Archive for January, 2010

January 31

Bach and Benevolence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

RAH: Is that you again, Dr Jarrett?

SAJ: Oui, c’est moi, or I suppose I should say today, Ja, ich bins, Herr Professor Doktor Hill.

RAH: If it isn’t my old friend and Bach dialogue partner, my colleague and director of music, my talented and personally gifted musical guide, Dr Jarrett.

SAJ: He’s around here somewhere . . .

RAH: So, for the third time this year, we announce the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and song, by radio and internet, in person and in prayer, as upon a cold winter Sunday we are warmed by Bach and Benevolence. This cantata is about benevolence, is it not?

SAJ: Well it’s certainly benevolent of you to say so.

RAH: Quite so! You know, flying for a Bach moment at fifty thousand feet, benevolence very much fits our gospel and our cantata today. I mean from the heights, from the sky, as well as in the depths and on the ground, as soon we shall see.

SAJ: With all due respect, Dean Hill, you lost me at fifty thousand feet. Sky? Heights?

RAH: Well, let me back up. For one thing, we teach our students at the Boston University School of Theology, the oldest Methodist theological school in the country, and by many accounts the finest too—pardon me while I check my humility meter—we teach them that sermon design is crucial and one design or form a sermon may take is that of a dialogue.

SAJ: Ah, yes, the example teaches. Exemplum Docet. A dialogue – sermon? This is one.

RAH: Precariously. I mean precisely.

SAJ: Okay, but what about sky and height?

RAH: Well, a sermon announces good news. It is gospel. And at its height, here today, Bach’s cantata announces, we hope, through the very humble ministrations of two very human beings, good news, glad tidings, you might say a word of benevolence.

SAJ: I see. The music helps us soar, helps us climb, helps us find clarity?

RAH: Precariously. I mean precisely. A couple of Saturdays ago I had the sermon written and some time free so I walked down to the Boston Public Library. I love just to sit in that open, gracious reading room. For some reason I found myself standing next to an Encyclopedia of the Reformation.

SAJ: Indeed, the Lord worketh wonders.

RAH: Exactamente. It was a serendipitous intersection of a reader and book. I opened to the chapter on Martin Luther. In the quiet of the room, under the spell of a grand architecture, with the remembrances in history brought up to that place, with the pull of the spirit tide of life, I was told again his story and his faith. His story of anguish is known, if not well. His resolution and resolve we only know through our own anguish, if at all. By grace, through faith we are made whole. By grace. Through faith. Alone, we are healed. It is God’s grace gift—invisible, immediate, gracious, lovely—by which we are saved. Benevolence, you could call it. You cannot earn salvation. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. It is this benevolence of which the Bach cantatas sing, is it not?

SAJ: Yes. For sure. This gift of grace to us, and the way in which we ought to freely offer it to one another is our subject. Bach extends this theme far deeper than choice of text. In today’s cantata, note the delicate instrumentation. There are no trumpets or drums today – not even flutes – today we have, as Bach called them, flauti dolce – or recorders. They impart a kind of sweetness and a delicacy, even fragility. So before we reach cruising altitude and consider the text, you are right, there is a benevolence – a gentle meekness – immediately present before the voices even enter.

RAH: But what about the text? There is another, strong and unusual sense of benevolence present to us today, is there not, Scott?

SAJ: Yes, and this is the sense of service to the needy, benevolence of a more human kind, good will in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Our cantata today, ‘Break your bread for the hungry’, is one of only a handful with a specific call to social justice. Bach likely would have balked at our modern term ‘social justice’ preferring instead something like, Christian responsibility. You mentioned Luther earlier, and most of our Cantatas are imbued with a heavy, heady dose of Reformation style dogma – a doctrine concerned almost exclusively with our own soul’s future and personal salvation. Today, we have musical rumination on the Isaiah injunction to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give shelter to those without.

RAH: I don’t suppose you’d like to give us any clues of what to listen for, would you?

SAJ: As a matter of fact, I was waiting for the invitation. First, notice the meekness of the opening choral movement – it’s almost as if Bach knows how difficult these acts of grace to one another can be – we approach with reticence, fear of the unknown or the other perhaps, and gradually find ourselves open to warmed by the simple act of granting grace, by Christ’s example, and in his shadow. You’ll hear this shift from anxiety to eager, nervous energy in the first movement. And if I may, Dean, just to go a little further. . . . the arias seem to bathe in the joy of Christian mercy – how good it is to serve one another, do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. In the first aria, notice how the two solo instruments imitate and mirror one another – just as the text depicts our own lives attempting to follow or mirror Christ’s life – breaking bread, praying, giving and receiving love – all in the shadow of Christ. The central movement is the only moment in the cantata in which Bach’s severe and preacherly index finger extends. Craig Smith, the late founder of Emmanuel Music here in Boston, once described this aria as a splash of cold water. But this admonishment lasts only a moment, and we return to the winsome recorders in the “benevolent” soprano aria, “Highest, what I have is your gift.”

