Archive for April, 2011

April 24

In the Garden

By Marsh Chapel


In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

Mary supposes she sees the gardener. Mary points to resurrection, in the garden, which is utterly personal and calls out our devotion, decision and discussion.

In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

When we think garden we think Eden and Gethsemane, creation and crucifixion, birth and death.

My dentist, a raconteur of the first water, told me a story. (I have little chance to respond to his stories, given the instrumentation filling my jaw. It is one of the few times a preacher, who makes his living by the sweat of his jaw, is necessarily silent .) The story is about a man visiting a troubled part of the world. He finds a native and asks him what he sees. ‘Tell me in a word, how are things?’

‘Ah, in a word, good’. In a word, things are good.

Unsatisfied the traveler asks again. ‘OK, could you expand a bit. ‘Tell me, maybe in two words this time, how are things?’

‘Ah, in two words, not good’.

In a word, things are good. In two words, things are not good. Eden and Gethsemane, good and not good. Which brings us to the garden and gardener of John 20:15, and to Mary of the utterly personal resurrection.

1. Devotion

Mary announces: “I do not know (where they have laid him)” she says.

Mary has waited in the garden.

Such a lush image, such a powerful setting, a garden. In one word we have evoked Eden and points east, creation and fall, good and not good. Garden. In a word we have evoked Gethsemane and Empty Tomb, cross and resurrection, death and life. In the garden. We treasure our gardens: one of the loveliest common spaces anywhere is our Boston Public Garden; and of course we hope our Celtics will find victory in one garden or another. In the garden. There Mary has been waiting and weeping.

‘They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Other than the cry of Psalm 22, Jesus’ last word in the other gospels, there is hardly a more pathetic, sorrowful sentence in the Bible, or in history. The cross uncovers the marrow of our hurt, burrowing more deeply into our very loss and death, grief and guilt, than we ever could on our own. For us men and for our salvation: the resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. In the garden.

Earlier with the frantic run of the mysterious beloved disciple, and later with the ample doubt of the doubting Thomas, the gospel has fixed before us a discreet interaction. The same happens here. Mary and Gardener meet. Mary mistakes what she sees. She at first thinks she sees. She thinks she sees a gardener.

Mary sees the gardener, what one would expect in a garden. Such a lush image, such a powerful figure. The world of work, evoked here. The world of struggle, evoked here. The world of birth and decay, living and dying, evoked here. In the garden, a gardener.

In the Fourth Gospel resurrection is emotional, relational, and verbal: utterly personal. In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal, like devotion and decision and discussion. In the garden, resurrection includes tears. In the garden, resurrection ask for choices. In the garden, resurrection evokes speech. Why are you weeping? Emotion. Whom do you seek? Relation. I have seen the Lord. Word. In the Fourth Gospel resurrection is emotional, relational, and verbal: utterly personal.

In the garden, resurrection, so utterly personal, is meant to change the heart. “A sermon begins with a lump in the throat.”

Our families moved regularly in the adventurous rhythms of the itinerant Methodist ministry. I came home from college once to a reasonable assemblage of old belongings removed to a new space, including a box of prized baseball cards by then 10 years old. I looked through the camping gear, the scouting badges, the photos and high school letters. I took a quick look through the cards. There was Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, just where I expected them.

Later my mother said:

‘Your little brother wanted some of your old cards. I told him I knew you wouldn’t mind. He traded some of them with his new friends. They seemed pleased. I knew you wouldn’t mind’.

With some anxiety I inquired: ‘oh, which ones did he trade?’

‘Oh, I don’t remember. One was something like Roy Rodgers’

‘You mean Rodger…Maris?’

“Yes! Good for you! What a great memory you have. College has been good for you!’

“Yeah. Right.”

“Oh, and another one, something like one of the Walt Disney characters. You know Minnie or Mickey”

“You mean Mickey…Mantle?”

“Yes! Good for you! What a great memory you have for names. College has been good for you”.

“Yeah. Right”

The last boy, Mickey Mantle, led a desperate life, unlike the one suggested by his smiling countenance on the card I once owned. He chased Roger Maris all the way to the edge of a record number of home runs in a year. But he also chased drink and women. My friend George Mitrovich recently reminded me though of his devotional experience, late in life. I thought about him again, watching the Red Sox over in our shared mystery garden of Fenway Park last Saturday. Speaking of gardens. I remembered the conclusion of his life.

Toward the end of his life he fell ill. After a full life and a great career, his hard living and drinking and carousing caught up with him. But something remarkable happened, at the end. After a life of success, pressure, stress, performance, a driven life, after a driven life with some predictable habitual consequences, the last boy found himself quiet, open and empty. Some Texan friends visited him, and over time, won the trust that allows one to pray with others. And they prayed with him and for him. Somehow, in those moments of simple devotion, the last boy saw more than the gardener. I only will quote his way of putting it because it so gospel and so true: “In their prayers, somehow, I saw that I did not need to perform in order to be loved.”

That is grace, prevenient grace. That is the gospel, the love of God. That is resurrection, in the garden, utterly personal.

Faith is a gift meant for reception. It comes when we have some openness. When I go to Fenway, to our neighborhood garden, a garden of history and mystery, I enjoy a reminder of the distance from performance to love, from garden to glory, from gardener to teacher, from anxiety to wisdom, from death to life.

Such a recognition, like the recognition of the Lord in gardener apparel, can happen in very ordinary ways, even in a crowded Easter service, with communion on the way, and the sermon rounding first base. Just now, for instance.

Such a lush image, garden! The garden of Eden, our image of creation. The garden of Gethesemane, our image of crucifixion. The garden of the empty tomb, our image of salvation.

2. Decision

The Gospel of John is throughout a call to decision. ‘This things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing you may have life in his name”. All manner of other dualisms—heaven, earth; light, dark; life, death, present, future—take a back seat in John to the dualism of decision, the decision in faith, for faith, with faith. Easter may roll around just in time each year to put first things first, to let the main thing be the main thing.

We have the capacity to deceive ourselves about what matters most. In the academic world we pretend that if we can write it down we need not live it through. We perceive accordingly. In academic settings we can sometimes presume that if we write it down we do not have to live it through. Not so, not so. The percentage of stellar academics—students, faculty and staff—who age, who stumble, who die is remarkable similar to the percentage of plumbers, farmers and custodians who age, stumble and die (☺).

A long time ago we were asked, in a psychology class, to identify cards as they were lifted. 2 of hearts, Jack of clubs, 8 of spades. Or so we thought. But the 8 was an 8 of hearts, only the heart was black, so we all saw in spades. We ‘saw’ within a legitimate range of what legitimately we expected to see. Hearts and diamonds are red. Clubs and spades are black. A red spade or a black diamond we do not expect to see, and so we do not see them. We saw the gardener, not the Lord.

Our moral and spiritual linguistic universe, in 2011, is something like this. We see cards in four suits, when in the garden—whether Eden or Gethsemane or Easter—the imaginative categories are different. It can require an apocalypse for us to see.

The Gospel of John, in the whole course of this 20th chapter, has a lesson for us about resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.’ (Jn 20: 29). For John, all that is necessary has been accomplished since 1: 14, ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’. God has loved the world in his Son. Crucifixion adds nothing essential to this saving incarnation, for John. Resurrection adds nothing essential to this ancillary crucifixion, and so nothing to Incarnation, for John. All four separate (if not in fact different) endings to the Gospel, as found here in chapter 20, folkloric as Hansel and Gretel (the race won by the beloved disciple to the empty tomb, Mary and the gardener, the disciples cowering behind closed doors, touching (or doubting) Thomas), themselves are additional—even superfluous—to a needless resurrection, a needless crucifixion and a sublime, saving Incarnation. The Gospel of John is all over in the first chapter.

So. Why is all this here?

Because they are part of the story, and John has chosen to write a Gospel, not a psalm, not a sermon, not a letter, not an apocalypse (though this comes closest). So he tells the stories—tomb, garden, closed room, touching hands—and, it may be, believes them. But they are not the point. The point is in a way the opposite. Seeing is not believing for John. Believing is seeing for John.

These things are written that you may believe…

After an evening program one spring, in the verdant garden of a campground retreat, an older man and I walked at dusk. Here is a Christian gentleman: steady in worship, regular in tithing, committed in faithfulness, devoted to faith and able to discuss this gift with others. In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal. He said:

‘Now that you are my pastor, I guess I better tell you why I am the way I am. In 1944 I was hiding in a garden, along a fence like this one we are walking along, near a field like this one by us. All about me unfriendly fire was raining down, a kind of horrible death rain I had never known in 19 years growing up on a Nebraska farm. To survive I had to pass through the garden and then run, without cover, through a clearing, fully exposed. So, I ran through the garden. Before I crossed, I knelt and said a prayer: ‘If I survive this my life is yours’. I survived. So, my family and I make our decisions in the light of that decision in a garden in France a long time ago. We try to be attentive to small things. We try to put our faith first. We try to be salt and light that others can see’.

Utterly personal. Justifying faith, call it health or salvation or happiness or grace, is not so much about the freedom of the will as it is about the freeing of the will (this Augustine not just Hill). One kneels in a garden. One prays: ‘let his cup pass from me…as thou wilt’.


John teaches us about a sanctifying grace, known in the daily discussions, the daily voices which remind us of the resurrection radiance, the real presence, in Word and Sacrament.

In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal. Sometimes it takes the death of a close friend, or mentor, to remind us. The ancient refers to this in the petition about those whom we love but no longer see. No wonder Gov. Patrick eulogized Rev Prof Gomes by saying ‘he was the freest person I ever knew’.

There is a difference between seeing things as they are and dreaming of things that never were. 43 years ago this month on the tarmac runway in Indianapolis, Robert F Kennedy said something because he saw something. He was able to recall Aeschylus because he had placed his eye on a resurrection horizon. He was able to counsel courage and patience because he placed his gaze on a resurrection horizon. He was able to mention his brother’s death, without wincing, because he placed his gaze on a resurrection horizon. He was able to meet the gaze of a rightly angry hour by lifting his gaze, lifting his chin, lifting the sight lines of a crushed people in a frightful hour. There was a transfiguring transcendence in his manner of discussion.

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! 2 Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. 3 Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. 5 Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it. 7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Resurrection is verbal, vocal.

As many of you know, my Dad died this year, and nearly died in September of 2008. We had two extra years with him. In November of 2008, as he recuperated, I saw him one morning learning to walk all over again, with my mother ever present and loving alongside. It was a miraculous sight, as was the rest of his healing. He told us in those days about a vision or dream he had had, in the coma. I share it with you to close, not as evidence of eternity, for resurrection neither needs nor admits of evidence from us, but rather as evidence of a lo
nging for eternity, and so a comfort and an encouragement. He said that in the hours near death he saw a kind of light, shining through what he described as a lattice work. “Behind and around me I could hear voices”, he said.


In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

We are in no position, ever, to say what God can and cannot do. If God is the God of the ordinary, then God is the God of the extraordinary, too, of the plain and the mysterious, of the known and the unknown.

As Huston Smith (no stranger to Marsh Chapel) reminds us: ‘we are in good hands and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens’.

John has chosen to write a Gospel, not a psalm, not a sermon, not a letter, not an apocalypse (though this comes closest). So he tells the stories—tomb, garden, closed room, touching hands—and, it may be, believes them. But they are not the point. The point is in a way the opposite. Seeing is not believing for John. Believing is seeing for John.

Utterly personal, in emotion of devotion, in the relationship of decision, in the voices of discussion: so resurrection, in the garden.

The point is prevenient grace: “I learned that I did not need to perform in order to be loved”. The point is saving grace: “I will make this vow: if I survive, my life is yours”. The point is sanctifying grace: “he was the freest person I have ever known”.

Why can’t we let a story be a story? These things are written not that you may see, but that you may believe.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven
 and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only
 Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
 He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
 was crucified, died, and
 was buried. He descended to the dead.
 On the third day he rose again.
 He ascended into heaven,
 and is seated at the right hand
 of the Father.
 He will come again to judge
 the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church,
 the communion of saints,
 the forgiveness of sins,
 the resurrection of the body,
 and the life everlasting.

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

April 23

What Changes with Resurrection?

By Marsh Chapel

Exodus 14: 10-31
Matthew 28: 1-10

The Easter Vigil is a peculiar service, marking as it does the transition from the desolation of Holy Saturday to the joy of Easter. Given that the Jewish day begins at sundown we are already into Easter Day, although still holding vigil for the resurrection to happen. What is peculiar about the service is that it is part of the repetitive liturgical year: we pretend to be waiting but we know the outcome already because we have held the vigil for years. We the Church have held it for centuries. Since we’ve been over this before, it is time to ask what difference resurrection makes. What changes with resurrection, that we pretend to wait for it each year? As if it hadn’t happened?

A standard answer is that the resurrection was an historical event that happened almost two thousand years ago and that our Easter Vigil is only a service of remembrance, not a vigil at all. But then, what changed with that one and only historical resurrection, assuming for the moment that’s what happened? Filled with belief in Jesus’ resurrection, his followers assembled a community of people convinced that Jesus was inaugurating a new divine Kingdom, about to appear, that would culminate in their own resurrection, perhaps the resurrection of everyone. The Kingdom did not appear, of course, and the result was that instead of the Kingdom we got the Church. Now the Church is not bad, at least not very bad. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters believe the Church is a foretaste of the end-of-time resurrection of all of us to feast with Christ in Heaven. But as for what happened after Jesus’ time until now, the whole history is compatible with Jesus’ resurrection changing nothing, just as it is compatible with the claim that Jesus was not raised at all, that his body was stolen away by his disciples who made up the story of his resurrection appearances, which is what most people in the world think about that story.

So we need to look again at what resurrection means. This is the Holy Saturday part of my sermon where all otherwise presupposed certainties are thrown into question. Literally, resurrection means coming to life again after having been dead. The Bible has many resurrection stories. Both Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead, as did Jesus, the most notable of whom was his friend Lazarus. Matthew said that when Jesus died, many tombs were opened and people rose from the dead; after Jesus’ resurrection, that is, after the Sabbath, these newly resurrected individuals came into the city where many people saw them. Matthew did not say what these resurrected people did when they went about the city, but surely they must have been looking for lawyers to reverse the probating of their estates. Imagine the consternation that would have been caused by a large group of newly resurrected people whose goods had been passed on to their heirs who now needed to get their lives in order again! That we don’t hear about this consternation suggests a bit of myth-making in Matthew’s account. But the point is that resurrection in these cases only means returning to and continuing the lives that had been lived before. Resurrection itself had little religious significance beyond signifying the power or mysterium tremendum in the persons or occasions that caused the resurrection.

The literal meaning of resurrection is not religiously interesting. So those of you who worry about whether you should believe in a literal resurrection that you find hard to believe can stop worrying. Even if resurrection is literally true, that is not religiously interesting. What did Jesus do after the resurrection? Taking the resurrection appearances at face value, he made sudden appearances and disappearances, talked with his disciples, and cooked, all of which he had done in ordinary life. The astonishing transformation of the disciples and growth of the Christian community came from a deeper meaning of resurrection, not a literal one.

What then could the deeper meaning be? Is resurrection a metaphor for something else that is like resurrection? In these late modern times we know how much the mind and its expression in soul are so closely linked with the biology of the brain that bodily death is hard to square with reanimation. So preachers often say that resurrection is a metaphor for something like it, such as renewal of nature in the spring, starting over without being bound to the past, signs of vitality, fresh starts, hope for the Red Sox. Resurrection is a powerful metaphor for things such as these. The metaphor of resurrection gives zing to things like renewal; but renewal and the vernal equinox are sad come-downs from the dramatic power of resurrection in the life of Jesus. What should we think about metaphors in religion?

Step back, if you will, from the loaded metaphor of resurrection in the Easter Vigil and think about the 23rd Psalm. The King James translation is one of the cornerstones of English-speaking culture and its words resonate in our souls with a thousand associations. Say with me, if you know it:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Psalm literally says that God is a shepherd and that the singer, that is, we, are sheep. Now surely, no one past the age of ten ever has believed that literally. This would be idolatrous in reference to God and overly humiliating in reference to us—sheep are stupider than the dimmest human. A literal interpretation is nonsense.

The age-old tradition of interpretation is metaphorical. Like a shepherd who cares for his sheep, God supplies what we need, life in pleasant places, peace, tonics for the soul, a righteous life, no evil even in death, comfort, gloating repasts in the face of enemies, anointing oils, overflowing cups, a life attended by goodness and mercy lived in the constant presence of God. Each of these divine beneficences is itself a metaphor for thousands of other benefits from the benevolent God. The 23rd Psalm is such a classic because everyone understands this metaphoric meaning and is in love with the vision it sings.

But it is false! Life is full of trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death. To think God is like a provident shepherd is just perverse in the face of life’s realities. Sure, life has many good things, including occasional triumphs and the comforts of the overflowing cup—but all these things pass, and many people get none of them. The ancient Israelites knew this as well as anyone. The Psalm traditionally has been attributed to King David, who was anything but a docile follower of the divine shepherd. Remember how he lusted after a married woman, impregnated her, and had her husband killed. Then to punish David, God killed their newborn baby, according to the text. That text of David’s grief and resignation was read at the funeral of our daughter who died at four months. Life is trouble, not green pastures and still waters, save on rare vacations. And everyone knows this.

How then do we understand the extraordinary moving power of the 23rd Psalm when it is literally
nonsense and metaphorically false? Both literal and metaphorical intentions are claims that God and life are like what the Psalm says, in different but related senses of like. The deeper meaning of the Psalm, which everyone gets, does not have to do with likeness at all. It has to do with becoming connected. If we shape our souls with the images of the Psalm, even though it is literally nonsense and metaphorically false, we become connected with God and our own lives so as to be transformed into gratitude and peace that passes understanding, a truth far more profound than satisfaction with the good things of life. In fact, it is because life is filled trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death, that we move beyond the historical to the depth dimension of our relation with God. Because we know that the life of a happy sheep is a lie (remember why shepherds keep sheep), we come to realize that the genuine comforts of God are not like that. But letting the 23rd Psalm work in us to shape our soul causes us to connect with God beyond that superficial metaphor, and to take overwhelming comfort in the Abyss out of which the maelstrom of life arises. The depth meaning of the Psalm is not in its likeness to anything: it is not an icon. The depth meaning is in its transformative pointing and connection: it is an index, like a pointing finger whose direction we follow until we connect with something otherwise inaccessible. That transformative depth meaning has worked for centuries with astonishing indexical power regardless of people’s literal or metaphorical thoughts in the matter.

Come back to the resurrection of Jesus as we work our way out of Holy Saturday into Easter Sunday. The depth meaning of Easter resurrection lies neither in the literal meaning of coming back to life nor in the metaphorical meaning of springtime renewal and fresh starts. So whatever you believe about these iconic or “likeness” meanings of Jesus’ resurrection does not matter much for religious purposes because the depth meaning of resurrection does not lie there. Rather it lies in what the fulsome celebration of the resurrection stories does to transform our souls so as to connect us with God the Creator in deep ways. With those deep connections that grow from the Easter stories we can embrace the goodness of creation even when we are not so good, the wholeness of creation even when we are not so whole, the loveliness of the world even when we are halting lovers, and the meaning of life even when our own achievements are middling. Most of all we can embrace with gratitude and profound love the gratuitous and shocking creation of this wild world filled with troubles, ecstasies, desolations, satisfactions, and death because those stories of Jesus, when lived with, raise us up into that glorious creation. Those resurrection stories are not what the world and God are like. They are pointers causing us to be raised into life’s most profound ecstatic connection with the Abyss whence we come. This is the Easter triumph: not a life in which everything is new and fine but a life that transforms all the metaphoric content of crucifixion and death into the joyous glory of God’s creation itself.

The transformative work of the Easter celebration does not happen all at once. Perhaps it takes a lifetime–Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Day every year. The resurrection stories of Jesus cannot be separated from all his other stories, his teachings, his historical roles, the birth narratives, and all the mythologizings of the Church that changed a rural Galilean into the Second Person of the Trinity. All these stories interweave, not as literally or metaphorically true but as indicatively true, causally true, transformatively true. So do not worry about either literal or metaphorical truth, however interesting those questions might be on their own. Do not worry about the credibility of the virgin birth, or the sagacity of the Wise Men, or the reliability of the accounts of the Transfiguration, or what really happened when people thought they saw Jesus alive after Good Friday. They are not religiously important in the long run. Worry rather about how to make those stories about Jesus and his resurrection transformative elements in our souls. Enjoy them all. Delight in the crowds of newly raised people swarming into Jerusalem after the thunderous breaking open of their tombs! Perhaps none of these stories is true as a likeness or icon of what happened. But all of them have been true for at least some people in transforming them into New Beings, as Paul put it, lovers of God: and they can be true for us.

Most Christians believe those stories with naïve innocence and are transformed by them. But it is not the likeness kind of truth that is important, however much they might believe it is. Rather it is the causal consequence of dwelling in those stories that is spiritually and theologically important. Some people these days find the stories incredible if construed to interpret reality as being like what those stories say. Sadly, such people often go on to conclude that the stories therefore simply are not true, which is a mistake. The depth meaning and truth of the stories is not in their iconic likeness to anything but in their indicative transformative powers that bring us into connection with the source of all things, with gratitude, joy, and peace that passes understanding. This is how it has always worked, even when people believed that salvation comes because the stories are literally or metaphorically true. That was naïve of them even when they actually were transformed. We need not be naïve like that. What would be naïve of us would be to think we can do without the stories and their celebrations in our souls. To proclaim the resurrection is not to assert it but to lead in the celebration of it.

So let us listen to the stories of Jesus and his miraculous birth, his calling of disciples and teachings of friendship, his sharp knocks at hypocrisy and love of childlike innocence, his proclamation that the last will be first and the first last, his miracles of healing and his struggles with fickle crowds, his interpretations of history and parables of the Kingdom, his gospel of love and demands for justice, his institution of sacraments and founding of a beloved community, his bitter betrayal and corrupt trial, his bloody suffering and desolate crucifixion, his harrowing of Hell and glorious resurrection, his blessing of our maturity and gift of the Spirit, his ascension into Heaven and mythic transformation into the atonement for all sins, into the Cosmic Christ, into the Second Person of the Trinity, into the divine founder of the Christian movement, into an ever-loving friend personally available to each of us, into a reality that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All of these things are part of the deep truth that works in us when we celebrate them. Better yet, let’s sing them, because music moves the soul faster than words alone. What changes with resurrection? We do. What is that change? A closer connection with God. What is that connection? An entry into the divine life whose wildness is embraced with Easter joy. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” You bet!! “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” Amen.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville,
Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011

April 17

A Meditation on the Palms and a Meditation on the Passion

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

A Meditation on the Palms
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Seeing with the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010

The Dean: If we believe that life has meaning and purpose
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son
People: And we do

The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe in God
People: And we do

The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust in God
People: And we shall.

A Meditation on the Passion
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Deliver Us From Evil, 2005

The Dean: To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.
People: Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.
The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.
People: Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.
The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.
People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.
The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.
People: Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.
The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

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

April 10

Bonhoeffer and Bach: The Passion According to St. Matthew

By Marsh Chapel

Brisk air, breathtaking view: we can imagine for a moment the sights from, the sights of the great mountain peaks near and far. Mount Washington, Mount Everest, Mount Marcy, the Matterhorn. The Bible itself moves from promontory to promontory, from Mount Sinai to Mount Nebo to Mount Tabor to the Mountain of the Transfiguration to the Mount of Olives. Up high, we pause.

We have come this far this Lent. Now we are ascending and descending the great mountain of beauty before us, The Passion According to St. Matthew. We have come this far this Lent. We pause here to survey the scene, to take in the brisk air the breathtaking view the beauty of the music. Thus far the Gospel of John has shown us our path: Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Blind Beggar. Thus far the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown us the trail: The Cost of Discipleship, Cheap Grace, Religionless (though not churchless) Christianity, and Life Together. Thus far the muted but audible voice of Franklin Littell, the father of Holocaust studies, has provided a way to orient ourselves, Sunday by Sunday. For a moment, we shall simply rest and wait. As Howard Thurman said of the power of waiting and resting, we need not ‘fear the fallow’. We need not fear the quiet, the quiet power of height, beauty, grace.

Yet in the midst of turmoil far and near we hunt for hope. ‘Faith is the conviction that hope works’ (so Professor Gomes, of blessed memory). Many of our younger friends have been partly cut off from the traditions of faith and memory, of morality and hope which have the power to guide us, to recall for us our own best past and so our own best paths. We want to respect and affirm the ‘fragility of goodness’, and so to find ways to expand that circle of goodness, in our time. And goodness knows our time well needs such expansion. In this hour we prayerfully wonder about shocks and aftershocks in Japan, leaks and spills and heroic labors to bring remedy. In this hour we soberly wonder about peace and war in our so called middle east, and wonder further about ways forward when none seems just right. In this hour we lay on the altar of reckoning and hope the endless multiple liberties and longings of our beloved country of more than 300 million souls. The tides of worry can wash so hard against the very rock of our souls that it seems all we can do to hold out and hold on in trust that ‘faith is the conviction that hope works’.

So our reflections emerge along the cliff walk of this high summit, this high peak, this mountainous musical beauty. Brisk air, breathtaking view. From our Lenten journey we shall carry forward and with us a collection of convictions.

We too, with Bonhoeffer, refuse to set back the clock. We know that this world in which we take our places as working and caring human beings, is not the world of a hundred or two hundred years ago. Nothing human is foreign to us in a world come of age. We neglect no truth, and fear no growth in learning of new truth. If we are to be women and men for others, we shall in truth need to be and become women and men with others, in all the complexity and difficulty of life at its height and breadth and depth. We hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and read the two with rapt attention.

We too, with Bonhoeffer, live in hope, with our loyalty and love given to the Lord of Life himself. In Christ we shall again see the great vistas of beauty and grace. In Christ we shall again learn the seasoned wisdom of discipline, work, labor, earnest and diligent care. In Christ we shall again gain courage to become we are, to be who we are most meant to be, to let our lives speak. In Christ, we shall trust the meaning of the cross and resurrection, the triumph of substance over form, of grace over law, and love over death. We shall trust that love outlasts death. We shall trust that faith, hope and love abide.

We too with Bonhoeffer, will give of ourselves to the transformation of our time, to the transcendent transformation of all of life, of the very bits and places of culture committed to our care, starting with Sunday morning, but not ending there, or here. This hour of worship is to be the first in a long seven day series of hours given, shared with others. We shall strive to Biblical Ethics: ‘all contingent on the call of Christ’ (Green, 256):

1. Do what needs doing (Ecc 9:10)

2. Be exact in small matters (Lk 16:10, 19:17)

3. Do Domestic duties first (1 Tim 3: 15)

4. Do not interfere with others (1 Pet 4: 15)

And we shall recognize ‘Discipline, Action, Suffering, Death’ as stations on the road to freedom.

From this Lent, for the faithful living of the days to come, we shall honor our inheritance in truth, affirm the faithfulness of Christ, and look forward to the time and space which Isaiah did foretell, streams in the desert.

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

And confidently waiting come what may

We know that God is with us night and morning

And never fails to greet us each new day.” (UMH 517)

~The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

April 4

Bonhoeffer: Life Together

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only
John 9:1-22


For Lent 2011 at Marsh Chapel we have listened for the gospel in Scripture, in the life Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in application of the gospel of truth to our own time, with help from Franklin Littell. Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of liberal thought, affirmation of Christ as Lord of life, and affirmation of the transcendent transformation of human culture in the preaching of the Gospel, are at the heart of our own life together here.

Like many today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s family did not regularly go to church. They were cultural but not observant Christians. They assumed and affirmed the place of the (Lutheran) church, but did not attend. In this light, it is especially, movingly meaningful to remember how Bonhoeffer’s father, an eminent psychiatrist, responded to Dietrich’s decision to study theology. For this family, such a decision might have become one that came with the name tag, ‘black sheep in training’. Yet this is not the response his Dad gave. On the contrary, there was an openness, a respect, an admiration, mixed in with the predictable surprise, concern and criticism: In any case you gain one thing from your calling—in this it resembles mine—living relationships to human beings and the possibility of meaning something to them, in more important matters than medical ones. And of this nothing can be taken away from you, even when the external institutions in which you are placed are not always as you would wish. (Metaxas, 213).

One detects in this early letter something of the freedom and grace within the Bonhoeffer home. On this freedom, and on this grace, one may surmise and imagine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer relied as he gradually developed an understanding of life together. The disciplines of study, science and music from his home were transposed into the disciplines of prayer and worship in the church’s life together. The convivial joy of gathering and celebration, which his family exemplified even through 1944, were transposed into the regular reading of psalms, both thanksgiving and lament. The brotherhood, sisterhood of his own upbringing were transposed into a kind of fraternal love—in his churches, his classes, his school, his friendships and even in his imprisonment—on which all who knew him well regularly reflect. The fierce sense of loyalty, duty, responsible freedom, acquired within the liberal culture of Berlin in his youth, became, one could argue, and with some sense of irony, the ground out of which his later understanding emerged. Culture became the culture of faith. The Gospel speaks to the height and strength of human being.


Speaking of height and strength, in John 9 we reach the summit of the Fourth Gospel. Here this morning is the crucial chapter within the Fourth Gospel. In it we see clearly the two level drama of faith which John acclaims. Said Luther, “preaching the Gospel is one beggar telling another where they both may find bread”.

Today we meet two beggars. One is a man lost in the mist of memory, who somehow recovered his sight at the pool of Siloam. The other is the church, John’s church, and by extension the whole church including the community of Marsh Chapel, existentially lost, who somehow recover sight at the hand of Jesus the Christ. John has two eyes at work. One is trained on the distant memory of a powerful Jesus. The other is trained on the experience of the Risen Lord in the life of the church. Both see again, by the healing action of the divine.

This blind beggar, and his healing, and all the trouble that such a good deed occasions, is important to John because in him John sees clearly what is going on in his own church. At Siloam, there was a lonely beggar. We are beggars too. In Jerusalem, one was powerfully healed. We have been healed too. With Jesus, a man’s sight, his most prized faculty, was restored. So too our spirit. So long ago, Jesus was heard to say, “I am the light of the world”. He is the light of our world too. Did Jesus of old bring healing to the needy? By grace he does so every week in our midst still! What the earthly Jesus did for the blind beggar, the Risen Lord does for the beloved church.

That’s the good news.

There is other news too.

At Siloam, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. We too have learned that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. In Jerusalem, there is immediate conflict over what this new Power means for old traditions. We too know the conflict between gospel and tradition. With Jesus’ healing there comes a division between generations. Such contention and difference is ours too.

Our gospel shows us two beggars, one in Jerusalem a long time ago. And one which is the church itself, to whom Jesus speaks, the Risen Lord speaking in the spirit through the very human voice of John.

Two blind beggars, one a man and one a church. Expulsed, thrown out, shunned, set apart.

Most especially, in this crafted memory, the blind man given sight is then thrown out of the synagogue for consorting with Jesus. And this is the central communal dislocation of John’s church. The story, culminating in 9: 22, ‘thrown out of the synagogue’, is the story of a struggling community, which, like a beggar, is wandering outside of what inherited tradition alone can provide. And we are, too. John 9 is about what happened to a community of faith in the late first century. Its rancorous depiction of opponents, ‘the Jews’ or the ‘Judeans’, refers to those siblings, those closest in heart and mind, with whom there has been a rupture. Not to understand the history of the fourth Gospel so is tragically and irresponsibly to enhance anti-Semitism both ancient and modern.

The expulsion from the religious family of origin has two dimensions, one of sight and one of sound, one sociological and one theological. First, in actual experience, the little and poor community has lost its roots and its support. It is dislocated. Second, in the nature of hope, the community has now to find new resources, new ways of thinking about hope. It is disappointed.

(Why the separation? For ample reason. For the Jewish community, John’s high claims about Christ amounted to a breach of monotheism, a kind of ditheism, two gods. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one….” And the charge had merit. Now we can say so many years later, why this is minimal, look, by the fourth century the church acclaimed not one, nor even two, but three persons in the Godhead!)

Just here is the good news. In the very depth of dislocation, John’s church experienced grace in their life together. We may too. In the very depth of disappointment, John’s church experienced freedom in their life together. We may too.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching and life bear such witness.


That is, to complete the affirmation begun last Sunday, religionless Christianity is not churchless Christianity. For the sake of life together Bonhoeffer, and we, together, set our minds and hearts against pride, sloth, falsehood, and against superstition, idolatry and hypocrisy. That is, it is not a question of avoiding the church, but of avoiding the inherent illnesses of religion, and of strengthening the disciplines and commitments within the church.

