January 12

Right Relationship

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

Click here to hear just the sermon

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Good morning! Welcome to a new year, a new decade, a time that years ago seemed so far off in the future – 2020. We’re solidly into this new year now, having finished our holiday festivities and returned to our “regular” lives of work and school (although our students still have one more week of break to enjoy). We’re back to early morning risings, rush-hour commutes, and the horizon of what this new year will have in store for us individually, in our local and national communities, and the world.

Like some of you, I was fortunate enough to spend my holiday break with my family. Christmas and New Year’s fell on Wednesdays this year, extending my time with them just a little bit longer than normal and allowing for some deep rest and relaxation. It also meant that I was treated to my mom’s cooking and baking. Baking is a big part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. My mom mixes her fruitcake batter sometime in November every year so that it can be steamed and then wrapped in sherry-soaked cheesecloth and aluminum foil, stored in the large black lobster pot in our basement until it is appropriately aged and ready to be distributed to family, friends, and neighbors at Christmastime. I know what you’re thinking – fruitcake is the ultimate Christmas-time gift punchline, but people LOVE my mom’s fruitcake. In addition to fruitcake there’s a day of baking pumpkin bread, and then, of course, baking Christmas cookies: Sugar jumbles, peanut butter Hershey’s kiss, mincemeat (my dad’s favorite), peanut butter, and the old standard, chocolate chip.

All of this baking in my youth has led to my own love of baking as an adult. But there’s something about the way my mom makes things that I still haven’t quite been able to capture. Maybe it’s because the recipes I have inherited from her aren’t actually the recipes she uses. For example, the recipe I have for pumpkin bread, which she copied from her own recipe card, is incorrect. I only found this out at Christmas this year. Number one – she doesn’t use nutmeg. Even though it’s in the recipe. Only cinnamon will do. Number two – the recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar…the recipe yields six loaves, so it’s not as sugary as you’re thinking. But my mom only uses one cup of sugar. Just one. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the recipe that I have. Granted the pumpkin bread I made still came out just fine, even with using nutmeg and the 3 cups of sugar, but it didn’t taste like I how I remembered. Those little tweaks and shifts in family recipes often yield better results, but we only find them out by either making mistakes or through direct communication from the recipe owner. There are many other recipes I could list where my mom instructs to add things like flour “until it’s enough” – actions you can only learn through practiced trial and error. The recipe is a guideline, but not the rule of how to get things just right. Sometimes, it’s through relationship with another that we really find out the “right” way to do something.

Many of us struggle with wanting to get things “right.” People seek a plan, direction, a recipe if you will for finding the best way to create the most fulfilling life, whatever that might mean for them individually. We compare ourselves to others and feel less accomplished or like we don’t know which path to take sometimes. Wouldn’t it be great to have a recipe, or a set of instructions that can help us learn what to do when aspects of our lives don’t turn out the way we expected? How can we find those necessary edits or tricks that can help us accomplish the things we need to do?

There’s a plethora of decisions and actions that may worry us today. Some of them are personal, like how to live a healthy, generous, and loving life. Many are beyond our personal control, however. We see our communities divided by ideologies and bigotry. We witness global powers threatening and, in some cases, executing attacks on other countries, leaving civilians injured or killed and provoking fear, anxiety, and hatred. Natural disasters, such as the wildfires in Australia and the compounding earthquakes in Puerto Rico, some on scales we’ve never witnessed before, destroy homes, habitats, take lives, and make recovery seem improbable. Clearly these kinds of problems have no set out guides for response – but we have ethical insights from our religious tradition that can help to guide us in times of trouble such as these. Combined with our lived experience and our relationships with others, we learn how best to live out our Christian calling in the world, sometimes making mistakes, but hopefully moving toward sharing love and establishing justice.

Prophetic language is an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The prophets found in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament as many Christians refer to it, perform a variety of functions for the Israelite community. Prophets have the power to see and name what is happening presently while at the same time bringing attention to the possibilities of what could be. They operate at multiple levels within the community: as an ethical guide, a theological interpreter, a political critic, and an advocate for social welfare. The prophetic voice changes as the community and its circumstances change. When the people or leaders are not living into the will of God, prophets bring harsh warnings of potential outcomes and remind them of the important commitment they’ve established with God through their covenantal relationship. When the community is in disarray, prophets remind the people of their ethical responsibilities to one another and to God. Prophets can also challenge the status quo to bring about necessary change in the hearts and minds of leaders and the people, sometimes challenging temporal authority in order to seek true divinely-inspired justice for the community. The prophetic voice carries the nuances of behavior that go beyond the regular teachings and beliefs found in sacred texts and practices, connecting the abstract ideals of God’s will to direct actions in particular contexts. It provides the guidance similar to notes scribbled in the margins of a long established recipe.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we are confronted with Deutero-Isaiah transmitting the words of God to the Israelites who are living in a time of exile. Although the language used initially is the singular “he”, God is speaking to the community of Israel as a whole. They, collectively, are “the servant.” The Babylonians have just captured Judah and destroyed the temple in this context, leaving the Israelites without a home and with a feeling of hopelessness. The Israelites, reasonably, could have been so anguished and angry about their exile that they would not trust in God. They could have disbanded as a community and lost trust in one another. They could have turned on other communities and harmed them in their frustration. But instead, the voice of God through the prophet reminds them of their right relationship with God and others. What is appropriate is not to take out frustration and anger on others, but to be a light to the nations of the world, a community established in justice and righteousness. A community that leads by not harming those who are oppressed, but who strives to cease such oppression from existing. Establishing a community that does not see their defeat in Judah as an end, but as the possibility of new beginning.

In today’s Gospel reading, the concept of what is “right” or appropriate comes to us in a different way. Jesus approaches John to be baptized by him. John doesn’t understand this request. To him, Jesus has more authority. Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus knows for what has to take place in his life that he must be baptized by John, for it will “fulfill all righteousness”. It is the “right” way to do this. The right execution of being in relationship with one another for Jesus is to not assert his authority by becoming the one who baptizes, but in modeling that through baptism, God calls us in to holy relationship. John’s calling in the world is to be a baptizer. It is his vocation. For Jesus to disregard John’s calling in the world, particularly as a prophet foretelling Jesus’ own arrival, would go against God’s will. In the servant-relationship that is formed by Jesus’ presence, he reverses that structure of authority. The scene of Jesus’ baptism is an indication of what his ministry will look like. He goes to the wilderness, to the literal margins of society, and is baptized because it is the right action to take.

We also know John’s baptism of Jesus is right because the Holy Spirit appears and the voice of God states that Jesus is God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Matthew echoes the introduction of of Isaiah 42, connecting the mission of the beloved servant with Jesus’ ministry in the world. John and Jesus’ relationship is one that establishes the correct order of events, but the presence of God in three forms creates yet another relationship which we echo in our own baptism. We enter into a relational community – with God of course, but also with those who follow Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is claimed by God, just as we are claimed by God through our own baptism. God chooses us to be a part of the large family found through Christ. We are all siblings together sharing in the love and care exemplified by Jesus and sustained in us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus instructs us through his ministry and teaching what God’s will is to look like in the world and through following that will, we create a more just society.

In our baptism, we take on the call to fulfill all righteousness. Part of our relationship with the Divine is to act faithfully in alignment with that which God calls us to. While divine will is not always easy to discern – we don’t have doves descending or the voice of God proclaiming us to others – we have basic tenets which we know are central to our beliefs. Jesus’ ministry and death teaches us how God’s will can be lived out. Loving our neighbor and our enemy. Seeking justice for those who are voiceless, poor, oppressed, or imprisoned. Coming together to in community to worship and share our lives with one another. Practicing forgiveness against those who have wronged us. While we may know these ideas to be central to our identity as Christians, complex social/political/ethical situations can cause us to question what exactly is the right way to go about living out our faith.

Earlier this week I was seated at table with religious professionals from around the Boston area. We all work on college or university campuses and help students navigate their spiritual journeys, asking big questions, facing the realities of today with their personal histories and identities. While the meeting convened was to discuss an inter-collegiate interfaith experience, we ended up discussing the overall climate on our campuses and the best ways in which we could support our students in. The college campus is a microcosm of the outside world. It may not necessarily reflect all of the challenges of the world completely, but in some cases it amplifies conversations that only simmer slowly underneath the cultural milieu of the rest of the country or world. In a time like ours, on the precipice of an election, my colleagues and I worried if rhetoric would become more vitriolic than it has already been and how we would weather possible challenges in our communities this year. With a rise in anti-Semitic acts, bigoted violence against people of color, assertions of political leaders as demigods, and the continued exclusion of LGBTQ people from religious leadership, students have plenty of questions about how to best navigate confrontational situations, or whether to engage in them at all.

We ended up pausing our meeting to hold a 45-minute discussion about ally-ship and what that means for us as administrators, as people of faith, as religious leaders, and as those who are in positions of power in comparison to those experiencing oppression. What does it mean to bring together people who share opposing views? When is it a healthy way of learning and listening, and when is it unhealthy and abusive? When do we encourage students to have conversation even if they don’t agree, and when is it okay for them to not participate in those conversations? How do we execute this kind of work in a way that is supportive, truthful, and generous while still challenging that which is hateful and stands in opposition to our beliefs? How can we encourage our students to take part in this work, and when is it time for us to step in? We want to seek justice for our students, but we also don’t want to interfere in conversations that might not be our places to fight.

What we discovered in our discussion was that our need to be in right relationship within these situations depended upon us identifying who we are – the many identities we hold – and knowing when our voices were needed to amplify those who are facing oppression. As one of my colleagues put it, we need to be hearing in a new way those who are hurting and focusing on how our relationships matter. It is through this self-reflection that we can see the ways in which our society may privilege certain aspects about our existence that prevents us from fulling understanding the harm experienced by others. For Christians, we can rest in the assurance that we are baptized in the name of the Triune God, that God bestows grace upon us no matter how difficult the decisions we must make and the wrong turns or stumbles we may encounter. We must claim our Christian identity in the face of evil and boldly state, “I am baptized!” as Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us in her article, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’.

