An English Spring
John 3: 1-17
May 24, 2009
Dean Robert Allan Hill
Grace can appear, out of the mist, out of a London fog. Grace can overtake you in the mist, in the midst of an English Spring. Faith is that kind of walk in the dark. You only appreciate your faith when you get to a point that you truly need it. I wonder whether you are at a point, ready to set out on the trail of faith? Faith overtakes us in the mist, in the dark, in the fog like that interminable London fog.
We have last week passed through the ritual of Commencement, here at Boston University. Many thousands cheered at Nickerson Field, in the main gatherings. Many hundreds, school and college by school and college, heard words with which to be hooded and to begin again. Two smaller gatherings impressed me this year.
Another kind of fog, spring in England, greeted us at Faneuil Hall.
Jan and I have gone, every year, to Faneuil Hall for the commissioning ceremony for our new ROTC leaders. It is at 3:30pm in the afternoon. Each young woman or man ascends the historic stage of the Hall. They each take an oath to defend the constitution of the country. Then their parents come forward to pin the amulets for their new rank upon each shoulder. There is a little quiet at the pinning, as mom and dad find the right way to attach the rank badges. The hall is fairly full. Veterans are honored. There is a prayer and a speech. There are awards. This year’s winner was remembered for his playful temperament, his team spirit, and the fact that he still used a Chuck-E-Cheese wallet. These are young people. As mom and dad pin on the rank, it becomes shockingly clear just what sacrifice and just what cost arises when peaceful means, diplomatic strategies, fail. Then we turn to young people, some of whom are carrying wallets from childhood, and depend on their courage. There is a thick fog of unforeseeable future and a mist in the eyes as well. Every year there have been soldiers who have been regulars in worship here at the Chapel. Some of you will remember Morgan Jordan from last year. We prayed that day:
All things blessed come from Thee.
In this hour of consecrated commitment, we ask to sense Thy blessing.
Bless our country with a hunger for liberty and justice.
Bless our leaders with courage and patience.
Bless our people with a new rebirth of wonder.
Bless the parents here today with a feeling of your embrace.
Bless those to be commissioned here today with a confidence born of obedience.
Bless, O Lord, these young women and men with the graces of safety and courage.
And bless us who rely on their sacrificial service, with a deeper, truer admiration for them and for that service.
Grant us thy peace.
Another fog still greeted us on Monday.
On Monday, the day after commencement, some of us gathered for a very dignified graduation ceremony to honor the senior class of the BU Academy, our resident Preparatory High School. These students were at least four years younger than the soldiers. They came forward in robes not uniforms. A stately quiet piano rendition of Pomp and Circumstance guided their entry. Their senior orations were in Greek and Latin. The speaker of the day playfully quoted a certain mid-20century English philosopher and sociologist, one ‘J Lennon’ and his colleague, Dr ‘P McCartney’ to the effect that money cannot buy love and love is all you need. The students were admonished, with straightforward frankness, to learn to delay gratification. There were awards. And while the list of schools, fine colleges, to which the graduates have been admitted was printed, it was clear that the future was not clear. One honoree gave thanks for finishing, and remembered studying her Latin vocabulary in the shower. Again, the fog and mist of the unforeseeable future did not escape the prep school ceremony, any more than it had the ROTC commissioning. Young people, young people, such young people.
If we could see everything, we would not need trust. If we knew every little thing ahead of time, we would not need faith. If we were certain, already, about how the future would unfold, we would not need the courage to be or the confidence born of obedience. Faith is fond in the fog. Faith is fond in the London Fog. Whatever version of an English Spring you are living through right now may just the weather system and psychic mist that will evoke your faith. It has happened before.
Nicodemus presents himself to Jesus, appearing out of the misty fog and London like shadows at night, to ask the location of real authority, he who is a figure of much authority, and to seek an authoritative word of faith. Where is faith? Almost any religious text is a neighbor to this question, and here in the fourth Gospel, Nicodemus brings the question home. What is the shape of real faith?
Is it found in law, the ten commandments, the fierce fundamentalism on the rise in our time? Surely these commandments are the basis of good life, but are they the heart of life? Is faith found in order or structure, as in that of a church with laity and deacons and priests and bishops, the depositum fidei? Surely the river of life needs some banks, otherwise all would be flood, but is order at the heart of faith? Are we left, for salvation, to choose between fundamentalism and ecclesiasticism? In this monsoon, this rainy English spring, let us listen again for the Word of God.
The freedom and love in today’s Scripture lesson provide an alternative. Authentic faith, finally, is found in freedom and love.
Speaking of London fog…
We once remembered that. It is the experience of freeing love, that ignited the Methodist church.
Every Sunday has four liturgical dimensions, four calendars. One is the lectionary and liturgy of the church—we use this each week, here, so our lesson and Psalm and musical recognition of Ascension. A second is the cultural calendar, Memorial Day this weekend, the traditional beginning of summer and remembrance of service. A third is the calendar of every local community, like ours here, at BU, in our case feeling the effects of the tide going out, faculty, students and staff on summer break. And a fourth is the variety of denominational dates and events, the birthdays of obscure Scottish saints, the feast days of more venerable holy ones, the needs of the larger church for funding of very sorts, and today, 5/24, Aldersgate Sunday, the 271st anniversary of Mr. Wesley’s own English Spring, his discovery of faith in fog (more on this in a moment).
Winston Churchill knew the fog of an English Spring.
At the right moment, one momentous English Spring of 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler. With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With the whole German airforce poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him Churchill clung to a love of freedom. Re-read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940. He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War. In the end, America and Russian did. But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.” Faith is about love of freedom.
John Wesley knew something about the fog of an English Spring.
At midlife, one enchanting night in the English Spring of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good. He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage. There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime. As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it. Faith is about freeing love.
The sermon today is an altar call for you. I propose that you come to prayer, ready to accept Jesus in your life. So come, to experience freeing love. So come, to receive a love of freedom. So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love. For the wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.
Last week’s Commencement reminded us of freedom and love. After our main event speaker had filled the imaginations of a very responsive class with a challenge to service of others, I leaned over to Father Paul and said, ‘I am calling an audible’. I put aside the written benediction (I reserve the right to use it next year!), and remembered a New England poet and a New England poem. It seemed to fit the moment, as it does as well today:
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.