Archive for August, 2010

A Simple Peace

Sunday, August 29th, 2010
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Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Preface

Over the summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch. The little place we chose has a long history of children and summer, of burgers and ice cream. It sits nestled into a long, lovely valley, an actively agricultural valley of corn fields and dairy barns. We were not quite alone in the small dining room, though that designation itself seems overwrought. The room simply provided space for a collection of tables and chairs. An older woman sat, back to door, enjoying her luncheon hot dog and potatoes. After lunch, as a reward for eating all of lunch, our granddaughter had an ice cream cone. I want to try to interrupt all the twittering texting emailing rushing half listening cacophony of our current life with the dripping joy of one three year old and one small vanilla cone. Our older friend peered over her hot dog and potatoes and with eyes bright pronounced a silent blessing. Everything about an ice cream cone in the summer brims with what is good. The cold clean taste. The texture soft and grainy. The drip drip of melted cream falling on lips, then chin, then tiny hand, then shirt, then floor. The dive nose first down in for more. Sheer happy joy, for the moment, attends such a child on such a day with such a treat. A simple peace.

Guest and Host in Luke

In that hour, she, holding the ice cream cone, was the guest, and we, bursting with a simple peace, were the hosts. Jesus meets us today within the pageant of religious teaching about guests and hosts. Our passage is a loner in the gospels, simply and beautifully so. Luke alone possesses this material, and bestows it all upon us by a garden tool means. He simply links up stories that have to do with meals, or feasts. My friend said he preached ‘clothes-line’ sermons: “I put out a line and pin up whatever comes to mind”. On his line, Luke pins up wisdom for hosts and guests: wisdom though that has an eternal reward. The guest is reminded and remanded to practice the humility of a simple peace. Sit low, down the table. The host is reminded and remanded to practice the benevolence of a simple peace. Look low, down to the needy. The guest represents the inner journey, our daily hunt for an inner peace. The host represents the outward journey, our lifelong hunt for the reign of peace. One a state of mind. The other a state of affairs. And allowing Augustine’s rule sway today, we shall form the sermon in the form of the scripture. One clothes line crossing the other.

A state of mind can change a state of affairs. We are hoping that is so for those poor Chilean miners, trapped beneath the ground. A state of mind can improve a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for those who begin their studies here, in this secular, northern, urban, cold, large University. A state of mind can transform a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for those near and far making space, in public place, for houses of worship for all religions. A state of mind can transform a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for you, in your private thoughts, in your family negotiations, in your toughest choices. Hold to a simple peace. That of the guest and the inward journey: humility. That of the host and the outward journey: generosity.

Some of the old, good things about life well before and well beyond college age can bring their refreshment, a powerful refreshment, into communities of twenty year olds. I notice the way our students respond to children when, occasionally, there are little people on campus. You can see the minds moving: this once was me; one day I will have children. Guest, inward journey. Host, outward journey. An education frees you from the confines of the early twenty first century by immersing you in Plato and Shakespeare and Galileo and the Russian Revolution. In the same way, just a glimpse of the child and cone free you from the confines of life at twenty.

Guest and Host: Humility (H) and Generosity (G)

(H). The simple peace of humility in religious discourse. No one religious tradition corners the market of a simple peace. Like the Buddha, we need to come down from heaven, down from our very worthy, but limiting intelligences. Like the Buddha, we need to celebrate any birth, with Siddhartha’s birth. Like the Buddha we need to explore the world outside the palace, to explore other spaces and times. Like the Buddha we need to find our own forms of Siddhartha’s famous renunciation. Like the Buddha we can benefit from the simplicity enjoined in any and every ascetic practice. Like the Buddha, we face the challenge of Mara’s temptations, of life’s temptations. Like the Buddha, who preached his first sermon, we find our true voice by finding our earlier voice. Like the Buddha, we seek peace, a kind of nirvana. Such a simple peace allows us to move, to grow, to change. “What’s won is done, the joy is in the doing”, wrote Shakespeare. That is the spirit of the cadets who graduated to the motto ‘live free, serve free, die free’, even as their teachers honored their tactical intuition and acknowledged their youth (‘we expect Second Lieutenants to make mistakes’). Here is the experience, rendered with peaceful simplicity, of a Palestinian poet:

We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if traveling is the way of the clouds. We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees. And we said to our wives: go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey. To the hour of a country, to the meter of the impossible. We travel in the carriages of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies. We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon. Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path on your shoulders. Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee. We have a country of words. Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone. We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel. (‘Victims of a Map’).

(G.) The simple peace of generosity in Matriculation. One good way to start the year, in a simple peace, is by giving something to others. I remember volunteering to lead a scout troop during my freshman year. We camped in the rain. I remember others who visited nursing homes. They listened when they could not understand. You will find something healing and revelatory if you sign on as a big brother or sister. Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. Even in the freshman year.

