Sunday
November 22

Liberal Helping

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:31-46

Click here to hear just the sermon

May we be blessed with liberal helpings of grace, gratitude and generosity, both

to receive and to give, in this singularThanksgiving season.

Grace

May we be blessed with a liberal helping of grace, in this season of needed grace.
We hear in Matthew 25 today a ringing valediction, a ringing acclamation of
grace. Although it is found in no other gospel, we feel and sense today’s parable
as the very word of the Lord, pronounced in full, in an unmediated way. We are
haunted by it: as you have done it to the least, you have done it to me (repeat). A
last word, a valediction, a last will and testament, sure, unshakable and downright
clear. We are still rightly measured by the way we treat those at the dawn of life,
those at the twilight of life, and those in the shadows of life. As you have done it
to the least of these, you have done it to me.

A valediction, a last word, carries an acute power. In a way, the Bible is a long
chain of valedictions. Jacob, Moses, Elijah, David, Job, Jesus, Peter, Paul.
Especially, read again the second half of the Gospel of John, a wondrous, fulsome
valediction.

One type of valediction is a concession. It is a grace to concede–at the end of a
contest, or race, or election. There is a powerful poignancy of a particular kind, a
riveting poignancy, in a concession rightly rendered. It has a power like no other.
For all the joy one finds in acceptance and celebration at victory, there is a deeper
reach in the concession. We think of Abraham Lincoln, after a loss, saying he was
like a boy who stumbled and found he was ‘too hurt to laugh and too old to cry’.
Adlai Stevenson quoted him a century later. There is a kind of courageous
offering on the part of those who will stand and offer themselves, who then are
defeated or rejected, and then have the grace to step forward and offer support
to their opponent, for the greater good. We could use such a liberal helping of
grace today. In our Methodist tradition, at the election of general
superintendents, the grace of acceptance is often surpassed by the grace in
concession. It takes more courage, more grace, to concede in defeat than to
accept in victory. A liberal helping of grace.

Another type of valediction is a farewell, perhaps at retirement. What kept me
going to our denominational annual meetings, as the years progressed, was the
chance to listen to the soon to be retired,superannuated clergy, reflecting in five
minutes on fifty years of travel, labor, and discipline. They were the truest words,
many joyful, some somber, of the conference gathering each year. Or, think of
University life, as students graduate, on the one hand, and as faculty and staff
step down, on the other. This University, it should be said, thanks to offices of
President and Provost, has lived a proud commitment to these moments. What
you say at the end, in leave taking, has a lasting power. In ministry, the way you
leave is the most important thing you do. I suspect the same could be said for
other professions, other callings.

Another type of valediction comes at a point of change, of separation. In one
setting, as we prepared to itinerate from one pulpit to another, the children of
the church were guided to offer their own shared valediction, during a children’s
moment. They were encouraged to say two things: thank you, and, goodbye.

Yet another mode of valediction comes at the grave. Here the life, not the voice,
speaks, or others give voice to the life now departed, dearly departed. We shall
struggle in covid time, and following covid time, to match these moments aright.
We have not been able, 250,000 deaths later, fully, fully to validate in valediction,
the lives our dearest loved ones, and the lives of others in our communities. We
shall need to find other and further ways to do so, into the unforeseen future. It
is a heap of work, necessary and good work, that lies ahead.

With grace, Matthew concludes his gospel in words that ring surely and truly–of
Jesus. Now, as you have come to see, and perhaps dislike or regret, Matthew
cloaks his teachings, including the last judgment—hungry, thirsty, stranger,
naked, sick, imprisoned—in apocalyptic garb—Son of Man, angels, sheep and
goats, glory, eternal punishment, eternal life, though not as harshly here as in
some of our parables earlier this fall. Many, including beloved Rudolf Bultmann,
found apocalyptic language and imagery entirely useless, the husk of antiquity
shrouding the kernel of truth. Yet, even the apocalyptic dress has something for
us, which today, late autumn 2020, we may be ready, in part, to receive.
Apocalyptic faces squarely the unyielding powers around every individual, the
principalities and the powers, the powers that be, and admits the ravenous
darkness therein—technology, weaponry, plague, resentment. Apocalyptic faces
squarely the transience of life, the brevity and difficulty embedded in even the
best of life—the fragility of inherited norms, the fragility of venerable insitutions,
the fragility of acculturated kindnesses taken for granted. Apocalyptic, ever
consolation literature fore and aft, keeps an eye on the far horizon, the freedom
beyond fragility, and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, freedom for
lives and communities redolent with gratitude and grace and generosity. (John
Collins of Yale, years ago, reminded us of this
)

We hear today in St. Matthew 25, the gospel valediction, the gospel in gracious
valediction.

May we be blessed with a liberal helping of grace, in this season of needed grace.

Gratitude

May we be blessed with a liberal helping of gratitude, in this season of gratitude.

Let us be mindful this Thanksgiving, of gratitude, as was Howard Thurman, who
was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago, so he is still fifty years ahead
of us. As is our long time custom here at Marsh Chapel, on this Sunday we
remember his poem, his paean, his hymn to generosity:

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

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.
I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;
The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.
All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

May we be blessed with a liberal helping of gratitude, in this season of gratitude.

Generosity

May we be blessed with a liberal helping of generosity, in this season of needed
generosity.

As you have done it to the least of these…

Today, as a nation, we yet await a full, national, coordinated, generous response
to the pandemic, as in: here is what we are facing; here is what we have done;
here is what we need to do; here is the probable duration of our efforts; here
are the greatest risks; here is what you can do (cleanliness, distance, testing,
tracing, masks). And one more thing: this will take a long time, and will be very
hard, but together we can and will meet the challenge. Together we can do this.

To do so, we will need the grace of honesty confronting loss. We have a
checkered history here: there have been 200,000 opioid related deaths since
Oxycotin was approved in 1995, for instance. The number of US children without
health insurance rose by more than 400,000 between 2016-2018, for instance.
NYT 3/24/20. (Think about doctor visits, annual physicals, sick care, dental care,
all). And now 250,000 dead in this covid 190 corona virus time. Of course, in
plague, we think of Albert Camus. We will need his honesty.

Plague or no plague, there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by
that is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives
instantaneously meaningless. This is what Camus meant by the ‘absurdity’ of life.
Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic
redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and
moralizing to joy and gratitude”(Alain de Botton, NYT, 3/22/20.)

A liberal helping of such honesty will turn us toward generosity.

To do so, we will need a liberal helping of balanced liberalism, a recollection that
‘the invisible hand of the market requires the visible hand of the government to
regulate its inevitable excesses’ (Ellis on Adams, 91). Further we shall require ‘an
educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism…This liberalism will
neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a
common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to
conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert.’ (NYT
8/27/18). To and for the support of this liberal balance, the maintenance of a
liberal balance, have been devoted the Marsh pulpit sermons in series, August to
November: they in one sense have been simply an interpretation of the gospel
devoted to the reclamation and rehabilitation of a single word in spoken English,
a word as both adjective and noun, the word ‘liberal’.

And when did we see thee…

Hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned…

As you have done it to the least of these…

As Mark Twain put it, ‘it’s not the the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that
worry me, it’s the parts I do understand’

I come back again to the voice of James Alan McPherson: ‘each United States
citizen would attempt to approximate the ideals of the nation, be on at least
conversant terms with all its diversity, carry the mainstream of the culture inside
himself (The Atlantic in 1978). As an American, by trying to wear these clothes he
would be a synthesis of high and low, black and white, city and country, provincial
and universal. If he could live with these contradictions, he would be simply a
representative American. I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a
variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and
attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have
earned the right to call oneself a ‘citizen of the United States’. (N.Y. Times,7/28/16,a25).
It will take a liberal helping of generosity, given and received, to
‘live’ the contradictions without going crazy. We can too. You can too.

As you have done it to the least of these…

This week our friend Tom Fiedler, former BU School of Communications Dean,
spoke on Boston television, and wrote for the Charlotte Observer, about the new
struggle in evangelical Christianity, the struggle over power vs. generosity, seen
in example through the bitter conflict within the Billy Graham family.

He quotes Graham’s daughter Jerushah: “I have spoken out as much as I have
because I feel that some of these evangelical leaders are tarring (Christianity) with
shame,” she said, in a pointed reference to her uncle…People who don’t know
Jesus are not being introduced by the leadership to the Jesus I know.” And she
said she is confident that her positions on such issues as gay rights, the treatment
of refugees and respect for “the most marginalized” are those that not only
resonate with the future generation, but that align with those of her grandfather.

When did we see thee hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned…

May we be blessed with a liberal helping of generosity, in this season generosity.

Grace, gratitude, generosity. Grace, gratitude, generosity. May our Thanksgiving
tables be fully laden with liberal helpings of all three.

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

Sunday
November 15

Children of Light

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:14-30

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. I am so thankful for the opportunity afforded me by the Dean to share the gospel with you today. I haven’t spoken in this chapel for nearly seven months. Seven months! It’s hard to believe when this place has been such an integral part of my own learning and growing in ministry. To our in-person congregation – we miss you, as I’m sure you miss each other.

We stand at the precipice of a new year – in two short weeks, the new liturgical year will begin and we will be plunged into the wonder and anticipation of Advent. Of course, Advent will look and feel different this year. We won’t be gathering in the church to hear the Word and sing as we normally would. Instead, we will listen to our services on the radio or online, still appreciating the season from our own location. We might also instead light an advent wreath in our homes, tracking the weeks of advent as they pass, participating in a daily devotional series, such as the one Marsh Chapel will offer this year with readings, reflections and some sounds of the season from the Marsh Chapel choir. (Thank you for enduring my plug – more information can be found on the Marsh Chapel website at bu.edu/chapel). Advent, which usually culminates with community gathered to celebrate the birth of the Lord will instead need to be celebrated in creative new ways. While we mourn for those things which we have lost due to current circumstances, we also wait in hopeful anticipation for a new day.

We don’t know what the few weeks or months will have in store for us. Increased coronavirus case numbers have us concerned as we enter into a season in which our souls are fed by interactions with friends and families at holiday gatherings. How much longer will we be separated from those we love? How much longer will our lives feel upended? As the shorter days of winter slowly begin to creep into our lives we find ourselves facing impatience, loneliness, and uncertainty. Truly, the only thing we can be certain of are that things won’t be the same as they were last year, or even the year before that. But we are adaptable. We have proof of that in the past eight months. In speaking with our virtual yoga instructor a few weeks ago, she reflected on the adaptability we have all grown accustomed to in this time. Having been accidentally locked out of the regular space she used to livestream the yoga class she said she had quickly decided that if no one was able to unlock the room for her in time for the class to start, she could find an alternative space in the same building and make it work. She commented “But that’s just the way things are right now, right? We’re adaptable.” Challenges arise and we find new ways of being in the world. We cling to the things that give us hope for the future – promising news of an effective vaccine, remembering that we are not alone in what we are experiencing, and our trust in God to see us through this time.

But as with any practice in exercising patience, we grow tired. We want to go back to our normal lives. We want to see our families. We want to eat in restaurants, go on vacation, celebrate birthdays together. We grow weary of the restrictions placed on us thinking, “It won’t be me. I won’t get sick.” We let down our guard. We think we know better – and yes, while our need for human interaction is an important part of our existence as social creatures, we need to think past our individual needs to those around us. This is no small task, as our drive is often focused on ourselves first and foremost, a reminder of our tendency to turn away from God and God’s commands to our own wants. We may think here of Augustine and Martin Luther’s use of the term “incurvatis in se” – a fancy Latin way of saying being turned in on oneself. To be turned in on oneself is to lose sight of God as the source of all and, in these two theologians’ perspective, the source of all sin. We instead are called to live outward toward others, rooted in our faith in God and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Today’s lesson and gospel readings tell us something about patience. Both are concerned with the eventual return of Christ. For Matthew – the parable that Jesus tells about the master who leaves and then later comes back alludes to the death, resurrection, and eventual second coming of Christ and the importance of the right attitude one must maintain in awaiting the return of Christ. In 1 Thessalonians, the congregation needs a reminder of who they are and what they can endure in the face of outside challenges with the support of God as they wait. Patience and assuredness in who we are as Christians help us to navigate challenging situations in which our focus is drawn away from God toward our own self interests.

