Sunday, July 07, 2013

It Depends!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Don’t you just love it when the Fourth of July, Independence Day, falls on a Thursday?  When it falls on a Wednesday we are expected to go back to work on Thursday and Friday, but on a Thursday most employers just give up and give everyone Friday off as well.  A four-day weekend for the Fourth!  What could be more appropriate! 

Independence Day, of course, is the National Day of the United States of America, and on it we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  -That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  Independence Day, then, is a celebration of the rejection of undependable government for a government that will hopefully be more dependable in guarding the nature and rights of men.  (And, yes, most if not all of the signers of the Declaration really did mean to restrict independence to people of the male sex).  Since the beginning this celebration has been enacted in forms such as waving flags, singing patriotic songs, marching in parades, shooting off fireworks, having picnics, attending concerts, giving speeches, and conducting ceremonies.  Perhaps there is no more quintessential celebration of Independence Day than the Fourth of July barbeque, a somewhat tardy version of which we are hosting here at Marsh Chapel following the service today.  (No, no!  I said following the service.  Now, get back in the pews so I can finish the sermon!).

There are a number of ironies associated with Independence Day.  For example, those flags we wave with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field are the same red, white, and blue as the Union Jack, the flag representing Great Britain, that is, the country from which we were declaring independence in the first place.  Also, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith while a student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church on July 4th of that year. 
My country, 'tis of thee,Sweet land of liberty,Of thee I sing;Land where my fathers died,Land of the pilgrims' pride,From ev'ry mountainsideLet freedom ring!
Of course, we sing it to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom.  Apparently we’re no better at coming up with original tunes for our patriotic songs than we are at coming up with original color schemes for our flag.  And for some reason we celebrate the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was supposedly signed, when in fact it seems it was probably actually signed on August 2nd, and it was on July 2nd that the Second Continental Congress voted a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June.  On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”  Amazingly, we do precisely all of those things, on the Fourth of July, two days after the event Adams meant to commemorate.  Oh well.

Independence is a wonderful thing, but I must confess that over the past couple of weeks my meditations and considerations have turned much more to the alternate side of the coin: dependence.  You see, on June 20th, at 5:53pm at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston, my daughter, Lilly Alma Whitney, was born, weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces, and 20.5 inches long.  In the past couple of weeks she has more than regained her birth-weight, and she takes seeming delight in keeping my wife Holly and I from getting any sleep.  She is a bundle of joy, and I am learning an entirely new dimension of love.  It is a great joy, today, to welcome Lilly’s grandparents to the service, and particularly her grandmothers reading the lesson and the gospel.  Lilly and her mother are here too, Lilly making her church debut, likely as not sleeping through the sermon, as I am sure are many of her pew-mates.

Lilly, being a newborn infant, is entirely dependent.  She cannot eat without help attaching to her mother’s breast.  She cannot sleep without being rocked while rubbing her back.  When she poops, daddy has to clean her up and change her diaper.  Like all newborns, Lilly’s head is approximately 30-40% of her bodyweight, meaning that her neck is not strong enough to support it properly.  When we pick her up and hold her, we have to be very careful not to let her head flop forward or backward or left or right, any of which could at least prove detrimental to her ongoing development.  Lilly has a completely undeveloped immune system, so those of you who would like to greet her following the service will first have to participate in the ritual of hand-washing, employing the vat of hand sanitizer I brought with me this morning.  (Her mother is an infectious disease physician, after all).  Lilly cannot walk, or even crawl or turn herself over, so we have acquired all manner of devices to help carry her, from car seat to stroller to sling to Mobi.  Dean Hill was disappointed that we did not name her Roberta, but he perked up a bit when I pointed out that we bought a stroller named Bob.

We do of course anticipate that Lilly, over time, will achieve her own independence, but doing so is a process of us as her parents accompanying her on the journey of life and faith, not only to be independent physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.  This movement from dependence to independence is the process of maturation.  It happens over time.  Undergraduates who will start in September at Boston University are emerging out of the process of being accompanied by parents, but still aspire on toward greater levels of independence and maturity.  College students learn to set their own alarm clocks, manage their own bank accounts, and find their own food.  A year or so later, when they move from the dorm to an apartment, they may even learn to cook that food for themselves. 

