Archive for December, 2007

December 30

The Circumference of Peace 2007

By Marsh Chapel

Sounds of Nativity

If we listen with the ears of the heart, the sounds of Christmas may just envelop us. And heal us.

A cough, Joseph turning.

A shuffle, Shepherds moving.

A murmur, a shudder, a shake.

Cattle, lowing.

The crisp crackle of hard soil, snow and ice, under foot.

Distant laughter, ribald and rough, out from the inn.

And Mary. Mary. Her yawn, her sigh, her song, her cry.

If we listen with the ears of the heart, the whole creation sings in ecumenical chorus, and the sounds of Christmas heal us by enveloping us in a circle of peace, whose circumference is without measure. Without measure…

You know, our time, and world and culture are fixed on limits. We lean more on what we can count, than on what we can count on. Christmas inquires about our sense of limits.

Limited Atonement

For instance, one great old Christian teacher was John Calvin. He produced no carols, by the way. For the Songs of Christmas we depend on others, like John and Charles Wesley. Yet while Calvin may not have capaciously explored the nativity, and while we may object to his narrowed and straitened theological perspective (total depravity, unmerited salvation, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), he may have provided us with a distant mirror in which to see ourselves. Especially his thought about limited peace, limited salvation, health, mercy, atonement.

Oh, we talk a good game about God’s limitless love…Yet…

Our lips may not acclaim limited atonement, but our habits of being do. Health care, for all or for some? Limited medical atonement. Good education (with books, safety, discipline, respect), for all or for some? Limited educational atonement. Employment (most people just need a job and a home), for all or for some? Limited vocational atonement. Heavenly hope, for all or for some? Limited spiritual atonement. We do tend to live and move and have our being as if the very temporary distinctions we so prize had, somehow, a lasting life.

A Broad Peace

Here is a Christmas pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth. On earth. With Ghandi along the Ganges. Beside Tutu on the southern cape. Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet. In Tegucigalpa with Lynn Baker. This is no Calvinist quietism, which so suddenly has taken over non-Catholic American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions: cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed. No, this is Christmas: warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful! I remember Augustine’s proverb. Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage.

A Tale of Two Tales

The early church told two stories about Jesus. The first about his death. The second about his life. The first, about the cross, is the older and more fundamental. The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight of the first, the code with which to decipher the first.

Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture. That is the first story. How we handle this story, later in the year, come Lent and Easter, is a perilous and serious responsibility, given the myth of redemptive violence in which so much of our national and global thinking is now enmeshed. This morning, wee do light a candle, light a candle, for our Pakistani siblings, in the hour of Ms. Bhutto’s tragic, unnecessary death. We wail with them, even as Rachel and others wailed long ago. Peace and preemption have no common ground. Violence that is preemptive, unilateral, reckless and unforeseeable, in any direction, by any hand, has no lasting future. You cannot make a world on such a premise. Global warming is indeed a threat. But so, and more so, is global arming. Especially this week we have every reason to recall that we will have no world, no world worthy of the name, if I legitimately may attack you merely on the basis of what I imagine or fear you might do.

The first story, the death story, the story of Jesus’ death, another season’s work, needs careful, careful handling. Today I might briefly say again what I have said to you recently: Remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person who defines the passion. Remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation after seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.

Later in the year we shall return to story one. At Christmas, we listen for story two, the stor
y of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus.

Who was Jesus? What life did his death complete? How does his word heal our hurt? And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first. Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven. Christmas in a violent world is meant to remind us, all of us, that you do not need to hate the world in order to love God. Here is the single greatest divide between liberalism and fundamentalism. Alf Landon said, “I can be a liberal and not be a spendthrift”. We might say, “I can be a Christian and not hate the world around”. Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all. Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Lent. And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive. Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace. Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did. That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm. What good news for us at the end of 2007! Such a passionate year we have had. Theologically, culturally, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have exuded passion this year. Now comes Christmas again to announce that there is more to Jesus than passion. There is the matter of peace as well.

New Creation

With great effort, the ancient writers join the God of Creation with the God of Redemption. The coming of the Savior does not limit the divine care to the story of redemption, but weaves the account of redemption into the fabric of creation. There is more to the Gospel than the cross. The ancient writers sense this and say it with gusto: angels to locate heavenly peace on earth; shepherds to locate peace on ordinary earth; kings to empower the sense of peace on earth; a poor mother to locate physically the Prince of Peace in the womb of earth. The location of peace is earth, and its circumference is without limit. God’s Christ is without limit.

There are many rooms in this mansion. In the OT, as translated into Greek long ago, Christ referred to Cyrus the King of Persia, who at last freed the Jews from their bondage in Babylon. ‘The Christ of God’ later Isaiah calls King Cyrus.