RAH: You know, Scott, you and I have talked some about the relationship between spirit and society, religion and life, Christ and culture. Spiritual reformation and religious transformation, of a lasting sort, depends upon and forges a cultural reformation and a secular transformation. The word of the gospel is embedded in the music of the streets.

SAJ: Certainly that was true of Bach’s self-understanding and intention. That is what makes our setting in the heart of Boston, and our presence by radio in the heart and hearths of New England such a happy and challenging spot.

RAH: If I remember right, there is something of a dispute about whether Bach was more secular or more sacred in his inclination, whether he wrote the church music because he had to or because he wanted to. You probably know more about that.

SAJ: That’s a good set-up for next time.

RAH: But in either case, whether or not ‘the focus of his emotional life was undoubtedly in religion, and in the service of religion through music’, still his dual citizenship in church in society—however balanced—shows this same dance between cultural reformation and spiritual transformation. It means that the Christian walk may start on Sunday in Marsh Chapel, but it proceeds down the mall of Commonwealth Avenue, and necessarily continues along Massachusetts Avenue, and up Huntingdon Avenue—from Chapel to Garden to Symphony to Theater….

SAJ:…to lunch!

RAH: Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth took him and his congregation out into the town and the fields all around, as they wrestled and struggled with its interpretation. I suppose in this, they were themselves early reformers. ‘The performance of an
y God-pleasing vocation is the service of God…all beauty, including secular beauty is sacred because God is One, both Creator and Redeemer’ (J Pelikan, 139). The gospel is a call to a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement:

SAJ: ‘That which has been believed always and everywhere by everyone’ (J Wesley)

RAH: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’ (J Wesley)

SAJ: ‘Do all the good you can, at all the times you can’

RAH: ‘in all the ways you can and all the places you can’

SAJ: ‘to all the people you can’

RAH&SAJ;: ‘as long as ever you can. Amen.’

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

January 24

Renewal: Thought, Word, Deed

By Marsh Chapel

Nehemiah stirs us and kindles our thought. Jesus addresses us by his word. Paul weaves us together as one body in our deeds. Thought, word and deed bring renewal.

We teach our preaching students, here, that there is still room in life for sermon with a simple, three part design, known to Aristotle and Shakespeare. This is one example.

We may be ready for an intervening word of renewal. All about us the ground seems to be shifting. Tectonic plates, political counts, late night hosts, personal doubts, in all the ground seems to be shifting. We may be more ready for renewal than we were. You may be poised for some kind of renewal, in your personal life, family life, community life, work life, or spiritual life.


Those ancient Israelites to whom Nehemiah and Ezra spoke also knew about the need for renewal. Our reading from Nehemiah is remembered best for the crowning sentence, ‘the joy of the Lord is my strength’. Such a joy comes, however, out of a long series of difficult decades. In the sixth century before the common era, from 587bce to 538bce the children of Israel who survived the destruction of Jerusalem were marched in chains to Babylon, where they served as vassals under the thumb of Nebuchadnezzer. When they were freed by Cyrus of Persia, and returned home from exile, long years and decades of rebuilding faced them. By the mid fifth century, their temple had been rebuilt by Ezra, and their city by Nehemiah. The renewal of religion and the renewal of culture happened together.

There is a lesson for us here. Healthy religious revival requires a renaissance in culture. What we await today is not so much a theological reformation as it is a cultural renewal. Nehemiah rebuilt his city, in tandem with the religious renewal brought by Ezra. Thought itself offers renewal to those who will thoughtfully seek it. Notice that Nehemiah and Ezra describe their completed renewal in terms of interpretation. The religious community is to be one of constant interpretation, Torah and interpretation, Scripture read and interpreted. The challenge, the frightful difficulty of rightly handling a good word, is to stand at the center of religious revival and cultural renewal.

Daniel Marsh built this chapel, here, with its cloistered arms reaching east and west, reaching for embrace of secular and spiritual thought, a college of liberal arts and a school of theology, and a chapel to unite to the two so long disjoined. Thought brings renewal.

