Sunday, July 03, 2011

Freely, Humbly, Honestly

It is good to begin in a spirit of gratitude, and so once again it is incumbent upon me to begin this sermon with a word of gratitude to Dean Hill for his gracious offering of a preaching series in the late spring and summer of 2011.  Yes, whether you like it or not, you have managed to arrive in the nave of Marsh Chapel for the final installment of Br. Larry’s 2011 Secular Holiday Preaching Series.  Some of you may remember when we began, back in May, on Mother’s Day, and then a few weeks later continued on Memorial Day.  And now, here we are, once again, this time on Independence Day weekend, at the conclusion of the series.  For those who, at the conclusion of this hour, will have withstood all three installments, you have my sincerest condolences.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy and eternal, have mercy on us this day, that we may come to live freely, humbly and honestly in the communion of you most Holy Spirit, in whose unity you dwell with Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.
As parts of speech go, adverbs tend to fall at the, “Well, okay, but only if we must,” end of the spectrum.  To be honest, the trendiest aspect of grammar these days is punctuation, as evidenced by the passionate debates on Twitter in the past few days about the use of the Oxford comma.  The bedrock of grammar, of course, is the noun.  Nouns have substance.  We can see, hear, taste, touch and smell their referents.  Verbs help us talk about what nouns do and adjectives help us distinguish the blue nouns from the red nouns.  All adverbs do is to qualify the manner in which nouns do the things their attendant verbs indicate.   We even go out of our way to find ways of avoiding adverbs.  After hearing a politician or a preacher we are likely to say, “Well that was a stupid thing for him to say,” as opposed to saying, “she spoke stupidly.” 
It is little wonder, then, that so many in our time struggle to find their spiritual voice, since religious and spiritual life dwells in the land of the adverb.  To be religious or to be spiritual is to be concerned with the manner in which life is lived.  Life is the noun, live is the verb, and the manner in which life is lived is expressed adverbially.  The reality of the adverbial nature of religiosity and spirituality is found in our Gospel reading this morning.  In the first half of the pericope, Jesus is frustrated by the lack of understanding of the ministries he and John the Baptist undertook.  This lack of understanding is situated in the focus placed upon particular actions, or inactions, undertaken by Jesus and John, namely eating and drinking.  Then, the members of the generation Jesus’ critiques ascribes particular connotations to the states of being of Jesus and John, respectively, based on those actions or inactions.  The members of the generation observe the verbs and then classify the nouns according to those observations.  In the second half of the pericope, Jesus indicates that the generation has missed the point, and that what is really important is hidden from them.  Later in the pericope Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  We may ask, what makes people weary?  Too much activity.  Too many verbs!  And those carrying heavy burdens have too many nouns, or too much of a given noun.  When we learn from Jesus, we come to understand that it is not about how many activities we can undertake or how much we can carry.  It is not about nouns and verbs.  It is about the manner in which we do whatever we undertake.  To follow Jesus is to learn to live adverbially.  Not that adverbs are easier than nouns and verbs, just lighter and less frantic.  No, the challenge of living adverbially is garnering the focus of attention required.
There are many adverbs in religious and spiritual life.  On this Independence Day weekend, we will consider three: freely, humbly, and honestly.  First, and the adverb most closely keyed to the holiday, freely.
The notion of living freely as a spiritual manner of life flies directly in the face of how moderns, Westerns, and particularly we in the United States generally think about what it means to be free.  Most often we speak of freedom, a noun, a substance.  Freedom is something we have as a possession, and one of the reasons we celebrate Independence Day is to celebrate the substance of freedom that was won as a possession in the wake of the colonies declaring independence and fighting the Revolutionary War.  It is a bit odd to think of freedom as a substance.  After all, have you ever tried to put freedom in a bag and carry it down the street?  Can you walk up to a street vendor and say, “I’ll have a large cup of freedom with sprinkles on top?”  Admittedly, for a time you could order Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast from restaurants and snack bars run by the U.S. House of Representatives, but that is a whole other story and a whole other sermon.
No, the modern western concept of freedom is not a noun like “book” is a noun, namely something you could carry down the street with you.  Instead, most often what we mean by freedom in the modern west is both the capacity to act as we choose or desire and the lack of impediment or constraint resulting from the actions of others.  This double concept of freedom is epitomized in Isaiah Berlin’s lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, in which he distinguishes freedom “to” and freedom “from.”  Of course, the two may conflict.  After all, every action I undertake may impede the actions of another or constrain them from acting at all.  If I hold a large rock concert on Marsh Plaza in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, this will likely impede the ability of scholars in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, and the School of Theology from being very productive, and will be a significant distraction to students studying there, to say nothing of the Chapel Choir rehearsing in the nave here in Marsh Chapel.  My freedom to hold the concert runs counter to the freedom of others from distraction.  The conflict between freedom from and freedom to, and various approaches to managing the conflict, is the source of much of political, social and legal controversies of our time.
