Archive for September, 2007

September 30

Courage to Change

By Marsh Chapel

John 1: 6-18

1. Opening

These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

The Gospel of John concludes with this sentence, a sentence which might be pronounced as the summary of all the gospels together. A gospel is not a biography. A gospel is not a treatise. A gospel announces something new and something good, good news. In the fourth gospel we arrive at the summit of the gospels. This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John.

Not long ago we received a hand written letter here at Marsh Chapel. The letter came from one of our radio listeners. She was listening from a cabin in the White Mountains. She expressed appreciation for liturgy, homily and music. This caused her to reflect a bit on her past and her future and her relationships. She closed with an expressed yearning to listen again. In the height and beauty of the mountains, she heard something, something new, something good, good news.

In its true hearing and real speaking, the gospel is that kind of beauty and height. Heaven is a little higher in these pages. John is a mountain among others in the range, but more so than others in the range. John is Slide Mountain in the Catskills, Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks, Pikes Peak in the Rockies, Mt Everest in the Himalayas, the Matterhorn in the Alps, Mt Fuji in Japan. John is the bride, the synoptics are the bridesmaids; John the groom, the others the ushers. John is the gospel for which the others were made. Before John, the rest is prelude.

2. Dislocation and Disappointment

John is a craggy, cliff walk story of dislocation and disappointment. Your life is such a story too. In fact, these are the two great struggles of salvation, the two great struggles of the salvation we work out daily in fear and trembling. Dislocation and disappointment. The Gospel of John brings grace for dislocation and freedom in disappointment, and hence is great and good news!

The high peak of the fourth gospel is shrouded, like the Matterhorn it is, in clouds of mystery and unknowing.

What is John’s conceptual background? The synoptics? Paul? Hellenism? Judaism? Hellenistic Judaism? Gnosticism? We still wait for the cloud cover to lift.

What is John’s documentary history? One of pages displaced by wind or error? One of original writing quickly transformed? One of a source rewritten by an evangelist then twisted backward by an editor? One of many stages of community, influence and composition? We wait still for the cloud cover to move.

How did the words we here on Sunday come to life? In a monk’s meditation chamber? In the reflections and memories of an aged apostle? In the non-Christian philosophical schools of late antiquity? As a series of sermons, later, by request, stitched together? The cloud bank hovers still over the ice clad peaks.

For whom was this document written? For a universal or a particular audience? For a Jewish or a gentile audience? For a Christian or a non-Christian audience? For those coming to faith or those continuing in faith?

No wonder Adolf von Harnack could call John, “the most marvelous enigma in early Christianity”.

Answers to these questions are significant for the meaning of the gospel today. Beware interpretation that ignores them. You may judge that the first option in each list is the truest. I do judge that the last option in each list is the truest (gnostic, multi-stage, sermonic, particulargentilecontinuing in faith).

A greater mystery though remains in the craggy cloud covered mists above. What was going on in the life of the first hearers of these words?

Is the gospel telling the story of an actual event in the life of John’s community in such a way that it may be seen to re-enact episodes in the life of Jesus? (So, J L Martyn) Is that why coming to faith in Jesus in this gospel does mean a change in social location? (So, W Meeks) Is its embarrassing vitriol and anti-Semitism the work of a cognitive minority trying to assert identity over against their parent synagogue? (So, J Ashton). Is the gospel written in the midst of social dislocation and spiritual disappointment? (So, Hill)Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.

3. Grace During Dislocation

There is bitter hurt in this sublime chapter, caused by a break with the first identity, a cutting of the umbilical cord, a leaving home, a separation from the family, a dismissal from the synagogue. John was written for and by a group which recently had departed from their mother congregation, their mother religion.

The religion of origin said, “In the beginning, God…” Replies John, “In the beginning was the Word”.

Inherited religion said, “In the beginning God created…” Rejoins John, “All things came into being through Him”

Old time religion said, “God created the heavens and the earth”. Retorts John, “In Him was life”

Inheritance said, “God said “let their be light”. Rebuts John, “In Him was life and that life was the light of all peoples, which shines in the dark.”

Tradition honored prophets from Moses to John the Baptist. Rephrases John, “there was a man named John”.

Old time religion was law and prophecy, culminating in the great Baptist. Says John, “He came as a witness…to testify to the lightthe true light that enlightens everyone. He himself was not the light (in case you missed the point made three times before).

Inheritance said, “there was evening and morning, one day”. Replies John, “the world came into being through Him.”

Old time religion said, “we are his people the sheep of his pasture”. John retorts, “he came to his own people and his own people did not accept him.”

The community that formed this Gospel has been given the heave-ho, shown the door, given the bum’s rush, given the wet mitten by their former community. You are listening to a family feud, 19 centuries old. This Gospel is born in dislocation. The Gospel of John is written in the pain of dislocation. In John we overhear the bitter pain of the church leaving church, the congregation leaving the synagogue.

Dare we summon the courage needed for change? Dislocation is a part of healthy growth.

I returned to my pulpit from summer vacation to find a thriving community, and growth, and dislocation, at Marsh Chapel. A growing service to the hungry—and some dislocation. A new ministry to the students—with a little dislocation. A new enlarged choir—did some of you sense dislocation?

What issues challenge you most? Loss, defeat, death, vocation, sexuality, pride, sloth, falsehood, disorientation, illness, hunger, loneliness? Each of these involves serious dislocation.

“The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.

It is the Gospel of John that most profoundly addresses our ongoing need to develop as persons.

Dislocation visits every age and place.

The past decade of dislocation in this country has yet to find full expression. Corporate dislocation: I thought this job was for life? Medical dislocation: were we not the pride of the country in health care? Economic dislocation: someone threw a recovery party and forgot our upstate invitation. Geographical dislocation: I left two generations to the west or east to come here, now what?

The Gospel of John is not focused on ethics. There is only minimal ethical teaching here. One looks in vain for a sermon on the mount or plain. One searches without result for a parable with a point. One hungers without satisfaction for a wisdom saying, an epigram, a teaching on virtue. In John we have the teleological suspension of the ethical (there a phrase worth the price of admission itself!). Only the command to love remains.

