Archive for September, 2010

September 26

Cantata and Covenant

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16: 19-31

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

We celebrate the endowment we already have. It is a rich and treasure. It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material. Listen for its echoes…listen…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Congregation and community, you come too.

Earthly assembly and heavenly chorus, you come too.

We’re going out to clean the pasture spring.

John Donne once sharply evoked, in a 17th century sermon, the power of divine covenant. Our cantata today coes the same, sharply evoking the power of covenant embrace, of the human, by the divine. Today’s cantata grew up out of a wedding cantata. And weddings are symbols of covenant, human and divine.

Donne preached long ago in London at a May wedding. Rather than reflecting in the abstract about the nature of marriage, or about the understanding of the church as the bride of Christ, or about divine love in general for the human being in general, Donne imagined himself in the bride’s place. He envisioned himself walking publicly down the aisle, to meet the Lamb, the bridegroom. He pictured the procession, his walk toward the Lamb, the bridegroom. He imagined truthfully what the townspeople would whisper about him as he walked forward: “Look at Donne. Do you remember what he did, all that he said, where he failed, all his faults?” How could he possibly be worthy?” Donne had probably seen many seen as many weddings as we do, summer by summer, with their processions, their thresholds of new creation, their sacramental covenants.

Peter Hawkins, our dear friend and teacher, summarize the moment this way: “The Son of God as bridegroom does not care a whit that his intended’s sins once were scarlet. All the bride has to do is lose her scruples, proceed and join in the feast to follow…with complete confidence in the bridegroom’s choice of her. Even if everyone else thinks the union is a mistake, ‘The lamb shall marry me” says Donne the preacher, “and marry me in aeternum, forever”.

It is this kind of covenant joy which the cantata today evokes.

Heavenly Flames

Heavenly Flames: To Be Your Temple

Souls pleasing to you in faith

You chosen souls whom as chosen as his dwelling

Who could choose a greater bliss

Who can count the throng of blessings

So will the site of sacrament be rewarded

Peace Over Israel, Psalm 128

Celebratory, rather than condemnatory



Give thanks, God has considered you.

I don’t know how I could live without Bach.

Today’s music – written by those great musical preachers of the Baroque Bach and Schütz – amplifies the central Christian message of salvation for all who believe by faith, and enter into covenant with God in Christ.

Let’s start with our offertory anthem, ‘Viel werden kommen’ by Heinrich Schütz. You can read the translation in your bulletin. He draws on a small portion of the text from Matthew Chapter 8 about Jesus’s encounter with the centurion. If you recall the passage, the Centurion, presumably a gentile, comes to Jesus asking him to heal a sick servant. Jesus is moved by the Centurion’s demonstration of faith, and after the miracle – true to form – Jesus finds in this the act a teachable moment. Here comes our text for the anthem. Despite the gnashing of teeth imagery, the scripture in full context ,means that access to Salvation, communion or covenant with God, is available to all, even the most unlikely – think of the woman at the well. He goes a little further here to indicate that, moreover, those who make assumptions about their Salvation may find themselves in the hot seat – just as Rich man Divies in today’s lesson from Luke.

We can’t be certain about biblical interpretations during Schütz’s day, but the set of pieces from which our motet is drawn was published at the end of the Thirty Years War, that awful period which pitted brother against brother, and confession against confession. In the Matthew lesson, Jesus clearly meant that the Centurion, a gentile, shared an equal chance at Salvation. Perhaps Schütz, in the 17th Century, was making a similar statement about Catholic versus Protestant. No great of logic is required to define which divisions plague today’s global community. Regardless, when we meet Schütz at the heavenly banquet with Abraham, Isaac, und Jakob, we can be sure to ask him!

Now to our Cantata for the day. Bach celebrates this communion with Christ, this holy wedding where Christ is bride-groom and we, the Church, his bride, in truly spectacular ways. Originally written for a wedding in 1724, Bach recasts his cantata for a Pentecost Sunday in the early 1740s. More than fifteen years later, he recognized the superior quality of his earlier effort, and found in it a text that suited the celebration of covenant, not just between two people who profess love and devotion for one another, but that this relationship mirrors the believer’s life in Christ, a devotion – a love – fanned by the flame of the Holy Spirit.