(H). The simple peace of humility in devotion. A simple peace can be a Sunday gift. A church service like this one reminds you of such a simple peace. You are a child of God. Howard Thurman famously concluded his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, with just this thought. To allow such kingdom sensibility to live, though, requires all the heavy thought and truth telling we can muster. J Mang: ‘it is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church. But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than
the longing for unconditional comfort’. The two cannot finally be disjoined. The gospel of truth, to be gospel and truth must be both gospel and truth. Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey). We face mystery. We realize that more than understanding, more than knowledge, is demanded by life. To understand is good. To overcome is great. One journalist remarked on the survivors of a tragedy fifty years ago; “They have been called upon to face up to mystery, actually the most terrible mystery of all, and facing mystery is something that everyone must do for himself. In the face of such a disaster one must fall back on faith or find only bitter meaninglessness in the universe. To my mind this is the greatest challenge faith offers—to believe that the hand of God has not been withdrawn from the world when such things happen’. Said of those who lost children in the 1958 Chicago fire, this could be said of us all. One frame for such a perspective is that of Paul Tillich: ‘God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him’ (ST 1, 205). Strangely, the most truly academic discourse is the one set against a horizon that outstretches academia. The only truly academic dean is the dean of the chapel(!).

(G). The simple peace of generosity in correction. A simple peace can be prophetic. Jeremiah warned his people: you have left aside the springs of water of inner peace; you have built for yourselves broken cisterns which will hold no outward generosity. A woman at Riverside Church saw ahead around the corner: ‘My concern is that (our new pastor) in his writings, has taken an Afrocentrist view that is not necessarily consistent with the universal, embracing tradition of our church’ (C Guice-Mills, NYT 9/08). Yet that same simple peace can be redemptive. The great recession of these two years has reminded us of what children know best. M Atwood: ‘Children begin saying ‘That’s not fair’ long before they start figuring out money…Debt, who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid, is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all our exchanges with our fellow human beings’. (NYT 10/08). Sometimes the simple voice of conscience will rise up and touch us: ‘I felt like I was betraying myself, like this isn’t really what I like to do, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t the experience I want to be having.’

(H). The simple peace of humility in attention. I notice how much detail my granddaughter sees that I miss. The dog in the water. The bird behind the tree branch. The rabbit peeking out from under the berry bush. The sound of the water running into the culvert. Perhaps it is this simplicity of direction observation, dulled over decades that causes us to misstep. So, the inward journey toward a simple peace, self-critical self-awareness, can be lucrative, if honored. In 1988 on GM executive in all simplicity wrote: ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’. I could have said, most nearly did say, the same about the UM church in 1988. We too developed structures that repelled top talent. We too evaded a relentless quality focus. A simple peace can be beautiful. Real beauty is simple, as simplicity itself is beautiful. Proust wrote, ‘Beauty. That beauty of which we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over stimulated by regret’. At the Kennedy museum, you can watch and hear President Kennedy say, ‘we shall not fear beauty’. A good word, in simple peace, for our time too.

(G). The simple peace of generosity in healing. The outward journey toward a simple peace, benevolence in behavior, can be healing. Medical care could benefit from a focus on simplicity, a childlike attention to the simple things. Medicare no longer reimburses hospitals for ten conditions, simply preventable, when developed by patients in their care. In 2007, 193,000 people suffered falls, 30,000 were infected during catheterizations, 15,000 lost blood sugar control, 12,000 suffered urinary tract infection. Pay attention, stay clean: ‘tis a gift to be simple’. The same is true at the intersection—here—of scholarship and religion. We all need to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters. The 21st century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers. One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture’. (D Sorokin)

Coda

Would you not love to master the simple art of care, the ‘quiet habit of efficacious compassion’?

Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, and everyone who exalts himself will be humble.

The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

We will close with EB White, though it is a story from the season of shiver, not that of thirst, of winter not of summer. (A gentle reminder of life 180 days from now?)

One of my favorite Boston vignettes is set in the public Garden. EB White liked to take his step-son skating on the Frog Pond, when they visited relatives in Beacon Hill. Both step Father and Son loved Boston, and its charming garden. One day they hiked down from their relatives apartment, took off their shoes, stuffed them under a bench, donned their skates and skated until the sun set. This was in the depths of the depression. When they returned to the bench, their shoes were gone. ‘Someone needed them more than we did’ was all White would say. Then the two hiked up Beacon Hill together. Still in their skates. That image of the great writer, enjoying the winter, loving the garden, enthralled with ice, kind to the needy, and hiking up Beacon Hill on the tips of his skates—that image stays with me.

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

Water on the Sabbath

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010
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Luke 13: 10-17

Preface

The eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. We too by the lenses of the Scripture may for a moment see what Jesus sees, imagine what he imagines, today. His vision may shape our own. Then in his light we may see light. Follow in the mind’s eye for a moment the angle of vision, the dominical angle of vision, now registered for us and all time in St. Luke’s generous gospel, Chapter 13. Hum the tune, some months before Christmastide: Do you see what he sees? In water on the Sabbath, simple refreshment of those who emerge from the manger, he sees and honors genuine generosity. Can we do otherwise? The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel of water on the Sabbath. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.