The longer I try to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world the more I am convinced despite my proclivity to cynicism that there are indeed forces that seek to defy God. And nowhere are we more prone to encroaching darkness than when we are stepping into the light. If you have ever experienced sudden discouragement in the midst of healthy decisions, or if there is a toxic thought that will always send you spiraling down, or if there is a particular temptation that is your weakness then I make the following suggestion: take a note from Martin Luther’s playbook and defiantly shout back at this darkness “I am Baptized” not I was, but I am baptized. [1]

I would add that it will also benefit us to be open to listening to those harmed and naming ways that we can be in right relationship with them while also being in right relationship with God. That is what seeking justice is all about. While God gives us the ingredients necessary to live in alignment with Divine will, sometimes we need additional instructions that come from observing our context and listening to those set at the margins of society, or listening to those with no voice at all.

Our desire to live into the righteousness and justice that God sets as a standard for those called to him is echoed throughout the history of Christianity. Figuring out our ethical responsibilities is a challenge, but we are guided by those who came before us and those who are around us now. Martin Luther, in his treatise on the Two Kinds of Righteousness reminds us what our commitment to seeking justice and righteousness means for those who follow Christ in Baptism:

“For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself wish to be taught. You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge and punish. For this is Christ’s example for us…”[2]

Being in right relationship with one another causes us to change how we see the world. Our willingness to hear the Gospel enables us to welcome and include those who feel excluded, to console those who are suffering, and to seek justice for those who face oppression. It opens our eyes to possibility. Our ability to listen to those who suffer and pay attention to the world around us gives us indications of the best ways to apply the Gospel in the world. We see what is, but also what can be in a deeply broken world.


-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’, Sojourners, January 20, 2011,

[2] Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 162.

January 5

Word Become Flesh In A New Year

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Jeremiah 31:7-14

John 1:1-18

Click here to hear just the sermon

Welcome to the year 2020!  Today is also the last Sunday of Christmas, and so we begin this year with one of the most famous Gospel readings, all about the Word of God.

Words are tricky things.  They are our major form of communication, and, they compose lies as well as truth.  Their amount is increasing in our lives, and not necessarily for the good.  Certainly in 2019 many of us might have joined with Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame as she exclaimed in exasperation, “Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!”

2020 looks to be more of the same, with debates replaced by conventions, an ongoing impeachment process, executive orders, church conferences, broadcast and media news, and legislative decrees.   All of this is in addition to our daily life, here at BU in academic discourse, teaching, and writing, and in our ongoing conversations with family and friends.  Even in our prologue to John’s Gospel, the Word is defined and explained with many words, that make up a number of metaphors, that sound a bit abstract and idealistic.

The use of many words is perhaps understandable, given John’s intended readers both Jewish and Greek.  In Hebrew thought, the Logos, the Word, was God’s action in the world and God’s instruction.  When in worship we say “The Word of the Lord”, and then follow with “Thanks be to God.” after the Scripture readings, it is said in part in this sense of acknowledgement and acceptance of God’s action and instruction.  Here in John’s Gospel, the Logos, the Word, is the medium by which God is made known to human beings, just as human thought and plans are made known and expressed by speech.  Either way, the assumption is that the Word of God is explainable, rational, and logical.  An agent of creation, agent of salvation, life, light, truth, revelation of God.  We’ve got it.

But then there’s that phrase.  “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us …”

Flesh.  Such an evocative word.  Not so explainable.  Not so rational.  Not so logical.  Flesh.  Fleshy.  To say that the Word became flesh is to say that God entered into human life under the ordinary conditions of humanity.  Yes, the Logos could speak to us in our own language of speech and rationality.  And, the message of life, light, truth, and revelation now is seen and recognized through a fleshy veil, with all the capacities, limitations, and vulnerabilities that all of flesh is heir to.  The flesh adds to God’s communication with us and our communication with God and with each other, from a place too deep for words.

Because the word Logos also translates as sound, and sound, not words, is the language of the flesh.  The yips, coos, cries, gasps, laughs, squeaks, hisses, groans, shouts, pants, and moans of the body in pain, grief, or joy escape us, even when we try to control them with  “I’m fine.” or as we ignore them.  We spend a great deal of time and effort with words, that often mislead or lie.  The sounds of the flesh, so often involuntary from that place too deep for words, might equally bear information for our understanding of God, ourselves, and each other.

Theologian and disability activist Sharon V. Betcher considers the realities of embodiment in her book Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh: A SecularTheology for the Global City.  “Social Flesh” is a term coined by social theorist Christine Beasley and political scientist Carol Bacchi.  “Social Flesh” describes an ethical and political construct that emphasizes “the mutual reliance of people across the globe” on social resources, infrastructure, and space.  This behavioral approach promotes the development of social virtues out of the realities of our embodied coexistence, and posits that life itself requires social, political, and economic support in order for life to continue, in order for life to be livable.  Given the realities of social flesh, an emphasis on rugged individualism does not adequately recognize the fragility and precariousness of human life or, by my own extension, the fragility and precariousness of the life of the planet.

Betcher builds on the work of philosopher Judith Butler to begin to construct a practical ethic of social flesh.  Butler notes that as human beings we are “of necessity exposed to [one another’s] vulnerability and singularity.  The word “flesh” “names ‘a precarious … vulnerability to the other.’”  Our communal situation thus consists of learning “to handle and to honor” this inescapable and necessary exposure.

Betcher builds on these ideas to begin to develop the idea of the ethics of social flesh with the religious idea of kenosis, a complex term that she here defines as radical openness to the other.  She notes that her book has as a primary source “Christianity’s ancient, though not always obvious or normatively dominant, love of the flesh”, and cites Scholar of Late Antiquities Virginia Burrus in her work on 3rd Century Christian writers to declare that flesh “became the site of a deliberately offensive, counter-cultural faith.”  As Betcher expands on this, our thinking with and from flesh allows us to acknowledge and talk about what is often hidden in our social or cultural agenda but what is true of our fleshy lives:  ecstasy and pleasure, certainly, and also pain, difficulty, aging, disease, error, corporeal limit, interruption, and encounter, and the epiphanies and critical insights that come with them.  Social flesh recognizes that the “anxiety, fear, disgust, … and shame that haunt flesh” can be commandeered by technologies, politics, and advertisement.  It equally recognizes the temptations within ourselves, to aggression towards other bodies, to isolation from other bodies, to the division of bodies into normal or superior versus unnatural or degenerate.

Betcher’s thought assumes humanity’s urbanization as the context for her work.  Within the next 20 or so years, two-thirds of the world’s population of 7 billion and counting will live in cities.  Demographers note that there are clear trends toward 59 cities with populations between one and five million in Africa, 65 such cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 253 such cities in Asia.  Both those who live in cities and those who do not feel their effects:  on bodies, on the land, on dreams, through depopulation with its loss of skills and capital, through the disappearance of generational belonging and through loss of contact with the natural world.  Boston itself has changed from being the human-scale, walkable city to a place of high rises and privatization of public space, the disappearance of neighborhoods to corporate greed and collections of transients, the increasing density of people and their cars, increasing lack of affordability in housing, and the disappearance of practical local businesses and public services.  And Boston is not alone in these developments.  Social flesh and its obligations, if any are acknowledged, is a challenge across the country, as any formerly and currently livable city can attest.

So Betcher lifts up the idea of a secular theology.  The term “secular” here does not mean non-religious.  Instead it is based on the seculars of medieval Europe.  These were uncloistered religious persons.  They carried their spiritual passion and sense of love of God, self, and neighbor into their daily life in the city.  “ … seculars lived in the city, on behalf of the city, but [with] alternate values and attitudes that challenged the city’s materialism and isolation.”  Kind of sounds like Marsh Chapel’s mission statement, doesn’t it:  “A heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city.”  Medieval early capitalism also caused poverty, homelessness, and displacement of the poor and vulnerable.  Seculars – both women and men, gentry and common – worked for the city’s care by setting up alternative  communities that over time became hospitals, schools, retreat houses, and ritual spaces.  Betcher notes that spiritual practices of sowing trust amidst fear, presenting alternative forms of pleasure to those who advance the aesthetics of capitalism, and the offer of  friendship and neighborliness can humanize and renew cities.  Such practice starts by being vulnerable to others, by regenerating the practice of social flesh.

Betcher examines social flesh, its obligations, and the context of urbanism through the lens of disability theory.  She herself experienced the amputation of her leg after a chance fall and wound led to an infection that threatened her life.  For her, the literal set-aside inherent in the category “disabilities” reflects “a history of deeply embedded resentment toward the precariousness of life itself.”  It protects society from the vulnerability of birth and the risk of change.  It marginalizes certain bodies and excludes them from considerations of aesthetic and social value.  Urbanism is currently based, in terms of the ideal populace, on a neoclassical Western norm of male physical perfection, with its assumptions of eternal youth, physical mobility in all situations, and unchanging health.  It also assumes a class structure of economic elites who somehow deserve more of the amenities of the city and determine what those will be, while other people become an embarrassment or an obstacle.  With its injuries and insults of geographical and architectural and thus social inaccessibility, contemporary urbanism excludes bodies that struggle to survive, seeks to control who may appear in public, and seeks to determine whose lives are expendable.

Betcher’s exploration of social flesh and its construct of our mutual reliance on social resources, and the need to develop social virtues based on the realities of human and planetary interdependence, is wide-ranging, complex, and far beyond the scope of this sermon.  With her context of urbanism viewed through the lens of disability theory she does present a number of practices that encourage social flesh, based on the idea of contemporary urban Christians as modern-day seculars.  I would like to lift up two of them here.

The first is an intentional acceptance and exploration of suffering:  for what it reveals of God, of what it reveals about ourselves, and of what it reveals about our common human experience.  Betcher explores the work of Dorothee Soelle, mystic and social activist, who wrote that even in the most comfortable life, “one must come to accept some measure of pain”, to listen to the sounds of the flesh as it were, and to learn from them as a kind of teaching.  Each “act of suffering [becomes] an exercise.”, so that we work through it with perception of the sounds that come through the flesh as pain and grief, because “Nothing can be learned from suffering unless it is worked through.”  Love of God, self, neighbor, and world becomes “a love that avoids placing conditions on reality”, so that the acceptance of suffering is not masochism but is part of a yes to life as a whole.  For Soelle, the only way we might become “those who love the world enough to protest injustice would be by learning to suffer”, to learn the sounds of the language of the flesh and to pay attention and care to them for ourselves and for those amongst whom we live.