In today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks to a congregation who is waiting, somewhat impatiently, for the return of Christ. The church in Thessaloniki is in the midst of Roman rule and as the time from Jesus’ death and resurrection grows and his promise to return (the pariousa) seems to be fading, the people are growing weary. Paul, however, is trying to encourage them to not lose their identity as Christians and the hope found in Christ’s resurrection. The world around them claims to have “peace and security,” the slogan of the Roman Empire, but Paul warns that there is no peace or security when trust is placed in the wrong things, primarily in anything but God.[1] Those who trust in darkness and fail to be sober in waiting for the return of Christ will be taken by surprise by the “sudden destruction” created by such an event. For faith is nothing more that total trust and reliance on God and God’s promises, a gift fulfilled to us by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul calls to those who are the children of light, those who reside in the day and follow the light and pathway of Christ set before them.

Paul contrasts who “the children of light” are, that is those who are a part of the church in that time, with those who are in darkness, asleep, or not sober.  This is a direct correlation with the worship of the god Dionysus which was popular in the area.[2] Those who worshiped Dionysus held large drunken gatherings at night. Paul knows that the people in Thessaloniki may be tempted to partake in these activities. He cautions the church that they need to stay on the path of faith in God and mutual support of one another, something that they have already been doing. He encourages them to stay vigilant to who they are.

Paul uses the language of spiritual armor to help the Thessalonians continue to not only recognize who they are internally, but to show it to the rest of the world. A breastplate made of faith and love and a helmet made of hope may seem woefully inadequate to protect an individual from real threats of physical harm, but Paul here encourages that faith, love, and hope are essential to the life of the church.[3] As a community they grow stronger by placing faith, hope, and love at the center of their well being. They should not allow their fundamental values to be changed in worshiping the wrong sources of peace and security, and should continue to live in a community of trust and mutual understanding. This will be their strength in the midst of physical, social, or psychological dangers.

We hear similar themes of patience and trust in the Gospel from Matthew today. The Master, who can be interpreted either as God or as Christ, gives the generous gift of a “talent” or large sum of money to each of his slaves. Now, we could just take the “talent” at face value as a story about sound financial investment, but instead, let us consider Jesus as the Master and the talent as the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to Christians after Jesus’ death, but before his promised return. The lesson we learn from the third slave is that what is given to us from God or even through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what is entrusted to us, is not meant to be hidden away as some sort of secret, but rather is meant to be shared with others.[4] Just like the community in Thessaloniki, we are meant to share the good news of Christ with others – God entrusts us with this message and we, in turn, place our trust back in God.

Sharing a message doesn’t come without risks, though. The other two slaves in the story took a chance in trading their talents with the expectation of making more. Sharing the gospel with others can feel like that – as if we are being somewhat reckless with the precious message that has been entrusted to us, especially if we share it with people who won’t accept it. But we must take that chance anyway, sharing our love and faith with others with hope grounded in our relationship with God through Christ. As children of light, we shine that light in ways that others can see – we shouldn’t hide it under a bushel, as Jesus instructs earlier in Matthew (Matthew 5:15) but rather remember that we are people of salt and light, called to bring the good news to others.

Many of us know the song, “this little light of mine,” a spiritual turned civil rights anthem turned Sunday school song. I couldn’t help but think about this song as I reflected on our calling to be the children of light. In it, we are reminded not only of the light granted to us by God, but that this light brings joy for others to see and experience.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

The song is simple. It’s easy to sing along with, easily transmutable to many situations. But it’s simplicity should not be confused with its power. Just like the faith, love, and hope found in the community of Thessaloniki, there is great power and resistance located in this song. In a piece from All Things considered in 2018 focused on the spiritual, Rev. Osagyefo (oh-sah-GEE-fo)  Uhuru (ooh-WHO-roo) Sekou (SAY-koo) spoke about the effective use of singing the song in response to white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA.[5] It not only united the people who were counter-protesting, but it took those demonstrating by surprise. Rev. Sekou commented “The tensions went down … and it shook the Nazis…They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”[6] In traditional nonviolent protest fashion, those in power were caught off guard by the voices of those who wanted to share light with others. Their message wasn’t of hate or violence, but instead of sharing brightness, an in-dwelling sense of God with others. A feeling that cannot be easily removed or taken away when trust is placed in the right source.

What if we used this song as our anthem to help us get through this difficult time? What if, everyday, we took some time to sing it to ourselves, listen to a recording of it, or even just sing it in our heads? It might act as a prayer for us as we begin our days to remember that number one, we are not alone in whatever struggles we are facing, and number two, we have the ability to share our light with others even when life feels like it is at its darkest? I encourage you to take some time to think about incorporating this song, what it means to you, into your life as we enter into Advent this year as a reminder of the hope that sustains us.

How can we share our light with others? For some of us, the acts of wearing a mask in public, keeping our distance from others, and staying home when possible is the way we are sharing our Christian love with others. The presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, recently reminded members of my church that although we are “COVID-fatigued” we still needed to show care and concern for one another by following the protocols laid out for us by experts.[7] These include: washing our hands, staying away from large crowds, physically distancing, and wearing a mask. Others of us have used this time to make a concerted effort to reach out to friends and family. They check in on people’s emotional and spiritual welafare, sharing stories and concerns with one another. Still others have put energy into new tasks, picking up a new hobby that can assist others, like making masks, or learning about and acting for justice issues. There are many ways we can shine our light for others to see and be warmed by, maybe even catching alight themselves.

I know we are tired. We are impatient. We are unsure about the future. We face challenges that affect our health, our livelihoods, and our relationships. We yearn for something different. However, we are children of light. For us, as Christians, we are reminded of the ways we receive grace from God when we hear the Word. Scripture serves as the spiritual fuel to continue bolstering and growing our faith in God, in whom we trust, so that we can live out our lives in ways that support others. We let our light shine in the face of darkness because that is what God’s love does for us. We may not be able to gather in person, but we can certainly gather in spirit with one another through hearing the Word expressed each week. Our light continues to be fueled by the source of all.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Peace and Security,” Working Preacher,  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/peace-and-security, November 9, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2020.

[2] Holly Hearon, “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33/commentary-on-1-thessalonians-51-11, November 15, 2020, Accessed November 9, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brian P. Stoffregen, “Matthew 25:14-20, Proper 28, Year A,” Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes on Crossmarks, “http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt25x14.htm, Accessed November 9, 2020.

[5] Eric Deggan, “’This Little Light Of Mine’ Shines On, A Timeless Tool Of Resistance,” NPR All Things Considered, August 6, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance, Accessed November 10, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, “Be Well and Wear a Mask,” ELCA Facebook Video, November 6, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2671525993101483, accessed November 10, 2020.

Sunday
November 8

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 25:1-13

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

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The Rev. Dr. Hill

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life is simply a long
wait. Don’t we know it this week. Don’t we know it this first week in November, 2020.
Change comes but not as fast as we would like. Change comes but not as fully as we would like.
Change comes but not just as we would like. So: stand up, stand firm, stand ready, stand strong.
And watch. For you know neither day nor hour.

Our gospel has made use of a story known elsewhere in antiquity (cf., Bultmann, HST, loc.cit).
The power of the wedding, as you know from other parts of Holy Scripture, stood at the very
pinnacle of experience and religious teaching, in antiquity.   Here the gospel writer has appended
a (very noble) encouragement to watchfulness, to someone else’s parable, now re-arranged near
the end of the first century of the common era.

Our more trustworthy manuscripts include the bride, too, ‘ten maidens…went to meet the
bridegroom and the bride’.   In fact, nowhere in antiquity do maidens await simply the
bridegroom.  They await the bride.  The wedding is about the bride, friends, then and now. That
is why we call these ten ‘bridesmaids’  They attend the bride, and especially in the great
exultation of the translation from home to home, from parents to spouse, like the sun rising from
the eastern heavens, daily, the bridegroom with the bride runs the course with joy.
So, why has the writer eliminated the bride?  He does so to make the parable fit the church’s
biggest spiritual disappointment, keenly and painfully suffered by 90ad.  Disappointed hope.
Hope deferred. Hope, like that fiery hope of 1 Thessalonians, suddenly left empty. Christ was
risen from the dead which must mean the end of time which must mean his return in power and
glory which must mean the soon and very soon parousia, the coming of the Lord.  But 30ad
became 50ad and 50ad became 70ad and 70ad became 90ad.  And the bridegroom (here shorn of
bride clearly a figure of Christ) delays. He delays…

The original parable is not about awaiting the return of Christ, but about living through a long
wait. The maidens, the bridesmaids, some prepared and some not, all have to wait.  And it is a
long wait.  And that is just the point.

You may think of a woman waiting to give birth.  You may think of a population, long enslaved,
waiting for justice to roll down like waters.  You may think of a war torn region, the setting for
endless decades of mayhem and war and violence, waiting for the dawn of peace.   You may
think of a doctoral student waiting for that final report, the dissertation–finished.  You may think
of a denomination waiting the simple wisdom to affirm the full humanity of gay people.  You
may think of those afflicted and infected with a deadly virus, or fearing such for their loved ones,
awaiting a vaccine for healing.  You may think of a man hoping for a job and daily awaiting a
letter.  You may think of a physician attending a patient suffering from a mental illness, hoping
against hope for a delayed cure.  You may think of a lonely woman, a tithing Christian, waiting
for a pastor to leave off further libraries and degrees and come to her church, and come to her
house, and make a visit, and say a prayer.

Or, say this week, you may think of a country born with liberty and justice for all, awaiting an
election resolution, with liberty and justice for all. With all votes counted.
Whether or not the full range of doctrine and teaching in Christianity has yet convinced you to
move from the worship of selfishness to the joy of generosity, surely, at least at this point, you
would admit its congruence with your experience.  Faith and life both are a long wait. And today
that is just the point.

How shall we trim our lamps for the wait?  The parable moves quickly to the importance of
preparation.  A little patience?  A little persistence?  Oil for the lamps during the long wait.
Patience.  The patience of Job.  Patience is a virtue. Love, joy, peace… patience.  Patient in
suffering.

Persistence.  Persistent prayer.  Persistence as insistence.  To exist is to persist. Labor omnia
vincit.  The persistence of Paul. Pray…without ceasing.
The life of faith, the spiritual life, carries us down into the caverns of experience.  Our steadiness
in faith, our reliance on faith, are most clear to us when everything else is murky, misty, dark and
dank.  Say, this week. Faith is only faith when it is all you have left.
Two registers of the spiritual life, the life of faith, down in the declivities and caves of time, are
patience and persistence.   Over the course of a week, or a year, or a lifetime, one needs both.
You need both.  You need both the passive attentiveness of patience and the active resistance of
persistence.

One is the brake pedal.  That is patience.  You are careening down hill.  Your plan, your work,
your friendship, your marriage, your culture, your profession are going south.  You need a way
to put a foot on the brakes, to slow the decline, to ease the demise.  Patience can help you to do
that.  One day at a time.  Sleep on it.  Things will look better in the morning.  Patience is your
way of managing the rolling ride down hill.

