Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Kingdom Comes in Parables

Memorial Church
Harvard University
July 5th,  2015

Good morning. If you are visiting Memorial Church let me welcome you. This place of worship and teaching at the heart of a great university is unique and important in American life and in the life of this city. This week-end it is a good place to be and it is important to reflect together and to share prayers.

Jan and I always enjoy our times here and this week-end is the anniversary of our move to Boston from New Haven a very long time ago. We came for a year thinking that we would then be drawn west and we are still here.
Beware of decisions made off handedly as they can sometimes be the most important decisions you make.

Let us pray: Lord, may the words from my mouth edify and may the intentions of my heart be appropriate for this hour.

Our texts for the morning are at one level quite appropriate for the heart of a university for they remind those of us who are parents to beware of what we pray for. The hand we are dealt when we bring children into the world, when we bring children into our lives in any fashion, often plays out in ways that confound and surprise us. 

David is 30 when he is called to rule the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; it is some years after he had been called by Samuel to rule a portion of the divided kingdom. You want your sons and daughters to succeed, but no one in his family thought this was what would happen. They are astonished even as they are  honored, but given the course of the next 40 years we know that at least someone thought or said: wait a minute, are you sure you want to be this successful?

Mark is the gospel we are reading for a period on Sundays during this summer if we follow the common Lectionary. Tradition has it that John Mark wrote the book while in Rome and that it was drawn from the preaching of Peter. There are few actual words spoken by Jesus. His teaching depends on parables which by definition call on us to seek out understanding. These are stories that make a point and may be carried in memory to be called upon when needed or when insight offers new conclusions that bring new insight.  We are told that those closest to Jesus understood although their actions later tend to make us wonder if that is true. Others are left to ponder. We with the benefit of history can think through these tales as we do this morning.

As Jesus moves through Galilee he draws close to his home and we get a sense that all is not right with his family. His mother and brother come to watch him worried that all is not right. They are concerned about him.  They are afraid he has lost his mind. It is one thing to wish for a child to be a Torah scholar, but where did he get these notions?

Think for a moment of your dreams for your children, of your dreams for yourself. We have so many.  The poet Freyla Manfred sums up the end of so many of our dreams;
Imagine This
Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,,,,
Smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,
Teaching every child you meet the true story
Of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.”

And what is the true story? Sounds a bit like the musings of a Marathon bombing survivor.  The true story is that things often do not go as hoped in this “sweet, sad, tragic, 4th of July world”.  His family had hopes for Jesus; he might become a great teacher. More simply they wanted him to do well, have a family, live near home and here he is coming into town on a river of rumors, stirring the gossip in the neighborhood with stories of what he has done.
Jesus preaching in his own religious community left his audience gasping: not at his wisdom but at his arrogance.
When told his mother and brothers are there he redefines family: “who are my mother and my brothers? And looking around on those near him, he said, “Here are my mothers and my brothers!”  How often have we heard these stories as children become adults and redefine their lives in “this sad, sweet, tragic, 4th of July world.”?

 “Where did you get these notions, they asked?” the question is appropriate and in keeping with the tenor of the gospel of Mark.  Held to be the earliest of the gospels, Mark is also a minimalist text.  The book tends to offer few details, The other gospels expand and fill in gaps in information but in Mark the story unfolds in short, terse paragraphs leaving us to go elsewhere for details. We do well to remember than the church in Mark’s day had no place else to go. It is only later that we enjoy multiple witnesses.

And now he is in town teaching at the local synagogue. He has come with tales of healing and parables about seeds sown and an uncertain harvest. He speaks of the smallest seed growing into the largest tree. People wonder who speaks for him. Sometimes those whom he has aided have been told to tell no one: “remain silent, tell no one.”  Sometimes the word is tell every one.  He even healed a woman who was not Jewish and left a leader of the synagogue waiting while he did so. Now he gave life to Jairus’ daughter, but the symbolism spoke volumes. The “A” list had been turned upside down. The other, the stranger was as important as the conventionally religious.

