Archive for November, 2011

November 27


By Marsh Chapel

You cannot come to Christmas unless you cross the river Jordan…

Between you and the 12 days of grace in the feast of Christmas there runs an icy river, four weeks of Advent, the journey in preparation…

You cannot get across alone, or without cost, or without preparation, or without getting wet…

This beginning is like all others—uncertain, difficult, scary, hard…

In these weeks there is set aside a time of preparation…

The voices of our precursors in faith cry out in our wilderness experience…

In today’s reading, three distinct voices resound.  The voice of the prophet Isaiah. The voice of the John the Baptist.  And the voice of the St. Mark, the author of the earliest gospel and its beginning….

The voices come out of the great, distant past, cloaked in antiquity, hooded in mystery, shrouded in the misty past, covered by the winds and dust of time.

What a privilege we share. What a privilege and joy to hear and interpret the Holy Scripture.  We savor our Scripture.  More precious than bread is the word that heals us, that carries us out of trouble.  At Thanksgiving dinner this week, I am told, at one table the grace to be given was the 100th Psalm.  He who was to pray reached for his blackberry, to call it up and read.  But the device failed, the machine went dead.  A long, embarrassing silence followed.  Until, at the long end of the table two octogenerians, who had learned the psalm in the third grade, recited it in duet…

Our Scripture is holy, is the word of God, because week by week, we read and listen, here, for the divine word.  Where else would be possible want to be, come Sunday, than in earshot of the Word? We stand on the shoulders of the ancients, stretching back two and three thousand years, for whom also these words were holy.  They outlast us, these words of holy writ.  They uplift us.  They reshape us.  They return us to our rightful minds.  The authority of scripture lies in a very pragmatic garden of practice:  we do this every week, all the 4,000 Sundays of our lives.  Scripture acquires authority out of its long time traditional use.  Scripture exudes authority as the mind, our gift of reason, explores the caverns and caves, the stalactites and stalagmites, the dark recesses of venerable words.  Scripture pierces the heart with authority, in our own hearing, our own recitation, our own living, our own experience.  Tradition, reason, and experience crown Holy Scripture with authority.

Listen, in love, to the voices of your precursors…

The year is 540bce.

In the dark days of exile, the second prophet Isaiah recalled for his people the nature of faith.

How difficult it is to be away from home, to be alone, to be cut off from the people and places that mean most to you.  All travelers know this, as do all human pilgrims.  Your life—musician, chorister, organist, director, minister, reader, usher, greeter, nave right, nave left, balcony, radio congregant, all—your life is a journey, a spiritual journey wrought in meaning, fraught with meaning, fought for meaning, taught by meaning.

The preparation for good news may even begin in the dark lost hurt of exile.  Isaiah could hear the early singing of the birdsong of hope long before any of his contemporaries.  The people of Israel, through a series of tragic decisions guided by a series of misguided leaders, found themselves enslaved to a foreign king. They became a debtor nation. Our story of the Prince of Peace is born out of a strife-torn experience.  Our confidence in the God of Hope is born out of a record of nearly hopeless moments in the community of faith.

A song needs a singer.  How blessed is the one who can sing in a time when the songs just won’t come.  This is the church’s vocation, that of all prophets and preparers, to give singing lessons.

What makes hope possible in a time of exile?  What makes hope possible in the wasteland of a desert?

Hope comes from a mixture of memory and imagination and vision.  Hope, like its first cousin, faith, comes from trouble.  Over 35 years of ministry, when the question has arisen, ‘Whence, Faith?’, the answer invariable runs thus:  “well, a long time ago,  I was in a deep kind of trouble, and, here is what happened…’  Faith, like cousin hope, is real faith when it is about all you have.

This is what a song does for us.  It frees us to hope for what is not yet seen.  A song like Isaiah 40, well sung, frees us from the tyranny of the present, the oppression of the right now, the slavery of the moment.  We get free to dream of another time or two.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a newfound capacity to hope, to hope against hope, to hope for what yet cannot be seen, to hope and to hope and to hope.

Isaiah overheard and foretold another voice, another prospect.  He sensed what was not yet visible.  Who hopes, anyway, for what he sees? So he cried out:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness

Prepare the way of the Lord

Make his paths straight (twice)

The year is 27 ce.