Our religious and spiritual traditions, however, teach us that to be free is not to possess the substance freedom but rather to live freely.  To live freely is to cultivate the capacity to behave in ways that avoid the turn to the frenetic and overburdened.  As Saint Paul tells it in our reading from Romans, to live freely is to live in concert among head, heart and body.  Of course, the way Paul tells it belies a rather unfortunate dualism between body and spirit, but that should not inhibit us from retelling it in a way the expresses the truth of our common desire with Paul to live integrated lives.  Such integration is a prerequisite to living freely. 
The Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment is a correlate to this living freely.  It emphasizes that in moving beyond frantic activity and heavy burdens we are able to be more fully present in the present moment.  In doing so we are able to bring our full attention to the reality of the here and now without needing to control for every possible future outcome.  This is not to say that we should neglect future outcomes; that would be irresponsible.  It is to say that living freely means freely receiving what comes and offering back the best synthesis of what we receive in gracious generosity.  We should not become too attached to what we receive, or we will not be able to offer it back generously.  We should also not become too attached to the outcomes we intend in making our offering, as we are never fully in control of those outcomes.  We do our best with what we have, and when our best is not good enough, we offer what we have received and what we have offered up to God in penitence and thanksgiving.
When living freely, it is very possible that the conditions in which we live, some of which are brought about by other people, will resist our best intentions.  In religious and spiritual life, as we work toward living freely, we should not be too concerned when our best intentions cannot be realized.  The religious and spiritual traditions testify that freedom-from is an illusion at best, and a trap at worst.  At the same time, they teach that freedom-to is never absolute and is always constrained by the conditions at hand.  The generation that so frustrated Jesus frustrated him precisely because they thought that the Messiah would come to bring their freedom from the political, social and religious oppression of the Roman Empire.  The Messiah Jesus, however, came to teach them instead how to live freely under the conditions in which they found themselves, which living he believed would eventually restore them out of oppression, as the prophet Zechariah had promised.
What does living freely look like?  Perhaps we should take our cue from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who said of the late Reverend Professor Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Church, “He was the freest man I ever knew.”  I have quoted Governor Patrick on this several times, and many people have looked at me quixotically.  I think that what Governor Patrick meant is that Reverend Professor Gomes lived freely.  He cultivated a way of being that allowed him to be fully present wherever he found himself.  When he found himself faced with a crisis at Harvard over the status in the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, he calmly stood up, taking up the authority of his revered position, and announced that he was gay.  Furthermore, he said that the secret to his ministry of over forty years at Harvard was “ubiquity, ubiquity, ubiquity.”  Reverend Professor Gomes lived freely, and that empowered him to be fully present in situations where he was wanted, challenging those who said they wanted him along the way, and fully present in situations where he was not wanted, opening up avenues of dialogue toward finding common ground amidst difference. 
So too, those of us who seek to live religious and spiritual lives seek to live life humbly.  Just as freely the adverb is a far cry from the noun freedom, so too the adverb humbly is a far cry from the adjective humble.  In our gospel today Jesus says that he is “gentle and humble in heart,” but I would submit that the qualifier “in heart” would indicate that he means that he seeks to live his life adverbially humbly.  After all, it would be hard to say the Jesus was entirely humble, riding into Jerusalem as he did on the back of a donkey in kingly fashion, fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah.  This is not what we would associate with a humble person, which is to say one whose entire way of being, one whose life-substance is qualitatively humble through and through.  To be humble is to be of small stature, to be one who refrains from entering the fray, to suppress the desire for the better, to say nothing of the best. 
The problem with being humble is that it holds back the integration we already saw was a prerequisite for living freely, which is also a prerequisite for living humbly.  This is precisely the problem with the dualism that Paul sets up by seeking to humble his body that his spirit might be free of sin.  The humbled body can never be integrated with the spirit, which is to say cleansed or justified.  More than simply being integrated as a prerequisite however, living humbly also requires recognizing and respecting the integrity of others.  Integrity requires deference.  To live humbly is to live in such a way that our own pursuit of religiously and spiritually fulfilled lives comes about in concert with the pursuit of religiously and spiritually fulfilled lives by others.  At the same time, living humbly recognizes that religious and spiritual fulfillment for any one person cannot come about at the expense of such fulfillment by any others.  If my salvation can only come about by the damnation of others, it is not salvation, but also, if the salvation of others can only come about by my damnation, it is not salvation.  If the salvation of the mob can only come about by arresting, trying and crucifying Jesus, it cannot be true salvation, but neither can the salvation of the world come through the killing of the mob, as one disciple set out to do by cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest.  Living life humbly recognizes the integrity of others and so empowers us to resist that which would oppress us, often as not by submitting to that very oppression.