His loudest fan was a man who was said to have been insane. He had gone around the neighborhood telling people Jesus had made him whole. He was about as welcome as Donald Trump would be at a celebration of Cinco de Mayo. What is a mother to do in this “sad, sweet, tragic 4th of July world.”?

Comparing the world of Jesus’ day to our 4th of July world may be a bit misleading. The 4th of July exudes triumphalism; there was little of that in Nazareth. We know how the story ends, but forget how it began: in defeat. Mark leaves out the details, but the prospects are not good. Jesus is said to have been nearly powerless in his home regions; only a few told stories of being healed.

When he sends out the 12 on a mission they go not as conquerors, but rather as those who may be ignored. If so, they are told not to act with power but rather to move on to where they are welcome. Go on, do your work. What he is specific about is that they are not to seek out the plush places, the comfortable B and Bs but to stay among the people and do their work.
This 4th of July we are grappling with enormous dislocation. The stock-markets hang on the results of the Greek vote.  We live in fear of the other named  Isis. And we talk of Jesus who came home and was rejected. It is one thing to be rejected by strangers, but these were people who knew him. And yet he continued to teach and heal in a sad, sweet, tragic, 4th of July world.

Maybe things would be clearer if he had spoken more pointedly rather than  using parables, but people were challenged by them: looking but not seeing, listening but not understanding and when they did see; when did understand they turned the world upside down.

And if Jesus came to Cambridge and taught in parables what might he say to us:

There was a Bible study in a large city.
The great and the small were gathered to share
And a stranger came in and sat with them and challenged them.
When he could not bear their words, he took
Out his gun and killed them.
The nation was shaken and uncertain, but the people of the city were steadfast.
There were those still in pain who forgave the stranger.
And some took down their flags, the long standing symbols of oppression.
And some said, it was such a small gesture in response to such a great tragedy. Why did it take so long?
That is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven!

And the Supreme Court said that those who love may have the protection of law.
And some said God was displeased
having forgotten that the Teacher when asked had said that doing justice was required of those who loved God and the greatest commandment was to love the neighbor as we love ourselves.

There was a young man who committed a horrific act.
He was part of our community though his origins were distant; he went to school in Cambridge.
When brought to trial he remained silent and showed no emotion as he heard the account of his crimes.
And he learned of the pain he had wrought.
When he spoke he offered an apology-
He is young and unschooled.
His words were imprecise; his manner rough.
And those who wished to hear him found the words
Unsatisfactory and he remains a stranger to those who lived near him. He will die for his crime.
The forgiveness of Charleston does not reach to Cambridge.

That is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven!
Let those with eyes see and those with ears hear.

The word of the Lord in our sad, sweet, tragic 4th of July world.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lavender Graduation: A charge to the LGBT graduates of MIT May 8, 2015

Lavender Graduation

Since Abigail asked me to speak I have thought a good deal about what to say. I realized over the last few years that my theme has essentially been the same. I want you all to recognize how proud we are of you and what you have accomplished. And I want you to know that we have no illusions about the resilience it has taken to reach today.  I can cherry pick illustrations of progress, but I cannot forget the obstacles that continue to crop up: tensions with families, significant slights, the fear that is always present about whether or not acceptance is real or feigned.

You are graduating and like parents we would like to be sure you are safe so my inclination is to tell you that there are more supportive resources out there than you may know about.

But I remember a poem by Maria Mazziotti Gillan:

Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know

At eleven, my granddaughter looks like my daughter did,
The slender body, that thin face, the grace
With which she moves. When she visits, she sits with my daughter;
They have hot chocolate together
And talk. The way my granddaughter moves her hand, the
Concentration with which she does everything,
Knocks me back to the time when I sat with my daughter at
This table and we talked and I watched the grace
With which she moved her hands, the delicate way she lifted
The heavy hair back behind her ear.