Music of the high Baroque is much like a Swiss clock – there is extraordinary beauty in the clock itself – face and casing – but that beauty is deepened by the wonder, precision, and complexities of the moving parts beneath the surface. As an aural guide for Cantata 34, listen for how Bach sets the word Ewiges – or eternal, and at the same time the flickering, darting line sing for the word Feuer – or fire. Notice how Bach sets the word for ‘ignite’ – entzünde – you can almost feel the music spark each time the choir sings it. The trumpet signals the arrival of Christ, as bride-groom, of this most royal of weddings.

The central movement of the cantata, focuses on the rapture of the individual whose body becomes Christ’s Holy Temple. There is a perfection and naturalness of beauty here – directly from the sublimity of Eden’s garden.

The cantata ends in thanks and praise, but not without significant emphasis on Christ’s pronouncement, ‘Peace upon Israel.’

Today we observe two masters whose musical settings give voice to Christ’s wedding invitation. An invitation to all, without amendment or exclusion.

We prepare ourselves for cantata and covenant, in wonder and vulnerability and self-awareness…


The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season. We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing. Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished: that there is something. That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…There are humans…who become blind to goodness, to truth and beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them. But that is not the point. What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment not simply as a transition between a before and an after but as the miracle of eternity ingressing intot time. That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling.

Erazim Kohak


Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute: we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation; for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap: He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Self Awareness

Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is the poet’s life…Yet listen well. Not to my words, but to the tumult that rages in your body when you listen to yourself…And why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of the perception?

Gaston Bachelard

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

September 19

Faith Handles Change

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16: 1-13


Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable. There is no easy interpretation for this parable. Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know. Why is his master happy to be cheated? We cannot say. Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell. What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend? We do not see. What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs? Little at all, except that they all deal with money. How did this collection make it into Luke’s travel narrative? It is not clear. Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)


Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst. Today is voice, so equable and magnanimous and serene, can just barely be heard above the cadence of the traditional (rabbinic?) story here told. Today his voice is like a whispering soprano descant. We can announce his presence today, again today. He is among us: dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust. So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him. In the strange world of the Bible. In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church. Hidden in the odd estrangements of our personal life. Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, the Stranger.

Contrary to much preaching, televised and popular today, his presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political. He draws us, lures us, and enchants us. So he sets us free.

For St. Luke has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”. We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church. We are making a trip to the promised land. We are headed in a certain direction. With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey. Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread. There they became the slaves of Pharaoh. But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness. He brought them the ten commandments. At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed. They even built a temple, and chose a King. Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong. Although the prophets did warn them, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc. Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the calamity of unexpected change and economic crisis. On the road, the journey of faith, Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses the issue of money. Remember how Luke traces the Gospel. Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor. John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward. Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed. Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’. Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?” Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions. And in conclusion, meet Lazarus and Dives. Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a church and as individuals.


Keep this portrait of the shrewd manager in your wallet, especially for the days your wallet is empty. He meets the report of his mismanagement, itself possibly false, with calm. He does not try to change the world, or this news. He raises the basic question with courage: “what shall I do?” He thinks creatively, acts with enterprise, communicates astutely, relates cleverly, strategizes shrewdly…and lands on his feet. When the cheese moves, he does too. He moves quickly. Here we overhear in a contralto solo the alto voice of an earlier period in the life of the church, earlier than Luke that is.

Before we understand the parable of the crafty steward against a moderate, modest background of proverbial wisdom, as does Luke, we might sing alto for a minute. Before we recall ‘wise as serpents, innocent as doves’, we might want to hear the parable of the clever steward against a sterner, more rugged background of judgment: ‘the Lord himself will descend with a cry of command…Some there are who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man…The kingdom of heaven…the good seed bears fruit, 30 and 60 and 100 fold. Quick. The contralto voice of the church before Luke may have heard it just so. Seize the day. Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation. Quick. It’s later than you think. Quick. Someday you may need to make a hard, sudden decision. Keep this parable in mind. Quick. You have been shrewd, clever and prudent in the decisions of this age, this world—houses and jobs and moves:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries

And what of the lasting things? Matters of heart, of soul, of friendship, of love? Have you been as assiduous with the things of God as you have been with things? Quick.