Then Christ meant the messianic conqueror who would bring apocalyptic cataclysm, the end of things as we know it, the reconstitution of Israel, and the reign of God–the main wellspring of hope for those breathing and sweating in Jesus’ day, including Jesus.

Christians then began to use the term to refer to Jesus, as sometimes we do, meaning that man who spoke Aramaic, rode a donkey, recited the Psalms thinking David wrote them all, walked only in Palestine, never married, and was crucified for blasphemy or treason or both.

A while later Christ, in Paul, becomes the instrument of God’s incursion into the world, to recreate the world, and is known in the cross and the resurrection.

Still later, when the Gospel writers pick up the story, Christ is the Risen Lord, preached by Paul, and narrated by unknown silent ghost writers who somehow put together the story of his earthly ministry, always spoken as a resurrection account, and always seen, if seen, in light of Easter.

John takes another trail, in the telling of the Christ, because for John none of the above really matters at all, save that Christ reveals God–wherever and whenever there is way, truth or life, there is Christ.

Still later, and drawing on all the above and more, the church fathers–early Christian writers–painstakingly and painfully tried to fit all this into neo-platonic thought, involving natures and persons, the human and the divine, the seen and the unseen, and described Christ in creeds, perhaps best and for sure first in the Apostles’ Creed–only Son, Lord. Most of the options then have been laid out by 325ad or so, to be regularly and fitfully retried and rehearsed into our time.

Even John Calvin, God bless his unhappy being, could write that we really can’t say, definitively, where Christ, as Lord, begins or ends. Is Christ only in the Methodist Church? Or only in the south? Or only in Christianity? Or only in America? Or only in religion? Or only in this world? Or only in the church of Rome? Or only in Bible believing churches? Or only in worship? Let us allow all the absolutists their absolute Absolution–absolutely!–Christ is the Absolute. Story one. But then, in the end, we also have to ask, Where is Christ? Leo Tolstoy wrote a Christmas Story about this once. “Where Love is, Christ is”. Story two.

The lovely decorated Christmas tree in your living room, with its natural grace adorned by symbolic beauty, is meant to connect the God of Creation with the God of Redemption. The story of Jesus the Christ is as wide and large and limitless, limitless, as the story of light throughout all creation.

Once we visited in the home of a friend whose lovely tree sported a particularly wonderful ornamentation. Oh, he had placed upon the boughs the more usual collection of angels, bulbs, lights, tinsel and all. But here and there, slowly illuminating and slowly darkening, there were five lighthouses. I had never seen a lighthouse as an ornament. As we shared life and faith in the living room, the slowly illuminating and slowly darkening lighthouses, all five, caught my imagination. With Wesley we affirm five means of grace, ever available, and savingly so, amid
the branches and brambles of life. Prayer: as close as breath. Sacraments: in the closest church, weekday and Sunday. Scripture: take and read, read and remember, remember and recite. Fasting: we might say walking, exercise, attention to discipline and diet. Christian conversation: a word spoken and heard that just may be healing enough to be true, or true enough to bring healing. Even in a sermon on the Sunday after Christmas.

An Invitation

At Christmas we can remember. We are humans before we are lovers. We are lovers before we are Christians. We are Christians before we are Protestants. We are Protestants before we are lovers. Are we lovers anymore? Where love is, Christ is.

If we listen with the ear of faith, the whole creation sings in ecumenical chorus, and the sounds of Christmas heal us by enveloping us in a circle of peace, whose circumference is without measure.

A circle with an unlimited circumference inevitably includes…you. You may decide today to lead a Christian life. To worship every Sunday. To pray every morning. To tithe every dollar. To take up the way of peace, by loving and giving. You may decide upon this path this morning. Do.

The birth of Christ is for you.

His way of life is for you.

His manner of obedience is for you.

His church is open to you.

His happiness is for you.

His love is for you.

His death is for you.

His life is for you.

His discipline is for you .

You see, you really did get a special gift this Christmas!

If we listen with imaginative ears, the sounds of Christmas envelop us and heal us.

A cough, Joseph turning.

A shuffle, Shepherds moving.

A murmur, a shudder, a shake.

Cattle, lowing.

The crisp crackle of hard soil, snow and ice, under foot.

Distant laughter, ribald and rough, out from the inn.

And Mary. Her yawn, her sigh, her song, her cry.

December 23

Second Birth

By Marsh Chapel


We greet you this morning from the banks of the River Charles. We send a Christmas greeting across the country and beyond, a word of hope.

In this season of travel and transformation, travel with me for a few minutes toward a religious transformation, a second birth. Others, across the land, are traveling in this season of transformation. We greet send them our greetings as well.

