November 10

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

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

November 3

Healing in Sacrament

By Marsh Chapel

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Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Ephesians 1:11-23

Luke 6:20-31

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The text of this sermon is unavailable.

October 27

Luke on Health and Humility

By Marsh Chapel

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Joel 2:23-32

Luke 18:9-14

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Merciful Delay?

What drove Luke, alone, to remember or construct these marvelous parables, Luke 9-19?  Only Luke has them, and how we would miss them without his composition!  What molded them near the year 85ad? The lengthening years, without ultimate victory, since the cross? The long decades of living without Jesus? The uncertainties of institution and culture and citizenship and multiple responsibilities? The daily stresses of managing a budget? It is the primitive church that can give an example to an America waiting to meet disease with patient justice, to meet anxiety with hope. They waited for Jesus to return. And he delayed. And he delays, still. And there is rampant, hateful hurt, across God’s green earth.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed
By schism rent asunder by heresy distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up ‘how long’?
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.

Luke’s parables confront disease with health and anxiety with humility.   At Marsh Chapel, we try to do some of the same.  On a day in which we receive new Chapel members, a word then about Marsh.

Marsh Membership?


What is participation in ministry about here?

As a University Chapel and Deanship, Marsh Chapel has some significant structural differences from a local church, some of which are outlined in the document, ‘Forms of Ministry in our Midst’.   While there are many ways of entering ministry at Marsh, the Chapel otherwise operates, administratively, as any other deanship on campus, reporting to the President, and funded in large measure by the Provost.

Marsh Chapel is a discreet Christian community of faith, and, if I may, in my pastoral experience, including nine other pulpits, a real gem.  Theologically and spiritually, we are broad church; liturgically and musically, we are high church; communally and relationally, we are deep church, in the sense of encouraging vital fellowship and friendship.  The simplest way to describe all this is to walk through the sanctuary, and notice the stained glass, of the church through the ages, and of the church in the Methodist tradition.

We are not a Methodist congregation, but our history and lineage, from 1839 to the present, are out of that Religious, Christian, Protestant, English tradition, which emerged under the leadership of John Wesley through the course of the 18th century.  Mr. Wesley stands above our portico at the front door.  Our hymnal is the Methodist hymnal, though we are not confined to it, and generally operate out of a dual adherence, both to Methodism and to the ‘ecumenical consensus’ (a simple way to see this is to note that we have, distinctively, both wine and grape juice available at communion).  Our dean is usually a Methodist minister (and, oddly, 4 of 6 have been named Robert!).  We are thus ‘possibilists’ in the Wesleyan sense of an openness to the future in faith, and an interdenominational, international, and even interfaith congregation (both present on Sundays and especially listening via radio, we have for example a number of Jewish participants).   Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.  You will see that the sanctuary has no permanent cross, but does have a star of David—both fairly substantive ecumenical moves in 1949.

When people join Marsh Chapel, as will happen again in today, we use a part of the ritual for new members in the hymnal.  When children are baptized, as will happen again on November 3, at 2pm, we use the order for the Sacrament in the same hymnal.  Our members come from a very wide range of religious backgrounds, and in many cases, of no particular religious background.  We do not use a single creed (though we are inclined, now and then, to recite one or another in the course of a sermon now and then).  We simply ask people, in brief, whether they want Marsh Chapel to be and to be known as their spiritual home.  There are of course some down sides to such breadth, but this has been our heritage since Daniel Marsh finished the chapel, and the Trustees named it for him, long ago.  Marsh’s book, The Charm of the Chapel, we have here, and one of our staff could get you a copy, should you want one.

To answer in more detail your fine question about doctrine, I will need to give a few points of reference.  As with coming to know Martin Luther, the first step would be to read through the sermons (now found easily on our website, from 2003 on).  As with coming to know John Calvin, the second step would be to read through the books, here the decanal books.  Mine our found in the narthex.  Those of my predecessors are also readily available:  the two most voluminous collections being those of Dean Neville, 2003-2006 (present almost every week in chapel, and my only living predecessor) and of Dean Howard Thurman, 1953-1965.  I recommend from Dean Neville God the Creator, and from Dean Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.  Dean Robert Hamill (1965—1973: he died just weeks after his Christmas sermon of 1972) wrote two short books of sermons, but is best captured in his column for Motive magazine in the 1960’s.  Dean Franklin Little (1952-3) brought the academic study of the Holocaust to America, and his book, The Crucifixion of the Jews, is stellar, and still in print.  Dean Robert Thornburg (1978-2001) published very little, though his denominational leadership was significant.  As with coming to know John Wesley, the third step would be to look at what the chapel actually does, week by week (found in the term book, on the website, and in the bulletin—including the weekly Dean’s Choice).  You will find, I think, in broad terms, in the sermons and books and works, that we are a theologically liberal church with a spiritually liberal pulpit, again broadly construed, and in congruence with the history of Boston University, and, indeed, of Boston itself.  In sum, with Mr. Wesley, we would affirm ‘that which has been believed always and everywhere by everyone’ (the ecumenical consensus, where there is such); and we would affirm, ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’; and we would affirm, ‘in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty;  in all things, charity’.

Spiritual Not Religious?

But what if I am more spiritual than religious?  What is they healthy humble balance of these two terms?

Well, the distinction, spiritual vs. religious, would not have been intelligible to St. Luke, whose gospel we have been reading these past several months.  Whether or not the distinction—spiritual\religious—is one you understand or affirm, it is in its framing at least a modern lens, and to foist it upon the New Testament would be fair in no direction.

Luke is a teacher, like Matthew, whose own gospel is a didactic one.  Matthew is organized around five narratives and lectures.  Including a long lecture from a mountain.  Affirming the jot and tittle of the law.  Honoring disciples and discipline.  Matthew sees the world and its human inhabitants, to the moment of its audibility for you and me, as a school room filled with students.  He is a teacher, and he wants us to learn, as does Luke.

In principle, then, as all learners both larger and smaller and older and younger, we are in conversation with our evangelist.   Preaching is interpretation, interpretation of Holy Scriptures, holy out of use and history and function and love and inspiration, whose opening to the ear is meant to teach, as well as to delight and finally to persuade.  Learn something from every sermon.  Teach something in every sermon.  Teach and learn in every sermon.  What would Luke and Matthew help us to learn about this current, modern, popular distinction:  ‘I am spiritual but not religious’?

It happens that at the heart of the New Testament, there is, one could say, a parallel problem, a similar distinction, at work, being worked, being worked out.   That is the problem of Christianity emerging from Judaism.   For the readers of Paul.  For the students of Luke.  For the listeners to Marsh Chapel in the past decade.  For these and others, this is not a new story.  One of the two great and deep mysteries of the 27 New Testament books is this one.  How did a religious and spiritual movement begun in Palestine, led by a Jew and other Jews, born out of the history and theology and society of Judaism, and relying on the whole of the Hebrew Scripture, become, in less than 100 years, entirely Greek?

The New Testament witnesses, it should be strongly asserted, had as a group no disinclination to follow spiritual truth over against the dictates of religious tradition.  The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, after all.   The tearing of Christianity away from Judaism was in part a spiritual revolt against a religious authority.   The Lordship of Jesus, the way of faith, the announcement of the resurrection, the advances into the highways and byways, the preaching of the gospel, especially to the gentiles, left religion, of one form, in the dust.  One is commanded in fact to ‘shake the dust from one’s feet’.

On the other hand, and perhaps more powerfully, the New Testament writers have every disinclination to celebrate an individualized spiritual perspective, ‘Sheilaism’, ‘bowling alone’, or the new atheism which often dresses in the simple garb of introversion and social, conversational, and relational isolation.   The 27 books of the NT, if nothing else, revolve around a steady development of a new community, a beloved community, a community of faith working through love, and are themselves children of and witness to the emergence of that set of communities, the church.  Even the Gospel of John, the most spiritual and least institutional of the documents, nonetheless, from its radical angle, forcefully acclaims the experience of love in faith, the love of ‘one another’.   The dismantling of one religious structure requires the responsibility to replace it with an improved model (Methodists take note).  In this sense, the New Testament would be the polar opposite and spiritual contestant of spirituality today.

Biblical Theology?

And how, kind sir, in your own life and work does this paean to health and humility matter?

Well, remember our ride up the Matterhorn a few weeks ago?

The ride is short but terrifying.  At the top, mid-July, thick snow, hard ice, brisk wind and a coldness of cold await you.  As does the mesmerizing thrall of the mountain.  The Matterhorn.  Step gingerly out of the old open rail car.  Get your footing, your mountain sea legs.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  There.  A new way of seeing, and so of thinking, and so, then of being.  Health and sanity may impel or compel you to higher ground.

My sixteenth book will be published this fall, a collection devoted in part to the New Testament, in part to preaching, and in part to ministry—Bible, Church, World as we in the halcyon younger days of the World Council of Churches intoned.  None of the sixteen is a best seller, none a game changer, none found in every home.  All but two are still in print, and several in both print and cyber forms.  They are the work of Zermatt.  Fine.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship.  The Matterhorn!  Just before you.  But.  But.  But.