So Bonhoeffer cherished preaching: The Christian hope of resurrection in contrast to (religious) otherworldliness sends man back to his life on the earth in a completely new way. The Christian must like Christ totally give himself to the earthly life. (Green, 322)

So Bonhoeffer cherished teaching: I want therefore to start from the premise that God should not be smuggled into some last secret place, but that we should simply recognize the autonomy of man and not run him down in his worldliness but confront him with God at his strongest point. (Green, 324)

So Bonhoeffer cherished marriage: ‘It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on the marriage that sustains your love’‘ (Metaxas, 4580

So Bonhoeffer cherished the church: ‘A state which includes within itself a terrorized church has lost its most faithful servant’

So Bonhoeffer cherished silence: ‘God comes to people who have nothing but room for God and this hollow space this emptiness in people is called in Christian speech, faith’ (Coles 46)

So Bonhoeffer cherished witness: ‘Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant (Littell, 50)

So Bonhoeffer cherished the prophetic: ‘It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not’ (Metaxas 155)

So Bonhoeffer cherished the Bible: 136 ‘I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions…’ (like listening to someone whom we love) (Metaxas 136)

So Bonhoeffer cherished faith: ’love is the name for what God does to man in overcoming the disunion in which man lives’ (Coles 84)

So Bonhoeffer cherished Life Together—hymns sung, prayers offered, gifts given, sacraments administered, friendships honored, letters written, listening practiced, reading enjoyed.

So shall we. If an hour of worship is not worth our attention, what is? If one hour of real attention a week to all that lasts, counts, matters and works is not worth engaging, what is?


We have relied in this Lent’s application of the gospel on Franklin Littell, former Dean of Marsh Chapel, for some guidance and insight about how best to apply our exegesis of John and our exposition of Bonhoeffer to our own lives. Littell, the father of formal Holocaust studies in America, a Methodist minister who had witnessed both the rise and the terror of Adolf Hitler, preached from our pulpit for one year in 1952. But his lasting voice continues to address us, in part through his book, The Crucifixion of the Jews: the failure of Christians to understand the Jewish experience.

Life together, for John and Bonhoeffer and Littell, has meant the courage to find grace in dislocation. In expulsion and imprisonment and failure, we become dimly aware of real grace. But we first have to endure being expulsed from our earlier religion. We first have to endure the inescapable discipline of imprisonment. We first have to endure the crime and punishment of failure. Littell’s premonition was that the very same issues which led to the majority failure in Christianity to contend with Hitler are still and pervasively alive and abroad in the church. These are the religious issues, named last week, which continue to strangle and hobble real church life, real community, real life together. Individualism eclipses the common good. Episodes in experience occlude our view of community. Intellectual dishonesty precludes our ability to speak a full truth. Religion, which infantilizes, blocks the way to faith, which gives maturity, or responsible freedom. Littell has this for us to ponder: what if the faith tradition most damaged by the Holocaust, in the long term, was Christianity?

The Holocaust was the consummation of centuries of false teaching and practice, and until the churches come clean on this ‘model’ situation, very little they have to say about the plight of other victimized and helpless persons or groups will carry authority. There is a symbolic line from Auschwitz to (present troubles), but what the churches have to say about (present troubles) will not be heard until their voice is clear on Auschwitz. The tune must be played backward, the ball of scattered twine must be rolled up through the difficult and mysterious byways of the maze, before we come again into the blessed daylight of faith.

The meaning of the Holocaust for Christians must be built into the confessions of faith and remembered in hymns and prayers. That was the turn in the road that most of the churches missed…Antisemitism is not just a peculiarly nasty form of race prejudice; Antisemitism is blasphemy—a much more serious matter!

When Christians denied their obligations to the Jews, the way to boasting and triumphalism was opened wide, and most churchmen are still marching cheerfully through it (Littell, 65)


How shall we proceed? How shall we live up to the gospel, and live down our waywardness?

Through a moment of self-critical honesty, as when Maureen Dowd recently took the measure of her own tradition:

‘It is time for (us) to take inspiration from that sublime—even divine—side of the church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile (M Down, NYT).

Through a moment of reflection on experience, as when James Matthews thought about his travel to India?

‘India enabled me for the first time to see myself and America as others see us, and it liberated me to be at home in the world’ (Bishop James K Matthews, BG 9/25/10).

Through a moment of Lenten discipline, as we struggle against the great pollutions of our time in air and debt and internet? As we park our car and save our money and do not ‘reply all’?

In Scripture (especially John), in History (especially Bonhoeffer), in Life (especially Littell), we are called to live in responsible freedom. We are called to shuffle off any and all religious or secular impediments, so that we may freely choose, responsibly decide. It is in our life together that we find the nutrients to sustain this perilous journey.

So, today, a table of mercy, a cup of salvation, the bread of life

~The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel