June 7

A Common Prayer

By Marsh Chapel


The ministry of Marsh Chapel, in this decade, quickens in connection with voice, vocation and volume. The voice of this pulpit, around the globe, is lifted and shared, in the liberality of the gospel, as it has been from the time of our first Dean, Dr. Franklin H. Littell. Our Psalm today celebrates voice. The vocation to service, in ministry and culture, to which we invite young people every day, is our joy and hope, this day, as it was in exuberance over lunch last Sunday. Our lesson today celebrates vocation. The volume, simply put, the increasing worshipping presence of the people of God, grows in ordered worship, as we lift hymns in four part harmony, enjoy choral music both historic and contemporary, and ponder the word, with head and heart, to ‘unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’, as the lost are found. The gospel today speaks of the lost and the found. We invite you to step alongside the ministry of Marsh Chapel, our shared common prayer, in voice, vocation and volume.

1. Voice

First, voice.

The hallowed predecessors who occupied this pulpit in the cradle of liberty and the cradle of Methodist theology are names, and voices, you mostly know. Robert Cummings Neville. Robert Watts Thornburg. Richard Nesmith. Robert Hammil. Howard Thurman. And Franklin Littell.

Dr. Franklin Littell was the first Dean to occupy this pulpit. President Daniel Marsh brought him here in the early 1950’s. As recently as May of 2006, Littell was able at age 88 to preach here, as he did that spring at commencement (for the School of Theology). A friend, colleague, contemporary and fly fishing partner of our dear friend Dr. Ray Hart, Littell brought a stirring sermon to that moment just three years ago. You may know that Littell died just recently, in late May.

Or maybe both his life and death are unfamiliar territory for you. In fact, I guess that such is the case for many, and so, come October, I am planning to preach a full sermon titled ‘Remembering Littell’ for Alumni Weekend.

We at Marsh Chapel, and we at Boston University may not yet have the largest financial endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. One day, that may change. If you would like to help us to help that to change, please let me know. Be assured that we will do whatever we can for your personal and spiritual welfare, in gratitude. But there is another way in which Marsh Chapel, and Boston University may already have the largest endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. Our riches are vocal. Our largest endowment is not financial but audible, not monetary but epistolary, not in the coin of the realm but in the language of the heart. Boston University, and centrally within the University, Marsh Chapel, is a treasure store of voice. You notice that, probably, every Sunday when you come across the plaza, and pass the sculpture and monument to Martin Luther King, birds in flight. Said Karl Barth, ‘The gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’. But King’s voice was not only or mainly a solo voice. He sang in a choir, in choro novo. He sang as one bird in the flock. Howard Thurman sang with him, for example. So did Allan Knight Chalmers. Robert Hamill’s voice was known in his regular column in motive magazine. Littell lead the way. Remember today three features of Littell’s voice.

He was the father of holocaust studies. Littell was the first to offer courses, formal study, in the area of the holocaust. Throughout his life, with passion, and as a Methodist preacher, he continuously challenged the Christian community to take emotional responsibility for the horrors of the holocaust. Yesterday, rightly, we honored those who physically, and in some cases ultimately, took responsibility for stopping the Third Reich. Littell, in his time here and later in his long career, never stopped pushing, preaching, even attacking his own Christian church to look hard, deep, and long at Auschwitz. He did so from this pulpit. He did so later as a college President, and he did so in scores of classrooms from Temple, to Emory, to Chicago. Remember his words: “Most gentiles, even church leaders, have not confronted the Holocaust and its lessons for the present day… It is important, especially for Jewish children, to know that in those terrible years not all the gentiles in Christendom were either perpetrators or passive spectators,” (NYT obit)

Likewise, Littell gracefully and steadily combined learning and piety. His ministry embraced both head and heart, and actually could not have been conceived or developed without such a real, even radical integration of the mind and the spirit. His passion about the holocaust, for instance, began out of a revulsion he felt as a student in Germany in 1939, attending a Hitler rally. He never forget the feeling of that early experience, and that feeling fueled his work through the years. Feelings are more than emotions, more than sentiment. They are the great steed, the great horse on which we ride. The mind is the bit and bridle, as Wesley somewhere wrote. He pressed the church, our church, to remember the great Kingswood hymn of Charles Wesley: ‘to unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’. So he was a preacher who also was President of Iowa Wesleyan. He was a pastor, who also taught and wrote. He was a person of faith, who saw the need to combine mind and heart.

In addition, and to my great benefit, Littell was an early supporter and even translator and commentator on the work of Rudolph Bultmann, still an important voice in the study of the New Testament.

Holocaust, head and heart united, the critical study of the New Testament—these are three gifts of Littell to our time. His voice continues to bless us. Voice, the liberality of the gospel, is our central mission.

2. Vocation

Second, vocation.

Our time needs a cultural revolution as much or more than a theological reformation. The peace of God will come to earth as much at the urging and prompting of those committed to cultural transformation as through those engaged in the work of religious or even theological reconstruction. It is striking just how much religious expression is shaped, even determined, by the surrounding culture. Hence, while we hunt every work day for women and men who are called to preach—is that you?—we also here at Marsh Chapel are vigorous in our celebration of those called to service of other saving, healthy forms.