Instead, the Fourth Gospel focuses on your need to become who you are, to grow up. We grow by changing. Real response to life, and its requisite mediation on death, summons a courage to change.

One freshwoman sat between her mom and dad, having a sandwich at a nearby restaurant. They were tightly seated, mom and dad and daughter, although the room was not full. They huddled together, like geese heading for the water. Mom and Dad drank coke and spooned soup, wordless, mute, silent. They never dared to catch each others eyes, so filled were each others eyes. They spooned and listened. And waited, for that last trip to the room, coming you could tell after dinner, and that last hug and that last gift and that last goodbye. There are no atheists in foxholes, and all parents pray when they leave the freshman dorm.

She roamed the world by cell phone, while her parents spooned soup. A friend in Milwaukee, was it? Can you hear me now? High school sweetheart in New York. Can you hear me now? Sister in San Diego. Can you hear me now. I could not hear her, but I can hear her now. She was not about to let her geographical dislocation become a matter of relational disorientation. By glory, she was carving out her own virtual dorm, her own telephonic suite, her own cyber city. What they faced in despair, she addressed in anxiety. As you know, both were doomed. The dislocation would come, soon enough. Dislocation is assured. The open question is about the courage to change when the inevitable arrives.

The great and surprising good news of Jesus Christ, in this Gospel, is that grace may be found, may especially be found, in the upheaval of dislocation. Grace may be found, may abound, in the freshman years of life. Students or parents, hear it well. Future students or grandparents, hear it well. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.

You can do it. You will get through it.

Oh, prayer will help, and reading of the scripture and a church family and the habits of generosity and service. All will help. You can do these. Please do. But it is largely and lastly Grace that will see you through.

Out they walked, the dislocated trio, arm in arm, into a dark and unforeseeable future. Is that not grace, the faith to walk into the dark? Grace during dislocation. Good news!

4. Freedom Following Disappointment

Like dislocation, disappointment provokes a serious existential battle.

Now there are varieties of disappointment, but the same Lord who heals us from them all. In Boston, we have a division pennant. We won! We have survived, though I did hear of someone remark that now he might be disappointed not to be disappointed! But we know that not all life is victory. Joy may tarry for the night, but weeping comes in the morning. We know about disappointment. John has a lastingly strong word for the experience of disappointment.

I believe it is very difficult for us to appreciate the courage in John, the theological courage of this writing.

One of the most precious beliefs of the earliest Christians resided in the confidence that very soon the world would come to an end and the Lord would return for his people. This expectation of the end governs the letters of Paul and the first three Gospels. It was, if you will, the bedrock belief of the primitive church.

Had not Jesus preached, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”?

Yes he had. And he was wrong.

Had not Peter left nets, family, homeland and life itself on the expectation of the apocalypse? Yes he had. And he was wrong.

Had not Paul predicted, “we the living, the remaining, will be caught up together with him in the clouds”? Yes he had. And he was wrong.

Had not the community described in Acts pooled all their possessions, assuming a short wait to rapture? Yes they had. And they were wrong.

Only John faces this grave disappointment with utter honesty. The others hold onto the old religion, the expected return. John admits delay. John has the guts to say to his people: “What we once believed is clearly not true. Let us look about us and see what this means.” I wonder whether there are some listening today for whom an old verity or two no longer holds. I wonder whether you are realizing that your old idea of God was too small, or your old idea of love was too big, or your old idea of self was not yours.

If so, climb with me a clouded mountain. John finds freedom on the far side of disappointment.

And behold, atop this mountain, what do we find?

In place of parousia, we find paraclete.

In place of cataclysm, we find church.

In place of speculation, we find spirit.

In place of Armageddon we find artistry and imagination!

When finally we stop chasing what is not to be, and wake up to what is, we may be utterly amazed.

Seasoned Religion said that the end was near. John says the beginning is here.

Old Time Religion saw the end of the world. John preached the light of the world.

Inherited spirituality waited for the coming of the Lord. John celebrated the Word among us, full of grace and truth.

Old Time Religion feared death, judgment, heaven and hell. John faced them all in every day.

Traditional Religion clung fiercely to an ancient untruth. John let go, and accepted a modern new truth, and hugged grace and freedom.

Our inheritance, and Matthew and Mark and Luke and Paul and all looked toward the End, soon to come. John looked up at the beginning, already here. They said with Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well”. John replied, “well begun is half done”.

John alone had the full courage to face spiritual disappointment and move ahead. So we memorize 8:32: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free! Galileo knew that truth. Darwin knew that truth. All faced the need to change from inherited untruth to new insight and imagination. These and others knew V Havel’s definition of hope, working for something not because it will succeed, but because it is right, true and good. Even in a disappointment, sometimes especially in disappointment, a kind of freedom emerges.

Ours is a resigned, disappointed culture just now. Events since 2001 have conspired to disappoint some of our earlier understandings. We face new truth: the world is smaller and starker than we wanted to believe. We have not yet found our way out of the psychic rubble of our time yet. We are trying, and we are moving, but an almost unspeakable disappointment remains. We shall need to summon and be summoned by the courage to change. For we may have to change our understanding, our philosophy, our theology even, to face a new day. And we have to face the hard fact, that the future is open, freely open, both to terror and to tenderness. And here is John, he who wrote in the ancient rubble of dislocation and disappointment, telling us something wonderful and good: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In disappointment, a new kind of freedom can emerge.

There is a way of living that finds grace in dislocation and freedom in disappointment. There is a way of living with courage to change. As John Kennedy described such courage at his nomination:

(This is) not a set of promises, it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook – it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.

But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric – and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me regardless of party.

But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age – to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.”

For courage – not complacency – is our need today – leadership, not salesmanship.

5. Closing

These things are spoken that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

Faith is the courage to change. It involves a leap.

Faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump. Now is a time for courage to change.

