Monday, March 12, 2012

Sermon. March 11, 2012.

Cleveland Park Congregational Church
34th and Lowell
Washington, DC

I will be preaching on the Letter to the Romans today, but I will lead into an exposition of Romans by talking about some events that happened a while ago. I’ll be quoting from people who spoke at these events some 31 and 62 years ago, namely Leonard Rieser, who was both Provost and Dean of Faculty when I was a chaplain at Dartmouth College 31 years ago, and John Sloan Dickey, who was College President 62 years ago. Now you know the cast of characters, the main characters at least. Then I will talk about Paul, his message for us today and then I will focus on this congregation, here and now.

On Monday, September 21, 1981, Dartmouth College held its annual fall convocation at the beginning of the academic year. I well remember the occasion, for I had to deliver the Invocation. It was not difficult - I intoned a few verses of a Psalm, asked God’s blessing on the occasion and got out of the way, for much more important people than an associate college chaplain were ready and waiting to speak. It was the first convocation for a new president, David McLaughlin. He certainly had something to say. As did Elise Boulding, the faculty member chosen, as was customary, by her colleagues to say a few words.

But it was College Provost and Dean of Faculty Leonard Rieser who had the first words, after the invocation, and I have never forgotten them. He began by telling the 3000 people assembled a brief version of what Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey had said on the same occasion 31 years previously, in 1950.

He began:

“This convocation takes place in the 212th year of this College, the 81st year of the 20th Century. We are little more that 18 years from the beginning of the next millennium. Before the freshmen present here today attend their 15th reunion, we shall leave this century and enter the next millennium. At the half-century mark, in September of 1950, President John Sloan Dickey, addressing convocation, took note of the state of the “outside world” by observing that ‘this particular perch, which we call earth, is rapidly becoming a precarious place for raising human beings.’
He went on to say: ‘What is new is not the evil in man, but the range of its opportunity and the immensity of its consequences. Within the last five years alone, the destructive potentialities of human error and evil have been increased beyond calculation.’
He cited three principal factors in this development: the great ideological conflict with the Soviet Union, the fantastic increase in the destructive power available to man, and the enormous potential of the mass media of communication, ‘to make the emotions and minds of millions the constant prey of the few.’
President Dickey spoke in 1950 from the perspective of World War II as part of the world was again at war. How extraordinarily prescient he was!”

Provost Rieser went on to list a few more examples of how different the world of 1950 was from the world of 1981. The list included no commercial jet aircraft in 1950, a mere handful of truly primitive computers, no interstate highways, plenty of oil . . . Yet, even then, in such seemingly primitive and safe conditions, the President of the College in 1950 saw fit to warn the assembled students and faculty of the dangers in their world at the beginning of the Korean War, telling them that the destructive potentials of their world had already been increased beyond calculation. Then Rieser concluded:

“Today, 31 years later, we still occupy this perch, so vastly more precarious, that it boggles the mind. I introduce this Convocation with these observations, beginning with President Dickey’s remarks in 1950, for two reasons. First to suggest that a liberal education today must include the development of the capacity to understand and address the hugely complex international relationships which will determine whether or not the millennium will be a period of joy, serenity, prosperity, and justice, or even whether it will be. And my second reason is that in September of 1950, President David McLaughlin was sitting where you are – with other members of his freshman class.”

Now I begin this sermon today at a time still near the beginning of Ellen Jenning’s pastorate because on September 21st of 1981 Pastor Ellen Jennings was sitting there that day with the other members of her freshman class.

31 years later, this trio of terrors first enunciated by President Dickey 31 years before still faces us, although in surprisingly different forms. I believe that this congregation, and this pastor are very well situated to respond creatively to these terrors of modern life. Let me briefly sketch out these terrors in their new 21st Century guise; then talk about our Biblical lesson for the day and the response that is already arising here on the corner of 34th and Lowell.

Firstly, the widest chasm of ideological conflict, namely the Cold War, astonishingly ended, but then it just as astonishingly transformed into the ideological conflict between militant Islam and the rest of the world. How this will work out in the future, we have no idea.

Secondly, the nuclear geni remains out of the bottle. The huge stockpile continues to come down, but the number of countries that have these devices continues to grow, so this threat is really just a little less than it was 31 years ago. The famous clock on the masthead of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was at 4 minutes to midnight in 1981. Today it is at 5 minutes. At its best in recent years it was at 14 minutes in 1991; at its worst was at 3 minutes in 1984.

Thirdly, the mass media of communication continue to make the emotions and minds of millions the constant prey of the few, in a staggering array of new ways. Of course, the mass media deliver their blessings as well, but let us say that the task of paying attention to the real world in which we live is more difficult than it has ever been. But it has never been easy. Paying attention, being present to your family and friends -- it’s not rocket science – it’s actually a lot more difficult. It is not a science it is an art. And it is an art that Christianity has always taught is aided by taking part in the life of a congregation.