Reflection on a given tradition is the work of interpretation. Those religious bodies that will honor their tradition by the hard work of careful interpretation will find renewal. Liturgical tradition and traditional liturgy bring renewal. There is a difference between tradition and traditionalism. J Pelikan famously quipped that traditionalism is the dead faith of living people, and tradition is the living faith of dead people. Not traditionalism, but tradition, thoughtful reflection on what is given, expressed in liturgy—prayer, music, and preaching—will bring religious, cultural, even denominational renewal. Tradition in worship: renewal.

The New Year is a good time for you to find renewal in thought. An alumnus recently wrote to remember President Case, the fifth President of Boston University. In his first year here, in the early 1950’s, Case was invited, as a Methodist minister, to give his advice about preparation for preaching. “President Case shared his method with us, which I adopted through my years in ministry. To wit: Each year, pick a subject you don’t know anything about. Then, ask a specialist in this field to suggest 12 books. Read one a month. In this way, you enrich your preaching beyond your own area of expertise and gain illustrations that will help you communicate the Gospel better.”

This last week a friend invited me to visit the Athenaeum, a fine Boston Institution. We saw a chest of books given by William and Mary, in 1690, books for the edification of the clergy at King’s Chapel. Around that chest have grown up 5 stories of books and rooms and spaces and people devoted to the renewal of the mind. Interpretation of tradition, in the heart of the city.

The letter to the Romans puts it this way: ‘Be ye not conformed, but be ye transformed, by the renewal of your minds’. Thought brings renewal to culture, to religion, to denomination, to ministry, to life.

Do you seek renewal? Look first toward thought, thoughtful interpretation.


Thought prepares the way for word.

Today we are met by Jesus for once in the pulpit. He has chosen his text from Isaiah. He has read and spoken.

Jesus reads and interprets, in the stylized memory of Luke 4. He meets us in the garb of interpretation. Interpretation is a very delicate art. Communication is a delicate art. Interpretation is communication squared.

The vote tally is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what the tally meant. The announcement of the new evening programming is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what the change says, portends, about, say, generational communication. The body count is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what we are to make of horrendous loss.

Jesus reads from the beauty of later Isaiah. Then he interprets the meaning, meaning, now, the reading is fulfilled.

No other gospel records this reading from Isaiah, nor the remarkable interpretation which follows.. Mark does not record it in his writing from 70ce, nor Matthew from 85ce, nor John from 100ce. Only Luke includes Isaiah 61, only Luke has Jesus in the synagogue pulpit, only Luke devises the account of the scroll and its attendant, only Luke announces fulfillment in a dramatic conclusion. That is communication. Interpretation begins when we ask, ‘why’?

By so doing, Luke announces Jesus as bearer of the word. There is a word, a passage and its meaning.

Luke has expanded and redesigned an account of Jesus’ hometown preaching, also recorded in Matthew 13 and Mark 6. You will find those two passages largely unlike what we heard a moment ago. Luke places Jesus, as apocalyptic preacher, announcing the advent of the kingdom, right in the beginning of the gospel. Moreover, this preachment is about the jubilee year, a prophetic hope that once in a lifetime, once every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, all indentured servants freed, and all land returned to its ancient owners. ‘Once in a lifetime the entire economy would be given a fresh start’ (Ringe, 69). We have no historical evidence that the Jubilee ever occurred, but we have Isaiah 61 to show the presence of such an imaginative hope.

Edward Schillebeex, a Roman Catholic Vatican II theologian from Holland, died last week. His ninety years were spent in interpretation. He was criticized for focusing the meaning of resurrection on what it means in people’s lives. He came from that school of thought that emphasized the preaching of the gospel as the experience of resurrection. Hearing in faith of the resurrection, and believing in obedient living, is the resurrection of the faith of Christ. Well, he and his form of Roman Catholic theological interpretat
ion, are no longer the norm, in our sister church, if they ever were. But his insight lives on, raised, if you will, from the dead.

‘Truth happens’, as William James taught. Truth is spoken and heard. When in the course of human events, when in the ordinary run of one’s few earthly days, one hears and heeds a renewing truth, a good word, there is resurrection. Such a moment is not less than Easter morning, and is not a substitute for Easter morning, and is not apart from Easter morning. It is saving truth, grounded and rooted in the cross of Christ, heard and lived.

We receive prayers, anonymous prayer requests, here in the Chapel. We try faithfully to lift them. They are very moving to read and to render. Every so often one will especially pierce the heart. These six words I put in the prayer hall of fame, because they are resurrection life: ‘faith in God and in myself’.