As an acrophobe the rail car ride up is not appealing.  But it is time for me to move on up, to take higher ground, to climb on to Gornergrat.  Ice.  Snow. Cold. Wind.  That means the prospect of one more, a very different book, for a very different look.  A different look takes a different book.  It will be, here, for me, the work of the next decade, in pulpit and study.  As you cannot get to Gornergrat but through Zermatt, this project depends in full on all that came before:  books on the New Testament (John), on preaching (Interpretation), and on ministry (prayer and practice).  The next climb is up on to craggy cliff village—ice, snow, cold, wind—of an overture to A Liberal Biblical Theology.   Here is a marriage of Rudolph Bultmann and N.T. Wright., a partnership of Paul Tillich and (the early) Karl Barth, an aspirational possibilist (that is Methodist) correlation of history and theology, Bible and Church, accessible to the average reader.  Our climate, nation, and denomination, all in peril, hang in the balance.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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

October 20

Not to Lose Heart

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 31:27-34

Luke 18:1-8

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Parable of Persistence

Hear ye hear:  the honorable Unjust Judge is presiding this morning in our homiletical courtroom.  Before him, a persistent woman, who employs time and voice. (You have time and you have voice.) Like Christ himself, she implores the implacable world to grant justice. Like Christ himself, she comes on a donkey of tongue and patience. Like Christ himself, she continues to plead, to intercede. Like Christ himself, she importunes the enduring ‘gone-wrong-ness’ of this world. Like Christ himself she prays without ceasing. Like Christ himself she persists. She is an example to us of how we should use whatever time we have and whatever breath remains–to pray. It is prayer that is the most realistic and wisest repose for we the anxious of this anxious autumn. By prayer we mean formal prayer, yes. But by prayer we mean the persistent daily leaning toward justice, the steady continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.  And the daily practice of attention, alertness, being alive, being around. Prayer public, prayer private.

Ours is a long wait. And that is just the point: we feel the length of the wait.

Notice, waiting with us, this poor widow. She lacks power, authority, status, position, wealth. She has her voice and all the time in the world. Like Jesus Christ, whose faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of the word. 

He told them a parable about how they ought to pray always and not to. lose heart.  

Heart and Service

Sometimes prayer is public, even institutional.

On this Family and Friends weekend, we can remember the persistent prayerful work of Boston University, across nearly 200 years.

Boston University is an institution with a long history of outreach and engagement, said recently our President Robert A. Brown.

Boston University lives in the heart of the city, in the service of the city, said President Lemuel Merlin, 1923.

One deeply embedded value and strength of Boston University, today, and found in every school and college is this long (1839) history (Methodism) of outreach (heart) and service (in the world, for the world).

The three medical campus schools lead the way with care for the urban poor (MED), with daily recognition that public health means social justice (SPH), and with the most global dental student body of any school or college at every commencement (GSDM).

All fourteen schools on the Charles River campus show the shadows and lingering long-term influence of heart and service.

Reflect on the current emphasis in QUESTROM upon ethical business and business ethics.

Remember the BU educational 25-year commitment to the Chelsea city schools, and the to year work in urban literacy Initiative on Literacy Development, our outreach to Boston Public Schools so strongly enhanced by the Wheelock merger.

Rejoice at the concept of ‘citizen artist’, the ‘social artist’, affirmed at the College of Fine Arts, the best of theater and music and visual art, brought to the street level (along with the Arts Initiative).

Reflect on the curricular and co-curricular engagement in the School of Theology, the ongoing voice of ‘The School of the Prophets’.  

Remember the Social Work engagement with neighboring hospitals and schools, in internships and partnerships.

Rejoice at the ongoing vitality within Metropolitan College of a now veteran program in prison education.

Reflect on the School of Engineering support for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Remember our School of Hospitality emphasis on servant leadership.

Rejoice at the communal nature of education in the College of General Studies, modeling dimensions of shared learning and living with great effect.

Reflect on the College of Arts and Sciences, and its PARDEE School, committed to world peace.

Remember the School of Law and its honored graduates who have defended the legal system of this country, ‘a country of laws and not of men’.

Rejoice at the varied commitments through The College of Communications to the development of an educated populace, on which the rest of democracy depends.

Reflect on Sargent’s lectureships on physical and occupational therapy, open to the public, and applicable to the work of many other schools and colleges as well.

To these vital forms of ‘outreach and engagement’ in schools and colleges, add the Howard Thurman Center, the ROTC program, the Hubert Humphrey Scholars program, the Community Service Center, the Office of Religious Life, the Elie Wiesel Center, the Sustainability Center,  The BU Initiative on Cities, and others, all of which to some measure reach out beyond the University to serve and help the larger community, across the region and around the globe. Boston University exemplifies a culture of ‘outreach and engagement’, working in the world for the world.

Public prayer. As in the life of Elijah Cummings, now of blessed memory, a life reminding us that Elijah is coming, and a voice teaching us that ‘diversity is our promise, not our problem’.

Your alma mater, at her best, institutionalizes prayerful persistence.

He told them a parable about how they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

Sometimes prayer is public.

Enjoy Your Wife

And sometimes prayer is private.

Sometimes, that is, prayer is personal, meant to wake us up to what lasts, matters, counts and is real.

Speaking personally, one summer holiday joy comes from sitting alone, anonymous, a regular citizen of the planet, enjoying a pub lunch.

In Bermuda, one favorite such hide out, for the hours Jan is shopping in Hamilton, is ‘The Hog Penny’.  Its name fits British Bermuda, as does its dark wood interior’; as does its English, English not haute cuisine, meals, shepherds’ pie and chips; as does its broadcast of cricket on the ‘tellie’; and does its public house, pub mood.  Since our honeymoon we have gone to Hamilton, Bermuda, she to shop, and I to blend into the British Bermuda woodwork, and be alone.

She and I no longer need to identify our individual itineraries.  Marriage works sometimes that way. She knows where to find me, as she did, mid-shopping expedition, this August.  A surprise hug from behind came as no surprise to me; a big kiss or three, some reports from the field of shopping battle, happy and tearful memories of the same place, the same dark wood interior, every five years or so to August, 2019.  Downing a glass of ice water, she is off again on the hunt, leaving me to read. Other years the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or both, in print, but now, sadly no longer available, in print, on the Island. A hug, a kiss, a reminder to show up on time for the ferry back to the hotel, and we are separate, again.  As one day, a long stretch of decades ago, before marriage. As one day, again, someday, when we cross the river.

I notice one other customer, alone at the dark farther end of the Hog Penny oak bar.  Six empty chairs separate us. He slowly rises, and begins slowly to approach. One chair at a time he slides his full glass gently, carefully, toward me, then rounds the chair at hand, and then pushes his glass another chair length, and again the glass, round the chair, catch your breath, start again.

He is wearing a yellow golf shirt, tan pants, loafers, eyeglasses without frames, and is, say, 15 years my senior, my father’s age when he died, balding, thin, and short.  I have learned over the years to watch for clues, signs that such an one, approaching, in such a setting, may want to sell me insurance (it happens), or invite me to church come Sunday (also), or need a loan (at least once).  I enjoy meeting new people, but this is vacation, a few precious summer hours in the beauty of Bermuda. So, I am leery.

Here he comes, slide the glass, round the chair, slide the glass, round the chair, take a breath.  No signs of trouble do I see. But still I am on the alert. A temporary lay person is a full-time pastor who has seen this movie before.

He leaves one empty chair between us.

‘Where are you from?’, he asks.


‘How did you get here?’

‘We flew direct from Logan’.   A little silence, of which there will be more than a little more.

‘How about you’, I volley back.

‘By boat, from New York City’.

‘Do you live there?’, I venture, trusting the moment a little more.

‘Nearby.  Long Island.’

‘Oh, I know Long Island’, I rejoin.  ‘I will be there near Bayshore, Point O Woods its called,  later in August.’

Then there is a long pause, as there were many in the conversation.  He seems not to know how, exactly, to proceed. At these pauses, I jump in to prompt a couple of time, but then leave him to his silence.  I notice he is making steady progress through his drink, which gladdens me to see, somehow, and it clearly does him, too. Silence. He is from a generation, one might say, in which is expected, a common courtesy, to offer a bit of conversation, gentle, genial conversation, to a stranger who is alone.  Of course, as with so much else of human being and meaning, the smart phone and internet have eclipsed this human practice. Or killed it off, outright.  

The silence is sounding more fully resonant now.

He perks up.  ‘That was your wife?’, he asks. ‘I mean’, he corrects himself, ‘She is your wife?’


‘She is so pretty, so happy’, he says smiling.

‘Yes’, I say.  ‘Well’, I add, ‘especially on vacation, and especially out shopping’.

He ponders this a bit, then asks, ‘Have you been here before?’

‘Yes’, I say, ‘about a half-dozen times.  It is one of the world’s most beautiful place, in nature and in culture.’

