Baptism: Political Theology

January 8th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 42: 1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10: 34-43

Matthew 3: 13-17

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Judgment:

Left. Right.

Up. Down.

Rise. Fall.

Scales of justice tip and tilt.

Judgment:

Righteousness. Sin.

Life. Punishment.

Kingdom. Fire.

Jesus judges sheep from goats.

Judgment:

Righteous. Unjust.

Merciful. Cruel.

Humble. Proud.

Jesus stores the wheat and burns the chaff.

Judgment:

Poor. Rich.

Faithful. Disobedient.

Honest. Hypocrite.

Jesus teaches the way through the narrow gate.

Baptism:

John. Jesus.

Water. Spirit.

Repentance. Forgiveness.

Jesus, with John, fills up all righteousness.

How shall power be distributed? How shall resources be allocated? These are the fundamental questions of politics. Today, having hoped for deliverance during Advent, having rejoiced at the incarnation on Christmas, and having marveled at the revelation on Epiphany, we now come face to face with the one we hoped for, the one we celebrated, the one at whom we marveled: Jesus, who has come to be our judge, and whose baptism by John fills up all righteousness. Like with so many gifts, we may find that Jesus is not quite what we were hoping for. Having unwrapped the package, our joy may not quite be complete. The curtain having been pulled back, our wonderment may be tinged with a bit of perplexity. You see, today, as Jesus descends into the Jordan and is baptized by John, the promise of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not in some far off heavenly realm, but rather is immersed in the ebb and flow of the mundane. Jesus, it turns out, is deeply concerned with how power is distributed and with how resources are allocated. And moreover, Jesus is deeply concerned with how we, you and I, wield power, interact with power, respond to power; with how we, you and I, obtain wealth, spend wealth, share wealth. Jesus’ baptism is political theology.

Where is your treasure? You may want to ponder this question between now and Ash Wednesday, when Jesus will address the question directly: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your treasure? Is it on earth, or is it in heaven? And how, pray tell, should you know?

For Matthew, the scales of divine justice, the scales upon which righteousness is measured and judgment meted out, are quite similar to the banker’s scales upon which your payment is determined sufficient to cancel your debt or you are bankrupt. In Matthew’s construal, we each have two bank accounts, one in heaven, and one on earth; one spiritual, and one material; and wealth is interchangeable between the two. In fact, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of treasure in one and the amount of treasure in the other: our treasure in the heavenly account increases as we give our material wealth to the poor; our treasure in the earthly account increases by greed, injustice, and hypocrisy, which put our spiritual balance in the red. What is our spiritual treasure? What is spiritual wealth? Righteousness. Righteousness. Righteousness. And so, we are back in the Jordan with John who baptizes Jesus to fulfill all righteousness.

It is easy to overlook the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John fulfilling all righteousness given the extraordinary way the scene ends: “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Who cares about the fulfillment of all righteousness when the heavens are rent, the Spirit of God descends, and God speaks in the words of the prophet Isaiah? Surely it is this revelation of Jesus’ divinity and of the trinity that is the point of Jesus’ baptism? No! The opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice of God are not the point but rather the divine response to the fulfillment of all righteousness, or better, the filling up of all righteousness. After all, the whole point of the incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is salvation, and salvation is accomplished by filling spiritual bank accounts with righteousness. In Jesus, the infinite righteousness of God flows into the world to fill up the spiritual bank accounts of those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus, that is, of those who are righteous. Jesus pays off the spiritual debts, that is, gives himself as a ransom, for his righteous disciples. And so:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here, then, is the economy of salvation: take up your cross, follow Jesus, and store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Note: there is no room here for empty words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Note: salvation is not about belief: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” The economy of salvation is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Righteousness is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Justice is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Mercy is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Humility is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Belief is worthless. Speech is worthless. Righteousness alone is heavenly treasure, and righteousness requires you to act.

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of treasure in the spiritual bank account and the amount of treasure in the material bank account. Righteous action is costly. The grace of Jesus filling the spiritual accounts of the righteous is costly, for Jesus and for us. Teaching righteousness, preaching righteousness, doing righteousness, filling all righteousness got Jesus killed, and many of his followers down through the ages as well. Doing righteousness, doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, are costly to us as well. After all, the correlate of taking up your cross is laying down your life.

No one knows more about costly grace, the cost of righteousness, the cost of justice, than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose hymn, “By Gracious Powers,” we will sing following the sermon. An outspoken critic and opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime from the very beginning of its rise to power, Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States and Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1939 rather than face the prospect of being conscripted into Hitler’s army and refusing to serve, a capital offense. Regret at the decision to leave Germany nagging at him, he returned to suffer through the dark days of the Nazi regime with his fellow Germans and the Confessing Church, which he had helped found. A lifelong pacifist, as a participant in the German resistance Bonhoeffer nevertheless contributed to a plot to kill Hitler, having concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” As he said in what was to have been his magnum opus, his Ethics, “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” Having been arrested on April 5, 1943, his connection to the conspiracy to kill Hitler was not discovered until a year and half later when the plot had already failed, and he was executed by hanging at dawn with several co-conspirators on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before U.S. soldiers would liberate the camp.

Grace is indeed costly. Righteousness is indeed costly. For God, and for us. Jesus filling up all righteousness is the very meaning of grace, and that grace is both a precious resource and a great power. Grace is not a divine exception from the unjust use of earthly power and the unequal distribution of earthly resources. Grace is the call to use earthly power justly and to distribute earthly resources fairly.

The cost of grace, the cost of righteousness, the cost of justice, the cost of mercy, the cost of humility is steep, and so it should be little surprise that there is a plethora of cheap grace flooding the salvation market. This knockoff grace, peddled in various formulations throughout history, arises in its most visible, pervasive, and pernicious form today as so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” Its roots to be found in the New Thought movement of the late 19th century, prosperity teachings reached prominence in the healing revivals of the mid-20th century and then in the later 20th century in the Word of Faith movement and televangelism. The central teachings of the prosperity gospel are that it is God’s will that we be healthy and wealthy, that if we are not it is because we lack faith, we lack positive thought processes, and we need to contribute financially to the appropriate religious institutions. Salvation, in this view, is not righteousness but the breaking of the bonds of sickness and poverty. You too may achieve prosperity in abundance, if you believe hard enough, think yourself strong enough, and give the preacher enough money.

This is the cheapest of grace, or as Bonhoeffer described it, “grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit.” Note that in the gospel of prosperity the relationship between the heavenly bank account and the material bank account is not inversely proportional but directly proportional; that is, increasing the amount in your heavenly account also increases the amount in your material account and vice versa. The road to salvation requires not that you take up your cross but that you take up your money, and if you do not have any money, just believe hard enough and you will. Reinhold Niebuhr rightly called out an early version of prosperity gospel, preached by Norman Vincent Peale, as false gospel: “The basic sin of this cult is its egocentricity; it puts ‘self’ instead of the cross at the center of the picture.” Or, as Bonhoeffer rightly summed up, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” Prosperity gospel is heresy, it is blasphemy, it is treason in the kingdom of God, and worst of all, it is wrong.

