full of books.
*You start out a Charlesgate, thinking about reading today….
You live in a country in which 40% of the population can name the Three Stooges, and fewer than 5% the ten commandments. Literacy has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read. We are preparing for teaching and ministry among those who do read, or will soon.
You think of a little office in the World Council of Churches, that of Paolo Freire. There he sat, brown bag lunch in hand. Who taught a continent, for their liberation, to read…
You remember from A River Runs Through It, the line that Methodists are Baptists who can read. But today, the literate are not those who can, but those who do read.
Close, careful reading, matters. I believe Colin Powell could testify to the difference between close, exacting reading, and visual learning. But he is only our best mirror upon ourselves. What have we been reading, as a people? Not enough world history. Not enough comparative religion. Not enough detailed daily news. Not enough economics or political science. Certainly not enough of the koine greek of Matthew 9, or the Hebrew verbs of Hosea 6.
*You pause to sit at the Fenway gardens to read in books from BUSTH, past and future…
The future of the globe relies not on those who can read, but on those who do. Allan Knight Chalmers taught his students here in the 1950’s to read a book a day.
Elmer Leslie, in the same decade, wrote, interpreting Psalm 1. He concluded his book on The Psalms with Psalm 1.
The psalmist first describes negatively the man who walks life’s good way, that is, by what he does not do. He refuses to walk as the morally loose, criminal element in society counsel him to do, or to stand where those congregate who have missed life’s true goal, or to sit as a willing crony among those who scoff at goodness. Then the psalmist turns to positive description and depicts a good man in terms of what he does. He delights in religion and meditates upon the Lord’s requirements as enjoined in the law, brooding over them by day and in the wakeful hours of the night. (op. cit. 432)
From Area A, learn with AT Pierson to “sanctify ambition, not crucify it”. A close distinction in a careful reading of life. From Area B, learn with Hildegard of Bingham to “become one’s ownmost”. From Area C, learn the nature of “good Samaritan” Christians. From Area D, learn with 19th century Methodism the lasting danger of poor financial planning, and learn the merits of disciplined sacramental observance. Or, learn the history of 3 Timothy. All this and more, you can read in the books of your teachers in this fine school. Read what you want, what you need, when you want, as you need.
*You sit beside the lawn at Emmanuel College, to pray…
In our own reforming, newly reconstituted community here at BUSTH, we have been further chastened and strongly sobered by death coming as a thief in the night. In one sense, there is little we can say, either to others or to ourselves. We must hold our tongue, and stand, and, just like a preacher, wait and wring our hands. We do not know why these things happen. There is no explaining, finally, the depth of tragic loss. But we can be present to one another, and treat each other with an honest kindness, a kind honesty. And with a little humility about our own limitations. And with a happy grace that embraces every morning with a sense of wonder. G.K.Chesterton caught it right, as he did so often; “the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.” This harrowing week does not lack for meanings, but only for a sense of meaning. We can trust the unseen God to give confidence, faith, and your lived capacity to withstand what you cannot understand. Sometimes that is all you have, the faith to withstand what you cannot understand. For the loss of a brother does not make this week, this matriculation, any less meaningful, or less meaning filled. In fact, it frames our study in the arch of eternity, and recalls for us the heart of ministry, which is the health of persons, the saving of souls. We are on the edge of eternity in every moment of life. You, teacher, you preacher, you pastor, are living testimony to the Eternal Now.
*You may pause and rest at the beginning of the Riverway to think practically about theological education…
The ministry will be upon you in three years, or less, or more. If you can start, by reading, to think theologically, and model that dimension of spirituality for your parishioners, you will have done them a world of good.
Students, read the bottom line. You need to leave seminary with no debt. Faculty, read for the fine truth that sets free. Teachers, love your subjects and your students, as Augustine advised. You have nothing to do but to know the truth. Administration, read the need for conviviality, with joy. Minimize debt, students. Marginalize delusion, faculty. Maximize community, administration.
Oh, I know, there is more to life than books. I remember the 1904 Discipline and its terse rebuke, “we would rather throw over all the libraries in the world, rather than let one soul perish”. The difference 100 years later is that for the world soul not to perish, you must become living libraries. Bradbury’s campfire at the end of Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind.
*You find a quiet corner along the river think about the impact of careful reading, and its absence…
This fall we shall witness a titanic struggle for the minds and hearts of America. We do not cast a single ballot in any direction. But the difference between a fear soaked visual bombardment, and a careful literate philosophy of peace, is close to the marrow of what will or will not save us. What some discern as the shift from a gender to a religious divide, should perhaps be seen as a literacy divide. It matters what hymns, prayers, liturgy, and certainly sermons people know.
One does not live by bread alone. Better read than dead. Better well hung than ill wed, better well read than spiritually dead.
Read now. Robert Kennedy did not have the freedom to do a research paper on Aeschylus the night Martin King was killed. He either had read or he hadn’t. He had. His 3 minutes in the Indianapolis rain were his greatest words, because he had read. There is very little left of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast. What there is clings for life to the words, and to the Word.
*In the glade you wonder about the nature of reading itself…
And what relationship shall the reader have to the read? Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts? Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king? What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered? In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth? Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth? Or one truth among many? Or primus inter pares? Or an anachronism altogether? How then do you read?
Misreading intelligence can land a nation in the soup of a civil war. Misreading tests can land a patient in the wrong surgical suite. Misreading accounts payable can land a business in bankruptcy. Misreading a traffic signal can land you in the ditch. Most of these have healing solutions available within one generation. Theological misreading lasts for several generations. It takes three of four generations to bring correction to a sincere or not so authentic theological misreading. Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act.
*You may circle the pond at Jamaica Plains, eat lunch, and read especially from those who have read and preached in various conditions of the ruins of the church…
Here is an October Saturday in the sun. Read in the ruins. Take, Read. Read along with those who also rose to preaching amid the ruins of the church. You walk. You read BBTaylor. Leaving Church. You walk. You read K Phillips, American Theocracy. You walk. At Jamaica Pond you read P Beinhart, The Good Fight. Then you read Vaclev Havel, on almost anything. You read H Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston is your campus.
McCourt in Angela’s Ashes is really giving you a hymn to language. He sits by the hospital bed of his eleven year old girlfriend. She teaches him a poem, “The Highwayman”, and she dies. He is so hungry that he finds a soiled newspaper, with the remains of fish and chips, and licks the grease…and the words…off the paper. That is, McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.
*At last, as night is falling, you pause for a minute on the way home to read this last passage from Augustine’s Confessions…
I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Outler translation, Book V111)
At dinner someone may ask what the matriculation sermon on Wednesday was about. You would say, well, I think he was singing a song of love for reading; I think he was raising a hymn of praise for reading; I think he was lining out a psalm of affirmation for reading…