It is not the case, however, that this movement from greater dependence to greater independence is ever entirely linear or ever reaches an absolute at either extreme of the spectrum.  Many young people, as their personal independence grows, discover that it can be helpful to have a partner with whom to share the responsibilities of life.   Some find such a collaborator with relative ease, while for others it can take quite some time to find someone who is appropriately dependable.  And so, every year we host myriad weddings here at Marsh Chapel, particularly in these summer months, in which people commit to one another in a life of mutual dependence, of interdependence.  Just last week the United States Supreme Court struck down key components of the Defense of Marriage Act and let stand a ruling overturning Proposition 8 in California, marking further steps toward marriage equality in these United States.  What a heartwarming juxtaposition to have such celebration of the right of so many at last to enter into relationships of mutual dependence only one week before our national celebration of independence.

The same balance between independence and dependence holds at the socio-political level as well.  It was not the case that the founding fathers sought to overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain in order to establish an absolute anarchy.  They explicitly said in the Declaration of Independence that once the old, oppressive government was overthrown, then it was incumbent upon the people to institute a new government.  So it was that the leaders of the day turned their intellectual focus to designing a new democratic government that they believed would be more dependable in enabling its citizens to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  This is precisely what our brothers and sisters in Egypt are struggling toward as we speak.  Nevertheless, even upon the achievement of the founding fathers’ best efforts, there were some cruel restrictions on who could be considered independent in this new country.  If you did not own land, you were not independent.  If you were a woman, you were not independent.  If you were a slave, you were certainly not independent.  Yet, socially and economically, the white landowners who had supposedly achieved independence were in fact quite dependent on all of these classes of people.  So it was that A.G. Duncan wrote alternative abolitionist verses to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” only a dozen years after the original verses were penned:
My country, 'tis of thee,Stronghold of slavery,
Of thee I sing;Land where my fathers died,Where men man’s rights deride,From every mountainside
Thy deeds shall ring!
Interesting, is it not, that at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted not this verse but the original to inspire the nation to end segregation?  In the end, however, it makes sense.  The original verse is a hymn to independence while the alternate is a reminder that every new achievement of independence is yet also an arising of new levels and manners of dependence.

Here, then, the theological turn.  It was the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who claimed, in his monumental tome Glaubenslehre, The Christian Faith, that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Strange to think, is it not, that the great liberal American pulpits that have for so long emphasized the freedom offered for a life lived in the light of the Gospel, can all trace a lineage back to the liberal lion Schliermacher and his principle that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence?  Or perhaps not so strange that in a country that puts such high value on independence we would cast our final dependence onto one who is ultimate, infinite, and so utterly dependable.  For Schleiermacher, Christian freedom arises out of the matrix of absolute dependence on God.  This is the final outworking of Martin Luther’s insistence that experience of God for Christians is unmediated by human institutions.  We can depend directly on God, in prayer and in song and in breath, and so are free and independent from any worldly power and institution.  Or at least we would be, if we were living in the kingdom of God.

Alas, when we come back down from the mountaintop of absolute dependence, we find that we are still living in this fallen, broken world.  Our lessons today have something to teach us about living in a fallen, broken world.  In the conclusion to his letter to the Galatians, Paul is coming at the problem from the side of independence:  “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.”  In eternity we are absolutely dependent on God, but in the present life we are responsible for ourselves, for sowing what we will in our own work.  Nevertheless, Paul indicates that we can begin to feel what it will be like to depend on God absolutely in eternity: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”  We participate in the feeling of absolute dependence, as though seeing it through a glass dimly, as we experience interdependence, or mutual dependence, in our lives. 

If Paul was approaching absolute dependence from the side of independence, Jesus, in our Gospel reading, approaches it decidedly from the side of dependence.  Over the course of the Lucan narrative, the disciples have become increasingly, persistently, and stubbornly dependent on Jesus.  Just prior to the reading we heard, many are offering to join Jesus if they can just run and take care of one more thing before they do.  But Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the passion and the cross, so he sends them out, cutting them off from their many dependencies: “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”  Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is announced not so much in words but by entering into relationships of interdependence, of mutual dependence, in each place the disciples go: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”  From the side of dependence, as well, it is through interdependence in this life that we receive a foretaste of the absolute dependence on God that is a hallmark of the kingdom.

