Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Movement Calls to Movement | The Fund for Theological Education

Check out my post on the Fund for Theological Education's Calling Congregations Blog.

Sunday, July 04, 2010


Click here to hear the sermon only.

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.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Shall We Say?

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 distinguished 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.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday Meditation

Luke 23:26-34
It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.
Thus begins Gregory David Roberts’ autobiographical novel, Shantaram.

There is indeed freedom in forgiveness.

To be sure, our own tortured existences are less likely to be of the physical variety undergone by Jesus or Roberts. There are those, today, whose torture is physical, some even in our fair city of Boston. But for most of us our torture is more existential than physical. We are on the existential rack, so to speak, being pulled between the winches of denial and guilt. In denial we attempt to pretend that nothing is wrong, or at least that whatever is wrong is not our fault. In guilt we remember that it is in fact our fault but then conclude that no force in heaven or on earth could overcome it.

And yet, there is freedom. Our freedom does not overcome the torture, any more than Roberts’ freedom stopped the torturers or Jesus’ freedom obstructed the crucifixion. No, our freedom is in the midst of the torture. We are never absolutely conditioned. Yes, torture is psychologically debilitating. And yet, in speaking with at least some torture victims, what is striking is not their bitterness and anger but their compassion.

To arrive at this point, where we can take up our freedom responsibly, is to humbly reject humiliation. Pain and degradation, whether physical or existential, is not the last word. But without a carefully cultivated humility, the pain and degradation become totalizing. Humility is the recognition that denial and guilt make it all about us. But torture is rarely about the tortured; it is always about the torturer, attempting to convince the tortured and themselves that it is about the tortured. Freedom comes when humility wins the day and we know that this is not so. Then, and only then, are we free to forgive.

From the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“When it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility.”

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

To Know and To Do

1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Apparently, for a significant proportion of the history of American Christianity, attendance at weekday Holy Week services, such as this one, the Good Friday service tomorrow, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday, was desperately low. In fact, at least in Protestant strains of American Christianity, many churches simply did not have weekday Holy Week services. Thus began the tradition of reading the entire Passion narrative on Palm Sunday, so that people did not think that salvation history moves directly from Palm Sunday to Easter without first passing through, not over, the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus.

At least, this is what my parents, Dean Hill, and others of their generation and older tell me. By the time I came along, two and half decades ago, American Christianity had awakened to the fact that passing over Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday was in neither their spiritual nor theological best interests. So it was that at Hughes United Methodist Church, in which I grew up, the congregation undertook to resurrect the practice of Holy Week. We began with Maundy Thursday.

There are two versions of the Maundy Thursday service at Hughes, and they alternate yearly. The first is a recreation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, complete with elaborate sets and costumes that match the painting perfectly. Those enacting the reenactment enter the scene and freeze in place, just as in the painting. One by one they break free of their frozen state to tell their story of encounter, call, decision to follow, and experience of ministry with Jesus. At the end of each monologue they ask rhetorically, “is it I?” wondering who it will be who betrays Jesus. At the end, communion is celebrated and served, just as Jesus shared a meal with his friends at Passover.

The second version is women who knew Jesus. This dramatic presentation includes some parts spoken, other parts sung, and other parts danced. Each tells the story of encounter and participating in ministry with Jesus. Everyone involved in the drama wears a colored scarf over her head. At the end, each woman removes her scarf and weaves it together with the others on the altar, announcing the character she played, her real name, and stating, “and I know Jesus, too.” Again, the presentation ends with communion.

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Here in the heart of the fourth largest private research institution in the United States, it is easy to become enchanted with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. To be sure, the beauty of mathematical equations, the insights of literary criticism, and the fulfillment of an historically informed musical performance are indeed achievements in their own right. And clearly, Jesus is not opposed to the idea of knowledge as valuable in itself. After all, he spent much of his ministry just trying to get the wayward disciples to understand what he was about. Nevertheless, true blessing comes from the application of knowledge. Mathematical equations allow engineers to manipulate the material world. Literary criticism allows speakers to craft effective arguments and avoid arguments that are likely to fall flat. An historically informed performance can lift the souls of both listeners and performers toward transcendent light.

For those of us involved in religious life, there is a particular danger associated with the valuation of knowledge in its own right. Karl Jaspers pointed out that the world’s great religious traditions, founded as they were in what he termed the Axial Age, were focused on cultivating an applied ethical awareness. Nevertheless, there has been a tendency throughout religious history for religious people to overemphasize knowledge of God, of the transcendent, of ultimate reality, above the enactment of knowledge in everyday life. For how this happened in Gnostic Christianity, see Dean Hill’s dissertation, An Examination and Critique of the Understanding of the Relationship Between Apocalypticism and Gnosticism in Johannine Studies. No household should be without it.