A religious community that will honor, as Jesus is remembered here to have honored, the word, will live.

A traveling elder, in the tradition of our second hymn, is sent to preach. She is sent to preach the gospel of the resurrection. Renewal by word. We have many pulpits and an older pattern, which we may want to dust off, of sending the traveling preachers pulpit to pulpit. By the fourth time you preach a sermon, it can be pretty good. We are better off with one good sermon preached four times, than with four not so good, once each. Traditional liturgy is renewal in thought. Traveling elders are renewal in word.

Beginning next week the Marsh Chapel sermon will appear as a link every Monday morning on the front page of the Boston University website. There is a lesson for us here. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by a good word.

Would that all God’s people were preachers and prophets!

Or, as we did sing, ‘O for a thousand tongues…’

Word brings renewal to culture, religion, denomination, ministry and life.


Paul points to bodily renewal in deed.

He becomes himself entwined, in 1 Corinthians, in the very metaphor he brings to us, that of the body of Christ. You can just feel him becoming ever more taken in by the body image as he writes to admonish his feisty Corinthians.

If a community ever needed renewal, it was the church in Corinth. Sometimes I take newcomers to the Bible for a little walking tour of Corinthians, this letter that reveals so much of the real humanity of the primitive church.

Your deeds matter. They matter so much, writes Paul, because they are all a part of the same body. We are one with another, hand and foot, ear and eye. Each with gifts, each with needs.

Paul tells his Corinthian converts not that the church is like a body, but that the church is a body—the very body of Christ. Christ is risen, in bodily resurrection, in the Spirit, in the spirited body of the church. So when hurts, all hurt. When one grieves, all grieve. The joys of one are enjoyed by all.

The mark of disciplined living in our time most needed by our churches is robust tithing. In a materialistic age, nothing testifies better to the invisible than generosity with abandon. People notice. Likewise, when the church appears to act irresponsibly with money, people also notice. In an age of entitlement, nothing witnesses better to graceful love than intentional self-abandon in regular (not occasional) giving. Steady investment in fellowship is a great joy to the giver. In an age of greed, nothing bears stronger witness to another way, than another way of relating to wealth.

A humbling experience is to watch people who are only partly employed, nonetheless continue, at a reduced level, the disciplined practice of giving. A hard experience is to watch people who are really comfortable somehow miss the joy of giving, the discipline of tithing. The main benefactor of giving is the donor. The donor knows that the ‘joy of the Lord is strength’.

Among the 200,000 who died in Port au Prince was Sam Dixon, the head of Methodist Mission work through UMCOR. He was trapped with 5 others for 55 hours, in the rubble. 4 survived, 2 died. When one hurts, all hurt.

We affirm and applaud all who are working to make the efforts at Haitian relief ‘swift, strong, and coordinated’.

Renewal comes by deed. Sometimes you have to do first, speak second, and think third. All bring renewal. But the heart finally will hold what the hand has done. We have learned by doing.

Here we may find a hint of the way forward, for our inherited churches and denominations. Traditional liturgy is renewal in thought. Traveling elders are renewal in word. Tithing is renewal in deed.

Deed brings renewal to culture, religion, denomination, ministry and life.

I celebrate those who have discovered the joy of the Lord this week in giving for the succor of those in Haiti.

I celebrate those who gave last Sunday in a special offering here at Marsh Chapel.

I celebrate the team traveling from MET college, BU, right now, to Haiti.

I celebrate the Dean of Students office, and the Haiti student group that has raised money and awareness for many.

I celebrate Paul Farmer, our neighbor and Haitian missioner.

I celebrate the BU medical school and Project Hope.

I celebrate those in our community and in every community who have seen renewal through deeds of generosity.

Nehemiah stirs us and kindles our thought. Jesus addresses us by his word. Paul weaves us together as one body in our deeds. Thought, word and deed bring renewal.

Then let us attend to the way we think. Let us attend to the way we speak. Let us attend to the way we act. By grace, it then may be said: ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength’.

Renewal: Thought, Word, Deed.

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

January 17

The Hour Has Come

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

John 2:3-5

There will be no text for this sermon.

January 10

Was King Naïve?

By Marsh Chapel

The Prince of Peace.

So we have said and sung, in celebrating the birth of Jesus: we have named him as the prophets and the evangelists before us have done. In his Baptism today he is so acclaimed as the Son of God.