To David and Sara Beth and their families in Connecticut.

To Jay and his family who are traveling to Galveston.

To John and his family who are busy with the struggles and rhythms of mourning.

To Ray fixing the bulbs on a Christmas tree out in the big sky country.

To James and Mary who are lonely in the hour of change.

To John and his extended family in Newton.

To Roy listening with care in Rhode Island.

To Patrick and Barbara, Darell and MaryAnna, Paula and Rick, preparing for Christmas.

To Ellie and all children on the shores of Lake Michigan.

To Sam clearing the snow from his driveway.

To Mark visiting relatives in Central Texas.

To children who have come home for Christmas.

A Merry Christmas to you all. Although we cannot see you, we can see you. I see you.

Listening for the Gospel

It is our privilege week by week in music and liturgy and word to reach out across the country and beyond, bringing a word of hope. Ours is a light voice, in a way, a veritable whisper from the east coast, a reminder of, an evocation of a particular kind of life and love. Ours is a light national voice. For many decades, by grace and gift, our voice has entered your home and others. Thanks for the invitation.

Perhaps this morning you are preparing a Sunday meal. You are rustling the pantry for potatoes to peel and to cook. Here you are with the radio adjusted. You have remembered to adjust the dial, and just in time. A familiar introit has called us to prayer. There are hymns, hymns sung, and you hear them particularly well when, as sometimes he does, the choir master has us sing a-capella. The kitchen preparation and peeling continue. You recognize again a Kyrie, a sung sorrow, crucial to being human today. Mercy, have mercy. Some courageous soul has lead a psalm. Anthem, hymn, reading, prayer. And a story so well known that it is unknown. A story of birth. Let us move along side you as you work at the counter. Let us listen as you listen, word by word and note by note. Let there be no separation between what is said and what is heard. Let the snow filter fully down this morning, snow upon snow. Let the message of the day be yours and ours. Together.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ, the birth of the Christ took place in this way…

Ordinary Extraordinary

Since, for you and me, this morning is an ordinary Sunday morning, in pulpit or potato peelings, which remembers a most extraordinary occurrence, perhaps we could begin to follow the story, if there is any way to follow the story, by narrating the connection of these two, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Jesus’ birth is like all births, in that physical sense utterly predictable. Yet ask yourself where in life you have felt closer to miracle than at the moment of birth. An ordinary extraordinary. Today the birth is narrated inside the story of an engagement. Women and men find one another, generation to generation. Yet this connection comes, to Joseph’s astonishment, with a carried blessing. Mary is found to be with child. Extraordinary though ordinary. A problem identified is a problem solved. So Joseph plans to erase the engagement, when the time is right, and in a gentle way, a prudent way. But his prudence is confounded in a dream. Ordinary prudence, extraordinary dream. He remembers his dream. Do you remember yours? Sit quietly a moment when you wake up. See if there is a panoply of wonder that you have brought from the arms of Morpheus. Whether or not the mind is an idol factory, as unhappy Calvin thought, the mind certainly is a story factory, able without provocation and without consciousness to spin a tale, all night long. In the dream, no odd thing a dream, there is a name given, an extraordinary name, a saving name. Jesus. He saves his people from their sin. In any case, here is an account of a husband and wife and child. So it goes. But no! The simple tale confirms a plan set from the beginning of the beginnings of beginning. Up Joseph, up! He wakes. He does. He takes. Yet…he knows her not. Behold an ancient narrative, swinging our way again this season on the hinges of ordinary experience and extraordinary expectation.

Second Birth

It is a weekly thing to write and preach a sermon, or to prepare and serve a meal, and you and I, in pulpit and among potatoes, we have more than something in common. Yet the telling of Christmas, from the very first, was about more than one birth, more than one kind of birth. The gospel writer is trying to say what cannot readily be said, to connect the sense of the extraordinary with the experience of the ordinary. There were many births in first century Palestine. To this one birth there came attached a second birth. His birth, somehow, is our own.

Charles Wesley caught the marrow of the message in a phrase: “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth”. For the Wesleys both, it was the incarnation of Christ, his birth and life and word made flesh, which rooted and grounded their reverence. The English carols we most love, both those Charles wrote, and those that influenced him and were influenced by him, bring their disciplined obedience to a fever pitch.

Our lessons today bring harmonic support to the intersection of the ordinary with the extraordinary. Isaiah offers a warning, a prophetic utterance in the midst of political chaos. The Psalmist expresses a desire to see the face of God shining on God’s people. Paul enters his conversation with the Romans, declaring his service to the Christ whose birth we now celebrate. Whether in prophecy or in song or in address, the voices of today’s Scriptures also lift up the antinomies of earthly heaven and heavenly earth.