September 23

Courage to Choose: Refugee Resettlement

By Marsh Chapel

Courage to Choose
John4:42b and Lections
September 23, 2007
Marsh Chapel
Dean Robert Allan Hill

1. Gospel

The Gospel we preach is a call to decision.

It is in making hard choices for Him, that we know Him.

We may not in fact know Jesus until or unless we have struggled, hard, to find the courage to choose, and to choose and to choose and to choose. Sunday by Sunday, we preach a Gospel that is a summons to choose. Come Sunday, we wonder and pray whether for this week, and this lifetime, we shall have found such courage, by being found by such courage.

The author of 1 Timothy, perhaps a student of the Apostle Paul, calls for the courage to choose to emulate Paul himself. The writer of our Psalm, and the writers of many Psalms, addresses the conditions under which a man or woman is caused to choose. We choose, but we do not choose our choices. The parable of the dishonest steward (should we call it the Lukan parable, Jesus’ parable, the church’s parable?—your name for it will give you away…) if nothing else portrays a colorful set of choices, and the very courage to make those choices. But it is the Gospel of John, throughout its 21 chapters, which more than other New Testament writing focuses like a laser these and other disparate paeans to the courage to choose. In one sense, the whole fourth Gospel is a meditation upon the courage to choose. For John, steadily and bluntly, this means Jesus: choose—for or against? Jesus’ provocation of this potential courage and choice makes him, as 4:42b says, the “Savior of the World”.

This morning, in a meditative moment, I invite you to consider what choices you may courageously make regarding the central historical, moral, and spiritual challenge of our brief patch of time. To invite you to do so, or how to invite you to do so, is itself a challenge. The past week has walked us toward this Word.

2. Voices in the Wilderness

This week we heard Helen Whitney, the famed documentary film maker, describe her work. You will remember her fine films. Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. Monastery. The Pope. She itemized the singular challenges facing a religious documentary producer, and happily I noticed that without exception they also confront the preacher, and more especially the hearer, of every sermon. Here is her list. See if there are Sunday parallels for you.

1. It can be hard just to get the films made, and on the air. Networks are fearful of controversy. (Freedom of the pulpit?)
2. Access, finding real access to real human hearts and stories, can be very difficult. (The absolute need for pastoral conversation?)
3. Knowing how to use, but not abuse, one’s own biases is very difficult. Her bias: faith is a flickering flame, inextricably connected to doubt. (Should one use personal illustrations?)
4. Aesthetic challenges abound here, where one needs both precision and poetry. (How much content and how much contact?)
5. Who knows finally how best to right-size the ranges of information in the film. Simplicity and clarity, but not over-simplicity, and not a lack of subtlety, balance and contradiction. (Exegesis, explanation or application?)
6. How does one use psychology, and can one? Joseph Smith said, rightly, “No one knows my history”. (How do you illustrate, without letting the side show eat up the circus?)
7. Are truth claims made? Directly? Indirectly? Or bracketed? (Where is the intersection of Truth and Truth that frees?)
8. How do you find a conclusion? All great images shimmer with allegorical meanings. (How do I land this plane?)

Her films included people who replied wisely to wise questions: embracing the odd duck is the measure of true religion…I ache for faith…between thought and expression lies a lifetime (L Reed)…between idea and reason lies the shadow (TS Eliot)…The monastic journey is the human journey writ large…

During the week we were challenged in a late evening informal worship service to remember Micah 6:6: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. M Ghandi was cited: you must become yourself the change you would like to see in the world.

At every turn, that is, life is asking us for a response, for a considered, and compassionate response.

One of our family has said: Life is how you take it.

Although the Gospel of John portrays ‘the world’ as a dark and difficult place, in kinship with the Gnostic perspective the author both dons and debunks, he nonetheless holds to the hope of safety and health for all the world. Jesus is the savior of the whole world. God so loved the whole world.

3. Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously remarked that he loved the silent church, before the service begins, more than any speaking. (“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching” Essay on Self-Reliance). Across the northeast, where the churches are closing, closed and silent, his wish has strangely come true. Those in love with a silent church may richly love the emptiness of church after church in town after town from Bangor to Buffalo.

Some years ago I taught homiletics in Buffalo. We endeavored to prepare our students for the rigors and challenges of their work. Richard was one of our best graduates. We gave him Bible and history. We taught him philosophy and theology. We tutored him in rhetoric and composition. We videotaped his sermons and sent him to clinical pastoral education. Finally, years and months later, he was set forth, like Jonah on the banks of Ninevah, prepared. Or so we thought.

But I thought better of it, or worse of it, when he called that autumn. We had prepared him for a church that once existed. But not for the church he went to. We prepared him for the church we wished existed. But not for the church that exists today. The second Sunday in November, after church and fellowship hour, he locked the building and walked home. He ate lunch. About that time–the church roof fell in. Deferred maintenance does come calling, after a while. No one was hurt. The congregation left the building to the squabbles of insurance agents and ecclesiastical representatives, and made home in the fire hall. Richard preached. We had prepared him to preach. We had not prepared him to preach in the ruined silence of the silent ruins of the church.

Emerson’s prayer has been answered. The church is largely silent, and empty. Oh, you may say, as I have and do, that this need not have occurred, that there are responsibilities to assess, that there is much to learn, that all hope is not lost, that we believe in the resurrection, precisely, of the dead, that you cannot forever eat your seed corn, that parishioners are people too, that the church has exchanged birthright for pottage, that we church folk major in minors, that a generation of fearless builders rather than eccentric introverts are now needed to preach, that denominational leaders have a rendezvous with judgment, that God does not will the demise of congregations, that leadership and money still make a difference—all this we may consider on another Sunday.

In fact, over the next generation, tragically, we may choose to die, to put on our jammies, pull out the ice cream, turn on the television, unplug the phone, and shrink age weaken and die at 2-3% a year, as we have been doing since 1968. Today, let us assume for argument that the trends of the last four decades will take us to zero by 2048. Let us assume the worst. Do we have the courage to see something hopeful and choose something different, in the silent ruins of the church? The church is silent. And empty. In ruins.