It is little wonder that so many in our world have adopted a preference for independence over dependence, making relationships that are truly interdependent that much harder to achieve.  After all, submitting to some level of dependence requires that there be a certain level of dependability in the one to whom we submit.  Alas, our human experience is that people are never quite as dependable as we would hope, and institutions seem utterly incapable of a reliable degree of reliability, made up of less than dependable people as they are.  Deplorably, there seems to be no less dependable institution in our time than the church.  How do we know this?  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that at this point 20% of adults in the United States are religiously unaffiliated, and that number jumps to one third if considering only those under 30 years of age.  These are the so-called “nones:” not members of religious orders, but rather those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, check the box marked “none.”  It is notable that the “nones” are not so much questioning the dependability of God, as those who identify as atheist have only ticked up slightly.  Rather, they have declared independence from institutions that purport to provide the opportunity for cultivating relationships of interdependence but fail to do so.  A significantly higher percentage of the unaffiliated than the public in general believe that religious institutions are too concerned with money and power, focus too much on rules, and are too involved with politics.  At the same time, a significantly lower percentage of the unaffiliated than the general public believe that religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds, play an important role in helping the poor and needy, and protect and strengthen morality.  Many churches are trying desperately to deny that they are as undependable as the “nones” claim, but the response of denial misses the point entirely.  Dependability can never be demonstrated in words, but only in actions, and the actions of too many churches belie their words.  The “nones” own experience is of the lack of dependability in the church, and insisting that the church is otherwise than their experience smacks of hubris and hypocrisy.  Whether it is financial mismanagement, exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, or tolerance of sexual abuse by clergy, who can blame the “nones” for disaffiliating, or demurring from ever affiliating in the first place?  In all honesty, there but for the grace of God go I, and I am convinced that at least some who do go, go with God.

In these summer weeks we are hearing from the voices that inhabit several of the most significant pulpits of northern Methodism.  I am not one of them.  I am not a Methodist, although I grew up one, and I only ever occasionally inhabit this pulpit, in the chapel of an historically Methodist university.  My role in this preaching series, then, is not to speak to Methodists or for Methodists, but rather as a finger pointing at the moon, providing some orientation as to what you might listen for in the weeks ahead.  The question that must be posed to Methodists, at least as much as to those who remain affiliated with any other religious institution, is this: How will you go about demonstrating your dependability such that you may faithfully provide a foretaste of absolute dependence on God, that is, of God’s kingdom?  How will you declare interdependence?  Amen.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go change a diaper.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Please, be seated.

Remember with me, will you?  If you are seated here in the nave of Marsh Chapel you may want to find a comfortable posture, if such is possible in wooden pews, and fold your hands in your lap and let your eyelids drift downward just a bit.  If, on the other hand, you are driving a motor vehicle on Interstate 90, I think it would be better for all concerned, and on Interstate 90 there will be many concerned, if you just kept your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes open!  Let us, together, then, as a congregation called into fellowship on this Memorial Day weekend, remember.

We remember one year ago on a sunny Memorial Day weekend walking over to Boston Common and seeing a sea of American flags that had been painstakingly pounded into the soft earth.  A bride and a groom were making final preparations for their nuptials.  Nails were polished, shoes were shined, suits were pressed, dresses were shaken out, hair was done up, and yes, small vials of bubbles were unpacked and laid out in baskets for guests to retrieve and blow after the ceremony.  On that sunny Sunday afternoon, the bride and her father made their way down the aisle, this aisle in fact, and she joined hands with her betrothed.  Declarations were made, readings were read, a sermon was preached, Bach was sung, vows were vowed, rings were exchanged, prayers were said, and the priest proclaimed, “You are husband and wife!”  Yes, one year ago today Holly and I got married right here at Marsh Chapel on the glorious Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  It has been a year of delight, of learning, and most of all, of loving.  Happy anniversary, love!

If only all of our memories of the past year could be such happy ones.  For us here at Boston University, there has been far too much tragedy. 

We remember on a cool November evening when Chung-Wei Yang, known at the University as Victor, who had come to BU from Taiwan to study international relations, collided with a bus while riding his bicycle and was killed.  His family arrived in Boston and on a Saturday morning, again here in the nave of Marsh Chapel, hundreds of students, friends, family, and members of the Taiwanese community in Boston joined to remember and pray.  Again, readings were read, a sermon was preached, music was sung, prayers were said, memories were shared, and tears, oh so many tears, were shed. 

Then, only a couple of weeks later, the phone rings: “I’m driving down Commonwealth Avenue.  There’s a body in the road.  It’s not another one of ours, is it?”  Christopher Weigl, a graduate student in photojournalism in the College of Communications collided with a tractor-trailer just in front of the CVS across from Student Health Services.  Again on a Sunday afternoon, students and family and friends gathered, this time in the nave of the First Congregational Church in Holliston, Massaschusetts, in whose fellowship Christopher grew up.  BU alumna and senior pastor of the church, Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder, who pastors three generations of the Weigl family, led another service of readings and prayers and memories and music and tears.