The second practice is that of forbearance, that Betcher defines as the acceptance of flaws, moral entanglements, frailties, and faults.  Within social flesh, with its fleshy relations and affects, “Forbearance is not a refusal to [seek or] claim justice.  [It is instead] restraint in the face of provocation, [restraint of] our own worst inclinations” in the face of fear, anger, disgust, or hurt.  Betcher relates her own challenges to this practice as she swims in a public pool with some whose cultural training has instilled a fear that physical injury is contagious, and that leads at least one person to strike out at her as she swims by.  She notes that there is not necessarily any reward for forbearance.  Instead, forbearance assumes that we are always changing and are mutually interdependent with one another.  Forbearance overcomes fear, anger, disgust, or hurt in favor of concern and care.  This does not mean mere tolerance of everything – we cannot deny the need to move for human rights and justice.  It does mean the kind of love of neighbor that does not disappear even in the middle of the defense of justice, even justice for ourselves.

This is not to say that the practice of forbearance in the context of modern urbanism does not have its challenges.  Poverty, violence, the looming results of climate change, and the increasingly felt need of governments to control people threaten to tear apart intimate social relations, the ability to cooperate, and any idea of practical solidarity.  But the practice of forbearance presents another reality, that social flesh can lead to a different way of life even in the challenges.  Betcher quotes theologian Alyda Faber, that Love “means the desire to stay near another person in their disorientation to the world, their wretchedness, their unloveability – the symptomatic excess of always unfinished efforts at social legitimation.”

This is the way that God loves us.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, in our disorientation, our wretchedness and suffering, our unloveability. God loves us by taking on the interdependence of word and flesh to communicate fully, on all of our own terms of our fleshy and soulful lives, to communicate the life, light, truth, and revelation of God’s love for us.  God loves us, and wants us to love them back.  It is a measure of God’s desire for relationship with us that God is willing to trust us enough to become interdependent with us in the taking on of our social flesh:  with its mutuality of vulnerability and limitation, with the common sounds of the flesh in both pleasure and suffering from that place too deep for words.  That is how God loves us, and proves it.

It is a new year.  2020 does promise to provide many, many words.  And we do have obligations to listen to them, with a grain of salt if need be.  And, we also might consider our mutual obligations to listen to the sounds that are the language of the flesh.  These will be our own sounds, as we are to love ourselves and care for ourselves.  They will also be the sounds of others, in places where the social flesh rejoices, and perhaps even more in the places where the social flesh suffers:  the sounds of children and parents torn apart at our border; the sounds of the burning of the trees in the forests and the sounds of panic and pain from the animals and people who live there; the sounds of grief from those who have lost loved ones in our routine of mass shootings enabled by our idolatry of the gun; the sounds of pain from those denied the benefits of social flesh through constructions of economic, social, geographic, and architectural inaccessibility.  Maybe then our communication with God, self, and neighbor will also be complete, as God’s communication with us is complete, word and flesh together.  Maybe then our priorities will become more clear, for ourselves and all those with whom we are mutually interdependent:  God, neighbor, and the planet.

The Holy Gospel, according to St. John:  The Word became flesh and lived among us … .  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

December 29

What Did You Learn in 2019?

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 63: 7-9

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Click here to hear just the sermon

What did you learn in 2019?  It is a question fit for our Gospel read this year, that of Matthew.  Matthew is a teacher.  His Gospel is meant to teach, to edify.  The promise of God is fulfilled, he teaches, in Christ.  He asks us to learn and teach the same.  He guides us then to grow and learn, day by day, in Christ. 

Now we come to the turn of the year.  Our calendar is still rooted in Christmas, in the birth of Christ.  So, today’s date, December 29, 2019.  2019 years since…the birth of Christ.  Some day that way of keeping the global calendar could change, and of course there are other calendars abroad even now.  But for now, the birth of Christ marks still the turn of the ages. 

Our secular calendar carries this week a different turn, from the old year to the new.  It is often a time for reflection and rumination on what has been, in light of what may be.  In homiletical meditation, briefly, this morning, perhaps we could reflect and ruminate together on just what we have learned in 2019.

In a way, coming together in worship, Sunday by Sunday, is regularly a moment for such reflection and rumination.  As the year ends, perhaps we owe ourselves a fuller and finer rumination in ordered worship.

Those who grace our presence in worship, each week, and those who listen in prayer from afar each week, make up a generous and disciplined community.   In worship you began this year, last Epiphany, including a recognition of Martin Luther King Jr., one Sunday, and a Bach Cantata another (these Cantata Sundays, twice a term, have become distinctive, deepening moments for us, through the year).  In worship you entered the season of Lent, listening for the Gospel in reflection on the voice of Saint John of the Cross (our thirteenth Lenten theological conversation partner, 10 Calvinists and 3 Catholics, with the next 7 also to come from the Roman tradition, including this spring St. Theresa of Avila).  In worship you fully devoted yourselves to the special services of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, including 4 Easter services.  In worship you recognized the spring ceremonial University moments, as you did again in the fall.   In worship you received the thirteenth annual National Summer Preacher Series, on the theme of ‘Faith in Community’, as you will again this summer 2020 on the theme ‘Matthew and Methodism’.  In worship, come autumn, you listened for the Gospel in Luke, on the trail health.  In worship, this very month, you offered to God and neighbor 10 different services of worship, December 1 to December 29, as you balanced your earlier Lenten affirmation of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a now equally full communal immersion in the story of Jesus’ birth and life.  Both accounts, the death story and the life story, and their full balance together, are crucial to our walk of faith, each one needing the other, and we needing their intertwined acclamation.  In worship, you came for the Eucharist on the first Sunday of each month, this rare and beautiful congregation whose body increases in girth on communion Sundays.  In worship by various other special moments, you offered your prayers, presence, gifts and service to God and neighbor.  Particularly we thank those who helped lead on Tuesday this week for two Christmas Eve services, while the University itself was closed, and our staff and chaplains on well-deserved holiday.   And Sunday by Sunday, and season by season, in quiet, song, word, and sacrament, you have had a moment to reflect on what you have learned, in the week before, as we do this morning on the year as a whole.   So, what have you learned, in faith, this year?

We do learn from our experience.  Earlier this month we remembered here William Sloane Coffin, who taught us in and from experience.  His and other University Pulpit voices from the just preceding generation—Coffin at Yale, Peter Gomes at Harvard, Howard Thurman here at Marsh, James Leslie at Ohio Wesleyan, Robert Smith at Colgate, John McComb at Syracuse, and several others, ought to be remembered, even as the number or University pulpits has radically dwindled, for they taught us in and from experience.  Later this next month, on Martin Luther King Sunday, we will revisit the influence of Howard Thurman.  One other University pulpit voice has come strongly to mind, for whatever reason, this season.  His name was Ernest Gordon, Dean Ernest Gordon of Princeton University.

Our children lived for a time in New Jersey.  One day with them we visited Princeton.  In Princeton we passed the Princeton Chapel, for many years Dean Gordon’s chapel.  Some years ago, his obituary reported simply a man given to the service of naming Christ Jesus, who saves.  You can see a part of his life story in the old movie, “Bridge over the River Kwai”.  A Scottish pilot, Gordon was captured in 1942 and forced into slave labor in Burma.  He and others lived on a lump of rice a day.  Slackers were beaten.  The sick were shot.   Those who tried escape were executed.  “We were treated worse than animals”, he remembered.

Yet in that wartime bamboo hell, Gordon found salvation.  “Faith thrives when there is no hope but God”, he later repeated in his weekly sermons.  He survived, thanks to his comrades.  He survived his survival, thanks to his Lord.  He realized that “if he let himself be consumed by hatred, he would be squandering the life that had been given back to him.”   So, he returned from combat, went to Seminary, immigrated to the USA, was ordained, preached on Long Island, went as chaplain to Princeton, opposed McCarthy, supported King, opposed Vietnam, supported Russian dissidents.  In other words, he carefully read the Scripture, and tried to tell its truth about life and faith.  Here is his proverb: “Faith thrives where there is no hope but God”.   He taught what he had learned in experience. And once a year, in the spring, he preached a sermon about his experience in the 1940’s, about which he also wrote in a famous book.  While Chapel attendance was generally good in those years, it overflowed it is said each year on that Sunday.  He has been on the back of the mind this week, coming toward a New Year.

Now in the Bible, it is centrally the Book of Proverbs in which we find reflection on experience and faith.  But in a way, we all end up collecting and curating our own book of proverbs.  As my friend said, ‘you have to learn from other peoples’ mistakes, because we don’t have time to make enough mistakes on our own alone to learn what we need to learn—and we do learn most from mistakes, ours or others’.   Share with me sometime a proverb you have gleaned this past year, out of hard experience, like Dean Ernest Gordon did from his.  Send me a note, reading just, ‘I have learned this year that…’. Or whisper to me at the door, some Sunday, ‘I have learned this year that…’

This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.  Many people think this well-known proverb is from Proverbs, this well-known wisdom saying is from the Bible, it is so familiar and so tidy and so, well, wise.  It is not.  It is from the great Bard, William Shakespeare, in the words of Polonius, nearly 500 years ago.

In these 500 years past, the notion of the self, the independent person, the soul set free, has come over time out of the reformation, the renaissance, the spirit of capitalism, the emergence of democracy, and the very project at heart and depth of modernity.   We today as late or post moderns have acquired something of a distrust for such direct discourse about the self.  Darwin, Freud, Marx, and others, the probing doctors of disenchantment, have properly cautioned us, have rightly chastened us to realize our fragmented fragility, our life limitation, our complication by and in society and culture, sub-conscious and family.  We are always in part where we come from, in no small measure, we do see today, whether that origin is the mud deep of evolution, or the mind deep of dreams, or the class conflicts of history.  Determined to be our own most selves, we are nonetheless and largely ourselves as determined by forces well beyond our poor power to add or detract.   So, for all of Shakespeare’s concision and beauty of rhetoric and all, we nonetheless have our doubts.