‘Yes’ he says, drawing a deep breath leading to another long pause.

His eyes dim, then brighten, then dim, like the sun ducking in out behind a cloud bank.  Silence. More uncomfortable with the silence than he is, I interject again: ‘Did you sail to Bermuda with friends or with family?’

‘No’, he says.  ‘I am here on my own’.

Now, somehow, I have the sense to the let the silence be long, be quiet.  Lonely.

Then he looks up and addresses me: ‘My wife and I have come here over the years.  She would shop and I would come here and have lunch, or not.’

She would shop.  I hear it.

I clumsily and with a sense of foreboding repeat, ‘She would shop?’

‘Yes’, he adds.  ‘She and I planned this trip a few months ago.  She was really looking forward to it.

‘Oh, I…’ then I stop mid-sentence.

‘She died in April’.  Silence.

‘I am so very sorry for your loss’, is what I come up with to say.

‘Thank you.  I was going to cancel, but decided to come alone, to come by myself, alone.

‘I am so truly sorry for your loss’, I clumsily repeat.  I am having a hard time seeing him, for some reason—maybe the humidity has clouded my eyes.  I wipe my eyes a bit.

‘Thank you.   I appreciate that.  She loved this place.  Bermuda and its beauty she so loved.  We both did. Together.’

‘I am glad you came.  I am glad for your memories.  I know how meaningful it must be for you to be here.’

‘Thank you’, he responds.  ‘I guess I am glad. The memories are good.  But painful too.’

Here more pause.  A light silence. A good silence wherein what is said and what is heard can sink down in and settle in.  Be heard. Like a sermon, a conversation is not about getting something said, but it is about getting something heard.

He made strong headway with his drink, and I look at my watch to see that the spousal warning to get to the ferry on time was a typically wise one.  I have an assignment to be in line for a seat on the ferry looming.

I paid the bill.  I checked to make sure I had my glasses, my wallet, my book, and, yes, my phone.  I stood next to him. His eyes were lighter and just a little moister.

‘I am sorry for your loss’.

‘Thank you.’

I turn to go, and he catches my arm for a moment.  What he says next he does not say pendanticly, or religiously, or emotionally, or emphatically.  He just says it. In a quiet voice. In a good voice. In a kind voice. And he said it twice, in a prayerful tone:

‘Enjoy your wife.’

‘Enjoy your wife’.

Sometimes, prayer is personal, meant to wake us up to what lasts, matters, counts and is real.

 Prayer public, prayer private.

And he told them a parable about how they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

October 13

Spring Tonic

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Kings 5:1-15c

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

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            Every Spring, when I was a child, right through high school, our mother would dose my brother and me with our “Spring tonic” of cod liver oil.  It came in a tube, colored a sort of sickly green-blue-gray, and on the tube was a line-drawing of a fish, balanced on its tail, with a distressed look on its face – no doubt because of the spigot drawn protruding from its belly, dripping oil.  The fish’s distress was nothing to ours.  Our mother squeezed out two healthy dollops of oil, mixed each with water, and we drank our glasses down.  The taste was vile, and it lasted a long time, even after teeth brushing.  My brother and I never did know just why we were subjected to this challenge to our comfort and filial obedience – our Spring tonic was good for us, it was what we did, and that was that.

            It turns out that cod liver oil is actually good for human beings,  Rich in vitamins A and D, it  may also help with inflammation and other health issues, and back in the day it was given all over the country to help prevent rickets, a softening and weakening of children’s bones that often led to deformity and ongoing issues.  So, even though it was a challenge in the short run, my brother and I did reap benefits from our Spring tonic.  And, I and my brother still did not give cod liver oil to our children.

The word that informs our preaching here at Marsh Chapel this semester is “health”.  Perhaps not coincidentally, our own Dr. Sandro Galea, Dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, has recently published a book, entitled Well:  What We Need To Talk About When We Talk About Health.  His own experience as a physician is as one who has practiced medicine internationally and with various populations.  As an epidemiologist – one who studies how diseases spread – he has researched and taught at the University of Michigan and Columbia University, before he came here to Boston University as the youngest dean of a school of public health in the country at the time of his appointment.  In addition to this experience, his book is also informed by two facts.  One is that the biggest concern of the American electorate in the 2020 presidential election is access to healthcare:  insurance, doctors, medicine, and surgery.  The other fact is that Americans spend more on healthcare than any other nation, and we experience increasingly lower outcomes in relation to costs than any other peer nation, and in some areas, than many other nations period.  Galea’s book Well is a foundational text, full of interesting stories, great quotes, fascinating history, and thought-provoking science presented in layperson’s terms.  In it he writes about health from a public perspective, a consideration of health as a public good in which the health of the individual is recognized as dependent on the health of the whole.  Galea argues that our current cultural focus is on individual decision-making and healthcare – the doctors, medicine, and surgery that come into play when a person is already sick and that is overwhelmingly concentrated toward the end of a person’s life.  He posits that we have neglected or ignored the public, community infrastructure that promotes health itself throughout human life.   So we deprive ourselves and others of the increased opportunities and possibilities for a richer life for everybody that come with public health goods,

            The titles of the chapters in Well provide a broad outline for the components of the infrastructure that Galea promotes for our consideration of health as a public good.  I am going to read them now, all twenty of them, and invite you to note any of them for your later consideration that surprise you as being part of health, for either its support or its detriment, for both personal and communal health.  The Past.  Money.  Power.  Politics.  Place.  People.  Love and Hate.  Compassion.  Knowledge.  Humility.  Freedom.  Choice.  Luck.  The Many.  The Few.  The Public Good.  Fairness and Justice.  Pain and Pleasure.  Death.  Values.

            Interestingly enough, with some allowance for differences in context, our Hebrew Bible lesson this morning illustrates some of the complexities involved when we consider some of these chapter titles as naming the elements of an infrastructure that shapes health.

            Naaman is a great man, commander of the king of Aram’s army in what is present-day Syria.  The king of Aram holds Naaman in high favor for his successful military victories, given to Aram over Israel by, oddly enough, the God of Israel.  But in spite of his military might, Naaman suffers from leprosy.  This may or may not have been Hansen’s disease, what we think of as leprosy, but could have been one of the other noxious skin conditions of the time.  These may not have caused Naaman to be shunned, but they were almost certainly disfiguring and inconvenient if not painful.  A young Israelite girl, taken prisoner in a raid by Aram against Israel, was made to serve Naaman’s wife.  She tells her mistress about the Israelite prophet residing in Samaria, which was a region in central Israel now part of the West Bank. This prophet, she says, can cure Naaman’s leprosy.  His wife tells Naaman.  Naaman tells his king, and his king sends a letter to his vassal, the king of Israel, to smooth Naaman’s journey.  Naaman is a very wealthy man, and expects his wealth to smooth his way and pay for his cure, and he packs accordingly.  At the time, one silver talent weighed seventy-five pounds and was worth $6,000 in today’s money.  Naaman takes ten of them, six thousand shekels of gold that were worth even more, and ten sets of garments worth a significant amount on their own.  His entourage consists of servants, horses, and chariots, consistent with his high status.  He sets out for the king of Israel.  Meanwhile, as if he does not have enough trouble being a vassal to an overlord, the king of Israel takes the letter from the king of Aram as a demand for an  impossibility and as a thinly-veiled attempt to renew the conflict between Aram and Israel.  Elisha, the man of God, the successor to the great prophet Elijah, the prophet with the cure for leprosy, steps in.  He calms the king of Israel and tells him to send Naaman to him, Elisha, not with Naaman’s cure as the first priority, but so that he, Naaman, will know that there is a prophet, Elisha, in Israel.

            When Naaman finally reaches Elisha, he feels insulted, becomes enraged, and leaves.  He is going back to Aram!  Then his servants step in.  They calm him down, and persuade him to wash in the Jordan.  Naaman washes seven times in the Jordan, and is cured of his leprosy.  He returns to Elisha, and in front of all his company, acknowledges the God of the prophet, the God of Israel, as the only God in all the earth.

            A number of the pieces of Galea’s infrastructure are at play in this story.  The past has set the stage:  Naaman’s high status and wealth, his marriage and servants have already been achieved, and he has developed leprosy.  The conflict between Aram and Israel has brought him the young Israelite girl as a servant.  Politics certainly plays a part, in the interwoven relationships that involve and surround Naaman.  Power and money are there, in Naaman’s sense of entitlement to certain treatment and in his assumption that money will secure his cure.  Without the knowledge of the prophet given to Naaman by his wife’s servant girl and his wife, Naaman would have had no idea that a cure might be possible.  Naaman has the freedom to make two important choices:  he goes to Elisha, and he allows himself to be persuaded to wash in the Jordan.  But he did not choose to have leprosy, and his cure is brought into possibility mostly by the choices of other people.  Naaman does not come to his health alone.  And if any of the pieces of this infrastructure had been different – if Naaman had had no knowledge, no support, no choice because of no power or wealth or freedom or the support of those around him for whatever reason – Naaman’s health would be compromised to the extent that he would still have leprosy, and his life would as well have less opportunity and possibility to that extent.