The nonviolent activism of Mohandas Gandhi and Boston University’s own alumnus the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exemplifies what it means to live life humbly.  It is in recognizing the integrity of others that Gandhi and King sought to organize those others to resist the attempts on the part of a wider society to oppress them, while at the same time teaching the others to recognize the integrity of the others who made up the wider society.  What it means to live humbly is embodied in the three points of Gandhi’s philosophy, summarized in E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi, that inspired King to take up the practices of nonviolence:
1.         that nonviolence is the method of the strong, not the method of the weak and the cowardly
2.         that it is better to fight than to take up nonviolence through fear or cowardice
3.         that by using the right means, the right result will follow
We should note that the last point is a summary of the principle that religious and spiritual life is concerned with the adverbial character of how life is lived, and that life lived adverbially is the good life, not life lived frantically and overburdened. 
Now, what is this integrated self that we have been speaking of as a precondition for life lived freely and humbly?   It is life lived honestly.  If we are to have any hope of the many parts of ourselves abiding together wholesomely, then they must first be acknowledged honestly.  Just as life lived freely is to be distinguished, even opposed, to freedom, and just as life lived humbly is to be distinguished, even opposed, to being humble, so too life lived honestly is to be distinguished, and even opposed, to truth.  Truth is something that is established and stable for all time.  Life lived honestly recognizes that we ourselves are not established and stable, that the way we are now is not the way we always were and is not the way we always will be.  Furthermore, the situation of our lives is not established and stable, is not the same now as it always has been, and will not be in ten days either what it is now or will be tomorrow.  If truth is once and for all, then living life honestly is a way of being in constant discernment of who we were, who we are, who we will be, in light of ever changing circumstances.
Of course, it is the very instability of living honestly, the very continuous and ongoing cycles of change, that gives rise to the adverbial character of religious and spiritual life.  All of those nouns and verbs that pervade our speech and our thought about what is most true and good risk making us participants in the very generation Jesus bemoans in our gospel reading today.  Take, for example, the extraordinarily vitriolic language all too prevalent on the tips of the tongues of politicians and pundits, to say nothing of friends and family, aimed at Muslims and the Islamic world.  Such vitriol can only arise from a clinging to a truth that claims an exceptional character for the United States and a demonic character for all Muslims based upon the actions of a few.  Today, in the midst of Independence Day weekend, we would do well to seek to live more honestly.  How quickly we forget that the modern western world of science and technology would not exist except for the rediscovery of Aristotle, transmitted through the Islamic world back into the west during the late Middle Ages.  How quickly we forget that the Roman Empire once thought itself exceptional, and now it is dust. 
Today, in the midst of Independence Day weekend, let us live according to the good news of life lived adverbially.  Let us live according to the good news that we can live integrated and wholesome lives when we seek to live honestly with ourselves and each other.  Let us live according to the good news that we can live humbly, recognizing the integrity of everyone and everything around us.  Let us live according to the good news that we can live freely even in the midst of the constraints brought about by chance and by the free lives undertaken by integral others.  And in living freely, humbly and honestly we experience salvation.  Clinging to a substantial freedom will leave us conflicted socially.  Clinging to a humble nature will leave us conflicted personally.  And clinging to absolute truth will leave us ineptly groping about in a constantly changing and complex world.  Nouns and verbs are the substance and motion of life, but they are not the fullness and fulfillment of life.  For fullness and fulfillment, long live the adverb!  Amen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

If… Then…

Once again I find myself compelled at the outset, and even in his absence, to thank Dean Hill for his gracious offering to me of a preaching series during the late spring and early summer.  Some of you may remember that we began on May 8, Mothers Day, with a reflection on life’s journeys in conversation with the resurrection story of Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Yes, here you are, whether you intended to be here, or more likely not, on Memorial Day Sunday, right in the middle of Br. Larry’s 2011 secular holiday preaching series.  Whether you are here in person or listening over airwaves or internet signals, it is good that you have come on Memorial Day weekend, so that you may pray that what follows you might quickly forget.  Speaking of prayer.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
God of memory and of mindfulness, guide our hearts and minds in these moments of reflection that they may be turned to you, to your wisdom and your grace, and that our lives may benefit from the beneficence of your most Holy Spirit.  In the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, we pray.  Amen.
Have you ever sat and watched as a baby, sitting in the middle of the floor, attempts to get up and go after a ball or some other toy that she has flung across the room?  This attempt at locomotion is often accompanied by a facial expression of some degree of anguish.  It is as if said baby wants to say, “If only I could get up and go, I could get across the room and get my toy.  Alas, since I cannot get up and go, I shall have to put on a show of consternation in order to motivate someone around me to get it for me.”  Amazingly, as the facial expression of anguish turns to vocal consternation, someone usually does just that.
And so it begins: life in the conditional.  If the baby cries, then someone goes to get the toy.  If the child pushes the button, then the screen comes on.  If the adolescent breaks curfew, then the parents ground him.  If the young adult gets a job, then she can pay the rent.  If the politician commits adultery and his constituents find out about it, then he will be voted out of office.  Well, maybe.  Life in the conditional is at the heart of the human endeavor.  It is so much so that the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant put it at the heart of his articulation of the nature of knowledge and experience alongside time and space: the conditional movement of causality is constitutive of pure reason.