Yet, for part of 2019 I kept a little journal, a little folder wherein to store proverbial or experiential learning.  No claim for spirited inspiration in any of these is here made. I have no word of the Lord on this, as Paul would say.  They are offered, by modest illustration, as of interest, and more so, as encouragement to you to pen, and share, your own, in the year to come.  What will you have you learned this coming year?

I have learned some things in our neighborhood.

That Fenway Park combines nature, structure, culture, and future, and has an applicable broad health in its design.   They did not destroy it to rebuild it.  They prized its nature.  They enhanced its structure.  They honored its culture.  And so, they opened its future.  Those of us who go regularly are the beneficiaries.   Of course, it occurs to think, renewal in churches, both physical and spiritual, might also benefit from that combination:  nature, structure, culture, future.

Speaking of which, also, that Bill Buckner was right, as he said: “Everyone in life has things that don’t go according to plan.”

That there is probably some religious connection we might make, right here, with the thousands of champagne bottles and robes and poses and photographs on Marsh Plaza each May at Commencement.  What are these students doing out here, anyway? It is fascinating.  Maybe we should give them each a Bible?

That my Jewish colleagues, here at Hillel House, are so right to emphasize the irreplaceable value of Shem Tov. A good name.

I have learned some things about communication.

That in email communication, a desire for Clarity can be read or mis-understood as a tone of Insistence

That the Japanese language, of which I am a fledgling and stumbling learner, carries a combination of delicacy and ferocity—Mishima.

That there is power in simple, memorable slogans, like HER: health, education, retirement.

That ‘as online life expands, neighborhood life and social trust decline’ (D Brooks NYT 3/12), that increasingly our current society is designed for internet vitality.

That in planning this triad helps: first Structure, then Order, then Communications.

That some sermons move from small and narrow in congregation and faith to large and broad in experience and outlook, and that is fine, since the world is our parish and we seek a heart strangely warmed.

That come Sunday we listen for a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

I have learned some things in self-care.

That Doctors default to easy choices later in the day, in decision fatigue, so they learn to guard against this.  (And why is it we still hold our church meetings at night? SMH. SMH. Shaking my head.

That to keep faith through change, we will need non anxious presence, and self-differentiation: thank you E Friedman.

From my worrisome dreams that humans are born to worry, but that Twain was right, ‘I have had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened’.

That as a preacher to try to read or listen to more sermons, one a day if you can, as my friend Chapin Garner advises.

That there is importance in not letting things sit, of finding quickly the startup energy to address things fast so that they don’t add valueless weight and stress.

That my dear friend, of blessed memory, Wylie Robson, Kodak Senior Vice President, was right:  ‘The secret to aging well is to learn to manage anxiety’.

That my mother was right to avoid ‘borrowing trouble’.  ‘I don’t need to borrow trouble’, she would say with wisdom.

I have learned some things about our country.

That Lincoln fought not just the moral evil, but, ‘the moral, social and political evil of slavery’. NYR 5/19

That social grace, as my son in law said, includes this: The power of diversity is not about correctness but correction. Being open to all means being open to change. (S Cady.)

That in 2000 1.6M migrants were apprehended at the southern border, but in 2016 only 190,000.

That before their simultaneous death, July 4, 1825, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shared 158 letters.

I have learned some practical things.

That when you are lost, traveling, it helps to ask for help, and it really makes a difference when people lend a hand, and guide you by the hand, lend a hand by guiding you ‘by the hand’.

That it is important to seek convergent aspirations, both personal and institutional, with those close to us, and those with whom we work.

That sometimes hope is the negation of negation. Hope is present by being absent.  Hope names what is absent. Where would we be without the help of things that do not yet exist? Future thought is the negation of negation. We need to take ownership, to paraphrase Marx, of ‘the means of prediction’.

 That we don’t all have to think in the same way to face in the same direction.

What have you learned in the neighborhood, about communication, regarding self-care, of our country, or in practice?

Share with me sometime a proverb you have gleaned this past year, out of hard experience.  Send me a note, reading just, ‘I have learned this year that…’. Or whisper to me at the door, ‘I have learned this year that…’.  And, a Blessed Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year, to you, 2020.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

December 22

Angel Voice

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 7: 10-16

Romans 1:1-7

Matthew 1:18-25

Click here to hear just the sermon


Late one night a few years ago snow was falling lightly in the far north, along the St. Lawrence.  They know snow there, on the river bank.  Coming over the border from Canada, and down south from the river, one enters a barren, flat land.  At 1am on this winter night, the residents of little country towns–Alexandria Bay and Clayton and LaFargeville– are asleep.  The dark moonscape surrounding the road, pock-marked with valleys and an occasional farmhouse, lies silent.  Fallow northern fields, farms all dead or quiet.  These fallow northern fields lie strange and difficult and stern in the moonlight.  With pelting flakes covering the windshield and darkening the moon, nature makes a seamless shroud, “blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp”.

To step aside from the world of our own doing puts us out into the dark, the scene of angels.  Angels.  To find ourselves outside the world of our control and comfort, puts us out into the cold moonlight, the place of the uncanny, strange and unfamiliar territory.  A return to church can be such a place.  A sudden diagnosis can be such a place.  An unplanned revisit to an old anger can be such a place.  Aging can be such a place. Unemployment can be such a place.  Loss of breath can be such a place.  The desire to end something before it is really ended can be such a place. Sometimes things end badly.  That is why they end.  Sometimes things end badly.  Therein lie the condition, the cause, the symptom, the root of the ending.  A shooting war, on the ground, not from the technological safety of many thousand feet, but in Syria, say, or the Ukraine, say, can be such a place.

Beyond the stream that imports information, sustenance and ‘comraderie’ into our homes and lives, there is this darkness.  It is a wondrous darkness, for all its unfamiliarity away from the blue haze of the computer screen.  Here the lights of the city, the comfort of urban dwellers, shroud and shadow. To step aside from the world of our own doing puts us out into the dark, the scene of angels.  Angels.  Here is the Good News of Advent: an Angel voice announces Jesus Christ in this darkness, the grace of Almighty God.


What of Matthew?

Our lectionary leads us through St.  Matthew this year.  So, let us carefully take an attentive look at the Gospel of Jesus Christ announced in Matthew, whose birth is accounted in the first chapter, which includes the first sermon, in Matthew.

 It is a good Advent exercise.  In the quiet breathing space of December, may we listen again for the true, the good, the right, the lasting.  Can moderation learn anything from analytical zeal?  Can moderation learn anything from caution?  Can Advent throw any light on Christmas?

“The birth of Jesus happened in this way…” How quick we are to speak, to stare, to decide, to judge.  To know.  Or think we know.  One teacher said to one student: “Your abundant knowledge stands in the way of your real education”.  I was glad for the advice.  How firm, much too firm, is our ostensible grasp of the ineffable, the wondrous, the real.  Our reverence, unlike that of the Holy Scripture, too often lacks the discomfort of travel, the fear of the unknown, the quaking before angels, the conception of, let alone by, the Holy Spirit.  Kings, shepherds, Joseph and Mary.  Look out a few weeks.  If we are not careful, it all becomes so familiar, so cozy.  And the newer habits of casual worship, near and far, do not help.

No.  By angel voice, the Scripture tells another story.  Unlike the series of familiar events which make up our habituated rehearsal of the season, the Bible tells a strange story, a difficult story, even a stern story.  This may help us more than all manner of cozy familiarity, if only to engage us when at last, or at first, we realize that it has never been easy to lead a Christian life.  Such a life, as Ernest Tittle constantly repeated, is meant for heroes and heroines.  As Thurman said:  a crown to grow into. Listen to this unfamiliar account:  a virgin is with child; a husband, who is no husband, resolves not to take revenge; an angel appears in a dream; the angel, in the dream, interprets the Scripture; the man obeys an angel voice; the man further accepts the angel’s name for what his wife, not yet truly a wife, conceives.  A virgin birth, a resolute husband, an angel voice, a trusting woman, a name transmitted in a dream.  This is strange, unfamiliar territory.  We do not live in a world of virgin births, resolute husbands, angel voices, trusting dreamers, or names dropped from on high.  Our world is rather, we prefer to think, the world of our own choices, our own creation.

We have left St. Luke, now, to follow the trail of Jesus’ life, death and destiny, this year, in another, different, strange Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew.   Matthew relies on Mark, and then also on a teaching document called Q, along with Matthew’s own particular material, of which our reading today is an example.  He has divided his Gospel into five sequential parts, a careful pedagogical rendering, befitting his traditional role as teacher, in contrast to Luke ‘the physician’, whose interest was history.   We have moved from history to religion, from narrative to doctrine.  Matthew is ordering the meaning of the history of the Gospel, while Luke is ordering the history of the meaning of the Gospel.  You have moved from the History Department to the Religion Department.  Matthew has his own perspective.

Some of that perspective involves a developing and developed Christology, an understanding of Christ.  For Matthew, the birth narrative conveys the proper ordering of the meaning of the history of the Gospel.  Birth narratives still matter, as if the politics of the last several years in this country were not enough alone to remind us.  Who is he?  Where did he come from?  Who are his parents?  Who are his people?  Who formed him, He who now forms us?  And some, or much of it, involves the law, as we shall see this year.  It will be a good year to listen, through Scripture, regarding law.

You have missed having read the earlier part, the first half of Matthew 1, the generations from Adam to Christ.  These are found before our reading.  Fourteen by fourteen by fourteen, are the generations.  From Abraham to David.  From David to Babylon.  From Babylon to Christ.  They run from Abraham to Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary.  To Joseph.  To and through Joseph.

Abraham.  Isaac. Jacob. Judah.  Tamar.  Amminadab.  Boaz.  Ruth.  Jesse. David.  Solomon.  Uriah.  Rehoboam.  Jehoshaphat.  Amos.  Josiah. Jechoniah.  Zerubbabel.  Zadok.  Eleazar.  Matthan.  Jacob.  Joseph.