Indeed, Martin Luther’s insistence that salvation is by faith, not by works, has translated throughout much of modern history into a form of Christianity that focuses on what adherents believe about God, themselves, and their own relationship to God. I do not wish to argue that beliefs are unimportant, but as Jesus emphasizes for us so eloquently in the act of washing the disciples’ feet, “if you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Belief, or knowledge, leads to blessing when it is enacted. Plato was right. Philosophy can only ever be a guide to life.

And so we can come to understand our Holy Week practices. Spiritual practices are just that, practice. Our presence here is a transition between the knowledge of God and the enactment of that knowledge in our lives. As my high school band director emphasized, “practice is the mother of skill.” To live skillfully, we must practice the enactment of knowledge.

This is why the midweek Holy Week services are so important. It is not enough simply to know that Jesus shared table fellowship, washed the disciples feet, was betrayed, suffered humiliation and physical pain, was crucified, died, and was buried. Simply to know this is to pass over, not through, the salvation history that falls between Palm Sunday and Easter. It is good to read the passion narrative on Palm Sunday. But we must also practice what we preach.

Tonight, we too will share table fellowship with friends, and with Jesus. Tonight, we too will wash one another’s feet, and in having our feet washed, Jesus washes our feet. Tonight, we will strip the altar and sanctuary bare, enacting the darkness and ugliness of betrayal. Tomorrow, from noon until three in the afternoon we will suffer with Jesus upon the cross. And tomorrow, at three in the afternoon, we will toll the bell to seal the tomb. We do these things that in life we may be partners of the gospel, servants of Christ in those we meet, humble confessors of our own sinfulness, compassionate partakers of brokenness, and patient witnesses of finitude.

It is only in light of the practices of Triduum, of Holy Week, that Easter makes any sense at all. After all, what need is there of resurrection to correlate with the humbly triumphal entry into Jerusalem? The joy of resurrection is that God passes over our sinfulness, but we must pass through in practice at least as much as in belief, in doing at least as much as in knowing, to experience that joy truly.

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Marsh Chapel Atonement Sermon Series

Philippians 3:17-4:1
Psalm 27
Luke 13:31-end

Well, dear friends, here we are, once again, plodding through the liturgical season of Lent. The weather has decided, this year, to cooperate with the penitential feel of the Lenten season. Here in Boston, unseasonably warm temperatures have yielded a series of rainy, dreary days instead of the usual snow. Snow, of course, is too beautiful to be penitential, although New York and Washington, DC may wish to point out that they have been experiencing penitential snowfall by sheer quantity.

Now, it must be said, and at the outset, that natural occurrences and calamities, be they rainfall and snowstorms or the earthquakes that rocked Haiti last month and Chile yesterday, are simply not a result of divine malign. In theology, like in statistics, correlation is not causation. The facts that rain and snow fall from the skies and that human beings are sinful do not mean that human sinfulness causes rain and snowstorms. The facts that the earth shifts and shakes and that human beings are sinful do not mean that human sinfulness causes earthquakes, any more than rainfall, snowstorms, or earthquakes are excuses for human sinfulness. While natural events may provide an emotional canvas on which to paint our spiritual journey, it is both a spiritual and a theological mistake to confuse the painting for reality.

Having set aside the temptation to equate natural events with divine intent, it is our task in considering the theme of atonement to investigate the equation of human sinfulness and divine grace. Temptation and addiction are two central figures in the drama of human sinfulness. Here at Marsh Chapel we may be prone to an addiction to excellent preaching. This is why it is important for me to step into the pulpit occasionally, to break the habit and remind everyone not to take for granted the homiletical extravaganza they are blessed to hear every other week.

It is no easy task we have set ourselves, to speak of atonement. Not that we at Marsh Chapel are prone to taking the easy road. Last summer we tackled the theme of Darwin and Faith, one of the greatest sources of tension in contemporary religious life. Now we delve into one of the greatest controversies in the history of Christian doctrine: how is it that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth almost two thousand years ago effects a transformation from sin by grace in you and in me today and every day?

Rehearsing the myriad theological treatments of this central question in Christian faith and life would consume our time together and almost certainly result in even more snoring than is already emanating from the congregation. Alas, I am afraid that the vast majority of atonement theologies would not touch on the lived experience of so many of us in the second decade of the 21st century. In our question of the atonement we are not looking for the correlation between sin and Jesus, but for a causal relationship. We expect God in the person and work of Jesus Christ to actually do something to or for us on account of our sinfulness. But I wonder if the way we pose the relationship is not the source of our trouble in understanding atonement in light of our lived experience.