The other is the accelerator, the gas peddle.  That is persistence.  You are looking uphill.  The
climb is before you and the incline daunting.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your
marriage, your culture, your profession are all in the balance, nothing is for sure, nothing is taken
for granted.  You can rest, but later.  Now you need to put the peddle to the metal and climb the
hill.  Slow and steady wins the day.  Keep on keeping on.  One step at a time.  Persistence is your
way of empowering the grinding ride up hill. As Maggie Smith writes, Keep Moving.
Both patience and persistence are underrated virtues.  They shy away from the lime light.  They
don’t do well in the bright light.  But for your faith, your communal shared faith, to quicken and
to continue, you will need both patience and persistence.  For sustenance, energy, endurance in
the long wait, you and I need both.

Some of you are more naturally patient.  Make sure you practice persistence too.  Some of you
are more naturally persistent.  Make sure you practice patience too.
Sometimes though, in the life of faith, in the spiritual life, you need more gas and less brake,
more persistence than patience.

My dear friend, Dr. Jarrett, how is our Bach Experience this morning, a patient and persistent
meditation on mortality, meant to teach and guide us?

Dr. Jarrett

Since 2007, Music at Marsh Chapel has programmed the cantatas of Bach in a regular annual
series featuring these works in their original liturgical design as musical sermons. In this context,
it was Bach’s task to work through the theological ideas at hand. These cantatas, comprising solo
arias, recitatives, choruses, and chorales, with librettos using both scripture and free poetic texts,
typically last about 20 – 30 minutes. In 2017, we focused on cantatas Bach composed in July and
August of 1723 during his first weeks in Leipzig as cantor at the St. Thomas Church. Each
cantata is masterpiece in miniature, and we continue to marvel at the astonishing invention,
creativity, and complexity revealed note by note.

Cantata 95, ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’, takes up one of the most difficult but ubiquitous
themes of Bach’s day: how to reconcile and countenance our mortality. Our program annotator
writes: “Consider that pre-Enlightenment Germany saw death and devastation in the Thirty
Years’ War unknown to Europe since the fourteenth century, and that Bach himself was
orphaned at age ten and lost his first wife and ten of his twenty children. Death was all around;
the promise of immediate salvation cultivated a cultural longing for it and served as a powerful
call to faith.”

Serving to teach, remind, and also comfort, Bach drew on four different familiar hymns or
chorales that serve as the foundation for this seven-movement cantata. These tunes and texts
serve as a beacon to the believer — a tuneful and memorable transmission of theology: Christ,
He is my Life, To die is my gain; To it do I surrender myself, With joy I go yonder. / With peace
and joy I go there according to the Will of God. Death has become my sleep. / I would bid you
farewell, You evil, false world. In heaven it is good to dwell. / Since Christ is arisen from the
dead, I will not remain in the grave; Your last Word is my ascension, Death’s fear You can drive
away. For where You are, there do I come, That I may always live and be with You; Therefore I
depart with joy.

These chorales establish the orthodoxy around which the believer can begin to reconcile his own
personal response and call. Musically, the four chorale settings also offer a compositional guide
to the possibilities of setting chorale tunes. The first is set as an orchestral chorale fantasia with
each phrase of the chorale set off by exuberant motives from the oboes and strings in G major.
The second, heard as the concluding section of the first movement, casts the chorus in
counterpoint with the oboes and and horn set over a more rhythmic, walking bass line. The
soprano soloist takes up the third chorale, in a little aria that becomes a sweet devotional song
with two oboes d’amore in unison encouraging her song. The cantata concludes with a four part
setting of the fourth chorale in an expected way, with the notable addition of a fifth voice as
descant in the first violin part.

The most remarkable music of the cantata is reserved for the tenor soloist, who, through his
clarity of faith, teaches Bach’s congregants a possibility of their personal attitudes toward
mortality. His music in the central aria is sung almost in spite of the music of the instruments,
which seem to proceed on their own clock. The aural image here is one of funeral bells, or a
glockenspiel in a bell tower. The strings play entirely pizzicato, or plucked, throughout, and the
organ remains silent. You can imagine this sound as the inner workings of the clock played in
precise and regular patterns and rhythms. Above the strings, the two oboes play their melody in
parallels. The missing third note of their chords is obscured in the pizzicatos of the first violin
part. And, to my ear, this further contributes to the ‘mechanized’ sound of this music – a
Leichenglocken or funeral bells. The tenor joins up musically with the instruments every time he
sings the words “blessed hour”, singing the third or missing note in the oboe pattern. There are
so many choices here from the composer revealing a musical reality the likes of which only a
Johann Sebastian Bach could imagine.

In this bizarre time of pandemic, I, like you, struggle with some sort of balance — or is it,
imbalance? — of patience and persistence. Regardless, this cantata from our archive of
recordings reveals the cumulative effort of our persistent focus on the study of Bach’s music and
the possibility of talent assembled around it. Soprano Mary Ruth Lown, Bass Craig Juricka, and
tenor Patrick T Waters have each devoted years of service as Marsh Chapel Choral Scholars.
Though we don’t hear them singing live today, I wait patiently for that “blessed hour” when we
will again.

The Rev. Dr. Hill

So. The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life, as in the
story, and as in the Cantata, is simply a long wait.  It is a long wait, and that is just the point.
The primitive Christian church endured such a lengthy wait through six decades prior St.
Matthew, awaiting the bridegroom’s return. And He delayed. And He delays still.
In the interim, ad interim, come Sunday, here is an invitation for you and all. Worship on
Sunday. Come to and toward the church. The doors of this community of faith are open to you.
That is, you may benefit, should you seek patience and persistence, from consort with a
community born in patience (that is, suffering) and persistence (that is, endurance).  Suffering
produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint
us.  Why?  Because of the Love of God that has been poured into our hearts. There is hardly
anything happier than finding a church family to love and a church home to enjoy. Be welcome

here at Marsh Chapel. For fifteen years I have bathed and basked myself in the genuine love and
welcome of this community, to my mortal and eternal benefit. You come too.
I can think of no better auditory invitation for you than that of the faithful person about to guide
us in prayer. Here is the voice of one of our own community lay leaders, Ms. Sandra Cole, our
Marsh Chapel Membership Secretary, on whose prayer and prayers we have come to rely, month
by year by decade, including and especially this week:

Ms. Sandra Cole

God, our help and deliverer,

We bow before you, anxious and fearful of what lies ahead and so we bring our concerns to you.
We have been through a searing election season, which has pushed us further and further apart as
we focus an indicting spotlight on the others: the democrats, the republicans, the independents,
the non-voters, the elected officials, the candidates, the poor, the rich, the peaceful protesters, the
police, and countless other others. Some of us navigate social justice inequities as a way of life,
while some of us don’t believe there’s a real problem. We lack empathy. Some of us feel
threatened by the increasing diversity of our country. Some of us value our diversity as a source
of strength. As a nation, we are divided. The notion of “E Pluribus Unum”, 2 out of many, one,
is missing in action, much like the coins that bear this aspiration. We are still in the midst of a
deadly pandemic that has forced us to take refuge, separated from our families, friends and
communities of faith. We indict those who, through their actions and words, refuse to believe it
is dangerous. We indict those who, through edict or action, strive to preclude the virus’ advance.
Though we seek your deliverance from our anxiety and fear, we, like David 3 , pause to rejoice
and be glad 4 for your steadfast goodness and mercy in our lives 5 . We are thankful that you are
our ever-present help in times of trouble 6 . We are comforted by your presence, for you lead us to
the refuge of still waters and restore our souls 7 . As we walk face these existential threats to our
country and ourselves, we are fearless for we feel your presence beside us 8 . For your faithful
presence, we praise you and give you thanks.

As we praise you, we urgently seek your help. Deliver us from the evil of our personal sins
against others. Forgive us, Lord and abide with us. Walk beside us and help us to stay on course
in our Christian journey. Help us to patiently follow your guide and take the path of
righteousness. Help us to be persistent in following your direction. Abide with us so that we
guard against spiritual temptation, stand firm in the faith and are bold and steadfast Christians 9.

We pray for our country. Give us unity. Give us peace. Direct our elected and appointed
officials in the way of wisdom and lead them on the path of righteousness 10 .
Bless the veterans who have served in peace or war, who sacrificed and fought for the freedoms
we have today. For their courage, faith and hope, we are thankful.
Comfort the sick and those with broken lives and broken hearts. Take the worry from our minds,
merciful Father. When we fear what lies ahead, help us to remember that you are our companion
through the difficult times 11 . Help us to keep our mind focused on you – to wait for you, Lord,
for you alone are our help and shield 12 .

As a faithful people, we bring our concerns to you, sure and certain that you will hear our
prayers, you will answer our prayers and that your promises will be fulfilled 13 . We pray these
things in the name of the Love of God 14 , the Good Shepherd 15 , amen.

And now as virtual community, let us pray his prayer 16 together:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation.
But deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever.

Amen

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Ms. Sandra Dean Cole, Marsh Chapel Membership Secretary

_________________________
1 Psalm 70:5
2 Continental Congress description of the Great Seal
3 Psalm 70:4 or Psalm 40:16
4 Psalm 70:4 or Psalm 40:16
5 Psalm 23:6
6 Psalm 46:1
7 Psalm 23:2-3
8 Psalm 23:4
9 1 Corinthians 16:13
10 Proverbs 4:11
11 Genesis 15:1
12 Psalm 33:20
13 Hebrews 11
14 Dean Hill’s sermon for 8 Nov 20; 1 John 4:9
15 John 10:1-16
16 Mathew 6:9-13

Sunday
November 1

Liberal Hope

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 23: 1-12

Click here to hear just the sermon

We then, in today’s gospel, are taught to practice what we preach.

Geese return to their nesting place, that place chosen for laying eggs and sheltering the young. Every year, geese come home to their birth place, as my lake friend tells me. They are loud this year, louder than one remembers, calling, glampa, glampa, glampa. The dark skies fill with them, and then the lake, as they find their place of nesting, and some fish for lunch or dinner.

They may have come from the northwest, an hour or three earlier swinging past the burial plot of Harriet Tubman, in Auburn NY. She with her faith and pistol brought liberal hope to hearts of enslaved people, hiking along the dark riverbed of the Susquehanna, and, for many, on to that lasting neighborly land of hope, just across the St. Lawrence. She is interred near Lincoln’s opponent become ally, William Seward, who bought us Alaska. Along fly the geese, in their autumn season of travel. We too are itinerants, you and I, un-feathered but on the move, moving into a new chapter this coming week.

The geese, spread out in v formations, may then cross by the edge of Cooperstown, resting on the head of Abner Doubleday’s handsome statue, an hour or so north of Pennsylvania, that hotly contested region of Quakers and farmers, not far from Philadelphia where Benjamin Franklin gave us the post office. Remember Franklin warned us: I give you a republic, if you can keep it. Or, in addition, he might have said as well, I give you a post office, if you can keep it.

Ah the geese, reminding us of the season, the time. Others of their feather will fly along the Hudson river, too, perhaps near Tivoli, on that river’s bank, where my grandfather is buried, who left me a gold pocket watch, which one day I will give to my grandson, Charles Robert. An hour of extra sleep on All Saints

Sunday may allow us a reach of memory, to those no longer among the church militant, but now among the church triumphant. That river bank cemetery also holds our great uncle Myron, of murky but mythic family memory, who fought in the war to end all wars, then come home through Boston in 1918, and contracted the Spanish Flu, as we were regularly told growing up, and died in the second wave, March 1919. Probably there were some back then who said of that plague, it will all just go away, like magic. Except it didn’t. And, it won’t. He left a canteen, without a jacket, dented and silver colored, which came my way for camping trips, and was lost, left somewhere up Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks one autumn. His grave is a hundred miles from our dear lady whose liberal hope, tattered but alive, still rings out in the harbor, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the restless refuse of your teeming shore, send these the lost the tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Coming due east along Route 90, you nearly drove past New Lebanon without stopping, so eager to get back into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and mesmerized by the geese overhead. Here is the ghost, the shade, the specter of Mother Ann Lee and the Shaking Quakers, eschewing body for the sake of spirit, at the edge of the mountains, such communal liberal hope they had, a great- hearted willingness to practice what they preached. They remembered the height of Jesus hope. Do we? 27 “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. All these nesting places of hope, places of recollection of our own best selves. Who do you mean to be, at your most hopeful? Are we lovers anymore?