We made it through January and February unscathed, but then on the first Saturday of March, in the wee hours of the morning, Anthony Barksdale died after attending an un-registered, off-campus party.  He was a freshman engineering major from Amherst, New Hampshire.  Due to the cold and the rain, a vigil was held indoors in the George Sherman Union.  Students gathered in the Towers dormitory to share memories.  A memorial service was held in his high school. 

April 15.  Tax Day!  Patriots’ Day.  Marathon Monday.  You remember, don’t you?  Just a little warmer than the runners may have wanted, but perfect for spectators who came out in droves to line the course, particularly the last few miles as the runners came down Beacon Street, through Kenmore Square, and then zigged and zagged over to Boylston Street to the finish line.  Some of us gathered in the Deanery, that is, the residence of the dean, for a brunch of eggs and fruit and Dunkin Donuts.  Dean Hill recited Longfellow and the Gettysburg Address, as he is wont to do sometimes.  Out we processed to Kenmore Square to watch the elite runners come through, thinking that we were only taking our lives in our hands by boarding the rickety elevator down to the ground from number 10.

How little did we know.  My wife and I walked from Kenmore Square back home and I lay down to take a nap.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I detest being rudely awoken from a sound sleep.  So it was that when Holly shook my shoulder and announced, “there are bombs at the marathon!” all I could think was, “That’s ridiculous.  Bombs don’t belong at marathons!”  I looked at my phone: missed calls, missed texts, missed email.  We called our parents.  “I have to get to the chapel,” I announced.  “How?”  Good question.  How do you get from Beacon Hill to Boston University without going anywhere near Copley Square?  Thank God for Hubway!  I grabbed a bike, carried it over to the Esplanade, and rode hard. 

You know, when you stop a race before it is completed and throw the runners off the course, it gets a bit confusing.  Runners came over to Commonwealth Avenue from Beacon Street, many of them hoping to catch the T, only to find that the T was shut down.  What did they find?  A church!  Marsh Chapel.  In they came and hospitality we provided: water, food, blankets, phones, rides, directions, counsel, prayer, patience.  We planned a vigil for that evening.  News broke that there was an explosion at the JFK library.  We cancelled the vigil.  The vigil finally happened the following evening and hundreds gathered on Marsh Plaza in front of the chapel for readings, and prayers, and words of comfort and strength in times of trouble.  Another evening hence we gathered here in the nave for readings, prayers, sermon, song, hymns, and Eucharist as we continued the search for healing.

“Is there a student at Boston University named Lu Lingzi?” Dean Hill asked.  I typed her name into the computer.  “Yes.”  “Oh.”  Lingzi was no longer missing.  She was at the morgue.  One of the three killed by the bombings.  The media frenzy was intense as the news broke.  Over 400 students, most of them Chinese, gathered in the Burke Room at Agganis Arena to share memories and process together.  Her parents arrived from China and were greeted at the airport by the Ambassador from China and a delegation from Boston University.  1400 people, including many dignitaries, gathered in the George Sherman Union for Lingzi’s memorial service.  4000 watched a live stream over the Internet.  $560,000 was gathered in the course of a morning by the Trustees of Boston University to begin a scholarship fund in her memory.  Her father gave a poignant and moving eulogy.  Her mother was inconsolable.  More readings, more prayers, more music, more memories, more tears.

The phone rang.  “Br. Larry, I know it’s Sunday morning and you have services, but there has been a fire, and a student has died, and several are in the hospital.  Can you go to the hospital?”  More death.  More trauma.  Binland Lee was a senior in the Marine Science program at the College of Arts and Sciences.  This time, students traveled down to Brooklyn, New York for a Chinese Buddhist wake and memorial service in an Italian Catholic funeral home.  More readings, more prayers, more music, more memories, more tears.

Remembering a wedding is wonderful.  The heart soars as the feelings of love and joy and belonging together, so intensely felt on that day, return to the forefront of the mind’s eye.  Remembering death and violence and vigils and funerals is hard.  It is painful.  It is rubbing salt in a wound of the spirit.  Each one of those American flags pounded into the common might as well have been pounded into the flesh of those who loved the one whom the flag represents. 