Actually, reality is a bit more complicated than this.  And so we ask, do you live in the world of Sir Isaac Newton or the world of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr?  This is an important question for us here at Marsh Chapel who seek to live faithful lives, and not merely for the physicists working in labs across the street.  So, let’s have it, do you live in the mechanistic universe of Newton, where things move around bumping into each other like billiard balls such that when one thing encounters another it causes the thing it runs into to alter course?  Or do you live in the probabilistic universe of Einstein and Bohr, which is to say the quantum universe, where outcomes of interactions are only certain to a degree of probability?  While it is probably best for us to leave it to the physicists to demonstrate why the latter is the more robust view in the laboratory, we can confirm it in our own lived experience.  After all, does the adolescent not run a rough calculus of the probability that his parents will ground him for staying out past curfew?  And does the politician not calculate both the probability that he will get caught in adultery and the probability that his constituents will find out about it?  Perhaps we will address the question of why it is that both adolescents and politicians are so likely to miscalculate their respective probabilities when we gather for the third and final installment of the 2011 secular preaching series on Independence Day weekend.
And so it is that we find ourselves living in a probabilistic conditional world.  It should not be entirely surprising, then, that we carry the presuppositions of our probabilistic conditional world over into our spiritual lives.  Our lesson this morning from 1 Peter is an excellent example of this phenomenon.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”  Transcription: If you do what is good, then you will not be harmed.  The fact that the world is not merely conditional but probabilistically conditional comes into play in the next sentence: “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.”  That is, for those of you who are good but fall outside of the probability of not being harmed, and thus are in fact harmed, do not worry too much, because you are still blessed.  This is beginning to sound a lot like the witch test: if she drowns, then she was clearly not a witch!  Oh dear.
It is an interesting thing to consider that religious people figured out that the world is probabilistically conditional long before the physicists did.  After all, how often have you heard stories of people praying, “God, if only you will X, I promise to Y”?  How often have you prayed such yourself?  Martin Luther prayed in the forest that if he would survive a thunderstorm then he would become a monk.  He survived, so he did in fact become an Augustinian.  Of course, it is notable that these promises tend to arise at the extremities of life.   That is, these promises tend to come about when life itself is at stake, taking the form of, “God, save my life and I will give my life to you.”  This has the side effect of effectively negating the probabilistic quality of the conditional.  After all, if God does not save them, then we never get to hear their story of praying that they will do something if God saves them. 
No, it is much better to look to the more mundane spiritual conditionals to understand their probabilistic nature.  These are more wont to take the form of, “God, if you will only find me a parking spot, I promise to stop doing whatever it was that I was doing that made me late in the first place.”  Here in Boston, I am quite confident that there are more such prayers offered daily in the confines of motor vehicles than all of the prayers offered in all of the houses of worship in this city combined.  And multiply that number by 100 when the Red Sox are in town!  This mundane conditional is much more interesting because of the fact that it frequently does not come true.  How often have you seen a host of angels swoop down and carry off a car so that you can take its space?  No, often as not you are left driving around frustrated that your meeting is starting in a building mere feet away and you are stuck outside trying to dispose of a massive hunk of metal. 
Of course, not all non-mortal conditionals are so trivial.  How many of you have offered prayers, perhaps in this very nave, for family and friends who are terminally ill?  And how many of them have died?  How many of you have prayed for work?  And how many of you are still unemployed?  How many of you have prayed for peace?  And how long will we remain at war?  The fact of the matter is that these non-trivial conditionals do cause some people to abandon faith and abandon God.  That this happens should not be surprising.  But what is truly fascinating is how many people do not flee from faith and God upon finding themselves outside the desired probability.  In religious and spiritual life we are accustomed to the probabilistic conditional. 
The movement from if to then that constitutes the conditional is a place of deep anxiety in human life.  The probability that the if will not come about, and the probability that the then will not in fact follow, leaves a great deal of uncertainty as to how and when to move.  And the fact that the probabilistic conditional figures in the literature of our spiritual heritage does not make living in the midst of such instability any easier.  However, acknowledging the reality of the probabilistic conditional as one of the primary modes of human engagement of experience is not the only testimony of the religious and spiritual traditions.  The good news offered in the spiritual quest is precisely a transcendence of the if-then dichotomy of human affairs.  There is more to life than predicting a probability and then hoping for the best.  Our Gospel lesson from John highlights this point.  “If you love me, keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”  The if-then conditional of the first sentence is not the last word.  The uncertainty of Good Friday’s crucifixion is transcended, but not eclipsed, in the confidence of the Easter resurrection.  The uncertainty Jesus’ departure in the Ascension is transcended, but not eclipsed, as we shall see in the next weeks, in the confidence of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The promise of the Holy Spirit is not simply another conditioned clause.  It is its own indicative statement.  The Advocate will come in spite of our fulfillment of the condition, not because of it.  We are saved by faith, not by works.