It takes a peculiar spiritual strength to find the grace to step aside.   John the Baptist created a commotion with his call to confession of sin.  He called and the people came.  They had a common mind, at least to the point of acknowledging their need.  Like Isaiah, he was, he is, one of our venerable precursors.

John came out of tradition—the tradition of the prophets.  His role and work were not alien to the long history before him.   So when he went out in his rough clothing, into a harsh desert, to speak unpleasant but true words of warning and judgment, he did so out of a common understanding that prophets might come along every now and then.  They might call the city of Jerusalem to repent every now and then.  They might direct the people of Israel out to the river every now and then.  They might point to God every now and then.

John spoke directly to his people.  He challenged his generation to look hard at the way they had lived, and with a plumb line to measure themselves according to the law of God.  What one has no sin to confess?  What one has no fault to regret?  What one has no desire to be made clean? What one would not, given the chance, wash in the Jordan and start over?

In his long life of wading in the dark water of culture and faith, Christopher Lasch, of our own time, carried a Jordan River song:  There is only one cure for the malady that afflicts our culture, and that is to speak the truth about it.  Once we can bring ourselves to do that, it will be time to worry about constructive solutions…for our young, discussions which, so long as they are absurdly premature, serve only to distract our attention from the truth about ourselves. (LIT, C Smith, 226).

The Baptist reminds us of the distance between our dreams and our deeds.  His voice, hear Lasch, the voice of the prophetic precursor, lives still.

But the lasting word of the Baptist is not about his own work at all.  Like the church to this day, finally, he exists to point to Another, the thong of whose sandals none is worthy to loosen.

For all his accomplishment, at the pinnacle of human endeavor, right religion, John finds at the right time the grace to step aside.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a willingness, at the right time, to step aside.  For you, one day, the gospel may evoke a willingness to step aside.

John felt a nudge, the grace to step aside, and so he cried out:

After me comes he who is mightier than I

The thong of whose sandals

I am not worthy to stoop down and untie

The year is 70ce.

With others, Mark could have found a more pleasant way to begin his gospel.  He might with Matthew have offered a long list of names of great saints and sinners past, and then told a story about wise men from the east.  Or he might with Luke have started with thrilling birth stories, retelling the birth of the Baptist and of Jesus, to Elizabeth and Mary, and then recounted the advent of the Son of God among humble shepherds, in a humble inn, in a humble town, on a humble night.   The Gospel of John begins with the beginning of time and Jesus rounding the unformed cosmos as the divine word, logos.

As plain as the nose on your face, though, Mark starts simple and bare.  There are no frills, no varnish, no make-up, no extras.  Like Paul, Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, or young man Jesus, or the family of Jesus.  He begins with the river Jordan, and John, a man dressed in camel’s hair.

This gospel begins with a barren, bleak moment in the icy dark, along a cold river.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may well involve just such a cold, and foreboding start, a beginning that in that way is like all beginnings, from the infant cry at birth to the coughing susurration at death, and every new venture in between:  a little quiet, a little cold, a little wild honey.  And hovering somewhere nearby the divine possibility of a divine possibility.  So Mark writes,

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (twice)

Together, let us begin the journey.

With Isaiah, in a time of exile, we will face down the loneliness we feel, and will explore a newfound capacity to hope.  In a period of discouragement, we will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messenger will come in the fullness of time.

With John the Baptist, in a period of anxiety, an age of anxiety, when our own service has been rendered, and our own work is done, we will look for that saving willingness to step aside, the grace to step aside, to make way for Another.

With John Mark, in an age of persecution and dislocation, when change in work or health arrive, we will face the harsh difficulty of a cold beginning.  We will rely on precursors, those who came before, and new the icy cold of the river Jordan.  We will name our precursors, honor them, remember them.  At a dinner table.  In the comfort of a family conversation.  In the discussion and dialogue of real national debate.  In divine worship, as the Scriptures are read and the Word is proclaimed.


You have heard their voices, in continuity with those of Isaiah, and the Baptist, and the Evangelist, from this very pulpit over sixty years.  Hear, hear the echoes of the voices of precursors, predecessors, here in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel:

Franklin Littell, so spoke:

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)

The voice of the journey resounds in the writing 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:

I think this 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?
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, …, 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).

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’. (Mk 1:1)

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

November 20

Where Will You Spend [Eternity] the Next 24 Hours?

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the entire service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 25: 31-46

Jesus tells this story to his disciples:  the ones who have pledged their allegiance to him; the ones who are serious about following his leadership.  He has already identified himself to them as the one who is the Son of Humanity.  Now they are all on the way to Jerusalem and two days from their last Passover together, and now Jesus tells them what it will be like when he comes in his glory as King.

But what a very strange king!  A king who names as “members of his family” the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner.  A king who identifies with these “least of these” so strongly, that what is done to them, or not done to them, is the same as doing or not doing to him.  A king who hears the cry “Lord” from both those on his right and those on his left, but who makes it very clear who are the ones who really follow his leadership and the ones who do not.

So how do disciples truly follow Christ the King?  How do disciples inherit the Kingdom?  There are some things in particular for us to to note this morning in Jesus’ description of what disciples do.

The first thing to note is that to follow Jesus apparently has very little to do with belief.   Here there are no concerns for which atonement theory we hold, no care as to whether we come down on the side of free will or the side of predestination, no worry about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Beliefs are important, as a starting point or as a framework.  And, we come to a place like this university in part just because we expect to be changed in our beliefs.  We want to educate ourselves and to interact with folks from other cultures and other belief systems.  We talk about beliefs all the time, and we know just how fleeting and fragile beliefs can be.  Even though in his time he was not exposed to an average of 30,000 advertisements a day whose sole purpose is to change our beliefs as often as possible, Jesus also knew how beliefs can change, how we talk about them so easily, how fleeting and fragile they are.

To follow Jesus is not exactly about money either.  It is not about writing checks.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Checks are great.  Keep them coming.  As often and for as much as possible.   When we give and spread money around we can do a lot of good.

And, if we just write checks, we can be tempted to think that that is enough, that once “the check’s in the mail” we have done our bit, all that is necessary to do.

Instead, part of what it is to follow Jesus is to take direct action.  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison.  We might wonder how best to do these things in a particular circumstance.  We might wonder, for instance, whether it would be better to give a person a fish for a day or to teach the person to fish for a lifetime, so to speak.  But immediate and long-term approaches both meet people’s needs and both give people hope.  The important thing is to do something.

But to follow Jesus as “Lord” is something more even than action.  It is to allow transformation of oneself, transformation at a deep heart level, to somehow follow Jesus so closely we do not even know we are doing it.  As we do for the members of Jesus’ family as Jesus did, somehow we also recognize at a deep level in them the one who Mother Teresa called “Jesus in all his distressing disguises”.  This recognition is born of a mutuality, a relationship, a companioning.  It is to look each other in the face and to touch each other’s hands as the drink, food, and clothes are passed, as the welcomed stranger becomes a friend, as the sick and those in prison experience the healing and freedom of loving care.

To follow Jesus is to realize that in these mutual relationships of companionship, our giving becomes receiving and our receiving becomes giving.  As we feed others we ourselves are fed.  As we give drink to others so our thirst is slaked.  As we welcome the stranger we ourselves are welcomed.

This is certainly true for us in our place and time, with a globalized economy, with slavery moving up from third to become the second most lucrative form of human misery on the planet.  My School of Theology colleague Alex Froom, in the School’s weekly worship this week, reminded us in his sermon that to walk together with “the least of these” is to remember that those who work to feed us often go hungry, that those who work to clothe us often remain in rags, that those who provide our water often suffer from lack of clean drinking water themselves. To companion the members of Jesus’ family who are marginalized and oppressed is to remember that in the complexities and complicities of our lives all our lives inextricably intertwine.  Shane Claiborne is a co-founder of the intentional community The Simple Way.  He echoes John Wesley when he notes that is not so much that wealthier Christians don’t care about the least of these; it is that they don’t know them.  It is in relationships of mutuality and companionship that we all become members of Jesus’ family and we all inherit the Kingdom.

And who knows how far it will go?  Jesus tells us that both the life and the fire are eternal.   Debate rages across the Christian spectrum as to whether or not heaven and hell are real or metaphorical places, or whether we create them for ourselves in either or both this world and the next, or whether or not the judgment itself shocks us into one or the other place.  All this, thank goodness, is beyond the scope of this sermon; otherwise we’d be here for at least twenty years instead of about twenty minutes.  But Jesus’ story does seem to indicate pretty clearly that it is what we do in this life that matters, and that what we do in this life has far-reaching consequences, beyond what we can see or even imagine, not just for those we recognize as Christ, but for ourselves as well.

Before she was called to move, my friend Lucy was a volunteer in an after-school tutoring program.  The program was funded by her wealthy white church, of which she was a reasonably wealthy white member.   The after-school program took place in an inner-city neighborhood.  It was the kind of place where the children informed the program’s volunteers that the drug dealers on this block were “our” drug dealers – they were good; but those drug dealers, on the next block over, you had to watch out for them – they were bad.  It was the  kind of place that gentrification and most government services actively avoided.

The after-school program was overseen by the street-smart and fierce African American and Latina mothers who had banded together to resist the systemic evil around them:  not only had they brokered the deal for the after-school program with the wealthy white church; they had also brokered the deal with the neighborhood gangs to leave the not-at-all-street-smart volunteers alone.  So Lucy went two or three times a week to tutor in reading.

One of the children she worked with was Desirée.  Desirée was in third grade, and was the daughter of one of the fiercer African American mothers.  Desirée herself was shy and quiet, and already seriously below grade level in reading.  According to the school, she was a “bad” reader.  She was also considered “slow”.  But the tutoring taught the way that Desirée learned, and she and Lucy worked well together, so that by the end of the semester Desirée had advanced a whole grade level in reading, and was beginning to blossom.

One day as they worked Lucy noticed that Desirée kept giving her little looks out of the corner of her eye.   Sure enough, at the end of the afternoon, just as they had finished packing up for the day, Desirée came and stood in front of Lucy, who was sitting.  Desirée very gently touched both of Lucy’s hands with her own, and in a voice of quiet wonder said, “You have two hands, just like me.”  Then, touching Lucy with gentleness and care, still in that voice of quiet wonder, Desirée went on:  “You have a mouth, just like me.  You have a nose, just like me.  You have two eyes, just like me.  You have two ears, just like me.  You have hair, just like me.”  Then she was quiet for a minute, looking intently into Lucy’s eyes.  And then Desirée smiled a radiant smile, gave Lucy a first, quick hug, said good-bye, and danced off to greet her mother who had come for her.

Meanwhile, Lucy continued to sit.  She was shaken to her very core.  She realized that neither she nor Desirée had ever before been close enough to a member of the other’s race even to begin to have that kind of tender recognition and exchange of wonder.  But because of their companionship in the tutoring program, Lucy and Desirée were able to recognize each other, and their relationship changed their lives.  Lucy began to explore and deal with her privilege and inherent racism, to transform them into awareness and appreciation of difference.  She began to offer herself, with respect and love, as a companion in the resistance to systemic evil, especially with regard to mothers and children.  And the last Lucy heard from Desirée, Desirée was a year ahead of her grade level in reading and moving ahead of that.  Her mother reported that Desirée was now the one to keep up with in her school and social life.

The question is not, “Where will we spend eternity?”  The question is, “Where will we spend the next 24 hours?”  Will it be in a place that we construct out of acts of recognition, companionship, and mutuality as we follow Jesus?  Or will it be in a place we construct out of denial, in which we call him “Lord” but do not do what he did, do not companion the members of his family?  The choice, the eternal choice, is ours.

If we make the choice for recognition and mutuality, it does not have to be a burden.  Next week we begin to wait for and celebrate the fact that Christ the King began with us as a baby.  This Sunday that same Christ the King will not mind if we begin with baby steps and continue to grow.  We do not have to go it alone:  we join with those who are already are members of Jesus’s family and those who join with us in that joining of them.  We do not even have to deny our deepest selves.  As Howard Thurman encourages us, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  To construct a place of recognition and mutuality needs every gift and fruit of the Spirit given to us, as well as folks from every discipline this university can offer and then some.  It needs and invites every single one of us.

What would the next 24 hours look like, what would this world look like, if we acted like Jesus, if we acted out of our own come alive selves?

They asked him:  When did we see you, Lord, and when did we care for you?

And the answer came:  When you recognized all the members of my family as Me … and as you.


~The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL

Chapel Associate for Methodist Ministry

November 17

Servants of the Word

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 25: 14-30

Dedicated to the Memory of the Rev. Margie Mayson (d. 11/8/11)


I lift my voice in celebration of Jesus’ parable of the talents. (I heard WS Coffin in his first sermon at Riverside Church, autumn 1977, preach on it, and conclude by singing ‘This little light of mine”.) Life is a gift which inspires continuous giving, says the Lord. Talents are meant to be shared, says the Lord. What we have and who we are we are meant to invest in the future, says the Lord. This means risk. There is risk, always there is risk, in investment. The risk is real, and should be reasonable, and can be managed. But it is risk still. All walks of life, including yours and mine, involve real, reasonable, manageable risk. Let us apply the lesson, you and I, to our own lives and work. As OW Holmes said of a sermon: ‘I applied it to myself’. This morning, in particular, let us think about the servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, in the Methodist tradition of Marsh Chapel, and of those in that calling to whom the Lord may say: “Well done thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master”.


I lift my voice in honor, defense, and happy admiration of a 32 year old Tennessee Methodist preacher, who questioned from his pulpit the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (With a congregation of conservatives, deep in a red blooded red state, he preached the gospel of truth about an action that was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, reckless, unforeseeable, immoral, post-Judeo Christian, and wrong.) “This mistaken action will haunt and shadow our beloved land for a biblical three to four generations”, he wrote in the sermon. With a wife and two pre-schoolers, and a massive seminary debt, he knew his sermon was more than generically risky: at worst, his collection plates might empty along with his pews. The DS might get some nasty email. He might be asked to move. Late one night, after putting the kids to bed, his wife gently asked him whether he really needed to speak up. He thought for a while and said: ‘Well, at least if the worst comes, I can count on another appointment, come June. That’s the way the Methodist church protects the freedom of the pulpit. I may not make much, but I have a kind of tenure. We will be able to feed our kids.’ A servant of the word.


I lift my voice in admiration for an ordained woman elder in Ohio, who had a couple coming for marriage ask if there were any man available, instead of her. The bride said, ‘We put down our deposit a year ago. We don’t want a woman to officiate. You owe us.’ When the minister explained to the administrative board that she would be going to small claims court over this, pointing to the stipulation in the wedding rules that the pastor in charge will officiate, there was a ruckus. ‘Why didn’t you just get our former pastor to tie the knot? He lives right here in town. He is retired and would be glad to do it.’ So, the red faced board chair demanded. At home that night, she promised her teenage daughter: ‘We may have to move next spring, which will be hard for both of us, but at least I will have an appointment, come June. We will not starve, you and I. We are Methodists. That’s the way the Methodist church protects the freedom of the pulpit. I may not make much money, but I will have a job somewhere. We are Methodists. We believe in the connectional, itinerant system, to protect the freedom of the pulpit.’ A servant of the word.


I lift my voice in honor of a New York district superintendent who questioned his bishop. I mean he QUESTIONED his bishop. Later he told his son how he dreaded sitting down across the table from his fellow elder, the resident bishop, and saying what he had to say: ‘Bishop, I know you are having an extra-marital affair. And while it is true that several of your colleagues have done the same, over the years, in this jurisdiction, and not looked back or been defrocked, I am not going to be still about it. You need to resign. Today.’ The son asked, ‘What will happen to us?’ His dad said, ‘I don’t know but I do know I will at least have a job in June. You can still count on going to Ohio Wesleyan next year. I may not make as much money as I could have in another denomination (like the Presbyterian or Episcopal Church), probably only a third as much, but I am proud to be a Methodist, where we protect our preachers from predatory and mendacious bishops. Methodists protect the freedom of the pulpit with the guaranteed appointment. Ernest Fremont Tittle’s great Evanston congregation, in their landmark statement on such freedom, and their defense of him, gave us a shining example. ’ A servant of the word.


I lift my voice in deep love and regard for an older Florida preacher, shepherded to his last assignment at age 64. The Staff Parish committee chair asked, ‘Don’t you have somebody younger, someone with kids in school, with a Dodge caravan, and a dog and an eagerness to please and a dislike of conflict?’. A year later, at age 65, the minister had to get up in the pulpit and point out that the congregation’s laziness, stinginess, shallowness, narrowness, meanness and arrogance were not working excessively well in evangelistic terms. (He dreaded doing it, for many reasons, one being that because he had started late in ministry, and needed as many pension years as he could muster.) He loved the younger people in the town, along the lake nearby, and the handful of good, loving, retired school teachers whose tithes kept the church open. But in his heart he knew he had no choice. And the DS had said, when he was sent there, ‘Speak lovingly, but truthfully. They have been coddled, dodged and lied to for years. I want them to hear about salvation. But I want them to hear about sin too. And if things get bloody, I’ll have a church for you in June. After all, we are Methodists. We stand for the freedom of the pulpit. We watch over one another in love, in connection and in itinerancy. We would not expect you to go anywhere you are sent without guaranteeing you a job somewhere. That would be cruel. That would be cruel to require you to move annually at the direction of a bishop, on a very modest salary, and not to commit to providing you some job, however humble.’ A servant of the word.
I lift my voice in concern for a 29 year old, newly minted United Methodist elder, who gave a strong sermon in West Virginia, in support of the full humanity of gay people. He did not sleep a wink the night before. He could feel the deep disappointment and anger in the eyes of the women and men—few enough already in number—with whom he would worship and for whom he would preach in the morning. He mused: ‘For all the visitation and counseling, all the weddings and funerals, all the long days and late nights, all the genuine friendship and pastoral care, they still will not forgive this. It means they have to re think their dysfunctional relationships to family and to the Bible. But silence, avoidance, and dishonesty are not helping them, as far as I can see. Ours is a gospel of truth. For it to be gospel it has to be true. Gay people are people. Gay people are people, not fractions of people. I know my voice may be muted, but it will not be silenced. I will be gentle, brief, humble and kind. I will visit later to listen in love. But I will preach. I am a traveling elder, an itinerant minister, a Methodist preacher. My college teacher (Howard Zinn) had tenure and could teach the truth as he saw it. I have an annual appointment to preach as fully and faithfully as I can. And I wilI. I can, I will, I promise, So help me God. I agree to go and work where I am sent, and the church promises a pulpit, however modest, and a salary, however meager. I can provide for my family. I am proud of our connection, our history, our birthright, our defense of freedom.’ A servant of the word.


I lift my voice in praise for a quiet, gentle, middle aged northern preacher, who disagreed in love with her resident bishop. ‘What he was quoted as saying in our city paper, after conference this summer, is just not right, just not true. I have to say so. I read a sermon once, ‘The Truth of Our Lives’ (M Mayson, AFUMC Rochester, 3/05) that gave me courage. I will do so personally, with respect, with grace, with humility, and in genuine love. But I have a pastoral responsibility too. In one paragraph quotation he did a decade’s worth of damage to our evangelism here in our struggling conference, by what he said. People will not darken the doors of churches whose leaders say such things. Bishops in our church are general superintendents, servants of the servants of God, servants of the servants of the word. They are consecrated not ordained. They are elders like the rest of us. Some of them hear so often what great people they are that they start to believe it. I know a few who can strut sitting down. He may not like my voice, or my view, but he will have to appoint me, even if it is to a tiny church in the north country. I will still be able buy rice crispies and cat food come June. I love my church and am proud to be a Methodist preacher. Only one thing would eject me from my cradle denomination: the trashing and elimination of the security of appointment.’ A servant of the word.


In the last sermon that I heard my father give, in Sherrill NY in 2008, he quoted the following passage from Timothy Tyson’s memoir, BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME. If you ever have any doubt as to the birthright, precious worth of the freedom of the pulpit, protected in our denomination by the security of appointment (now under attack by, of all people, the Bishops whose job it is to serve these very servants of the word), buy and read this book. Tyson, an historian, remembers growing up under the leaky roofs of many North Carolina Methodist parsonages, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. His father, an itinerant minister, a traveling elder, a servant of the word, was very effective and beloved from church to church, until he began, once trust was established, to preach about race and race relations—the full humanity of black people. To his white congregations this white man said something like ‘people all people belong to one another’ (H Thurman). Every three years or so, the DS called, and Bishop reappointed the family. On the road again. Once because he invited Dr Samuel Proctor, a fine African American Preacher, and then President of North Carolina A and T into his pulpit. Once because he organized an interracial memorial service following the death of ML King. Once because he preached a particular sermon on racial equality. Once because with his brother, the author’s uncle, he went to court and sat on the ‘wrong side’ of the courtroom. He said to the judge: “If you can tell me where to sit, you can tell me what to think, and what to say, and…I don’t believe you have that authority.’ His parishioners told him he was no longer welcome in any of the six pulpits on his circuit. He reminded them that ‘he’ didn’t stand in those pulpits at their invitation…but by the calling of the Lord and the appointment of the bishop.’ His wife was eight months pregnant. People crossed the street to avoid him. Threatening phone calls came, after which he sent his wife and kids to live with his mother. Then this, the passage my dad cited: “Lying in bed alone at the parsonage a few nights later, he heard a knock at his back door. He thought it might be the Klan coming to make good on their threats, but saw what appeared to be a white woman standing near the back porch. It was too dark to tell who it was, and the figure had moved back away from the house after knocking. He opened the door and reached for the light switch. ‘Please don’t turn on the light’ a female voice stammered. ‘I just wanted you to know how proud I am that you are my preacher. I just wanted you to know that.’ And then she hurried away into the darkness. (Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name, 194) A servant of the word.


I lift my voice this morning to echo the ancient wisdom of the Apostle Paul, in whose words we again receive the call to preach (are you so called?), the risk of ministry (is this adventure yours?), the gospel investment in history and mystery (is this your path?): ‘How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him…Faith come from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.’

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

November 6

Divine Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.
Matthew 5: 1-12

Dean Hill

Today we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we receive the gift in memory of the communion of saints, and we give ear to the beauty of our second Bach Cantata of the year. We are truly ‘blessed’ as our Gospel lesson affirms. All the senses—sight, sound, scent, touch, taste—are enlivened today.

This is truly good news, especially for those who may be in mortal need of a living reminder, as the lesson says, that we are ‘children of God’. For we can sometimes acutely need such a reminder of belonging, meaning and empowerment. We are acquainted with the night. You are acquainted with the night. As our New England poet memorably put it:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost

To such acquaintance does our sacrament minister, and our communion of saints, and the beauty of Bach. Tell us, if you will Scott, how best we can listen for the gospel today.

Dr. Jarrett

Our work opens with a mighty chorus. Heavy treading footsteps in the bass instruments accompany the wide reaching wailing line of the oboes strings and trumpet. The chorus enters almost chaotically; gradually the work’s organization becomes clear and a striding and extraordinarily energetic fugue brings the movement to a striking close. After a pleading alto recitative, the soprano aria with strings and oboe but no bass instruments creates a world shaking with fear. The shuddering strings, with no foundation of bass instruments, are a shaky base for the heavenly pleading oboe and soprano duet. The voice of Christ reintroduces the bass instruments and stability with its gently rocking texture like a swinging censer. The tenor aria brings back the trumpet. Here however it is confident, even. swaggering, rather than the mournful wail of the first movement. The skittering strings retain some of the shuddering quality of the soprano aria.. Bach saves the most striking gesture for the last. The shaking strings accompany the chorale but gradually slow down to soothing quarter notes by the end of the movement.

Dean Hill

This moment: in word and sacrament, in memory and hope, in voice and instrument. We are blessed. We are recalled as children of God: who enter the kingdom of heaven and receive comfort in mourning, and gentle the earth, and crave goodness, and trade in mercy, and see divine grace, and pave with justice the path of peace, and see out to the far side of hardship.

We gather our bits of hard won wisdom: ‘The only way of achieving any degree of self-understanding is by systematically retracing our steps’. ‘One can know fully only what one has oneself made.’ ‘I was once a philosopher, but joy kept breaking in.’ ‘What we borrow, we also bend.’ ‘To surrender the actual experienced good for a possible
ideal good is the struggle.’

‘I have only just a minute, 
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it,
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.’

Our music sings it so:

Now, I know, You shall quiet in me

my conscience which gnaws at me.

Your faithful love will fulfill

what You Yourself have said:

that upon this wide earth

no one shall be lost,

rather shall live forever,

if only he is filled with faith.

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