You see, in our posing the question, we expect something of God; that our sinfulness causes God to do something. Our Gospel lesson today sets things up differently. Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Paul too understands the discrepancy when in our reading from his letter to the Philippians he says “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” What Jesus and Paul explain is that we understand very well what God does for us; what we do not understand is ourselves and our sinfulness. We are not willing. Our minds are set on earthly things.

There are four movements of atonement: confession, repentance, mercy, forgiveness. Atonement theologies have historically been arguments about the relationships among these movements. But our lived experience, and the breakdown in the atonement process, that Jesus and Paul knew and that we live daily, is not in the process itself but before and between its movements. In my admittedly brief time in ministry, my own experience is that people are often in one of two places with regard to their lived experience.

The first place many of us find ourselves is stuck in the starting gate; the atonement process never even gets going. As anyone who has ever moved from addiction to recovery can tell you, the first step in overcoming the addiction is admitting that you have a problem. Yes, dear friends, many of us are in denial, and I do not mean a river in Egypt. (Clearly, that for which I most need to atone is a predilection to bad puns).

The most obvious form of denial is the excuse. The most thoroughgoing excuse conceived in human history is the strict determinism of scientific materialism, resulting in the statement, “the universe made me do it!” Indeed, many of us cannot identify the exact cause of our failures of responsibility, but the sense that something beyond our control must have impinged upon our actions is prevalent. And the conclusion is that whatever it was that intervened should be held responsible for our failure.

If you are wondering if you have ever actually had an experience that matches up with this abstract musing, just ask yourself this question. Have you ever found yourself saying, or at least thinking, “Oops! I forgot…”? “Oops! I forgot to turn off the stove!” “Oops! I forgot to make my rent payment!” “Oops! I forgot to fill the car with gas.” Really, it works with just about anything. “Oops! I slept through class.” “Oops! I cheated on my girlfriend.” “Oops! I pressed the wrong button.” The word “oops” serves a dual function in our experience. It signals that we know something is wrong, and that we should not be held entirely responsible. After all, how can I possibly be expected to remember everything? I forgot to turn off the stove, but I remembered to lock the front door. I forgot to pay my rent but I paid the cable and electricity bills. I slept through class but I work so hard and for so many hours that I get exhausted. I cheated on my girlfriend but I was drunk.

Another form of denial takes the form of “it’s not that big a deal.” This is the recognition that something is not quite right, but also the concomitant belief that the not-quite-rightness does not rise to the level of a real problem; certainly not to the level of sin. The “no big deal” form of denial is less verbal than the impingement form, mostly because we tend not to acknowledge such events since they are of supposedly negligible importance. Nevertheless, there is a sense that things could have been better. “I could have said that better.” “The sauce could use more oregano.” “The prelude would have been better if I’d hit the F# instead of the F-natural.” Of course, Justin never hits a wrong note so he wouldn’t know.

As one great theologian, who is no stranger to this pulpit, has said, to be human is to be obligated. We are all responsible to fulfill all of our obligations. But, alas, our obligations are so many and various as to mutually exclude each other and overwhelm us. It is this condition that gives rise to the coping mechanism of denial. It is easier to simply say that fulfilling all of my obligations is impossible so I cannot possibly be responsible. Such coping mechanisms are reinforced when they are successful in getting us out of the consequences for our failures. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism is not entirely true, and thus not entirely helpful. The fact of the matter is that we do feel our obligations and resulting responsibility deeply. Even if it is the case that our obligations overlap and conflict, we still must choose which we will fulfill responsibly, and we are still responsible for the ones we choose not to fulfill. We are responsible. We ourselves. Not someone else. Not the situation. We are responsible and we have failed in our responsibility, despite any intervening agents and situational complexity. We have failed. We have sinned. We are responsible and culpable and in need of repentance, mercy and forgiveness.

The other place that many of us find ourselves is stuck in the middle. Of course, the truth is that in some sense we are all stuck in the middle. It is always the case that we have sinned again before the sin we just confessed and repented of can be forgiven. But this is a different kind of being stuck in the middle. This is the kind of stuck in the middle that gets depicted in the 1998 dramatic film, What Dreams May Come. The character Annie, wracked by guilt over the death of her husband Chris, commits suicide and is damned to hell, not by God, but by the psychological pain that brought her to commit the act in the first place. This middle place, which for many is a hell of their own making, is marked by an overwhelming sense of guilt.

The place of guilt is in many respects the opposite end of the pendulum swing from the place of denial. In guilt it is not that our obligations are overwhelming and therefore we cannot be held responsible, but that our obligations are overwhelming and we are so responsible that we can never escape. There is not enough mercy in the world to overcome our failures. To be stuck in the middle is to be stuck constantly repeating Hagrid: “I should not have said that. I should not have said that. I should not have said that.”

The problem here, once again, is not really a lack of confidence in God, but a lack of self-confidence that we are really worthy of forgiveness. God could not possibly forgive me, not because God is not capable, but because I am not worthy. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The agony of the place of guilt is only partly our own agony in the face of our own sinfulness; it is also the agony of God who longs for relationship but we are unwilling. It is not God who counts us unworthy; it is we ourselves.

How, then, might we bring the pendulum back to the balance point? And what might life look like once it is there? Let’s take the second question first, shall we?

We, in the spirit of Lent, seek to live in the space between denial and guilt. If we are to avoid denial, we must be honest, first and foremost with ourselves, about our own failures and thus our own sinfulness. And yet, to avoid extreme guilt, we must learn humility. We must humbly acknowledge our faults and enter a place of deep contrition out of which those we have faulted may offer forgiveness. So too, we must humbly recognize that the mercy of God is far greater than any sin we might possibly commit. When I was last on silent retreat with the Community of Taizé, Br. Sebastian led our daily reflections. He pointed out that the only possible way to withstand humiliation is to cultivate humility. Denial and guilt are both defense responses that attempt to fend off humiliation. But at the end of the day, neither are successful coping mechanisms. Br. Sebastian is correct. The only possible way to withstand humiliation is to cultivate humility.

I often find myself saying to faculty and administrators that if students at Boston University learn nothing in the classroom, but during their time here learn to fail and recover gracefully, then we will have succeeded in our mission as an institution of higher education. To fail in our responsibilities is indeed inevitable in life. This inevitability does not absolve us of our responsibility. Only God can do that. But neither does it doom us to live guilt-wracked existences. We can, in fact, recover.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that there is more love in God than sin in us. “But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3: 21-25).

From the perspectives of denial and guilt, it may appear as the saying goes, “you just can’t get there from here.” In the Protestant traditions there is a hesitation here, because justification is by faith, not by works. Indeed, it is God who delivers mercy and offers forgiveness of sins, and yet it is we ourselves who must make the spiritual journey of Lent from denial and guilt to humility. This journey largely consists in ritual.

There are two theories of ritual at Boston University. The first is that of the former Dean of Marsh Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville, who points out that ritual is the cultivation of habits that allow us to live well in the world. The second is that of anthropology and religion professors, respectively, Rob Weller and Adam Seligman. For them, ritual is the creation of subjunctive, “as if” spaces in which our own brokenness and the world’s brokenness can be held together as if they were whole. In neither perspective is ritual identified solely with religious rites such as the one we are in the midst of now. Both understand that ritual consists in such mundane patterns of behavior as walking down the street and driving the car, all the way up to the patterns of ceremony involved in religion and civil society.

So who is right? Is ritual a set of patterned behaviors that allow us to live well, or the creation of “as if” spaces that help us cope with our own and the world’s brokenness? The mistake would be in assuming that the two views are mutually exclusive, and the Lenten spiritual journey is the perfect case for demonstrating that the correct answer is a resounding, “both!”

On the one hand, the rituals of discipline in Lent really are better ways of living in the world. To reject temptations, begin to recover from addictions, and honestly and humbly recognize our own sinfulness makes us better able to see ourselves and our world as they truly are. Furthermore, the ritual movements from confession and repentance through mercy and forgiveness help us keep balance between denial and guilt and to cultivate humility. When we do so we are better able to relate to friends, family, neighbors, the world and, above all, God.

But in order to have that effect on our lives, ritual must first pull us out of our world and then stuff us right back in. The rituals of Lent pull us out of our normal daily existence and confront us with that fact that human sinfulness is world destroying. According to the Christian narrative, it was human sinfulness that lead to the death of Jesus on the cross, not the sinfulness of some humans, but the sinfulness of all humanity. Jesus Christ, who in our ritual context was in the beginning with God and through whom God created the world, is destroyed by our sin. But just as surely as our sinfulness is world destroying, so too is the grace of God world founding. Sin is not the final answer, but is overcome by the victory of resurrection life by the grace and mercy of God. And so the ritual places us back in the world in the middle, not stuck but moving more fluidly through the process of confession, repentance, mercy and forgiveness.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” In the Lenten journey let us participate in the drama of atonement, the movements of confession, repentance, mercy and forgiveness that we might become willing participants in the realm of justice and peace that resurrection ordains. To do so we must in all humility reject the extremes of denial and guilt by allowing the ritual discipline of Lent to do its work. The ability to fail and recover gracefully is the greatest learning we might hope for, and then give thanks that the love and mercy of God indeed triumph over sin and death.

Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.