Of course, heresy, blasphemy, treason in the kingdom, and flat out being wrong are hardly barriers to political success, to attaining earthly wealth and power. In our own day, the gospel of prosperity has amassed vast wealth by preying on those in financial and personal distress with promises of health and wealth to those who give their last penny. In our own day, the gospel of prosperity has attained a level of power and influence such that it will be front and center, leading us in prayer, in the presidential inauguration in a couple of weeks.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called to stand with Jesus in the Jordan in the dark days of Nazi Germany, to commit himself once again to righteousness by being baptized by John for repentance, to pay the earthly cost of grace in order to store up righteous treasure in heaven. Jesus’ baptism is political theology. Bonhoeffer’s baptism is a living out, a doing, of the political theology of Jesus’ baptism by John, of righteousness, of justice, of mercy, of humility. In the days to come, will you stand with Jesus in the Jordan? Will you pay the cost of discipleship? Will you receive the filling up of all righteousness Jesus offers by doing righteousness? Will you cash out your material bank account in order to store your treasure in heaven?

Thus says John the baptizer: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s baptism with water for repentance is cheap compared to the cost to be paid for Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is what we face at the seat of judgment, and Jesus is the judge. Judgment is a determination of justice. Jesus will determine our justice, our righteousness.

Judgment:

Left. Right.

Up. Down.

Rise. Fall.

Scales of justice tip and tilt.

Judgment:

Righteousness. Sin.

Life. Punishment.

Kingdom. Fire.

Jesus judges sheep from goats.

Judgment:

Righteous. Unjust.

Merciful. Cruel.

Humble. Proud.

Jesus stores the wheat and burns the chaff.

Judgment:

Poor. Rich.

Faithful. Disobedient.

Honest. Hypocrite.

Jesus teaches the way through the narrow gate.

Baptism:

John. Jesus.

Water. Spirit.

Repentance. Forgiveness.

Jesus, with John, fills up all righteousness.

Do justice; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.

Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

Resolution

January 1st, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 2: 1-12

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Thirty years ago, I was given a precious gift.  The gift was given following a pastoral visit, in which a woman mentioned that she had written a journal entry about her first time in worship, in our church.  With some trepidation, not knowing what it might hold, I tentatively asked if she would sometime give me a copy, which sometime later she did.  She gave me the copy about nine months later, on the day she joined the church.  In a moment, I am going to read you the journal entry.  I have permission to do so, and have done so in other (mostly teaching) settings.  The author died two years ago, after many years of faithful service and membership in that church.  She was an individual, a real person, very different, somewhat zany, a hoot.  She led for decades the church’s bell choir, named ‘Hell’s Bells’.  I bring her journal entry because, for her, finding a place and way to worship, a church family to love, and church home to enjoy, was simple salvation, connection, empowerment, meaning, belonging, the alphabet of grace and the winning experience of love.  Have you found a church family to love and church home to enjoy?  Have you found a burning fire, a hearth before which to warm, to wonder, to pray, to pause, to listen, to learn?

This week with one son and one son-in-law, I sat before a beautiful hearth, and a roaring fire.  Let me add that both son and son-in-law are solid citizens, if I may, the former, a hiker and camper, an attorney and church lay leader, the latter a PhD from Princeton, a senior minister and an Eagle Scout.  They know about fires, starting and feeding and tending them, is what I mean.  Yet, in that evening, one asked, ‘Is this fire real, or is it gas fed?’  Because the fire was so well built, 2 logs by 2 logs by 2, and because it burned so cleanly in the venerable, hearth—a kind of perfected beauty—it did resemble what has become, sadly, the norm in public hearths, gas not wood.  So, the question, I am emphasizing, was not out of place.  But the fire was real.  I had been there earlier to see it built and lit and fed.  I have age, more winters on the back, more time around fires.  And, I love a beautiful hearth and roaring flame in it.  The fire was for real.  Yet, the next morning, the other asked, ‘is it really for real?’  Come and see, was all I could say.

Come and see is all I say today, for this New Year’s sermon.  That fire you admire, that worship service burning and blazing, which you hear over the radio, or on the internet, or which you admire from afar, or of which someone has told you—it is for real.  It is.  Come and stand closer.  You will feel it.  Your life needs, demands, requires, and will open up in warmth before such a sturdy fireplace.  Come and see.  Kings to the brightness of his rising did come, long ago.  To worship.  Worship.  Somewhere.  It need not be here.  But somewhere.

Have you no 2017 resolution?  Here is one:  go to church.  Why?  For the mystery of the burning fire.  For its beauty and warmth.  For its darkness lit by the licking flames.  For its allure, its millennia old draw, its gathered people.  For the different women and men whom you will find—a group not a part of your extended family, not a part of your familiar neighborhood, not a part of your workplace, not a part of your cyber network.  A woman, hymnal in one hand and baby in the other, rocking in the fourth pew, here, on Christmas Eve, singing the Carols.  A man, alone in the balcony, wrestling off the dark difficulties of life.  A colorful family with squirming children.  A widow, grieving, whose grief is unlike any other, as every grief is unlike any other.  A preacher trying for both honesty and kindness, both truth and love.  A choir giving it their all, all the time.  A table set, as today, with remembrance, thanksgiving, and presence; with faith and hope and love.  You don’t believe?  Worship until you believe it, then worship because you believe it. (John Wesley’s admonishment to preachers). It will come, over time, believe me.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.  And guess what?  If this is your resolution, you have already started to live it!  Here you are, today, listening by the internet or radio, or seated in the pew, or wandering the back rooms, narthex, hallways and byways of the chapel.  Have you no 2017 resolution?  Here is one:  go to church.   Thirty years ago, one did so…

(The preached sermon at this point concluded with the journal recollection of a first time visit to a church, by a woman who later joined that church:  the detailed journal piece remembered what it feels like to be new, in a new place, unknown to others (regulars in any church need steady reminder of this) and remembered the sheer joy one finds when finally, in person, one discovers a church family to love and church home to enjoy (those listening and participating only by radio\internet need steady invitation to this)).

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

Now the Birth

December 18th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 1: 18-25

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Life and Truth

We long to know the meaning of the gospel in life.  Our hearts yearn for such a sense of meaning, as our minds reach for the same.

Last week, a devoted radio congregant, a weekly listener, wrote to respond to the service and sermon, doing so with an evocation of his years, the early 1960’s, as a student here.  In a PS addition to the letter, he quoted Miguel de Unamuno:  My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.  The next day, another listener, and friend, said, The Marsh services and sermons are about life and truth.  Said John Wesley; If thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand.

Matthew

We have left St. Luke, now, to follow the trail of Jesus’ life, death and destiny, this year, in 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?

You have missed having read 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’, though 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.  He orders the meaning of history, as Luke orders the history of meaning.

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 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.

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 2017.  We will need that courage this year.

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 Charibdis of the tether-less.  The people who raised us, in the snows of the 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.

Conscience and Compassion: Swimming Merit Badge

At one time, the little towns and smaller cities of Upstate New York were populated with Scout Troops and Methodist Churches, one to foment decency and one to honor difference.  The Scouts, at least, had a list of twelve points in the law of the Scouts that kept a measure of and on decency, whether or not every Scout so lived.  It is important to tell the truth:  so, a Scout is trustworthy.  The Methodists, at least, had a pot luck dinner every Wednesday formed out of wide ranging culinary differences, all brought together, with the inevitable digestive turbulence, e pluribus unum, on a long table with a table cloth not quite long enough for the table.  The world is full of difference:  so, we get together and enjoy one another’s odd casseroles, as a foretaste of the globe.  When asked to bring an artifact of his church, the Methodist brings not a Bible, like the Baptist, or a Rosary, like the Catholic, or a Yarmulke, like the Jew, but—a casserole dish!) Now many of these towns are depopulated, and many lack any longer a strong Scout Troop and many lack any longer a vibrant Methodist Church.  This changes the culture, the civil society, in the rural lake country of New York.  There is less traction for decency and for difference.  I suppose the same—a denigration of decency and difference—might be found too today in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Ohio, in Iowa, in Western Pennsylvania.   When, at an earlier age, you are not challenged to see and say, ‘That is not decent, that kind of speech’, or you are not challenged to see and say, ‘That disrespects difference, that kind of talk’, then, you are more inclined to accept indecency and indifference, and you may be more vulnerable to demagoguery.  We need more seminarians who will forego the joys of coastal, urban life, and go home to the towns and cities of Wisconsin, of Michigan, of Ohio, of Iowa, of Western Pennsylvania—and of Upstate New York.  It is something to think about, in this era, this season of burgeoning American indecency and indifference, our openness to the normalization of what is not decent and what denigrates difference.