But you may wonder whether this parable speaks to you, especially if you are in financial calamity. Along Luke’s Jerusalem road, Jesus has a healing word to say about possessions, money, wealth. At least, in a tenor voice, this is what look says. He reads the parable remembering other teachings: before you build a tower, count the cost; before you wage war, study the enemy; be clever, shrewd and prudent; one man sharpens another like iron sharpens iron. The lord affirms not dishonesty but prudence. So at least our gospel writer sings out in his firm tenor voice.

To me it is clear that the chief communal issue before Luke’s (Antioch?) congregation was the management of wealth. This means that they had money. This also means that they did not immediately throw it away. This further means that they reasoned that the apocalypse of the end was not so very near that no financial planning was necessary. This additionally means, as Luke’s writing shows, that they were trying to lear
n to become prudent, astute, imaginative, shrewd, clever, insightful, accountable, enterprising managers. So they are reminded, in argument from less to more: “Keep faith in the little things, to be ready for the big ones.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Be faithful with money, which belongs to God, so that you will become faithful in soul, which belongs to you.” A stitch in time saves nine. “Do your pre-season training with possessions, so that you will be ready for the regular gridiron season of the spirit.” Look before you leap. Be penny wise, not pound foolish.

In other words, “use possessions so as to gain, not to lose, your future” (Craddock). Be creative. “For all the dangers of possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God” (Ringe). Remember that you are a manager of someone else’s accounts, an absentee landlord who has a claim. And go ahead, be clever. Be creative and loyal, but if you have to choose—be creative.


The deeper truth in this passage, though, is simply that faith handles change. And this is the bass line, the deep voice of the community of faith, which has lived with this odd parable for 2000 years. Faith carries the power to master the vicissitudes of change. Ultimately, this parable cannot be interpreted along moral, or economic, or even political lines. So read, it makes no real sense. Luke has gone ahead to read the parable so, in part, by appending the four parables about fiduciary fidelity. We have honored his teaching. But the parable itself says something else. Like the mystery of Christ itself, the story is not moral but mystical, not theoretical but theological, not law but grace. It is good news.

The good news is that faith handles change. A man gets the pink slip, and leaves under suspicion, with the sheriff on the way. He is looking at doing time. He is on the lamb. He is headed for jail, prison, the lockup, the pokey, hoosegow, calaboose, the slammer, the joint, the tank, in stir, goin’ up the river, doin’ time, in the brig, the gray bar hotel, the big house, the can. (Isn’t language wonderful? As the steel magnolias said, “accessorize—it’s the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom”. I would add speech.) He is not a moral exemplar. But just as his ingenuity handles the sudden change in his circumstance, so the powerful grace of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, handles the constant change of life. Faith manages change, masters change. So Paul can shout, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20). The faith of Jesus Christ, working heteronomously through life, handles change. Faith is nimble, not flatfooted; agile not stolid; creative not loyal; shrewd not complacent; quick not quiescent; fast not slow.

A couple of Sundays ago I came home in the early evening to settle in and read the papers. On the front page of the (NYT) book review I was surprised and delighted to find a report on THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. Over dinner, last year, I had come to know the author, BU professor Isabel Wilkerson. As sometime marvelously happens, at table, she had captured my imagination about the book was finishing. She enthralled me with accounts of three people, on three trains, in three generations, headed north. Hers is the story of the epic migration of African Americans from the south to the north, on three train lines: one along the east coast, one up the Mississippi, and one across Texas to California. “What linked them together was their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future.” Of course I found the account mesmerizing, told as it was in such fine detail, with such realism and hope: “a hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom throughout history have long done. They left.” And of course I found it such a quintessential BU story, of freedom wrestled for, freedom won, against the tides of prejudice and poverty. What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past? Fightings without and fears within since we assembled last.