To that end, something powerful happened here last Sunday. And I am not referring to worship, prayer, sermon, or collection, our Sunday service at 11am, though I hope and
trust that we in our way offered our best selves to God in that hour of prayer. No, the wind of grace blew through here last Sunday at lunch as well.

Carefully and covertly, our lay leaders hatched a plan for a surprise lunch, to honor three young women of our congregation. One is a becoming a teacher, one a lawyer, and one is working on the hospitality of the church. Our lay leaders emailed and called and cooked up a smorgasbord for lunch. I doubt that any church luncheon was offered that was more savory and more calorific than that provided last Sunday. I think we lived on its effect for two days. Of course a beautiful cake concluded the repast. Our women and men decorated the room with balloons and crepe paper. They set out the table. The arranged for gifts. These gifts were delicately and carefully wrapped. I emphasize the detail of these gifts because the commitment to excellence in the manner of giving was so pronounced. People notice when things are done well. Excellence, enjoyment of people, and entrepreneurial spirit are three things that grow churches. I mean excellence at anything, from mowing the lawn to preaching to wrapping gifts with style.

After the meal, formal speeches and prayers were made. There was much humor. We sang also some happy birthday greetings. Then a charismatic transfer occurred. I am going to use the term ‘ordination’, only because you get the sense from it of what ‘went down’ last Sunday after lunch. The three women, none preachers, but all heading into ministry, were summoned forward. They were given gifts, practical and beautiful, helpful and playful. Then the community listened as they told the truth about their lives, and their vocations. One is going to work as urban teacher in Missouri. One is going to practice law for the greater good in Boston. One is going to continue to fan the flames of life and hospitable growth in a church not far from here, actually, Marsh Chapel itself. In the speaking, and listening, a transfer of charisma, of gifts, accompanied the transfer of physical gifts. No kneeling occurred, no hands were laid upon heads, no stoles or robes were put on. Yet an ordination of a truly profound sort occurred. Three young women named their callings, and the community cheered.

This is how the world gets better, when young people and once young people connect their deepest passions with the world’s greatest needs. It was a moment that preached out the following question: ‘and how about you?’ Lunch became a charismatic moment last week, a moment of transfer of charismata. Vocation, the liberality of the gospel set to work, is our central calling.

3. Volume

Third, volume.

In a moment we shall celebrate together Holy Communion. If you are listening from afar and would like to have someone bring communion to your home, call the chapel, and we will endeavor to do so. One by one, heart by heart, the good news of love divine changes people for the better. The lost are found. It is a moment of true joy, as our gospel today told us.

Many years ago, Jan and I were serving a little church in Ithaca, New York. We had two little children, and one beagle puppy. The salary was $8,000 a year, the home modest, the work challenging, the learning curve steep. It seemed like it was always Saturday night, and the sermon awaiting its writing.

One Saturday Jan came home in the morning from the grocery store in tears. Somehow she had lost her engagement ring. The ring itself was modest enough, a family heirloom, but nonetheless, a symbol at the heart of things. After a little breakfast, she had been shopping while the children were sleeping, and I was trying to figure out what to say the next day. We spent the later morning and all afternoon hunting for the ring. We went back to the grocery. We walked every aisle. We searched behind cereal boxes, and looked under grapefruit. We enlisted the help of kindly overworked store attendants. Dusk came, no ring. What a sad Saturday night! No ring, no sermon, no joy in Ithaca that night. Finally, the kids went down and Jan went off to bed. Sunday morning loomed, and the wind was just not in the sails.

About ten o’clock I went down into the kitchen. As every writer knows, the only cure for writer’s block is…eating. Even when there is no cure, the eating itself is, like virtue, its own reward. So I poured some juice. Then I waffled between cookies and toast, and settled on a piece of toast, comfort food. There was only one piece of bread left in the loaf, and I struggled to pull it out of the bag. As I did, I felt something. That is something that happens with bread and grape juice, sometimes. You feel something. I felt around in the bottom of that forlorn bread bag. Something small and hard, something round, something smooth, something good—I felt it. And there it was. A simple little ring, with a small diamond, the lost, now found. Is there a more joyful moment than this? Truly I tell you, there is joy in heaven, when the lost are found.

We are coming to the table in a moment. When you eat this bread and drink this cup, there is remembrance, there is presence, and there is thanksgiving, all in one. In feasting on the love of God, you are meant to turn up the volume, here at Marsh Chapel, for that love of God. Heart warmed, you are meant to warm other hearts. You are found, and you have found something, now go and find others for whom such divine discovery has yet to happen. Volume, the liberality of the gospel shared with others, is our central calling.


Our common prayer: voice, vocation, volume.

Voice like that of Franklin Littell, father of holocaust studies, combiner of head and heart, student of the Bible.

Vocation like that of three young women, a teacher, a lawyer, a minister.

Volume like that of bread and cup, word and table, in remembrance, real presence, and thanksgiving.

Leave a Reply