Remembering a dead loved one is painful precisely because we know that the person cannot be re-membered.  It is not possible that grandma or grandpa or mom or dad or brother or sister or, God have mercy, son or daughter should be re-membered, brought into membership again, in the family.  It is not possible that friend or neighbor or colleague or teammate or pew-fellow should be re-membered, brought back into the fellowship of the community.  Our grief and our pain as we remember those we have loved who have died arises from the helplessness we feel and the loss of control we experience when we recognize that there is nothing we can do to re-member them.

There are bombing victims in Boston who are struggling to re-member themselves right now.  Some lost arms and legs in the blasts of the bombs and they grieve the loss of their limbs as they remember what life was like before.  Thankfully, many of those who lost limbs will be able to re-member not their own arms and hands or legs and feet but prosthetic limbs that will empower them to reclaim at least a portion of the life they had before.  Nevertheless, the sense of helplessness and the terror of being out of control without the ability to walk or the ability to pick up a fork is something that will haunt many for the rest of their lives.

So too, there are those who lined Boylston Street on April 15, and especially many who worked in the medical tents, and many of us who perhaps were not there and yet somehow feel that this happened to us.  We too struggle to re-member.  We remember what we heard: explosions, screams, cries.  We remember what we saw: fire, broken glass, blood.  We remember the smell of smoke, the taste of bile, the touch of those jostling to get to the wounded or away from the area.  Holding together the pieces of the mind is a struggle to re-member in a spirit of hope what we remember of a time of terror.

Why do we remember?  Why bother to become involved in the work of memory with its attendant pain and grief?  Why not just forget?
We remember because we have hope that we ourselves will be re-membered.  Today is Trinity Sunday, and in the life of Christianity this is the day we remember that God in Godself is a community of members.  One of those members became incarnate in Jesus Christ and was thus, for a time, dismembered from God.  Today, on Memorial Day weekend and Trinity Sunday, readings and prayers and sermon and song teach us that God knows the pain of dismemberment as God experienced the pain of the passion.  And yet, God also knows the healing and joy of re-membering in the glory of the resurrection.  The Holy Spirit of God testifies today that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion; that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering; that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross; that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.  In the life of faith the work of memory is part and parcel of the work God does in us, in the example of Christ and in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, that we may withstand what we cannot understand.

So far, so good, but we cannot stop there.  The testimony of the church on Trinity Sunday is that the love of God, and the grace of God, and the forgiveness of God, and the healing of God, and the redemption of God that re-members us into relationship and partnership and family and community and society and world belongs not to us but to God who extends the partnership of Gospel to the ends of the earth, to all peoples and all times and all places, and not only to people but to the whole of creation.  It is out of this belief that Howard Thurman said that “people, all people, belong to one another, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut another away destroy themselves.”  Just this week Pope Francis said in a weekday Mass sermon that, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this [one] is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”  You see, by caring, helping, giving, we may true disciples be.  The hard work of remembering prevents us from shutting ourselves away and from shutting others away that we may all be re-membered together.  It is in the work of remembering that the Spirit draws us in her tether that we might touch the garment hem of God and be healed and re-membered.

It would probably be wise for me to stop there, but the wisdom of faith is foolishness to the wise and on Trinity Sunday, when I remember my ordination to the priesthood four years ago, we are reminded that we are called to be fools for Christ.  For you see, if we believe with Howard Thurman that all people belong to one another, and if we believe with Pope Francis that God has redeemed all of us, then it cannot be the case that we are re-membered, returned to fellowship, having left anyone or anything behind.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with the driver of the bus that collided with Victor.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with the driver of the tractor-trailer that killed Christopher.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with the students who threw the party that Anthony attended.  We cannot be re-membered without being re-membered with those responsible for the conditions that led to the fire that killed Binland.  And dear friends in Boston, we cannot be re-membered as a city and as a community and as a society until we are re-membered with Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev.  All people belong to one another, not merely the ones we love or who love us.  It was a sinful, sinful thing to attempt to deny Tamerlan the small dignity of burial, and we must all repent, for until we can confess that we belong to Tamerlan and Dzokhar, and they to us, we cannot be re-membered, and our search for healing continues.