            A number of the pieces of Galea’s infrastructure are at play in our Gospel account as well.  By this time in history, the leprosy in this story is likely enough to be Hansen’s disease, as lepers in Jesus’ time were shunned by all, including their families, friends, and the religious community.  They suffered a living social and cultural death-in-life as well as the looming death from the disease.  There was also in that time a general public consensus that if one suffered the misfortune of illness or disability one must have done something wrong, and probably something sinful.

In this context, ten lepers come to Jesus and beg for his help.  He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, who are the arbiters of social and ritual cleanliness in their power.  As they go, they are healed of their leprosy.  And, as Jesus points out to his disciples, only one of them comes back to praise God, and that one was not just a foreigner but a Samaritan.

The past is at play in this story:  the lepers are already sick, the prejudice against persons who are ill and Samaritans is well-established.  Compassion also enters the picture:  in Luke Jesus has already extended his healing beyond Israelites to heal the servant of a Roman centurion and a man from the country of the Gerasenes, and he extends healing to the Samaritan leper as well.  While the lepers did not have the choice to become sick, had limited freedom and probably had little money or power, they choose to follow Jesus’ direction.  People also are a consideration:  while shunned by the rest of society, the lepers had created their own sort of community, even including a Samaritan.  Knowledge plays a part as well:  the lepers recognize Jesus, and know him as a person who can help them, even heal them.  And again, if any of these pieces of health infrastructure had been missing – no knowledge, no support to bring the lepers to this point, no compassion from Jesus but blame for the lepers’ poor choices or morality, the lepers’ health would be compromised to the extent that they would still have leprosy, and their life would as well have less opportunity and possibility to that extent.

            Fast forward to our own time and place.  The elements of Galea’s health infrastructure that are present in our morning’s biblical texts are still with us.  And, the knowledge we have gained about the causes of and challenges to health has exponentially increased.  And now the realities and complexities of a globalized world have expanded the infrastructure elements present in the biblical stories and have brought in all the others elements as well – all twenty of them..  So now all these health infrastructure elements are at play, and their import for health for good or ill have increased the challenges to a staggering degree, not just for individuals but for the collective human race, and for the whole of the planet as well.  In particular, while people in biblical times may be excused for blaming people with health issues for poor choices or moral laxity, our knowledge no longer allows us to blame or admire individuals or groups for individual poor or good health. Too many choices were already made for them in the past or in the present, sometimes without their knowledge or consent – just ask the people of Flint, Michigan.  These choices include:  to whom they were born, where they lived as children, the wealth or poverty of their families, the kinds and quality of foods that were available to them growing up, the level of pollution in their homes/communities/environment, the political decisions made on their behalf whether these decisions were in their best interests or not, with all of these elements of health infrastructure having irreversible effects for good or ill on their health.  Likewise, in a globalized world, the health of the individual is dependent on the health of all other people and the health of the planet.  Germs, viruses, plagues, and epidemics know no boundaries and are no respecter of persons.  The global climate change that threatens the health of everyone’s earth, air, and water, if left unchecked, threaten public ill health, and thus individual ill health, on a scale previously unimaginable.  There is still room for individual choice when it comes to personal health.  And, in the present day, this is increasingly limited by the choices of others and by the collective choices we make as communities, nations, and the human race.

            Here I would like to lift up in particular two of Galea’s elements of public health for further consideration.  One is compassion, which Galea defines as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it … something that links our engagement with the infrastructure that shapes our health to the values that shape our conscience.”  He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”  It is this kind of compassion to which Jesus inspires us:  in his call for non-judgment, in his call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, in his call to resist injustice and evil.

The second element for consideration is values.  Galea notes that we invest our energies and resources in healthcare, and ignore improvements to the infrastructure that will promote our health throughout our lives.  This means that we have not embraced health as a value worth pursuit and protection, nor do we address the forces that actually produce health.  He raises the question, what does it mean to value health, not just as an individual issue, but as a collective, public value.  Because if the public debate continues to focus solely on healthcare, on individual choice, doctors, medicine, and surgery, our health as a public and as individuals will continue to worsen, and we will continue the pattern that has made our health worse than that of all our peer countries.  To embrace health as a collective value in fact means that we embrace compassion, compassion that reveals how the suffering of individuals connects with the infrastructure that produces or denies health.

            I would like also to include an infrastructure element that Galea does not include, because he was not writing this sermon.  That element is faith – faith in opportunity, faith in possibility, faith in human courage and compassion, faith in God.  The challenges to our personal and collective health can seem daunting, not least because in this our time and place our responses to meet these challenges, especially as Christians, look to be counter-cultural and against great odds.  But, we do not respond alone.  In the Lowell Lecture given by Gary Dorrien that Dr. Jessica Chicka mentioned last week, he also said that he was glad to be living in a time of mass movements and demonstrations once again, where hundreds of thousands of people are beginning to organize, plan, protest, and advocate once again, not just for themselves as individuals, but for the public good, even to a global scale.  So we will have plenty of company against the odds.  We may even create a new culture of health for all people and for the planet..

To do this, as our biblical stories this morning remind us, we can consult with the prophet and be told what to do.  We can ask Jesus for mercy, and he will tell us what to do.  And, both of them will tell us the same thing as to what to do first.  They will tell us, “Go”.  And we will find, as did Naaman and the Samaritan leper, that our faith is in our going, and, it is when we go that we are healed.  AMEN.

October 6

Living Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

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Faith and Fear

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” They do so emphatically. Enthusiastically. Or perhaps fearfully. At the very least, we know the translators ended this statement with an exclamation point: “Increase our faith!”

In order to understand why the apostles would make such a demand, it’s important to understand the context of this scripture passage. The lectionary lets us down a bit because it starts this scene in media res, in the middle of the action. Jesus has already begun addressing the apostles when this week’s reading from Luke starts. Immediately before their request for more faith, Jesus tells the disciples that they must not become stumbling blocks for others and forgive those who sin against them if they are repentant, even if those people repeatedly sin against them. The disciples draw a logical conclusion: if they are to be so forgiving, so full of love, then they must also have more faith. They turn to Jesus and say, “Increase our faith!”

The disciples want to do better. They want to be Jesus’ followers in the best way possible. To them, if only they could increase their faith, they would be able to follow Jesus’ commands. They could heal more people. They could evangelize more effectively. They could care more, love more, and forgive more. They don’t think that their faith is adequate to meet such demands. Whomever can forgive and forgive and forgive again must be someone who is brimming with faith.

But Jesus points out to the apostles that it isn’t a specific amount of faith that makes faithful actions possible. Faith the size of a mustard seed – a very tiny amount of faith – has the ability to do miraculous things. It can uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean. Mulberry trees infamously have very intricate and complex root systems, making them difficult to move. Also Jesus says that the bush will be planted in the sea. Not thrown into the sea, but planted, where one would assume, it would continue to grow. So, not only would a mustard-seed sized faith allow for the movement of something that seems immoveable, but also its flourishing in a new place. This mustard seed-sized faith is very powerful.

We all have moments when we think our faith can’t be enough. Moments when we are faced with a task, an interaction, some “thing” that we don’t think we can do. Trust me, after years of slogging through academic work for a PhD, there were plenty of moments when I threw up my hands and said “I can’t do it!” We tell ourselves and others that if only we had more time, more experience, more confidence, we could do what is asked of us. Maybe we find ourselves in a place of fear about what is to come or what we don’t know. We think ourselves incapable of finding the wherewithal to face an uncertain future or outcome.  Doubt and fear are the opposite of faith. Fear prevents us from moving forward. Fear tells us that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re incapable.

The point that Jesus makes is that it is not the size of one’s faith that matters but how and whether it is used properly. One’s faith is not a private matter. Faith in God is the foundation for all of our interactions in the world. Faith is relational. Faith is a commitment. Faith requires trust and love. Faith that only resides within a person as a private means of belief in God, but that does not spur them to action, is like having no faith at all. Martin Luther reminds us that while we are justified by faith alone, sola fide, faith is never alone in practice. It must be accompanied by works of love. We must have an active, living faith if we are to follow Jesus. The task of the disciples and for all of us is to allow our faith to overcome our fears in doing what we need to do in the world.
Sometimes, also, it’s that our faith requires us to do things that we don’t want to do. We resist those things that feel too difficult. We fail to speak up in unjust situations. We avoid interaction with those with whom we disagree. We refuse to forgive because we don’t think the other party is worthy of forgiveness. We live in a time when divisions run deep and instead of listening and trying to understand one another, we rush to judge or dismiss on the basis of who we perceive people to be. Our tendencies toward self-preservation and egoism prevent us from experiencing the empathy needed to genuinely share our faith with others.