This movement of transcendence-sans-eclipse is an important one in our spiritual lives.  The transcendence of the if-then dichotomy is the source of the hope that is in us, of which we are called to account in 1 Peter.  And yet, we are called to give this account “with gentleness and reverence.”  This is because in this life we never fully depart from the dichotomy of the probabilistic conditional.  We can never escape the vicissitudes of life.  At the same time, the transcendence is not merely cast off into some future afterlife.  The transcendence-sans-eclipse of our Easter and Pentecost experience is a source of real hope and transformation in our lives now. 
Paul testified to the importance of this transcendence in his speech in front of the Areopagus in Athens, accounted in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul testified about the unknown god to which the Athenians had built a temple.  He testified that this unknown god of the Athenians was “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.”  Furthermore, he testified that the creator of the world cannot be bound in shrines or works of human hands, or even served by human hands.  Paul testified to a God who transcends the conditional tense of daily life.  God “allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”  Our searching for the transcendent God should not lead us to place our hope in something finite, but it should also not lead us to place our hope in something to come in the future, which is, after all, also finite.  No, the transcendence-sans-eclipse of the hope promised in Easter and Pentecost provides a living hope in the midst of the probabilistic conditional experience of life.
The hope that is in us is not that God will fulfill all of our desires, no matter how mundane or extreme.  It is not even that we will always come out on the preferable side of the probabilities.  No, the hope that is in us does not transcend the conditional character of life by resolving its dichotomies but transcends the conditional character of life without eclipsing that life as it is.  After all, it is the life God gives us and calls good.  Instead, the hope that is in us is the hope of life and love.  “Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus proclaims in the voice of the fourth Evangelist.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10).  “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them an reveal myself to them.” 
The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that life and love are not faint hopes.  They are hopes in the power to overcome the brokenness of life in the conditional tense.  They are movements toward wholeness that draws together not only the preferably possibilities but also those we might wish to avoid.  Life would not be life without death.  Love would not be love without struggle, pain and loss.  “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  And is not the achievement of holding such disparate and diverse realities of life together in a more awesome whole far greater than finding a parking space?  Amen.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Journeying On

Sermon preached at Marsh Chapel, Boston University on Sunday, May 8, 2011 on the text of Luke 24: 13-35.

Allow me this morning to publicly express my gratitude to Dean Hill for giving me my very own preaching series.  Yes, indeed, you have arrived at Marsh Chapel, whether in person, or by radio waves or by internet signals, for the first offering in Br. Larry’s 2011 secular holiday preaching series.  We begin today, Mother’s Day, and will pick up again at the end of May with Memorial Day.  The series concludes on July 4, Independence Day.  I consider it the highest honor to have been invited to participate in the life of Marsh Chapel in this way, although I would encourage you to note that Dean Hill reserved for himself that pinnacle of secular holidays.  Yes, the very one you are remembering just now from back in February, Groundhog Day.  I can only pray that some day I will attain to such a stature in preaching as to aspire to be invited on so noble an occasion.  Speaking of prayer.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Holy and Gracious God, we gather this morning of Mother’s Day and we celebrate the mothers here with us and the mothers, for some of us, who dwell far away.  Keep our hearts and minds, this day and all days, in the mothering presence of your most Holy Spirit, that the thoughts of minds and the meditations of our hearts might be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Surely you have had the experience of being a passenger in a car traversing the streets of Boston.  You are riding along on your way to an afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts.  You know where you are going.  Your driver knows where she is going.  You sit smiling as you gaze out the windows.  Then, your driver takes a turn.  “Hmmm…” you think, “this must be a shortcut.  I should pay attention for the next time when I am the one driving.”  Another turn.  “Really.  Interesting.  I never would have thought to go this way,” your minds voice utters.  A third turn.  Now it is impossible for you to contain your words any longer.  “Um, where are you going?”  “Well,” your companion replies, “I am going to the MFA.  Where did you think I was going?”  “Yes, I thought we were going to the MFA, too, but the MFA is over there,” you reply, pointing back through the rear windshield.  “Yes, dear,” says your companion, soothingly.  “But this is Boston.  Sometimes it is necessary to circumnavigate the entire city just to get next door.”
Amen?  Amen.
“Where are you going?”  There are actually two questions bound up in this one verbal ejaculation, but let us begin by taking the question at face value.  It is certainly a legitimate question to ask as we consider the journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  There is another question that we might wish to ask along with Cleopas of his companion, namely, who are you?  That line of questioning, however, at least at this stage, is not terribly likely to arrive at positive results.  On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that our “Where are you going?” question will lead to positive results, either given that there is no clear evidence of a village called Emmaus two stadia, which is about fifty miles, from Jerusalem.  This is to say that we do not know precisely where Cleopas and his friend were going, but the question remains relevant for us.