We had moved into Oneida—named for one of the Iroquois tribes—the year before.  By that December friendships had formed.  Our Scout Troop, in the cold week after Christmas, assembled to drive the long, long distance (all of 20 miles!) to Rome (New York, not that to which all roads lead by any means), to swim in a relatively new (YMCA?) pool.  In the ice cold, to be transported to steaming warm water, the gym windows beclouded with moisture, that was a treat.  (The cold this week brought the memory). But to get there we needed four drivers and only three arrived.  It was a Saturday, and my dad was in the church office, upstairs from our Scout Hall, probably trying to write a sermon for the next day, just 14 years after his graduation from BU.  ‘Dad, could you drive for us? ‘.  With no spoken reluctance, he tapped his pipe, closed the notebook, and put on his coat.  We had a blast!  I suppose we worked on swimming merit badge along the way, but all that remains in memory is the laughter, going and swimming, warmth in the deeps of cold, and friendship in the deeps of anonymity.  A Scout is friendly:  he is friend to all, and a brother to every other Scout.

Our family, four children, lived on the minister’s salary, then $6,000 a year, and in the minster’s parsonage.  It was a living.  They, parents, never complained to my remembrance:  they were joyful, proud people.  You live on what you have, so not to burden others.  In those years, because you were eligible to move, to itnerate every spring or so, you planted a garden, taking pride in its planting, not fully knowing if you or another would harvest.  There was a pride in the way these vegetable gardens were planted and hoed and weeded.  ‘They really make a good garden!’—that was high praise in the itinerant ministerial community, which like all such, had its share of gossip.  You take in pride in what you do.  ‘Any profession is great, if greatly pursued’ (O W Holmes).

After the swim, that evening, in the Rome (NY) YMCA, because it was 5 or 6pm, the idea circulated among the swimmers that we should propose to the drivers to stop for a hamburger, at a new hamburger chain, Carroll’s, it was called.  The swimmers had the imagination, but the drivers had the money.  This seemed like a top idea.  Warmed in the swim, and in the fellowship of friendship, I went to my father.  He was filling his pipe, and smiling.  ‘Dad—the other guys are going to stop for a hamburger on the way back home.  Can we go along?’   My father was a genuinely and naturally happy, optimistic man.  He did not let hurt easily confound him. ‘Who ever said life was fair?’, that was his response to unfairness, hurt.  So I remember that night, because his face fell, a little, at the question: can we stop for a hamburger, too? ( I mentioned that my dad was a proud person, I think.)

He said something like ‘maybe’, or ‘we’ll see’.  Then, after a while, with the troop running around and shouting things, I saw him slowly walk over to one of the other drivers, who was a factory owner, a lay speaker, and a friend.  I saw a conversation in process.  I saw my father looking at my friend’s father.  I saw my friend’s father fish out his wallet.  I saw my dad–I just wonder now how much it might have hurt him–accept a few bills, and put them into his own, empty, wallet.   It was the end of the month, the end of year, the week after Christmas, a time of quiet, but a time of lack, I guess.   Having now lived a while, raised some children, seen and felt some hurt, maybe I should better appreciate, a little, what that moment, that willingness to sacrifice pride to give love, may have cost.   In the icy winter, in the atrium of a small YMCA, on a Saturday afternoon, with a sermon back on the desk, still unwritten.  If I had known then what I know now, about what can hurt, I would not have asked.  But if I had not asked, I would not have known, now, what I saw then.   Life asks things of us, when we are least prepared, and when we least expect, but ask it does.  How we respond becomes the alphabet of faith.

For a time, now, across our culture, and thanks in part to the weakening of Scouts troops and Methodist churches in the northern Midwest, indecency and indifference seem to have won the day.  We do not need to recount, in this country.  We need to recant.  Not to recount, but to recant.  We have learned what Jeremiah warned us in September:  you usually cannot know humility without first enduring the bitter suffering of humiliation.  As a people, now, we are learning the one through the other.  Yet. Nonetheless.  Nevertheless.  Hear the Gospel.  It is a first step toward humility.  The further steps come, in middling fashion, upon a long road, in the civil forms of civil society that slowly teach what we seem in part to have forgotten—decency and difference–not indecency nor indifference–but conscience and compassion.

So we live into Advent in a difficult time, and there is little that can be said to minimize that dark difficulty.  No.  No false hope.  We must face it and live it through, whether or not we can live it down.  We simply will have to live it through:  we can attend to affairs of state, to due process under the law, to respect for forms of government.  It will take a decade.

 But remember: Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience.  Zadie Smith knows about birth and a warm swim on a cold winter night:  Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefitted…Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive. (NYRB, 12/22/16, p 37).   As did Vaclav Havel: “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world beyond our horizons.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, no matter how it turns out.”

We long to know the meaning of the gospel in life.  Our hearts yearn for such a sense of meaning, as our minds reach for the same.  May such meaning fill your longing and feed your yearning, this Christmas, 2016.

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

 

Sacrament and Discourse

December 5th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 3: 1-12

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Sacrament and Discourse

Cold River

To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk at least once down by the river Jordan.  It is cold outside, down here along the banks of the roiling river of life.  It is uncomfortable outside, down here along the banks of the rushing river of truth.  It is dark outside, down here along the existential river of soul, of salvation, of all that is sacred.  And there is more.

A river, especially the Jordan, is a symbol of the edge, the end, the last things, the purpose of life, the end of time.    Says Ecclesiastes, ‘All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full’.  Our beloved Antonio Machado, whose verse strangely comes back to me after years of my own wandering, says the same: “Nuestras vidas son los rios que van a dar a la mar” (Campos de Castilla).

For down by the river, we hear John the Baptist.  To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk down by the river Jordan.  Here, lurking and skulking and sliding about in the dark recesses of the heart, here is a voice, crying in the wilderness.  It is the voice of conscience.   The voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’   Down, down, down by the river.

John rankles and offends, because he challenges us to start over.  He is dressed in camel’s hair, the rudest of clothes.  He eats locusts, and wild honey.  Here is a voice.  Not pretty image, not contrived appearance, not considered attire—but voice.  Not face, but voice.  John in the dark, cowering along the caves of the riverbed, crying.   His is the voice of conscience, by which we are brought outside of ourselves and made to hear what we may not want to hear.  And there is more.  His voice reverberates today, down by the river.  Let’s go outside, let’s go down and listen to him, on our way to Bethlehem.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.  His discourse, his teaching, guides us toward today’s Sacrament, and the very Sacrament of every one day.

Head

That is, before we lay our gifts at the manger altar, we will want the chill challenge of a thoughtful, thinking faith.  In the long run what is not true cannot be good though it may be news.  John the Baptist comes around at least once a year to remind us so.

We can be thankful for those laboring at night in the lonely libraries and cubicles and offices nearby, to stretch our understanding that it might embrace our faith which is seeking that same understanding.  Theology matters.  