What does the Scripture mean by the birth of the Christ, and what especially does this mean for us, for our second birth, as the hymn has it?

Are we able to enter again into our mother’s womb, either in figure or in truth? But this is the question Nicodemus raised, to no avail. We cannot return to an earlier condition, nor to an earlier conception of an earlier condition. The second birth clearly is not a physical or conceptual return, or recapitulation.

Are we to assume a second naivete, at the heart of the Wesleyan second birth. Paul Ricouer, and others using other terms, have recalled to us the mature, midlife importance of such a second birth. But this individual experience and expression finds no foothold in today’s lesson. Our lesson, Matthew’s individual account of nativity, is told to honor the importance of a root in religious tradition. In the case of Matthew, this tradition is prophetic Judaism, as interpreted in late first century Koine Greek, perhaps by a Jewish Christian, but possibly also by a Gentile who knew and appreciated Judaism.

The Scripture clearly connects the meaning of the birth with the meaning of the name of the newborn, ‘one who will save his people from their sins’. Paul may speak of the Christ as the Lord of a new creation. Mark may affirm the Christ as hidden and crucified. John may herald the Christ at his coming as one with God, revealing God. But Matthew early and late acclaims the atonement wrought in Christ, the healing from past error, the steady saving removal to higher ground. He will save his people from their sins. This is a great hope, the hope of freedom, deliverance from what has hurt in the past. When such saving liberation occurs, there is a kind of second birth, a new lease on life, a new life. More particularly, in Matthew the second birth is a new lease on life for an older religion.

A Second Look at Religion

Something somehow has brought you to the kitchen on a Sunday morning. Here you are. Increasingly, given the pulpit from which I now preach, I am curious about the faithful lives of those who once came to church. I think about the many ways in which women and men are hurt in or by the life of the church. Given my vocation and my commitments, it can be somewhat difficult and painful so to meditate. I think of people who have had their children mistreated, or worse, by religious leaders. This would make one lastingly distrustful of the grammar of faith. Or, in another light, I think of those who themselves have been crushed, or worse, in the inevitable clashes of mind and heart in any real community, including the church. Looking from yet another angle, I think of those who have found their very humanity challenged, or worse, in the glacially slow growth to change in religious community. I think of those who have born the hurt of pastoral malfeasance. Many more there are, to look yet again at those who once went to church, who simply waited and waited for a true word, a courageous word, an honest word, and heard none. They grew old waiting for a real sermon, or at least a sermon they thought was a real sermon. I think of those who were given a small, tidy, false image of God, which lasted until the first large, messy, real experience of life. I think of those whose prayers were not answered, not even in the negative. And I think of those who simply could not any longer endure the ugliness, the willful lack of attention to glory and wonder and beauty. There are as many stories as there are empty pews in New England churches. Some of the stories I know. Others of the stories I can imagine. Still others of the stories I expect to hear.

Yet, here is a Christmas word. You are still listening, if you are listening. I am still preaching, for a few more minutes. And we are together, amid ordinary peelings and regular pulpit, to one side, and a sense of the Extraordinary on the other. Week by week, from the Marsh pulpit, I am reaching out to those who were born, once. People listen. Sometimes they respond. For all the sorrow, there is still, on your part, and on mine, and on others’, a listening ear, a willingness to tune in, a hard to articulate longing, a reaching toward…Another. What is that listening? What is that willingness? What is that longing?

One form of the second birth is here. One form. I could speak another day about a second naivete, a second birth of wonder, love and praise. But today, given this passage and given this congregation, virtual and actual, I muse with you about a second nativity, a second birth. The birth of a second sort of life, following after all the carnage of the first religious experience. A second religious birth, a second connection, a second opening. You would not listen if there were not some meager eagerness to wake up to…Another. Generosity, compassion, forgiveness—these are the hallmarks and doorways into that second birth. You have the heart to give something to others, generously to give something without expecting any personal
return. You have the spirit to be present with someone whose own spirit is sore, spiritually to walk with a fellow human being. You have the soul to forgive a past fault, whether it was thirty days or thirty years ago, mercifully to move on, and say so, and mean it. Your generosity, your compassion, your forgiveness—at least your longing for and leaning toward and listening to them—these are the natal cries of a second birth. You may be ready to practice religion, your real religion, again. Draw your lines before you set out. Determine, by list, what you will most desire. Determine, by list, what you will not accept. I desire rich music, strong preaching, evident kindness. I will not accept personal abuse, pedophilia, gay bashing. Draw your lines. Then set out.