Every one of these names, earlier in Chapter 1, is worth a sermon!  We could start next week…

Matthew 1 tells of the birth of Christ.  Jesus Christ (though a later scribe dropped ‘Jesus’, yet most texts hold to it), to move Matthew a little more away from Luke, pushing religion away from history, you could say.  The freedom we have to interpret the Gospel for ourselves begins with the Gospels, themselves.  Each is different from the others.  John is magnificently the most different of them all, the most sublime, the most mysterious, the most divine.  Matthew tells of the birth of Christ.  Then he will tell of the teaching of Christ.  Then he will tell of the healing of Christ.  Then he will tell of the cross of the Christ.  Then cometh resurrection.  In five moves, he is teaching us, Matthew, the teacher.  Matthew orders the meaning of history, as Luke orders the history of meaning (repeat).

It is fitting that the first sermon, the first interpretation in the Gospel of Matthew, which we are going to follow this year, is offered by an angel.  What other voice would be fit to herald such news?  Yes, an angel.  How strange this account appears when carefully studied!  The angel interprets the prophet Isaiah.  Because his sermon purports to tell us about the meaning of Advent and so, this is the magisterial claim, about the meaning of life, we shall want to bear down, quietly, and listen.    Now Isaiah had said that the child should be called ‘Emmanuel’, or, “God with us”.  God, present.  Present.  Present.  Emmanuel.  Come Emmanuel.  How could any sermon, any interpretation, even by an angel, fathom this?

Matthew is apparently fighting on two fronts, both against the fundamental conservatives to the right, and against the spiritual radicals to the left.  In Matthew, Gospel continues to trump tradition, as in Paul, but tradition itself is a bulwark to defend the Gospel, as in Timothy.  Matthew is trying to guide his part of the early church, between the Scylla of the tightly tethered and the Charybdis of the tether-less.  The people who raised us, in the dark, in the snows of those midnight blackened towns along the train tracks of the Lake Shore Limited, Albany to Buffalo, and on to Chicago, knew this well.  That is, with Matthew, they wanted to order the meaning of the history of the gospel.  They aspired to do so by opposition to indecency and indifference.  They attempted to do so by attention to conscience and compassion. Matthew emphasizes the role of law, of the law, of laws.   He is a legalist, whether or not he was Jewish (the general assumption, though some (I) would argue otherwise).


And what of meaning in Matthew?

In the birth, it is the cradle we most need to notice.  The wood of the cradle, by which Christ is born, is of a type with the wood of the cross, by which Christ is crucified.  Born to give us second birth, the birth of spirit, soul, mind, heart, will, love, faith.  Born to give us second birth.  Is one birth not enough?  No.

You are meant for two.  You are meant to live in faith, to lead a life of loving friendship, to wake up every morning to the sunshine, the light of God.  You are meant to walk in the light.  Walk in the light.  For this, you need to hear a word spoken from faith to faith, and to receive the second birth.

Christmas, as a cultural break, provides a seam, an opening, for grace, both apart from religion, and as a part of religion.  You are given the light of God, to rest in your hearts, to illumine your hearts and minds, to give you peace and hope, all through the coming year.  We will need that in 2020.  We will need that courage this year.

A student who read Genesis and Matthew for the first time said, “This is so different from the way we think.  No one is that awestruck by God.”  And the polls confirm it.  90% of our people “believe in God”.  As in 1952 so in 2020 (soon!), it is fashionable to profess this general belief.  God is with us.  The pantheist, the spiritualist, the nationalist, the literalist, and many a Methodist can agree.  How easily is such a belief celebrated?  Too easily.  God is with us.  In nature, in the occult, in the homeland, in the Bible, in the religious organization.  God is with us.  A tidy tale.  God is all and everywhere, with us, Emmanuel.  We find God whenever and wherever.  Audubon, McClain, Jefferson, Jerome and Marsh equally serve as guides.  God in trees, in dreams, in politics, writings, in religion.  It is the same.  God is everywhere!  God is with us.  His name shall be called, Emmanuel.  This we find familiar and cozy.

But the angel voice says otherwise.  The angel gives another name. Read, hear the account as represented by Matthew.  Here is another name, not just Emmanuel, not just Advent, not just Christmas, but a name fit for the travel, darkness, and fear, of Advent.   It is a name spattered with the blood of history.  It is a name that fits in a manger.  It is a name that cries out for response.  It is a winter name, a name in the dark, a name that sends a fierce, cold wind across the unbroken heart.  We feel a chill.  And.  It is a name that burns a bright flame for every kind of love.  It warms us now.  It is a name that charms fears, opens prisons, brings music of life and health and peace.  The Matthean angel gives another name, particular, not universal, a name that means one thing, not everything, a hedgehog name not a fox name.  A name that is above every name.  Whose birth do we celebrate anyway?

“His name shall be called Jesus, for He shall save his people from their sin.”

Jesus is a personal name.  The angel voice of the Lord gives a sermon, interprets.  The angel replaces Emmanuel, and gives the name Jesus, which means, being translated, “he will save” or “God saves”.  Mary did not give birth to the object of an airy belief in the general proposition that God is with us, somehow, somewhere, anyhow, anywhere. She bore a son, Jesus, who saves from sin.  This is a different, strange, stern name.  It has personal, profound meaning for you and me.

It means, bluntly, that God enters your life to get you free from your besetting sin.  Not in trees, dreams, votes, words, or committees, but in person.  ‘He will save his people from their sin.’  You will know him—if he be known at all—as He saves you.  Christ was born to save.

                  To save a globe from the sin of climate exhaust

                  To save a world from the sin of nuclear holocaust

                  To save a nation from the sin of pride

                  To save a generation from the sin of greed

                  To save a church from the sin of self-congratulation

                  To save a man from alcohol, a woman from suicide, a boy

                           from drugs, a girl from opioids, a family from disaster

                  To save his people from their sin

                  To save souls, to set us on the road to heaven

Angel voice:  such is the name of Jesus, a name that cries out for response.  A name that cries out for a people who can acknowledge and confess their sin, who learn the necessity of saying please, thank you and I’m sorry.  Can we become that kind of people?  A people who name God not everything but one thing, the way to freedom from bondage?  Can we become that kind of people?  A people who can share this:  there is a transforming friendship through which all manner of entrapment dies.  It is a lifelong process, and it is process of a gradually deepening friendship with Jesus Christ, in person, who saves us, his people from our sin.  Can this friendship be ours?  The Angel Voice commends its path to you.


He whom Isaiah called Emmanuel, the Angel further named, or renamed Jesus.  Strange, difficult, stern.  The wondrous news from the darkness, if you can hear and believe an angel, is not just that God is with us, but that truly God is for us (repeat).  The good news is not only that God is with us, but also that God is for us.

(Matthew 1 in Greek): Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν. τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν· αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

December 15

The Adventure of Advent

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Click here to hear just the sermon


The adventure of Advent is part memory and part hope.

A couple of weeks ago, our Christmas tree appeared, here in the NE corner of Marsh Chapel, whence the sermon this Lord’s day.  It took six men and a boy to bring it in, and set it up.  At about 12 feet in height, it is our largest tree in memory.  Carrying caked ice, the tree tested the mettle of those carrying her.  Many have commented on the tree’s stature and beauty.  Some have rightly noticed the fragrance, the scent, the pine needle and pine woods perfume it has brought along, to help us, downstairs and upstairs, to welcome a new season, a familiar return of the rhythms of Advent leading to Christmas.

One or another, it may be, sitting quietly in the nave, embraced by the fragrance, aroma, scent, perfume of Advent, may have wondered, even aloud, whether the return of a season—secular, religious, cultural, familial all—might bring with it a healing balm.  Our climate is in calamity.  Our government is in an uproar:  ¾ of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. Our denomination is in tatters.  Our semester is at an and.  Our work places are more human than divine.  Our families are in need of prayer: 200,000 opioid related deaths since oxycontin was approved, 1995.   Incidents of self-harm for young adults, ages 10-24, increased from 2007 to 2017 by 56% (during the same decade as the full expanse of social media).  Our souls themselves are divided, part hope and part fear.  And here stands the tree, mute, but claiming our senses, at the turn of the ages.  Lovely thy branches.  Can the return of a season, sensed in the senses, bring balm, bring a healing balm, bring judgment and redemption?  The tall tree before us is laden with ornaments of memory and lights of hope, ornaments of memory like that in Matthew, lights of hope like that is Isaiah.

Adventure in Memory (Matthew)

You will have noticed that our Matthew reading is from chapter 11, in the middle of the gospel.  Jesus has gathered the twelve disciples, on Matthew’s rendering, in the prior chapter.  He has given them directions, marching orders, discipleship for disciples, and has sent them forth.  Now, oddly, in chapter 11, John the Baptist, reappears, with whom the Gospel began long chapters ago.  He emerges, he returns, like a familiar season, or scent.  The Gospel writer wants to be sure that his hearers, his readers remember those who came before.  The community will nod, and knowingly, at his mention.  The cross is foreshadowed in John the Baptist, the greatest of all, says the Lord, before the turn of the ages, he whose head was severed.  He came before, and preached before, and baptized before, and died before Jesus.  Even Jesus, even Jesus, even Jesus had predecessors.  John predeceased Jesus.  A part of our judgement and of our redemption lie in seeing and hearing and sensing our forebears.  Who told you, as Carlyle Marney asked, ‘who told you who you was’?   Our liturgy, our ritual, make sure that we don’t get to Christmas without going through Advent, that we don’t get to the manger without the woods and its trees, that we don’t get to the warmth of cattle lowing and mother and child, without the ice water of the Jordan. The past is not dead.  It is not even past.  Some memories depend on diversity, some rely on unity.  We need both going forward, diversity and unity.

I came in to see my Aunt Hazel one December day.  I was glum.  She asked if my girlfriend had given me the ‘wet mitten’.  She had, but I did not know it because I did not understand the metaphor.  My great Aunt, who worked her adult life as home care giver, was raised on the St. Lawrence River, whence, she often said, ‘we could look down into Canada’.  She and my uncle Bob, a janitor with the electric company, childless themselves, raised my Dad while his single mom worked as a scrub nurse, day and many nights.   She taught my dad to become an excellent cook, at least in the making of apple pies.  Once as a boy my dad asked Aunt Hazel, repeatedly:  ‘where was I before I was born?’  She reportedly replied, irritated, ‘down in Canada boiling soap’.   Anyway, that afternoon at age 16 she asked about my despond with a mysterious metaphor.  The image is of a winter sleigh ride.  The horses pull through the snow.  The young people ride in the hay in the back keeping warm.  They hug, they kiss, they enjoy each other.  Until or unless one gives another a shove away, using the instrument of a hand gloved in a ‘wet mitten’.  It is telling image, and a memorable one, and in that far gone winter afternoon conversation happened to be entirely accurate.  We had split up, my girlfriend and I, at least for 48 hours or so.  We had fallen out of love, at least for a couple of days.  But life went on.  Memory, diverse and utterly personal, of some similar seasons from the past can guide us now.  Life will go on.