Jesus cautions against doing works in anticipation of reward with his set of sentences in this reading, however. The actions we do through faith are what is expected of us. We should not anticipate special rewards for doing what we are called to be and do in the world. Jesus’ imagery is jolting for us who live in a context which still suffers the consequences of a history of slavery. To us, one person being enslaved to another is abhorrent. In Jesus’ context, this was not the case. The point that Jesus makes in this description of the slave and master relationship is that we should not expect special rewards or treatments for the things that we are expected to do. The language may be difficult for us to hear, especially depicted in the slave/master relationship, but it is important to recognize that the things we do in faith are things that we ought to do. We may not be uprooting mulberry trees with our commands, but our faith guides every interaction we have on a daily basis.

World Communion Sunday and Our Faith

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. In this yearly liturgical tradition we recall how we are all joined together in the Body of Christ no matter our denominations, our backgrounds and cultures, our places of origin. We join together in sharing Holy communion. The act of communion, of eating and drinking, reminds us of our relationships with the Holy Trinity and the world around us.

This week, preeminent Christian Social Ethicist, theologian, and church historian, Dr. Gary Dorrien gave the Lowell lecture at BU’s school of theology. Dorrien described how the field of Social Ethics within the Christian tradition did not exist prior to the late 19th, early 20th century. Social ethicists asserted that Christians must consider the social structures that create sin in the world and look for communal solutions to such problems. The Industrial Revolution created new challenges including addressing factory workers’ wellbeing and safety, child labor, and urban poverty. The realities of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and forced migration to reservations created an unjust society in which those who were perceived as an “other” conflicted with the Christian vision of a world filled with justice and righteousness.

Focusing on the Black and White Social Gospel movements of the early 20th century, Dorrien also made mention of the growth of the ecumenical movement during this time period. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches, which would later become the National Council of Churches, formed to provide unified statements aimed at shifting corrupt practices by corporations and building social welfare for all people. One thing that Dorrien pointed out in his presentation is that instead of representatives from different denominations coming together to discuss theological ideas, such as the nature of God or the meaning behind the sacraments, they instead focused on how the Christian faith could actively address problems within societies. The living faith of Christians brought them together to see past theological differences in the interest of assisting those in need. Joining together to create statements and movements for better pay, better working conditions, immigration reform, and racial justice was a unifying force that then lead to deeper understanding between denominations. The result is that many of our Mainline Protestant Denominations in the US now share full communion with one another, allowing for leadership, worship, and cooperation across theological differences.

World Communion Sunday also developed out of the burgeoning ecumenical movements of the 20th century. Today, our relationships with the global community take a much different form than they did in 1933 when the first World Communion Sunday was held. We are more connected to our global neighbors. It is easier now to learn about and observe how people around the world live, work, and experience the world. And yet, we still encounter some of the same challenges that the world experienced in 1933. Political rhetoric that alienates us from one another, the rise of nationalism throughout the world, and corruption and monopolization within corporations seem all too familiar for those of us familiar with world history. Add on to those issues deteriorating ecosystems, massive global economic inequality, and increasing tensions between nations and it might feel like our faith can do very little to address all of the challenges of the present moment.

On a day like today, however, it is important for us to take a moment to reflect on what our faith requires of us. In the reading from Second Timothy, we hear the letter writer, identified as Paul, encouraging Timothy to stay committed to his faith despite the challenges he might face. The faith Timothy shares with his mother and grandmother is “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We must also heed these words. While the global challenges we face today may seem insurmountable, our faith lived out through our actions of love grounded in Christ can lead us to create change and understanding in our world.

I have hope despite the fact that there are so many challenges facing us today. Maybe it’s because I get to encounter future leaders from all over the world on a regular basis. The next generation who is entering into their young adulthood now see the mistakes of the past and feel energized to address those problems. If you need proof of this, look no further than Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala, who fights for equal access to education regardless of gender,  or climate activist Greta Thunberg, who addressed the United Nations in an impassioned speech two weeks ago; Dreamer activists who continue to fight for immigration reform; or the students of Parkland, FL who organized the March for our Lives gun reform activism that increased voter registration and turnout for the last election. It’s important that many of these voices are from people under the age of 25. Their voices carry hopes for the future of our country and the world in which there is more justice and less violence, more care and less destruction, more acceptance and less ignorance. This week, Marsh Chapel will host a conversation regarding LGBTQ affirmation in the Korean church entitled “God Loves Me. Period. A talk on Queerness, Koreaness, and Church.” This is just one example in our midst of the next generation of the church seeking to affirm the dignity and wellbeing of all people. Moving forward, the church must also become more receptive to differences, finding opportunities to engage people of different faiths to create a just and sustainable world.

United Methodist Elder, artist, and author Jan Richardson offers a reflection for World Communion Sunday that reminds us of the gifts of coming together in community. On her website, The Painted Prayerbook, her poem “And the Table Will Be Wide” accompanies her artwork entitled “The Best Supper.” A play on words of the Last Supper, the image is of a circular table from above with people from all nationalities (and one cat!) sharing a meal together. In the center of the table are loaves of bread, representing different types found around the world. Some of the people depicted hold glasses of wine high, others embrace their neighbors. Listen now to Richardson’s words in “And the Table Will be Wide”:

And the table

will be wide.

And the welcome

will be wide.

And the arms

will open wide

to gather us in.

And our hearts

will open wide

to receive.

And we will come

as children who trust

there is enough.

And we will come

unhindered and free.

And our aching

will be met

with bread.

And our sorrow

will be met

with wine.

And we will open our hands

to the feast

without shame.

And we will turn

toward each other

without fear.

And we will give up

our appetite

for despair.

And we will taste

and know

of delight.

And we will become bread

for a hungering world.

And we will become drink

for those who thirst.

And the blessed

will become the blessing.

And everywhere

will be the feast.[1]

At God’s Holy table we all are welcome, no matter where we come from. At God’s Holy table, there is enough to feed our spiritual needs. At God’s Holy table, we are able to free ourselves from those things that cause fear and trust in the power of the Divine that permeates all. At God’s Holy table we are reminded of the promises of Jesus and our commitments to enact our faith in the world. At God’s Holy table our mustard seed faith germinates. Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students


[1] AND THE TABLE WILL BE WIDE, Jan Richardson,


September 29

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

Luke 16:19-31

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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, on any college campus today, 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.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.  Or was.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness. Sin is the not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.   Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.  I doubt it.  Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this year.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls. Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.


For more than a decade, Music at Marsh Chapel has cultivated our own little plot of land – the rich and fertile soil of the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The endeavor around the recreation of this extraordinary repertoire by our players and singers is its own form activism, faith, tithe, and over time and shared commitment, Jeremiah might even behold restoration.

This year’s cantata series explores four works Bach composed for New Year’s Day. At the highest altitude, these are joyful and celebratory cantatas — at least in the outer movements. To be sure, the inner movements can be counted on to remind us of our sin at some point. Today’s cantata – No. 41 ‘Jesu, nun sei gepreiset’ or Jesus, now be praised, numbers among the great Chorale Cantatas from Bach’s second annual cycle of cantatas in Leipzig. In these remarkable works, the great hymns of the faith – Chorales – are the Alpha and Omega. Today’s cantata sets the outer verses of Johann Herman’s 1593 text exactly in the opening and closing movements, while paraphrasing the inner verse of the chorale in the arias and recitatives within the cantata.

The passing of the old year and the welcoming of the New Year takes on various dimensions for each of us, and for Bach and his congregation, they were reminded that as the Old Year is analogous to the Old Testament, the New Year reveals the hope of resurrection from the New Testament — Law and Grace. And perhaps a more obvious temporal analogy, our mortal life on earth is the old year that passes, and the New Year represents our hopes for the life eternal. For this reason, the central text offers a prayer for mercy and salvation upon the believer’s death. Finally, the bass soloist reminds us that this mortal life is constantly thwarted and threatened by Satan’s works, potentially jeopardizing our hope for life in eternity, the New Year of our soul.

Musically, this cantata is extraordinarily rich in invention and detail from the first measure to the last. For the central aria, our principal cellist Guy Fishman plays a five-stringed cello called a Cello Piccolo with music that seems to depict our earthly toil in sincere and honest strains of remarkable difficulty. And the joyful soprano aria heard immediately following the opening choral movement features dance rhythms and a choir of merry oboes.

However, nothing can sufficiently prepare the listener for the glorious opening movement. The chorale is faithfully rendered in long tones in the soprano part with truly astonishing invention all around. Here Bach gives us bold concertante writing in the latest style (think New Year) with the final two lines set in the old contrapuntal or fugal style, before recasting those lines to the new music. Truly a dialectic of old and new styles transformed by their relation to one another.

As academic communities at schools and colleges throughout the country commence a new year this month, they too engage in this dialectic of the hope of new beginnings forged in the knowledge and wisdom of those who have gone before. And of those who have gone before, few surpass Bach’s capacity to reveal new heights and hopes for our daily strivings and our future together.


You may want and need to shift your perspective, to alter your angle of vision, to see things from even higher ground.  Some measure of health or salvation, or mental sanitation may require it.