Of course we invite you here. You know us. Our work protects the possibility of healthy non-fundamentalist ministry, in the next two generations. Non-fundamentalist ministry refers to that perspective on life and those habits of work enjoyed by those who love the Scripture, who honor the tradition, who admire the reason, and who respect actual experience. Rudolph Bultmann, John Wesley, Charles Darwin, and Howard Thurman come to mind: Bultmann on demythologization, Wesley on ordination, or Darwin on evolution, or Thurman on presence.


The sermon is almost done. How are you doing in the kitchen with the potatoes? It is a big world. Life is long. There is more to life than meets the eye. About this time of year, every year, we sing a carol about the birth of Christ, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Perhaps this year, the carol will be yours, sung from the heart.

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

In the new year, you may be given a second birth, a new start on a real religious life. Howard Thurman would not be surprised:

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

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner

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

December 9

On Toward a Common Hope

By Marsh Chapel

Advent II: Lectionary Passages

By grace we pilgrim people are marching on toward a common hope.

The symbolic breadth of Isaiah and Mark’s sharp challenge to service tell us so.


In the first place, come Sunday and come to think of it, we are inextricably tangled up with each other. We are walking together. You are yourself and your circumstance, your identity is your situated identity. Ortega perseveres. Nearby to this place of worship are bruised brothers and sisters.

Nearby to this place of worship there is a lone woman raising two daughters and working two jobs. Nearby to this place of worship there is an older man dancing to his death around a bottle. Nearby to this place of worship there is a 19 year old, coming of age, large of body and empty in soul. Nearby to this place of worship there lives a brilliant, bitter bigot. Nearby to this place of worship there are athletes whose greatness longs and yearns for a commensurate grace. Nearby to this place are people who bite and devour one another, careless that they might be consumed by one another.

These folks are your situation. They are you. It barely needs saying, but a sermon is about saying, so: if you find meaning here, bring someone with you; if you find fellowship here, bring someone with you; if you find power here, bring someone with you. And if you find these not, you should another place where you do. We pilgrims are marching toward a common hope—shared in simplicity, simple in its sharing.


In the second place, day by day and week by week, in our own experience, we together are ‘crossing the river’. You only cross a river once. Every day this globe gets noticeable smaller. You do not get to Bethlehem, in any of its forms, without a dose of the river Jordan. Stonewall Jackson died saying ‘let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees’. It fits. On toward a common hope we walk, but to get there we cross over the river. The river Jordan, deep and cold…The river whose streams make glad the City of God…The riverside, down along which we lay down sword and shield, we put on long white robe…The deep river, home, milk, honey, on the other side.

Speaking of the river, as I walked along the banks of Charles last month, trudging over for to Harvard toward a word of common hope, the first 2007 Noble Lecture, the river, a hope shimmering and light, both electric and cosmic, spoke up from the dark reflective river. I had to be careful to listen to the night, while remembering to be careful about the relationships between pedestrians and motorists, the stronger and weaker, and the function of symbols, both de jure and de facto. (Red means stop? Suggests stop? Implies stop?) Symbol and service hovered Tuesday evening, but the river still spoke. To paraphrase an earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman: ‘The river and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings. The river at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.’

The lectures that week illumined, lightened our darkness. How could we not be thankful? I am grateful to Rev. Professor Gomes for hosting each year these important lectures, and inviting three of us to respond. He chose a timely teacher. Is it not remarkable that such a voice as our speaker’s has come along, in full measure, at just the time in world history when her insight and imagination have been needed and appreciated? She has brought light to the vast night dimness in this land about religions, religion, world religions, other religions. We have needed, we need more of this light.

Our speaker was Karen Armstrong.

Perhaps we could briefly express also the gratitude of many lay people and clergy in recent years who have benefited from her work. Many have read her comprehensive religious history, A HISTORY OF GOD which traces the development of monotheism, from its inception to the present. Study groups have used her A BATTLE FOR GOD which traces the history of religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism she shows is a modern movement in that it is reacting to aspects of modernism. Ministers and priests have read with profit her histories of BUDDHISM, and ISLAM, her ONE CITY THREE FAITHS, a history of Jerusalem. I am right now enjoying her memoir THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. In writing that is clear, concise, readable and understandable, she has become a trusted public voice for those who are outside of organized religion, as well as for those within it. She has done her part to address the problem of American religious illiteracy, a problem analyzed and addressed with frequency on both sides of this river. After 9/11 she gave many people a balanced, clear conception of religious history, showing some of the historical, cultural, theological and other reasons for the way things occur, and so giving this emerging generation a move through the world instead of being stuck. Indeed, “no ideology is adequate to the desperate needs of this frightening and transitional period in history”.

We in academia have no need or reason to disparage those doing the hard work of synthesizing and communicating the rudiments of religious traditions in ways that lead to a common hope. Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith and others need those in the following ranks to continue to convey a common hope.