“Where are you going?”  This question may be a constant, and perhaps somewhat grating, refrain for many of our graduating students here at Boston University.  Family, faculty, friends, chaplains: all want to know where our graduates will be going next.  Bound up in the question are clearly many other questions.  “Do you have a job?”  “Are you going to graduate school in the fall?”  “Are you staying in Boston or moving back home or somewhere else entirely?”  There are broader implications of the question as well, not merely about the immediate future but about the long term.  “Do you have a plan?”  “Are you career minded?”  “What are you going to be, now that you are grown up?”  And the questions have implications beyond merely the trajectory of career and work.  “Are you going to get married?”  “Are you going to have children?”  “Are you going to be able to put your life together in such a way that you will both be fulfilled and able to pay the rent?”
“Where are you going?”  In a time of global economic and political uncertainty, it can be especially challenging to even acknowledge the question.  “Do you have a job?”  “No, but not for lack of trying.”  “Are you going to graduate school?”  “Well, yes, but only because I cannot find a job, and by the way, I have no idea how I am going to pay for it, either now, or in the long term.”  “Are you going to stay in Boston or move home?”  “Well, I would like to stay in Boston, but Boston is expensive, and although I really do not want to be the graduate who spends the next two to three years living in my parents basement, I really do not see that I have any better options at this point.”  Sorry, dear friends, but here at Marsh Chapel we do not preach a prosperity gospel but a Gospel of responsible Christian liberalism, which is to say that we abide in a realistic spirit with great hope for the possibilities of the future.  It is in the spirit of realism that we must confess that the prospects are not what we might have hoped when we began four years ago.  And it is in hope that we journey on.
It is a funny thing, returning for a moment to our pair of companions seeking to find their way to the MFA, that the question posed by the passenger to the driver, “Where are you going?” is not really a question as to the destination, but as to the route.  This is to say that passenger and driver are both clear on where it is they intend to go.  They are both aiming toward the MFA.  It is just that the real route of the driver does not quite align with the ideal route of the passenger.  Indeed, the real question the passenger is asking when verbalizing, “Where are you going?” is, “How are you going to get there?”  This too is a question we may wish to bring to Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus.  After all, it is a neat trick not only to arrive but merely to set out toward a village of which there is no evidence of existence.  How do you get to somewhere that isn’t?
It is my great hope that there is a primacy of the “How are you going to get there?” question in the “Where are you going?” inquisition that our graduates are racked upon by family, friends, faculty, and yes, chaplains.  Indeed, of the two, it is the more profound.  “Where are you going?” is simply to inquire of a single point, and the final point in the series, at that.  “How are you going to get there?” inquires as to all of the infinitesimal points in between here and wherever it is you may be going.  Furthermore, it is not so much a quantitative question about the points themselves, but a qualitative and relational question directed more toward the person for whom those points will be constitutive of their life.   This is to say that the “How are you going to get there?” question is really a question of “Who are you, and how will you be in the world?”  It is not a question of doing but of being, not that the two are ever more than theoretically distinguishable.  It is a question of what sort of person you are and what manner of being you will endeavor to live into.
“How are you going to get there?”  The reason that I hope that this question is the primary question implied in the “Where are you going?” inquisition is that this is the question that a university education should prepare you to answer, even if it does not prepare you to answer the “Where are you going?” question on its face.  If nothing else, I pray that our graduates have uncovered something about themselves in their experience at Boston University, whether in the classroom, in the dorms, on the athletic fields and courts, in the dining halls, while studying abroad, while participating in community service, or just walking up and down Bay State Road.  This is to say what Howard Thurman said much more eloquently: “Do not ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who come alive.”  In the final analysis it is a sense of concrete, embodied purpose, which only comes by moving through the spiritual process of self-discovery and actualization that empowers those who change the world.  To transform others, be ye first transformed, and journey on.
Now that we have winched tight the inquisitor’s rack on Cleopas and his companion, perhaps we should stop for a moment and ponder the fact that the two questions that spring immediate to mind for us, “Where are you going?” and “How are you going to get there?” are actually not the question that Jesus poses.  Jesus does not ask where these two disciples are going.  It would have made sense if he had.  After all, we hear throughout the Gospels of how the disciples are constantly misunderstanding what they are to do, where they are to go, and most importantly, why they are to do what they have been given to do.  It would make sense that Jesus would be concerned that these disciples have once again wandered off, and as the good shepherd, that he would seek to bring them back to the fold.
Instead of asking, “Where are you going?” Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”  Jesus is interested neither in the destination nor in the route but in the relationships built along the journey.  If Jesus had been in the car making its way through the streets of Boston toward the MFA, or at least intending to be moving toward the MFA, the driver and passenger would not have been riding along silently such that the first audible sound is the inquisitor’s whip, “Where are you going?”  Had Jesus been in the car, he would have wanted to know why the pair was going to the MFA.  “Well, there is a new Art of the America’s wing that has just opened, and we have heard so much about it.”  “Is American art important to you?”  “Yes, we are particularly captivated by the expansive landscapes of the Hudson River School.”  “What captivates you so?”  “Well, I think it has to do with the way the artists work with light, so that parts of the painting are illuminated while others fall into shadow.  In so many ways it is more real than the actual view of which the painting is purportedly a record could ever express.”  “Is not this the point of art?”  “Yes, seeing the world in an artistic lens tells us more about who we are than we could ever otherwise come to know.”
