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