Lingzi’s parents buried her here in Boston.  They did so because they believe that her spirit will help to bring peace to our community.  She will certainly abide here in our memory, and in remembering all of those we have lost, may we be re-membered, returned to fellowship, with one another, with all people, with all creation, and ultimately, with God, whose re-memberment we celebrate on this Trinity Sunday.  Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Know Not

"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

He could have been talking about the disciples.  How often, in the gospel narratives, are the disciples depicted as numbskulls who can’t seem to get anything right?  Jesus tells them to keep awake; they fall asleep.  Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows, and somehow Peter is shocked when the cock crows and, sure enough, he has denied Jesus three times.  It is a stark juxtaposition, just one chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, when after arbitrating a dispute about greatness, Jesus confers on the disciples a kingdom and the right of judgment, only then to turn around and predict that Peter will deny him.

Jesus could also have been talking about me.  I would be the first to confess that I rarely ever have any clue as to what I am doing.  On my best days, I’m halfway decent at faking it.  This is because no two situations I may face in my life are ever identical, and there is always some level of experimentation in responding to the novelty of life.  Sometimes these experiments are successful; other times, not so much.  The only reason my life is not a complete disaster is that I try, as much as I can, to root my next decision in the best practices of the past, the successful experiments and not the failures. 

The Gospel of Luke is much more ambiguous about who Jesus is talking about.  Who are “they”?  Going back earlier in the gospel, “they” refers to a rather large and diverse cohort of subgroups: the disciples, the crowd who came to arrest Jesus, the council, Pilate and his court, Herod and his court, some soldiers, (presumably Roman), and a whole bunch of locals.  That’s a lot of clueless people, which makes me wonder if this particular word from the cross is not more a statement about humanity in general, than about the people who crucified Jesus in particular.

This word from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” is the most hopeful.  Yes, the next word is “Today you will be with me in paradise,” but that word is clearly directed to the penitent criminal.  This word is for all of us.  We are forgiven, despite the fact that we do not know what we are doing.  Forgiveness and salvation are not functions of knowledge, but rather free gifts in spite of a dearth of knowledge.

This is probably a frightening prospect for many of us in higher education, whose life work is the pursuit of knowledge.  Note that Jesus does not say that knowledge is a bad thing.  In fact, his word from the cross seems to presuppose that if we did know what we were doing, his own suffering could be avoided; there would be nothing to forgive.  But forgiveness is not doled out on the basis of knowledge.  Salvation does not come through gnosis.

Today, on Good Friday, the good news is that we are forgiven in spite of what we do and do not know.  Amen.
Good Friday 2013

Thursday, December 20, 2012

FTELeaders: Toward Interreligious Leadership Formation

I had a blog post published on the Fund for Theological Education blog about the need for greater attention to interreligious leadership formation and cultivating the voices of underrepresented religious traditions.  Read the post here: "Toward Interreligious Leadership Formation"

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Te Deum

May we pray.

We praise thee, O God:     we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship thee,     the Father everlasting. To thee all Angels cry aloud;     the Heavens, and all the Powers therein. To thee Cherubim and Seraphim     continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy :     Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty     of thy glory. The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee. The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee. The noble army of Martyrs praise thee. The holy Church throughout all the world     doth acknowledge thee; The Father of an infinite Majesty; Thine honorable, true, and only Son; Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man     thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb. When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,     thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father. We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge. We therefore pray thee, help thy servants,     whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood. Make them to be numbered with thy Saints in glory everlasting.
O Lord, save thy people     and bless thine heritage. Govern them, and lift them up for ever. Day by day we magnify thee; And we worship thy Name ever, world without end. Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin. O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us     as our trust is in thee. O Lord, in thee have I trusted;     let me never be confounded. (“Te Deum,” Book of Common Prayer)


The great hymn of the church known as the “Te Deum” is perhaps the greatest Christian hymn of praise ever penned.  It is certainly the oldest still in regular usage, attributed variously to Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Hilary, and to Nicetas, bishop of Remesiana, in any case dating to the fourth century.  The text, in any of myriad musical settings, is frequently programmed in worship services that extol the greatness of God as reflected in the greatness of some human personage.  The election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, or the canonization of a saint are all highly appropriate occasions for a “Te Deum,” and it has been known to be used on secular occasions as well, such as the announcement of a peace treaty or the coronation of a king or queen.  You may be interested to know, particularly if you are Catholic, that a plenary indulgence is available if you are present in a recitation or solemn chant of the “Te Deum” on New Year’s Eve. 