In a congregation of a Sunday morning, we can come as we are, unplug ourselves from our cell phones, turn off our computers, turn off our televisions, put down our newspapers, suspend, to the extent possible, our media-informed judgments and pay attention as best we can, sing, listen and be neighbors to one another. Such simple activity may be the best way we have to keep the three terrors I have talked about at bay.

So here we are, March 11, 2012, in church; and in spite of all temptations, to be at other stations, (television, internet or otherwise) we are in church today. Is there any word from the Lord? I chose to focus on some words of Paul, whom I call the Apostle of Human Wholeness. Despite being shipwrecked, imprisoned, probably tortured, and attacked by mobs, he managed to praise in nothing short of poetic terms the joy of having a human body and taking part in the life of a human community.

Listen to what he wrote to a congregation in Rome, a long time ago, as if he were speaking to us today; and let him speak, since he lived a long time ago, in language that to us is ancient, namely the Shakespearean English of the King James Bible. I like this translation for it retains the ambiguities of the original and is better English than the Apostle’s Greek.

[1] I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
“Present your bodies a living sacrifice, which is your reasonable service.” Present your bodies, not your work, not your wages, not your products, not the fruits of your labor, but your bodies. We would probably just say ‘dedicate your whole self to God.’ This is your reasonable service, adds the Apostle.

[2] And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
Now he says ‘mind.’ Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. ‘Mind’ is singular. He is talking about the mind of the entire congregation, the group mind. Yes, transformation for Paul is not an individual effort; it is a group process. Thus
be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .
that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God . . .
that this entire physical entity will show to others the love and power of God . . .
that (said a more recent apostle) your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. (Walt Whitman)

[3] For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
First, in the Greek, Paul uses the word ‘being’. Thus, ”let every being among you think according as God hath dealt to everyone the measure of faith.”
More importantly, Paul is not telling us to have faith. He is telling us that we already have it -- God has given each one of us just the right amount. Our job is simply to recognize and bring forth what is already there. Faith is not something we’re reaching for: it’s already here. We already have it. God gave it to us, in just the right amount.

Here is what he has said so far: Present your bodies a living sacrifice to God. Be thereby transformed. Be honest with yourself and others. Take a fearless moral inventory. You can do this because God has given you faith.

Now the rest is easy:

[4] For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
[5] So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
[6] Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us.
As within an individual body, each part cooperates for the whole, so also in a congregation, each one of us cooperates for the whole. We’re a team. What is difficult, even impossible for an individual, becomes easy as part of a team. In other words:

“We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson)

See how deeply this passage has sunk into our culture? Did Whitman and the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and Williamson and know that they were quoting it, borrowing from it, transmuting it? I don’t know.

I chose this lesson from Paul, because this congregation already gets this. This is what Ellen has been so graciously teaching us, that this congregation can work and sing together, like a choir.

I’m sure that there have been other events – I’ve been away quite a while – but just this last week, we had a discernment meeting after church. Upwards of forty people came. It was nothing special. It required no great technology. But that is how transformation in a congregation begins, with people just showing up and saying something like I’m Joe or Jill and I have been coming here for anywhere from 8 days to over 60 years. Then we shared our thoughts and dreams about this congregation and its future. Like the Kingdom of God, community is like a mustard seed that starts out small but grows into something big. That is what’s happening here.

We are not going to turn the CPCC into a cathedral. We don’t need to – there are three in this neighborhood already. But a small, neighborhood congregational church can be a powerful center of transformation without losing its essential character.

The philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote about the house that he and his wife bought when they were young. It was not much of a house. In fact it was a bit of a wreck. “But,” he wrote, “we gradually fell in love with our shabby house. No rise in our income has ever tempted us to look elsewhere for another house, still less to build a more commodious or fashionable one. In no sense was this the house of our dreams. But over our lifetime it has slowly turned into something better, the house of our realities. In all its year-by-year changes, under the batterings of age and the bludgeonings of chance, this dear house has enfolded and remodeled our family character—exposing our limitations as well as our virtues.”

If we do our work here of listening and speaking, and just being present, the terrors of modern life will fade into the background and the joys of life in community, despite all the batterings of age & bludgeonings of chance, will come foreground. This will be the church of our realities.

Finally, the perfect ending for this sermon appeared somehow on my computer last night. Yes, the mass media do deliver blessings. A distant friend shared the following:

"I'm waiting for a keynote where Apple says, 'We don't have a new, magical iPad for you. The magic was inside you all along. Now go outside.'"

The magic has been inside us all along. Now come to church.