Her work comes readily to mind as we here again the seasonal citation of Isaiah and the seasonal condemnation of John the Baptist.


For in the third place, our scriptural inheritance helps us on toward a common hope.

Symbol, hope filled symbol, is Isaiah’s hymn. So unlikely, this grand hope, yet here it is. So unearthly, this great hope, yet here it is on earth. So untamed, this giant hope, and yet here it is.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb

And the leopard shall lie down with the kid

And the calf and the lion and the fatling together

And a little child shall lead them

The cow and the bear shall feed

Their young shall lie down together

And the lion shall eat straw like the ox

The sucking child shall put his hand on the adder’s dean.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;

For the earth shall be full of the glory of God

As the waters cover the sea.

Service, fruit befitting repentance, is John’s interest. There he is again, out along the river. You can’t miss him. Dressed in camel’s hair. Feasting on locusts and wild honey. Growling, shrieking in the cold wild outback. Strong hard words. Prepare. Make. Straight. All Jerusalem went. All Judea went. All the region went.

Our three evenings of conversation last month, across the river, about mystery and mercy inspired, or provoked, several responses. In fact, the invitational and dialogical spirit of the lectures directly encouraged such responses. Think of some of the more memorable comments along the way: ‘humans need the search for meaning to be human’; ‘scripture teaches nothing but charity’; ‘we need to embrace our own a-theism’. And think of the memorable phrases as well: ‘unskillful atheism’; ‘proselytizing theism’; ‘cellphone captivity’; ‘endless invention’. I made such a response. It was an Advent response, one part Isaiah and one part Mark, one part sprawling symbol and one part jarring service.


In the fourth place, our march toward a common hope, shared and simple, asks something of us in our time. Life so lived, leaning toward hope, especially asks of us a reselection of symbols and a recommitment to service.

The dual emphasis upon mystery and charity, within these lectures, recalls the corrective and interpretative lines of 1 John 4, written 1900 years ago as a re-reading of the Gospel of John itself. While affirming the piercingly high Christology of the Fourth Gospel, the author of 1 John unites two sharp contrasts, in the fourth chapter of that epistle. “No one has ever seen God”. Symbol—open, apophatic, symbol. “Let us love one another”. Service—the challenge for personal service. In fact as Amos Wilder (the 1956 Noble lecturer) renders the passage: ‘one who does not love has not even begun to know God’.

We have been steadily and warmly invited into relationship. In that spirit I here identify two openings for further conversation, two footnotes to all that has been said, one about symbol and one about service.

With symbol, we are reminded of Chesterton’s remark that ‘the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder’. With service, we are reminded of Ghandi’s remark that ‘to the hungry God must appear if at all as food’. The first captures the message of religion as symbol, the second the message of religion as service.

First, symbol.

We are encouraged selectively to consider our selection of symbols, ‘to selectively choose those elements that will inspire a counter narrative of compassion.’ This may mean some shifting of emphasis for us in our choice of primary symbols. For instance, one primary contemporary religious symbol is the rainbow. Given the emphasis presented in these evenings, as people of faith, perhaps we should be shifting our symbolic focus from the rainbow to the firmament, from promise to mystery, from covenant to creation, from Noah (and Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah) to Adam, from Genesis 9 to Genesis 1, from religious symbols, symbols of community and covenant, ironically, to life symbols, unreligious symbols, post-confessional symbols, and, in WC Smith’s phrase, “a world theology”, though not, of course, a ‘world religion’. At Boston University, you will find dear, close colleagues, partners in this project, both with regard to mystery and with regard to charity. Some espouse an apophatic theology, some strongly affirm the centrality of the imagination, some publicly affirm the therapeutic value of religious literacy. In our interpretation and preaching we have tried to recall the elements of our shared experience which inspire a common faith, a common ground, and a common hope. In our experience we share many things, as we have sung before:

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, and as my friend says, after forty its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Our selection of central symbols may shift in this ‘frightening transitional period’.

For instance, think about the biblical language of heaven. Heavenly language and imagery draw us on toward a common hope. Look by cybermagic this afternoon at Jonathan Edwards sermon on heaven. We think of hell when we think of Edwards. But his sermon on heaven is surprisingly heavenly. We could use in our time his cadence of common hope.

I am convicted and astounded by the power of Edward’s symbolic speech about heaven. His more contentious, critical and ornery passages I pass by. But his writing on heaven is heavenly. Heaven is a world of love, he preaches, with four applications. Contention and strife make us less fit for heaven. Possession of such a common hope makes us happy—happy for regeneration, happy to have such a hope, happy to work hard to be worthy of it. Such a real hope alarms everything unheavenly in us. So let us earnestly seek heaven, a common hope: less indulgence, more exercise, some persevereance, keen hope and this conclusion:

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

Reselect your symbols with an eye to the common hope.