Yet the promises of the Scriptures sometimes seem so far removed, so improbable, and so impossible. Come winter, with Christmastide and Epiphany, we can feel so, in worship.

His name shall be called: wonderful, counselor, mighty, god, everlasting, father, prince of peace…

But now another January has rolled in with its bills, forecasts, 1040’s, newscasts, bombings, terrors and violence. War is all about us.

All the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in him, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 1. But the promises of peace seem light years away.

There is a beautiful anthem which our choir has sung, ‘streams in the desert’, lifting wonderfully the majestic promises of the Scriptures. It surely bring tears whenever it is heard. Yet, so far off, so far off…

What are we to make of the hope of peace in a world drenched in war? Is such a hope unrealistically naïve?

Was Isaiah naïve to sing ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain’?

Was John the Baptist naïve to shout ‘he will baptize you with the holy spirit’?

Was Ghandi naïve to believe that the British Empire could be thwarted by non-violent protest?

Were the great teachers and preachers of Boston University and elsewhere of another generation (Muelder, Chalmers, Tittle, Fosdick, Ward) naïve to practice and teach pacifism throughout their twentieth century lives?

Most pointedly—there is no escaping responsibility for response in this chapel, within this nave, upon this plaza—were Thurman and King naïve in their reliance on the power of non-violence in the face of brutal and violent oppression?

What shall we say, come Sunday, about war and peace? Over many decades now, Christian churches have deployed next Sunday as a time to honor King and his voice, his traditions, his style in worship. We too do our part in this way at Marsh, as we shall again next Sunday. But over these decades, it could be said, the American Christian church has done less well in remembering the content of King’s teaching, the range of his thought, the deep contours of his worldview, the piercing contemporaneity of his mind. Today, let us think with him about war and peace, beginning with some summary history of Christian thought on the matter.

We teach our students in preaching that a sermon can be delivered in a reflective mode, without a final resolution, or without a complete resolution. Such a preachment is meant to lift the heart, to lift the gaze, to lift the issues, and to lift up the marrow matters of life in the presence the divine. Today’s sermon is one such, delivered in the mode of reflection.

Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable concision, as one must in a 22 minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and the so-called just war understandings.

Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the New Testament (which even in Luke, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism) : “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit, through the whole Second World War. Last May—it was one of the greatest joys of 2009—I had the privilege of preaching from that pulpit. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with him, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what his judgment might be.

The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live. Just war thought includes several serious caveats. We together can, in a reflective mode, recall these this morning, in five forms: just cause in response to serious evil, just intention for restoration of peace with justice, no self-enrichment or desire for devastation, use as an utterly last resort, have legitimate authority and have a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.

Going forward, it is a requirement for Christian living, that one be able in a paragraph to rehearse just war theory. Pacifist Christians will need to do so in order justly to be able to criticize this tradition. Those within the just war tradition will need to do so in order justly to distinguish this tradition from adversaries (e.g., preemption) and distortions. So repeat with me: response, restoration, restraint, last resort, common authority.

These two venerable pillars of Christian thought, pacifism and just war, demarcate the limit to date of received Christian teaching, from scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

How shall we reflect on the promises of the Prince of Peace, the tradition of promise in Scripture, and our readings for this Epiphany Sunday?

If the lectionary readings from Isaiah and Luke were not enough, if our lived experience up to and including the Christmas Day Detroit bomber were not enough, our sitting President has made avoidance of such reflection impossible, for us, and rightly so, in his recent Oslo speech. As Obama did earlier with race, so he has done with peace. He is forcing us to ‘think higher and feel deeper.’

Our President is asking and forcing us to think, to think harder, to think differently, to think in new ways.

In Oslo, Obama resurrected Reinhold Niebuhr. Our colleague Andrew Bacevich at Boston Univeristy and our President Barak Obama have done more in our time to resuscitate the ‘tamed cynic’ than has the whole theological community combined. You remember Niebuhr, the author of the serenity prayer: ‘God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other’. But Niebuhr also wrote: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Not
hing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own,; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” He further defined for our time the ‘just war’ argument for Christians, a kind of Christian realism. In fact, he is usually understood to be the modern ‘father’ of such realism.

Obama took his stand alongside Niebuhr, and, with respect, against King. He said, “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified”. Then comes the most fascinating of paragraphs:

“I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. It merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve in the creed and lives of Ghandi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” While he placed no footnote, that sentence summarize Niebuhr’s book, Moral Man and Immoral Society—required reading for a theological education and recommended reading for an education: that is, groups and institutions do not have the moral freedom which individuals do. One person may sacrifice himself, but the head of a state or group or union or party or family or neighborhood simply is not free to enforce that choice upon those whom he leads or represents.