My daughter is grown now, married in a fairy-tale wedding,
Divorced, something inside
Her broken, healing slowly. I look at my grand-daughter and
I want to save her, as I was not able
To save my daughter. Nothing is that simple, all our plans,
Carefully made, thrown into a cracked
pile by the way love betrays us.

I know that there are strong communities of religious folk who are open and affirming. There are strong communities of progressive thinkers who are not religious who are open and affirming. I want to assure you that what you need can be found so you can navigate the roiling waters of life after MIT. That is what I would like to say but two recent bits of information crossed my path and made me think that I was being a bit too sanguine. I understand that love sometimes betrays us.

The first bit of data that challenged my thinking came from reading about Mary Bonauto, the talented Maine resident who has argued the cause of marriage rights up to the Supreme Court. Bonauto said that when she first started arguing the case she turned to her religious community for support. She loved her religious community but she realized that she would have to go elsewhere for support. That was over a decade ago, and some things have evolved and changed in such communities, but it still can be a crap shoot. I do not want to mislead you. Things we love can betray us.

The second jarring note was sounded by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post writing about Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who spoke to the Secular Coalition of America whose mission is “to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.”  He talked of his growing unease with “rigid certainty” on questions related to religious truth and of the pain and discomfort caused by outdated teachings and moral codes. But then he went on to tell of his own experience as a Senator and a person of faith who tried to speak to the progressive community at Yale Law School about his faith commitments and was greeted by what he called “real bigotry.” For many progressives, “accepting someone of expressed faith was one of the hardest moments of tolerance and inclusion for them.” But the Senator is hard nosed and as a result he  pushed on and learned of the origins of the experiences of these progressive folk who had personal “experiences of deep pain and of alienation that had driven a big wedge between them and religion.”

His conclusion was deceptively simple: We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” And that I have concluded is the message I need to leave with you today. Despite your accomplishments; despite our desire to protect you, we cannot guarantee that the path tomorrow will be smooth, but we have confidence in you and in your strength  to overcome adversity and to brush aside the betrayals of love and other experiences.

So while I would like to send you forth with words of comfort and encouragement, I am going to have to tell you that we need you to continue to be courageous and challenging of the status quo. We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” It is tempting to turn inward, to wall ourselves off from a culture that causes needless pain, but we must continue to engage and challenge that culture. That is your charge. We have faith in you and we will be here to support you.  Now, go with our blessings.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Positive Power of a Simple Greeting

Morrie Schwartz was a Sociology Professor at Brandeis University who was diagnosed with ALS in the 1990’s.  He did a host of interviews about life, dying and other fascinating topics.  Many were published in the book, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom.  I thought it quite applicable to use excerpts from one of Morrie’s “Tuesdays” interviews, i.e., “The Power of Saying Hello,” in my “Tuesdays in the Chapel” presentation.  The entire article can be found at, @1995-2007, Project Genesis, Inc.
Reading #1: Excerpt
The Power of Saying Hello
Truly noticing others is fundamental to their self-worth

" ...We all need recognition. We need to feel that we matter. This doesn't mean that we should be running for glory and honor, but every human being has a basic and natural desire to be acknowledged as significant.

And we can give some of this significance to others simply by greeting them properly. We may not put much thought into how and when we say hello to someone, and we should ponder it more deeply.
The first thing to realize, which we certainly don't always think about, is that when we greet people with a 'good morning', we are actually giving them a blessing. We are telling them that we hope they will have a good morning. This is why, if you ever meet a grumpy person who responds to your 'good morning,' with a line such as, 'Who said it was good?', the response, besides being rude, is actually inaccurate. We are not defining the morning by saying 'good morning' rather, we are offering a blessing that it should be a good morning.

All greetings are meant in this way. The classical 'shalom aleichem' means literally that 'peace should be upon you', an excellent blessing which we always need…

The explanation would appear to be that when we see a fellow human being, we are obliged to acknowledge his value and importance. ...But even in the greeting, you display your respect for the person even more when you offer him a blessing that he should succeed, that things should go well, that he should have a 'good morning.'