The Matterhorn is the most beautiful mountain on our planet.  Today, the beautiful, tomorrow, the true, the next day, the good.  An excellent view of the majestic Alpine peak may be found in Zermatt.  If and as memory serves, you can drive to Zermatt—rent an old deux chaveaux—a pristine Alpine village, snow laden in the summer, its shops and hostels wind swept and well kept.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship. The Matterhorn!  Just before you.

There is, though, a better view, for which though you will need to shift your perspective, to alter your angel of vision, to change your location, in order to see things from even higher ground.  High up to the southeast, in the craggy mountain cliffs, there is, farther up, the small hamlet of Gornergrat.  To get up there, if memory serves, you must take an open air, chair by chair, chain rail car, ascending at 45 degrees, up and up, and on up, nearer to the summit, and far closer to your ideal, aspirational vies of beauty.  Or truth.  Or goodness.  Acrophobics need not apply.

The ride is short but terrifying.  At the top, mid-July, thick snow, hard ice, brisk wind and a coldness of cold await you.  As does the mesmerizing thrall of the mountain.  The Matterhorn.  Step gingerly out of the old open rail car.  Get your footing, your mountain sea legs.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  There.  A new way of seeing, and so of thinking, and so, then of being.  Health and sanity may impel or compel you to higher ground.

My sixteenth book will be published this fall, a collection devoted in part to the New Testament, in part to preaching, and in part to ministry—Bible, Church, World as we in the halcyon younger days of the World Council of Churches intoned.  None of the sixteen is a best seller, none a game changer, none found in every home.  All but two are still in print, and several in both print and cyber forms.  They are the work of Zermatt.  Fine.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship.  The Matterhorn!  Just before you.  But.  But.  But.

As an acrophobe the rail car ride up is not appealing.  But it is time for me to move on up, to take higher ground, to climb on to Gornergrat.  Ice.  Snow. Cold. Wind.  That means the prospect of one more, a very different book, for a very different look.  A different look takes a different book.  It will be, here, for me, the work of the next decade, in pulpit and study.  As you cannot get to Gornergrat but through Zermatt, this project depends in full on all that came before:  books on the New Testament (John), on preaching (Interpretation), and on ministry (prayer and practice).  The next climb is up on to craggy cliff village—ice, snow, cold, wind—of an overture to A Liberal Biblical Theology.   Here is a marriage of Rudolph Bultmann and N.T. Wright., a partnership of Paul Tillich and (the early) Karl Barth, an aspirational possibilist (that is Methodist) correlation of history and theology, Bible and Church, accessible to the average reader.  Our climate, nation, and denomination, all in peril, hang in the balance.

September 22

Remembering Howard Thurman

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:1-13

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Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable.  There is no easy interpretation for this parable.  Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know.  Why is his master happy to be cheated?  We cannot say.  Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell.  What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend (“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations”? ) We do not see.  What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs?  Little at all, except that they all deal with money.  How did this story make it into Luke’s travel narrative?  It is not clear.  Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)  Perhaps!  And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate (Spirit and Presence Both) to be found in our reading today? The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news:  Faith gives spiritual health in the midst of change, including the transition into college life, in the voice of Presence Spirit, Spirit Presence.

Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst.  Spirit.  Presence. We can announce his spirited presence today, again today.  He is among us:  dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust.  So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him.  In the strange world of the Bible.  In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church.  Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life.  Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, “L’Etranger”, “The Stranger”.

His spirited presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political.  He draws us, lures us, and enchants us.  So he sets us free.

For St. Luke in chapters 9 to 19 has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”.  We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church.  We are making a trip to the promised land.  We are headed in a certain direction.  With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey.  Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread.  There they became the slaves of Pharaoh.  But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness.  He brought them the ten commandments.  At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey.  In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed.  They even built a temple, and chose a King.  Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong.  Although the prophets did warn them, listen to Jeremiah today, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc.  On these hundreds of years of history depends the cry of Jeremiah, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people.” (9:1). Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.  Faith heals, manages, handles the hardest of change.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the maelstrom of wild, unexpected change and economic crisis.  On the road, the journey of faith, the Gospel of Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses, the issue of money.  Remember how Luke traces the Gospel.  Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor.  John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward.  Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed.  Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’.  Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?”  Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions.  And, by the way, get ready in conclusion, to meet Lazarus and Dives.  Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a community and as a community of faith and as individuals.

Two Christological Perils


            Our son Ben said once of his grandfather, ‘I love to hear his voice’.   One year, his grandfather survived a nearly mortal illness.  There are not words to convey the joy, the gratitude, that we his family experienced in his escape.  Those who have been on the brink of death can appreciate the gospel promise, ‘I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’(John 10:28).  Not all such deliverance has an earthly horizon.  Some freedom and some grace must await us across the river.  And I don’t mean Harvard.  But some comes to us here.   He and my mother lived here in Boston 1950-1953.  In 1975, he wrote the following sentences in the back of a book.

            The temptation for the people of the church in every age is to believe: a) Jesus is only human; b) Jesus only appeared to be human.  For those who settle on ‘a’ there is no power, no mystery, no pull to pry them out of much of life.  For those who choose ‘b’ there is no hope because mankind cannot ascend the heights of divinity.  Both are heresies.  The pious wise men of 325ad  saw, though they could not explain it, that he was fully human and fully divine.


            My parents departed from Boston in 1953 just as Howard Thurman came to town.  Rev. Peter Gomes recalled, one year, as he and I exchanged pulpits, that George Buttrick and Howard Thurman used to do the same.  Thurman’s voice carries us into two dimensions, two realms of reality.  He was 100 years ahead of his time, 50 years ago, so he is still 50 years ahead of you (and me).  He evoked the Christ of Common Ground, transcendent, universal, shared, unconfined, free.  He evoked the Christ of the Disinherited, immanent, particular, grasped, embodied, back against the wall.  Two Christs.  Spirit and Presence.  Calling out to you to know the grain of your own wood, not to cut against the grain of your own wood…

                        We turn for support to Howard Thurman.  To his book, THE SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND.  To his book, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED.


  1. Thurman and Transcendence:  The Search for Common Ground (Hillary)


Spirit.  Hillary, what does Howard Thurman say about Spirit?

As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53)


In the voice of Howard Thurman, 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, there is a regard for mystery, silence, presence, the transcendent.  One in kinship with all of creation. One in kinship with every human being, so that nothing human is foreign to us.  One in transformative engagement with our natural world, our home, our condition, our circumstance.  One in openness to the great differences and diversities of personal, that is to say religious, expression, including myth from long ago and far away.

The Spirit.

  1. Thurman and Immanence:  Jesus and the Disinherited (Mahalia)


Mahalia, what did Howard Thurman say about Presence?


‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities.  He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.


The Presence, as well.


An Invitation


How will you live out the deep river truths, spirit and presence?  How will you live down its opposition, however you understand it?  Have you truly intuited the brevity of life?  Have you really absorbed the capacity we have as humans to harm others?  Have you faced the dualism of decision that is the marrow of every Sunday, every prayer, every sermon, every service?  Are you ready to make a break for it?  Are you ready to discover freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation?  Are you set to place one hand in that of The Spirit and the other in that of the Presence?

As Director Katherine Kennedy once said, “The beauty of Thurman is that he wasn’t trying to convert people to Christianity. Rather, he wanted people to see that there is a common ground we can reach by respecting one another’s differences, while still holding onto those beliefs that are uniquely ours.”


Jan and I came over here to Boston fourteen years ago, in order to invest the last quarter of our ministry in the next generation of preachers, teachers, ministers of the gospel.  You hear today voices that will change the world for the better.  A few years ago, I asked in Thurman fashion a half dozen undergraduates to say something about Jesus.

Tom, what did they say?



is all the world to me…

loves me…

is perpetually ripe….

means freedom…

shows us that self giving love is the way to life…is my transforming friend…

has got my back…

is the consoler of the poor…the lamp of the poor …

is unconditional love…

is the constant companion on life’s journey…

My greatest gift…

Patient pursuer….

In love with us….

the Hound of Heaven…

Friend on the Journey….

challenges us because he loves us…

brings out our best self…


He is…

Known in the promise of this season


Reflected in the joys of autumn


Overheard in the words and vows of commitment


Expanded into the lengthening evening daylight


Enjoyed in the gatherings of families and friends


Celebrated in the ceremonies of completion


And carried forward from this hour of worship and day of remembrance 


In the words of Emily Dickinson:

I stepped from plank to plank
A slow and cautious way;
the stars above my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
would be my final inch.
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call experience.

September 15

All Count

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Luke 15:1-10

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        A long time ago JB Phillips wrote a good book titled ‘Your God Is Too Small’. On another day, a sermon from St. Luke might pursue that theme. But the parables of sheep, coin and prodigal, Luke 15, take us in the opposite direction. Sometimes, ‘Our God Is Too Large’. All count, all sheep, all coins, all prodigals, all however small, all count.