Of course, the conversation with the disciples fails to actualize the potential for such a conversation.  After all, these are the same dumb disciples who have been misunderstanding Jesus and his purpose and ministry since the get go.  They are entirely bound up in trying to reconcile themselves to the crucifixion, and now also to the reports that Jesus is resurrected.  And so Jesus must turn to admonishment.  “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”  Once again, Jesus is left trying to bring the disciples up to speed.  It is clear that the disciples have a ways yet to go as they journey on.
Speaking of journeying on, it seems that this is just what Jesus is intent to do, and what Jesus would have done had the disciples not intervened to invite him to Emmaus with them for dinner.  Now, it is important to remember that these two disciples did not yet recognize that this was Jesus.  Is this not often our experience as well, that we fail to recognize Christ in our midst.  Often as not, Christ comes to us in the figure of others, the very same family, friends, faculty, and the occasional chaplain who winch us tight on the inquisitor’s rack.  St. Francis said, “You may be the only vision of Jesus Christ someone will ever see.”  A dear friend of mine said it even more boldly: “You may be the only Jesus Christ the world will ever see.”  It is indeed a great responsibility.
It is significant that, even though they did not recognize Jesus, the disciples invited him into their home for dinner.  The saying goes that you should always extend hospitality to strangers because you never know when you might play host to angels.  Well, apparently you may also end up playing host to Christ.  Jesus becomes known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread.  Of course, the disciples later recognize that they had in fact felt the presence of Jesus as they journeyed together along the road, in the familiar sense in which Jesus had always made their hearts burn.  Perhaps, not realizing that the feeling signaled the presence of Jesus, they even took an antacid.  That is what you do for heartburn, isn’t it?  Anyway, they had not recognized him, which is to say, the familiar sense of hearts aflame had not risen to the level of conscious awareness, but now they were aware of the connection between what they felt on the road and what they had felt as they accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. 
This is to say that as you journey on, I would encourage you to extend and receive hospitality.  In the end it is neither the goal nor even the path that is truly important.  It does not really matter whether or not you ever make it to the MFA.  What matters is the relationships you cultivate along the way.  This is the good news of Jesus Christ for us today: resurrection and salvation by relationship.  I leave you today with the prayer of my order, of the Lindisfarne Community: that we may be as Christ to those we meet, and that we might find Christ within them. 
And in all things, make your mother proud.  Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Jesus Repents

Meditation on the Third Word from the Cross, John 19: 23-27, on Good Friday, 2011.
Allow me to begin by saying that I love my mom.  Which is why I struggle somewhat to understand how someone who, while perhaps not specifically anticipating death by crucifixion, certainly knew that trouble was brewing for him in Jerusalem, would not have made arrangements to care for his mother at some point substantially before he found himself hanging from a cross.  This is, after all, what we have here.  Jesus is arranging for his mother to be taken into the home of his beloved disciple, to provide for her in the wake of the death of her firstborn.
We should remember, of course, that Jesus’ relationship with his family was strained at best.  In the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear that Jesus’ “mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’”  Ouch!  We may want to forgive Jesus for having his mind on things heavenly rather than things earthly.  On the other hand, is it not the whole point of the incarnation that God is with us, here on earth, not in heaven? 
Jesus did not have a very high view of family in general, not merely his own particular family.  St. Luke’s Gospel also recounts Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
   and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’”
And yet, here is Jesus, hanging on the cross, abandoned by those among whom he shared the word of God, and as we shall hear momentarily, abandoned by God as well.  Jesus spent his whole life and ministry relying upon God, who he called father, to the point of standing against all others.  But here, finally, at the last, when everyone else is gone, only his mother is left.  And Jesus repents.  Finally, here on the cross, Jesus is more Confucian than Christian, making one last, desperate attempt at reconciliation in an act of filial piety.  It is raw, not sentimental; a humble apology rather than noble effort.  Mary courageously stood by and watched as the child God called her to bear, and who subsequently rejected her, was betrayed, forsaken and abandoned by humanity and by God, and was crucified.  In the end, she was all he had, and Jesus repents.  Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Unspeakable Unknowing

Sermon preached at Marsh Chapel on Maundy Thursday, 2011 on the text of Luke 22: 31-62.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This evening I am going to do something rather unorthodox.  For those who have been subjected to my preaching, much less my theology, in the past, this should not be terribly surprising.  Perhaps it will be of some comfort to you that whatever level of unease you may be feeling about what might be coming, it inevitably pales by comparison with the abject terror Dean Hill is experiencing even now as he wonders if he is about to deeply regret letting me step into the pulpit.
