Archive for September, 2011

September 25

A Change of Heart

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 21: 23-32


This Sunday we are confronted by one of the most endearing, and most alluring little parables in all of Scripture, maybe in all of literature.

How it fits with the rest of the lesson is not entirely clear, at least to me. Nor is it clear how the lesson in Matthew fits with the other assigned readings for the day, Philippians and our Psalm and so on. Dark sayings from of old, indeed.

But the collision of order and answer, of beckoning and response, has to haunt.

A man has two sons. Already, the plot is thickened, with rivalry, with competition, with family intrigue.

Then the preaching of the gospel occurs. The vintner—I prefer vintner to father here—tells something, it is a statement that beckons, not formally a question nor even an invitation. Simply a command. Go.

He commands. Schweitzer would be pleased.

Go and live, go and work, go and love, go and prune, go and pluck, go and tend your garden. Go. Up and Go!

Every day and every Lord’s Day, the word arises to us, singeing our nostrils. Go. The day accosts us with a challenge to the good, to a choice if Dewey is right between goods.

You know, I have a feeling about a feeling abroad.

I think some of us sometimes have the sinking feeling that things are not going so well, that things are drifting or worse.

We see war wounds that do not heal.

We see environmental gashes that we rue, ice melting, melting melting

We watch another attempt to bring expanding gambling to the commonwealth and wonder, is this the best we can do, the our selves at our best?

We see an economy that leaves out, as James Walters said this week, 14 million people, the equivalent of the total population of New England. Maybe twice that when you get everybody counted.

We see a beloved country and respected government that cant seem to organize a two car funeral.

And on top of it all, the Red Sox are not always winning.

You know, I think there is an ennui abroad, a languishing in doldrums of pervasive malaise.

So when the word comes. Come Sunday: Up! Go! You! Work! Vineyard! Today!

We pull up the covers and sleep in, or call in sick, or drive in late, or just are not really sure we can do anything about all these irremediable driftings.

What difference does it make what I do?

So, says son one, I will not go. Son two doesn’t go, he just evades, the compliant not the defiant one. He says Yes Mrs Cleaver, but he doesn’t go. He never meant to. He just doesn’t like conflict. Well who does?

But the first son has a change of heart.

Now I find this so encouraging, heartening, lovely. Up front, he says, no way, no way Jose. He is defiant, and willing to say it. I don’t think so, Mr. Vintner, Mr Father, Mr Voice, Mr Life, Mr. Daytime. I think I will just turn in my ticket. Thanks but no thanks.

But he has a change of heart.

Will you notice with me that the main thing we want to know is not told to us?

We want to know, what changed the heart? What did the trick? What sealed the deal? What moved the lever?

And the Bible says, ‘Address Not Known’. In other words, it is shrouded in mystery.

So we are a little free to speculate, and I plan to take that freedom in full today. We do not know what brought the change of heart.

But I know what can be a change of heart.


An experience of the beautiful can change the heart. A thank you note. A sunrise. A poem. A violin sonata. A student writing on our memory board, ‘I saw the planes hit from my fourth grade window’—there is a beauty in that memory of innocence lost.

When you come to church on Sunday, you may be saying no. NO I WILL NOT. You may be not willing to have any change, let alone a change of heart. It is in that very condition that John Wesley went in the rain to Aldersgate Street. NO I WILL NOT GO TO THE VINEYARD, not today baby.


You get to church and…


Sun through stained glass. Organ meditation. Word fitly spoken. Bach.

Music can say things that words never can.

Beauty is like that.


Actually, Dean Hill, Bach suggests his own answer for the source of Son Number One’s change of heart. With the spirit of beauty, perhaps it was indeed ‘a spirit’ of Beauty – the angels encamped about Son Number One. Angels – the very picture of beauty!

Today’s cantata celebrates these spirits of Beauty and Light – the Angels. Originally written for the Festival of St. Michael, celebrated on September 29th, our cantata today commemorates the victory of Michael, the arch-angel, over Satan as depicted in Revelation. The first movement brims with joyful celebration complete with trumpets and timpani, in a light dance style. Any jagged depictions of the battle are replaced by the brilliance of the celebration. Here, there are no fugues or demanding complexities – we hear the voice of Bach’s finest expressions of jubilation.