The rest of the speech, which has fairly been called a masterpiece, simply fills in the argument. War is folly, but war is necessary. Force can be justified on humanitarian grounds. Sanction, Justice, Negotiation, Human Rights are our tools. ‘We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace…The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love they preached—their faith in human progress—must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey….For if we lose that faith we lose what is best about our humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.’

It is the splendor of this Oslo statement that it justly revives Niebuhr, makes the case for the second option in Judeo Christian ethics (not pacifism but just war practice), and yet holds in some connection the first option, historically and morally, within Christian thought, that of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘if anyone smite thee on thine right cheek, turn to him the other also’. Obama wants what we all want: the practical realism of Niebuhr and the dreaming idealism of King. Can one have both?

It is hard circle to square, a hard balance to strike.

Even Harriet Tubman, perhaps you remember, carried a pistol on her own journey to follow the North Star. In the Oslo perspective, the tragic inevitability of war, regrettable but inevitable, has the pole position, the honored position. The dreams are just that. Dreams. Twice Obama tries not to call King naïve, and commendably and graciously so. “I know there is nothing naïve in the creed and lives of Ghandi and King”. But did he avoid it?

Those who have listened for some time here at Marsh Chapel, know that my own perspective is in general partly Niebuhrian and in particular quite close, in expression and substance, to the sketch offered in Oslo. In fact, in our time, there is not a speech or preachment which does better to summarize the realist position, as it is given to this point, and yet and still to push us out toward ‘the world that ought to be’. For, most newspaper commentators to the contrary, Obama was doing more than rehearsing Niebuhr. He was not trying only to revivify a long dead Lutheran pastor and Union Seminary graduate, no bad thing in itself. He was reaching higher. There is a yearning, a longing, and a leaning in the Oslo speech (which resembles John Kennedy’s summer 1963 speech). There is a desire to move us forward, from war, to peace. What we are is not what we shall be.

Of course, the problem is in the first move. Niebuhr pretty clearly argues that, by and large, what we are IS what we shall be. ‘Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime…’

That is, there is here a serious, lasting conundrum for Christian realists. It is the peril Obama tries to circumnavigate at the end of his speech. Listen: ‘If we lose faith, if we dismiss it as silly or naïve…we lose our sense of possibility.’

With all due respect, we lose a lot more than that.

The Oslo weakness lies here. Obama rightly was trying to move us farther on from Niebuhr and King, Niebuhr vs. King. To do so, he would have had to face more frontally, more squarely, the devastation inherent in ‘realism’ of the kind which Neibuhr and many of us with him have affirmed. War begets war. The primary cause of war is war. It is this hard insight—we might call it deep river realism–which lies at the heart of King’s and Ghandi’s pacifism.

‘Realism’ cuts the nerve of vital energetic rebellion against violence. If ‘we shall not eradicate violence…’, if that is really the bottom line, then we are in a closed circle. The idealism needed, heart by heart, year by year, to reject violence is potentially strangled in the cradle, aborted before there is a chance of breath. If non-violence is doomed from the beginning, the muscle for peace building is severed from the torso of peace making. Christ and Culture in paradox suffocates Christ transforming Culture. Luther trumps Wesley, Niebuhr trumps King. It makes you wonder where the true realism lies. It makes you question the location of naivete.

As people of faith, you will in the course of your lifetimes need periodically to choose pacifism or realism. Both are time honored. Both have biblical roots. Both may be inferred from the teachings of Jesus. Both are found in the history of the church. Both have had courageous, faithful, humble advocates in our time and in the very space we now inhabit for worship. You may at least recognize that those who affirm pacifism may forget that justice for the lamb sometimes requires resistance to the wolf. You may at least realize that those who affirm realism may sever the nerve of hope, which alone can bring the idealism of peace.

Here are King’s Nobel Prize Speech words: ‘Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.’

Is that naïve? That does not sound so naïve. It even has a Niebuhrian hue, tinge, coloration. King from the grave encourages us to think and act anew. Our time is new, our circumstance is new, so our judgments and actions too must be new.

For a peaceful realism, a realistic pacifism to emerge, in our time, we shall need both the serene realism of Niebuhr and the prophetic dream of King.

I do not see a reasoned resolution to the paradoxical dual needs, the antinomial dual needs of serene realism and prophetic dream. That is, I do see not see a ready synthesis of the two.