4. Deed


GK Chesteron was asked if were stranded on a desert island what one book he want to have along. “Beginners Guide to Ship Building”, he answered.


What assets do we possess? In this new, dark world, what in the northeast do we have to offer an open future? It is easy to name what we lack. We lack leadership, membership, stewardship, fellowship. We lack willingness to change, courage to connect, confidence to risk. We lack the candor to celebrate those few places, here and there, where there is spirit and flesh.

But what do we have to offer? Town by town, church by church, struggling congregation by struggling congregation, choosing between mission and the fuel bill, between child care and the pastor’s salary? What have we to offer the unforeseen? Nothing?

Ah, but in Emerson’s perspective, ironically interpreted, this is not so. We do have something. Something lovely. Something better. And what would that be? Something silent. Something empty. And what would that be?


We may lack preaching, caring, people, leadership, tithing, creativity, children and money. But we have one asset in spades. Empty buildings, open floor space. ‘I love the silent church….’

I bring this comment to bear on the conclusion of last week’s sermon. I ask you in these three months to pray with me about whether the ruins of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast should now be devoted to refugee resettlement, in the wake of the horror in Iraq. Our Thought was rejected. Our Word was refused. We are left with Deed. What shall it be? To be alive in 2007, in the USA, means to have the courage to choose to respond, somehow, to the central historical, moral and spiritual catastrophe of our time. Iraq. How shall we respond? Shall we choose, and with courage?

To repeat. I have no word of the Lord. I invite your discernment. There well may be other, better choices. Let us pray, reason together. But let us do so, not just say so.

4% of the Iraqi population has been killed. Think about that in terms of our own land. 4% of the US population (a much larger population to be sure) would be the equivalent of the populations of 11 states (Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming). 15% of the Iraqi population have become refugees. For us that would be the equivalent of the populations of 15 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah.) (Courtesy L Whitney).

We have something to offer. We have buildings that with a little renovation could become sanctuaries again. Not sanctuaries for worship. We lost that chance. But sanctuaries for Iraqis, the victims of our hubris.

The outcome of our sloth might be put into the service of repairing what our pride has wrought.

If every town took one nearly empty church and made it available for 30 refugees, we could make a serious dent in the problem. Two million Iraqis are wandering the earth, vagabonds. The Judeo Christian tradition, should nothing else ever be said of it, at the very least centrally acclaims the crucial importance of hospitality, particularly to the stranger and the outcast. We have every reason to express our contrition, utter our confession, admit our compunction, lament our regret about what has happened. OK. And? So? In addition, we have the space. Compunction and floor space both call us to choose with courage.

5. Questions

Of course, there are endless problems. There were endless problems for Harriet Tubman, bringing vagabonds up the Susquehanna river bed at night, with dogs barking. There were endless problems for those who housed German Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Gays, and others, fleeing the Reich. There were endless problems for others who gave dry land to boat people. There are problems galore. But what are we to do? Nothing?

I have a friend name John, a slight English man, who is in his nineties. He was an original Boy Scout. He knew Baden Powell. At age 18, he waited at Dunkirk. There on the French coast he waited, hoping there would be enough room in one of the boats to get him to Dover, in May of 1939. Some fisherman came over and got him, and he lived. Behold, I make you fishers of men. Do you have a better idea about what to do regarding Iraq? Do you have a better use for silent empty churches? I am all ears.

I think of all the saintly women and men who tended the parsonages in which both Jan and I were raised. We once were sojourners. You once were immigrants. You once were refugees.

Now let me address your good, unspoken questions.

And why this population, and not so many others? Fair question. Yet this is a tide which we ourselves created, and so we have a more primary responsibility here. And why the church and not the nation? Fair question. The great beams and branches of our country’s generosity will only burn when they are inflamed by the lighter kindling of the weaker faggots among us—the church, the isolated, the marginalized, the poor. You start the fire, and then see it burn. And why would people want to leave their homeland? Fair question. They would not, unless it came with the price of death, or unless the homeland was no longer theirs, home, or land. And what of all the endless details and practical concerns? Fair question. We do though have some experience in the churches, these same empty peace and justice churches, in showing hospitality. And you, preacher, is this all talk from you? Fair question. Jan and I right now are in conversation about what resources of our own we may offer, including time, including money, and including property.

It is time we found one thing to do, to help and to heal. I propose we spend and be spent in refugee resettlement. I ask you to pray about this. We have dear, spent, beloved churches which may be ready to lose their lives that they may save their lives. We individually may have resources, connection, properties, and ingenuities to offer to those in harm’s way. We need not, and dare not, await some other agency to choose for us, when we ourselves are called to summon the courage to choose. The history of Marsh Chapel includes heroism with regard to sanctuary. The initiatives of the New Frontier, born in Boston, include bold attention to the poor, particularly, for them, in this hemisphere. The heritage of Methodism, beginning at BU its Alma Mater, includes practical attention to the most human of needs, especially among the hungry and the destitute.

6. Hospitality

Hear what uncomfortable words about hospitality the Scriptures say to all who truly turn to the Lord.

Entertainment of a guest is a sacred duty in the Bible. Read again through Genesis. Nomads knew about the need for floor space. One day’s guest is another day’s host. The same is truer of the Newer Testament. Jesus himself lived, if we can sketch anything of his life, as an itinerant mendicant, a poor traveling preacher. The Christian movement depended upon the kindness of strangers, every bit as much as did the nighttime travelers through Boston in the 1850’s along the underground railroad. We love to romanticize the underground railroad. But now the chickens have come home to roost. What are WE TO DO? The primitive church shared home, hearth, collection, nourishment, raiment. They contributed to the needs of the saints, and so, practiced hospitality. In fact, hospitality may socially have been the single most distinctive feature of the early church, those strange people who harbored refugees.