Faith handles change.

Then, nearly setting the paper aside, I leafed quickly to the last book review page, and there again, a similar account, a fine book, a BU friend and author. Andrew Bacevich, a military man and a conservative, whose voice is one of the truest of our time in its search for the things that make for peace. His latest book, WASHINGTON RULES, calls to us to look hard at what we are doing around the world. He criticizes our condition of permanent national security crisis. He criticizes our tendency to ignore those doing the actual fighting on our behalf. He praises Eisenhower’s warning against the ‘military industrial complex’. ‘Bacevich in his own populist way sees himself as updating a tradition—from George Washington and John Quincy Adams to J William Fulbright and Martin Luther King, Jr.—that calls on America to exemplify freedom but not actively to spread it…the country is lucky to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich’. And so is this community, this city, this University.

Faith handles change.

Days earlier, reading another day’s paper, I came upon the account of the Mt Nebo Bible Baptist Church in New Orleans’ 9th ward. Katrina wrecked the church and parsonage. Over five years, the pastor rebuilt his home, and conducts services there, now, every Sunday. The long story of wreckage and rebuilding was well told in the article. But it was the ending that stuck with and struck me:

When Mr. Duplessis first inspected the wreckage of Mount Nebo’s building – pews tossed aside like toothpicks, chunks gone from the roof, there a wall knocked loose – he also learned that several boats had been tiedto the steeple. With 20 feet of water around, the second floor of Mount Nebo was, in more ways than one, a sanctuary. And so he has persevered in his living room. On this particular Sunday, the faithful finally did arrive, a dozen by 10:15 a.m., nearly 25 by 10:35. Mr.Duplessis preached from the Book of Joshua, all about determination. He conducted a baby blessing. And he joined his people in singing lyrics that were almost unbearably freighted with double meaning:

Storm clouds may rise
Storm clouds may blow
But I’ll tell the world
Wherever I go
That I have found the Savior
And he’s sweet I know

Are we ready to apply this gospel to our own lives and to affirm in the ways we live that faith handles change?

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

September 12

Johannine Inspiration

By Marsh Chapel

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1 John 4: 7-12

Beloved let us love one another.

Was there ever a time, a season, a year, week or month more hungry than ours now for this inspiration? Was there ever a more timely word?

Beloved let us love one another. For love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God.

This is the Johannine inspiration that comes from the Gospel and Letters of John, including our reading from 1 John today. In a strange way, the same spirit emanates from the center of the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 15. We hear today of the loss and return of a coin and a sheep, and on another day of the loss and return of a prodigal son. These beautiful parables, like the Johannine inspiration, come shorn of overwrought doctrine or tradition. They place us in the moment of loss and return, of coming home.

Beloved let us love one another for love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God. One who does not love does not know God. For God is love.

Words sublime. The high peak of Johannine inspiration. We crave the hearing and trusting of such words today, amid the cacophony of so much language, religious language included, that is less inspiring.

In this is love that God sent the Son that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us.

And yet. Those who have read through the letters of John and the Gospel itself, will have a question or two. Across the river at Harvard three autumns ago, after an evening presentation, a wise and kind man clearly said: “I have trouble reading the Johannine literature. I really have a hard time reading John”.

We can surmise what he probably meant. Our lovely lesson read earlier comes after, and as a by product of, a long, pained history of religious conflict. The community of John had good reason to state: one who does love does not know God. One feels that they had been on several sides of that locution over many years. It takes one to know one. We are not the first generation to know the scalding of religious conflict. The question is whether we can emerge from it with inspiration.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God. But we love one another God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us.

These words of light were born in darkness.

For in John and John 1 we find various troubling, troublesome, troublous passages. We read repeatedly the phrase, ‘the Jews’, for example. We come upon Jesus saying harsh things, fore and aft. We turn the page to find ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ bluntly assaulting his countrymen, his fellows in religiosity, his co-inheritors of law, prophets, writings, of Moses, Amos, and Job, with the following exercise in humility: ‘all who came before me are thieves and robbers’. We find that far more than the already heated anti-semitism of Mark has been baked into the account of the crucifixion.