        All listeners count. They say on the radio you should think of speaking just to one person. Have one person in mind, not a blurry assembly of many. So, Krista Tippet has one person in mind, say, when she interviews Imani Perry over the radio waves from Chautauqua Institution. Or the Red Sox play by play announcer has one fan in mind, not a township, say. Perhaps we should sometimes do the same here. (After all, if we have 200 in the sanctuary, and 20,000 listening from afar, that is a factor difference of 100.) So…

        In southern New Hampshire, it may be, then, a woman is listening this morning. The house is quiet. Her teenage children, one back from college, are still asleep. Her husband is golfing, probably stopping right now after the ninth hole for any early beer and hot dog, before the back nine. She is alone though not lonely. She plunks a bagel in the toaster, and sips coffee. She loves WBUR, and tolerates the Sunday morning worship service. That said, she loves the music and tolerates the sermon. She loves the familiar pieces, ‘Lead me Lord’ and the sung benediction (I wish he would talk less so that I could hear that more often.), and tolerates the new sounds. She loves the old hymns, but sometimes a new one will spark something in her too.

        The house is solid, the roof is new last summer. The lawn is mowed. Her kids are grown and growing. They will take you for a ride, she thinks. She does not love her job, but who does? Her husband seems happy enough, and they too together. Men. She heard William Sloane Coffin say once that ‘Preachers are egotists with a theological alibi’. She smiles and thinks ‘Men are egotists with a cultural alibi’. Men. She chuckles.

        The Gospel, she realizes, is about a woman cleaning a house. That sounds way too familiar. But it is good that the woman is the star. Actually, she now remembers, in this Gospel of Luke woman are often set so. She mulls that for a while. In the story, the woman is hunting for a coin. She thinks about last Christmas when for love nor money could not find the bracelet that she wanted to wear for the company party. Then she found it on a snow day in February. The sermon is about finding the lost, including the outcast, hunting for the one in a hundred in real need, and how God’s grace finds the lost, includes the outcast and hunts for those in need.

        At book club last Tuesday, they talked about politics, she remembers, as the sermon drones on. She vaguely hopes the choir will sing that ‘walk through the valley in peace’ afterward. At book club she thought about the last national election and how she voted. She is middle of road, middle aged, middle class. She had an idea about why she voted as she did, but she now has a funny feeling about that. Somebody at book club had said, ‘I realize about that now what I meant is not what it means. I meant one thing but it turned out to mean something else.’ She enjoys the bagel. The sermon meanders on. Where does he get this stuff?, she wonders.

        Then for some reason she thinks about last February when they went to San Diego. They decided to go down past Chula Vista and into Tijuana. There is a piercing, sharp memory of those poor children, looking into the train window, some with shoes and teeth and some not. She thinks about her two teenagers. Then her mind wanders back to her grandmother who came over from Scotland, and held every penny tight as if it were a hundred dollars, and counted every coin in her purse twice, and waited for the sales to buy anything, not that she ever bought anything. Then she thinks of those families in the Bahamas, one blind man who had to walk out of his blown down house carrying his disabled teenaged son, right in the middle of the storm. She thinks about her two sleeping teenagers. She remembers reading in college a book by Howard Thurman, The Disinherited. She thinks about her two teenagers, and wonders what they are reading…or are they reading at all? The sermon ends.

        And the choir sings. Come noon she walks out onto the patio, thinking about the week ahead. All count. All listeners count.


        All words count. Last year this week we went to celebrate a wedding bear New York City. Driving home, past the Long Island Sound, my wife asked, ‘What do they call it that?’ Sound? A dexterous monosyllable.

        Is your faith sound?

        Does it have breadth, like a body of water?

        Is it reliable, durable, sound rather than unsound?

        Does it sound right, does it sound of off, does it make a sound, as the trumpet shall sound?

        Is your faith broad, durable and audible?

        Is your life? Broad, durable, audible? Here is a question: do you use email or voice mail, sight or sound?

        What is sound? What sound do you make and hear and revere?

        A long time ago, my dad gave me, with intent and portent, a book I believe titled, THE MAYO BROTHERS. He had read it and loved it. I set it aside for future reading. Fortunately, 50 years later, Ken Burns has saved me.

        One of the SOUND features, the saving features, of our shared, patriotic, national, purple common hope is, simply, health. Health, salvus, is a mode of salvation. If Gandhi rightly could teach that for the hungry God must come, and only, as bread, then we could add, with the Brothers Mayo, that for the sick, God must come, and only, as health, as medicine, as doctoral care, as nursing love, as healing. We might differ, a bit, about delivery and cost and structure. But when you have appendicitis, you want a good surgeon. When you break your arm in a boating accident, you want a skilled orthopedic clinic, nearby. When your hip is worn out and you need new one, you want somebody who knows what they are doing. We have an easier time cutting costs on other peoples’ medical care than we do cutting costs on our own. The place to begin thinking about medical frugalities is from your own hospital bed, when your own healing, that is life, is at stake, with your own family standing around in anxiety and tears. Most good thinking starts at the hospital bed side, in any case, as does much good praying. We say a direct personal word of blessing to those listening live right now in hospital, in nursing home, in rehabilitation, and right at home.

        But as Alf Landon said, ‘I am liberal, not a spend thrift’. Sound, that. So, we can still keep Ben Franklin close, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’. All count. All words, even those with single syllables, all count.


        All losses count. Today’s parable is about loss. Think for a moment about loss. About the loss of love, say, or about falling out of love.

        Sometimes we fall out of love. Love of a job, love of a house, love of a vocation or avocation, and, well, other loves too.

        More is written in all modes about falling in love, and so it should be. But sometimes the reverse occurs. What once drew now repels, what once beckons now repulses, what once enticed now sours.

        Our youngest, Christopher, is an athlete. People would come to watch him at age 5, in children’s soccer, to see how many goals he could score in 10 minutes. I saw him hit the only hole in one I have seen live. He played baseball, basketball, football, golf, and, especially soccer. He was team captain on a good team. Yet I saw something memorable in his senior year of high school. He fell out of love with soccer, his favorite sport. I watched him game after game becoming more and more listless, less and less engaged, no longer seeing the field, no longer leading the squad, content to play his position and finish the game. His talent was the same, his ability the same, his condition and capability the same. He just no

        longer loved the game after 12 years of loving it so. He really could give no explanation, though he did try, and I did pry. His heart just was no longer in it.

        Have you ever fallen out of love? Academics might pick up again Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man, which is largely about a man who falls out of love—with his work, with his employer, with his co-workers, with his vocation, with his parents, with his children, with his baseball team, with his friends, with his place in life. It is an uproariously funny novel. Yet, underneath, it is a meditation on what it means to fall out of love. Sometimes something happens to somebody that steals from them a way of loving something or someone, that breaks whatever energy current was running, or that somehow fractures an ability to love. You have seen it, in life, in pastoral care, in reading, and in reflection.

        Sometimes you just fall out of love. Better to admit it, whatever you end up doing about it. Sometimes the way out is the way through, through love lost to love found, found like a coin after cleaning and sweeping and hunting. All count. All loves count, both past and future.


        All souls count. The gospel comes in meager morsels. 3 years of preaching, teaching and healing: the ministry of Jesus. 27 short books: a New Testament. 12 original followers, fisherfolk and others: the disciples. An audacious claim, God-Love-Resurrection-Faith-Heaven, resting on a tiny patch of land, an outback area of history, a single individual, a scandalous, small, particularity. Jesus Christ and him crucified. Yet today you in love may of a sudden be ready, in the small, in the heart, for a new love, a divine love, a loving life of faith.

        Nancy Marsh Hartman, of blessed memory, lived faith as a singing Methodist all her life, right here, and said often, Life is how you take it.

        Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said: Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.

        Speaking of listeners, from New Haven our dear friend Dr. Kristopher Kahle sent a line from the Polanus, a reformed theologian: God is able to raise up for Godself children from stones—he can establish inanimate creatures as the heralds of divine glory. As with a coin lost.

        Lost, we. And then, of a sudden, by dint of a still small voice, found, in God, found, of God, found, by God. All count. All souls count, all. You count. You count. You count.


        8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

September 8

Counting the Cost

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Luke 14: 25-33

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‘One small step for (a)man, one giant leap for mankind.’

            Our steps fifty summers ago were up and down the red rock mountains of Cimarron NM, and Philmont Scout Ranch, including July 20, 1969.   We ascended that day the sheer rock cliff known as the ‘Tooth of Time’, fourteen fourteen year olds and a beleaguered kindly insurance man scoutmaster.  ‘They should be on the moon by now’, he said.   But the detail we would only learn coming out of the wilderness some days later.

 ‘We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’  Hard.

            That was said in a New England voice, with a New England accent, by a young, imperfect but brilliant New England President, who could celebrate Washington DC and its combination of northern charm and southern efficiency, and could compliment a room full of eminent dinner guests by saying they were the most intelligent dinner gathering ever convened in the White House, with the exception of those evenings when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.  He was a war hero, but an accidental one, as he said that he became such in a simple way: ‘they sank my boat’.    His wife could speak French, charm Royalty, set fashion directions, comment on musical selections, and light up a room, and the globe, with a smile.  He said, in introduction, ‘You will recognize me as the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris’.   Grace.  Charm.  Elegance.  A fit for the office and for the house and for the role.  Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

            Decision, self-sacrifice, service above self.  The greater good.