Not long ago, many of us had the joy and the privilege to listen at a faculty retreat to some of the newest, youngest adventures in thoughtful reflection on faith.  Words from the wise, words to the wise.

One young biblical scholar reminded us: The Christian Bible…has never been stable; each book and collection has undergone a long process of transmission and reception that continues to this day…The Bible remains a living document preserving not only a diverse body of texts but also the priorities of those who have transmitted it.

One young psychologist of religion reminded us: We are disposed to misunderstand.  We live in a pluri-verse, a conversation across the boundaries of different lands.  We witness the inevitable but not necessary collapse of ambiguity into certainty.  Sometimes, especially when we are trying truly distinguish cruelty from care, we need a sense of ambiguity.  We may need to return again and again to Nicholas of Cusa and the ‘doctrine of learned ignorance’.

One young historian reminded us of the central role women have played in global missions: empathy is like oxygen.  When you feel somebody experience you deeply, it is like air, like oxygen.

One young philosophical theologian reminded us: as we look at religious experience we have to hold ourselves accountable to empirical research.

An older, wiser teacher, reminded this academic circle of an academic peril:  We sometimes mistakenly think that if you can get it down on paper you don’t have to live it.

Some of you will have had the benefit of those who showed by example how to think about faith, how faithfully to think.  We want to live in our own version of the memory Tony Judt had of Manhattan decades ago: “Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered”. (NYT 11/8/10) We could hear his sentence as ecclesiology.  So too the church:  a crossroads where original minds linger.

This autumn, it may be, our learning has been on the street not in the library, in the culture, not in the school, in the meaning of what things mean—our Advent 2016 fordable river.

‘When I use a word’, said Humpty Dumpty, in a rather scournful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’.  ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’ (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass).

What you say you meant, in all sincerity, by a word, a choice, a sermon, or a vote, is not in any significant measure what your word, choice, sermon, or vote means. Its meaning is in its impact, not its intention.  Its meaning is in its effect, not in its sentiment.  It means what it does—to others.

My sister cried when I said something to her. ‘But Mom, I didn’t mean to hurt her.  I didn’t mean it that way’.  ‘I’m sure you didn’t, Bobby’.   Now go to your room.  No supper.’  You may not have meant it to hurt (let’s be generous here), but hurt it did.

Words—acts, deeds, votes—have their meaning in the future they create, not in some sentiment of the heart.  We are responsible—especially the preacher—not for what we say but for what we are heard to say.  What you meant by that vote is not what it means.  What it means is what it does.

There is no way, that is, in living the Christian gospel, to ‘normalize’ demagoguery.  Not in racist dimension, not in its mistreatment of women, not in its denigration of color, difference, globe, disability or otherness.  Demagoguery, from any position, deserves and must receive nothing but condemnation, contempt and resistance.  There is no way, in announcing the gospel of grace, to ‘normalize’ such.  Or at least saith John the Baptist.

Hand

Then too, your hands are touching and helping others.

Our students for many years engaged a citywide CROP walk to combat world hunger, as the visit this week of a 2011 graduate, Tyler Sit, recalled.  Our Methodist fellowship has worked at the Cooper Mission in Roxbury.  Our partnership with the University and with Habitat for Humanity built a house.  Many have continued to prayerfully support Refugee Immigration Ministries. Some of you will be heading off for a week of Alternative Spring Break service next year.  As a congregation you continue to support the BMC food pantry.  In short, ‘hands on’ forms of service continue to thrive here at Marsh Chapel, thanks to the lay leadership offered in these many areas.

What we love, we should love ardently.  Service helps us ground our faith in action, and thereby protects us from betraying the life into which we have been called.  Tragedy is to betray the life into which you have been called, or the profession into which you have been called, or the calling into which you have been called.

Our current generation of students excels at participatory service ministry, and teaches its value by example.

This Advent, for example, our students say:  

We invite you to consider collecting items for donation to populations in need – specifically for local food banks, homeless shelters, children’s charities, and disaster relief.  For those of you in the Boston area, we encourage you to bring your donations to Marsh Chapel at the end of each week and we will deliver them at each of the following nonprofit organizations – Greater Boston Food Bank, Pine Street Inn, Cradles to Crayons, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).   For those outside the Boston area, we encourage you to gather a group – maybe in your home congregation, at your workplace, or in your neighborhood – to participate in this activity together and to find locations for donation near you! Here are some websites that can help you locate nonprofit organizations that accept the kinds of donations we will be suggesting:  Food Banks; Homeless Shelters; Children’s Charities; UMCOR; and, Lutheran World Relief, UCC Disaster Ministries, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Episcopal Relief and Development, Red Cross

Heart

Head and hands finally rely on the heart.  In the winter we learn to stay warm. Warmth, warmth, warmth.  We are dying of cold, not of darkness.  It is not the night that kills, but the frost (Unamuno). At night our eyes are sharpened to see shapes in the shadows.  When we experience diminishment we also hold more closely those things which mean most to us.   With age comes wisdom.

Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow.   In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one.  What a privilege!  Would that more, and better, and sooner, would heed the invitation to ministry.  At the kitchen table.  Over coffee.  In a parking lot. Within a small office.  At the hospital.  At school.  With lunch.  In a nursing home.  In the barn, at dusk, milking time.  In the sugar house.  On a tractor.  

Or in a pastoral visit, of the following sort.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view.  Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you, Gladys?  Oh, it is not necessary.  Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy.  But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psalms?  My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying?…Yes.  Oh, it is not necessary.  I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life.  But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir.  Would you like some of the hymns recited for you?  Oh that is not necessary.  I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night!   I found my faith singing, you know.  It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church.  I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust.  But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit.  Oh, that is not necessary.  We can have communion if you like.  It is so meaningful to me.  I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee.  After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly.  But I still could get grace in communion.  But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in ministry in our region, the north, that blanket of snow, blanket of proximate mortality, blanket of grace.  Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, he thought, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today?  As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?…Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others?  And what of the youth?  Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love?  Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it?  A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China.  And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation?  It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?…Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.  His discourse, his teaching, guides us toward today’s Sacrament, and the very Sacrament of every one day.

As Howard Thurman wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
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,
To make music in the heart.

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

Approaching Advent

November 27th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 24:36-44

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The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough.  We cannot see or know the future.  We ought to live 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 prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come 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, and then apply the verses to ourselves.

Jesus.  Jesus may have used this phrase, though over late night refreshment in 1997 Marcus Borg once pushed hard 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 I think it unlikely.  That is, Jesus used the phrase, most probably, but not of himself, most probably. 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 Dr. Perrin, IBDS 834, and others).  The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would think or like.

Church.  Mark, Luke and Matthew carry forward these standard end of the world predictions.  Our lectionary clips out the mistaken acclamation of 24: 34, just two verses ahead of our reading, 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, 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.  Yet we should, and do, hear these apocalyptic passages.  They are a part of our shared, family history.

Matthew.  To his credit and to our benefit Matthew makes his editorial, redactorial 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 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 locks and loads and 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.

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 that of 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…

To sum up: 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 agnostic admitted that music, performed, was his closest approximation of God, the presence of God, the proof of God.  We shall listen in a moment to a beautiful anthem, with rapt attention.  One trusted Christian—it may have been you—sensed grace and grace in the grace of worship, unlike any other. Every moment is a veritable mystery.  Music is a veritable mystery.  So next week, we shall hear:  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.  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 sing, the soul pray, the spirit 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.