7. Courage to Choose

To conclude. The gospel earlier rea
d, the astoundingly odd parable of the dishonest steward, warns us to mark our time. This text surely has a strong claim to authenticity, to have come from Jesus himself. It is an unattractive story, and so would readily have been laundered. It is a perplexing story, and so might easily have been forgotten. It is a strange, odd, different story, and so might easily have been set aside. Luke remembers it, at the start of the second century, as his church struggles.

What does it mean? That cleverness trumps honesty? That shrewdness is an unheralded virtue? That money matters, and that money matters matter? That Jesus encouraged a wild and unethical monetary policy? That management sometimes requires hard choices? That realism outweighs idealism, and that gain outweighs candor?

Every attempt to read Luke 16 with an ethical microscope fails to some degree. It may be that this parable is not about morals at all, but about time, not about ethics at all but about mortality, not about behavior at all, but about the fact that there does come a time after which it is too late. Not about us at all.

But about …God.

Prize your time, the story says. What you need to say, say. What you need to do, do. Get ready. It is later than you think. The master is returning. Even the most material of people can understand this. To everything there is a season and a time. Be prepared. Have the courage to act, to do, to choose.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;Omitted, all the voyage of their lifeIs bound in shallows and in miseries.

September 16

An Enlightened Courage

By Marsh Chapel

John 1:9 and Lections

The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world…

One precious free Sunday morning in August I went unaccompanied and somewhat unwillingly to worship. Free Sundays are gold, rare and weighty. I did not really know what to expect, but something defiant or disciplined or both prevailed, and off I went. Sometimes you go until you believe, and then you go because you believe…

What a marvel! For a disciplined hour of ordered worship, in the embrace of a small Baptist church in Hamilton NY, we fortunate to have come were embraced in the disciplined 59 minutes of a beautiful service. Dag Hammarskjold (‘forget no experience’) greeted us as we prepared to worship. An introit from 1558 lifted our hearts. Desmond Tutu responded with us to prayer (‘goodness is stronger than evil’). We sang and were sung to. A true sermon, courageous and timely, crowned the service.

For today, especially, I recall: Brother Roger of Taize and of blessed memory captured the moment (‘you place your precious light within each one of us’).

So moved that I could barely utter a word of thanks, and too moved to stop and enjoy the hot, delicate pastries and treats offered on the church steps, I stumbled away. Enlightened. Rev. Joe Glaze and his community of hospitality, I salute you. As the Romans intended, they did all with an enlightened courage, an excellent grace, ‘ad unguem’—down to the fingertips. The community honored God and loved their neighbor. In that hour—and we may hope in this one too—there was no mistaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.

Jesus is our Lord. He is the giver of our ownmost selves. He is ‘our beacon not our boundary’. Jesus illumines us. He embraces us with an enlightened courage. By such an enlightened courage, now and in the days to come, we may live in bold, happy confidence. John tells us so. John?

First, John the Evangelist, of the community of the beloved disciple, tells us so. John 1:9 is the closest we come in the Bible to ancient Gnosticism. The Gnostic inflection of a natural dualism, and a natural salvation—both of which the gospel transposes into a dualism of decision (yes, the Bultmannian phrase still carries)—comes out of the strange, ancient world of Gnosis. Here, the fearless, courageous, enlightened author of John was not afraid to employ the language of the culture around him. He was not afraid to use the language of the ‘world’ he finds so dark, to carry the message of the cross, to convey the announcement of the glory of God.

Our Psalm remembers the poor. Our prophet, Jeremiah, decries a dehumanizing neglect of his peoples’ truest selves. Paul’s student writing in 1 Timothy exemplifies the good in one life, that of Paul himself. The passage from Luke—the first of three utterly familiar and possibly Gnostic parables—highlights a scandalous particularity, a fervent search for every last, lost particle of light. But it is John the meta-gospel, John the gospel squared, John the gospel about the gospel, which gathers up all these motifs, and like a great jazz artist effortlessly plays them all. You light. You true. You all. You one. The hazy illumination of psalm, prophet, Paul, and passage are focused, refracted and beamed forth in John: “the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”. John tells us so. John?

Second, John Dempster, who founded Boston University, set his own lamp on a great Boston bushel for all the world to see. “Let your light so shine…” ‘In tuo lumen videmus lumis”. Dempster was converted to faith in a backwoods revival along the Mohawk river, early in the 19th century. He founded the school that became our own in 1839, convinced by an enlightened courage. He traveled west, hoping to initiate such a school on the pacific coast, spurred on by an enlightened courage. He traveled to South America, intending to seed there a seminary, emboldened by an enlightened courage. He planted a Midwestern seed near Chicago that did grow up and become Garrett at Northwestern, inflamed by an enlightened courage. When our daughter was born there in June, she came to life in a hospital located on Dempster Avenue.

Draw out your own map. Plant your own seeds: east, west, south, north. The mind matters, greatly, for the future. Here in Boston, the spiritual descendents of Dempster could create a full school of philosophical theology and thought, the personalist school, for which one would be hard pressed to find a finer text: ‘the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world’. John tells us so. John?

Third, in Dempster’s own Boston of 100 years later, John Kennedy reflected some of the enlightened courage proclaimed by John the Evangelist and practiced by John Demptser. Where true light enters a dark world—there! There is the Christ! John of the Gospel faithfully affirmed this light in the pagan, Gnostic language of the 2nd century. John Dempster fearlessly affirmed the light of reason, struggling in the wilderness of frontier Methodism. An enlightened courage, an enlightened courage it takes to say so and do so. Is this not what makes a Sunday afternoon visit to Boston’s Kennedy Center such a bright moment? Is this not what enthralls the reader and the hearer who visits and studies there? With stern resolve, Kennedy and his team faced the real oppositions, challenges and enemies of the cold war. With an enlightened courage. Will our stern resolve, facing the terrorist enemies of the global community, include such an enlightened courage? Courage and insight? Resolve and imagination? Strength and wisdom? What will it profit a man or a nation to gain the whole world,
but to lose one’s soul?