Second, service.

As Karen Armstrong argued with regard to Genesis 1, religious insight comes often in rebuttal of popular, or current perspectives. Hence, the two creation accounts of Genesis, read with a kind of mirror reading, reject the Babylonian creation myths. Creation is about peace not conflict. We are offered a therapeutic cosmology. God saw everything created, and it was good. Today, it may be that both imagination and sheer creativity together will provide a healing, and fruitful interpretation both of scripture and of life. Thought and word, that is, may have to give way to deed, to service, for the creation myth to be heard as creative. One example involves our predicament in Iraq. Theological perspectives about our catastrophe in Iraq, great thoughts, were offered and ignored, over these five years. Preaching in many pulpits, strong words, were uttered and forgotten, over these five years. Thought. Word. Now it may be the time for deed. In specific, as we are considering across the river in your sister church, it may be the hour for communities of faith to look hard at the 2.5 million Iraqi refugees displaced and worse by our hubris, and do something about them. We may need to do some theology before we write any more theology. Charity may require, well, charity. Another example comes from the work and life of the interfaith youth movement. They are practicing the truth of what has been spoken here. They too affirm that belief which does not imitate God’s benevolence is sterile, that scripture is a parable of compassion leading to an experience of the divine, that we want to transcend resentment (or in Niehbuhr’s phrase, to ‘develop a spiritual discipline against resentment). But their miqra, their summons to action, is service itself. Discussion of symbols and scriptures is done after, and on the basis of, the shared experience of service to the poor.

The central significance of service may expand in this ‘frightening and transitional period of history.’

Today I again challenge this congregation, actual and virtual, to pray with earnest discernment about our place in the hard coming work of refugee resettlement. Several of you know have responded. Next Sunday there is a meeting, across the river, for which Br. Larry is seeking participants. Let your life speak.

Recommit to service as the shared basis for a shared common hope.


In the fifth place, and lastly, symbol and service have no better friend than Marsh chapel and its root and branch, from Little and Thurman, through Roberts one to five, and well on into the future

The symbolic breadth of Isaiah and Matthew’s sharp challenge to service tell us so.

They remind us: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. They remind us: The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

December 3

Overture to a New Creation: How to Live in Hope

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 21: 25-36

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and … the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

In the kitchen this morning, it may be, there is a man watching and listening. It is a distracted watching and a listless listening, to be sure. Loss and depression take there toll, and why wouldn’t I be over his death after two years anyway? Come Sunday, another Sunday morning, and here I am and here she is not.

The nibbling joys of Sunday stay. Coffee. A pastry. The radio carrying music and word, popular and religious. Newspapers strewn. Attending church in slippers. The comforting sameness of the radio that has been on, he does not flinch to notice it, all day and all night and all day and all night. A presence, in the dark.

Now the days are short, and with the gray sky and the shorten day, the season seems like an endless Bergman film, gray and clouded.

You may know this good person. You may be he, or he you. Or not. He is struggling with, wrestling against despair, which sometimes feels like—he remembers the recent obituary of William Styron—what Styron called ‘the despair beyond despair’ (NYTimes, 10.18.06). He earned the naming rights.

Now in this smaller, suburban home, there is a view of the field beyond. Today, windswept, stubbled, empty. He turns back to the paper. The radio carries tune and phrase, now a talk show, now a recording, now a worship service.

He wonders a moment about the difference between being lonely and being alone.

Then—it takes an effort—to the newspaper again. But concentration falters. It is an up hill climb. The gaiety of shopping, here, and the carnage of war, there, sitting side by each, column by column, like eggs and bacon on a worn platter. How can this have come to pass? One in seven of our young people has killed, by accident, a civilian. 3000 have died, on our side. 15,000 serious casualties. 50,000 on the other. And no easy way forward or backward or out. He thinks of her neighbor’s son, just finished at West Point.

The blanket of despond settles ever thicker on top of distraction and listlessness.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation …and the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

The hymn sung in the service, just there, reminds him of fifty years ago, when they were young and living in the city of Boston, now a two hour drive away. On Sunday they would make a circuit. One day to hear Howard Thurman at the Marsh Chapel. One day to Trinity Episcopal and Theodore Ferris. One day across the river to Harvard Memorial Church and George Buttrick. It was a time of hope! It was time of a common hope! Where had it gone?

His spouse, a Presbyterian by temperament, preferred Buttrick. Where was that collection of sermons? There. He pulls it down, and finds the underline passage. And the line she loved to quote from Buttrick, “we should not know hope had we not known despair” (Sermons from a University Pulpit, 56).

Now the sermon of the service has commenced, a newer voice, flat vowels, slower cadence, middle Atlantic sound. There is the announcement, at Advent, of an overture to a New Covenant. On a reliable hope hangs our future, says this less familiar voice. He is glad to have had the apocalyptic myth, from the ancient church, explained a week before. This past language and imagery, metaphorically so curiously modern, but theologically now empty. The world did not end in the first century, thank God! And all our sins, tragedies, and errors, will not themselves end it in the 21st, though we must make haste to make peace.

And the memory of fifty years past, and the hint of honesty and hope in the radio sound, and the flood of recognition, in gratitude, for each day.

As Styron also wrote, the one creditable thing about depression is that, in many cases, it can be conquered (ibid).

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation… and the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

The service, its music and word, hum along in background. He is on the bridge, the service in the stern. The wind out on the bay is rough, carrying the salt from the sea, and in its memories carrying the salt of many wounds.

One of the service hymns reminds him of another. Finlandia. They were singing in the great Trinity Cathedral those years ago…

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

There is hope in every prayer. He feels a coursing hope moving through his mind for the moment. He puts a note on the refrigerator: Hope—a daily prayer.

Hope gives way to thought.

He sees again the book of poetry about which he had been thinking. Seamus Heaney:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme

In the distance the preacher’s voice hums along on the radio.

There is that feeling. A feeling of absolute dependence? A feeling of full acceptance? A feeling of freedom? Old names from her studies in religion swirl around like leaves—Schleiermacher, Tillich, ML King. A prayer, a thought, a deed. Ways to live in hope. To pray, each day. To think, each week. To act, each month.

He is free, unlike the pew bound, to bounce up and flick through a well worn collection of family readings. In those years they would make clippings when something heard, or something in the paper stood out.

He puts a second note on the refrigerator: Hope: a daily thought.

Hope gives way to thought. Thought gives way to deed.

He thumbs along, thumbing through the yellowed clippings.

Here is one from South Africa. Now his thought wanders to all that has happened, and peaceably, there…

Didn’t he read just recently about laws to protect a broad freedom to marry like those in his own state? He muses: Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, Massachusetts—all the great, free lands…

Great lands of great minds past:

Pierre Eliot Trudeau (luck is when preparation and opportunity meet…neighboring the USA is like sleeping next to an Elephant*)

Baruch Spinoza (Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice*)

Miguel de Unamuno (Warmth, warmth warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost*)

Nelson Mandela (I am not truly free, if I am taking away someone else’s freedom*),

And then the words of a Bay State native, Robert F Kennedy, Cape Town, 6/66, forty years old…

We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because of the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do*. (* RAH notes)

A third note he puts on the refrigerator: Hope: A daily deed.

And what shall I do?

Attend a meeting

Write a letter

Sign a check

Listen to an adversary

Visit a victim

Offer a gift

Forgive an assailant

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation …and the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

Now the choir has lifted its voice in praise. There is the cascading beauty of the blended voices.

Says he, to no one present, to one in particular.

‘I have known despair and I have known hope. Both. And well. And I shall them both again. Both. And well. But I will set my sail, into the teeth of the off shore wind. And I will live in hope. In daily prayer. In daily thought. In daily deed.’

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed

Perplexed, but not driven to despair

Persecuted, but not forsaken

Struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor. 4: 6)

December 2

The Coming of the Son of Man

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 24: 36-44

Advent 1, Bach Cantata, Eucharist

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

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

Jesus. Jesus may have used this phrase, though over late night refreshment in 1997 Marcus Borg once pushed hard that it is a later church appellation. It may have been both. This phrase, coming out Daniel chapter 7 (did Jesus hear this read and hold it in memory?) and the stock Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, was as much a part of his environment as the sandals on his feet, the donkey which he rode, the Aramaic which he spoke, the Palestinian countryside which he loved, and the end of time which he expected, in the contemporary generation. Did he understand himself to be that figure? We cannot see and we cannot say, though I think it unlikely. It is Mark and the author Enoch who have given us the ‘Son of Man’ in its full sense, and it is Matthew alone among the Gospel writers who use the ‘coming’ in a technical sense (so Perrin, IBDS 834). The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would think or like.

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

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

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

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

Sleepers awake! There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive! There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life. You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you. It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole. Begin. You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your ownmost self. It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do. Begin. You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works. Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work? Do so. But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being. Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment. You are being sold a bill of goods, here. Be watchful. It takes time to self interpret that deceptively crus
hing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’. Begin. You do not have forever to experience Presence. It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made. It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach. Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s. Begin.

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