 For example.  How do you deal with hurt that comes from a person you deeply love, a relationship you truly enjoy, an institution you firmly affirm, or a friendship you lastingly cherish? Was yours a contentious Thanksgiving feast?  It is one thing to think about pain, permanent or passing, that comes in collision with others whom we do not know well or care for.  These traffic accidents are perhaps to be expected in the rush hours of relational experience.  When we do not know one another, or not well, we can miss cues and generate miscues that those more familiar would avoid. Not knowing you I did not know and would never have expected that you are an avid Yankees fan, and if I had I would never have said what I did, directly, about Alex Rodriguez.  Well, I probably wouldn’t have done.  But what about the church you deeply love, when disappointment comes from the pulpit? What about that lifetime friend who says something unpleasant and hurtful?  What about that employer, whom you revere and admire, to whom you give both creativity and loyalty?  What about that community group whose organizational needs you have selflessly met, that then makes a statement or takes a decision that causes you pain? Or, what about the country you love, when its voice, its choice, deeply disappoint?  In short, what happens when those you love hurt you?  How do you deal with that?

Perhaps you will irrupt in the moment, lash out in reaction, without any due process of reflection, because the moment needs it, and you have or feel you have no choice.  Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.  Be angry, and let not the sun go down on your anger.  This may cause more problems than it solves, of course, but you may have had no choice.  Sometimes it is better to stand and fight.

Perhaps though flight is better.  You may sense that you just want to put some distance between yourself and your source of pain, institutional, relational, or personal.  A little time, a little distance, a little pause, a little absence.   Thence a cooling off, it may be, not a squaring off.  In some measure that may suit you and the challenge.  You did not start it.  You do not need to take responsibility for it.  Shake the dust from your feet.  Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. (You see how tough it can be even, especially when you know the Bible, to pick out the right Bible verse!)  Flight postpones, but not in healing tones.   The trouble is still there, though it may just dissipate on its own.  Not all battles have to be fought.  Sometimes it is better to take flight.

Perhaps playing dead is the way to go.  You know, like animals do, they just curl up and become a log or a part of the scenery.   Let life go along, and let the conversation play out.  You do not need to oppose.  You do not need to repose.  You can just pose in silence.  You can use the silent treatment—present but quiet.  This could work, though there is a quality of falsehood about it.  It may depend on just how substantial the fender-bender was, how hurtful the collision, how extreme the traffic accident.   Silence alone has limits to its beneficence.  Still, as the man said, ‘I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt’.  Sometimes it is better just to keep your own counsel, and play dead.

You have though at least one other option.  Fight, flight, play dead if need be.  Yet you might also, well, wait.  We are approaching Advent, are we not?  Wait upon the Lord.  That is, you might think through what happened, both putting the best and worst lights upon it.  You might pray about it.  Hold it in prayerful thought.  You might think out a couple of sentences that you would caringly use, should the institution, relationship, or person provide an opening for that.  And then you would have to ‘hurry up and wait’.  Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.  “You know, I have had that interchange in mind since it happened.  Honestly, for whatever reason, it did hurt.  But given the love, joy, happiness, meaning and help you give me over so much time, it is just one brief solar eclipse that comes once a decade, when all else is sunshine. Thanks for mentioning it.”

For example.  For those still reeling a bit from the last 18 months and the last 18 days in these United States, we may ask:  How do you feel?  What have you learned?  Your protégé, now ten years out from his Marsh Chapel choir experience, and his decision to enter ministry alongside his choir member bride, now in Philadelphia says,  I feel like I’ve been kicked in the smug (J).  How do you feel?  And what have you learned? What are the lessons to be stowed away for future use as birthday gifts, years from now, gifts on the go as it were, for future generations?  The lesson that ‘those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’(Voltaire)?  The lesson that we see what we want to see?  The lesson that both sexism and racism lurk, endure, live and breathe?  The lesson that, in some dark seasons, selfishness trumps charity; anger trumps reason; hatred trumps comity; bigotry trumps friendship?  The lesson that voting, the act itself, matters—really matters?  The lesson that gathering—in a rally, say, or better in worship, say—empowers, enlivens, motivates, for ill, or good?  (Do you worship? Advent is a good time in which to approach worship.) The sad lesson that some, to win, are willing to enter the sphere of demagoguery, ‘sometimes you have to use a certain kind of rhetoric to motivate people’ (DJT, NYT, 11/16)?  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard. Or, even, the basic, technological lesson that email, whether well served on its servers, or ill served by it servants, serves to dehumanize, as a sub-human form of communication?

How about this:  The lesson that what one means—by an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say—is not all that such an act means?  We will experience Advent through this lesson this year. The lesson, that is, that what you in your heart meant by an act, a word, a statement—a vote, is not in fact the limit of what that vote meant:  in fact it is a small part, the greater part of the meaning being found in the effect, the impact, the historical influence of the vote.  The meaning of a text is found in the future it opens, the future it imagines, the future it creates. (Ray Hart). So too, the meaning of an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say, is found in the future, bright or dark, which it creates.  What you meant is not what it means.  For that, you have to listen to those harmed, or helped, by it.  Meaning is social, not individual, hence our use of words, our developed language, our investment in culture, our life in community.  You may have meant it one way, but its meaning is found along another.  Such hard, tragic lessons, to have to learn and re-learn.

The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough.  We cannot see or know the future.  We ought to live 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 prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come this very morning, as together, in faith and hope and love, we approach Advent.

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

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The Bach Experience

November 20th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 23:33-43

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Rev. Gaskell

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

We celebrate the endowment we already have.  It is a rich and treasure.  It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.  Listen for its echoes…listen…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Congregation and community, you come too.

Earthly assembly and heavenly chorus, you come too.

Beauty opens the world to grace.  Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel.  Beauty is a ‘praeparatio evangelica’, a preparation of the gospel.  Bach is a prelude to faith.

Faith, the leap of faith, requires preparation.  Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

Beauty prepares us for faith.  Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that.  When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a time of need, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that.  It takes a leap.  Faith takes a leap.

Something beautiful may have prepared our gospel writer.  Bach may prepare you today.  Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge.  Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding.  Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth.  It would not be the first time.  Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86).  I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you?

Dr. Jarrett

Today we present Cantata 10: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, Bach’s German setting of the Canticle of Mary as found in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us both of the joyful prevalence of this text in most all Christian liturgies, but also the familiarity of the Leipzig congregation with this most joyful and famous canticle.

Let’s first consider the libretto for our cantata. Typically, we’d expect to find a biblical exhortation – perhaps a verse or two from a Psalm – followed by a series of recitatives and arias, each of which advances a different rhetorical argument or perspective of the scriptural subject of the day. The recits tend to pack in the most theology with their syllabic declamation, leaving the arias to convey a more personal response to the scriptural subject. Cantata 10 draws its libretto entirely from the Canticle of Mary, the first two verses quoted exactly, with the interior movements paraphrasing the remainder of the text. Only once does our anonymous librettist depart from the Lukan text when, in the final recitative, the tenor expounds on the broader theological implications of the word made flesh with themes that remind us of the first chapter of John. Bach adds the string orchestra at this moment, as if to underscore the importance of this final teaching opportunity.

There are three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata. The first proceeds directly out of the opening movement without recitative, and immediately and successfully captures both the spirit of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb but also Mary’s joyful exuberance. The central aria provides the bass soloist and continuo cellist a flashy and virtuosic depiction of God casting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble, leaving the rich empty, and filling the hungry with gifts of grace. The third aria is perhaps the most inward looking moment in the entire cantata. Scored as a duet for alto and tenor, listen for the Magnificat chant played in long tones by the trumpet.