All I can recommend to conclude is that we live it through. That we live it through, even when cannot think it through.

We need a picture of a world that can
work, a vision of what the world can look like, a generation from now, built upon a realistic peace. You will not be surprised to hear me name this vision, on Epiphany, as that of the Beloved Thou Art.

People of all religions and no religion will need to consider his claim upon their lives, your lives, our lives. This is not an advertisement for a particular form and place of worship, nor an argument for a particular form of divinity. It is something far truer and harder than that. It is a call to decision, for you, to take the plunge into the icy Jordan and yourself be baptized into his baptism. Into…

The humility of his life, embedded in each personal and public debate.

The stern love of his mount sermon, raiment for the day’s work.

The community of his joy and peace which his death created, a church, an honest to goodness fellowship of friends, as balm for the inevitable hurts and failures of the struggle.

The singing heart of his voice, pure and lovely like ‘streams in the desert’.

The touch of his hand, the finger of God, stirring ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

The emptiness of his purse, his chosen poverty, guidance for our use of what in any case we only have in passing.

The courage of his passion, a courage to be in every setting and time.

The self-giving of his death, mark and measure of our real humanity.

The promise of his resurrection, the promise of the possibility of real change, real compassion, real peace, in real time.

So that, in hunger banished, in poverty chastened, in literacy enhanced, in security achieved, in freedom cherished, in violence disdained, day by day, from the murky waters of messy history, there shall at last emerge a kind of human life which conforms to the body of the Prince of Peace. On that day, earth shall ring, and a voice shall cry out: ‘thou art my beloved, with thee I am well pleased’


1. It has been quite a year, has it not? Each of us has our own silent struggles. Whatever our particular political perspective, we might reflect for a moment on the 2009 to do list at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Get elected; be safely inaugurated; recruit team to run country and world; phase out war one; consider war two; change the face and voice of the country for the world audience; face down global economic collapse; face forward the need for employment; push forward a national health care reform; talk tough to terror; keep hope alive; win the Nobel peace prize; take kids to Hawaii.

2. I thought I had a good year 2009, doing my annual report (found for the curious on my blog by the way), but nothing like this. It is humbling to try to think about what other very human humans must face hour by hour.

3. I think of those who have come before, and wrestled like Jacob with the same angels and demons.

Robert McAffee Brown left behind his pacifism for a chaplain’s Navy uniform in 1943 during World War II.

William Sloane Coffin left his CIA realism for draft card burning in Vietnam.

The four chaplains enshrined in our Marsh Chapel Connick stained glass gave their life jackets and their lives so that four GI’s could live.

Allan Knight Chalmers and Ernest Tittle preached pacifism through the 1940’s.

R Niebuhr left a legacy has been abused as a blanket defense of any and all warfare.

M King left a legacy that has been attacked as a cloak for naivete.

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

January 3


By Marsh Chapel

At the top of the slope the skier stands, poles under the arms, body crouched, goggles cleaned and cleared.

There is a resolution in the skier’s readiness, stance, and inclination.


Here is a moment when life is full, intense, real, serious, and good, a moment of really being alive. Such a moment of new birth brings a piercing alertness.

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom…”

We set our chin to the challenge. We know the swiftness with which the run passes. We know the peril in the pace. We know the power of incline and gravity. We have faced the ice and snow, as William Shakespeare did in his darker sonnets, like the 66th which here at Marsh Chapel we sometimes remember as a bracing wind to put us on our toes.

Before us is the slope of another hour\day\week\year\decade. It is Christmastide. What shall we resolve?

Let us resolve to ‘be there’. My friend said, his words have a gnomic, Buddhist ring: ‘wherever you are, be there’. BE there. Be THERE.

Whoever wrote the Johannine loveliness of our reading, and whoever appended it to the opening of the gospel, confronted us with life, presence, wonder, awe. His 18 verses are a little Matterhorn.

Do you remember seeing or seeing pictures of the Swiss Alps? Ice. Snow. Height. Power. (And that’s in the summer!). John Calvin wrote of the glory and grandeur of God, with such mountains to kindle the imagination. Grace and Truth, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Creation and conscience still us still.

God gives snow like wool and scatters frost like ashes. Says our Psalm today.

We went again this week to the grave of John Brown, nestled in Lake Placid. Ice. Snow. Height. Power.

Wherever you are, be there. Every minute is a temporal moment shot through with an eternal gift. Like a snowflake, tiny, beautiful, pure, unique, fluid.

You will need resolution to ‘be there’ this year. The technological tempests tempt you otherwise. I am told that in a recent wedding the groom interrupted his vows to change his FACEBOOK status. For two reasons, I have little doubt this occurred, though I did not check it to the source. One is what I see in other human settings—the tyranny of techne, constant internetaction, placing human distance between human beings. I notice the beneath the table fingering at high level meetings. The second reason is three decades of ministry and several hundred weddings. It could happen. I refer you to Robert Fulghum’s essay “MOTB” for the possibilities lying within every wedding.

Be it resolved in 2010. Be there. Wherever you are, be there. With me you may help develop a Trinitarian existential Christianity: breath, listen, smile: lung, ear, lip: creator, redeemer, sustainer. Be there.

Let us resolve to ‘be reconciled’. I looked this December at old editions of a defunct religious periodical, KATALLAGETE, the Greek word meaning, ‘be reconciled’. This is Christmastide. If we are serious about facing the run down the trail, then we face grace and truth, the truly gracious possibility of reconciliation. The Lord’s table beckons us. You may be thinking of reconciliation this Christmas. It is a natural thing to consider in Christmastide, given the given givingness of the Divine giver, born of a woman, born under the law.

In him we have redemption. Says our Lesson today.

Let me offer some language for reconciliation. By phone, or in person, ask: “Hello. You know, we have not really talked for some time (fill in time), ever since that incident (fill in quarrel). You may not want to talk, and I understand and honor that. But I have made some resolutions for the New Year, and the New Decade. One is that I want to mend whatever fences that I can. Then I went to Marsh Chapel (fill in, heard on radio, listened on internet, read on online) one Sunday and the preacher said ‘let us be reconciled’. (go ahead, blame it on me). Would you be willing to have a coffee with me? Just to talk. I would really like to talk to you. Maybe nothing will be different, but maybe something will be different. Lunch is on me.”

There is a transformative serendipity loose in the universe. People change. Seasons change. Openings arise. Be reconciled.


Regardless, you will be glad you tried.

Let us be real, too. Real.

Some years ago, Lionel Trilling wrote an essay about
sincerity and authenticity, the former belonging to modernity and the latter to us, I suppose. Being real though involves both. Being real includes both the sincere simplicity of the manger and the authentic complexity of the church. We know the manger babe through graces, after all. Real people are authentically sincere, and sincerely authentic.

Last week a third grader, who did not know me from Adam’s house cat, and whose own name I never learned, brought such a welcome reminder. At a party I had asked about school, and learned that she had to read 20 minutes a day. I asked what she read. Barely audible came her response (not what I expected): the Bible. There was something so genuine in the way she put it—yes, sincere, but authentic as well. Real. What strange treasures she will find in law, prophets and writings! What treasured strangeness she will discover in Gospels, Letters and Apocalpyses!

If she can abstain from texting, for twenty minutes a day, in the third grade, maybe you can too.

You may then become a real human being, inviting those whom you know to enjoy your church family and your church home, and to share your creed, maybe a new creed, like the one written some years ago in Canada.

Be real.

Let us be happy in 2010.

John Wesley said of his singing, poor Methodists that they were a people ‘happy in God’.

Are we? Are we his descendants and theirs ‘happy in God’?

I do not refer to some inauthentic cheeriness. I do not refer to ‘happy talk’. Nor did Wesley. Here is the right reference:

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

Colin Williams at Yale once said that the role of
preaching is to remind and restore all to the confidence of God’s care, so that each can happily go back into the world to care for the tasks of the time.

I realized over Christmastide that I have been too tight lipped over the years about something. The life of faith, and particularly in our case life in the ministry, is a happy life. Not an easy life, not a simple life, not an invariably peaceful life. But a truly happy life. Those who hunger and thirst for right living will find happiness in church. Those who have been seized by the calling to preach will find happiness in the service of the church. I mean fun. Fun. The joy of birth. The craziness of Christmas pageants (read A Prayer for Owen Meany). The messiness of weddings. The party after the weddings, which my old colleague called the ‘deception’. ‘Are you going over to the deception?’, he would ask. The thrill of seeing someone come home to their own most self. The privilege of watching people develop the habits of generosity. The honor of being present for decisions, difficulties, and death.
Today the ministry is not a popular calling. It is not a status filled vocation. Nor is it overly well compensated. But there is nothing like it for happiness. I need to say that more. And I will. That is my resolution

Let us be happy!

Let it be resolved this Christmastide:

Be there.

Be reconciled.

Be real.

Be happy.

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