Who do you mean to be, as your own-most self? It is a riveting question, is it not, this very week.

You could come further east, along route 90 or even route 20 or even bluer highways winding into the Berkshires, which always seem dreamlike with or without the white snow frosting. Fewer geese, but some still, wending their way, flying on, calling out, glampa, glampa, glampa.

Here is Stockbridge, MA, home to Jonathan Edwards, on whose life and work we preached here at Marsh Chapel a few winters ago. He who is too much remembered for sinners in the hands of an angry God, and too little recalled for his sense of the holy, his love of nature, and his rendering of Scripture. Here is the Stockbridge Church, geese on the lawn, where Abraham Heschel gave the eulogy for Reinhold Niebuhr in 1971. Think of that ecumenical, inter-religious, capacious hope, a liberal hope, a hope in what we have in common. Niebuhr asked Heschel to preach his funeral. Stockbridge is a town like those back a bit west, along the Mohawk, in which we were raised. Raised by a community. Look back at the men and women: an insurance man, a Latin teacher, a Scout executive, a musician, the owner of a heater company, a minister, several farmers. All of the same grand old party, by the way. They taught honesty. They practiced civility. They formed a creed around courtesy. They made space for charity. They prized example. They had no truck with or patience for mendacity or perversity or self- aggrandizement. They listened to what people said, but they watched what people did. Particularly leaders. Like it says in the Bible, today, practice what you preach. Boy, that was a long time ago, wasn’t it, not just in years but in habits of the heart.

We need again their balance, honesty and hope. We need to recover their magnanimity. We need the blue sky of aspiration which they saw. For such a thick cloud comes from a theological weather system in which the cold front of wrong has chased out the warm front of right, in which the low pressure of the fall has displaced the high pressure of creation, in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope, liberal hope, in which the creation is seen from the cavern of the fall, not the fall from the prairie of creation, in which we have forgotten what the geese remember. Their nesting place, their birthright, their place and spirit of origin.

This is a pastoral problem. It is not just or mainly a political conflict. It is a theological contrast. It is not a matter of church coloration or religious style, it is a matter of creation, of God’s creation and the truth about creative goodness. Just how balanced is our balance between creation and fall? And God saw all that God made, and it was good. Not perfect, but good. There are a lot of things wrong. But. There are a lot of things right, too. How do we find that balance?

We locate that balance in a magnanimous hope. As the theologian said, “Thus the Spirit is the power to suffer in participation in the mission and the love of Jesus Christ, and is, in this suffering, the passion for what is possible, for what is coming and promised in the future of life, of freedom and of resurrection (212). In all our acts we are sowing in hope (213). ( J Moltmann, A Theology of Hope.)

It is two hours from the river to the ocean, from the Hudson to the Atlantic. In and across those two hours, say as the crow or even the goose flies, there lies a whole great deal of our shared history. If you get to Boston, come by Marsh Chapel, where there is a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. I walked past it again this morning. It is mute, silent, and yet its very stone cries out, its marble makes music and sings, for those with ears to hear. It is a statue that points to a liberal hope, and so points away from much of our experience in the last four years. Yes, it points to justice, though justice is not the deepest heart of the gospel, of faith, of religion, or of that monument. It is a part, but not the heart. The heart belongs to…another word, another gospel word. Not one in opposition to the first, but one in tension and tandem with the first, and one outpacing the first. The heart of the gospel is love, and love is the marrow of the liberal hope, one true hope worthy of the name. King can teach us still: There is a liberal hope in the sometime radical practice of loving-kindness.

Last summer I was asked to offer a thought about love and transformation, for the final portion of our summer devotions. My friend from Yale Gene Outka once helped me think about this. He reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr. advanced a compelling version of love, including love of enemies. In this affirmation, King distinguished agape from eros or romantic love and philia or friendship as follows:

“Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all (people). It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…. When one rises to love on this level, he loves (others) not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every (one) because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘love your enemies.’ I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.” (See my former teacher, James Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 46)

Hear good news: In Jesus there is ‘a new creation, a new man and woman, a new life, a new age, a new covenant’ (Anchor, xxviii). In Jesus there is a hopeful creation, a hopeful man and woman, a hopeful life, a hopeful age, a hopeful covenant.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist. We are not together to receive together the bread and cup. But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer. And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel. Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints on this All Saints Day…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem. Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.

And let us practice what we preach. Come home, this All Saints Day. Come home to the place of your nesting, the place of your birth, the place of your baptism, the place of your taking wing, taking flight, your nesting place. It is a fine

place to visit, as the winter comes on, and you look for warmth, for health, for nourishment, for salvation. It is a little lake named love, a nesting place for the liberal hope:

We await a liberal hope, a hope

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will social distance this Thanksgiving, and with or without a common meal, will show kindness and pity to one another.

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.

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 your own days be long upon the earth.

We await a liberal hope, finally a hope 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.

Now, from Auburn to Cooperstown to Albany to Stockbridge to Boston, like geese in flight, we have come. They call to us: glampa, glampa, glampa. Maybe we want to pray. What shall we pray? Shall we pray in words Martin Luther King used in August of 1963? Shall we pray in words with music that Aretha Franklin sang in January of 2009? Shall we pray time honored words, written just down the street, in Boston, the nesting place of America, the place of birth for both goose and gander, your words from 1831 and a Park Street Church children’s concert and the pen of an Andover Newton graduate Samuel Francis Smith, Boston, your hymn, Boston, your psalm of liberal hope?

My country, ’tis of

Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From every mountain side

Let Freedom ring.

Let music swell the breeze,

And ring from all the trees

Sweet freedom’s song;

Let mortal tongues awake;

Let all that breathe partake;

Let rocks their silence break,

The sound prolong.

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

Sunday
October 25

Liberal Life

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 21: 33-46

Click here to hear just the sermon

Hear the good news of a liberal life, a liberal life of faith, in just two words.  Generosity. Humility.  The good news in two words.

There is liberal life in generosity.

Jesus meets us today to challenge us, to confront us and to inspire us with the hope of something new. Faith in Him, and love for his fruitful community, and a life directed toward a final hope—all these lie before us in this holy hour.

Some years ago, in our first year after seminary, a very small act of mercy, of generosity, on the part of a colleague, began to show me the power of the new life, found in the doing of the faith. As the psychologists say, the heart follows the hand.

We had only been married a couple of years, and had more recently entered the working world. Some of you are there today, others remember those days, others expect them, one day. Our little house was gradually filling up, or being filled up, with the materials of early married life. A car in the driveway. Clothing on the line out back. A crib. Dog food bow in the kitchen corner. Wedding and family photographs in new albums. It all happens so quickly! Marriage, degree, job, house, child, car, dog, clothes. All of a sudden. It hardly seems real, or possible.

One day during this period in our early life together there came a most surprising bit of information. This news was delivered in the course of a simple supper, as the dog barked and the drying clothes flapped in the breeze and the baby upstairs cried on to sleep. The information was in sum a medical bulletin, one of those little messages from doctor to patient to patient’s family, an insignificant bit of news as far as the televised world news was concerned, just another report, and a report on a lab report. Soon there would be another mouth to feed. What excitement! It hardly seemed possible, or real.

But reality did set in.

And reality did set in, was ushered in, not surprisingly, by means of the checkbook. Ah the checkbook. Though unused by most 20 somethings today, for other generations the checkbook has been a stern reminder of the limits of life. Unerring measurer of the various pursuits of happiness. Implacable judge of the ways of humans. The checkbook. Clothes, dog, child, car and all finally had to be paid for, from one source. Reality did finally set in. Both Paul and Matthew, by the way, today in our lessons, in their own way, are trying to convey a sense of reality.

So, it was in this period of early marriage, the period of judgment by way of the checkbook, when, I recall, a real kindness was done.

Among many other unmanageable expenses, our car needed new brake pads. I did check to see the price that would be charged to have them installed. I wondered how we would afford it. Which is where things sat on a late summer evening, in a small cottage-like parsonage, nearby one of the great Finger Lakes, with the clothes flapping on the line, the dog well fed and ill behaved, and the baby crying to the moon above.

The next evening, I met with a neighboring minister, a man about 15 years older than I. We did our work, and then set to talking about life in general. The topic of cars and brakes and brake pads somehow wiggled to the surface, and with it all the manifold cares and worries of this life, about which the Scripture says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This fellow minister then suggested that the next day, early in the morning, I bring the car to his house, where and when he would teach me how to change the brake pads on the car. This we did together. In the course of the morning we also talked through various strategies open to young married couples to avoid the stern, grim judgment of the checkbook. There are ways, it turned out, and he had been there.

I know this backwater tale of an unheralded act of generosity done in 1980 hardly constitutes earthshaking news. I guess it is just a matter of vineyards and harvest, of the prize of the upward call, of the way we ought to be, as people of faith. Such a recollection of such a simple generosity, a mark of liberal life, hardly seems worth mention.

And yet it meant a great deal, and hovers in memory, years later, four decades later, as the very grace of God. Here is one doing what he and we ought to have done. Here is an act of compassion. Here is an act of mercy. Here is something new. Here is what Emerson meant: “virtue alone creates something new”.

Today, you may sense a hunger, a sharp hunger in the souls of women and men from all different walks of life. It is a hunger that does not abate with the ministrations of all that position and fortune and plenty can provide.  It does not wilt in the face of pandemic, of climate, of presidential contest and calumny, of abuse of law in the name of order, of personal betrayals near and far. It is a hunger that reaches for God. It is a hunger for God. There is a hunger for God today in the souls of men and women that will not be filled by anything else. It will not be filled by anything other than God. Finally, the hunger and thirst for righteousness—and there is such a fine, fine hunger in your own heart—can only be filled by God, by love, by freedom, by grace. By the faith of Jesus Christ and by love for his community and by a liberal life directed toward a final hope of glory.

We can and will proclaim this hunger from this pulpit. We can and will announce God’s gracious love from this pulpit. But in the end, you will find it, or it will find you, in your own experience. One by one. Two by two. You are likely to be shocked to faith by no more than one real encounter with one real act of generosity at the hand of one real person. Or, said negatively, as dour Matthew might, if one real generosity does not point you to new life, will a hundred, or will a thousand? One grace note, rung and heard, is all it takes.

Here is the vineyard, still. Here is the wine press, still. Here is the harvest, coming still. There comes a time when our time is no longer our own. So today: Let your own hand guide your own heart. Act in kindness and you will find that you are kinder too. Act in generosity and you will discover a generous spirit within. Act with faith and faith will find you. Your heart will follow your hand.

We come to meet Jesus who meets us in deed, now, not only in word. He meets us in the central moment of life, the full giving that is real loving, the real loving that is full giving, the offering of life for life.

The question is, are we ready to receive Him today?

There is a liberal art in generosity.

There is liberal life in humility, especially the humility of labored self-criticism, the humility of communal and rigorous self-assessment.