Given the many images of the kingship of Christ in the “Te Deum,” with attendant symbols of judge, governor, and lord, it is also highly appropriate to sing this great hymn today, on Christ the King Sunday.  Thanks be to God for liturgically sensitive church musicians!  Indeed, for the offertory today, the Marsh Chapel Choir, under the direction of Dr. Scott Alan Jarrett, and with Mr. Justin Thomas Blackwell at the organ, will offer a setting of the “Te Deum” hymn by Franz Joseph Haydn.  Commissioned by Empress Marie Therese, wife of Franz I of Austria, this particular setting is notable for being an entirely choral work, lacking in the virtuosic solo lines characteristic of Haydn, and for its setting in the key of C major, often associated with music for great feasts of the church.  Furthermore, this setting is in the hallmark form of the classical era, namely the concerto, with two sprightly passages surrounding a central slow movement.

Okay, end of music history lesson.  What does any of this have to do with anything?  The “Te Deum” is textually a hymn of praise, and this has deep resonances on this day when we extol Christ as king.  The feast of Christ the King is celebrated interdenominationally among Catholics and Protestants on the last Sunday of the Christian year, which is to say the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent.  Furthermore, Christ as king has deep resonances with the Eastern Orthodox symbol of Christos Pantokrator, which may be translated as Christ almighty or Christ in judgment, and is depicted here at Marsh Chapel in our rose window at the front of the sanctuary. 

Praise is, ultimately, the most appropriate response of subjects for their rulers.  This is both because rulers provide so many benefits to their subjects and because rulers are in their very nature majestic and glorious, and thus deserving of praise.  It is little wonder that in the pre-Christian Roman Empire the emperors were understood to be gods.  When Christianity came along, the Judaic emphasis on the sovereignty of God over against all earthly temporal powers meant that emperors, kings, and other rulers could no longer be gods in their own right, but could nevertheless rule by “divine right.”  Of course this also meant that God could, in theory, and according to the historical record apparently in practice, withdraw the divine favor of a particular ruler and bestow it upon another.  This is how you get changes of dynasties in medieval European feudalism.  Kingship in Christendom, as it turns out, has its ups and downs.

Jesus certainly knew about the ups and downs of kingship, as evidenced by the texts read today from the gospel according to St. John and from the Revelation to St. John.  On behalf of Dean Hill, allow me to remind us that these are not the same John!  In the passage from Revelation, we get the upside of the story.  Jesus is king of the kingdom of Christians, and in fact ruler of the kings of the earth, i.e. king of kings.  Here is not the historical Jesus but rather the cosmic figure of Christos Pantokrator, Christ who rides in out of eternity on the clouds in judgment of the tribes of the earth.  In the Gospel of John we get the downside.  It turns out that being a king is a significant part of what got Jesus killed at the hands of the rulers of his day.  The problem, it turns out, is that Jesus finds himself out of his kingdom, and he is not the king of the world in which he finds himself, but this has not stopped people from attributing kingship to him, making the rulers of the world highly anxious.  Let this be a lesson to you kings out there: if you are a king, stay put in your kingdom!

I would hazard to guess that many of you are feeling quite ambivalent about all of this talk of kingship only a few short weeks after we in the United States of America have participated in that hallmark of our democratic republic, namely electing our leaders to office.  Indeed, what could the notion of kingship possibly mean for us in the land that rebelled against King George III?  We noted earlier that kings are to be praised both for the benefits they bestow on their subjects and for their innate majesty and glory.  These notions are nonsensical amidst the logic of our democratic republic.  Surely, here in the USA we believe that people are personally responsible and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps so that they are not dependent on the beneficence of government.  And recently disclosed improprieties of a certain general turned spy-master only serve to remind us that our leaders all too frequently fail to achieve even the standards of basic morality, let alone ever being considerable in terms of glory and majesty.
Or do we?  Do we really believe in rugged individualism and the fallibility of our leaders, or in our heart of hearts do we aspire to something more like the kingship model?

Hanging out in stained glass toward the rear of Marsh Chapel on the pulpit side is the stentorian statesman Abraham Lincoln.  He made it into stained glass here because he fulfilled the abolitionist vision of the founders of Boston University through his work to abolish slavery.  The recently released feature-length film Lincoln chronicles his political machinations and negotiations eventually leading to the passage of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude.  The Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC, dedicated in 1922, was designed by Henry Bacon in the form of a Greek Doric temple containing a large, seated sculpture of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French and inscriptions from Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses.  In some states, Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated as a holiday.  Or should I say holy day?