It is customary in preaching to hold forth upon the texts that have just been read.  I am not going to do that.  Tonight I am going to preach on the text that will be read at the end of the service, Luke 22: 31-62.  If I manage to pull this off, it is my ardent hope that you will appreciate the irony of a sermon entitled “Unspeakable Unknowing” on a text that is as yet unknown and unsaid.
May we pray?
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Eternal, have mercy on us.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Amen.
If I cast my mind’s eye forward on what God might call and empower me to accomplish in my life in ministry, I would consider it close to the pinnacle of my career to have the opportunity to preach a sermon on Easter Sunday entitled, “He’s Up!  (Act Surprised).”  The fact of the matter is, of course, that we already know where this is going; we already know how the story ends.  It is a great privilege to stand on this side of salvation history from whence we can see what has been accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the suffering and pain of his death are not the final word.
In the course of Christian history, there have been those Christians, perhaps most often found among those loyal to the see of Rome, who have placed extraordinary emphasis on the agony, fear, torture, suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth in their lives of faith.  And in good reactionary form, there have been those among the Reformers who have swung the pendulum back, although we must confess that, like many reactionaries, they are wont to let the pendulum swing back too far.  What is at risk here, on one hand, is the glorification of suffering in the passion, and the triumphalistic denial of suffering on the other.  How might we find our way forward to a dialectical resolution?
Tonight I wish to suggest that if we would seek to be Easter people come Sunday then we must, in these three days, unspeak and unknow resurrection.  If I have learned anything from sitting at the feet of Ray Hart for the past twelve weeks, it is that human life is lived between two nots: the not from which we come in birth, and the not toward which we go in death.  Not; nothing; nihil.  This is to say that in life we know not where we are from, and we know not where we are going. 
If this is so, that we know not where we are going, then we must come to know what Jesus did not know as he faced the cross.  We have not yet heard how Jesus prayed in grief and anguish that the cup be taken from him.  There are those who have said that this grief and anguish came at the prospect of suffering, pain and death.  But I ask you, in your own experience, are you grieved and anguished by the prospect of pain, or are you grieved and anguished by not knowing what lies on the other side?  Are you grieved and anguished at the prospect of final exams and term papers, or are you grieved and anguished at not knowing if you will have a job after you graduate? 
Even as we gather here this evening, a very dear friend of mine from the church in which I was raised sits by her father’s bedside in a Washington DC hospital.  It is becoming ever more clear that he is not long for this world.  She was there in Washington, to be with her father, even as she received word that her fiancé had died in a tragic beach accident in Brazil.  She knows grief.  She knows anguish.  And is it not the case that in the times of great grief and of great anguish that we know not whether joy will ever come again?  In times of deep suffering, it is a woefully inadequate platitude to proffer that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30: 5).
If there is any truth in the theological notion that the efficacy of salvation is somehow connected to the divine experience of being human, then the experience of unknowing, of sensing abandonment, of being betrayed and forsaken, is the most humanizing experience God could possibly undergo.  Not knowing whence we come or where we go is what makes us finite beings, in stark contrast to the infinity of God.  If it is in crossing the chasm from infinite to finite that salvation is achieved, then the infinite must undergo unknowing. 
And so must we.  In these days, living as we do in the light of resurrection, we must unknow and unspeak what we know, that resurrection might truly come as a surprise.  We must enter into, embrace, and become possessed by the confusion of unknowing exemplified by Peter his confident insistence that he will remain loyal, faithful, trustworthy and true, only moments later to betray, forsake, abandon and deny Jesus.  “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” (Inferno, Dante).  There is no glory in this suffering.  Merely abiding, come what may.
In these services of Triduum, including this service tonight and the Good Friday service tomorrow, I would encourage you to allow the rituals of Passiontide to move you to a place of deep unknowing.  On Good Friday, the seven last words of Jesus from the cross will be read and meditated upon, but I encourage you to listen most deeply to the silence, in which everything we know about Jesus, his life and his death, is swallowed up in unspeakable unknowing.  Tonight, as the vestments and paraments are stripped from the clergy, from the altar, and from the pulpit, allow the loss of beauty to help you to unspeak and unknow your hope and your expectation.  As you come forward to have your feet washed, unknow your sense of comfort and security, and as you wash the feet of another, unknow what you take to be clean or dirty.
In a few moments we will turn to the communion table.  This is perhaps the deepest place of unknowing in all of the Christian tradition.  What are these things?  Bread or body?  Wine or blood?  Why am I consuming them?  What will eating and drinking them do to me?
We enter into these mysteries of God-with-us as people who know not and speak not.  We are both fascinated and terrified by the God who beckons us, as Rudolph Otto pointed out, the God who draws us onward toward the not we do not know.  And we step into a great cloud of unknowing, just as God knew not God on the threshold of the death of God.  Amen.