            And look at us now. Look at our national ethos, culture, rhetoric and leadership now.

            SMH.  ‘Shakin’ my head’.

            We know better.  Or at least you do, New England.   You know better.

            Out on the Tooth of Time we looked at the stars on that night, July 20, 1969.  The world of possibilities in the world around us flickered and sparkled and blazed.   It asked of us a certain height.

            The Gospel, Luke 14, interpreted here bears up under the weight of shame, of bitter conflict, of family feud.   The Gospel gives you the grace to endure, to withstand, to withstand when you cannot understand.  And its means to such a saving end?  Arithmetic.  Counting.  Counting the cost.  Hear the Gospel of Luke 14, the saving power of arithmetic.


            Count the cost.  Ahead of time, count the cost.  By way of illustration:  in business, and in war.  In war that is big business and in business that is warfare.  And in everything in between.  Count the cost.

            Do the arithmetic, study the detail, count.

            You, careful listener, you recognize that Luke 14: 25-33 is not Jesus talking, but Luke writing.  You realize that Jesus left no written record, like Socrates in that.  You recognize that he spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and whether or not he was literate.  You recall the arithmetic of his life, death and destiny, the years 4bce to 33ce, and the distance of those from our reading, Luke 14, in 85ce, to the earliest (some would date Luke much later).  What we hear this morning is, in the first instance, not the voice of Jesus but the composition of Luke.   Of course, and granted, there will be traces of Jesus’ voice, along the way, Luke 9-19, especially, and especially therein the parables, his own mode of teaching, without which nothing.  In all, though, and on the bigger whole, this is not Jesus’ voice but Luke’s writing.  This makes all the arithmetical difference in the world, these 50 years and 2 opposed forms of rhetoric.

            Now, it may be, gazing again at the bulletin, or ruminating on the remembered reading of the Gospel, the high-water mark of our worship each Sunday, you begin to wonder, to ponder, to question.   Here are your questions, or some of them.

            Why this discussion of hatred, when the Gospel in other clothing is about love?  Why this denigration of family, when the family is one of the protected entities in the Decalogue:  protection of truth, of communication, of speech, of worship, of family, of life, of property, of marriage, of law, and of commerce?  Therein, whence the rejection of life itself, when otherwise the Gospel acclaims life, having life, and having life in abundance?   There seems to be some counting and accounting needed.

            More so:  What is the mention here of the cross?  Jesus in this narrative is preaching, teaching, healing, going about in Galilee and Judea a free itinerant prophet.  All of a sudden, here comes a word from much later, ‘cross’.  Was Jesus making a prediction that only he could see and understand?  Or is this a clue to the fountain and origin of this passage?  Cross?  Cross?  I thought we were sharing parables and blessing children and rounding up disciples.  Moreso, the cross is ‘one’s own cross’.  The writer seems to assume that all will get the reference, including you, and me, to the cross.  How all this talk about the cross when Jesus just now in Luke is teaching in parables and healing the sick, a long way from Jerusalem and ‘the cross’?

            Even more so:  How is it that all of a sudden, everyone around Jesus is expected to be a monk?  Ridding oneself of all, all, not most, not much, but all possessions?  All.  That’s at a lot, even in an era of tunics, ephods, camels, donkeys, sandals, fishing, shepherding and travel by foot.  All?  What is transpiring here?

            Nor does this seem metaphorical, in a way that our current preaching would likely choose.   Hatred—well, you know, not exactly hatred but mature self-differentiation.  Life—well, you know, not exactly life in the sense of breath and nourishment, but in the sense of deep meaning.  Cross—well, you know, not exactly crucifixion in the bloody and excruciating physical sense, but self-discipline, more in the sense of yoga.  Possessions—well, you know, not in exactly the form of car, home, bank account and pension, but in the sense of a general materiality, of not letting your possessions possess you.  No, actually Luke 14 does not seem or sound metaphorical at all, regarding hatred, life, cross, or possessions.  It sounds literal enough.

            Forgive what is only an interpretative guess, even less than that, yet after many decades of hearing these harsh words, even in Luke–the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of love, the Gospel of church, the Gospel of freedom—these are phrases that sound like the esoteric, ascetic, anti-worldliness of the emerging gnostic movement.  It is as if here, in Luke and Matthew, by way of Q, some measure of the enthusiastic pessimism, the bodily asceticism, the turning away from the world which we know in full in full Gnosticism, has grown up alongside the gospel, wheat and tares together sown.    There are strong parallels, almost identical, in the Gospel of Thomas, a gnosticizing document of about the same time as Luke. And there are strong parallels in Poimandres, a fully gnostic document of about the same time as Luke (Fitzmeier, Anchor, 1064).

            Uncompromising demands regarding self, regarding family, and regarding possessions may well be part of the life of faith, warns Luke out of the gnostic shadows of his sources.  Like all serious engagements, this spiritual one is not be entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly and in the fear of God.  ‘Jesus counsels his followers not to decide on discipleship without advance, mature self-probing’.   It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘come along, I want to make this for you the hardest decision of your life’.

            So.  This may mean that the struggles under this passage of Holy Scripture, our sufficient rule of faith and practice, are from 85ad, not 30ad.  That there is in the emerging church a set of conflicts that require some arithmetic, some counting and accounting.  How much home, how much away?  How much kindness, how much honesty?  How much self-affirmation and how much self-abnegation?  How much materiality and how much spirituality?  Before you set out, to go to college or to take a job or to move in together or to get married or to sell the farm or to go to war or to build a tower, well, you might want to…do the math.


            A few years ago, both at Marsh Chapel and in other pulpits, and not to worry if you remember it not, we will not be offended (much), we offered a sermon on the theme ‘Exit or Voice?’.  The heart of that sermon engaged a dilemma familiar to many, perhaps to you:  do I stay and lift my voice in a situation I find intolerable, or do I leave an intolerable situation and lose my voice to effect its change?   An economic study from MIT in the 1970’s, on a similar though commercially related thesis had partly inspired the sermon.  The question in the Gospels generally, about freedom and determinism, human will and divine will, gave the theological background to the sermon.

            The difficulty—exit or voice?—is in some ways a daily one for people of faith, in matters tiny and gigantic.   It requires arithmetic, and a counting of cost, an accounting.  Do I leave my church because of its current discrimination against gays, or do I stay to lift my voice in opposition to that discrimination?  Do I leave my party, perhaps the party of my upbringing, now become party of ethnic hatred and rhetorical ugliness, or do I stay and live to fight another day?  Do I leave regular relationship with my extended family out of real painful hurt occasioned in conversation, or do I stay and take my lumps and hope for sunshine at the next holiday gathering?  The determining impact and influence of conditions and situations, well beyond my control, is undeniable.  But so is the freedom, or sense of freedom, I feel to make a choice, make a decision, and make some difference, one way or another.  You will not be surprised to know that the theme still enervates, reverberates, and agitates, near and far.  Call it a daily cruciform arithmetic.

            Here is an example and application of our gospel lesson. Three years ago, summer 2016, David Brooks took time to consider a meaningful, cultural and personal issue, perhaps a newly nuanced though unintended approach to ‘exit, voice’, ‘at the edge of inside’.   He starts, though with different language, at the juncture of exit and voice.  Then, adds:  there’s also a third position in any organization:  those who are at the edge of the inside.  These people are within the organization, but they’re not subsumed by group think.  They work at the boundaries, bridges, and entranceways…I borrow this concept from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who lives in Albuquerque.  His point is that people who live at the edge of the inside have crucial roles to play…You are free from (a group’s) central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways…A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.  A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer (think of Martin Luther King)…A person on the edge of the inside knows how to take advantage of the standards and practices of the organization but not be imprisoned by them…Now more than ever we need people who have the courage to live on the edge of inside, who love their parties and organizations so much that they can critique them as a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist that they live up to their truest selves.  (NYT, June 2016)

            One could hear, here, encouragement for University congregations and pulpits, at once on the edge of the academic inside, and on the edge of the ecclesiastical inside too.  One could hear, here, a question for you to take home, about your social location in gospel ministry.  Again, with Luke, a reminder of the need for some basic arithmetic.


            It is a matter of arithmetic, of counting and accounting.  Try to fit that for which you hope into the waist and shirt size of the clothing you have to put on.  Calculate.  (Such an interesting word, referring to counting pebbles!) Sometimes that counting and accounting is found inside and sometimes outside.  Sometimes this is about what you can hold in your hand.   We begin 21 minutes ago in New England, where also we shall conclude. Not all great poets and poems come from New England.  But…But you are now in New England.  So, to conclude, Robert Frost,  ‘And what I would not part with I have kept’.   Be able to count what you can count on your own experience.  And leave the rest.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean