Archive for December, 2010

December 26


By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 2: 13-23

At the Nativity, God makes space for forgiveness. The Christmas peace is a peace of pardon, grace and forgiveness.

Our lesson from Holy Scripture emphasizes two basic Christmas teachings. The first is the reminder of life as a journey and of faith as spiritual itinerancy. Joseph dispatches the Magi, who themselves go home by another way, and then flees for a time to Egypt, only later to return Nazareth. The birth of Jesus occasions a journey of faith.

The second reminder to us is of the God who keeps promises. Three separate events are said to transpire (flight to Egypt, slaughter of children, return to Nazareth), all in fulfillment of prophecy. While Hosea spoke of Israel, Matthew claims his words for Jesus. While Jeremiah spoke of exile to Babylon, Matthew claims his words for Herod. While Isaiah speaks of a messianic King, Matthew claims his words for the son of Mary. The birth of Jesus marks the protection of a divine promise.

We may want to pause just for a moment to reflect upon the glad tidings of great joy.

To do so, we need to clear away the straw and brush of some stress.

As the pastor responded, when asked by his civic club to speak about the miracle of Christmas, and the mystery of the Nativity, “Why certainly. It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure”.

There is much pleasure coming to this Nativity. But there is pressure as well.

You may consider the strange chaos of this season, for a moment of limited peace this morning. You may wonder about the stress of the holidays. Why so stressful? Their mixture of high expectation and low experience? Their year end blizzard of financial and social obligations? Their sudden reconfluence of families and generations? Their odd rhythms and paces? The rude manger? The journey to Egypt? Whence the stress?

Our ancient Scriptures suggest another source of our anxiety, at Nativity, if we have such on this very day of peace. It is this. Christmas places us unmistakably before the presence of the Holy, of all that is Holy, at Nativity. The pressing of this moment, our stress, comes from our vague premonition of the divine, of our sense of the Holy. It is an awesome and startling moment to find yourself in the presence of all that is Holy. Joseph can tell us, as he races toward Egypt. Do you feel today the presence of the Holy One?

The ancient Israelites would understand, and recall our need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

The prophet Isaiah would understand, and recite again his vision of the temple, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are full of God’s glory”.

The virgin Mary would understand, singing, “My soul does magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

The apostle Paul would understand and record, “It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The evangelist John would understand, and teach, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.”

Every mystic and part-mystic from Dionysius the Aereopagite, to Amoun of Nitria, to Santa Teresa of Avila, to Howard Thurman would understand, and affirm, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Rudolph Otto said it for his generation, “the mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. The sudden sense of God, present.

And you? And me? And we?

To be alive at Christmas, in life’s journey and under the promises of God, is to reckon with the Holy. Hence our stress.

Before all that is Holy, then, a question, a question of soul inevitably arises. Hence our stress.

How am I living?

Have I asked too little of myself or too much of myself? Or have I asked too much for myself or too little for myself? The awesome wonder of Nativity provokes a mortal question: “Have you asked enough of yourself, and have you asked enough for yourself?”

In the presence of all that is Holy, we can come clean… Thou before whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may more fully love thee and more worthily magnify thy Holy name…

Some of us ask too much of ourselves. We work 80 hours when 60 would be better, wrap 10 gifts when 4 would suffice, do 100% of our relational work and 30% of every one else’s. You ask too much of yourself.

Some of us ask too little of ourselves. We pass through life unaware of the bruising our narcissism inflicts on others. We do not pray in the morning, or worship on Sunday. We have not climbed the front step of faith which is tithing, nor knocked on the front door of faith which is giving away annually 10% of what we earn, nor entered the front room of faith which is discovering the joy of a tenth given. We do not keep full faith with our partners, spouses, friends. You ask too little of yourself.

Some of us ask too much for ourselves. So we create a world that is post-Christian . A world of pervasive materialism, preemptive war, limited literacy, flat spirituality, inherited entitlement, shallow sexuality, Machiavellian leadership, computerized e-buse, and disrespect for elders. We crowd the malls at 7am on the day after Christmas, hungry for a sacrament in consumption that merely consumes the consumer. You ask too much for yourself.

Some of us ask too little for ourselves. The Christmas vision of peace gets dim. The reality of love is blurred. The singing moments of joy are lost in the shuffle. We forget who we are meant to be. Are we lovers anymore? You ask too little for yourself.

How will any of us ever get this balance right? Before all that is Holy?

You know, we will never get it right.

Not fully.

A person who lives in isolation, neither giving nor receiving, may ask too little of himself.

A young woman struggling with issues of identity and behavior may ask too little for herself.

A young man raised in a morally heightened atmosphere, where expectations are very high, may ask too much of himself.

A woman at midlife, who has enjoyed much, too much pleasantry, may ask too little of herself.

A man, who has worked hard, and also was well placed in life, may ask too little of himself.

It is the conscience, of course, at Nativity, that place us, creation and conscience, before the Holy.

Nor is there one, even one, among us who has fully balanced, rightly balanced, the question of what we ask of ourselves with what we ask for ourselves.

Some of us this morning need to lean back and ask a little less of ourselves. Some of us this morning need to lean forward and ask a little more of ourselves.

While we do, though, while we engage again the balances of spirit, perhaps we could remember the good news of the Nativity. This news of glad tidings and great joy is a matter of full health and salvation for you, and trusting this gospel with life, your life, is a matter of life and death.

You see, if there were no pardon or peace in the universe, then we would have to get everything exactly right, or we would be doomed. If grace were like Newton’s gravity, and once you fell you kept on falling without pardon or peace, we would be doomed. If grace were like Marx’s history, and “moved with iron necessity toward inevitable results”, we would be doomed. If there were never any forgiveness available, before all that is Holy, we w
ould never be able to be at peace, or to act with grace, or to live any other than fear ridden, guilt obsessed, self centered lives. Hell. What a life that would be.

This is why John Wesley asked his one question. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Not, do you believe, only, or hope, only, or feel, only, but do you know…

He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free.

At Nativity, at Christmas, before the Holy, we are set free from…well?…you name it…that regret for… that word unfitly spoken, that event not foreseen and not forestalled, that deed you wish you could revisit, that memory from an autumn morning, or a midnight dream—they all engulf, and overwhelm, unless…


Dearest friend, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God’s own pardon, God’s own peace, God’s own love to embrace you whether you lean backward or forward or both. As Howard Thurman, a some time mystic wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

We should not let the beauty of Thurman’s poetry obscure the wisdom of this theology. His great poem is about Nativity not morality. The work, here, is God’s. The work of finding, healing, feeding, releasing, rebuilding, bringing peace and music to the heart…this is the work of Grace, born in Bethelem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. The work is work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like at Christmas the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. She is grateful for his help, and help he should. But she it is who has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.

Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts. Hear the gospel:

You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are loved.

Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king.


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

December 19

Lessons & Carols

By Marsh Chapel

The 37th annual Boston University community Lessons & Carols liturgy is modeled on the famous service from King’s College, Cambridge and does not include a sermon.

December 12

Bach and Advent

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 11: 2-11


Much of our life is consumed by what can quickly and readily be said. Or texted. We do need to apply for jobs, pay bills, find information, reply, reply all, and reply all’yall (a form of computer speech limited to southern regions). Sometimes, as the sermon three weeks ago addressed, the gospel in which we stand may cause us to stand apart from new and untested forms of communication. Sometimes, as the newspaper reported this week, we as a University community are challenged to find our way forward through new and untested forms of internet communication, which may bruise, harm or hurt our neighbor. Email in broad use is less than 15 years old. Facebook in broad use is less than 5 years old. Twitter is a tiny tot. Text an infant. We need not fear the future, as long as with honesty, on an hourly basis, we squarely face the future.

Which brings us to the sermon for today, lifted up and out of Our Bach Experience. In worship and life at Marsh Chapel we engage all the newest forms of communication (see today our website), and we desire to do so with a cloud of witnesses, with the wisdom of the ages, with the faith once delivered to the saints, with words and songs and prayers that last, through the ages. The high Gothic nave here is meant to affirm what lasts. The beautiful windows here are meant to enshrine what lasts. The historic enchanting liturgy of the service is meant to spell out what lasts. The deliberate preparation and pacing of the sermon are meant to announce what lasts. We have about 8000 Sundays in a lifetime, 8000 moments in word and music to experience God. We dare not waste one or one minute of one in pandering, in entertaining, in minimizing, in doodling. In this 59 minute poem of worship each week, the 16 musical moments and the 11 spoken moments are offered in the praise of God. Remember your mortality. Remember your fragility. Remember your imperfection. Remember who you are. And so remember that you are happily a child of the living God.

John Wesley, chiseled in stone above our Marsh Chapel portico, taught Greek, evangelized Native Americans, rose daily at 4am to preach at 6am and throughout the day, changed the course of English and American history, and founded Methodism which itself gave birth to Boston University. He claimed to be a man one book, ‘homo unius libri’. For all this we do rightly honor him. We cherish him. We revere him. But, truth to tell, it is brother Charles, the musician, the hymnist, whom we love, especially as we come toward the caroling hour. Martin Luther, enshrined in stained glass near and far, splintered the church on the anvil of truth, recalled us to salvation by faith alone, withstood physical ailments, mental trials, political clashes, and religious hatreds. He founded a movement that became the Lutheran church, and gave us the Protestant Principle of the necessary rigorous self criticism of all religion. We honor him. We cherish him. We revere him. But, truth to tell, it is his musical great grand child, J S Bach, whom we love, especially as we ready ourselves to hear an Advent cantata.

We need both the words and the music. But music lasts even when words fail. That tune you heard on the radio that took you forty years back in time. That hymn whose melody was lifted in a high or hard moment, a wedding or funeral. That new experience—as Bach is for many young adults and others today—that took you by the hand and led you out into the ineffable, the serene, the beautiful, the heavenly, the high and holy. One of you found yourself here on a Saturday in November, listening to the BU chorus sing R Thompson’s Frostiana, and you were glad to be in the balcony, alone with heavy tears and light heart and soul filled with the radiance of the words made lasting by the music. We need both words and music, but the music sometimes finds an opening in the heart, a little crevice into which to maneuver, which would be too small and too angular for the word alone. “I come mainly to sing the hymns”: one of you might have said that. I think one of you did.

Our words and music today are folded around several expectant themes:

Our readings are Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-11. The themes therein include expectation, prophecy, the coming reign of God, times and seasons, and the emerging recognition of Jesus as Messiah, all good Advent fare. *Expectation puts us on his shoulder when experience lays us low. Our undergraduates teach us this, for even when they are brought down by one or another standard young adult trial, and as hard as they fall, they just as strongly get back up, dust off, come to church, and live to write another day. *Prophecy has kept the darker ranges of apocalyptic and Gnostic fears at bay, or at least has kept them company in the Bible. Isaiah week by week has been singing you a song your mother taught you as well. Where there is hope there is life. *Jesus means more to us now then when we first believed. In that evolution we have company in the ancient writings and the saints of the primitive church. We are more aware as we grow, or grow older, that we are in good hands and so we can risk a bit to bear one another’s burdens. *So this season of Advent surrounds us with expectation and prophecy and trust. In a wee moment we will hear this Advent gospel sung.


This morning’s cantata, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,’ brings music for our words. *Here is expectation, in the text of the fifth movement:

We honor this glory
and approach Your manger now
and praise with joyful lips
what You have prepared for us;
the darkness does not confuse us
and we see Your eternal light.

* Here too is prophecy, the pregnant promise foretold of old, which itself, as promise does, holds us up and holds us steady: Hear the text of the third movement.

The hero out of Judah breaks forth
to run His course with joy
and to purchase us fallen ones.
O brilliant radiance, o wonderful light of blessing!

*Here too is a new wonder, a fuller grace, from Him from Whom we receive grace upon grace: The words of the cantata’s second movement:

Marvel, o humanity, at this great mystery:
the Supreme Ruler appears to the world.
Here the treasures of heaven are uncovered,
here a divine manna is presented to us

Today if we listen with care to Bach’s musical sermon, our own expectation and prophecy and trust may be further enhanced. In the first movement listen to the way in which Bach balances the joyful exuberance of the Messiah’s coming with the gravity of the great mystery – the word made flesh. This is the music of the refiner’s fire. Written for the first Sunday in Adve
nt in 1724, Bach must have been aware that Luther penned his famous chorale exactly 200 hundred years before in 1524. We will sing together Hymn 214 in just a moment, deepening our morning’s connection to Luther, Bach, and the centuries of Advent celebration and observance. The opening movement of the cantata brims with jubilant, if a little anxious expectation. And from the third measure of the cantata, we hear Luther’s famous tune. Moreover, Luther’s text is quoted directly in the outer movements and is freely adapted in movements two through five. The cantata is full of happy dissonances – darkness to light in the fifth movement, joyful exuberance checked by gravitas in the first, the sweet babe in the manger who will route the foe and forge the new way, a Virgin unspotted – die Keuschheit nicht beflekket. Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, renewal and redemption. Luther by way of Bach seems to say, “Sit up, Christian! The Bride-groom comes! Make your house ready! Prepare a room for him in your heart!”


May the rigors of Advent continue to prod and challenge us. May this not be an easy season. May this season unfold with moments in which we are brought up short, put on notice, called to account, and changed.

You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of expectation. You do not drop your chin at the first mention of bad news. You do not fold your tents at the first sign of giants in the land. You stand your ground, singing the music of expectation.

You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of Prophecy. You do not lie down and weep, only awaiting an unknown and unseen future. You accept the unforeseen as part of the future, and you take up arms against a sea of troubles, hoping to end them. You let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day, remembering ‘sufficient to the day is the evil thereof’. You live your eyes, singing the music of prophecy.

You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of Trust. You know that for anything to get done, trust is the coin of the realm. You have learned in your experience that the good future requires us not only to work hard but also to work together.

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

December 5

Down by the River

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 3: 1-12

Cold River

To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk at least once down by the river Jordan. It is cold outside, down here along the banks of the roiling river of life. It is uncomfortable outside, down here along the banks of the rushing river of truth. It is dark outside, down here along the existential river of soul, of salvation, of all that is sacred. And there is more.

A river, especially the Jordan, is a symbol of the edge, the end, the last things, the purpose of life, the end of time. Says Ecclesiastes, ‘All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full’. My beloved Antonio Machado, whose verse strangely comes back to me after years of my own wandering, says the same: “Nuestras vidas son los rios que van a dar a la mar” (Campos de Castilla).

For down by the river, we hear John the Baptist. To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk down by the river Jordan. Here, lurking and skulking and sliding about in the dark recesses of the heart, here is a voice, crying in the wilderness. It is the voice of conscience. The voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Down, down, down by the river.

John rankles and offends, because he challenges us to start over. He is dressed in camel’s hair, the smelliest of clothes. He eats locusts, and wild honey. Here is a voice. Not pretty image, not contrived appearance, not considered attire—but voice. Not face, but voice. John in the dark, cowering along the caves of the riverbed, crying. His is the voice of conscience, by which we are brought outside of ourselves and made to hear what we may not want to hear. And there is more. His voice reverberates today, down by the river. Let’s go outside, let’s go down and listen to him, on our way to Bethlehem.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.


Before we lay our gifts at the manger altar, we will want the chill challenge of a thoughtful, thinking faith. In the long run what is not true cannot be good though it may be news. John the Baptist comes around at least once a year to remind us so.

We can be thankful for those laboring at night in the lonely libraries and cubicles and offices nearby, to stretch our understanding that it might embrace our faith which is seeking that same understanding. Theology matters.

Many this autumn had the fun and the privilege to listen at a faculty retreat to some of the newest, youngest adventures in thoughtful reflection on faith. Words from the wise, words to the wise.

One young biblical scholar reminded us: The Christian Bible…has never been stable; each book and collection has undergone a long process of transmission and reception that continues to this day…The Bible remains a living document preserving not only a diverse body of texts but also the priorities of those who have transmitted it.

One young psychologist of religion reminded us: We are disposed to misunderstand. We live in a pluriverse, a conversation across the boundaries of different lands. We witness the inevitable but not necessary collapse of ambiguity into certainty. Sometimes, especially when we are trying truly distinguish cruelty from care, we need a sense of ambiguity. We may need to return again and again to Nicholas of Cusa and the ‘doctrine of learned ignorance’.

One young historian reminded us of the central role women have played in global missions: empathy is like oxygen. When you feel somebody experience you deeply, it is like air, like oxygen.

One young philosophical theologian reminded us: as we look at
religious experience we have to hold ourselves accountable to empirical research.

An older, wiser teacher, reminded this academic circle of an
academic peril: We sometimes mistakenly think that if you can get it down on paper you don’t have to live it.

Some of you will have had the benefit of those who showed by example how to think about faith, how faithfully to think. We want to live in our own version of the memory Tony Judt had of Manhattan decades ago: “Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered”. (NYT 11/8/10) I hear his sentence as ecclesiology. So too the church: a crossroads where original minds linger.


Your hands are touching and helping others.

Our students have now each year for four years engaged a citywide CROP walk to combat world hunger. Our Methodist fellowship has worked this autumn at the Cooper Mission in Roxbury. Our partnership with the University and with Habitat for Humanity has just recently completed the $50,000 initial fund raising needed so that a house will soon start to be built. You have continued to prayerfully support Refugee Immigration Ministries. The student ‘servant team’ continues to provide service both among students, and in leading students to service. Some of you will be heading off for a week of Alternative Spring Break service next year. As a congregation you continue to support the BMC food pantry. In short, ‘hands on’ forms of service continue to thrive here at Marsh Chapel, thanks to the lay leadership offered in these many areas.

Real change is real hard, but change can come. Dr Alonso in three years as Superintendent of the Baltimore City schools is seeing improvement (NYT, 12/2/10). He has closed failing schools (26 out of 198), fired 75% of the principals, cut suspensions by 50%, fired up community participation, balanced responsibility with authority, instituted performance based teacher compensation, and taught his staff to refer to students as ‘scholars’. Where there is a will there is a way.

What we love, we should love ardently. Service helps us ground our faith in action, and thereby protects us from betraying the life into which we have been called. Tragedy is to betray the life into which you have been called, or the profession into which you have been called, or the calling into which you have been called.

Our current generation of students excels at participatory service ministry, and teaches its value by example.


In the winter we learn to stay warm. At night our eyes are sharpened to see shapes in the shadows. When we experience diminishment we also hold more closely those things which mean most to us. With age comes wisdom.

Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow. In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one. At the kitchen table. Over coffee. In a parking lot. Within a small office. At the hospital. At school. With lunch. In a nursing home. In the barn, at dusk, milking time. In the sugar house. On a tractor.

I am told of a pastoral visit, of the following sort.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view. Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you? Oh, it is not necessary. Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy. But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psa
lms? My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying?…Yes. Oh, it is not necessary. I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life. But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir. Would you like some of the hymns recited for you? Oh that is not necessary. I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night! I found my faith singing, you know. It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church. I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust. But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit. Oh, that is not necessary. We can have communion if you like. It is so meaningful to me. I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee. After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly. But I still could get grace in communion. But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in all ministry in our region. (You will say, surely not in the summer. I take the summer off, for that reason!). Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today? As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?…Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others? And what of the youth? Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love? Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it? A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China. And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation? It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?…Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

As Howard Thurman wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

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