And the way in which we greet someone is also important. ...We are not supposed to give someone a quick hello; rather, we should give them eye contact, thought, and genuine loving attention. 
Morrie Schwartz did this:

"I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique. . .And it didn't stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this—instead of a grumble from a waitress, or a bus driver, or a boss?

'I believe in fully present,' Morrie said. 'That means you should be with the person you're with. When I'm talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I'm not thinking of what's coming up this Friday….I am talking to you. I am thinking about you." (Pages 135-136)…"

 “You’re not from around here, are you?” or “Do I KNOW you?”  I have gotten such responses a lot during my almost 18 years in Massachusetts.  My friends warned me against moving to Massachusetts.  They said that people here have a reputation for being unfriendly and typically ignore each other.  I chuckled in disbelief and accepted the job at MIT anyway.  Much to my surprise and disappointment, my friends were right!  But not about everybody in Massachusetts, and certainly not about most of the residents being unfriendly.  Over time, I learned that I just needed to first find a way to get their attention to open the channels of communication. 
Even as recently as last month, I was walking down Mass. Ave. with my colleague, Kate.  We passed by a middle-aged gentleman walking in the opposite direction.  In my usual fashion, I looked him in the eyes as we approached him, smiled, and said: “Hi! How are you doing?”  I obviously shocked him because he continued to walk past us, then stopped in his tracks about 20 feet away, turned around and asked: “You’re not from around here, are you?”  Kate and I looked at each other and laughed as we exchanged a few friendly words with the man.  I asked him something like: “Why would you ask me something like that?”  He responded with something to the effect that: “People here do not greet each other; they typically act like they don’t even see you.”  We agreed that was a shame, said goodbye, and continued on our respective journeys.  I could see that my simple greeting brought a little bit of joy to this stranger’s day, as it did to mine, and likely to Kate’s as well. 
Although I get the question: “You’re not from around here, are you?” framed in a positive way a little more often these days, I am at a loss as to why this is so challenging for some people.  After all, I am only trying to acknowledge a fellow human being.  I believe that one never knows how a simple, warm greeting can impact another person’s day; or sometimes, their entire life!  I know that my day always gets a bit better when someone returns one of my greetings with a kind nod, a warm smile, or a pleasantly surprised look.  Their eyes light up.  It is a great feeling.  Better yet, I am elated when a stranger greets me first, which is not too often.  Not to worry, I shall continue to greet people in an effort to make “my” day, even if I don’t make “their” day with my simple greetings.
I have greeted strangers in and around MIT since I came here in 1998.  I am happy to report that many of those “strangers” are now valued colleagues and alumni whom I highly respect and whom I hope respect me.  People have taught me lessons as well.  For example, a wonderful student, who has long since graduated, raised my awareness (actually, my lack thereof), of the effect of my simple greetings on others.  One day I greeted her as I rushed past her in the hallway with my usual:  “Hi!  How are you doing?”  She responded by asking me why I never stopped to allow her to tell me how she was doing.  It never occurred to me that my choice of words might be interpreted as an invitation to stop and share what was going on in an individual’s life.  I learned a great lesson that day, i.e., people need not only recognition through greetings, they sometimes need a little companionship.  I try to never pass up such opportunities anymore.
In closing, simple, warm greetings can make people realize that they are not alone in this vast universe; that they can see beyond the tiny screens on their iPhones, hear beyond the sounds coming from their huge headsets, and hopefully notice that they are being and deserve to be acknowledged as members of our special community – namely the human race.  As Morrie Schwartz said:
 Reading #2: Excerpt
“...We can all be a little more sensitive to other people's needs—especially their need for recognition and companionship. This is how we help them realize their tremendous value as human beings."

Thank you.

Toni P. Robinson, Ombudsperson, Office of the President