An historical, a diachronic reading of John it is, one that looks at its place and time, its community of origin, or life setting, which frees, and which alone can give a measure of the promise of 8:31, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’. We know about overheated religious rhetoric. We know of this from the current wrongheaded, heated, unfortunate rhetoric with reference to our Muslim sisters and brothers. We also find it here in our own Bible, in the Johannine literature. It is not be understood literally or literarily. It is to be understood historically and theologically as a particularly dark moment in the shameful Christian tradition of anti-semitism. We need to know this first, and more.
John’s Jesus makes several remarkable claims, given Philippians 2 and Matthew 5. Are many of them historically reliable? Some are, but many are not. They reflect a changed understanding of the Christ, hard won and hard earned. The titles for Christ—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man—come from different points it the community’s journey, history, and theology. We need to know this first, and more.

John’s community has suffered trauma that has caused change. Trauma brings change. They have suffered the trauma of disappointment. The end of the world which they expected did not come, disappointingly enough. They found the courage to admit it, and change. That is, in disappointment they discovered freedom. They also have suffered the trauma of dislocation. They have been thrown out of their religious home, de-synagogued if you will, and are wandering out in the street when they write. They lost their mother tongue, motherland, mother tradition, which is huge dislocation. They found the courage to face it, and change. That is, in dislocation they discovered grace. Paul, who did not write or know John, might well have said, see, I told you, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’. We need to know this first, and more.

We come here to the stunning heart, the surprising marrow of inspiration, Johannine inspiration. Out of the forged iron, as from a refiner’s fire, of all this deep disappointment and dark dislocation, there emerged a document (perhaps best printed in poetic form), which has been the height of inspiration for almost 2,000 years. John has been the spiritual and sublime gospel, the poets’ gospel. Out of all this hurt there somewhere emerged our morning’s ‘epistle’ lesson.

For four years I have along side me as teaching assistant in the Gospel of John a most brilliant, funny, young mother, Episcopal priest. She is a literary critic. She practices rhetorical criticism. She loves poetry. Twice a term I ask her to bring her potent medicines, the alchemic mixtures of literary criticism to bear on our text.

The Rev. Ms. Regina Walton every term shows our students three poems which grow out of the Johannine literature and illumine its meaning. For today’s sermon, I determined to have you hear them as well. They are light, joy, truth, power, meaning, and love. Gospel. They are beautiful. They are rhetorically beautiful religious language. What other than such beauty, epitomized by our lesson from 1 John, will drive out the demons of hateful religious rhetoric?

More: could it be that years from now, in some way unforeseen and unforeseeable, as if forged in a refiner’s fire, the deep disappointments and dark dislocations of our current religious culture might drive us up, out and back to holy beauty, as happened over millennia with John? Listen in our time for the poets emerging to recall us to our rightful minds.

George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. The English Civil War occurred soon after his death, leading to ‘disestablishment’. Herbert was an ‘orator’ at Cambridge, and sickly. From a young age he knew that he was called to write devotional poetry. He knew John Donne, who was a friend of his mother’s. He employs both trochaic and iambic meters. He writes, among other things, of the soul’s call to God, and of the claim the believer has on God. That is, in his work there is a Johannine courage. Love made me welcome, but my soul drew back…You must sit down and taste my meat…Herbert wrote of love. Here is a poem that draws directly on John 14:17, John 6:6, and John 16:22:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth as ends all strife:
And such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light as shows a feast:
Such a Feast as mends in length:
Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy as none can move:
Such a Love as none can part:
Such a Heart as joyes in love.

Henry Vaughn lived from 1622 to 1695. He fought on the Royalist side during the great war. Vaughn is known as one of the best followers and imitators of Herbert. In 1649, Charles I executed Oliver Cromwell. The Church of England was disestablished and the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed. The King was understood to be anointed by God. Incidentally, his brother was an alchemist. Vaughn lived during a dark time, and his poetry evokes his time. He recalls the great Pseudo-Dionysus and the Cloud of Unknowing. He celebrates night and the darkness of God, in way that I believe connects truly to our time as well. It is no accident that he bases this poem on Nicodemus at night, John 3:2ff, portions of which we now hear:

The Night

Through that pure Virgin Shrine
That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon
That men might look and live as glow-worms shine
And face the moon:
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
When thou didst rise,
And what can nevermore be done,
Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

Dear night! This world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of Spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ’s progress and his prayer time;
The hours to which high Heaven doth chime.

There is in God (some say)
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

You will not be surprised, many of you, by the choice for our third poet. T.S. Eliot was born in America, yet lived most of his life in England until his death in 1965. He was the greatest poet of his age, and one of the greatest of any age. While our generation does not cling to him as did an earlier one, and this itself is a pity, nonetheless he touches us too. To him we owe the rediscovery of the metaphysical poets. Eliot found God’s presence in God’s absence. Like Herbert’s mature claim upon God, like Vaughn’s love of night, Eliot’s presence in absence seems strikingly close to the spirit of our own age. I dedicate this reading to my dear colleague and deceased friend Sam Davis. The following poem owes much to John 1:1 ff:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word, unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and
Deny the voice

Here are three poems, three moments of Johannine inspiration. One for those in need. One for those at night. One for those troubled by absence. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Words sublime. Is there a time that more needed the power of their beauty?

The poets have something, and have something in common. We leave you with their Johannine inspiration today. In fact, we address and challenge you with that inspiration today.

The poets have a sense of something. They have a premonition, an awareness of a looming Presence. Their words, and the words of Scripture, point us toward this premonition, this awareness, this inspiration.

A looming Presence, in way and truth and life. A looming Presence in night and dark and light. A looming Presence in word and speech and silence.

In a reality beyond our inescapable reality, they tell us, we are ever in the presence of One brooding over the fracas of history, brooding over the chaos of nature, brooding over the conflicts in religion, and brooding over our struggles in faith and life. A looming Presence whose nature and name is love.

– The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

September 5


By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 14: 25-33


In the morning mist, out along the lake, you hear, as you run, the crowing of the rooster from across the road. The earlier you pass, the more frequent his morning call to life, call to prayer, call to devotion. The cock crowing has a haunting, a lastingly haunting sound.

The mind turns over. Rooster. Our son for many years had stuffed animal, which was a Raccoon, whose name was given as ‘Rooster’. ‘Rooster Raccoon’. Rooster twice was burned, being placed too near the stove. Big patches of used cloth held him together. One limb he had lost in a tussle with the Labrador. And an ear. He lived with us a decade, until he came apart at the seams. But to recall his name is to remember, in the morning mist, a beloved bygone epoch.

The mind carries your memory as the feet carry your body out along the lake, with the Rooster calling, such a distinctive, troubling sound. Once long ago the crowing somehow seemed a marker—a note was sent to a colleague to this effect—a marker of what the church had been and could yet be.

The seven greatest gifts of my life have come directly by grace through the church: name in baptism, faith in confirmation, community in eucharist, work in ordination, friendship in marriage, freedom in forgiveness, and eternal hope in unction. So, of course, the reminder, the remembrance has strict power: ‘before the cock crows twice you will have betrayed me thrice’. It is the work, the labor, of grace to lift us up after betrayal.


Speaking of labor. Do you see how the mind curls around itself, in remembrance? Labor omnia vincit. Even with all of Twain’s mocking of work in Huckleberry Finn—one sees again the whitewashed fence—we know in the marrow the saving worth of work. People need work, work to do, meaningful work. 80% of a family’s health comes with a decent job. So it is striking that we do not remember, better, those most of us with work, what it is like to lack work. The 90% will want to remember the 10%, because we all once were the 10%.

Sometimes students and others do genograms. These are helpful exercises. You might ask your parents about their grandparents, your great grandparents, about what they learned in the 1930’s. Most families have some lasting hurts, bruises. Sometimes the stories are muted. Listen for them. Your mother’s grandfather might have been traveling the country, a hobo, jumping onto and off of trains. This is Labor Day weekend. The mind connects us to what we have known long ago. Brings it to remembrance. Another generation could list the four freedoms, including freedom from want.


Speaking of freedom. Do you see how the mind curls around itself in remembrance? We are together in Boston. The cradle of liberty. We walk the freedom trail. And others come from around the globe to do so. Have we forgotten what kind of freedom was sought here? Along the Massachusetts Bay? It was a longing for space, for place, for space and place for…for what? For freedom. But the particular freedom in our DNA, our real remembrance which we sometimes forget, is freedom to come before life, to worship God, in our own way, freely, without governmental constraint. The Tea Party in Boston was the outgrowth of a surge toward freedom—of religion. For minority, displaced, outcast, Puritan, religion, on the low side of the old world. We were born, now that you remember it, out of a desire to make space and place for worship. The big old center city Methodist church in Utica NY opened last week, newly rebuilt as a mosque to serve the large immigrant population there. The city is understandably proud. Sometimes you have to go a bit out into the periphery of life to encounter real remembrance.


Speaking of periphery. The mind still curls around… Our summer series of preachers this year brought voices from across the country, from out on the periphery, to acclaim the gospel of grace and freedom, and to reflect with us upon renewal. They merit our remembrance. The voices of Rev.’s Carter, Lightner and Amerson acclaimed the good news of divine grace, the good news of human freedom. We want to remember their wisdom. Do we? We want to remember Rev. Carter’s citation of the Haitian proverb, ‘God gives but he does not share’. God’s benevolence is all around us. It is our work to manage a just distribution. We want to remember Rev. Lightner’s ode to the joy of reading. Good news can come in unexpected packages. Do not judge a book by its cover. Read and read widely and you will be blessed. We want to remember Rev. Amerson’s account of the history of Boston University, and particularly of John Dempster from 1839. Faith can come, at last, through struggle, he affirmed, remembering a struggling friend who offered a wise malapropism in a healing service: ‘I pray that my strength may be faithened’. Exactly. We can give up a little expectation and take on a little expectancy. Sermons are not only for hearing but also for remembering. For remembrance.


Speaking of remembrance. In a way, all of Scripture is a sacrament like our table prepared this morning. Through bread and cup, and the words of tradition, we reach a sixty generation long arm back to Jesus. Through reading and interpretation, we reach a sixty generation long arm back to Jesus. We remember Him. His remembrance is our strength. St. Luke is careful to remember his stern teaching, amid the joys of feasts and prodigals. Count the cost. Nothing worth having ever came easy. Labor omnia vincit. Renounce all. Do not let the many lesser loyalties obscure the one great loyalty. Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth. Remember your mortality. Remember your capacity to harm others. Dust art thou, to dust shalt thou return. This year, and particularly in Lent as we remember Bonhoeffer, we shall have ample further time to consider the cost of discipleship.


Last spring term we celebrated the completion of forty years in ministry here of our Rabbi, Joe Polak, Director of the Hillel Center. A thoughtful student leader had arranged a special evening, a surprise party of sorts, by which to mark the occasion. The room was packed and joyous, full of singing and testimony. To have a place at the feast was itself a sheer privilege. As planned, a series of speakers offered remembrance. Each one was itself a gem. At a concluding point, the student leader who had arranged the affair offered her own statement. Her words linger in the mind. “We are grateful for the Rabbi’s ministry among us. His teaching and counsel have helped us. His voice and advocacy have supported us. He has provided for us an example, an example of how to live and how to lead.” Then she provided this telling insight: “Those of us who have been active here these years have been privileged. We have decided to practice our faith, during our years as students. We have done so in order that our memories of these years will not be held apart from our religious faith, our faith tradition. Our memories of college will be joined to, connected with our faith and our tradition.”

And you? Wi
th what manner of depth and meaning will you later connect the remembrance of these few years?

One of the three primary modes of eucharist and meanings of communion is remembrance. ‘This do in remembrance of me’. In the simple, plain grace of the sacrament we receive what we have been given:

‘for I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.

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