There are two recitatives for the tenor soloist, both of which offer rich examples of Bach’s extraordinary text setting. Note the chromatic flourish on the word ‘scatter’ in the first recitative, for example.

It is the cantata’s opening movement that best captures the urgency and ardor of Mary’s Song. The ages old Magnificat psalm tone is heard in long notes in the Soprano part, taken up by the altos for the second verse. All around, Bach scores music of brilliant vivacity, depicting both the exuberance of Mary’s joy, but also the promise and urgency of Christ’s advent.

Rev. Gaskell

Let us prepare ourselves, upon this Christ the King Sunday, and take on for ourselves, a spirit of wonder, of vulnerability

Erazim Kohak, of Boston University said of wonder:  ‘The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season.  We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing.  Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished:  that there is something.  That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…There are humans…who become blind to goodness, to truth and beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them.  But that is not the point.  What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment not simply as a transition between a before and an after but as the miracle of eternity ingressing intot time.  That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of blessed memory, said of vulnerability:  ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute:  we must simply hold out and see it through.  That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation; for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us.  It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap:  He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.’

Gaston Bachelard, that Parisian philosopher poet, wrote, in full self-awareness:  ‘Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret.  Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.  To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.  To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is the poet’s life…Yet listen well.  Not to my words, but to the tumult that rages in your body when you listen to yourself…And why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of the perception?’

Bach is filling us with grace and beauty! In particular, the final recit (No. 6) strays a bit from Luke, to amplify a little more theology, and seems to borrow heavily from John: “Thus it ever is, that God’s Word is full of grace and truth.”   Because the Gospel of John is centrally about the divine presence, this note fits our music today very well.  John is about presence, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about Spirit, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about mystery, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about grace, as is this magnificent cantata.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Reverend Gaskell’s portion of this week’s sermon is written by the Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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A Thanksgiving Conversation

November 13th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 21:5-9

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Let us be thoughtful in conversation this coming Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the Psalm this morning.  Let us be mindful of the blessings of God.

The goodness of God knows no limit, no single season, no particular admixture of victory and defeat.   Our friends (1), the seasons themselves (2), and the prayerful practice of remembrance (3) tell us this again.

Let us be mindful of friendship.  The friendship of Marsh Chapel is offered each Lord’s day, and each day in the Lord, first and foremost to those most in need.   The physical safety of our students, in all times and in all seasons, stands as our highest priority in friendship.  If you are a sophomore, say, and sense you are in some need or peril, our Hospitality Staff welcomes you in friendship.  Mr. Bouchard, our Chapel Director, who will read in a moment a playful poem about friendship, guides a team, including one staff person related to Title IX issues, devoted to your security, in use of space, in programmatic support, and in personal protection.  Now in a season when, given the events of this past week and its election, some sense possible peril, we stand with you, on a daily basis, on the ground level, in a protective posture.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend, of blessed memory, Max Coots:


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

Let us be mindful of friendship.  And let us be mindful of the seasons.

Next week, most will sit before a carved turkey.  For many years, Marsh Chapel provided such a meal right here.  Now the University itself has taken up that meal, and provides it for students who are here over break, along now with open housing.  (Your ministry, Marsh Chapel, has been such an incubator over time, for service that then becomes University wide.  A Marsh Chapel Martin Luther King observance, becomes a University wide observance.  A Marsh Chapel community service program, becomes a University wide service.  A gospel group becomes a University-wide Inner Strength Gospel choir, Marsh Chapel hosted.  A Marsh Chapel Howard Thurman room and listening center becomes a University Howard Thurman Center.  A Marsh Chapel commitment to pastoral care over six decades becomes further embodied in behavioral health, and SARP, and the office of the Ombuds, and others.  Your work in incubation continues.) You plant seeds, and they grow, and grow up and on and out.  Season by season.  So next week, you will be at your table, somewhere.

Given the choices others have made in election and selection, and given the tragic tide of white nationalism, as un-Christian as it is un-American, which has surprisingly splashed upon all this week, how shall we engage in conversation with family with whom we disagree, come Thanksgiving? Perhaps it will be too much, this year, and silence or absence will be required.  Yet, it may be that the rhythms of nature in harvest will help us.  It may be that the season itself, redolent and rich with meaning, may support us.  It may be that the hymns of Thanksgiving, hummed or remembered, may help us.  You could also sing them, of course, even if you are not Methodists.  It may be that prayers, like the three used year by year here at Marsh, and used today, may help us.  Feel free to borrow.

Yes, our lessons from ancient Scripture regularly surround us with a thanksgiving conversation:  Isaiah in hope, the Psalmist in praise, the Epistle in encouragement, and the Gospel in patience. Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one remembered in the figure of her friend.  Carol Zahm, now deceased, wrote a poem prayer, about a friend, some years ago.  It is set in Wisconsin, on a family farm.  Today it will be read by our University Chaplain for International students, Ms. Jessica Chicka.  As Mr. Bouchard cares for space and safety, she cares for our International sisters and brothers.  As a junior, you might muse, isn’t it wonderful that she is here!  In a fortnight when the ugliness of American selfishness, and a shameful ‘Christian’ bigotry, may frighten our beloved neighbors, or worse, she is here to provide pastoral care, and programmatic support and administrative help for all—for those from Pakistan and Korea and China, and for those who are Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Confucian—or no religious tradition at all.  In a week when students on campuses, now, given the open space set out for this by a particular, now victorious, party and candidate, who have unashamedly ridden a wave of white nationalism, are accosted for wearing religious garb, or who are fearful for their families (one interviewed by the New York times, standing on the steps not twenty feet from the Marsh Chapel on Wednesday), your ministry with and to those who are strangers in an increasingly strange land, has real portent.  (We need someone, by the way, to endow the Deanship of Marsh Chapel, a $4 million gift, to make sure this sort of ministry continues in perpetuity.  We need others, by the way, to tithe in support of Marsh Chapel for the year to come, to make sure this sort of ministry continues into the future—where will your tithe go?)  It may be, at Thanksgiving, that the season, the harvest, nature itself, will support us.

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years

Rocking—rocking

All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today, for we have been this past week through a very difficult patch. Nature may aid culture here.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, however perversely, however violently, however despicably that freedom is used.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.  Any manner of bigotry deserves to be met by condemnation, contempt and resistance.  We have plenty of work to do, and let us not grow weary in doing it.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace. The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, and now including this past week, forbid it.  Read again Victor Klemperer’s two volume diary, I Will Bear Witness, or the exemplary biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory.

In helping one another, and speaking to our children, in Thanksgiving conversation, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.

 So let us be mindful of the seasons this Thanksgiving.  And let us be mindful of remembrance.

Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago, was so mindful.  Our University Chaplain, Br. Whitney will read Thurman’s poem in a moment.  What Mr. Bouchard brings to physical safety, and what Ms. Chicka brings to religious safety, Br. Whitney brings in full to psychic safety.  With his team, and in partnership with others across the campus, he ministers—perhaps with you in your senior year?—to anxiety, to depression, to all that unbalances the person.  See, hear him, and know he is here with and for you.  Thurman’s poem:

 

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

 

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

To conclude, a story, an analogy—full well knowing that all analogies stumble.  The point of the parable is that there is still a future, remarkable, different, and good—we just do not know what the future holds.

In 1978 we had planned maybe to stay in NYC, and there or nearby to study further.  In our third year of seminary though we became pregnant.  Then after Christmas Jan suffered a severe illness, requiring surgery:  the doctor said he did know whether either mother or child would survive the six-month stage operation.  By God’s grace, they did.  We moved suddenly into a small church in Ithaca, NY, a congregation whose minister had run off with the organist mid-year, hence an opening, and a place where mother and coming child could convalesce, and ministry could begin, with some commuting for the finishing seminarian, back down to NYC.

Now my Korean student in Boston says, ‘Dean Hill there are three kinds of Korean Christians:  conservative, very conservative and very, very conservative’.  Then, in Ithaca, there were three kinds of people:  liberal, very liberal, and very, very liberal.  It was 1979, and all weddings were done on horseback, underwater, out in a field, or naked (well, that is hyperbole, but you get the point).  That fall, a modest proposal to improve a road up the far hill to the hospital was met with communal outrage, and defense of the squirrel population near Trumansburg. The newspaper reported that three people attended a hearing, in squirrel defense, dressed as squirrels (not hyperbole, and you get the point).  The next year, an election was held.  Its results produced apocalyptic apoplexy:  the president elect—Ronald Reagan.  That winter, in a Cornell graduate student home, over dinner, we spoke in fear and trepidation of what would befall the republic.  But the host, a veteran Washingtonian back to do a PhD above Cayuga’s waters, listened and quietly, presciently, replied: “No, he will not trim the bureaucracy—it will expand.  No, he will not eliminate the debt—it will grow.  No he will not cut taxes—they will increase.  He doesn’t have the power.  He will shove and push that tree and one apple will fall.  Watch and wait. (You would have thought he was quoting today’s Lukan little apocalypse).”

You watch and wait.  We left Ithaca in 1981 for pastoral visits along the St. Lawrence, in the far north, in the bitter cold, in the barns at milking; for ministry among farmers and truck drivers in the fire department; for an immersion in non-urban poverty, poverty without electricity and without a subway, along a frozen river; and later for counseling with engineers let go by a failing Carrier Corporation; prayer with factory workers dis-employed by Oneida Silver and Smith Corona; tearful farewells to executives leaving Kodak; in short, the disappearance of both farming and manufacturing, as the drums of globalization beat along the Mohawk.  That is, our real theological education began, in earnest, in 1981.  Martin Luther: “One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation.” You watch and wait.  You have faith, you have hope, and you have each other.  And you have plenty of work to do, awaiting the day when ‘the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain says the Lord.’

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

All the Saints

November 6th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 6:20-31

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There is no text for this sermon.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Come Down Zaccheus!

October 30th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 19:1-10

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Did we in our own strength confide

Our striving would be losing

Were not the Right Man on our side

The Man of God’s own choosing

Dost as who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He

Lord Sabaoth His name

From age to age the same

And he must win the battle

 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 accept a loving relationship with Him.  May we measure all with a measure of love.

  1. Doubting Zaccheus

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.

We played golf one day.  On the last hole, I pulled out a three wood and hit a grounder, that nonetheless rolled right to the green.  If I had connected, I would have smashed the clubhouse window, for it was way too much club.  Sometimes a bad thing, a worm burner golf shot, interferes with a really bad thing, a $1000 broken window.

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.  Zaccheus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit.

Come down from this one tree, doubting Zaccheus.  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 salvation.  Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock).  Jesus Christ saves us from doubt.

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

  1. Idolatrous Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, 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 become a shadow of the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God.  Zaccheus 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.

Remember last week, and our prayer for forgiveness of sin?  We confessed lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and…’integrity without humility’, pride.  Say you were an attorney general in a state with a governor’s election ten days away.  You find a folder on your desk, empty, but with a pending potential investigation.  You feel that your integrity requires that you tell the whole inhabited earth about a pending possible investigation about which you know nothing.  You remember your Boy Scout law (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent), and decide your integrity requires a statement.  But what of your humility? (The scout motto—a good turn daily—not just the law).  Humility would require you to consider due process, to consider past practice near elections, to consider the advice of your colleagues in law enforcement, and to consider the nuances of the situation and your conscience.  Integrity, alone, bulldozes blazes and blasts  past all these.  Harm is done.  Integrity without humility is the worst of the seven deadly sins—pride.  When we grow up, sometimes, we recognize the peril of integrity alone, the great steed of integrity, without the bit and bridle and saddle of humility—pride.

Yet all of this involves a lesser loyalty 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 Zaccheus, come down, before it is too late.    Make sure your lesser loyalties—to government, 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 common dream:

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 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.

We harbor a common dream, finally 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 Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, come down, at last.  Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry and 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, is 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 Zaccheus, “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 health.  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 Zaccheus 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 Zaccheus, and feel the pain of others.  And:  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 Zaccheus, come down!

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 into 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.  The moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen.  Our wealth is meant for the cleansing of the poor of the earth.  Perhaps tthe Lord wanted me to remember that in ministry, so I have tried to.  Come down Zaccheus, and use your wealth for the poor.

  1. Religious Zaccheus

Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we?  Come down Zaccheus, come down!  No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering 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 church 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 salvation.  Are we lovers anymore?

Like Zaccheus 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.  We remember Luther this Sunday every year.  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.

Here is an old, ostensibly humorous story.  A man approaches the pearly gates.  “Tell me about the good in your life (says Peter):  admission requires 100 points.”  “Well, I once gave to the United Way (1 point).  And, I remember I shoveled a neighbor’s walk (1 point).  I used to go to church (1 point).”  (Pause).  ‘You, know I’ll never make it to 100 points except by the grace of God’.  (GRACE OF GOD—97 POINTS).

Luther recalls us down from the religion tree, to sit at the table of faith:

“Sola Fide”

“Crux Sola Nostra Theologia”

“Sin Boldly, but trust upon the Lord Jesus Christ more boldly still”.

“In the midst of the affliction He counsels, strengthens confirms, nourishes, and favors us…. More over, when we have repented, He instantly remits the sins as well as the punishments. In the same manner parents ought to handle their children

“Thus every matter, if it is to be done well, calls for the attention of the whole person.”

“If there is anything in us, it is not our own; it is a gift of God. But if it is a gift of God, then it is entirely a debt one owes to love, that is, to the law of Christ. And if it is a debt owed to love, then I must serve others with it, not myself. Thus my learning is not my own; it belongs to the unlearned and is the debt I owe them…My wisdom belongs to the foolish, my power to the oppressed. Thus my wealth belongs to the poor, my righteousness to the sinners

“It is with all these qualities that we must stand before God and intervene on behalf of those who do not have them, as though clothed with someone else’s garment…But even before men we must, with the same love, render them service against their detractors and those who are violent toward them; for this is what Christ did for us.”

“Teaching is of more importance than urging.”

“One learns more of Christ in being married and rearing children than in several lifetimes spent in study in a monastery

“One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation

“What would it profit us to possess and perform everything else and be like pure saints, if we meanwhile neglected our chief purpose in life, namely, the care of the young?”

“Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling within us; in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutuality, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” The Annotated Luther, Vol. 1: The Roots of Reform, Timothy J. Wengert, Ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 525).

Come down Zaccheus!  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.

Did we in our own strength confide

Our striving would be losing

Were not the Right Man on our side

The Man of God’s own choosing

Dost as who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He

Lord Sabaoth His name

From age to age the same

And he must win the battle

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Persistence in Prayer

October 23rd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18:9-14

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God be merciful to me, a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.

Yeats in Poetic Prayer

 (for confession)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 (WB Yeats, 1919)

 Persistence in prayer is difficult, in our age.

Prayer in Luke

 We can readily appreciate the stark rigor of Jesus’ Lukan parables.  A Samaritan whose kindness illumines the limits of religion…A rich man who builds bigger barns, but whose soul suddenly is required…A figure of a fig tree, fruitless, but spared for yet another year in hope…A marriage feast wherein humility is tested and the poor are fed…Another banquet to which many are invited but few respond, and out to highways and byways the invitation goes…A lost sheep—found!…A lost coin…found!  A lost, prodigal son…found!…A truly dishonest steward whose wiliness shines out…A rich man who turns his back on a poor man, and roasts in hell for it… a persistent widow whose raises her voice to an unjust judge…Talent wasted and invested…A vineyard stolen by tenants…and, today, a publican persistent in prayer.

What drove Luke, alone, to remember or construct these parables?  The lengthening years, without ultimate victory, since the cross?  The long decades of living without Jesus?  The uncertainties of institution and culture and citizenship and multiple responsibilities?  The daily stresses of managing a budget?  It is the primitive church that can give an example for us today in our time of anxiety. They waited for Jesus to return.  And he delayed.  And he delays, still.  It is enough to make you lose heart.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed

By schism rent asunder by heresy distressed

Yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up ‘howlong’?

And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.

 Persistence in prayer takes faith, to be in faith.

 The publican—the tax collector—looks hard into the mirror. God be merciful to me—a sinner!

 He uses a word that we avoid.  Sin is utterly personal.  This we understand.  The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions.  We get lost.  It is our nature, east of eden.  We get lost in sex without love:  lust.  We get lost in consumption without nourishment:  gluttony.  We get lost in accumulation without investment:  avarice.  We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle:  sloth.  We get lost in righteousness without restraint:  anger.  We get lost in desire without ration or respect:  envy.  And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility:  pride.  If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance.  (You also may not be quite human).

It is a long wait.  And that is just the point.  Like the bridesmaids who waited with lamps trimmed, we feel the length of the wait.  But we can wait, together.  We can offer together a common prayer.  We can slowly, stumblingly give ourselves over to persistence in prayer, to the forms of religious practice that bear meaning, to the life of the church, for all its foibles, wherein we learn the grammar of grace, and where through we face down the evils of this age.

Persistence in prayer is challenging, in our tradition.

Techne

Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’ was a hundred years premature.  Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.  For the first time, practically anyone could be found intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere at all times.  Before this everyone could expect, in the course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened  by public or familial roles.  That era now came to an end.

 When the smartphone brings messages, alerts, and notifications that invite instant responses—and induces anxiety if those messages fail to arrive—everyone’s sense of time changes, and attention that used to be focused more or less distantly on, say, tomorrow’s mail is concentrated in the present moment…You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming ‘more tenuous’.

(Edward Mendelson, NYRB, 6/23/16, 34)

Persistence in prayer is challenging, in our culture.

Rather than another hour of email, or on our smartphone, perhaps we could walk, alone, quiet, and talk to God.  Tell it to God.  Pray.  Our overcapacity in email is a direct consequence of our under-investment in prayer.

Prayer in Life:  Charles Taylor

One advantage of a life of study, the life of the mind, the college years, is the chance to pick out some new theological eye glasses.  Prayerfully consider, for example, the thought of Charles Taylor, our Montreal philosopher.  Taylor explores background conditions:  social imaginaries, moral perspectives, the cultural influences we sometimes take for granted.   His central emphasis is the exploration of ‘fullness’: an experience of what counts most in life.   Taylor views the spiritual shape of the present age through the lenses of the work of Ivan Illich, Charles Peguy, G M Hopkins, and I Berlin.  He has no interest in a return to an untroubled harmony, which is utterly unattainable, and is even a kind of culpable weakness.  Taylor seeks a new more nuanced map of the ideological terrain all about us. Fullness…

I prayerfully remember the summer, thinking in prayer of Taylor. When I see my granddaughter Ellie tubing behind a motor boat for the first time, I have the joyful fullness of watching her as a remembrance of her mother, our daughter, Emily skiing on the same lake.   When our youngest granddaughter, Hannah, wakes up from a nap; or when her brother Charlie, ‘screwing his courage to the sticking post’ tries tubing himself; or when their cousin Sally cries out wanting her dad, our son, Benjamin; or when Jan comes home as happy as Yogi Bear, her bucket full of blackberries; or when the blue lake and blue sky outside our blue cottage call out the name of the Blue God; then there is fullness, in a summer hue.

Charles Taylor, a great Canadian, has something he rails against:  subtraction (of transcendence) theories.  That is, he fights against the late modern urge to bracket out such transcendence. Transcendence in ordinary life, in society, in erotic love, in a new poetic language—Taylor works to make sufficient cultural space for transcendence.  That is what we are about at Marsh Chapel, too.  Taylor affirms not disenchantment but re-enchantment: claims for belief, for God, a sense of the soul and salvation, over against the modern or late modern experience of malaise, ennui, uncertainty, meaninglessness, melancholy, despair.   Here is his question:  ‘Where in the culture of expressive individualism is the sacred?’  To this end, Taylor examines a kind of ‘diffusive Christianity’, a habit of moving between belief and unbelief, an emphasis on believing not belonging.  His work heralds a new age of religious searching, not a decline in religious belief and practice, but a plurality of forms of belief and unbelief, transitory and fragile, existing within a range of cross pressures within the ongoing contest of religiosity and materialism.  He criticizes what he calls ‘excarnation’ (a shift from taking the body seriously, head over other).  In all, Taylor is the evangelist for the joy of everyday relationships, conduct, and experiences, his ear tuned to the sacred, his eye searching out the range of the sacred canopy, his mind alive to spirit, his heart given over to a hymnic celebration of our aspiration to wholeness.  His work is a hymn to and of persistence in prayer.*

*(Charles Taylor, as seen by Philip Amerson, Robert Allan Hill, and Michael Morgan (Indiana University) in conversation

 We fear, and try to find our security in larger automobiles or drug supplies or stock collections or homes or layers of disconnection, gated communities of the mind and heart.  But security comes not through possession, but through relationship.  Do you want to be safe and secure?  Invest yourself in a lifetime of building and keeping healthy relationships.  There is your security, where neither moth nor rust consumes.

 Such persistence in prayer needs new theological eyes, in our era.

Persistence in Prayer

Ernest Fremont Tittle was the greatest Methodist preacher of his mid twentieth century generation.  Tougher than Sockman, truer than Peale, Tittle preached in Chicago until he died at his desk, writing about Luke:

There is special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs.  God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist.  Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay.  More especially we can learn from great religious leader like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives.  The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer.  We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice.  Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence.

Persistence in prayer takes practice, for those who seek to resist injustice.

A Common Prayer

 We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 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.

We offer a common prayer, finally a prayer 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.

Application in Prayer

Talk to God walking on the river, in the woods, on the beach, once a day:  do not use email and other such modes when a silent prayer will suffice.

Go to church, once a week, for sermon and music and eucharist, but also to see different others, to feel different neighbors, to place yourself in the community of God’s people.

Give away 10% of what you earn, to the church you love, to the mission you admire, to the school that taught you, to the place you where help meets hurt.

Read.  Read every sentence, when you read, and think it through.  Read your Bible.  Read a good newspaper.  Read.

What shall we say?  How shall we pray?

Pray always

Labor Omnia Vincit

Do not lose heart

Work conquers all

Pray always

All of us are better when we are loved

Do not lose heart

Early to bed and early to bed and early to rise

Pray always

A stitch in time

Do not lose heart

Waste not want not

Pray always

Rome was not built in a day

Do not lose heart

Only the devil has no time

To let things grow

Pray always

Persistence in prayer begins with a decision to pray ‘without ceasing’.

God be merciful to me, a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.