Visible Generosity

Generosity…visible.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a magnanimous, quotidian loosening of regulations. The Sabbath is to be kept. But there is a visible generosity, a leniency, a magnanimity, a forbearance, an embracing acceptance. In short, a generosity visible to all. The cattle lowing, the ox and ass, named early in the manger and now emerging, thirsty, will be watered. Water on the Sabbath. There will be water on the Sabbath and a way to slake an unavoidable thirst.

Isn’t ‘slake’ a marvelous verb? We do not suffer thirst much. But when we do, we know its unavoidable pain. Last spring, here in the Back Bay, and at BU, we had a day or so without potable water. It was a bracing reminder. Come summer, today, with heat and sun, we can wake up to a sharp thirst. We pass over some of the threshold spiritualities too quickly. I remember a glorious WS Coffin sermon, arguing, contra JB Phillips, ‘Your God is Too Large’. The text: Jn 19:28: (Greek: DIPSO), ‘I thirst’. Maybe the spiritual message of winter is the divine intimacy known in the small spirituality: ‘I shiver’. Maybe then the spiritual message of summer is the divine intimacy known in the God who is not too large for the phrase, ‘I thirst’. Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. (So, St Augustine). Anger to shake off a shiver. Courage to slake a thirst.

The summer is meant for the slaking of thirst. To slake the thirst for rest, we vacation. To slake the thirst for fitness, we exercise. To slake the thirst for meaning, we read. To slake the thirst for adventure, we travel. To slake the thirst for God, we pray. To slake the thirst, the DIPSO, the longing, for heaven, we listen, listen, listen….for the word. For denizens of the northeast, especially, the summer spiritualities MUST be honored, for the rest of the year to unfold.

The eye of the Lord, in Luke today, rests upon generosity. On the Sabbath, of all days, a generous fountain of water is poured out to slake a natural, quotidian, inevitable thirst. Water they need, water they shall have. Follow the way his eye, his mind, point. Follow his gaze. He invites you to look out to where he points. No magic, no mystery, no sacrament, no spiritual insight is required here. For those who will take a moment to look, generosity is visible. Plain as the nose on your face. Plainer still. Plain as the nose on my face. ‘A face made for radio’, as one said. We know, we see, generosity IN OUR OWN EXPERIENCE. The Lord simply points it out.

Luke steps away from the mounting vehemence—utterly regrettable—with which the observant are treated in Paul, then Mark, then later Matthew, and especially in John. Luke (as he does from chapter 9 to chapter 18) tells his own story. But Mark (2) and Matthew (12) and John (5) and so many other NT passages carry the same contrast of Sabbath vs. Water, Water vs. Sabbath. Speaking of thirst slaked: I found myself smiling this summer to read our former colleague Paula Frederiksen’s sharp treatment of this (FROM JESUS TO CHRIST) of some years ago. There is very little balance, no fairness, in the NT portraits of Pharisees and Sabbath. These are set pieces. ‘Why is this night different from every other?’ has become ‘Why is this teacher different from every other?’ And then the set pieces in response about Water and Sabbath.

Which makes our reading so wonderful, so exceptional, itself so generous!

Not for Luke, ‘brood of vipers’ language here. Not for Luke ‘white sepulchers’ language here. Not for Luke ‘before me thieves and robbers’ language here.

Rather Jesus sees generosity.

All across the other 26 books largely we find the requisite contrast. Water vs. Sabbath. The living water vs. the dead letter. The end of the law vs. the law. Grace vs. Law. The requisite combat: Healing Jesus vs. Sabbath Observance.

But in Luke 13 we find a reasonable, a generous voice, pointing to generosity visible among the observant. Here is the closing argument: ‘Now look. Why grumble about whether I may have straightened up and out a spiritual infirmity or two on the Sabbath? Let us reason together. We are not so different, you and I. When necessary, you provide water on the Sabbath. Generous of you, very generous. I see it. See: it is visible in your own experience. Water on the Sabbath. When necessary I provide that water too.’ Not water or Sabbath, but Water on Sabbath.

Can you see, in the mind’s eye, one generosity, genuine generosity? If you follow the Lord’s lead and outlook, you cannot help but see one, somewhere. Somehow it is refreshing, on a Sunday, or on any day, to see again, to LEARN again, to remember the visible generosities.

Religious Generosity

Generosity…religious.

Even in religion, one can stumble across genuine generosity. Even in religion.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a loosening of religious regulation. In its broadest interpretation, this passage delights us with the remarkable, to our eyes, assertion that religion, even religion, even our own religion, admits of real generosity.

We are rightly reticent to follow Jesus’ gaze here. We have an authentic, gut sense—good sense that is—that we should be more careful, cautious, and critical than we are, normally, about religion. Perhaps this is a modern dilemma. Somehow I doubt that, though. Over time, we come to realize that regarding religion we are not ever as negative, honestly critical, truly and historically candid about religious malevolence as we should be. We forget, pass over, eclipse, offer special pleading.

For robes, stoles, temples, steeples and rituals of all kinds readily and regularly do human harm. A lot of bad can hide in church. And does. Any general applause for religion in general is, in the first instance, highly suspect. So, this winter, when thirst gives way to shiver, we shall brace ourselves in the wind of honesty about religion by remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, come Lent. Life Together. Religionless Christianity. Cheap Grace. The Cost of Discipleship.

We have every right, every reason to hold up, to pause here, along the sight line offered. Hum a little of the old spiritual, ‘Have you got good religion? Or bad?’

Yet, even here, SURSUM CORDA, to follow the divine sight line is to see moments—and they are a sheer delight—even in religion. Water on the Sabbath. Water EVEN on the Sabbath.

Before coming to Boston we had the privilege of helping to build a largest new building. (A building by the way is in some ways the quintessential spiritual, not material project, as Daniel Marsh well knew. Another sermon for another day.) The work took almost ten years, from warmup to extra innings. It both occasioned and required multiple, manifold generosities. One of sweetest, hardest, and truest, though, came from left field. I hope you can see the generosity, how delightful it was. It was a religious generosity.

During one piloting session, a young woman said: ‘I think some of us will pay a heavy price for this, which you do not see. We will want to give, truly want to. We see the need, love the Lord, support the church, affirm the direction. We are with you Bob. But we no money. We have no means. So we shall have to support in other ways, and we shall have to bit our lip, when we would LOVE to be able to do what others can, but just cannot. We will need to carry the burden of an unrequited love, a yearning—true, honest, loving, fierce—a longing to do more. (A thirst?). And that will be in some ways our biggest gift’. And she was right. And she did.

I feared for years that our biggest challenge would be people who had means but no desire to be generous (and there was some of that); but what I saw, along a delightful sight line, was the opposite: people who had bountiful desire, but limited means. We had to find a way to do the building without letting a single brick of spiritual disappointment fall on, hurt, genuine—yes, religious—generosity.

Somehow it is refreshing on a Sunday, or any day, to be delighted by real, religious generosity.

Potent Generosity

Generosity…potent.

I recall a Russian poet, jailed for years, who said, when asked how he survived: “I remembered the generosities, the kindnesses I had known”.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a kind of generosity, simple and real like the watering of livestock, which has the power to influence others. Generosity begets generosity. Just as the greatest cause of war is war, so too with genuine generosity. You remember these simple acts when you see them. They make you more generous yourself. They bear fruit. They are Water on the Sabbath.

I miss preaching, when I am away in the summer. So, often the early fall homilies quickly grow out of all proportion, take off lickety split, and become like the peace of God, passing all understanding and enduring forever. Like zucchini. As this sermon came to life, a past particular Sabbath generosity, utterly humble, knocked at the door. I refused to open, for a time, for it is so humble, dressed in sandals and shorts, not really fit for Sunday worship. But sometimes an illustration tells you it is coming into the sermon, no matter what you think.

One Sunday some years ago Jan and I and our then teenage son were flying home from a wedding on the beach near Pensacola. I think this summer of the glorious ivory sand and shimmering emerald water before which I witnessed the vows that summer. Going home, we had a chance to be ‘bumped’, to pick up an extra later flight by taking a flight later that day. We agreed to do so, but left our son to make his own choice. Whether to stay five or six more hours with his parents, or to fly home to his friends, having spent already three days with mom and dad. He declined to be bumped. His friends were waiting at home. He knew his parents pretty well already, and they were, well, his parents. He wanted to go home. So he told the attendant. I remember what I saw that day.

A beleaguered airline worker, with dozens of people clamoring for his attention, with heat of all kinds mounting, with a plane to fill, seats to assign, simply stopped. He took our son by the arm, and walked a few paces with him. He tried to show him what he was giving up—a few hours now, a trip anywhere later. The fellow had no need to do so—there were umpteen other volunteer. He had many reasons not to do so—tempus fugit. But the two of them talked, laughed, talked. Of course I could see that an avuncular voice is far better than a parental one, in such a moment. Our son smiled. He was, and should have been, honored by the gift of the man’s concern, interest, and engagement. It was water on the Sabbath, a moment of generosity, which reverberates ten years later. It bears fruit, and I think of it when I am tempted to move quickly, or too quickly, from an avuncular conversation myself.

Of course, the son ditched his parents anyway. It was only natural, and in its own way, only right. He quickly got on board his duly ticketed, regularly scheduled flight. But the potent generosity of the moment remains radiantly visible. It is refreshing, on a Sunday—or any day—to see again, to be PERSUADED by the power of generosity.

Coda

The eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel of water on the Sabbath. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.

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

Reality Check

Sunday, August 15th, 2010
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Luke 12: 49-56

Not exactly “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” here, is he? If he ever was.

Jesus has no illusions about the controversy inherent in his mission, and he does not want his disciples to have any illusions either. He comes to bring fire, a sign of judgment. Here on the road to Jerusalem he is already at odds with the religious authorities. He speaks about the baptism of his death, the likely consequence of his preaching and teaching. He speaks of the stress he feels until his work is done. Jesus is not a false prophet like those described by Jeremiah. He does not speak dreams or lies or deceit. As one who has the word of God he speaks it faithfully, and God’s word is like fire, like a hammer breaking rock. As in the Psalm, such a word as judgment brings justice to the poor and vulnerable, rights to the lower classes, and deliverance to the oppressed. Conflict is inevitable.

For the crowds, conflict is inherent in their own hypocrisy. The interpretation of the present time is as obvious as the weather signs that everyone knows, but the crowds persist in denial and take refuge in ignorance. But for the disciples, the ones closest to Jesus, the ones who say they are serious about following Jesus on his path, there is no such escape. Conflict is inevitable, and it will not just be the relatively easy and expected conflict with strangers or authority figures. To choose to follow Jesus, to accept the controversy of his teaching and preaching, is to bring conflict into one’s very household, with one’s nearest and dearest.

Now this idea may not have come as as big a shock as we might think to the disciples. The men are of at least breadwinning age. They are culturally and religiously supposed to marry, settle down, have children, and enter the family business or do even better. The women have even more cultural and religious expectations for their behavior than the men. They are to move from father’s house to husband’s house to son’s house with the welfare of the family their only concern. Yet here they all are, women and men, gallivanting around the countryside with some itinerant preacher, the men walking away from their families and leaving their businesses, the women walking away from their families and using the their resources to support themselves and this very motley crew, all of them calling scandal and attention to themselves with their involvement with miracles, the preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God — whatever that is — and getting into trouble with the arbiters of the faith. We can only imagine the letters from home.

And truth to tell, the idea of inevitable conflict, even within our families, does not come as such a great shock to us, either. We can relate. My friend Lucy’s mother did not speak to her for two solid days when Lucy revealed that she was not going to vote for Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, as her family had always voted for the Republican candidate. Instead Lucy was going to vote for a Roman Catholic, Irish Democrat named John F. Kennedy. Lucy’s mother did finally end up talking to her, but she held a grudge for years. Many of us know families of active pacifists whose children join the military, and families with generations of military academy graduates whose children join peace movements. There is nothing more disconcerting to us as children to learn that Mom and Dad have either spent the bulk of the family fortune on exotic vacations, or have left the bulk of the family fortune to the whales or the trees. And in academic circles, the first Thanksgiving break is almost a cliché: the newly convinced vegetarian or carnivore goes home to be confronted with the sacred foods of the family Thanksgiving feast; the newly convicted free market capitalist or fair trade organizer goes home to undergo the opinions of their direct opposite in Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe; upon return to the dorm the pictures of the high school sweetheart are taken down and put away, or even thrown out.

For the folks in Jesus’ time, and for us in ours, conviction of whatever sort invariably leads to conflict. How much more so for disciples of Jesus, then and now, who are called to follow a path that has controversy built into it, a path that confronts not just systemic injustice and oppression, but the shadowy recesses of the human heart and its complicated relationships? Someone once said that human beings fear change more than death, and the path of Jesus is all about change: change in the world as we resist those vested in fear, violence, power, and greed through our proclamation of the kindom of God; change within ourselves as our proclamation of the kindom of God and our own formation into disciples of Jesus as we act out that kindom go hand in hand. Many of us who undertake the process of discipleship can acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ words: the most inevitable, the most painful, conflict is indeed with those who love us, who want to protect us, and who cannot bear to see us change in their fear they will be left behind, or will have to change themselves..

So if conflict is inevitable, how do we engage it with grace? While Jesus does say that conflict is inevitable, he does not say that we are to be belligerent, argumentative, hostile, or self-righteous. How then are we to engage others with grace in the very real issues of stewardship, justice, and peace that are part of our discipleship? How are we to engage our family as well as those we encounter in the wider world with grace?

Part of the answer lies with how we view conflict itself. If we see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs, as something that “nice people” or “good Christians” do not engage in, we too will be in denial, of both the reality of our world and the inevitability of conflict in our lives as Jesus’ followers. In fact, conflict does have its more positive side. Ron Kraybill, in his book Peace Skills: Manual for Community Mediators, defines “conflict” as that which is “the result of differences that produce tension”. So conflict can be a valuable source of information about the state of our relationships on a personal or communal level. As such, it can be seen as something to be managed or resolved, but Kraybill asserts that conflict can also be seen as something to be transformed, in a process that “does not just end or prevent something but also begins something new and good.”

This process of conflict transformation into something new and good has many entry points for grace. I would lift up three of them in particular for our consideration this morning.