As the cantata proceeds, Bach’s takes the turns we now anticipate – ‘We acknowledge and celebrate the great things the Lord has brought to pass’, and we now mark the ways in which the Lord continues to work on our behalf in our living, in our working, in our sleeping, in our loving, and, yes, in our departing. The central aria of the cantata – ‘Gottes Engel weichen nie’ / God’s Angels never retreat – depicts these airy beings as they watch over our every need, preventing us from danger and temptation. Notice the lightness of the string writing, and the angelic voice of soprano Margot Rood. The second half of the cantata reminds us that in our departing, God’s angels will usher us to Abraham’s bosom, just as he did with Elijah and his fiery chariot. Bach is always teaching us a Bible lesson! Our dependence on the angels becomes clearer in the final duet, ‘Seid wachsam ihr heiligen Wächter’/ ‘Be vigilant, you holy watchman’. The bassoon takes the role of the lonely watchman in his nightly rounds, protecting us from Satan’s snare. The Cantata concludes with the famous chorale, Herzlich lieb, which some Marsh Chapel congregants will recognize as the chorale that concludes the St John Passion. In the Chorale, God’s angels usher us to Heaven when we meet our end – ever present, and ever vigilant.

Who can tell the source of beauty behind Son Number One’s change of heart? Perhaps God’s Angels, or perhaps as Lincoln said, ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Or perhaps it’s all the same – a shared and common beauty, ready and available.


You know, sometimes, we come saying no and leave saying yes.

What changes the heart?

What pierces, transforms, moves the heart?

Beauty does.

It does.

It says, whispers, reminds:

There are a lot of things wrong. But there are a lot of things right. Somebody wrote this cantata—sheer beauty. Someone practiced and taught it—sheer beauty. Someone sang it and played it—sheer beauty. And here I am. I heard it. I heard it.

Music can say things that words never can.

Maybe number one son huffed no. Then he saw moonlight on Tiberias. Or his wife was singing as the children went to sleep. Or he remembered a part of a Psalm. Or he remembered the loving and lovely self giving of a loved one—maybe th
at of his father. Or a friend came by or came through.

Then he thought…

Well, maybe, well, maybe

Maybe things are bad, but maybe they can get better, and maybe better is the only good there is.

Maybe that is what you will think, leaving today.

Beauty stands beside me

Beauty stands beside me

I hear, I hear, I hear

Maybe I will say yes after all

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

September 18

Howard Thurman: A Voice for Speaking, a Faith for Living

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 20: 1-16

Howard Thurman’s name and legacy are well honored here at Marsh Chapel. Come Sunday, whether you tune in on the radio, listen on the podcast, or sit in the pews at 735 Commonwealth Avenue, you will often hear Howard Thurman’s words sounding forth from this pulpit. You will hear him quoted in prayers, in sermons. After worship, you can visit Howard Thurman’s portrait downstairs in the room that bears his name. Dean Hill has even developed something of a Marsh Chapel mantra about Thurman; you will often hear him say that “Howard Thurman was one hundred years of his time, fifty years ago.” It is good that we remember and listen to Thurman’s words, but there is something missing when we encounter these echoes of Thurman. We miss out on the unique tenor of Thurman’s voice, his speaking voice, which so perfectly fits his personality, his person, his life, and his very soul. So this morning, I want to share with you a small recording of Thurman speaking, reading from Meditations of the Heart.

[Thurman recording] 2:17-2:42

Thurman, as you can hear, has a unique speaking voice. His is a deep and resounding bass, particularly when praying, meditating, or telling stories which really hit home. Very few people speak that low in the range of the human voice, and so when I first heard Thurman’s speaking voice, I was reminded of my paternal Grandfather. My grandfather passed away when I was quite young, but I can still hear the echoes of his voice in my mind, the deep resounding bass vibrating my whole body, as it chuckles after cracking a joke at the dinner table during grace or captured on a record, a single moment in time, singing a duet at my parent’s wedding.

Thurman’s voice is, of course, different from my grandfather’s; it is uniquely his. But it too, is a moment captured in time for us to hear today. It is oddly reedy for a bass, and when Thurman gets a little excited, you can imagine him rising to the balls of his feet or grasping the pulpit and leaning forward into the microphone. It doesn’t happen in this short clip, but when Thurman really gets warmed up, his voice soars up the scales like the opening notes of Rhapsody in Blue, reaching to a high, near falsetto range. Howard Thurman had his own carefully developed, deeply discerned voice.

Coming up to converse with Thurman this morning we have our gospel lesson from Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, only found in the Gospel of Matthew. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is colloquially known as the parable of the totally unfair vineyard owner. You mean that the people who sneak into the last pew just before the sermon and then in their return down the side aisles after communion bypass their pew and just keep walking, sneaking surreptitiously out the back…those people earn the same kingdom of heaven wages, the same good deed credits as those who sit all the way through, from the introit to the very last note of the postlude, all the while with their hands politely in their laps and eyes facing forward?

Yes, that would seem to be something of the meaning of Matthew’s parable. That is what the kingdom of God looks like in this parable of the generous (some of us might mutter under our breath socialist) landowner. In the parable, if there is a divine accounting system of any kind, it is not measured by our standards. Everyone’s work, everyone’s participation, everyone’s voice is of deep value to the vineyard owner.

But the generosity of the parable’s vineyard owner still grates at us, particularly in our politically charged climate. In this country, in our attempts to cure our extended illness of financial fear, we have become addicted to a vocabulary of scarcity, in which our attitude has become “There cannot possibly be enough for all so I better take my share before someone else does.” We secretly, and as we saw in the Republican debate last week, sometimes openly cheer those who, through some combination of choice and circumstance, might lose their job, their house, or even their very life. We cheer because we secretly hope that if another loses, we might have a job, a house, or the care that we need for life. This mass mentality leads to high emotions, which have become so ingrained in us that we cannot cut through the dense opiate fog to hear the parable, and in it, the voice of the evangelist, and behind him, the voices of the earliest Christian communities, and behind that, the voice of Jesus.

I’d like to retell the parable, using a setting perhaps a bit more familiar, and a bit less infuriating than the one found in our Gospel.

A senior professor, a real giant in her field, offered an advanced seminar to work through some final edits of her book before she sent it to press.

Her two advisees, doctoral students who were finishing up their own dissertations, were the only two to show up the first week of the seminar. They engaged with the professor in spirited debate. The professor thanked them for their contributions, and made some edits based on their responses. The doctoral students went away pleased.

The next week, they were a little surprised to find a master’s student sitting at the table. “I invited her because I wanted to include some more voices in the conversation to help me to really hone my work,” the professor said.

Two weeks later, past the allotted add/drop deadline, a timid young woman came into the classroom for the seminar. She was a freshman and had been invited to unofficially audit the course. “I invited her because I wanted to hear an undergraduate’s take on my argument,” the professor said. The freshman was shy at first in front of the graduate students, but with some coaxing, she opened up and shared her opinions.

The second to last week of the semester, everyone was shocked to see the professor escort in one last person, who was wearing one of those plastic vests that people who are soliciting money for some charity or political organization often wear when they accost you in the street. Donor clipboard still in hand, the young man took a seat and accepted the chapter of discussion for the week, from the professor, who explained to her seminar that she was thinking on her way to class about what people “on the ground” would really think about her book. “So, she said, “This fine young man introduced himself to me outside, and I thought he would be perfect!” The man spent the whole seminar reading the chapter and listening, and by the end, had only made a single, brief comment.

The last class, the professor came in with a copy of her final manuscript in a binder. “I want to thank you all for the help that you have provided me this semester. My book would not be as thorough, as thoughtful, or as articulate as it is without you. I have brought you my manuscript to show you that I have thanked you all, every single one of you, by name in the acknowledgments.”