On a Wednesday in December 2007, I walked late to the University Christmas party here at Boston University. I entered the packed hall to various greetings and smiles. Greetings a tad to various and more than the usual smiles. Had I seen the ten sleds decorated for competition? No, I had not. More greetings, more smiles, a few little moments of happy laughter. I began to feel followed. In fact, I was. My friend drew me through the crowd. Then, with a woosh of surprise, the throng parted and there before me was Marsh Chapel. I mean a four-foot sled decorated with Marsh Chapel made of marshmallows and ginger bread and licorice and chocolate. A group of administrators from the Metropolitan college had built it. They gathered in kitchens. Singing Christmas tunes they baked and cooked. They sampled the chapel as it came out of the oven. You could tell they loved doing so together. It was an emotional moment for me to see the true affection they have for their chapel, their chapel, and its architectural, symbolic, historical, physical and spiritual centrality in this college community of 40,000. They gathered. They sang. They worked. They ate. They found meaning. In baking the church, they came home to church, in their own way. You could call it a second birth, a new rebirth of basic religious rhythms. For all the sorrow, there is still, on your part, and on mine, and on others’, a listening ear, a willingness to tune in, a hard to articulate longing, a reaching toward…Another.  Memory of some seasons now past can guide us now.  Their gift provided a unifying memory, like that familiar refrain from Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner

To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among brothers and sisters
To make music in the heart.

Adventure in Hope (Isaiah)

A return can bring healing.  Just listen again to the passage from Isaiah, about fertility in the desert, written probably on the return of Israel from bondage in Babylon.  Chapter 35 fits better with later parts of Isaiah.   It is a hymn of hope.  Some hopes depend on diversity, some rely on unity.  We need both going forward, diversity and unity.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;

10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.


Today, perhaps, we simply want to pause before the mystery, one of life’s great mysteries, the birth of any idea.  Where do the aspirations of Isaiah 35 come from? The Scripture teaches us: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength—and mind.  And you love your neighbor as yourself.  For this to come to pass, we shall need:  ‘an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism’ ‘This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert.’ NYT 8/27/18.

Our minister at Riverside Church, some decades ago, William Sloane Coffin, of blessed memory, spoke in aphorisms and in epigrams, to evoke the triumph of the invisible, to speak resurrection.  His voice is one of the diverse, personal and particular signs of hope, the hopeful lights around us.  Each of us has someone different to whom we turn and return, it may be.

On Faith:  faith is being grasped by the power of love.

On Reality:  God is reality.

On Safety:  God provides minimum protection and maximum support.

On Adversity:  We learn most from adversity.

On Sin:  Sin is a state of being.  When the triangle of love, GOD SELF NEIGHBOR, is sundered, there is sin.

On Guilt:  Guilt is the last stronghold of pride.

On Will:  The rational mind is not match for the irrational will.

On Mercy:  There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

On Justice:  Pastoral concern for the rich must match prophetic concern for the poor.

On Love:  The religious norm is love

On prejudice:  White racism.  Male chauvinism.  Straight homophobia.  It is what is known and unspoken that causes the most trouble.

On Truth:  Faith gives the strength to confront unpleasant truth.

On Journey:  Faith puts you on the road.  Hope keeps you on the road.  Love is the end of the road.

(He could be acerbic too: I’m not OK and you’re not OK—but that’s OK…And I wish my father in law were not some Liberace…Preachers are egotists with a theological alibi).

On Loss:  When my son died, God’s heart was the first to break.

Those who have seen the recent beautiful film about Fred Rodgers will recognize his time-honored pastoral practices.  His work provided a unifying hope.  He preached from this pulpit, at Baccalaureate, 1992.  He was a Presbyterian minister, you know, a religious man, you know, a practiced pastor, you know:

Pray for people by name.  This is good.

Exercise each day.  This is good.

Read the Scripture in the morning.  This is good.

Play the piano, including banging bass notes, when moved.  This is good.

Talk to people (at work, in transit, by phone, all).  This is good.

Visit people in their homes.  This is good.

In the film abroad, and in the sermon right here, Rogers asked people a question:  who has taught you, believed in you, supported you, and loved you?  His way of being, of teaching, of speaking to children as though they were adults, and to adults as though they were children, is a kind of unifying hope for us, which we sorely need.


Advent Adventure:  Memory, Hope.  One part diversity and one part unity each.  An ornament or three for memory, a light or three for hope.

Good News:  In the long run, those who accept him as an influence in their lives will experience that comprehensive peace which is the effect of the Christ event itself.

Take a minute, in the quiet, as the organ plays, with the tree listening and within a season of healing, to remember someone who helped bring you to who you are today.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

December 8

Lessons & Carols

By Marsh Chapel

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols. Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below:

Click here to hear the full service

December 1

Healing in Sacrament

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Click here to hear just the sermon

The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough. We cannot see or know the future. We ought to live on tip toe, on the qui vive. Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic. Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come. Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last. Song and sacrament, sermon and Eucharist, they will guide us along this very path this very morning.

What is less clear is the meaning of the coming of the Son of Man. What is the nature of this coming? Who is the person so named? What difference, existential difference, everlasting difference does any of this make? What did Jesus actually say here? On what score did the primitive Christian community remember and rehearse his teaching? Did Matthew have a dog in this fight? How has the church, age to age, interpreted the passage? We shall pose these four questions to verses 36 to 44 in the 24th chapter of the Gospel bearing the name of Matthew.

First, Jesus. Jesus may have used this phrase, though many have judged that it is a later church appellation. It may have been both. This phrase, coming out Daniel chapter 7 (did Jesus hear this read and hold it in memory?) and the stock Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, was as much a part of his environment as the sandals on his feet, the donkey which he rode, the Aramaic which he spoke, the Palestinian countryside which he loved, and the end of time which he expected, in the contemporary generation. Did he understand himself to be that figure? We cannot see and we cannot say, though most think it unlikely. It is Mark and the author Enoch who have given us the ‘Son of Man’ in its full sense, and it is Matthew alone among the Gospel writers who uses the ‘coming’ in a technical sense (so Perrin, IBDS 834). The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would think or like.

Second, Church.  Mark, Luke and Matthew carry forward these standard, end of the world predictions. Our lectionary clips out the mistaken acclamation of 24: 34, but we should hear it: Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Like the waiting figures in the Glass Menagerie, the earlier church has hung onto these blown glass elements while awaiting a never returning person, like that telephone operator, ‘who had fallen in love with long distances’. They preserve the menagerie in fine glass of hopes deferred that maketh the heart sick. That generation and seventy others have passed away before any of this has taken place. We do not expect, literally expect, immediately expect, these portents any longer. Nor should we. They are part of the apocalyptic language and imagery which was the mother of the New Testament and all Christian theology since, a beloved mother long dead. The Son of Man was the favorite hope child of that mother. A long low alto aria this.

Third, Matthew. To his credit and to our benefit Matthew makes his editorial moves, to accommodate what he has taken from Mark 13. The point of apocalyptic eschatology is ethical persuasion, here and in the sibling synoptic passages. Watch. Be ready. Live with your teeth set. Let the servants, the leaders of Matthew’s day, be found faithful. After 37 excoriating verses directed against the Pharisees (say, religious leaders in general) in chapter 23, white washed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness—the hard truth about religion at our worst, and after 43 further verses in chapter 24 of standard end time language, Matthew pulls up. He delivers his sermon. You must be ready. The figure of the future is coming at an hour you do not expect. Hail the Matthew tenor.

Fourth, Tradition. Immediately the church scrambled to reinvent and reinterpret. Basso profundo. One example, found early in the passage, will suffice. Of that day no one knows, not even the Son. Except that some texts take out ‘even the Son’, in deference to Jesus’ later and higher Person. It is, finally, and except for occasional oddball readings, like the Montanists in the second century and the fundamentalists in the twenty first, the church’s view that apocalyptic language and imagery convey the future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable, the future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable.

In sum. As soon as we reach out to grasp the future it has slipped past us, already flying down the road to the rear, into the past. The present itself is no better, because its portions of past and future are tangled permanently together. We do have the past, neither dead nor past, or do we? Memory and memoir spill into each other with the greatest of ease. One searcher admitted that music, performed, was his closest approximation of God, the presence of God, the proof of God. One trusted Christian—it may have been you—sensed grace and grace in the grace of the Eucharist, unlike any other. We shall taste in a moment and see. The moment is a veritable mystery.  Music is a veritable mystery. My body and My blood, these are veritable mysteries, so named mystery, sacramentum, to this day. How shall we respond?

Sleepers awake! There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive! There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life. You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you. It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole. Begin. You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self. It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do. Begin. As our brother in Christ, Mr. Ed McLure put it, he who passed from life to eternal life this week (his calling hours are tomorrow evening in Brookline):  Politically correct without spiritual respect—is suspect. Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works. Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work? Do so. But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being. Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment. You are being sold a bill of goods, here. Be watchful. It takes time to self- interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’. Begin. You do not have forever to experience Presence. It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made. It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart to sing, the soul to pray, the spirit to preach. Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s. Begin.

You must be ready. For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

As our near neighbor, Jonathan Edwards, put it in his sermon of a mere 300 years ago:


If you would be in the way to the world of love, see that you live a life of love — of love to God, and love to men. All of us hope to have part in the world of love hereafter, and therefore we should cherish the spirit of love, and live a life of holy love here on earth. This is the way to be like the inhabitants of heaven, who are now confirmed in love forever. Only in this way can you be like them in excellence and loveliness, and like them, too, in happiness, and rest, and joy. By living in love in this world you may be like them, too, in sweet and holy peace, and thus have, on earth, the foretastes of heavenly pleasures and delights. Thus, also, you may have a sense of the glory of heavenly things, as of God, and Christ, and holiness; and your heart be disposed and opened by holy love to God, and by the spirit of peace and love to men, to a sense of the excellence and sweetness of all that is to be found in heaven. Thus shall the windows of heaven be as it were opened, so that its glorious light shall shine in upon your soul. Thus you may have the evidence of your fitness for that blessed world, and that you are actually on the way to its possession. And being thus made meet, through grace, for the inheritance of the saints in light, when a few more days shall have passed away, you shall be with them in their blessedness forever. Happy, thrice happy those, who shall thus be found faithful to the end, and then shall be welcomed to the joy of their Lord! There “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and lead them to living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

Begin. You do not have forever to experience Presence. It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made. It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart to sing, the soul to pray, the spirit to preach. Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s. Begin.

You must be ready. For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

November 24

God Forgive Them

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

Click here to hear just the sermon

“We seek to truly see each other as beloved children of God.  Our calling is to empower our neighbors and ourselves to love hopeful lives and gratefully offer our own gifts for the glory of God. We are called to share our authentic selves with our neighbors in right relationship”…. – The Rev. Joseph Wallace-Williams

Who is Your Jesus?

Who is Your Jesus?

Today is the last Sunday of Pentecost.  Also known as Christ the King Sunday.  I invite you to reflect on who has your Jesus been for the past church year.  My Jesus is always changing.  My Jesus is not the same Jesus of my childhood or even a few years ago.  Life experiences, pray and the study of scripture feed my “Jesus Roots” and deepen them.

  • The Jesus of my youth – church school Jesus
  • The Jesus of my teens – questioning Jesus in the world
  • The Jesus of my 20’s – Jesus who?
  • The Jesus of my 30’s – globalized Jesus, forgiving Jesus, sustaining Jesus, life-changing Jesus
  • The Jesus of my 40’s – womanist Jesus, radical Jesus

What has been your personal journey with Jesus?

Except for my 20’s my Jesus has always been in tandem with other people’s Jesus’

Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new development.  It does not bear the history of many long held church traditions such as All Saints and All Souls.  I once heard by one of my clergy colleagues that he glosses over this Sunday because it’s too Catholic. I remember in seminary when during our weekly Eucharist one of my classmates shoved the bulletin back in my hand stating that “she refused to participate in a liturgy with patriarchal language.  Looking back I think she missed the point.

This Feast Sunday was brought into the church’s liturgical year by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to advance the message of God in Christ over and against the political questions regarding papal territories, and in response to growing secularism, nationalism and anti-clericalism.  Addressed to the hierarchy of the church the document warns that “as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations”.

While we may find the Popes words archaic our take away is “Do we belong to Christ or do we belong to the world”  Pope Pius was moving into a world that was about to usher in the rule of Hitler and Mussolini so his statements were bold a provocative but those words and statements are very relevant for our life in the world today.

As we lead up to an election year candidates for all office tout that God is on their side and all we have to do is support their coronation by casting our vote.

The royal crowns rattle in the church’s cupboard every election year.  What’s the reason for this fascination?  Perhaps it’s based on a lust for raw political power.  Perhaps the unreserved endorsement of candidates who support “faith-based initiatives” stems from the anxiety that pervades our time and culture.

However we are mostly uncomfortable with the notion of Kingship.  The notion of a King reflects on principles that America was not built upon.  The notion of King also means big shoes to fill.  My dear friend Carl  (name changed) belongs to a family long held to be as quoted in the press “America’s royalty”.  I once asked Carl what is what like to be part of that family dynasty.  He laughed and said for the most part people leave him alone, except for his public display of drunkenness over two decades ago and his admitted botched and ill-fated attempt at a career change.  He said since I look like my mother’s side of the family I am unrecognizable in public.  I am able to be left alone to do the work of trying to leave the world a better place than I sound it.  “I have my faith and my family, my humility and my gratitude and it has taken me a lot of years, and a lot of life experiences to work that out”

Our readings on this Christ the King Sunday, challenge us to examine our priorities and to see who- or what – holds our allegiance.  As I see it there are two ways of looking at this Kingship.  The King of our outward being and appearances and the King of our inwards hearts.

If we belong to the Christ King of the world our outward being is the one who nods and pays lip service to issues of injustice, oppression of the other in any form.  You know the people who are on committees or involved in activities that make them feel better, but not willing to do the deep internal radical welcoming work that will bring systemic change.

But the Christ King that occupies a place in our hearts in about servant leadership.  It doesn’t matter if their name is on the committee.  There work is one on one getting to know the other better.  Being an ally, and all that involves for deep systemic and personal change.  Because when you are an ally, when you support when you feel, when you are able to get out of the way of your ego.  Then the deep work of empathy, change, restorative justice can take place.  If we belong to the Christ King of our hearts we forgive.

Forgiveness is one of the hardest things that we can do.  As my friend Donnie was famous for saying “God forgives you immediately, but it takes me a while”.  In her reflection piece for Parabola Magazine entitled “Forgiving: The Art of Mercy” the author and speaker Mirabai Starr begins with a litany of “I’m sorry’s “I’m so sorry that I broke your heart that I was too demanding of your approval.  I’m sorry I was so quiet. I’m sorry I interpreted your rejection as rejection, rather than as the cry for love that it really was”.  She then moves in to her forgiving: I forgive you.  I forgive you for talking about me behind my back.  I forgive you for not seeing me.  I forgive you for being blind to your own shadow, for your participation in institutionalized racism, misogyny, heteronormativity.  I forgive you for the slave trade, for sex trafficking, for treating garbage collectors like garbage. I forgive you for putting profits ahead of people, technology ahead of clean air and water, head ahead of heart.

Forgiving you was the best thing I ever did. Forgiving you set the bird of my heart winging through the universe.

So here we are in the last week of the Christian year where we are about to enter into the midst of the turkey coma, and a secular world that tells us that we really need this that and the other to make us feel better, can we make room for the sole source of divine power and reign, Jesus Christ?  So once again in the midst of this “Who is your Jesus?”

Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah address the issue of kingly power as he strongly denounced the leaders of Judah for abusing their authority.  Jeremiah looks toward the future where the followers will be brought back into the fold.  A place where they will be guided and protected by a loving God.

The reading from Colossians was written in response to a dispute within the community.  The question that they raised was “what exactly was accomplished by Jesus”?

So if we use these lens’ to look at this last Sunday before Advent this Christ the King Sunday reminds us of our Jesus we are reminded of the ultimate price Jesus paid for US.

In today’s Gospel we are told that two criminals were crucified with Jesus.  The first man mocks Jesus saying if you are the Messiah then save yourself.  He was interested in his own well-being, and reflected the attitude of those who followed Jesus for what they hoped to gain.

The second man had a very different attitude.  What has been described as being the gospel within the gospel.  The man recognized his own sin and the innocence of Jesus … we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.  He then turned to Jesus with a profession of FAITH as he asked that Jesus remember him in his Kingdom.

Jesus answered with an assurance of forgiveness and eternal life.  “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  Here salvation was extended first of all to a repentant criminal, who would now share eternal life with the Lord.

Where are we are in our lives in terms of our capacity for forgiveness? An article from The New Yorker titled The Afghan Way of Death: Upended Peace Talks. Civilian casualities keep climbing. Afghans are suffering more than ever, dated October 28th tells many stories of a suffering people but the one story that stood out for me was the story of Jamila Afghani, a promoter of gender equality.  She tells the story of seven-year old Ahmad and eight year old Shadh Agha who were born in a rural part of Ghazni Province.  Their father Noor Agha was a farmer.  After the night raids intensified in his village, he decided to move the family to the city.  This required abandoning his land and his livelihood, which plunged them into poverty.  The father arranged for his sister to be married to obtain a bride price.  Ahmad and Shah Agha made the wedding invitations and accompanied Noor Agha when he delivered their work to the groom’s family who lived in another neighborhood. According to Afghani, police officers in the area, identifying a strange vehicle, opened fire without warning. Noor Agha was killed and Ahmed sustained a glancing wound on his face. When Noor Agha’s father heard the news, he had a heart attack and died. The money from the marriage was spent on funerals and medical bills, Afghani said.  Ahmed and Shah Agha moved in with their grandmother and Afghani paid to send then to a private school – which had just been bombed and the boys had been wounded by shrapnel.  Afghani was in tears when she finished telling the story “Why are you killing us?” She wailed at a conference she was attending.  One of the other participants told of his being tortured and said to the gathered group, “I am willing to forgive you for what you have done to me and the rest of society. But that forgiveness must have meaning. The meaning lies in your heart not in the world.  Are we not called to love and to love abundantly.

We mark the end of the church year today as next week we begin the season of Advent. A season to once again look and reflect on who is your Jesus.  A season of God’s love for us.  A season that is marked by an expected anticipation.  We will be reminded of the anticipation and fear of a teenage unwed mother to be.  We will be reminded of the light of Christ birth that will shine upon all of us without exception.  We will take these shorter winter days to be in reflection, contemplation and exploration of the one who loves us beyond all measure.  The one who forgave and was gracious even in death.

After service today we will be making Advent Wreaths.  I started making Advent wreaths with the youth when I was serving at Christ Episcopal Church Needham.  It was a time of wonderful organized chaos.  But it is also a time of narrowing down and focusing in.  I invite you to take the coming week to prepare for Advent much like we would prepare for Lent.  Find time for quiet reflection and contemplation.  If you have an Advent wreath put it out early or reflect on the wreath you made. Water it with intention and prayer.

We are all invited to the throne room where Christ is exalted and worshiped.  We have come full circle in our church year and are at the end of this journey and ready to move on the next.  Who is the Jesus that you take with you into the next year?  Jesus the living God, the living King is found right here and right now in the midst of us, in the midst of our secular and over commercialized world, in the midst of canned Christmas music at every store that you will enter over the holidays.

This is all good news that we celebrate here today.  Jesus is King throughout the year, throughout all time and in every place.  There is an expression about turning your will and life over to the care of God it ends with the statement  “There is a God and I’m not it”

  • We don’t need to seek another king.
  • We now longer have to judge one another
  • We don’t have to control what other people think and feel or force then to fit our expectations

What happens is that in this control filled society:

we find power,

we find the reign of God when we let go,

when we realize that the reign of God is here and now, here in our hearts, here in our community both physically at Marsh and elsewhere one is connected to us!

It’s a liberating idea.

Who is your Jesus?


The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Students

November 17

The View from the Sycamore Tree

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 65:17-25

Luke 19:1-10

Click here to hear just the sermon

         It is hard for me to tell, from this angle, which tree you are in.  Given the troubles of this autumn, it is hard for me to tell which tree I am in myself, day to day.  Has life chased you up the tree of doubt?  Or are you treed in the branches of idolatry—idol-a-tree? Or are we shaking or shaking in the money tree? Or stuck without faith in the religion tree?   Jesus calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and embrace a loving relationship with Him.  May we measure all with a measure of love.

  1. Doubting Zacchaeus

          Perhaps the presence of unexplained wrong provokes you to doubt the benevolence in life or the goodness in God.   To doubt that ‘God is at work in the world to make and to keep human life human’ (John Bennett).  Randomness may have treed you.

          No one can explain why terrible things happen, as they do.  But if you will come down a limb or two from your philosophical tree of doubt, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may hear faith.  God can bring good out of evil, and make bad things work to good. This is not a theological declamation, and certainly not a paean to providence.  It is just something we can notice together.

          One Sunday, years ago, I drove late to church.  I used to run early Sunday and finish memorizing the sermon along the way, as I did on that Lord’s Day.  I just forgot the time.  We raced to church, and in so doing I cut a corner, literally, and so popped a car tire.  I was not happy to hear my son say, “haste makes waste”.  You know, though, both rear tires were thin.  I had replaced the front two months earlier, and forgot about the rear ones.  I have to admit, it was good that I had reason to replace them, before I had a blowout, on the highway.  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing prevents a really terrible thing from happening.

          Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery.  He had to find his way, as a Jew, in the service of the mighty Pharaoh.  He did so with skill, and rose to a position of influence, even with Potiphar’s wife chasing him around in his underwear.   Then, a full generation later, a great famine came upon those brothers who had earlier sold Joseph down the river.  They went to Pharaoh, looking for food.  And who met them, as they came to plead?  There was Joseph.  He so memorably said, as written in Genesis 50: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many might be saved.”  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing in one generation prevents starvation in the next.

          So, in Jericho, as Jesus found the little man up in the tree, his fellows grumbled (vs. 8).  Why would he take time with such a greedy, selfish person who makes his living off the sweat of others’ brows?  That hurts, to see divine attention given to those who have harmed you.  Why would he have a meal with someone who takes no thought for the hurt of God’s people?  This is bad!  And it is.  We miss the power of the parable if we do not see this.  This is Jesus taking up with those who have wished the church ill, who have used the church for their own very well intended but nonetheless self-centered reasons.  This is Jesus consorting with sinners.  But sometimes a bad thing in the little brings a good thing in the large.  Zacchaeus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit.

          Come down from this one tree, doubting Zacchaeus.  I know that bad things happen to good people, and as a pastor hardly anything troubles me more.  Sometimes, though, sometimes—not always, just sometimes–a bad thing early averts a really bad thing late.  I have seen it, and you have too.  It is enough to give someone up the doubting tree a reason to come down at least a branch.  Think of it as existential vaccination.

          It is the labor of faith to trust that where sin abounds, grace over-abounds.  Even in this autumn of anxiety and depression. But one of the redeeming possibilities in this season of cultural demise is the chance that as a result, enough of us, now, will become enough committed to the realization of a just, participatory and sustainable world, that these darker days will move us toward a fuller light. Sometimes a bad thing in one part of history protects us from a worse thing in another part.

          Let us not lose sight of the horizons of biblical hope, as improbable as they can seem.  The lion and the lamb.  No crying or thirst.  The crooked straight.  All flesh.

         The divine delight comes still from saving the lost, including the forgotten, seeking the outcast, retrieving the wayward sons and daughters of Abraham.  God wants your health, your salvation.  God wants your healthy prudence. Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock).  Jesus Christ saves us from doubt.  Those who have seen this fall the magnificent musical, ‘Come From Away’, and its evocation of 9/11, with its recollection of St. Francis, ‘make me an instrument of thy peace’, and its recitation of Philippians 4:6, ‘Have no anxiety about anything,’ may just have caught a glimpse, heard a hint of the divine delight in saving the lost.

         So come down Zacchaeus, come down from your perch in that comfortable sycamore tree, that comfortable pew, that skeptical reserve, that doubt.  Come down Zacchaeus!  The Lord Jesus Christ has need of your household and your money, and He responds to your doubt.

  1. Idolatrous Zacchaeus

          Come down Zacchaeus, down from your overly zealous leanings, hanging out on the branch of life.  Idolatry comes when we make one or more of the lesser, though significant, loyalties in life to shadow the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God.  Zacchaeus had governmental responsibility, community status, a welcoming home, a fine family, and we can suspect he was loyal in these regards.  Curious as he was, up on his branch, he had no relationship with the divine.  Into this relationship, Jesus invites him.  More precisely, Jesus invites himself into relationship with a man up a tree.  He is invited into a whole new life, a new world of loving and faithful relationships, that stem from the one great loyalty.

         We need to be careful about lesser loyalties this fall.  We need to. Be prudent about the lesser loyalties than the one owed to God.   We can forget whose water we were baptized into, if we are not careful.  Rather, let us remember the student of Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians: your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (2 Thess. 1: 4).

         Do you see the danger?  Come down Zacchaeus, come down, before it is too late.    Make sure your lesser loyalties—to government, career, friends, family, home, all—do not cover over, do not shadow the one great loyalty, that all of your daily tasks do not eclipse a living memory of a healthy future, a common dream.

         So yes, we harbor a common dream, a dream for instance that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage a mere 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.

         Yet yours finally is a dream not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.

  1. Wealthy Zacchaeus

         Come down Zacchaeus, come down, at last.  Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry, through resentment and religion, but none of these holds a candle to the harm that wealth can bring.  In global terms and in historical terms, every one of us in this room is wealthy.  Ours are first world problems.  Luke’s entire gospel, especially its central chapters, 9-19, are aimed at this point.  For Luke’s community, the remembered teachings of Jesus about wealth were most important.  That tells me that the Lukan church had money, and so do we.  This is what makes the account of Zacchaeus, “one who lined his own pockets at other people’s expense”, so dramatic for Luke, and so Luke concludes his travel narrative with this clarion call:  come down.  Be careful as you do not to trip over wealth, power or status.  We lose them all, give them all away, over time.  They are impermanences.  They go.  Better that we see so early.  Time flies—ah no.  Time stays—we go.

         Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus that caused him to give away half of what he had?  I would.

         It is a western, white, male, educated, wealthy, healthy, heterosexual, middle class, two handed world.  I need to be reminded of that.  Come down Zacchaeus, and feel the pain of others.  Come down and remember:  soon we will all be dead.  Maybe we could find ways to use whatever power we have now to honor God, love our neighbor, reflect our mortality, and affirm the powerless.  Come down Zacchaeus, come down!

         We will need to remember our forebears. Harriet Tubman lived her later life in Auburn, NY, dying in 1913, just 15 years before my mother was born a few miles away.  But as you remember she spent her earlier life freeing her people from slavery, 13 perilous journeys back south.  One wrote this week, Tubman’s story is an example of courage combined with practicality…She marched at night, communed with God, drugged crying babies and even held a gun to the heads of those who grew weary or turned back. (New York Review 12/12).  Those who have seen the most recent film ‘Harriet’ have seen again that remarkable combination of courage and practicality.

          Before we left seminary, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, an odd event befell us.  I worked nights as a security guard in those years and would come home to sleep at 7am.  Jan had the day off, and left to shop, but left the door to our little apartment ajar, by accident.  About noon a street woman found her way into the building and up onto our floor, and then into our room.  I woke up to see a very poor, deranged woman, fingering rosary beads, and mumbling just over my head.  Boy did I shout.  She ran into the next room and I stumbled downstairs to call the police.  By the time three of New York’s finest and I returned to the apartment, the poor lady was in the bathtub, singing and washing.  They took her away.  Jan came back at 3 and asked how I had slept.  That moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen.  Our wealth is meant for the cleansing of the poor of the earth.  Perhaps the Lord wanted me to remember that in ministry, so I have tried to remember that, in ministry.  Come down Zacchaeus, and use your wealth for the poor. 

  1. Religious Zacchaeus

         Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we?  Come down Zacchaeus, come down!  No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering you today, and that is loving relationship.  No amount of theological astuteness can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of sturdy churchmanship can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of righteous indignation can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of beautiful music, instrumental or vocal, can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of formal religion can ever substitute for the power of loving relationship.  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with him, and so with each other.  That is health, that is salvation.  Are we lovers anymore?

         Like Zacchaeus in the tree, religion can dwell above Jesus, high and aloof.  Is it good to be above Jesus?

         It was the German monk Martin Luther who, in 1517, went alone and nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, and thereby splintered inherited religion to bits.  The words of this same Luther were read, as interpretation of Romans 8, on the rainy night in London, 1738, along Aldersgate Street, as John Wesley’s heart, at long last, was strangely warmed, and he came down from the tree of religion, to sit at table with the Faith of Christ.  On a November Sunday in 2019, hic et nunc, both are recalled, in invitation to loving relationship with God and neighbor.  We pointedly remember that we are saved by faith, by faith alone, by grace we are saved by faith, and not by any or all the works of the law.  You know, in college, just a steady participation in a loving group, like the one Dr. Herbert Jones has led here for many years, can make all the difference.

         Come down Zacchaeus!  Come down from the doubting tree, the tree of idolatry, the wealth tree, the tree of religion.  Come down and receive the Gospel:  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with himself, and thereby into loving relationship with our neighbors.

Are we lovers anymore?

Are we lovers anymore?

Are we lovers anymore?

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

November 10

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

Click here to hear just the sermon

The text of this sermon will be added as soon as possible.