The first is picked conflicts. The hard-earned wisdom of our faith tradition, of parents, adult children, and mediators of every kind attests to the fact that not everything is a matter of life and death. Respect for one’s Other in conflict recognizes that their truths and convictions are held with as much integrity and passion as one’s own. And there is only so much energy, time, and resource to go around. So we have to decide. What in our discipleship are we truly called to uphold in our proclamation and life, and where and with whom are we called to uphold it? What are the marks of the kindom of God, and what is only culture and conditioning? Do we really need to engage in conflict over a particular issue, or can we drop it, agree to disagree, focus instead on areas of common interest, or agree just not to engage that issue? As many of us have come to learn, progressives and conservatives, vegetarians and carnivores, Christians and atheists can live in the same house, as long as there is a commitment to love one another and to serve the common good. Some of these shared interests can a
lso involve issues important to disciples of Jesus. Again my friend Lucy, a practicing Christian. With her son, who is an atheist, she shares a deep commitment to the welfare of disadvantaged children. There is indeed sometimes conflict between them due to certain decisions each makes out of his or her beliefs. But their commitment to mutual respect for one another in love, and this shared concern for children, help them to support one another in all their common concerns, even as they continue to find increased areas of agreement.

This first entry point for grace of picked conflicts is closely related to the second entry point. We have to decide how important it is for us to be right. Especially we have to decide how important it is to be right in comparison with other values in our discipleship. If we insist on being right, we may indeed “win” on a particular issue, but we may cut off the possibility of further conversation or even break the relationship, to the detriment of any future good. Instead of being right all the time, it may be that sometimes it is up to us to refuse to call it, to postpone or even give up our being right in order to keep the conversation going until the transformation of conflict for everyone is possible. Many of us remember, during the Viet Nam police action, when so many fathers and sons were in such deep conflict over the question of military service, that it was mothers/wives, daughters/sisters, who stood in the breach, who refused to take sides (although they certainly had their own opinions), who kept the lines of communications open between their loved ones, until the wounds had had time to heal, and the conflict could be transformed into deeper understanding and compassion. Jesus himself had strong words to say to those who were in conflict with him, even to his own family, and he certainly thought he was right on a great many things, but he was not afraid to change his mind, and he was not afraid to keep the conversation going.

The third entry point for grace is the use of example rather than rhetoric. An odd thing to say for a preacher, but true nonetheless. If we are called to practice our discipleship in ways that conflict with family or other tradition, we may want to go the extra mile to make that practice more convenient for family or for others. To take on some of the research and action of shopping and cooking toward a more thoughtful and just use of resources, to begin to give a portion of our tithe of our own money to mutually important causes, to pare down our own excess consumption perhaps in part through meaningful gifts to family members, or just not to be so quick to argue or to critique: these examples go a long way to prove both our own commitment to our discipleship as well to open conversations about that commitment with those near to us who might otherwise be frightened or angry about our priorities.

It is true that sometimes we do have to leave, that the situation is so intractable, so fraught, that for our own spiritual or physical safety and integrity, or that of others, we have to go. Or, while it does not seem likely for us in the United States at this present time, it may be that we, like many of our brothers and sisters around the world, are called to witness to the proclamation of God’s kindom to the extent of martyrdom. The work “martyr” means “witness”, and certainly the consequences of Jesus’ witness to the good news of the kindom of God led to his death. But there are also many kinds of witness that may feel like death in ourselves by what we are called to do. To oppose or resist our family and friends for the sake of justice or peace or a different way of being in the world very often feels like something is dying inside us, and our grief can be very real. Or it may be that our discipleship does call us from home for many years, or away from cherished practices and beliefs. But even if the situation or other people involved are intractable, and we have to leave, we can still allow the possibility, the possibility, of the conflict’s transformation, through the grace within us, into the beginning of something new and good.

Our attitude toward conflict is what in large measure determines if it transforms us or if we transform it. If we are aware of conflict’s inevitability – especially if we can become aware of conflict early on — and if we see conflict as a source of information useful to us that can be transformed into something new and better, then we can see and open not just these three entry points for grace, of picked conflicts, the decision about being right, and the use of example: we will be able to open many more entry points of grace into conflict as well.

Conflict is inevitable, Jesus taught, even to conflict with our nearest and dearest. But as he also taught, our discipleship can also be a source of peace and transformation of conflict for ourselves and for those around us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

~The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Beyond the Unexpected Hour

Sunday, August 8th, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 12: 32-40

It is good to be with you today. Let me express my appreciation to Dr. Hill for this invitation and to Ray Bouchard for his kind hospitality. As I was leaving Chicago, Elaine and I rode for several miles along Dempster Avenue on our way to the airport. Named for John Dempster this major traffic artery stretches from the lakeshore west to distant cornfields. John Dempster was, of course, the leader of a fledgling Methodist school that later became the B.U. School of Theology. And, that very same John Dempster became Garrett Seminary’s first president in 1854. Our two schools share the same ancestry and, I suspect, much of the same theological DNA. So, it is good to come and visit the “mother ship” today. I bring greetings from the wild, wild frontier of Chicago.

Creator of life, remind us anew of your invitation to live boldly through the mystery of the present and into your promised future. Forgive our presumptions when we despair by setting limits on our actions and your grace. Renew us in hope and free our strength to your purposes. Amen.

I. The Question

“How can it be to our advantage that Christ has left this earth?” Dr. George Buttrick asked this question at the beginning of a sermon preached a short distance from here over fifty years ago. It is a good question – one that pushes theologians to consider matters of deity and the future, or in “theo-talk” it is Christology and Eschatology. This question is quite apt for our scripture lessons for today. How do we behave in the middle of an unfinished story? How might God surprise us yet again… and, how are things changed after being surprised by grace?

My son occasionally sends me questions he finds amusing. We share a sense of humor that is slightly “out of plumb.” For instance he recently sent this query: “Dad,” he wrote, “what if there are no hypothetical questions?” You have to think about it. Others he has sent include: “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” and this one I like, “If you try to fail, but succeed, which have you done?”

Recently I came across examples of questions used in the admission process as the Oxbridge schools. Among them was: “How would you organize a successful revolution?” (This seemed like a good question for me to ask in Boston.) And there was this one “given the present political climate, why not let the managers of Ikea run the country instead of the politicians?”

Other questions asked of applicants to various schools at Oxford or Cambridge were:
• Would you rather be a novel or a poem? (English, Oxford)

• How many monkeys would you use in an experiment? (Experimental psychology, Oxford)

• Should we have laws for the use of light bulbs? (Law, Cambridge)

• If I were a grapefruit would I rather be seedless or non-seedless? (Medicine, Cambridge)

I appreciated Dr. Buttrick’s question when I came across it a few weeks back: “How can it be to our advantage that Christ has left this earth?” Luke’s gospel lesson for today provides a subset of questions from this larger one. Questions like, “What are you doing waiting here?” “Where is your treasure, anyway?” “And, are you prepared for the unexpected hour?”

My friend Faye asked me a similar, although more piercing question, when she asked, “Where the hell is God in all of this?” I will get to Fay’s story later.

II. Great Expectations and Living with Expectancy

John Dempster headed west. He was home on leave from work in Argentina in the early 1840s. He was preparing to return when he was asked to head a theology school in New England. He was surprised to be asked to be a leader for Methodist theological education in America. You see, father died while he was young and growing up as an orphan, Dempster had little formal education. The invitation came unexpectedly. At first, he declined — yet somehow he discovered a new vocation, a new treasure, beyond the unexpected. In terms of Luke’s gospel, his lamp was trimmed and he was prepared. He served as president of Methodist General Biblical Institute the antecedent to the BU School of Theology for six years. Then, again, the unexpected request and he headed west.

He headed to Illinois (Newbury Seminary in Vermont 1834 [high school] and Methodist General Biblical Institute in Concord, NH 1847). In my mind’s eye I see him moving along with the flinty eyed “free soilers” who were part of the radical abolitionist movement – they eager to claim the land and farm but more eager vote to make or keep a state a free state. Dempster was pressing forward with his call for an educated clergy.

Dempster’s deep piety was matched by a commitment to justice. In 1862, one day before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Dempster met with President Lincoln and urged him to sign such a document. Dempster kept moving and in 1863 he left Illinois and headed west again, with the expectation he would start other seminaries in the Rockies and in California. Sadly he died an untimely death on that journey, but his dream of establishing other seminaries was soon enough accomplished by his apprentices.

During these same years, as the American Civil war was gruesomely unfolding, a writer named Charles Dickens decided to save his magazine, All the Year Round by writing a novel in weekly serial form. That story was called Great Expectations. What Dickens wrote in 1862 is now required reading for most high school students. You know it, the young Pip, his expectations to become a gentleman of great wealth, his dreams of marrying Estella. You remember the eccentric Miss Havisham and the treacherous Magwitch. Dickens puts the human hunger for social ranking and success on trial. He puts society in the dock and finds that we are too typically unable to accept the decency of a blacksmith like Joe or the redeeming love of a convict.

Pip’s “great expectations” for success and privilege prove counter productive. He is learning the painful truth behind the gospel text “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” As each opportunity arrives there are problems or tragedy and Pip becomes the more miserable.

And what of us? Where is our hope? A wise friend once taught me the difference between expectations and expectancy. To have expectations is to presume we might control what is likely to happen. What we expect is shaped by our greatest desires or fears. Living with expectancy, on the other hand, means one lives on the tiptoes of hope bringing our best gifts to events as they unfold, even when faced with tragedy. Benjamin Disraeli said, “What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”

On Easter Sunday 2010 I suspect none of us knew what a “Deepwater Horizon” was, and today these are words that represent human greed and deceit. As this environmental crisis went unaddressed choices were open – either moving with our expectations or a new expectancy. Some expected a quick fix so that ample fuel can continue our nation’s insatiable joy ride to prosperity; some fear the sight of the ugly backside of environmental abuses might cause us to question our addictions. Did we stop to ask, what do we treasure most? And a
ll through these short months the astonishing gap between the wealthy and the poor in our society continues to widen. Over the past three decades we have regressed to levels of income disparity not seen for a century in this nation.

In Luke’s Gospel we have the story of great expectancy. The instructions given to the servants waiting for the return of the master are crisp and concise: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Servants prepare! But for what? Well, the return of the master! But what will happen when he returns? Ah, here is the astonishing surprise. This parable is also structured as beatitude. It is: “Blessed are those who are prepared … or, happy are those who are prepared, for they will be surprised.”

Did you hear the surprise? “There is a role reversal. The master takes the position of a servant and serves his own servants. This climax to the parable is so shocking, it is introduced by the phrase, “Amen, I say to you.” [“This striking formula occurs only six times in Luke and in each case introduces something that comes as a shock, or is a hard saying....] Here it introduces a stunning reversal of roles.”

III. Beyond the Unexpected: The Surprise at the End of the Rope

Expectancy opens to the space of what God is doing with and for all people. Expectations have power to limit and shape our understandings. The old axiom “What we believe to be real becomes real in its consequences,” merits our attention. But I am speaking of more than self-fulfilling prophecy. This is about one’s stance toward life and its possibilities.

Gary Dorsey tells of spending eighteen months in a rather traditional New England congregation. He had come as a journalist, and that only! Then the unexpected happened. His life was changed. Spending a year in church as a journalist, the liturgical year progressed and he discovered his place in the larger scheme of things. He writes: “This is what I tell people now: if you ever decide to go back to church, even despite yourself, you will eventually find yourself in a place where you can learn about mystery and timelessness. You will become part of a tradition of stories and verses and gossip greater than you can imagine… with a carnival of small-time saints, whose tales and homespun customs marshal wisdom out of a religious calendar, you will become a character, too, and a player in a cast.”

Dr. Buttrick answers his question of how we might take advantage the Messiah’s delay suggesting that this waiting allows us to see more clearly, to know God beyond the limits of space and time, so that we might grow to be free to discover our strength.

I couldn’t help but think of Frederick Buechner. Before coming to Boston, when Buttrick was still a pastor New York, one day a young man named Buechner sat in the pews of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and heard George Buttrick describing the Kingdom of God as an experience involving tears, laughter and great confession. As Buechner says, all of a sudden through this sermon it was as if, “the great China wall came tumbling down and Atlantis came up out of the depths of the sea.” It was one of those incredible moments when God genuinely happens to a human being.

Attending Union Seminary Frederick Buechner says two things surprised him: First of all, he was amazed at the earthiness and the honesty of the Scripture. Secondly, what was even more striking about the Biblical story and what recurred all the way through, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation was the continuing motif that the worst things were never the last things. This God who had a thousand names was continually acting in unexpected ways… then waiting for our response.

Chicago’s own theologian and poet, Fr. John Shea puts it this way: “At the center of our best effort, we discover our worst motive. Our perfect plot fails and their sloppiest plan succeeds. In single-minded pursuit of one goal, we blithely achieve the opposite…

In these moments, and many more, we are thrown back on ourselves. More precisely, we are thrown back into the Mystery we share with one another. These moments trigger an awareness of a More, a Presence, An Encompassing, a Whole within which we come and go. This awareness of an inescapable relatedness to Mystery does not wait for a polite introduction. It bursts unbidden upon our ordinary routine, demands total attention, and insists we dialogue. At these times we may scream or laugh or dance or cry or sing or fall silent. But whatever our response, it is raw prayer, the returning human impulse to the touch of God.

Think of the story of Jacob and Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Simon Peter or the apostle Paul. Think of Jesus. This is the image of a God for whom the worst things are never the last things. John Claypool said it this way, “The loveliest truth I know is that God lives at the end of our ropes.” Claypool notes that the familiar aphorism “as long as there’s life, there’s hope” may carry a deeper truth if we consider the converse. That is: as long as there’s hope, there’s life.

My Friend Faye asked her question of me more than once. You remember that question, “Where the hell is God in all this?” – She was a longtime member of the parish where I served, She had suffered from deep depression following her husband’s long struggle with cancer. I encouraged Faye to seek help for her depression and she also joined a Wednesday morning healing group. We didn’t know much about healing rituatl, we were not Pentecostal, nor did we have the rituals of anointing more common to Roman Catholics or Episcopalians. We struggled to find a Methodist way.

And so, at the close of this group, each week we would anoint one another, going around the circle and asking our neighbor what we could pray with them about for the coming week. Months turned into years for Faye, slowly she began to play the violin again. Slowly she would share in the company of friends. However, she still struggled with her question. One week, when it came time to pray, I was sitting next to Faye and when I asked, “What can I pray with you about? She stuttered. She was about to deliver one of the most powerful malapropisms I have every heard. She answered, “Please pray that… that… that my strength will be faithened.” She got her words all twisted round, but her theology right. In that moment I watched her face slip into a wry smile. Within days, I heard her laugh and then one day she surprised me with a new question. She asked, “And what do I do with this God now?”

How would you help her answer this question?

~The Reverend Dr. Philip A. Amerson, President
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Evanston, Illinois

All of Us are Better When We are Loved

Sunday, August 1st, 2010
Click here to hear the sermon only.

Romans 5: 1-11

Ride On

One Tuesday, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9 year old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. We do. But on Monday she fell off, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast straight pitch. Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.

Go OWU

In October of 1997 my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40 degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless,
heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is , to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

Love alone has the grace and power savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we’re loved.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel