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.