In an October 1960 speech to Michigan students, Kennedy challenged them to work in development, all over the globe. Since then 178,000 two year volunteers have served in 138 countries. The right idea, at the right time, in the right way—the initiative inspired a wave of generosity. An idea.

Monet was once asked what he mixed with his paints to create such beautiful impressions. ‘Brains’, he replied. ‘The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world’. So says John. John?

Fourth, John Wesley reminds us to trust our experience. His best loved text was the Fourth Gospel. His spiritual grandson was John Dempster. His incarnational theology influenced both the religious enthusiasm and the cultural support of the Peace Corps. An enlightened courage moves people out of what is harmful and into what is helpful. Wesley did not cloister himself. He did not fear the spiritual rhythms of field, mine or shipyard. For Wesley, real religion was personal religion, both mind and spirit, both head and heart. He knew about salvation through enlightened courage. We can too. We can. We can find our way back to the honor of God, in thought and word and deed. We can: even though the way is hard, the gate narrow and the path straight.

Over five years, the tattered remains of Wesley’s spiritual descendents in preaching—schooled by John the Evangelist, formed by the institutions of John Dempster, inspired by the common hope of John Kennedy—have offered Thought in a spirit of enlightened courage. Iraq 2003, we thought, was pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, reckless, immoral, post Judeo-Christian, and wrong. (You can find the details in website sermons,, bu.educhapel, and others). But that Johannine Thought was ignored.

Then over three years, the tattered remains of Wesley’s preacher cousins, his real descendents, resembling the blood on snow weakened defeat of Washington’s ragamuffin army at Valley Forge—schooled by John 1, formed by John 2, inspired by John 3—have offered a Word, in five parts. One: Admit both failure and mistake. Two: Turn again to the gathered nations. Three: Eschew material gain, interest in oil. Four: Give a timeline. Five: Call forth the generosity of this great land to develop peace. (You can find the details on the websites). But that Johannine Word was also ignored.

Thought, Word…and…?

In conclusion today, I ask you to consider, to pray about, a deed to be assessed in enlightened courage. Thought, rejected. Word, refused. People of good will and common hope will need to respond. In Deed. What is the claim of John 1:9, an enlightened courage, upon us, now? What are we to do, with regard to the central moral, historical, and spiritual issue of this small patch of time? Nothing? Are we to let the dead bury the dead?

I offer one idea.

It will require another sermon (next Sunday) to offer a full description of this idea. Its marrow though can be simply stated. Let us pray whether to open our homes, hearts and lives to the victims, the refugees of this debacle, tragedy and horror. Let us pray whether to try to harness the goodness yet alive in and among us and others to provide hospitality to victims and refugees of this holocaust.

How shall we do so? Shall we do so? Should we do so? I do not yet know. ‘I have no word of the Lord on this’. But where Thought is rejected, and where Word is refused, it becomes a matter of Deed. It becomes a matter of doing. (You may have a far better idea than this one about church inflamed refugee resettlement. I am listening. All ears.) We shall need every ounce of good news carried by the enlightened courage of John Evangelist, John Dempster, John Kennedy, and John Wesley, all of whom cry and shout from their graves: “the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.

September 9

The Courage to Start

By Marsh Chapel

John 1:1 and Lectionary Passages


AND God stepped out on space,

And He looked around and said,

I’m lonely—

I’ll make me a world.”

And far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,

And the light broke,

And the darkness rolled up on one side,

And the light stood shining on the other,

And God said, “That’s good!”

(James Weldon Johnson 1922)

Start Fresh

Well begun is half done. Gut begonnen, hapt gebonnen. Your first day on the job includes rhythms, histories, personalities and systems that will accompany you until retirement. Your first month of marriage includes stories, histories, encounters, and disagreements that will span the lifespan of the life of the marriage. Your first week on campus will expose you to a place, a time, a community and a history which will change you far more than you will change it. Picture the extended family crowded in the evening around the cradle of a newborn.

A true joy of university life is matriculation. In one sense, the world is reborn every September, reborn in spirit and reborn in flesh. It is thunderous to hear 4000 18 year olds and a few scattered, well outnumbered faculty and staff, create the new year with a roar. It echoes all the way from Monday morning through today.

On Monday we applauded the young men and women. Many wore T-shirts. As a liturgical observance, a place that is where the work of the people is seen under the aspect of eternity, my colleague and I read out the statements. Many simply named a club, a town, a team, or a project. Marsh Chapel, read one shirt. But the great wave of announcements continued well beyond group identities. Save the Sudan…So many books, so little time…Big Love…Red Sox (this is a religious affirmation in our region)…Make cupcakes not war…The Grateful Dead (really!)…A heart strangely warmed and a community warmly strange…Devil says: God is busy, may I help you?…My colleague said he was going to market a shirt reading, ‘Stop marketing silly T-Shirts’. I thought those of you present today, and the many listening from afar, might enjoy feeling the pulsing power of thousands of young lives, ready to start fresh. Fresh men and women.

There is a divine energy, a creative energy, pulsing in the start of something. To this energy, the Psalmist sings as he offers a blessing upon meditation, reading, and the reading of Torah, by one who so becomes ‘like a tree planted by streams of water, in all that she does, she prospers’. Start well. It matters.

Our community was blessed by one who himself has been planted by streams of waters, and has prospered. Sir Hans spoke clearly about beginning. Like Zaccheus, he is a diminutive don. I am a scientist—more precisely a microbiologist. You might think, looking at me, that a micro biologist is a small biologist, but it actually means that I do research, using bacteria as test organisms. By doing research I am not only trying to discover new things, but I am publicly proclaiming that I am ignorant. If I knew the answer, I obviously would not need to do research. In other words, your Professors are still students, just as you are—the only difference is that they have been at it rather longer. Let me remind you that there is a world of difference between ‘I don’t know’ and “I don’t know but I am trying to find out”.

It is this creative energy, a divine donation in our midst, which gives us the courage to start fresh. We do not know every place the journey will take us. But we are trying to find our way. You do not need to know the whole story to get started. In your faith journey, you need not finally have concluded just where you want to land your little boat. But begin. In one sense, for the 21st century, there is simply no better place to start your spiritual journey than in a university setting.

Nor do we need to have a fully finished picture of God, to begin our journey. God is not one of the aspects or features of our world, not an item or a value or a virtue or a plant or a decoration. We are well warned from history not to start with an image of God that is really an idol. God gives the conditions for life, but may not be identifie
d with any solitary aspect of life.

As John Kennedy put it, “All of this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Start Fresh!

Start Over

Still, every solitary beginning, which we might name in our hearts, is not ever fully solitary nor completely a beginning either. Sometimes to start is more to start over. Immanuel Kant, across the craggy, beautiful and arid expanse of his Critique of Pure Reason, argued that the ultimate role of the reason to understand itself, to apprehend itself, through time and space, and so to guard itself. From what? From misuse, from misunderstanding, from misapplication. He too feared pride, sloth and falsehood, as we do too. So, we might say in parallel fashion, the role of religion is ultimately to watch over itself, to keep itself from harming itself and others. That requires not merely starting, but also starting over. To begin is to begin again.

The greatest of the prophets, Jeremiah, tells us so, in unmistakable terms. His figure is the potter and vessel, his hope is in the capacity in life to start over. More: the potter is the divine design against evil, the pressure in life and history to learn from what is wrong, and so to learn again what is right. Here is a hidden gospel. If you know evil, at least, by inversion, we may learn to know good.

Our student matriculation speaker caught the new beginning spirit, the starting over, the excitement of trying again. I was so moved by his speech that I asked his permission to quote him this morning, as I had done with Sir Hans. Adil Younis, who gave the student address, is with us today. I wanted to stand up and shout! Amen! Not just because Adil mentioned ML King. Not only because he aptly quoted Howard Thurman. Not merely because he mentioned Marsh Chapel. (All very honorable things to have mentioned, mind you.) Friends give you back your real self. Adil gives Marsh Chapel a reminder of who we are supposed to become, in the hands of the divine potter: I challenge you to discover what ideals that have been fostered here at Boston University for generations are most import to you. For me it has always been Boston University’s innovational history and its relationship to the city.

Boston University is in the heart of the city of Boston and in that sense we are in service to the city. When I first came to the Boston University campus what struck me most was Marsh Chapel and how it serves as a non-denominational place of worship. For me, coming from Lebanon where religion is often a cause for conflict that was a really powerful thing and it is something I hope to take back to my community one day. I also like to think that one of the greatest dream in American History may have begun right here on the Charles River Campus, but it certainly did culminate with Martin Luther King Jr. sharing his dream with millions of people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I challenge you to discover what your dreams are and to begin pursuing them here at Boston University.

I would like to leave you with a quotation. One that you may have heard before, but nonetheless truly embodies the spirit of Boston University. A quotation by Howard Thurman: Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Start over!

Jump Start

There are some times and places in life where a start requires a jump start.

We learned to drive in the frozen snow of the northern reaches of New York State. To learn early to ‘jump’ the car, with the help of others and cables and a strong source of energy, was a necessity not a luxury.

Sometimes, in the journey of learning to live, there are points that require a sudden jolt, a burst of spirit and energy, a jump start. John Dempster, who started Boston University as a school for Methodist ministers, and who grew up in upstate New York, adroitly brought such sudden starts to new projects. In the heart of Luke’s gospel, today, we hear a similar word. Here Jesus is depicted as jolting his hearers. To start down the road of discipleship some may need to hear the jolting word of separation from first identity, as a prerequisite to second birth, or the birth of a second identity, or becoming a real human being. Bear the cross. Count the cost. Leave kindred and even life. These are stern and sharp words. They jolt. They jump. They inflame. To start some engines, especially in the cooler climates, a jump start may be required. A word of sober caution, a word of mature warning, a word of challenge.

A couple of years ago, my colleague and friend Robert Neville said as much, at a time of another beginning: ‘Our text from Ecclesiastes however says that “better is the end of a thing than its beginning”. Dramatic openings are fine, filled with large choices. But life is lived in the living, not the starting, and we do not know how to assess it until the end…Success…will be measured in large part by the management of prosperity and adversity as dual gifts of God”. Sober caution and a word of mature warning and a word of challenge.

There are perils in sudden starts. But t
here are perils, too, when sudden starts are avoided. A sudden decision is not necessarily a hasty one, prepared as it may have been by earlier experience, sincere prayer, personal courage, and collegial support. Still, the high voltage and energy burst of sudden starts warrants sobriety and caution.

A day of new beginnings is a day of good news. In the faith of Jesus Christ, you are given courage to start. To start fresh, to start over, to jump start. I will not complain if someone hears this as a Trinity of creation, redemption, and inspiration. For there is a blessing in beginnings, enshrined in the Fourth Gospel at its very outset: “In the beginning, was the Word”. The presence, voice, person, relationship, power, love of God were—from the beginning. So we believe…


We believe in God who has created and is creating

Who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and to make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.

We trust God.

God calls us to be the church, the Body of Christ.

To celebrate Christ’s presence.

To love and serve others.

To seek justice and resist evil.

To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.

We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.

September 2

Breakfast with Jesus

By Marsh Chapel

John 21: 12

Jesus speaks to us today from the edge of the shoreline. His voice, although we often mistake or mishear or misunderstand it, carries over from shore to sea, from heaven to earth. I know that for the souls gathered here today, that voice—His voice—makes life worth living. Within earshot of His voice there are no merely ordinary nights or days or catches of fish or meals or questions or answers or friendships or loves or losses. Within earshot of His voice there are no merely ordinary moments. When the Master calls from the shoreline, “children…have you…cast the net…bring some fish…have breakfast”, no one who hears will dare ask, “And who are you?” We dare not. For we know. Jesus speaks to us today from the edge of the shoreline.

His disciples stumble through all the magic and grit of a fishing expedition. Many of us still find some magic in fishing, though fewer of us have had to develop the skill, courage and endurance of a real fisherman who depends on the catch for sustenance. Still—we know the thrill of it! And the disappointment. The roll of the boat with each passing wave. The smell of the water and the wind. The feel of the fish, the sounds of cleaning, the sky, a scent of rain: this is our life, too. All night long, dropping the nets, trawling, lifting the nets with a heave. And catching nothing. The magic comes with the connection of time and space—being at the right place at the right time. How every fisherman would like to know the right place and the right time. It’s magic! The tug on the line! The jolt to the pole! The humming of the reel! A catch. And woe to the sandy-haired, freckle faced girl or boy (age 12 or 90) who cannot feel the thrill of being at the right place at the right time!

John Stewart Mill once wrote that understanding the chemistry of a pink sunset did not diminish at all his profound sense of wonder at sunset beauty. In fact, we might add, real understanding heightens true apprehension. In such a spirit, we might note that chapter 21 in John, the breakfast chronicle, is probably not original to the gospel. A later writer (he leaps out in the first person singular in vs. 22) has added this breakfast scene. (Three such additions were also made to Mark, as you know) So, you veteran John readers have reason to scratch your head in chapter 21. The gospel has no use for sacraments. Chapter 21 is a Eucharistic feast. The gospel has no happy place for Peter. Peter stars in Chapter 21. The gospel champions the beloved disciple. The beloved disciple is less beloved and less disciple in Chapter 21. The gospel abounds in a philosophical vocabulary: light, life, spirit, love, knowledge, truth. Chapter 21 counts fish—153. The gospel makes nary an ethical claim upon its reader. Its voice is indicative. Chapter 21 is a command wrapped in a directive shrouded in an order. Its voice is imperative. The gospel ends in 20:31, “these things are written that you may believe”. Chapter 21 is an ending without an ending.

Our inspired writer stands in a long tradition of concern for relationships and fellowship. Jeremiah thrashes his hearers for drinking polluted water, drawn from what does not feed and does not slake, apart from relationship with the living Lord. The psalmist gives a divine voice to a plea for the basis of relationship, a listening ear, a trained capacity to listen, in love. The gospel of Luke again arranges the concerns of the religious life around a common table. Who is excluded? Invite them. Who is humbled? Exalt them. Who is disgraced? Honor them.

John is a meta-gospel. His is a gospel’s gospel, a gospel in which themes like those in Luke are reprised. John is in a way a gospel about the gospel, a concluding gospel in which the nature of the gospel and of written Gospels is addressed.

Yet this chapter 21 has been roughly—crudely?—added to make a wondrous point, to underscore John 3:14, ‘the word became flesh’. Real religion is about relationships, too. Prize them. You will find a beloved pastor, sometime in your life, someone with whom to share an intimate breakfast. At least one of your siblings may become a friend, or an approximation thereof—a breakfast looms. Hardly a student escapes college without befriending or being befriended by a teacher. This happened even way back when before Facebook. Breakfast fodder. Who is to say whether you may fall in love this autumn? Take the boy to breakfast.

Don’t you ever wonder when the preacher goes on about such a topic—relationships, for example—whether she or he ever had any such? You look at the preacher’s Facebook page and he has only three friends, two of whom are relatives, paid to sign up. It makes you wonder.

Well, thirty years ago, some of us were befriended, if from afar. A former chaplain at Williams, become Yale Chapel Dean had then come to preach near our seminary. It is, I note, he who first in my hearing used the sermon title pronounced today, ‘Breakfast with Jesus’. I have not a single memory of the content of sermon, but the title stuck. And I have only a smattering of memories of actual events and deeds in those years. But the friendship, the sense of having been befriended, from a venerable pulpit, by a good preacher, in a true way, the relationship remains. Even post-mortem. At the end of this Eucharistic homily, I shall quote from his book CREDO. What William Sloane Coffin meant to one generation, we can mean to another. But it does not happen without relationships.

Autumn is the start of the New Year, in Judaism and in Academia, and in University congregations and communities like this one. Welcome home choir! This is a day of new beginnings. The promise of resurrection is upon us. Its harbinger is Holy Communion. Resurrection disarms fear. Resurrection ignores defeat. Resurrection displaces and replaces loneliness. Resurrection will not abide the voice that whispers, “There’s nothing extraordinary here. There’s no reason for gaiety, excitement, sobriety or wonder.” Resurrection will not abide the easy and the cheap. Resurrection takes a daybreak catch, a charcoal fire, a dawn mist, fish, bread, and hungry, weary travelers, and reveals the Lord present. Resurrection takes bread and wine and makes an encounter with God.

The failing of this world, whether we see it more clearly in the superstition of religion, the idolatry of politics, or the hypocrisy of social life, has its root in blindness to the extraordinary. But hear—and today taste—the good news! The King of love his table spreads. And the humblest meal –breakfast—the worst meal of the day the worst hour of the day and everyone at there worst–becomes—Breakfast
with Jesus!

Therefore Christian people, as we take this sacrament, as we enjoy the gift of this day, and as we work and fight, play and pray this week, let us resist with joy all that cheapens life, all that dishonors God, all that mistakes our ordinary sin for the extraordinary love, power, mercy and grace of God.

As an old friend, William Sloane Coffin wrote (CREDO, in passim):

In love…

There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse—to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies—is not only more tolerant but far more Christian.

In humor…

Clearly, the trick in life is to die young as late as possible.

In confession…

I am a little clearer now on the issue of hypocrisy. Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not anything we are not. Generally we try to pass ourselves off as something special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching.

In spirit…

The longest, most arduous trip in the world is often the journey from the head to the heart. Until that round trip is completed, we remain at war with ourselves. And, of course, those at war with themselves are apt to make casualties of others, including friends and loved ones.

Before breakfast…

Relationships—not facts and reason—are the key to reality. By entering those relationships, knowledge of reality is unlocked (P Palmer).