Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Touch of Grace

A Touch of Grace
Galatians 1: 1-12
June 2, 2013
Marsh Chapel
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

New York

            When St. Paul writes that the gospel came to him by apocalypse he intends neither a sole reliance on experience to the left nor a rejection of experience to the right.   The gospel comes by apocalypse at the incursion of spirit in life, of love in experience, of experience inside out, a touch of grace.  So our experience matters, and our awareness of experience invaded is largely all we have.

            May 2 our friend and teacher retired in New York City.  Dr. Christopher Morse lectured on the history of Christian theology in September of 1976, and before and after.  The lectures , built in part upon the lectures of Robert Calhoun at Yale a decade earlier, in may have been, are today still shimmering in memory, forty years later.   Speech matters.  On a bright May morning, some from near and some from far drove to Riverside Drive, parked behind Grant’s tomb, wondered again and aloud who was buried there (J), peered in at the dark, historic, gothic emptiness of Riverside Church, hunted down friends at the Interchurch Center next door, sat in the venerable Union Theological Seminary courtyard, fragrant and cloistered and quiet, then in James Chapel, now filling with five decades of friends and students.  The honoree asked not to preach, but only to celebrate the Eucharist, in clear Methodist fashion, as we do today.   Doctoral students sang an anthem musically summarizing Morse’s theological principles.  (Hear these words set to guitar and folk music:  coherence, catholicity, conformity…(J)).  A young student preached.  Prayers were offered by another, strong, sonorous, spirited prayers by another young student, the son of a prominent NYC Methodist preacher.  A simple luncheon followed, with a portrait unveiled, no eulogies or roasts or remembrances.  Just 90 minutes, noon on, of grace.  Then the drive home, along the coast and through New Haven, a drive most richly populated by ghosts, haunted by recollection and reckoning, riddled with gratitude.  Friends, an excellent 80 minute lecture lives, feeds, and lasts a lifetime, maybe even three such.  By the way, the young man who prayed so well, a cradle Methodist, a parsonage child, a brilliant future preacher, is gay.  Said a proud, heart broken dad, ‘He will not lie.  He will not stay.  He will find another denomination’.  But the father’s smile through pain was a real, though fragile, real though apocalyptic touch of grace, a holy Eucharist, love made real.


            May 16 started six days of Commencement gladness, here at Boston University, across a campus and city still bruised and hurting from spring terror and death.  We shall sorely and truly need together the ongoing development of a spiritual discipline against resentment (acknowledged, admitted, accepted—and then wrestled with, like love with an angel).  More than 80 graduates were anointed by word and sword with a scarlet key.  The dental school celebration—large, colorful, global. A certain choir learned that they would sing with the Rolling Stones, a band active when Christopher Morse was in college.  Of course, with gladness, we happily recall the great, big moments of Commencement 2013.  Morgan Freeman photographed with Jan Hill.  Morgan Freeman cheered by students, ‘speech, speech…’  And in extatraditional mode, he did.  The Marsh Chapel choir, soon to sing with Mick Jagger, resplendent, redolent at Baccalaureate.  The thrilled celebration of hooding like that of the theology school here in the Chapel.  Music from ‘A Chorus Line’—perhaps generationally specific in thrill—with the Boston Pops.  A magnificent Advisory Board meeting with a world class presentation on global health.  Greek and Latin orations, from memory, in the original, at the BU Academy graduation, with a fine sermon given there, on ‘closing the opportunity gap’ on the text, ‘to whom much is given, from him much is required’ in St. Luke.  All these and others were wonderful and more than wonderful.
            But come with me to an out of the way, smaller gathering, and a particularly powerful one every year.  For us, the most meaningful graduation moment each year is not under the big tent but among several dozen in Faneuil Hall, where 20 or so soldiers are commissioned as second lieutenants.  In crisp attire and crisp liturgy, young men and women assemble before the portraits of Sam Adams, John Hancock, and George Washington, in the cradle of the cradle of liberty.  “The President of the United States has placed his trust and confidence…” “Do you promise to preserve, protect, and defence…”  Then the loved ones—parents, or siblings or spouses—place the apulets upon the commissioned officers, sending them potentially into harm’s way for our sakes.  Freedom is not free.  To see mom and dad, brother and sister, husband and wife struggling to get the shoulder boards in place, every May, is the marrow of commencement, where a courageous present enters an uncertain future.  This year—by apocalypse came the gospel said Paul—one fine woman was aided by two other young women, her sister—and her partner.  In Boston, Faneuil Hall.  Before Adams, Hancock, and Washington.  She is going to place herself in mortal danger for us.  And we are going to question her practice of love?  It was a very full moment, an apocalypse if you will.  A touch of grace.


            By May 22, after the last of 27 different Commencement events for us, this the gracious retired faculty and staff association luncheon, an organization long chaired by two Marsh Chapter stalwarts, pointed the car due north toward ‘le Europe prochain’, Montreal, the Europe next door, the second largest French speaking city in the world.  A BU class was there arranged on urban mission and ministry.  While students pondered the pattern and significance of the work of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and his emphasis on ‘belonging’, his longing for belonging, and remembered our own decade in and out of Quebec.  The Faculty of Religious Studies Birks Building, pristine and waxed and gothic and beautiful and summer empty, welcomed us with open arms.  Part school part church, part library part chapel, part study part sanctuary, part office part altar, part lectern part pulpit, part mind part heart.  The current faculty, many friends—Green, Kirkpatrick, Aiken, Baum, Hall, Golberger, Henderson, Sharma, Pettem—had place there books on display, and their faces restored a part of our being.  Our friends give us back ourselves.   Shadows, shades of memory greeted us too.  NT Wright, in 1981, in chapel announcing the death of Anwar Sadat.  Dean Eric Jay, long retired, admitting that the early church rejected patri-passianism, ‘but just barely’.  Dean RBY Scott, whose hymn we sing here.  Deans Johnston, Mclelland, and Runnells, Johnston stating at a oral that Q was a missionary, teaching tract.  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, like Howard Thurman, more than 100 years ahead of his time more than fifty year ago.  The day of registration and of defense and of graduation.  Forms of real contest at a time of young hope, fear and life.  The Canadian self-deferential self mockery, of which we could use a steady dose here:  ‘We could have had the best of British culture, French cuisine, and American government, but we got instead British cuisine, French government, and American culture’.  Funny, but not true, expect in the tone of self deprecation.

            When GB Caird came to McGill he spoke of the Unity of the New Testament, and in his portrait we saw resembled  a Methodist minister, Dr Thomas Ogletree.  Tom is nearly 80.  Let me  describe him for you:  courtly, gracious, soft spoken white bearded, grandfatherly, bespectacled.   The former dean of Yale Divinity, and athe other of much of the theological substance in our current UM Book of Discipline.  I expect that if you look in the dictionary to find the definition o ‘Christian gentleman’, you will discover his photograph.  Last year he solemnized the marriage one of his five children, a son—to another man.  Now the winds of reaction, abetted by the mistaken misguidance of the current general superintendent in NY, are bringing him to trial.  The measure of our current failure to live up to the much ballyhooed Methodist tradition of social justice and holiness, can no more accurately be taken than by this dark image of Ogletree on trial before Methodism.  ‘Al contraire’ we thought in Montreal.  It is Ogletree who has brought Methodism to trial, not the reverse.  Here he is—gentle, forebearing, honest.  A touch of grace.


            Our Annual Conference in Syracuse concluded yesterday.  Among many other earthly delights it included a fire alarm—no harm, no injuries—during opening worship.  Imagine 1500 Methodists fleeing and stampeding out of a convention center, ‘fleeing from the wrath to come’.  No flames, just apocalyptic mirth and moments in the sunshine for fellowship, and for conference.  It was also a truth moment.  A fire alarm is ringing, right now, across Methodism.   Since 2010 from Albany to Buffalo my beloved conference has lost 11% of its people.  For those under 45, the disaffection is highly specific.  We refuse to affirm the full humanity of gay people.  Can we be surprised that people of conscience go elsewhere?  What kind of future could you honestly want or expect for an excluding denomination?  During the fire alarm, I took the occasion to find and meet a pastor from Binghamton, whose blog post I had read the week before.  I close with Stephen Heiss’s words, for they are truly my very own:

To Bishop Mark Webb, my brother in Christ!
In the spirit of the One who said the truth will set us free, and emboldened by the freedom given by grace for which Jesus lived and died, I want and need to share with you how God has led me (and many of our colleagues) in ministries to help set at liberty those who have been held captive by the tyranny against people who are gay.
In the last few years I have officiated at several weddings for brothers and sisters who are lesbian or gay. One of those weddings—the highlight of my ministry—was for my own daughter and the woman who is now her wife. They are so happy!
Further, much to my delight, I have plans to officiate in the near future at yet another wedding for two women, that their joy may also be complete.
Bishop Webb—the long bitter era of scorn and hatred against gay people is dissolving before our very eyes. Christ has broken down the walls.
Those who have lived within the law and those who have lived outside the law are sitting down together at the table of grace. 
The parable of the Kingdom of God as a wedding banquet has become an event in real time for hundreds of gay couples across our state. Finally, like the guest list in Jesus’ parable, those on the outside are invited to the inside of God’s grace.  They must come!
Nevertheless, some yet refuse the invitation.     
They make excuses.
They cite Scriptures, yet offer no interpretive principle by which their claims are validated.
They prefer the “tradition of the elders” to Jesus’ teachings about “not judging the other.”
They screen for the gnats of sexual correctness while the elephants of consumer materialism, environmental degradation, and global starvation pass right by, completely unnoticed.
We cannot judge them, of course, for they too are given grace.
Who among us can say we have always accepted every invitation toward grace and away from judgment?
And so, grace abounds!
Further, the harvest of that grace is found everywhere—even in the church!
With regard to homosexuality, we who count ourselves as United Methodists have been wandering in the wilderness of uncertainty about all things gay for 40 long years.  Now the Promised Land is coming into view.
During those 40 years we have attempted to trap gay folks in nets of shame.
We stalked them with bible verses.
We legislated against them – whereas this, and whereas that.
We sent them to trials.
In righteous rage we lifted stones against them.
Now, in our own time, we are dropping those stones, one by one -
at first -  mothers, dads, sisters, brothers, school mates, talk show hosts, the neighbor next door.
We were learning.
Then—psychologists, pediatricians, sociologists, school teachers, neuro-scientists, biologists, counselors.
We were learning.
Then—Anglicans,  Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Churches of Christ, Presbyterians, Reformed Jews.
We were learning.
And now – baseball players, bible scholars, theologians, professional ethicists, Sunday school teachers, pastors . . .
and bishops.
We are learning.
We are finally learning that
being gay harms no one.
No one.
No one.

We are learning it is not a sin to be gay nor was it ever “incompatible with Christian teaching”.
We are learning that it is really OK with God if one is gay -
(just as eating shrimp is OK,  regardless stern biblical injunctions to the contrary!)
And so a new circle is forming.
A new circle is being created,
and it is being drawn wide.
A circle of understanding.
A circle of compassion.
A circle of truth.

The complex name for that circle might be:
 “the fellowship of those who are no longer
throwing stones at people just because
they happen to be gay, lesbian,
bisexual or transgender”

A simpler name for that circle might be:
“those who are trying to live in the light of God’s grace”

But the name of the circle I most hope for, is this one:
 The United Methodist Church

Monday, January 07, 2013

Tweet Tweet

Birdsong Matthew 2: 1-2 January 6, 2012 Marsh Chapel Robert Allan Hill Frontispiece The gospel is the beauty of a bird in song. We begin. As J Edwards said, ‘Resolved: to do nothing I would be afraid to do in the last hour of my life.’ I don’t believe I quite heard or overheard your seasonal resolution(s). You still may be hunting, searching. The gospel is the gift of the Christ child to us, God’s gift of faith, of fellowship, of freedom—beyond thought and beyond intuition and beyond demolition. If God is for you, who is against? The gospel also is our gift to the Christ child. Odd, no? The gospel heard and spoken and lived is our gift to Christ, like the story which Matthew narrates, Mt 2, is his gift to wordflesh. Search and hunt they did, these wise men. The very presence of the wise at the outset of the gospel is the rejection of fundamentalism near and far. Swinging like an angel sword before the garden of Eden, here come the magi, making sure that any gospel worthy of the name fears nothing human, fears nothing known or knowable, fears nothing true. Biblicism be gone, say the kings. Their presence is the celebration of the liberal gospel, the gospel of liberality, your birthright, Marsh Chapel. The gospel (not that there is any other) that honors what we know, while admitting what we do not. The gospel that remembers our history, including its horrors. The gospel that eschews easy measures of the divine, which by definition is un-measurable. The gospel that has arms big enough to embrace the big bang, and evolution, and real random chance, and the unknowable God in whose love, alone, we are at all known. To be good news, the gospel must be true, all truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Otherwise it is not good, and not news. Searching can exhaust the searcher, star at night, out to the east, following forever. Truth. Science. History. Psychology. Our five grandchildren and their overseers visited us at Christmas. The oldest is five, leader of the pack. I heard them playing hide and seek. She taught them a song, a birdsong. When they ran out of hunting energy, and were stumped, humans at the edge of knowledge, ministers at the edge of energy, she would call out, in song, ‘can you give a little tweet-tweet?’ And repeat, and repeat. Then, from under the bed, would come the birdsong response, ‘tweet, tweet’. The gospel is not only the Christ gift. The gospel is our gift to the Christ. 1. Gold The gospel is our spoken gift of faith. Every bird sings faith, over the globe, through all time. Thurman loved penguins, odd and remote. Listen. Along the Charles, in the spring, make way for goslings and ducklings. Mid-island in Bermuda, I hear the song: Early in the summer mornings, out in the land currently under the death cloud of possible fracking, where we live, at dawn a rooster. Two eagles—they too mate for life, as in Christian marriage—soaring, I only imagine their music. The owl at night. A swan song, a silver swan, who living had no note. The gospel is a bird in song, and all nature sings. Even if or when the preaching of the gospel by human imperfection abates, as it does threaten to do, birdsong will carry the tune. Just as there are so many, sorry, reasons to skip church, so too there are many, sorry, reasons, in the space of 4000 earthly Sundays, to skip faith. Faith is only real gold, real faith, when it is all you have to go on. The first of December was covered with snow. The next line? Good night you moon light ladies. Rock a by sweet baby James. The next line? Can you give me a little tweet tweet? Ignatius would love the star, but Luther would mark the voice, the sound, the birdsong of searching, inquiring, wise, questing, serious, real faith: ‘Where is he, who has been born king of the Jews?’ The first to find Him are not Jews at all. Gentiles, they. Some of our most natural gospel hearers and speakers today are atheists. Matthew, though usually (mis) understood otherwise, is a Gentile gospel. The magi come first. Light centrally shines, chapter by chapter. The book is written in Greek. Its mound sermon celebrates greek wisdom and greek discipline. The wise man built his house on rock. A ruler’s daughter is healed. The Sabbath is overrated. The only sign the natives deserve is that of Jonah. The disciples dish traditions of elders. The greatest faith is the gentile woman willing to take the dog crumbs that the table guests despise. The faithful followers will judge the 12 tribes. And, by the way, make sure to render your taxes to Caesar. (☺). Matthew’s endless explanation of kosher requirements is made for greek ears. I will not even pause to recite the damnation of woe given to scribes and Pharisees. Its concluding universalism would make Plato blush. Matthew? Jewish? 2. Frankincense We begin. As J Edwards said, ‘Resolved: to do nothing I would be afraid to do in the last hour of my life.’ I don’t believe I quite heard or overheard your seasonal resolution(s). There are no free-lance Christians. If nothing else, for sure, the child the wise visit makes space in life for real fellowship. The church is a working fellowship. Isaiah foretold it. Here in third Isaiah, who remembers the birdsong of second Isaiah, and carries the tune back into Jerusalem, after the return from exile, after 538, when another wise Persian, Cyrus, set the people free. The birth of the Christ, by symbol of gold and frankincense, is connected to a universal liberation. We are here to ring the bell, to sing the song, to sound the trumpet, to lift the voice. You may need, this week, to see the examples in salt and light, of faithful people. Here are some in these Marsh pews. Kind people. Kind women. Kind men. Doing unto others, as they would have done to themselves. Seeking. Seeking lasting wisdom. With joy. Come on MLK Sunday, and hear our friend Dr Fluker, and on Monday and celebrate the King of Marsh Plaza. Come February 9 (our usual Ground Hog festival, date and place moved) and ice skate on Marsh Plaza. Come and sing hymns in the Lynn home of Alice and Yrjo—a midwinter delight! Come for brunch and the marathon on Patriots day, to our home. Resolve this, 2013: I will be in church on Sunday. Wise men still seek Him. You find faith in fellowship, and vice versa. St. John of the Cross: En una noche oscura… At Marsh we minimize meetings, committees, structures, organization. We find our fellowship, across the University, as above. We take our education in the University. We partner in service with our schools and colleges of the University. We refuse to sit on a whale and fish for minnows. Come and join us! It is a great way to give, to live, to give and live, the gospel. Here gay people are people. Here lay people are people. The eight words Methodism will need for survival: gay people are people, lay people are people. I refer you to the sermon coming January 27, 2013. 3. Myrrh We begin. As J Edwards said, ‘Resolved: to do nothing I would be afraid to do in the last hour of my life.’ I don’t believe I quite heard or overheard your seasonal resolution(s). Resolve, 2013: to leave behind debt and regret. On January 1, 1863, here in Boston, at the Boston Music Hall, F Douglass and many others sang. The Handel and Haydn society sang. One of their members, Harriet Beecher Stowe, sang. Why their birdsong, good news of great joy? In the cradle of liberty? Emancipation. Real change is real hard, but change does come. Lincoln said (12/62): ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present’ Stowe wrote: he is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave… Regret is the shortest definition I know of hell. Let your regrets be few. Prize your time, your body, your heart. ‘To thine own self be true’ (that’s Shakespeare by the way, not the Bible). Let us leave behind the regret of gun violence, the regret of dehumanization of gays, the regret of environmental predation, the regret of children in poverty, the regret of unruly rouge nations, the regret of selfish living. Let your freedom be not only the freedom of the will, but the freeing of the will, to love. Debt is the surest measure I know of hell. Debt is an actuarial prison. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ (again, Uncle Will, not the Holy Book). An undergraduate degree is a wonderful thing, but not worth a mountain of lasting debt. Travel light, cloak and staff. Go where they will pay you to study, if you can. (☺) Yes, I am concerned about national debt. I am. A $4T budge with $3T income—this does not compute. Even churches balance their budgets (I have 35 Decembers of fist fights, I mean finance meetings, to show). Debt is a bad gift to grandchildren. But I am even more concerned about your personal debt. Lord forgive us our debts! Get rid of your debt. Get rid of your regret. This year. Find the freedom to live in love. You are hiding out there. I know you are. I am hunting for you. You are out there. In a Beacon St. apartment. Up on the north shore. Munching bagels on the Cape. Out in Newton, enjoying the Marsh Choir. I have been searching for you, for six years. Against the fierce New England wind of post Christian secularism, righteous anti religious fervor, mixtures of bad Calvinism or Catholicism, Sunday hockey, and a kind of intellectual life that is always just a bit short--of wonder, mystery, and magi wisdom. I am hunting for you. But I don’t find you yet. I search,but you are too well hidden. CAN YOU GIVE YOU ME A LITTLE TWEET TWEET? Congregation? Clergy? Choir? Radio? CAN YOU GIVE YOU ME A LITTLE TWEET TWEET? Coda The father of neo Biblicism, Karl Barth, said: ‘the gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight.’ We sing it this way, in our faith and our fellowship and our freedom: The gospel is the beauty of a bird in song. The gospel is the beauty of a bird in song. The gospel is birdsong.