So, is Abraham Lincoln a king?  Applying a strict definition from political theory, certainly not.  The new film is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, entitled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  The title of the book makes it clear that Lincoln was not a king in the political sense, as it is his ability to get things done amidst competing interests, and despite the limits of presidential power, that makes Lincoln exceptional.  But in other respects Lincoln may best be interpreted as a king.  His rhetorical skill inspired hearts across divisions of race, gender, class, and religion.  His assassination made him a martyr and bestowed upon him mythical status in the United States and abroad.  Looking back across time, Lincoln may be understood as a king in the two senses outlined above.  He achieved great benefit for his people by virtue of his political skill, particularly for slaves, but for the United States as a whole also through his projects of reconstruction and vision for reintegration of the divided union.  And his soaring rhetoric and towering stature have been imprinted on the American imagination as signs of majesty and glory, as evidenced in stained glass, film, and monument.

There are other figures in U.S. history who might be considered under this rubric of kingship: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is not the case that any of these men was perfect or otherwise unambiguous.  However, the particular focus afforded by the lenses of history has left us with visions of them that are truly praiseworthy.

I wonder if, political predilections for democratic order aside, there might not be something far deeper in the human condition and psyche that desires a king to rule over us.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there is, and that the “Te Deum” text points to this something deeper in the symbols of judgment, governing, and lordship.  Judgment is the measurement of the difference between the ideal of grace and the reality of sin.  Governance is the ordering of relations such that grace might be maximized and sin minimized.  Lordship is the power to make changes based on judgments and to bring about rightly ordered relationships.  Judicial, legislative, executive.  Far from the supposed American ideal that we do not need government because we are self-reliant and because governments are made up of other humans just as fallen as we ourselves, the “Te Deum” gives voice to that part of us that desires just what we proclaim to deny.

Peter Berger, University Professor Emeritus here at Boston University, wrote forty-some-odd years ago about religion as masochistic.  By this he means that in religious life we give ourselves over to something else, something greater, that can in some way effect an overarching meaning amidst a sea of seeming meaninglessness otherwise.  Indeed, that is at least one of the things that we do when we gather together on Sunday mornings.  We give ourselves over to God, who benefits us by providing us with a sense of meaning, order, and purpose, and who is majestic and glorious, and therefore praiseworthy.  This probably seems at least somewhat okay in relation to God.  Much more troubling for most of us is the fact that we essentially do the same thing with government.  We give ourselves over to a state that we believe can guarantee us some benefit and that seems to us in some way to be glorious and majestic.  This is the social contract.  In the case of monarchies, that glory and majesty is connected to the divine right of royalty.  In the democratic model, the glory and majesty of government derives from the glory and majesty of the human person, perhaps instilled by God. 

The problem with a truly democratic government is that in order to fulfill our desire for kingship in terms of justice, governance, and lordship, 100% of the people must be 100% responsible 100% of the time.  In a monarchy, only one person must be 100% responsible 100% of the time, but if he or she screws it up, or at least if people find out that he or she screwed it up, it’s all over.  The problem is that there has never been a single human being, let alone a whole population of them, who has been able to be 100% responsible 100% of the time.  As the apostle to the gentiles tells us in the epistle to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Modern democratic republics have tried to mediate this problem by allowing for minimal levels of irresponsibility that can be counterbalanced by the checks and balances built into the governance model.  Sadly, as evidenced by the general turned spy-master mentioned earlier, we seem not to actually be able to tolerate the minimal levels of irresponsibility our system of government seeks to afford.  We aspire to more.  We aspire to perfection.  We seek a guarantee of order and meaning over against our uncertainty of each other and ourselves.

This past summer we heard a series of sermons on apocalyptic.  The apocalyptic worldview, that says that the guarantee of order and meaning is not possible in this world but is readily available in the next, is one Christian response to the problem of irresponsible government.  Another is the shift from the divinity of emperors themselves to their ruling rather by divine right, which could be taken away.  A third is the perspective that the image of God in human nature is obscured by sin, thus negating the possibility of fully effective human institutions.  In all cases, the Christian witness is that it is God who is our guarantee.  Ultimately, it is God who is our king, who judges us with perfect justice, governs us with perfect wisdom, and rules over us with perfect power, and so who is glorious and majestic.  No worldly power could possibly aspire to God’s perfection.  And so today, Christ the King Sunday, we give our sinful and broken selves over to God who alone can help us, can save us, can redeem us, can lift us up forever, and open the kingdom of heaven to us.