The doctoral students were appalled. What might it mean to prospective employers when some nobody’s name was listed next to theirs in the introduction to what was sure to be the next big work in the field? Besides, they had engaged the professor’s use of secondary sources, her larger methodological choices. What, really, had the master’s student, the freshman, and especially that solicitor off of the street really done to deserve equal billing?

“You are both emerging scholars in the field,” the professor answered, “and you have a more developed sense of your own scholarly voice. But I needed to hear each of the voices that came to the table to truly understand what my final book needed to look like. Each of the voices in that seminar, even
from the young man off of the street, was essential to the completed work.”
Now, parables are extended similes; as you learned in high school, they compare something to something else using “like” or “as.” The object of comparison throughout the Gospels is nearly always the Kingdom of God, that elusive eschatological term. The Kingdom of God is like a vineyard owner who goes out to offer work to all and pays them equal wages. The kingdom of God is like a professor who invites all voices into her classroom and gives them equal recognition.

We’re so used to hearing parables that we hardly pay attention to the other side of the equation, the “Kingdom of God” part. But that is essential to our understanding of the parable. The “Kingdom of God” is an eschatological catchphrase. “Eschatology,” is a word that has a tendency to make people nervous, conjuring up images of pamphlet-wielding, billboard-buying doomsdayers on the one hand and theologians squinting over dense, boring, difficult theological treatises on the other. What a strange phenomenon! What other phrase brings up such disparate, strange images to mind?

Earlier this semester, New Testament scholar Helmust Koester, introducing a lecture on the history of Ancient Christianity to a mixed classroom of underclassmen and graduate students, promised that his class required no background in the field. He came to the phrase “eschatology” in his lecture, and looking up, he noticed a few furrowed brows. “Eschatology is simply living in the present with a certain hope of the future” he explained. Eschatology is simply living in the present with a certain hope of the future.

With this clear-as-a-bell definition, our eschatological vision can expand to include all sorts of people who we can see live eschatologically. College students come to mind. College students labor away on their laptops, in libraries, in laboratories, taking on significant debt, working second jobs, all in the hope of a certain kind of future. College students can sometimes live extreme manifestations of their eschatology. Some live so deeply in the present that they ignore their fears about the future, which will include an abrupt entry into the “real world” where they believe there will be less fun, more seriousness, and earlier alarm clocks. Others focus so intensely on a future vision of success that they fail to become involved in their present surroundings, missing out on life-transforming friendships, community service, and student life. But when we welcomed our freshman class at matriculation just a few short weeks ago, we welcomed in young people who entered into Boson University with their eyes wide open, taking in their new, exciting, and sometimes terrifying surroundings. They have certain hopes that here they will discover something about who they are and who they are called to be. They have certain hopes that their voices will be heard. They have certain hopes that someday they will make a difference to the world. In short, they seek to find and share their own voice.

Will we invite them in to the conversation? Will we encourage their first attempts to speak out? Will we encourage them as they try out a different, tone, a different pitch? No seminar is too advanced, no economic problem too serious that we cannot include the nascent voices of those who will in the future teach our seminars and run our companies.

Besides, if we are honest with ourselves, we are always in the process of developing and discerning our own voice. It is shaped by the voices of others, and it is shaped in the stillness, when we listen for the voice of God. In the full chorus of voices not our own, we are best able to tune in to our own sound, to correct its pitch, to round out its tone. We are continuously in need of discerning our own voice.

Howard Thurman’s deepest commitments were to these values, to his firm belief that we are not complete, that we are not whole until we have begun to understand ourselves. And we cannot understand ourselves, Thurman believed, until we open ourselves to hear the voices of our neighbors, and to hear the voice of God.

This, Thurman believed, was the very definition of freedom. In 1948, speaking at the meditation hour of the National Council of Negro Women’s Convention, he said this, “The highest role of freedom is the choice of the kind of option that will make my life not only a benediction breathing peace, but also a vital force of redemption to all I touch. This would mean, therefore, that wherever I am, there the very Kingdom of God is at hand.”

The Kingdom of God paints a vision of how we are to live in the present if we have a certain hope for the future. From our parable today, the gospel tells us that we are to live our lives in the hope that someday this world will be like a ripe vineyard where all are invited to work at the harvest. We are invited to live our lives in the hope that someday this world will be like a classroom where all voices are truly welcome. Eschatology is not about doing nothing while we wait for this future to come. Rather, we are called to live in the right-now as though it were so. If we makes space for the still-discerning voices around us to try, to fail, and to try again to find their own-most selves, then we embody that vision of the Kingdom.

In June 2011, National Geographic published an article by Charles C. Mann about Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in Southern Turkey, which had remained relatively unknown in the West up until then. Göbekli Tepe is an old site. It is really old, older than old; it is the oldest structural site in the world. It is beautiful, circles of pillars with fascinating representations of human figures and animals, gazelles, scorpions, foxes, carved into the stone. It was built, archaeologists estimate, 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the pyramid of Giza. Göbekli Tepe is not a palace, or a military outpost, or even a community dwelling. It is a religious site of some sort.

The traditional narrative about human development goes something like this; once our ancestors had settled down, domesticated some animals and some basic grains, once they stopped having to wander around constantly hunting for food, then “civilization” emerges, including art, religion, music, etc. We only turn to questions of meaning when questions of survival are relatively settled.

Göbekli Tepe is leading many scholars to turn that narrative on its head, because this site predates the domestication of livestock, and predates the cultivation of crops. Our hunter gatherer ancestors, it seems, turned to questions of meaning, questions about who they were and how they related to the universe well before they had figured out the whole settled living thing.

I am certain that Howard Thurman, with his incessant cultural and scholarly curiosity, would have loved the story of Göbekli Tepe. I think Thurman most of all would have agreed with the position it forces one to consider.

Thurman believed that questions of who we are and who we are called to be in relation to the universe are not afterthought questions. They are not something to turn to once the schoolwork is done, once the week is over, once the kids are in bed. No, these questions are an essential part of life, as important as our sleeping, our eating, and our breathing. May we hear the echoes of his voice and believe it too.

Thurman believed that when we turn to these questions about ourselves, we naturally turn inward to listen for the voice of God, and outward for the voice of our neighbors around us. May we hear the echoes of his voice and believe it too.

Thurman believed that when we invite all to labor beside us in the vineyard or in the classroom, we embody the Kingdom of God and become a blessing of peace and redemption. May we hear the echoes of his voice and believe it too.


~Ms. Jennifer Quigley
Chapel Associate for Vocational Development

September 11

Transcending Boundaries

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

A. Sin
1. Thirteen Fears

We are a people somewhat dampened by fear.

For some the drenching is total like the water now cascading down from Vermont and Northern New England. For others the damp moisture is more like the relative sprinkling we in Boston received two Sundays ago. But the rain has fallen on all, the northern and southern, the just and unjust.

We have used our umbrellas and it has been a long time coming.

Since the day our freshmen went to kindergarten…

A cloudburst in 1998 about impeachment and redefinitions for simple words like ‘is’, like ‘sex’.

A thunderstorm in 1999 about Y2K. Some communities even had Y2k committees. Our church did.

A donnybrook in 2000 over a close election, decided finally by the Supreme Court. Can you spell ‘dangling chad’?

The hurricane in 2011 of 9/11/01, whose memory we mark today.

An autumn rain in 2002, a move from patience (‘we shall meet violence with patient justice’) to pre-emption, a full blown doctrine thereof.

A tornado in 2003, a tragic invasion of Iraq.

A tempest in an Ohio teapot in election2004and a Tsunami across the pacific.

A whirlwind in 2005, Katrina.

A change in wind direction in 2006, abroad, surge, at home, election.

An early morning rain starting to fall in 2007, falling on housing near and far.

A cataract in 2008, the Great Recession, unabated still. 14 million, 14 million, 14 million hunting for work.

Cloudbursts in 2009—tarp, stimulus, health care, and 401k to 201k, oil spilled in the gulf.

Steady rain since 2010, a country divided along the lines of liberty and justice, freedom and compassion, conservative and liberal.

We are a people moistened by fear. But it has been raining, after all. If you feel a little moist, you may have some reason.

2. Religious Troubles

My dear dad—a graduate of BU—used to say, with a smile, ‘just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you’. Since that sentence has several negatives, let me say it again: ‘just because you are paranoid, does not meant they are not out to get you’.

It was his way of saying that we need to be both realistic and self-aware.

To some friends, I might emphasize the word paranoid. To others, I might emphasize that that does not mean nobody is out to get you.

It is not the case that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. There are real, serious threats to security, collective and individual, which cannot and should not be avoided or denied.

Some of these are religious in nature. Religion qua religion is not necessarily good. It can be. Often it is not.

A surgeon who worshipped with us, a fine southern gentleman, would greet me at the door, following worship, in this way: How is your protoplasm Dr Hill?

In his memory I ask you: How is your eschatology, your pneumatology? Your sense of hope, your sense of presence?

It raises the issue sung out in the old spiritual: Have you got good religion, or bad?

An eschatological vision that promises paradise as reward for violence is religious, for sure, and bad. Bad eschatology is not the exclusive province and possession of only one religious tradition, to be sure. A pneumatological understanding of boundaries that makes of one set of cultural practices a necessary target of hatred is religious, for sure, and bad. Bad pneumatology is not the exclusive province of only one religious tradition, to be sure.

Good religion transcends boundaries, whether of hope or of spirit, whether of heaven or earth, whether eschatological or pneumatological.

Today I want to probe sense of presence and sense of hope.

B. Salvation

What we have heard in our Scriptures today is not unlike what may be found in the world’s great traditions: Bahai: ‘be generous in prosperity, thankful in adversity’; Buddhist: ‘may those frightened cease to be afraid’; Hindu: ‘may there be peace on earth’; Jewish: ‘swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks’; Muslim: ‘if thine enemy incline toward peace, do thou also’; Christian: ‘blessed are the peacemakers’.

But this common ground, when flooded with fear, can be difficult to hold, to walk. Our boots slide in the wet mud.

How are we ever going to dry out, drenched as we are? How will we get the roads rebuilt, the bridges repaired, the sewers flowing, the mud cleared, the clothes ironed?

Today the sun is shining. Briefly let us bask in the its light and warmth.

Religious people bear responsibility for religious problems.

1. Paul

Paul wrote so to the Romans.

Some think of this passage as advice for the church, the church alone. Jews and Gentiles. Get along, welcome one another, liberal Protestants embrace conservative Catholics, march together under the banner of Christ. The strong (the liberal) are to be forbearing of the weak (the conservative). Church advice for church people. Days and diet, Sabbath and sweets.

Is this what he means? If so, why is the word Christ all but absent? Paul says Lord, not Christ, with one exception.

No, Paul has bigger fish to fry than ecumenical relations. He is preaching about cosmic transformation. He is speaking about the Lord. Who is the Lord? The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. What this world needs is not a religious revival but a cultural revolution.

No age needs Romans 14 more than ours does. Here is the announcement, healing for nineleven, of the religion of unreligion.

You will need to channel your inner perennialist, in order religiously to enter the 21st century. Your human BA comes before your spiritual MA. The petty narcissism of small religious differences won’t survive the drenching of the eternal now, now. At the human level, the undergraduate level, the level of real human relationship, unnecessary boundaries based on outmoded religious distinctions need to go. When Daniel Marsh built a chapel without a permanent cross in it, with a star of David in it, with Abraham Lincoln enshrined in it, he took heat—radical moves for 1949. Humans have more in common than not with one another.

In other words, before we move on to the graduate school of human religious difference, let us complete our undergraduate study in human religious likeness.

All six billion of us.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes
, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

I need to remember that I am first a man, second a witness, and third a minister, in that order, not in the reverse order.

2. Matthew

Even Matthew—dark, dreary Matthew—challenged his church so.

