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

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