We shall try to muster some such this morning, to try to interpret the parable from St. Matthew, his own interpretation of what St. Mark left him.  The last 250 years of rigorous, labored biblical self-criticism gives us the motive and the power to do so.  Our predecessors in this work gave us a lasting and graceful example of humility, here the humility to put every passage of Holy Scripture to the test of historical, critical study, as a basis for theological, homiletical reflection.  And this is an awesome gift, hard won, won with cost.  But the fruit of it is grace and truth, and also a way in which to make some sense of parables like this, which, served raw, without historical critical cooking, will produce dyspepsia and disease.  The humility to do so, since the 18th century is a liberal, lived humility. So, we learn that Matthew writes in 85ad, rewriting Mark from 70ad, who wrote about Jesus in 30ad.  So, we learn that ‘the stone the builders rejected.’ v 42, is from Ps 118 and is taken over from Mark.  So, we learn that in Mark the rejected stone must be Jesus, but Matthew, adding vss. 41b, 43 makes it refer to Christians. The nation is the Christian church, composed of both Gentiles and Jews. So, we learn that the passage seems to have been a commonplace of early Christian preaching, since it is also found in Peter’s speech in Acts 4: 11 and 1 Peter 2:7.  So, we learn that in 22:7 Matthew may also have the Jewish War in mind,  and that vs 44 is not original.  (IBD, loc. cit.).

Let Peter Berger, of blessed memory, remind us:

There is a huge literature about the problems raised by Biblical scholarship for faith and theology. The problems exploded with the rise of modern historical scholarship being applied to the Bible, beginning earlier but then progressing impressively in the nineteenth century. Much of this new scholarship took place in Protestant theological faculties, especially in Germany—a historically unique event of religious scholars applying the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of their own tradition (repeat). The meaning of “critical” here is clear: Biblical texts are analyzed in the same way as any other historical text, with the question of their revelatory status rigorously excluded from this exercise. Many Biblical scholars succeeded (and still succeed) in understanding the revelation being somehow preserved within the all-too-human processes that produced the text. (American Interest, blog).

Biblical scholars unafraid to apply the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of our own tradition:  with my predecessors, all five, I too am one such.

A good friend asked: ‘Why does Matthew say God tortures?’, referring to a gospel lesson from some weeks ago. I wrote back to say I really couldn’t fully answer, except to note that Matthew’s dark side waxes as his gospel wanes, and much of that, in grief to humbly state it, is laced with ancient anti-semitism.  That is, in the latter chapters, Matthew’s language turns decidedly grim.  We hear that again today.  Yes, we keep the rhetorical mode of hyperbole in mind.  Yes, we recognize the religious penchant for odium theologicum,’theological hatred’.   Yes, we can see the dark clouds of the terror of Emperor Domitian on the late first century horizon.  But none of that alone will allow us to make sense of Matthew’s harshness here.  For that, we will have to render and conjure what lies just underneath most of these later chapters.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, protection of the church.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, and viral commitment to fruit:  “The fruits, unexplained in the text, are doubtless…good works, and the broad expression used shows that Matthew intends a general principle:  in all ages, the Kingdom of God is only for fruit-bearers…the Christian church, insofar as it ‘bears fruit’…It is noteworthy that the emphasis Matthew feels he must add for the proper understanding of the parable is the very one commonly neglected or reinterpreted today”(that is, the command and demand to bear fruit, pronounced by the addition to Mark of vs. 43). Parables of the Triple Tradition (C. Carlston), 143.

St. Matthew’s fiercest passion wells up out of the Holy Scripture for these weeks in the autumn. Matthew holds a very high view of the church, far higher than we expect, far higher than yours and mine, we could add. In waxing religion today, the church is largely an expedient – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then, if there is time, to be loved. If the horse is dead, dismount, says one. In waning religion, the church is often also an expedient – though here for causes more progressive than traditional, interests more mental than physical – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then perhaps loved. This the fundamentalists and radicals have in common. What did Augustine say? We use what we should love and we love what we should use. Yet for Matthew, the church is empowered with the means of lasting forgiveness, with a mind for sound ethics, and especially with the real presence of Christ: “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”.

Matthew trusts this risen Christ and this voice of the risen Christ to free him to follow his bliss, to succumb to his passion. It is the passion of an evangelist who finds every blessed possible way to connect a Jewish Jesus with a Greek world. It is the passion of an evangelist who enlists an old missionary teaching tract (“Q”) to spread inspiration, truth, and joy. It is the passion of an evangelist who portrays your Savior among pagans, amid harlots, appended to the cross, about the resurrection work of compassion. It is the passion of an evangelist who sums up his Gospel this way: “Go make of all disciples”.  The whole point of the gospel of St Matthew the evangelist is that he is an evangelist. He it is, not me, he it is, not we, who points you to a new passion, one you (plural) have not intimately, fully known. Matthew’s passion? A people producing the fruit of the reign of God.  Don’t just talk, do.  Do you notice, and squirm? Matthew is moving the parable away from judgment on inherited religion toward judgment…on the church, if and as the church does not bear fruit worthy of repentance.  On us, if and as we do not bear fruit. (repeat).

There is liberal life in humility

Generosity, Humility.  Two forms of liberal life.   Generosity, Humility.

Always, but especially in Covid time, our largest congregation through Marsh Chapel is our live radio listenership, at home or in the car or walking the beach or in the care facility or listening live on the computer.  Yes, we also honor and love our resident community, and our podcast, blog and later listeners.  But it is the listener now, right now, in the moment; it is the blind person tuning in the organ prelude;  it is the elderly person, cane in hand, who has no cyber capacity in the next room; it is the poor woman or man, worried about the end of month budget, with a radio, and electricity to fuel it, but little else; it is the technically challenged, able to handle a radio dial but not Firefox, 90.9, and not zoom; and it is also those on the margins, along streets shaped by pot holes, and in communities of colors, and among those not so much those cultured despisers of religion as those culturally despised by illiberal religion, who listen live, to whose lives we weekly, in preparation and prayer, weekly try to listen. To you, then, you gracious listener, comes good news in two words.

Generosity.  What two things shall you offer, gratis, this week, to God and neighbor?

Humility.  What are the two truest, lasting criticisms of you that others see, but perhaps do not mention, the two areas of most needed personal growth?

Whatever comes, we may be true to ourselves, to our own most selves, when caught up in the liberal life discovered by the practice of generosity in a spirit of humility.

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

Sunday
October 18

Liberal Faith

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 22:15-22

Click here to hear just the sermon

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light. 

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street, 

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

(Robert Frost)

We too are acquainted with the night, and walk, together, in the rain.  Hear Gospel this Lord’s day, the good news from liberal gifts of faith.

 

There is a liberal gift of faith in the exercise of study, of sacred study, of exegesis, the careful study of Holy Scripture. The historical and critical study of Holy Writ, as practiced from this pulpit over 70 years, is a pathway to insight, interpretation, application–and sermon.

So, today, render to God the things that are God’s, God the elusive presence.

Samuel Terrien taught many the adventure of this labor, years ago, the search for the divine, for God: an elusive but real presence…not in nature but in history, and in history through human beings…a presence that does not alter nature but changes history through the character of women and men…a walking God not a sitting God, a walking God not a sitting God…nomadic, hidden, free…known in tent not temple, by ear not eye, in name not glory, in a spiritual interiority (YOURS), through a commission by command…that translates the love of God into behavior in society…demythologizing space for the sake of time…(phrases from The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology.)   Samuel Terrien.

So, today, render to God the things that are God’s, God the elusive presence.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?  We are not told.  There is no live interview from the heavenly conference room.  There is no point-by-point bulletin, with details promised at 11pm.  There is no footnote, or explanatory second conversation.  We are left on our own by our Lord to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.   We are given a fair and good amount of freedom in doing so.

In conscience, do you wonder about ‘the things that are God’s’?

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  (In the Gospel of Thomas, [110ad?] a bit yet later than Matthew [85ad?] who is a bit yet later than Mark [70ad?] who is a good bit later than whatever Jesus might actually have said [30ad?], the Lord adds, ‘and give to me the things that are mine’!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine (GT, logion 100).

Dear St. Matthew, true to form, intensifies the bitterness of Jesus toward Pharisees, of church toward synagogue, of Christian to Jew.  He hikes up ‘entrap’ (Mark) to ‘entangle’.  He is ‘aware of their malice’.  To the question, ‘why put me to the test’ he adds, for good measure, ‘you hypocrites’.   His Jesus demands not just a coin, but  ‘(all) the money for the tax’.

Through the year, from this pulpit, we have tried continuously to trace the moves Matthew makes in 85ad away from what Mark, his source, had written in 70ad.  Mostly, we want to be crystal clear about the way the announcement of the gospel changes, with the setting, changes with the occasion, changes, with the time and season and year.  New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

A standard reading of the passage is that the Herodians (supporters of Herod who is the Simon Legree of Rome in the cotton fields of Palestine) would want the tax paid to Caesar whereas the Pharisees (the French Resistance of Palestine against the Third Reich of Rome) would want resistance to payment of the tax.  Jesus is caught.   If he agrees with the Herodians, the people will kill him.  If he agrees with the Pharisees, the Romans will kill him.

And the response, with no real doubt of its authenticity—render to Caesar…and to God.  Render to God the things that are God’s.

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and these words were inscribed on his tombstone.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul?

There is a liberal gift of faith in the exercise of study.

 

There is a liberal gift of faith, in institutions, for the love of God and country both.

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

So here again, chapter 22: 15ff, is Matthew, being Matthew. He is looking at institutional life, political and religious, governmental and ecclesiastical, all 2000 years before our own similar challenges today.  In Matthew 22, we hear what we perhaps most need to hear in America, in October, in 2020, in the midst of political contest, even political mayhem.  Institutions matter.  Institutions matter. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

In 2017. When the institution of shared truth collapses under the weight oval office falsehoods, 6 lies a day (WAPO).  Or when the last Planned Parenthood in Iowa is closed.  Or when a Boy Scout Jamboree becomes a prop for perversity and mendacity. Or when promises to the Transgender Military are broken.  Or when Heather Heyer dies as a claim to goodness on all sides is made.  Or when an Alabama senator calls homosexuality ‘a crime against nature’.  Or when a tax cut gives 1% of the taxpayers 50% of the reducation.  Or when the mayor of San Juan is laughed at for saying ‘we are dying’.  Or when the US President lies to the Prime Minister of Canada and brags about it. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

In 2018.  When the government summarily deports 200,000 Salvadorans.  Or when countries of color are described with expletives.  Or when what is true shrinks to what the Leader says is true.  Or when an assault on memory comes with every new wave of every new week of every new absurdity and atrocity.  Or when competent staff individual after competent staff individual is humiliated and fired.  Or when the press is called steadily ‘the enemy of the people’.  All this linguistic, verbal, rhetorical chaos is stealing from you your daily happiness.  John Wesley taught, to the contrary, that we are meant to be people ‘happy in God’. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

In 2019.  When we can no longer willingly and readily tell a decent person from a scoundrel. Or when we have forgotten the Marine slogan, ‘Leadership is example.  Period.’  Or when a self-sacrificial POW become veteran Senator is mocked in life and death. Or when the leader’s ‘gut is superior to anyone else’s brain’.  Or when hard won peace by containment agreements are wrecked.  We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

Or in 2020.  When the power of office is used for threat, and so impeachment becomes necessary, and then when a global pandemic crisis belittled becomes a national health care tragedy betrayed, crisis become tragedy, and when leadership needed becomes evasion practiced, and when the hard won levels of trust and the painstaking pursuit of truth, trust and truth, and right perfection wrongfully disgraced and strength by limping sway dislodged, and when even the franchise, the vote, the basis of all else, becomes a bargaining chip…well, when institutions collapse or are corroded, we are more awake to their necessary, crucial importance. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

As we mortally and tragically are today.  Institutions, particularly those of civil society, really matter.  Volunteerism in a free society is not a luxury, but a necessity.  For the Christian, for the citizen in a free republic, faith involves ‘intelligent and conscientious participation in politics so that God’s will may be done as fully as possible’ (IB, loc. cit.).

Just in time, Marilyn Robinson reminds us: This country would do itself a world of good by restoring a sense of the dignity, even the beauty, of individual ethicalism, of self-restraint, of courtesy. These things might help us to like one another, even trust one another, both necessary to a functioning democracy… As a liberal, I am loyal to this country in ways that make me a pragmatist. If someone is hungry, feed him. He will be thirsty, so be sure that he has good water to drink. If he is in prison, don’t abuse, abandon or exploit him, or assume that he ought to be there. If these problems afflict whole populations, those with influence or authority should repent and do better, as all the prophets tell them. (NYT, 10/11/20).

There is a liberal gift of faith, in institutions, for the love of God and country both.

 

There is a liberal gift of faith in respect of and for community, given through these institutions that shape community.  Community matters.  So.  Give of your life and breath. Till gardens you will never harvest.  Build schools in which you will never study.  Construct churches in which you will never worship.  And listen, listen to the voices that emerge in communal conversation, particularly those tart and salty.

Listen, not for agreement but for contrast, to Thucydides’ dour dicta:  ‘all moralistic ideals are meaningless postures of powerless victims’ ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must’.

Listen to a modern Thucydides: ‘Excess population, competition for resources, and random variation, with its attendant differential success in reproduction, constitute natural selection, yielding elaborate adaptations’. Quammen NYR 4/23/20 22.  Life is about evolution and evolution is about change.  But healthy evolution and change require faith and hope.  I fear what this time of fear is doing to my grandchildren, to their imaginations, and to their souls.

Listen to Peter Wehner, saying with harrowing accuracy, many find it “too psychologically painful to admit that the person they supported is deeply corrupt, pathologically dishonest and brutish.”

Listen to Andrew Bacevich January 20th 2020 in Cambridge MA, a gracious evening of rumination on:  hubris, common good, globalism, anger, alienation, anti-semitism, the end of the cold war, institutionalized assassination, and the need for community: ‘I will not write off 60 million Americans’. And he added, just last week, in our local paper, a gracious rumination on hopeful signs in our time.

Listen to lives that speak, for so the faithful gift of community abides, and guides us.

Over some years now, one of the treasures and delights of living in Boston is the grace, and care, with which lives are remembered in our Boston Globe.  No other paper, to our memory and experience, does so well, so consistently and so personally.  Those who are front line COVID workers and victims have had right, ample remembrance, here, on our behalf.  So too, this past spring, the recollection of 108 year-old Elinor Fosdick Downs.  A Smith graduate, she met her husband in Rochester NY, where they were both studying medicine.  He died young, unexpectedly in 1945, leaving her with two daughters.  She lived a life of adventure, possibility, and abandon.  She was one of the first to serve in the newly established WHO, World Health Organization. She said, ‘Be positive about all the bad things that happen.  Turn them around.  Make adventures out of them.’  And, ‘As my 100th birthday approached I began dropping hints that perhaps I was now ready to try an iPad’.  And, ‘Happiness for me is adventuring, especially when the outcome of that adventure is unkown or unexpected’.  Oh, and by the way, her dad was Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great liberal pulpit voices. (BG, 5/4/20)

There is a liberal gift of faith, in respect of, and for,  community.

 

There is a liberal gift of faith in the joy of discourse, of conversation.  Of all our losses in the last four years, this has been the greatest.  John Wesley even named conversation a means of grace.  All need warm, personal, true, glad hearted, genuine dialogue.  Especially, leadership needs dialogue, leaders need dialogue.

Leadership, said my friend,  ‘is disappointing people at a rate they can accept, or survive, or endure. At a rate they can handle.’ Liberal leadership includes saying things that those of the farthest left reject.  If there are at least three things liberals don’t get, forget and should reset, they are order, money, liberty.  Liberals can learn from conservatives about these things.

For a liberal: justice is a part but not the heart of the Gospel—justice is a part but not the heart of the gospel; equality and justice are not the same thing; public safety on the streets matters to all; poor children of every hue need and deserve our care in health, in education, in protection, in nurture, and in respect.

Over forty years most of my own lasting, painful and wrenching battles have been with those well farther to the left.  And still it is so.

All 6 Marsh Chapel deans have been, variously, liberal.  Liberal, not: fundamentalist, orthodox, traditionalist, or conservative.  Liberal, not: progressivist, successivist, anarchist, or Marxist.

The liberal will pause and ask questions like: Why is there so much distance between theology and ministry, theory and practice, when there is not such in medicine, dentistry, public health, hospitality, education, engineering, arts, social work and communications? Why?

There is a liberal gift of faith in the joy of discourse, of conversation. One level of discourse is that internal, soulful conversation—let each one be convinced in her own mind, Paul wrote—about the balance between Caesar and legitimate cultural demands, and God and pre-eminent spiritual claims.  With one shout, the earliest Christians set the balance in a firm phrase:  Kyrios Christos, Christ is Lord, to deny the chorus around them, Kyrios Kaiser, Caesar is Lord.

There is a liberal gift of faith in the joy of discourse, of conversation.

Study, institution, community, dialogue, gifts of a liberal faith.  Sursum Corda.  Hear Gospel this Lord’s day.  God walks with us, in the rain.  A walking not a sitting God. God walks with us in the rain.

 

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

 I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

 But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

One luminary clock against the sky

 Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

 (Robert Frost)

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

Sunday
October 11

The Clothes Make the Person

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 22:1-14

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The text of the sermon will be posted when it is available.

-The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

Sunday
October 4

Liberal Arts

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:33-46

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There is a liberal art in generosity.

Jesus meets us today to challenge us, to confront us and to inspire us with the hope of something new. Faith in Him, and love for his fruitful community, and a life directed toward a final hope—all these lie before us in this holy hour.

Some years ago, in our first year after seminary, a very small act of mercy, of generosity, on the part of a colleague, began to show me the power of the new life, found in the doing of the faith. As the psychologists say, the heart follows the hand.

We had only been married a couple of years, and had more recently entered the working world. Some of you are there today, others remember those days, others expect them, one day. Our little house was gradually filling up, or being filled up, with the materials of early married life. A car in the driveway. Clothing on the line out back. A crib. Dog food bow in the kitchen corner. Wedding and family photographs in new albums. It all happens so quickly! Marriage, degree, job, house, child, car, dog, clothes. All of a sudden. It hardly seems real, or possible.

One day during this period in our early life together there came a most surprising bit of information. This news was delivered in the course of a simple supper, as the dog barked and the drying clothes flapped in the breeze and the baby upstairs cried on to sleep. The information was in sum a medical bulletin, one of those little messages from doctor to patient to patient’s family, an insignificant bit of news as far as the televised world news was concerned, just another report, and a report on a lab report. Soon there would be another mouth to feed. What excitement! It hardly seemed possible, or real.

But reality did set in.

And reality did set in, was ushered in, not surprisingly, by means of the checkbook. Ah the checkbook. Stern reminder of the limits of life. Unerring measurer of the various pursuits of happiness. Implacable judge of the ways of humans. The checkbook. Clothes, dog, child, car and all finally had to be paid for, from one source. Reality did finally set in. Both Paul and Matthew, by the way, today in our lessons, in their own way, are trying to convey a sense of reality.

So, it was in this period of early marriage, the period of judgment by way of the checkbook, when, I recall, a real kindness was done.

Among many other unmanageable expenses, our car needed new brake pads. I did check to see the price that would be charged to have them installed. I wondered how we would afford it. Which is where things sat on a late summer evening, in a small cottage-like parsonage, nearby one of the great Finger Lakes, with the clothes flapping on the line, the dog well fed and ill behaved, and the baby crying to the moon above.

The next evening I met with a neighboring minister, a man about 15 years older than I. We did our work, and then set to talking about life in general. The topic of cars and brakes and brake pads somehow wiggled to the surface, and with it all the manifold cares and worries of this life, about which the Scripture says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This fellow minister then suggested that the next day, early in the morning, I bring the car to his house, where and when he would teach me how to change the brake pads on the car. This we did together. In the course of the morning we also talked through various strategies open to young married couples to avoid the stern, grim judgment of the checkbook. There are ways, it turned out, and he had been there.

I know this backwater tale of an unheralded act of generosity done in 1980 hardly constitutes earthshaking news. I guess it is just a matter of vineyards and harvest, of the prize of the upward call, of the way we ought to be, as people of faith. Such a recollection of such a simple generosity, a liberal art, one of the great liberal arts, hardly seems worth mention.

And yet it meant a great deal, and hovers in memory, years later, four decades later, as the very grace of God. Here is one doing what he and we ought to have done. Here is an act of compassion. Here is an act of mercy. Here is something new. Here is what Emerson meant: “virtue alone creates something new”.

Today, you may sense a hunger, a sharp hunger in the souls of women and men from all different walks of life. It is a hunger that does not abate with the ministrations of all that position and fortune and plenty can provide.  It does not wilt in the face of pandemic, of climate, of presidential contest and calumny, of abuse of law in the name of order, of personal betrayals near and far. It is a hunger that reaches for God. It is a hunger for God. There is a hunger for God today in the souls of men and women that will not be filled by anything else. It will not be filled by anything other than God. Finally, the hunger and thirst for righteousness—and there is such a fine, fine hunger in your own heart—can only be filled by God, by love, by freedom, by grace. By the faith of Jesus Christ and by love for his community and by a life directed toward a final hope of glory.

We can and will proclaim this hunger from this pulpit. We can and will announce God’s gracious love from this pulpit. But in the end you will find it, or it will find you, in your own experience. One by one. Two by two. You are likely to be shocked to faith by no more than one real encounter with one real act of generosity at the hand of one real person. Or, said negatively, as dour Matthew might, if one real generosity does not point you to new life, will a hundred, or will a thousand? One grace note, rung and heard, is all it takes.

Here is the vineyard, still. Here is the wine press, still. Here is the harvest, coming still. There comes a time when our time is no longer our own. So today: Let your own hand guide your own heart. Act in kindness and you will find that you are kinder too. Act in generosity and you will discover a generous spirit within. Act with faith and faith will find you. Your heart will follow your hand.

We come to meet Jesus who meets us in deed, now, not only in word. He meets us in the central moment of life, the full giving that is real loving, the real loving that is full giving, the offering of life for life.

The question is, are we ready to receive Him today?

There is a liberal art in generosity.

There is a liberal art in humility, especially the humility of labored self-criticism, the humility of communal and rigorous self-assessment.

We shall try to muster some such this morning, to try to interpret the parable from St. Matthew, his own interpretation of what St. Mark left him.  The last 250 years of rigorous, labored biblical self-criticism gives us the motive and the power to do so.  Our predecessors in this work gave us a lasting and graceful example of humility, here the humility to put every passage of Holy Scripture to the test of historical, critical study, as a basis for theological, homiletical reflection.  And this is an awesome gift, hard won, won with cost.  But the fruit of it is grace and truth, and also a way in which to make some sense of parables like this, which, served raw, without historical critical cooking, will produce dyspepsia and disease.  The humility to do so, since the 18th century is a liberal art, call it the art of humility. So, we learn that Matthew writes in 85ad, rewriting Mark from 70ad, who wrote about Jesus in 30ad.  So, we learn that ‘the stone the builders rejected.’ v 42, is from Ps 118 and is taken over from Mark.  So, we learn that in Mark the rejected stone must be Jesus, but Matthew, adding vss. 41b, 43 makes it refer to Christians. The nation is the Christian church, composed of both Gentiles and Jews. So, we learn that the passage seems to have been a commonplace of early Christian preaching, since it is also found in Peter’s speech in Acts 4: 11 and 1 Peter 2:7.  So, we learn that in 22:7 Matthew may also have the Jewish War in mind,  and that vs 44 is not original.  (IBD, loc. cit.).

Let Peter Berger, of blessed memory, remind us:

There is a huge literature about the problems raised by Biblical scholarship for faith and theology. The problems exploded with the rise of modern historical scholarship being applied to the Bible, beginning earlier but then progressing impressively in the nineteenth century. Much of this new scholarship took place in Protestant theological faculties, especially in Germany—a historically unique event of religious scholars applying the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of their own tradition (repeat). The meaning of “critical” here is clear: Biblical texts are analyzed in the same way as any other historical text, with the question of their revelatory status rigorously excluded from this exercise. Many Biblical scholars succeeded (and still succeed) in understanding the revelation being somehow preserved within the all-too-human processes that produced the text. (American Interest, blog).

I am one.

A good friend asked: ‘Why does Matthew say God tortures?’, referring to a gospel lesson from two weeks ago. And I wrote back to say I really couldn’t fully answer, except to note that Matthew’s dark side waxes as his gospel wanes, and much of that, in grief to humbly state it, is laced with ancient anti-semitism.  That is, in the latter chapters, Matthew’s language turns decidedly grim.  We hear that again today.  Yes, we keep the rhetorical mode of hyperbole in mind.  Yes, we recognize the religious penchant for odium theologicum,’theological hatred’.   Yes, we can see the dark clouds of the terror of Emperor Domitian on the late first century horizon.  But none of that alone will allow us to make sense of Matthew’s harshness here.  For that, we will have to render and conjure what lies just underneath most of these later chapters.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, protection of the church.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, and viral commitment to fruit:  “The fruits, unexplained in the text, are doubtless…good works, and the broad expression used shows that Matthew intends a general principle:  in all ages, the Kingdom of God is only for fruit-bearers…the Christian church, insofar as it ‘bears fruit’…It is noteworthy that the emphasis Matthew feels he must add for the proper understanding of the parable is the very one commonly neglected or reinterpreted today”(that is, the command and demand to bear fruit, pronounced by the addition to Mark of vs. 43). Parables of the Triple Tradition (C. Carlston), 143.

St. Matthew’s fiercest passion, wells up out of the scripture for these weeks in September. Matthew holds a very high view of the church, far higher than we expect, far higher than yours and mine, we could add. In waxing religion today, the church is largely an expedient – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then, if there is time, to be loved. If the horse is dead, dismount, says one. In waning religion, the church is often also an expedient – though here for causes more progressive than traditional, interests more mental than physical – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then perhaps loved. This the fundamentalists and radicals have in common. What did Augustine say? We use what we should love and we love what we should use. Yet for Matthew, the church is empowered with the means of lasting forgiveness, with a mind for sound ethics, and especially with the real presence of Christ: “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”.

Matthew trusts this risen Christ and this voice of the risen Christ to free him to follow his bliss, to succumb to his passion. It is the passion of an evangelist who finds every blessed possible way to connect a Jewish Jesus with a Greek world. It is the passion of an evangelist who enlists an old missionary teaching tract (“Q”) to spread inspiration, truth, and joy. It is the passion of an evangelist who portrays your Savior among pagans, amid harlots, appended to the cross, about the resurrection work of compassion. It is the passion of an evangelist who sums up his Gospel this way: “Go make of all disciples”.  The whole point of the gospel of St Matthew the evangelist is that he is an evangelist. He it is, not me, he it is, not we, who points you to a new passion, one you (plural) have not intimately known. Matthew’s passion? A people producing the fruit of the reign of God.  Don’t just talk, do.  Do you notice, and squirm? Matthew is moving the parable away from judgment on Israel toward judgment…on the church, if and as the church does not bear fruit worthy of repentance.  On us, if and as we do not bear fruit. (repeat). 

Generosity, Humility.  Two Liberal Arts.  Generosity, Humility.

Generosity.  What two things shall you offer, gratis, this week, to God and neighbor?

Humility.  What are the two truest, lasting criticisms of you that others see, but perhaps do not mention, the two areas of most needed personal growth?

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.

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

Sunday
September 27

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 21:23-32

Click here to hear just the sermon

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill:

This Sunday we are confronted by one of the most endearing, and most alluring little parables in all of Scripture, maybe in all of literature.

How it fits with the rest of the lesson is not entirely clear.   Nor is it clear how the lesson in Matthew fits with the other assigned readings for the day, Philippians and our Psalm, say.  Dark sayings from of old, indeed.

But the collision of order and answer, of beckoning and response, has to haunt.

A man has two sons. Already, the plot is thickened, with rivalry, with competition, with family intrigue.

Then the preaching of the gospel occurs. The vintner—we will prefer vintner to father here—tells something, it is a statement that beckons, not formally a question nor even an invitation. Simply a command. Go.

He commands. Albert Schweitzer would be pleased.

Go and live, go and work, go and love, go and prune, go and pluck, go and tend your garden. Go. Up and Go!

Every day and every Lord’s Day, the word arises to us, singeing our nostrils. Go. The day accosts us with a challenge to the good, to a choice if John Dewey is right between goods.

You know, you may have a feeling about a feeling abroad.

Some of us sometimes have the sinking feeling that things are not going so well, that things are drifting or worse.

We see cultural wounds that do not heal.

We see environmental gashes that we rue, fire burning, burning, burning.

We see a national economy that leaves out at least 14 million people, the equivalent of the total population of New England. Maybe twice that when you get everybody counted.

We see a beloved country and respected government that can’t seem provide national leadership to face a national pandemic problem, countrywide leadership to face an invasion with now 200,000 dead.  No national testing, no national equipping, no national protocols.

We listen again to the cries of anguish from minority communities, communities of color, stinging still from policing that harms rather than heals.

And, step lightly here, ten cuidado: It is hard to oppose without being shaped by what you oppose. Maybe to some measure impossible.

You know, then, there is an ennui abroad, measures of anxiety and depression, perhaps inevitable to some measure if one is aware, listening, thoughtful, a languishing in doldrums of pervasive malaise.

So, when the word comes. Come Sunday: Up! Go! You! Work! Vineyard! Today!

Uh…We pull up the covers and sleep in, or call in sick, or drive in late, or just are not really sure we can do anything about all these irremediable driftings.

What difference does it make what I do?  So the despond whispers.

So, says son one, I will not go. Son two, the craftier of the two, evades, the compliant not the defiant one. He says Yes Mrs. Cleaver, but he doesn’t go. He never meant to. He just doesn’t like conflict. Well who does?

But the first son has a change of heart.

Now we find this so encouraging, heartening, lovely. Up front, he says, no way, no way Jose. He is defiant, and willing to say it. I don’t think so, Mr. Vintner, Mr. Father, Mr. Voice, Mr. Life, Mr. Daytime. I think I will just turn in my ticket. Thanks, but no thanks.

But…he has a change of heart.

Will you notice with me that the main thing we want to know is not told to us?

We want to know, what changed the heart? What did the trick? What sealed the deal? What moved the lever?

And the Bible says, ‘Address Not Known’. Edmund Steimle would be pleased. In other words, it is shrouded in mystery.

So, we are a little free to speculate. We do not know what brought the change of heart.

But we know what can bring a change of heart.  And we are offered it today.

Beauty.

An experience of the beautiful can change the heart. A thank you note. A sunrise. A poem. A violin sonata. A student remembering a childhood hurt, and letting it go: there is a beauty in that moment. A cantata.

When you pause for prayer or worship on Sunday, you may be saying no. NO I WILL NOT. You may be not willing to have any change, let alone a change of heart. It is in that very condition that John Wesley went in the rain to Aldersgate Street, May 1738. NO I WILL NOT GO TO THE VINEYARD, not today, baby, not today.  No, I will not send another check, make another volunteer phone call, engage another disagreement, write another letter to the editor, another op-ed, another sermon, another apparently futile attempt to change the direction of things, another prayer, another something.  No, I will not try again to oppose vulgar, profane trash talk rising like a tide all around:  let someone else take it on.

But…

You tune in to virtual worship, you listen for the regular rhythm of ritual, you receive again the confession of the church and…

Beauty.

 Organ meditation. Hymn. Holy Writ. Word spoken. Bach.

Said Scott Allen Jarrett: “Music can say things that words never can.”  

One of the winds beneath our wings comes from our music ministry. Yes, at Christmas and Easter, on Communion Sundays, for special University services like Matriculation and Baccalaureate and Martin Luther King Sunday and others, but also, and notably so for us, on our twice a term Bach Sundays. The word and music of these days keep us moving forward together.

Beauty is like that.

Dr. Jarrett, it is good to have you alongside this morning, to have your presence, faithfulness, voice, and talent offered to God and neighbor.  It cannot be easy to lay down the weekly rhythms of choral music, so heart central to your work and our life.  You have heard me quip before that what silence is the Quakers and Eucharist is the Catholics and Leviticus is the Bible Baptists, and the grim doctrine of predestination is the Presbyterians, and the Epistle to the Romans is to the Lutherans—singing, singing, singing is to us, as Methodists and as Marsh Chapel.  So, we are grateful for the archival gifts and treasures that you have crafted over long time.  Greet us and teach us this Lord’s Day…

 

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

Thank you Dean Hill. On the radio the other day, a commentator asked listeners what they most looked forward to when the veil of pandemic is lifted. Among the respondents, a physician said she couldn’t wait to gather her amateur string quartet together once again. My heart smiled hearing this; perhaps yours does, too. Are we not all starved for Beauty, Dean Hill? Beyond revealing a crucial litmus of our values and the possibility of our strivings, the pursuit of Beauty so often models the best path forward and offers a way to make sense of it all — a reconciling Grace, if you will. We so sorely need this today. I can’t tell you how lonely it is to stand here in the Chancel of Marsh Chapel, flanked by Handel and Bach in the wood carvings to my right and left without the beloved members of our musical community alongside pursuing together the Beauty of which I speak. (pause) 

Our archives recall one such highlight when the Chapel Choir and Collegium last studied and performed Cantata 179, Bach’s arched lesson on Heuchelei — Hypocricy.  By all means, Go, Sow, Toil, Labor, get to your vineyard, but make certain that your pious airs are sung with a pure heart. For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. Listeners, I think you’d better get another cup of coffee. 

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Listening again to Matthew and the parable, we recall that, you know, sometimes, we come saying no, but leave saying yes.

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.  Our use of President Merlin’s epigram means city as the global city, and service as worship and work.   Our foci guiding this envisioned mission are voice, vocation, and volume.   This year we take our lead from the new, refreshed Boston University Plan, especially its own five-fold foci:  academics, research, globality, diversity, community.  With Bach, we take research into a different direction and dimension.

ResearchTwice a term the Director of Music, Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, engages our collegium, choir, community and listenership in a full morning of teaching about JS Bach, and enjoyment of a Bach Cantata in worship.  The Bach Experience (lecture, gathering, worship, and sermon (this dialogue between the Director and the Dean)), are novel and preeminent advancements in learning and performance, and our own offered sort of research.  They also will contribute to the Dean’s emerging work in Biblical Theology, an ongoing multi-year study. We commit to enhancement of this project.

What changes the heart?

What baptizes the person, the heart, the spirit?

The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, autumn 2020, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift. 

What pierces, transforms, moves the heart?

Beauty does.

It does.

It says, whispers, reminds:

There are a lot of things wrong. But there are a lot of things right. Somebody wrote this cantata—sheer beauty. Someone practiced and taught it—sheer beauty. Someone sang it and played it—sheer beauty. And here I am. I heard it. I heard it.

Music can say things that words never can.

Maybe number one son huffed no. Then…he saw moonlight on the sea of Galilee. Or…his wife was singing a lullaby as the children went to sleep. Or…he remembered a part of a Psalm. Or…he remembered the loving and lovely self-giving of a loved one—maybe that
of his father, now long dead. Or…a friend came by…or came through.

Then he thought…

Well, maybe, well, maybe

Maybe things are bad, but maybe they can get better, and maybe better is the only good there is.

Maybe that is what you will think, leaving today.

Beauty stands beside me

Beauty stands beside me

I hear, I hear, I hear

Maybe I will say yes after all, yes to a new challenge.

Maybe I will remember Camus’ doctor in The Plague: ‘decency consists of doing my job…the only way to fight the plague is with decency’.

Maybe Vaclev Havel’s proverb will seize me: ‘live within the truth’.

Maybe I will take deeply to heart my friend Dr. Reid Cooper’s definition of faith: ‘the personal positive answer to the question whether life has meaning’.

Maybe Jorge Luis Borges was right; ‘any life however long and complicated it may be actually consists of a single moment when a man knows forever more who he is’. (NYR 11/12/19)

Maybe this is that moment.  Maybe I will turn around, receive a change of heart, and say…Yes.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel Choir

Sunday
September 20

Taking Precedence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Jonah 3:10–4:11

Philippians 1:21–30

Matthew 20:1–16

Click here to hear just the sermon

A friend of mine tells a story about their facilitation of a bible study on Matthew a few years ago.  The study was held in a church in a well-off town just outside a major American city.  For the first nineteen chapters of Matthew, there was lively discussion, and everything remained relatively calm.  But when discussion started on the passage which is our Gospel text this morning, the tenor of discussion changed.  There was anger, and resentment, and attempts to dismiss the story on various grounds, the chief ground being that it might be all right for the landowner to act like that in the kingdom of God, but in real life no one would work for them, and such behavior only rewards the lazy.  The members of the study had all worked hard to get where they were, and the idea that late hires would be paid the same as those who had worked out in the sun all day was both an outrage and deeply distressing to them, especially as this was a God story.  The vineyard owner’s claims were offensive.  Did they have no respect for diligence and hard work?  Did God have no respect for them in their hard work and diligence?  Things got pretty heated.  Then one of the members, who had not said much, suddenly said, “But haven’t any of us ever caught a break?  That’s what happens to the late hires, isn’t it?  It wasn’t their fault they weren’t hired.  They caught a break from the landowner.”  Well, this was a bible study that had been going for a while, and the members knew and trusted each other.  So they thought about it.  And little by little, “Well, when you put it that way …”, the stories began to come out: some about little and amusing breaks, some about life-changing ones, sometimes about breaks that saved a life or many lives.  The concept of “catching a break” was examined, as something that was not expected, not necessarily deserved; and while it might involve someone else feeling affection or the desire to help another person out, it could be, as it is in the Gospel, purely due to the desire of the one who hires and has both the control and resources to provide the break, and they provide it because they can.  The study session ended on the general understanding that everyone present allowed that they had experienced catching a break and they were grateful.  And of course God could do whatever God liked.  But they were honest enough to allow that while the kingdom of God was one thing; if they saw such behavior from their bosses, and if they were the ones first hired, it would still rankle.

Someone or something that “takes precedence” is someone or something that is more important than the people or things around them.  Or it is someone or something with somehow a right to preferential treatment.  Religious, academic, state, community, or family, processionals or seating arrangements often demonstrate the importance of some people taking precedence over others, through formal organization hierarchy.  And, taking precedence is often claimed, or given informally by individuals or groups, or given to certain people, as the members of the bible study gave precedence to the early hires over the late hires with regard to who deserved the most pay from the landowner.  

Some things, commitments, and feelings also take precedence, even over things, commitments, and feelings that are also important.  The Book of Jonah describes a case in point.  Previously in the book to our story this morning, Jonah has been called by God to go and preach warning and repentance to the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the great, wicked city of Nineveh.  For reasons that are unclear at the time, Jonah goes overland to the place farthest from Nineveh, and then he takes a ship to go even farther away.  A storm blows up, Jonah tells the sailors that the storm is his fault for disobeying God, and he allows the sailors to throw him overboard so that they will not be harmed.  Jonah goes overboard, the sea calms, and Jonah is a swallowed by a great fish, or a whale.  He spends the fabled three days in the whale’s stomach.  Then the whale spews him up onto dry land.   

Our Scripture this morning, then, is post-whale.  Jonah has, it seems, decided to obey God’s call, and goes to Nineveh.  He has a spectacular preaching tour.  He only repeats one phrase, and the people and even the king pay attention.  They fast, repent in sackcloth and ashes, and turn from their evil ways.  God accepts their repentance, changes the divine mind, and does not overthrow the city.

Amazingly enough, Jonah is angry at the results of his work, work that he had been called by God to do.  He is angry with God.  He is specifically angry with God’s character and nature.:  God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s slowness to anger, God’s abounding in steadfast love, God’s readiness to relent from punishment.  The same qualities of God that he remembered as he prayed in repentance from inside the whale, when they are turned toward his enemies, he is so angry with God that he wants God to kill him, because he would rather die than live in such a situation.  God asks Jonah if he has a right to be angry, but receives no answer, and Jonah goes to a lookout to see what becomes of the forgiven city.  A bush grows over Jonah’s head and shades him, but a worm comes and kills the bush, and in the renewed heat Jonah again asks God to kill him.  God asks again if Jonah has the right to be angry, this time about the bush, and Jonah says he is angry enough to die, which is better than to live.  Jonah has allowed his anger and hatred of the Ninevites, and his concern for his own comfort, to take precedence:  precedence over his call from God, precedence over what he knows is the character and nature of God, and precedence over the great transformation of a wicked and violent city into a place concerned with repentance toward a right relationship with God and others.  For God, however, what takes precedence is the welfare of one hundred and twenty thousand people who are confused and fearful; and let’s not forget their animals, because God does not forget them.

The message of this morning’s two stories is that God’s idea of who or what takes precedence is different from Jonah’s; and as Jesus declares in his God story, it is different from that of the early hires.  God, who created everything, can in divine generosity do whatever God wants, for whoever God wants, and the people who are called to God’s mission both are taken care of and also will catch some breaks.  In these things, these stories are similar.  For our purposes this morning, we will note some differences between other aspects of the stories.

While there is some scholarly warrant for the possible existence of a “Jonah son of Ammitai,” and the enmity between Assyria and Israel is a matter of historical record, debate rages over who actually wrote the Book of Jonah.  Debate also rages over why, where, and when the author wrote it.  There is even debate over what category the book falls into:  history, parable, satire, and/or political/religious persuasion toward a more universal concept of God’s presence and love.  What we do know for sure is that Jonah’s is a story that was included in the Hebrew Bible, is referenced in both Matthew and Luke in the Christian scriptures, and has captured the imagination in books, song, and art for centuries.  And, the picture of Jonah it paints is both absurd, and in our time a bit too close to some of what we see at loose in the world:  a man who insists that what takes precedence, what is more important, is his own hatred of others, his anger toward those who change for the better and toward God,, and his preference for death, rather than life in a world where human repentance and divine generosity and mercy are possible.

Jesus’s story has noticeable differences.  It is an everyday story of marginal day workers and a disconcertingly fair and also generous employer.  We recognize its issues in our own reactions as to which workers should or should not take precedence in our own workplaces.  And we recognize its issues in our national labor policies that affect millions of lives and futures.   If we are like the members of the bible study, we will also remember the times when someone  allowed us to take precedence and gave us a break, and the warm feelings up to and including incoherent relief with which we received that break.

In the Gospel of Matthew the tax collector, this story is set in a whole section of stories which emphasize the fact that God’s idea of who or what takes precedence is not necessarily what we or the world think takes precedence, think what is more important.  In the stories that precede our story this morning:  Jesus insists that little children be allowed to come to him, because it is to those like them that the kingdom of heaven belongs:  Jesus encounters the rich young ruler who would not follow him because of his riches, and acknowledges that it is hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven; when Peter asks what will they get, who have left everything to follow Jesus, Jesus says that they will have more than they need, and, in this case too, that “ … many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  In the verses following our story this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die; the mother of the sons of Zebedee does their work for them and asks Jesus to put her sons to the right and left of him when he comes into his kingdom; Jesus tells James and John that they don’t know what they are asking, and anyway that’s not his to grant; when the others are angry with James and John, Jesus tells them all that whoever wants to be great among them must be their servant, and that Jesus himself, who comes to serve, is the embodiment of God’s upending of worldly ideas of what takes precedence, of what is more important

We have noted before that the Gospel of Matthew is in part a manual of instruction, a teaching Gospel, that teaches through the example of Jesus what his followers  need to know:  about God and Jesus, about themselves, and about their neighbors. The Gospel teaches about God’s invitation and inclusion, about God’s ideas of who and what takes precedence, about who and what is more important.  The kingdom of heaven, present and coming, is like this:  a place where everyone is included, where everyone is important, and where at any given time and in any given situation, some people change places, so that the first shall become last, and the last shall become first, so that love and justice can prevail.

These stories come at an interesting time for us.  The Covid-19 pandemic also upends our ideas of what takes precedence, of what is more important.  It reveals the deep fissures in our society, which in turn reveal disdain and hatred, and as well mercy and generosity.  Now I want to be very clear here.  I am not saying that God caused either the virus or the pandemic.  From what I gather from the science, medical , and political communities they are likely the result of a combination of natural processes and the consequences of human denial, fear, and short-sighted choices around environment, our relations with other species, and public health.  I am also not saying that God has sent us the virus as a punishment.  The pain, sorrow, fear, and despair this virus has caused and continues to cause is suffering enough to go on with for anything.   And these all are exacerbated in turn by uncontrolled wildfires, racial injustice and unrest, a frightening economic situation, and the background of climate change.  Our faith does not promise us that we will be punished for anything through natural processes or their consequences.  What our faith does promise is that God’s presence, guidance, and help are with us, to help bring us through, and to help us learn.  

And we are learning a lot now, in deeper and richer, and yes, in more challenging ways.  Some of what we are learning is that those who we may have overlooked or taken for granted take precedence in importance to our well-being, if we are to eat, to continue to function as individuals and a society, and to recover and get well.  We are learning that some, through no fault of their own but through being discounted in their human being and dignity, suffer more deeply and widely than others, and that certain changes must take precedence over the status quo if this extra suffering and blatant injustice is to end.  We are learning how important each individual person who has died was, to their loved ones and to their communities. We are learning how important we who live are to each other, as we long for physical presence, contact, and energy.  We are learning how human relationship, and human relationship with the natural and wider world, take precedence over so much of what we thought was more important.  And we are learning the importance each one of us has and can have to God and to our neighbor, in actions both large and small.

Paul writes about this in his own inimitable way in his letter to the church at Philippi, a church for which Paul has a particular affection.  His letter is full of friendship and rejoicing in and for them, even in the midst of the sufferings they variously face, and he recounts his dilemma in the face of their friendship in Christ.   He does not know which to prefer:  to die and be with Christ is what he would prefer as the best of all situations; but if he continues to live, he has fruitful labor to do, and that is more necessary for the church at Philippi, which he loves.  So, he will remain alive and in the flesh, to continue with them in progress and joy, and so that they may all boast in Christ when they can be together again.  Since life take precedence over death for Paul in his call from God, he will do his work toward fruitfulness, endure his sufferings in faith, and enjoy his time with his friends.

Covid-19 is no respecter of precedence or people.  But as long as we are, like Paul, still alive and in the flesh, our life with God, self, and neighbor takes precedence even over our fear, and accompanies our grief and the many other emotions of this time.  Now more than ever, we are called to consider what will take precedence, what will be more important, in our lives.  We are called to be fruitful in the work we are called to do.  We are called to rejoice in our friends and companions in Christ.  In all this we are called to be guided by God’s ideas of what takes precedence, rather than our own or the world’s.  And when we do, we are promised that our world will be the more interesting, the richer, and the more just for it.  May we rest in God’s mercy and generosity, and may we extend God’s mercy and generosity to as many others as we can.  AMEN.

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