We have reason to be careful, to see that our loved ones, that children, that people all people are protected, secured, made safe. We need make no apology for defending human life from religiously inspired hatreds or any others.

But you cannot win the game by playing defense alone. The Red Sox cannot win with pitching alone.

There is only one way forward, with regard to past hurt. There are many ways backward: regret, revenge, resentment come to mind. To move forward, we shall need, in Niebuhr’s under-heralded phrase, to become adept at a spiritual discipline against resentment. We shall need to learn the arts of forgiveness. The only antidote to religion is mercy. So, the Scripture, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.

God’s delight is forgiveness. That is the gospel. The question then is, what is ours, what is our delight? What do we desire?

Mercy is a great mystery; forgiveness, when it happens, a grace. To err is human, to forgive, divine. Or, as thesis advisors suppose, to write is human, to edit, divine.

Our first Marsh Chapel preacher and Dean, Franklin Littell, so reminded us:

Just as the child is aware of the mother before it is self-aware, just as it commonly says mama before it says I, so the awareness of God and his work in history is primordially known to the person of faith. But the world of techne, in its aversion to the mysterious and the open, has sealed off that dimension of human experience. From the elementary school, the young person is taught to think in the symmetry of the closed, the traditional mathematical model, and by the time he has finished with the university he may be a skilled technician—but he is rarely a wise man. (13)

It is the threshold of the mind and heart of Howard Thurman, the great former Dean of Marsh Chapel. He wrote, “A beautiful and significant phrase, “Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells – not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into His Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny. What a man is, what his plans are, what his authentic point is, where his life goes – all is available to him in the Presence.”

Our third Dean, Robert Hamill, said much the same:

To anyone who is seriously seeking for this final truth, it will come to him, often unannounced, sometimes unnoticed. It may come through some reading in Scripture or elsewhere, or some glimpse of beauty, or some encounter with a friend, or with an enemy, or by some shattering engagement with yourself, with failure, or guilt, or unspeakable joy. It may happen to you especially in some act of obedience, when you seek not so much to obey the commandments which bind, but to obey him who liberates. (motive, 1/61)

In this spirit, our fourth, Robert Thornburg, wrote recently about prayer:

Coming to the 10th anniversary of “9/11”, I had a really scary dream. What would happen if I were to be asked to say a prayer at some public occasion near ground zero? I pondered that possibility in other dreams. I envisioned looking through my file of “prayers for public occasions”. Those were interfaith enough, and written to include the widest circle of folk. But surely not adequate for a time so filled with sorrow, anger, love and hope— all those feelings that bubble up at the mention of those two numbers. When all else failed, I began instead to ask myself “what would I prayer for?” “For whom should I pray?” and remember: this is a prayer we are uttering to the Eternal God, not a political manifesto.

Easy at the start: pray for those who were killed and their families, then add first-responders, both those who died trying, and others still suffering the effects. But what about those “other” people: Muslims who want to pray nearby, others who are even thinking of destruction again. I think that is the kind of situation our Master had in mind when he said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Could I believe that prayer changes things, and that the Almighty God might move in all of us to change things by the power of incredible love and profound hope.

Then I woke with a start. What was I thinking about? If our faith and all the religions of the world has any hope of helping the terrible mess our world finds itself in, then we had all better pray without ceasing and include the widest possible circle of both friends and those who probably think of themselves as our enemies. (8/20/11)

Dean Five, Robert Neville (do you sense an emerging pattern of Roberts?), wrote:

For us religious people the most frightening dimension of the recent terrorism is its idolatry. If our speculations about the motives of the terrorists are right, or we take Mr. Bin Laden’s statements at face value, a political cause has been cloaked in ultimacy that belongs to God alone. Any political cause, just or unjust, or any ambiguous mixture of the two that is associated with divinity is idolatry. (9/20/01).

C. Service

What good difference will our worship today, and our observance later today, make?

We are a flawed and bruised people. We are long way from perfect. We are a little moist, a little damp.

Some time ago our Religious Life Council and leaders began to prepare an observance for this day. I met with my colleague, Rabbi Polak, among others, to seek his counsel. As we talked he invited a student working at the front desk to sit with us, and to tell us what she recommended for 9/11/11.

“Well, I would want to remember what the day was like for me and for my family. Then I think I would want some simple, quiet way to honor losses from that day, and to honor those lost. And then I would want to see if there are ways I could do something positive, to remember by serving.”

She echoed what others had said, and outlined what we have done: boards to write out memories, like those used ten years ago; an observance at noon on the Plaza, like those 5 and 10 years ago; and suggestions for service, listed and announced, like this one:

In 1995 I married a great couple, Jim the husband a Methodist minister and religion professor, and Betsy the wife a health specialist and first responsder. After 9/11/01, in the loss and rubble and fear, she and a small group of others decided to do something positive, to remember by serving, as our student put it. In Syracuse NY, bit by bit, she and they developed a network of women—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Agnostic, Other—who began to meet together on a monthly basis. They formed bonds of friendship—‘belonging’ as the religious sociologists might name it. They read and talked together—‘meaning’ in sociological terms. They chose limited but fruitful conjoint acts of public service that made a difference—‘empowerment’ in sociology. In their small city, week by month by year, they brought a little bit of compassion
, understanding, and hope up and out of the ashes of ground zero. They are still at it. Today, in the New York Times, you will find a supplement devoted to this date. It is a realistic, even pessimistic, darkly challenging segment. But there, right there, right there in the middle of today’s news, stands Betsy. There is the account, a glimmer of light and a ray of hope, of her friends who came together and formed Women Transcending Boundaries. They have 470 members. As Elie Wiesel has taught us: one who hears a witness becomes a witness.

What boundaries will you work to transcend this year? Religious people have a religious task, a religious responsibility. That is to transcend boundaries, eschatological or pneumatological, of hope or presence, which threaten to undo us.

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the Truth at the Center of the world.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and justice still stand, through the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national honor, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the Truth at the center of the world.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niebuhr) still stands, through the Truth at the center of the world.

Speaking of eschatology, there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. Speaking a pneumatology, there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

George Buttrick once remembered an evening in Boston:

All we know is that each man’s witness is needed, since each man is a person, in separate and distinctive gift a child of God. Recently at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert the man with the triangle was required by the music to sound one note. Minutes before that note he stood ready, like a runner on his mark, triangle and hammer uplifted and poised. To most of us the note would not have been missed, but Conductor Muench would have missed it. We are responsible to the music and the conductor, not mainly to the listener. The man drew my eyes—and my concern. Suppose he should come in too early or too late! Suppose he should swing his little hammer and miss! But true to time and score: ping! I would like in the hereafter to be able to tell the Conductor that I pinged my little ping, in the right place and at the right time. (motive, 2/58, p.16)

Me too, George, me too.

Come! Live with us! Be a witness to the Truth at the center of the world! You can make a small, lasting difference!

L Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

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

September 4


By Marsh Chapel

There will be no sermon text this week, but see below for Dean Hill’s Invocation for Matriculation, 2011.

We bring forward our thanks today,

For the study of medicine, dentistry, physical therapy

Whose fruit is public health

For the study of law

Whose fruit is justice

For the study of management, business and economics

Whose fruit is community

For the study of art—music, dance, drama, all

Whose fruit is beauty

For the study of communication

Whose fruit is truth

For the study of engineering

Whose fruit is expanding safety

For the liberal, metropolitan and general study of art and science

Whose fruit is freedom

For the study of hospitality

Whose fruit is conviviality

For the study of education

Whose fruit is memory and hope

For the study of military and physical education

Whose fruit are security and strength

For the study of social work

Whose fruit is compassion

For the study of theology

Whose fruit is meaning

In this year may the 40,000 member city of Boston University—students, faculty, administrators, staff, alumni, neighbors all—become, by grace:

healthier, more just, more connected, fairer, truer, sturdier, freer, gentler, deeper, safer, more compassionate, and more aware

O Thou who loves us into love and frees us into freedom.