Archive for September, 2012

The Bach Experience: A Prelude to Faith

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Matthew 21: 23-32

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Dean Hill:

Beauty opens the world to grace.  Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel.  Beauty is a ‘preparatio evangelium’, a preparation of the gospel.  Bach is a prelude to faith.

 

You will recognize the two sons of today’s parable.  One strong and one weak.  One secular and one religious.  One defiant and one compliant.  One directly negative and one indirectly positive.  One comes to faith.

 

Nineteen year olds, strong and secular and stepping away from their primary identity, recognize our gospel’s dilemma.  Whether to say a meek ‘yes’ to cradle religion, when the heart is steadfastly in the ‘no’ column, or whether to speak up, to rise up, that is, to stay away, to stay in bed on a Sunday morning, and so be honest to God, if not happy in God.  I walk past snoring dorms full, brother, every Sunday morning.

 

Forty one year olds, conditioned and religious and doubting in the pew, recognize our gospel’s dilemma.  Whether to say a meek ‘yes’ to Biblicist religion, when the mind stays steadfastly in the ‘no’ column, or whether to rise up, that is, to step away from the fundamentalism that has swamped American religion today like a hurricane turning good cities into mud, or to stay put, to smile, to murmur Sola Scriptura, and so to be dishonest to God, as well as unhappy in God.  For thirty five years I have served in churches among such struggling souls, every Sunday morning.

 

Sixty five year olds, who have avoided pride and falsehood since 1968, but when it comes to faith have succumbed to sloth, to a kind of personal laziness, a deadly personal ennui, recognize our gospel’s dilemma.  Whether, having said a good, honest, heartfelt ‘no’ some years ago, whether to look real hard at what condition your condition is in, and then whether—HOW HARD THIS IS—to think again.  About what?  About love, about meaning, about eternity, about God, about faith.  It takes a leap. And the leap takes some preparation.  Yes, when it comes to faith, there is always a leap involved.  And that leap requires some preparation.  What preparation, Dr Jarrett, do we receive in today’s glorious cantata?

 

Dr. Jarrett

Today’s cantata is for those who have chosen to go into the vineyard – maybe they’re our newest students entering the vineyard of Boston University this autumn – maybe they’ve just moved to begin a new job – or maybe they’ve just taken on a new leadership role. For Bach, the vineyard workers are the newly elected mayor and town councilors of Mühlhausen where Bach was organist at St. Blasius’s Church. The text, drawn variously from Psalm 74 and Second Samuel, depicts the old and the new, and the charge for those working in the vineyard.

 

From the title of the cantata, we can understand that Bach intends to remind the new town council of who’s really in charge – God is my King, and so it has been in ages past. The realm of God’s power knows no boundary. God alone determines the order of all things – the sun and planets take their course from God alone.

Bach reminds those taking up any work in the Vineyard that faith and trust in God alone will bring peace, salvation and prosperity.

 

Written when Bach was only 23, Cantata 71 is one of his earliest attempts at a larger choral/instrumental form, and it’s his first use of festival forces. Today we hear not an orchestra with chorus, but many choirs of instruments and voices in concert – trumpets and timpani, a choir of strings, oboes with bassoon, and the sweet sound of two recorders with cello. And as Bach’s primary responsibility in Mühlhausen was as organist, there is a prominent part for organ obbligato in the second movement.

 

Bach includes another special indication or grouping in the score that separates vocal soloists from their section. Today you’ll hear the Choral Scholars of the Marsh Chapel Choir as a small group, joined intermittently by the full Chapel Choir.

 

As we begin a new semester at Boston University, students, faculty, staff and all within our voice are reminded by Bach to go to the vineyard, accept the charge, but do so only with the full mantle of faith and trust in God.

 

Dean Hill:

Faith, the leap of faith, requires preparation.  Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

 

Beauty prepares us for faith.  Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

 

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that.  When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a mess, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that.  It takes a leap.  Faith takes a leap.

 

The beauty of our gospel, in part, is found in its silence about what caused brother one to take his leap, to turn around, to come back, to seize, I mean to be seized by, Love.  We do not know.  Only Matthew tells this story.  His telling is misremembered in five different versions in its textual history.  Its challenge and promise are the same: “the irreligious can often be awakened to a realization of their spiritual need, while those who are actually more righteous are sometimes impervious to the gospel and make no progress beyond the formal morality which they already possess” (IBD, loc. Cit., 510).

 

Something beautiful may have prepared our brother.  Bach may prepare you today.  Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge.  Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding.  Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth.  It would not be the first time.  Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86).  I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you?  I know that you swore an oath one day at the Vietnam Memorial that you had turned your back on all that, all this, all gospel, all God.  In a way, once, I did the same. But I wonder whether there is preparation this morning for your return.  I believe there is.  I know that the flat building, shallow music, one dimensional fundamentalism you hear as faith has soured you.  I know.  It did me too.  But I wonder whether there is a preparation this morning for your return.  I believe there is.  I know that the lonely, awkward wastelands of freshman year can make you question anything lovely and lasting.  I know.  They did me as well.  But I wonder whether there is a preparation this morning for your return.

 

“Son, Go and work in the vineyard today.”  And he answered, “I will not”.  But afterward, he repented and went.

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Our Common Wealth

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Mark 8: 24-9:1

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A. Today

 

1.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Today and yesterday and everyday, present and past and future.

2.  Last Saturday, along the Charles River, thousands marched in a Heart Walk.  Children zigzagged across the path.  An octogenarian wore his name tag:  Uncle James, a survivor.  Little troops in colored T shirts—yellow, brown, red, silver—marked by hospital names and sponsor names and business names, walked along a common path, not far from commonwealth avenue.  A shorter man and taller woman walked side by side, then, in a moment, clasped hands:  a couple was born!  Older, younger, all colors and shapes, dimly embracing and embodying something unspoken but shared, a common life.   Bought with God’s life, a ransom, one for many.  One group bore this shirt message:  ‘we walk to remember P J’.  (E Hemingway was asked once to write a short story in 6 words.  His reply: ‘Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.’)  One purple group had the right phrase: ‘Take a few steps for a good cause’.  That is about all we do here come Sunday morning.  We parade in.  We process.  We remember our heart, and the dire importance of its health.  We join a world wide parade, come Sunday, here in our modest gothic nave.  We sing, preach and pray, then we recess, and march on.  Underneath the motion and color of the existential parade there abides this deep ground of power, love, grace, freedom and truth:  God has given up God’s life so that we might have life.  Divine absence empowers human presence.  Need I point out that what God has done for us, we in our own measured ways do for those who follow us?  Our life is given, well or poorly, that others might live.

3.  Paul teaches us how to live this truth:  “He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2 Cor 8:15):  You have found a way, in a balanced and measured manner, to give to others.  As a community you know the truth of Paul’s advice in giving and living,  found in 2 Corinthians 8.  1.  You are excellent in so many other things, so you will want to excel here.  2.  Real giving is always of one’s own free will.  3.  There is a healthy comparative rivalry for growth in giving which we may affirm.  4. We give according to what we have, so that he who has much may not have too much and he who has little may not have too little.  5. Our measure of what is right, “honorable”, is found both in the sight of God and in the sight of others.  6.  One who sows bountifully reaps bountifully.  7.  Happiness, cheer is the mark of real giving. 8. God will provide what is needed.   9. The main blessing of giving is to the giver:  You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God, for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.  Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others.

4. Though we do not always, regularly recall it, our life is His life, and His, ours.  The pattern of his life becomes the pattern of our own lives.  Not many of us are placed in the situation of the four chaplains in our back window, each of whom gave a younger sailor his life jacket as the ship went down.  Not many of us are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist become activist become prisoner become martyr.  Not many of us have all of our giving concentrated into one quick stroke, one life moment.  But be not deceived.  You too are giving away your life, one way or another, day by day.  You too are giving life that others may live.  From the mother’s breast milk to the father’s night labor to the teacher’s extra effort to the soldier’s risky service to the grandmother’s soft advice to the officer’s dangerous duty.  To live, truly to be alive in the heart of the Common Wealth, the Christ of God, is to give and love and serve.  Faith is the way we accept the gift, the manner in which we account the ransom, the human life by which we receive the self emptying of the divine life.  God has died that we might live.

5. Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Jesus is our Common Faith.  Jesus is our Common Ground.  Jesus is our Common Hope.  Jesus is our Common Life.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.

 

B.  Yesterday

 

1.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Our tradition reminds us so.

2.  We at Marsh Chapel, and we at Boston University may not yet have the largest financial endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. One day, that may change. Our current capital campaign, ‘Choosing to be Great”, will help.  If you would like to help us to help that to change, please let me know. Be assured that we will do whatever we can for your personal and spiritual welfare, in gratitude.

3.  But there is another way in which Marsh Chapel, and Boston University may already have the largest endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. Our riches are vocal. Our largest endowment is not financial but audible, not monetary but epistolary, not in the coin of the realm but in the language of the heart. Boston University, and centrally within the University, Marsh Chapel, is a treasure store of voice. You notice that, probably, every Sunday when you come across the plaza, and pass the sculpture and monument to Martin Luther King, birds in flight. Said Karl Barth, ‘The gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’. But King’s voice was not only or mainly a solo voice. He sang in a choir, in choro novo. He sang as one bird in the flock. Howard Thurman sang with him, for example. So did Allan Knight Chalmers. Robert Hamill’s voice was known in his regular column in motive magazine. Littell lead the way.  Ten Presidents.  Six Deans of the Chapel.

 

4.  Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

Endowment.

 

5.  Yes, a word brings a lift to the decanal eyebrow, a stirring to the Episcopal soul, a tingle to the Provostial spirit, a warming to the Presidential heart.  A welcome word, today, on an Alumni Weekend. Now, endowments are crucial for chapel, for school, for university.  We shall other days on which to build such.  But today we celebrate the endowment we already have.  It is a rich and treasure.  A tradition of ‘common wealth’ on Commonwealth Avenue.  It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.

Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…

 

All the good you can…

 

The two so long disjoined…

 

Heart of the city, service of the city…

 

Learning, virtue, piety…

 

Good friends all…

 

Hope of the world…

 

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

 

Common ground…

 

Content of character…

 

6.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Jesus is our Common Faith.  Jesus is our Common Ground.  Jesus is our Common Hope.  Jesus is our Common Life.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.

 

7.  Lift up your hearts:  Signs of courtesy…to someone who could be of no service…reveal to us suddenly…a whole world of beliefs to which (we) never give any direct expression but which govern (our) conduct…(Proust, RTP, 1016)

8.  We too are summoned to take our place in the march, the great procession of faith, the heart walk of our common wealth.  Does anyone want to follow?  Renounce self, love others.  Have a sense that others are you and that you are the other.  Take up the cross, then.

9.  Friends:  there is something so direct and common about this teaching, something we as buyers and sellers, as savers and spenders, as those with pockets and wallets and accounts can ‘get’.   Our life rests on the gift of our Common Wealth, the gift of God in Jesus Christ.  As we learn, very partially, to do, year by year, to give our days and hours and lives for others—our friends, our family, our community, our country, our church, our world, all—so God has done for us, by laying down the divine life, as a ransom.  In some dark mysterious way, this was the only way to get us loose, set us free, give us life.  Isaiah had foretold it.

10.  Calvin wrote first about sanctification and then about justification, first about holiness and then about salvation, first about ethics and then about theology.  For once, we have followed his lead, last week and this.  For the call to justice raises a question.  Why should anyone care?  Why should anyone care to be just?  What makes that claim a worthy claim?  Last week we listened for the moral of this account, the ethical teaching of Mark 8 about justice.  This week we listen for the spiritual meaning, the reason anyone would care to care about the moral of the story, the portrait of God, the life of God, God’s given life, life giving love.  God has died that we might live.  That makes the ransom of Christ so precious.  That makes the gift of each day so valuable.  A radical Calvinist, author of The Death of God, who died himself last week, Gabriel Vahanian, put it this way: ‘God is not necessary but he is inevitable.  He is wholly other and wholly present.  Faith in him, the conversion of our human reality, both culturally and existentially, is the demand he still makes upon us’ (NYT obit, 9/12)

11.  Dorothy Sayer, a radio listener reminded me, put it this way:

The worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community, but there is a catch in it. It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God – and your neighbor: on those two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”… The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends upon the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first… Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of…

C. Everyday

1.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Our Scripture reveals Him so.

2.  There is something beyond our telling, something down deep on which we ground everything else.  T Wilder:  we don’t take it out and look at it very often but still we know:  there is something eternal about every human life.

3.  Behold, I tell you a mystery…Our Gospel lesson cuts to the heart of faith and life.  The mystery and the rigor of following after a crucified Christ have ever been right in the heart of faithful life.   We are invited to join the parade.  If nothing else, our faith and tradition squarely face original sin, inevitable death, communal guilt, and tragic loss.  Today’s lesson is an early formulation of this heart and this faith and this life.  There come moments, regularly, in which the question reverberates, ‘but…you…who do you say that I am?’  The earliest church lived under the shadow of this question, and so do we.  When others see us, and see us taking the name of Christ, whom do they see that we say, in our living, who he is?  Peter’s rebuke is remembered and rehearsed because some, or maybe better said, some part of all of us, find the crucified Christ unacceptable.  Peter is told:  get behind me, that is, follow, learn, and take up.  Peter names Christ in the same way that Mark’s church named him, and in the same way that you do here, too.

4.  Jesus walk is to some measure that of his followers as well.  It is ours, too.  We too labor on without full or final victory.  We too, whether suddenly or slowly, give up the life given us at birth.  We too face and struggle in facing up to injustice, tragic mistake, forces that make human life inhuman.  We, too, live and die seemingly apart from God.  The end, the fulfilling wholeness of the reign of God, has in fact not come.  We cut to the heart of being, of being itself, of being alive, today, Mark 8:27, this last week of summer, 2012.

5.  There is though another side to the same story.  Jesus’ path becomes ours, to some measure.    We too live with a sense of the dawn of a better history at hand.  We too live with the potential, always present, for a new rebirth of wonder, love and praise.  We too struggle forward, in the midst of much ambiguity, and sometimes in a depth and despair of pain, guided on by a north star of hope marked ‘will rise again’.  We too face the future free to shape it.  Free to make our mark, to rise up for a just cause, to rise up for a just peace, to rise up for a just world, to rise up for the hope of a common wealth, a shared future, a siblinghood of society in which every child is cherished and no man maligned and no woman wasted and every person protected.   Wealth, to have worth, will be common, shared, spread out.  For what would it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?  What can one give in exchange for one’s soul?

6. Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Jesus is our Common Faith.  Jesus is our Common Ground.  Jesus is our Common Hope.  Jesus is our Common Life.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.

7.  Our Common Wealth, who gave his life as a ransom for others.  You may not be a lasting fan of atonement theory and theology:  nor am I.  Yet the one partial explanation which St Mark will give, later in the Gospel, for the death of Jesus, marks him forever as our Common Wealth.  In explicitly commercial terms, mercantile language, the language of payment and recompense, of ransom, one for all, Jesus is so named:  Common Wealth.  He, the basis for our common life and living community.  While you may have heard so, you may not have heard, really heard the word:  God has given up God’s life for the life of the world.

8.  Yes, the expectation of the immediate return was disappointed.  Our disappointment continues, to this day.  Our hoped for future lies still in the future.  Yet, along the way there is a presence, there is an alluring mystery, a ground underneath the ground on which we walk.  It is holy ground.   A great gift has been given, a great price paid, a great offering made.  All the twirling magic of life, along the heart walk of faith, all of this life has been bought with a price.  When Mark asks himself, ‘why did Jesus die?’, he gives only one answer:  as a ransom (so, rightly for once, Marcus, II, 605).    The ‘wealth’ that has produced our common life, our common wealth, is Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  There is something very disturbing, and odd, yet true and clear, here.  God has given God’s life for ours.  We are to go and do the same for others.  The figure of a ransom—a bag of treasure given over to open a way to freedom.  The Greek word for ransom means release.  The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many (for all).  One life given, life given all.  Jesus is our common wealth which releases all of the rest of life, the life underneath all other life, the ground of life and being and all.  For many?  How many?  Very many!  All!  He purchases a way forward, a ticket, a passage for the voyage, at a very steep price.

9.  The life of God, God’s very life, moves to its nadir.  Our common life, the life of the world, human life, is freed to move to its apex.  God dies. Man lives.  The Son of Man dies.  The sons of men live.  Behold—SURSUM CORDA—the gospel mystery!   The divine generosity is whole, absolute, complete, perfected.

10. As we shall sing together in just a few months:

 

Jesus is our childhood’s pattern

Day by day like us he grew

He was little, weak and helpless

Tears and smiles, like us he knew

And he feeleth for our sadness

And he shareth in our gladness

 

And our eyes at last shall see him

Through his own redeeming love

For that child so dear and gentle

Is our Lord in heaven above

And he leads his children on

To the place where he has go

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

Biblical Justice: A Common Wealth

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Mark 8: 27-9:1

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

A question of being:  ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ (Mk. 8:36) We will interpret this same passage again next week, then from a more theological and now from a more ethical perspective.

In the northeast, summer is the season for being.   For us of snow and ice, of cold and wind, of dark and deep, with winter around the bend, summer is the time when we bask in the sun, and in the light and in the warmth of life.   Summer opens up chances for communion with nature, with friends, with spirit, with family, with soul.  Summer brings a moment for meditation.

On the dock, after a swim, this August, nine of us, four generations together, sat together.  The prospects for the autumn did creep our way, including some serious issues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  There are reasons why we tend to avoid art, politics and religion, in close company and conversation.  As in most families, ours, in extension, sports a variety of viewpoints, perspectives, and philosophies.   How the following interchange arose, I am not sure.  The immediate context has disappeared from memory.   But I did find myself saying, ‘Well, if it is the Bible we are talking about, there is no more central theme in the whole Scripture than the theme of economic justice.  Biblical teaching is never very far from social justice’.

A mother in a law voice piped up:  “prove it” (or something to that effect).  Don’t you love family gatherings?

“Well”, I replied, “we could read through 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9.  There, among other things stewardship related, the Apostle prays that ‘those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little’”.  Whew.  That got me off the cliff, but only briefly.  Two nights later, the aforementioned relative, over pizza, plunked down a paper and pen.  “2 Corinthians was good.  But I need more.  Write.”  So, over pizza, while others savored, I wrote out a midterm exam essay outline on economic and social justice in the Bible. (Parenthetical humorous (?) sidebar: One pizza guest was a Syracuse University 1940’s alumnus, who remembered that once SU teams were the Saltine Warriors, and then the Orange, and now the ‘Cuse’.  Which, as he said, ‘as an elderly alumnus, makes me an ‘ex-cuse’”.)  Other happy moments also came and went, but I could not indulge, for I had no ex-cuse:  I had an exam to write.  I finished, and handed in my blue book, as dessert was served. “Thank you”, she said.

Behind every great man is a surprised mother in law.  And behind this supremely faithful mother in law is a lastingly grateful son in law.

Some days later, summer as we said providing ampler space for actual thought, I thought that she might not be the only person, coming toward this autumn, who had such a question.  Let us assume a love of Scripture, and a deep reverence for the authority of Scripture, in some fashion.   Your preacher has asserted that there is no more pervasive, prevalent, powerful, potent and repeated biblical theme, Genesis to Revelation, than that of justice.  When we pray, when we spend, when we give, when we choose, if we are hominae unius libri, people of one book, the Bible, we should then be hearing and heeding such teaching, should we not?  But is it true?  Does the Bible enjoin human, economic justice?  Is Paul’s epigram, ‘those who have much not too much, those who have little, not too little’, typical of and central to the Bible?

Your mind might revert to newscasts and newsprint, and let us confess it, sermons too, in which people who are ostensibly very biblical argue otherwise:  the poor you have always with you, let him who will not work not eat, consider the lilies of the field, be subject to the governing authorities…and so on. If the Bible is so pronouncedly in favor of justice, economic justice, the protection of the poor the maimed the halt and the lame, why, you might question, are so many biblical people happily content with 20 million unemployed?  Why then are so many biblical people comfortable with lack of health care for poor children?  Why are so many lovers of the Bible at ease with underperforming urban education?  Why are so many who with John Wesley would like to be ‘people of one book’ (the Bible) at home with neglect of the elderly, willing to accept surging inequality of wealth and income, with 1% of the population holding 20% of the income, with defunding and defanging the inherited protections of the common good, the common wealth?   If the Bible preaches a common wealth, why is affirmation of a common wealth so uncommon among supposedly biblical people?  If this is such a biblical nation, why have we so little comprehension of the Bible? Have we grown deaf to Mark 8?

I had a dear friend, a home builder, a great person and person of faith, who had only an 8th grade education, who once took me aside and said, quietly, ‘I am glad some of these people read the Bible, but I think some of these people who read the Bible read it wrong.’  You say you respect the Bible?  I do too.  Then let us try to read it right with regard to justice.

1. Let us read together the books of the Law, with which the Bible begins.  As anyone who has attended a Seder meal will know and remember, these books are redundantly attentive to the needs of the poor.  The general theme is this:  “Remember the widow and the orphan.  Leave your fields to be gleaned by the poor.  Welcome the stranger and foreigner.  FOR YOU ONCE WERE SLAVES IN EGYPT.”

Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt….For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat.”  The Hebrew Scripture, our Older Testament, was largely composed in the dark days of a later slavery, the bondage of Babylon.  In that moment of memory, the community of faith recalled keenly their earliest history of God’s love and power, the God who brought them up out of the land of slavery to the land of milk and honey.   We know what it means to be poor, to be oppressed, to be outcast, to be downtrodden.  Once we were ourselves.  THEREFORE, there will be justice in our land for the poor.  You and you all may need to search your extended family histories and memories for what happened to your people in the Great Depression.   We learned something, or were reminded of something, then, as were the Israelites dragged again in chains to Babylon.

2. Let us read together the books of the Prophets, the very heart of the Old Testament.  In all of religious literature, in all human history, there is nothing quite as sobering, as piercingly and stingingly direct, with regard to justice, as these 16 voices, four the louder and twelve the lesser.   Malachi teaches tithing.  Isaiah affirms holiness.  Hosea preaches love.  Micah shouts, ‘do justice, love mercy, walk humbly’.   Together the prophets consistently rail against human greed, human selfishness, human covetousness, human apathy.  The harvest here for our theme is so plentiful it is difficult to select an exemplar, there are so many.

Perhaps Amos will do best. In the eighth century BCE, a shepherd boy from Tekoa went down to the gates of the big city, Jerusalem, and cried out against it.  He pilloried the shallow religion of his day.  He assaulted the reliance, the naïve overreliance of his government on weapons of war, he bitterly chastised the amoral, post moral practices of human sexuality of his day.  But he saved his real anger for justice.   The Bible trumpets justice, economic justice, justice for the poor, and for all!  If all we had were the poetry of that shepherd boy from Tekoa, Amos would be sufficient:

“I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes—they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7).  “Hear this you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘bring that we may drink’, the Lord God has sworn by his holiness that behold the days are coming upon you, when they will take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:1-3).  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 21-24).   Remember Martin Luther King reciting these verses, down in the sweltering little jail house of Birmingham Alabama.

3. Let us read together the books of Wisdom.  Love is for the wise, and justice is the skeleton of love.

“When the just are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan…The just man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge…If a King judges the poor with equity his throne will be established forever” (Proverbs 29 passim.)

‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise’, says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs’ (Psalm 11: 5).    “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge’ (Psalm 14:6).

In an odd way, the most sobering judgment about justice is offered by Ecclesiastes, who speaks least directly to the theme.  But his philosophy is clear.  I look at all the toil of the sons of men, and I see—vanity.  That for which you strive will not last, that for which you suffer will not endure.  “What has a man for all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest’ (Ecc 2;23).  As an Indian proverb puts it:  ‘In his lifetime the goose lords it over the mushroom.   But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter’.   I have officiated at 800 funerals or memorials.  Each a reminder:  Justice lasts, not acquisition.

4. Let us read together the familiar passages of the Gospels.

4a. Matthew:  Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him…Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes, nor thieves break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon…Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…Sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come and follow me…Do you begrudge my generosity?  The last shall be first, and the first last…You shall love your neighbor as yourself…Woe to you…You tithe mint and cumin and ill, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice and mercy and faith…

4b.Luke: He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?…Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old…When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind…You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just…Said Zacchaeus, ‘behold Lord the half of my goods I give to the poor’…They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…

4c. My old superintendent, Bill Swales, stood in the basement of a little church in Ithaca, NY, as our congregation struggled with the budget.   He commended the debate by saying, “Jesus spoke more about money than about anything else”.  You think not?  Think on the parables.  Sowing and reaping.  A poor man left in a Jericho ditch.  A lost and precious coin.  A son gone to the pigs, if not the dogs.  A wiley dishonest steward.  Workers and vineyards and paystubs.  Someone whose debt is forgiven not forgiving others.  Talents used and wasted.  A rich man with many possessions.   For reasons earthly and heavenly Jesus preached against abuse of riches, against the injury of the poor, against the love of money for its own sake, against the accumulation of needless treasure.

5. Let us read together the warning of the apocalypse: And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, behold the dwelling of God is with me…he will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 21:1ff)

6. And the admonition of the epistles:  One who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:9).  And, as we began, so we end, with the advice and teaching of the Apostle to the Gentiles in 2 Corinthians 8:  Hear the Gospel:  “He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2 Cor 8:15).  And an invitation:  those listening may respond (what surprises you?  What question do you raise?  What observation do you make?) to this week’s sermon or in anticipation of next week’s by email to rahill@ub.edu.

Mark Twain was a realist.  He pointed to the ‘serene confidence a Christian feels in four aces.’. He quipped, ‘nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits’.  He advised:  ‘put all your eggs in one basket—and WATCH THAT BASKET’. And: ‘a classic is a book which people praise but do not read’. But he also said: ‘it is not the things in the Bible I do not understand that bother me, it is the things I do understand that bother me’.   We understand this:  “there is no more central theme in the whole Scripture than the theme of economic justice.  Biblical teaching is never very far from social justice” (Robert Allan Hill, Bradley Brook NY, August 2012).  Let him who has not much not have too much, and him who has little not have too little.

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

A Truer Longing

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Mark 7: 24-37

Jeremiah 29: 4-14

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This morning we welcome the Rev. Ms. Jennifer Quigley to our pulpit, to participate in this dialogue sermon, which, like all sermons, is about God and about 20 minutes.  Jen earned BA at BU, and MDiv at BUSTH and received a marriage certificate from Marsh Chapel, along with her fine husband Soren. She is thus a triple terrier!  As Chapel Associate here she exemplifies one fine way to thrive here, and she exemplifies our Marsh envisioned mission, to be a heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city, through the voice of the chapel, decisions about vocation here, and daily attention to fanning the flames of volume in participation, particularly come Sunday.  Welcome Jen!

1. Dean Hill

In every journey there are moments when we feel like turning back.  We are jogging, early in the day, and feet are heavy and lungs are burning:  maybe we will go back to bed.  You are part way into a history of early America, and the pages are blurring and the narrative becomes unclear:  maybe we should just go out for a while.   You have a report due tomorrow, or a presentation in business, and the needed inspiration for the moment needs inspiration, but none comes:  maybe another visit to the refrigerator or cookie jar will help.  Your business or career, your school or community, your church or your country have made some progress over some time but the way forward appears to be longer and rockier than you thought:  maybe we should just turn around.

Underneath the lassitude of such a moment there may lurk a suspicion that this current course is not part of God’s generous grace.   Were not things simpler, better, easier at home?  Are there not serious wrongs in the current environment?  Perhaps I should look at some other setting?  Early in a new job we can feel so.  During the first several weeks of college or graduate school we can be acquainted with this dour perspective.  When the hard foundation work of building—a house, a project, a campaign, a fund drive, a relationship—makes the back muscles weary, we can start to feel overwhelmed.

The people of Israel, to whom Jeremiah writes, knew this condition.  They had been sent off as vassal servants to Babylon in the sixth century bce.  Some looked with resignation at their poor condition.  Others looked with fanatical expectation to the heavens, awaiting immediate, magical relief.  They were not the first nor the last people to be found quivering between the Scylla of resignation and the Carybdis of fanaticism.  As a matter of fact, people of faith, your two main adversaries, on any given day may be the opium of resignation and the cocaine of fanaticism.

All your holy supports have been taken away.  For the Jews in Babylon that meant one set of losses.  The holy land long ago given in promise—gone.  The holy city constructed and protected by kings for generations—gone.  The holy community and its rituals, devotions, leadership, altars, days, seasons—gone.  The history and memory ever embedded in space and place—gone.  The identity there formed, there fashioned—gone.  For the Jews in Babylon, there was one sixth century bce set of losses.  For those starting a course of study that means another set of losses.  The places of earlier success in academics and athletics—gone.  The support of friends of lasting trust and several years—gone.  The mixed blessing but blessing nonetheless of family of origin, extended and nuclear—gone.  The fragile but living identity of preparatory schools and years, won with struggle and effort—gone.  And all around a sea of anonymity, unfamiliarity, ambiguity, uncertainty.   Does this evoke for you any thoughts about the beginning of a college career?

2. Rev. Jen Quigley:

The first time I went to do laundry my freshman year at BU, I was prepared. My mom had made sure I had washed clothes at home at least enough times to know how to properly sort them, measure out the detergent, choose the correct setting, shake out the wet clothes, insert a dryer sheet, and, again, choose the correct settings. I even knew to check the lint trap! Laundry seemed like a complicated but easy process; as long as you followed the correct steps, your clothes would become clean without your socks turning pink. I waited a little longer than I should have, so my hamper bag was pretty full that Sunday afternoon the week after school began. As I walked into the laundry room in the basement of 188 Bay State Road, I froze. First, these machines were front-load, not top load. How could I tell when to stop loading clothes to avoid overstuffing the washer? Worse, the settings were all different. They seemed deceptively simple…did my laundry qualify for the “normal” setting, or were they “delicate?” What makes clothes “heavy” anyway? Worse still, it took forever to find where to put the detergent. Was I just supposed to toss it in from the side, hoping it spread evenly over my clothes? After about three minutes of sheer panic, I found a little detergent drawer, and poured it in what I hoped was the correct one of three separate trays. If you have ever tried laundry at BU, you know that the detergent seems to magically disappear down that tray, and as soon as you pour it in, it looks like you haven’t put any in at all. Worried I hadn’t used enough, I put in some more, and then began to truly freak out as I saw the ominous sign above the washing machine: DO NOT USE TOO MUCH DETERGENT. Had I gone overboard and now used too much? I had heard rumors about a kid who had used too much detergent on West and flooded the entire laundry room…

 

But worst of all, well, I didn’t realize the worst part until I had already loaded the clothes, and committed to the use of too much detergent. I looked for the place to swipe my Terrier Card, which my parents had conveniently outfitted with enough convenience points to help get me started with some of the basics, especially laundry. This machine did not take convenience points. It wanted cold hard cash, specifically quarters. Despair set in. Where could I get quarters on a Sunday?!? I could get cash from the ATM, for sure, dipping into my very spare reserves in my college checking account, but the banks wouldn’t be open to give me change! Who would give me change? I left the laundry in the machine, leaving a note saying I would be right back, and went on an adventure. The cash was easy enough, but the convenience store in Warren told me they had a firm no change-making policy. I received rejections from several more business establishments before a student employee took pity on me, asking why I didn’t just go use the change machines in Towers? Finally armed with so many quarters I jingled as I walked, I returned to 188 Bay State Road.

 

There, I hesitated over one last, seemingly minor decision. Someone, who shall remain nameless due to my uncertainty over BU’s statute of limitations, had told me there was a trick to manipulate the machines, something with thread and tape on the quarter, so that you could turn 25 cents into $1.25 simply by tugging on the string and releasing the quarter a few times.

 

Should I try this trick? If I did, how exactly did it work? Where should I attach the string, for example? Did this trick amount to petty theft? Would the washing machine know and somehow send notification to the police? If I just paid the full amount, in cash, my spending money would dwindle to nothing in a few short weeks! What would happen if I couldn’t afford quarters anymore? Would I have to lug my laundry to Warren every week, just to use convenience points? This last, small, but not morally insignificant decision pushed me over the edge, and I found myself paralyzed by a washing machine a week into my freshman year of college. After ten minutes, a housemate brought his laundry downstairs, and gruffly asked me how long I needed. This forced a decision, and I jammed all five quarters into the machine and retreated to my room, overwhelmed by my emotions. One thought kept ringing in my ears. If I couldn’t even do laundry here, how was I supposed to make it at Boston University? For the first, and not the last time that year, I felt homesick.

 

It was not as though I didn’t know how to do laundry, I just didn’t know how to do it here, on these machines, in this setting. You may be and feel completely prepared to go to college, but the fact is, no matter how prepared you are or feel, it is different from home and very different from high school. Those differences can cause a paralysis of sorts, and those differences expose you to the reality of your displacement, your dislocation; those differences make you long for home. The longing for home is visceral, deep, and no matter what anyone tells you about the joys of your college years, absolutely true.

 

Now I know that caring for laundry may pale in comparison to the struggles of the ancient Israelites, but I can tell you for this time and place they are very real.

 

3. Dean Hill:

Actually the two experiences are both connected to a deep desire to live out our own truest longings.  The experience of exile and the feeling of exile are not such distant cousins.

We here at Marsh Chapel can further appreciate the added or heightened burning sensation of life as part of a largely secular culture.  As one wrote about Jeremiah’s verses:  Uprooted from all familiar circumstances by the barbaric deportation the exiles found themselves…suffering a kind of paralysis in relation to their environment….The community was thrust out into the alien situation in the world…The deported people were snatched overnight out of this cluster of protective sacral orders (von Rad, 101-102).  They are thrust into an all-pervading secularity whose rhythms, priorities, demands and rewards are alien to the perspective and the people of faith.   We can empathize, looking about us this morning, in our current location, here and now.  Sunday is not a shared day of communal rest.  The human body is not always viewed happily as the temple of the Lord.  Funds and goods are not held and had in common.  Speech is not steadily governed by the warnings within the letter of James heard last week.  The horizon of hope is more earth than heaven, the material not the spiritual, the body not the soul.   An occasional radio broadcast of historic worship, or an occasional entrance into remaining, vestigial congregations, breaks awkwardly into the reigning secularity of the dominant culture.  On a college campus (whose weekend day begins at 4pm) on a Sunday morning in the Northeast within a large city that has its share of snowfall—to resist and grow together just here, just now in faith is to run into the very teeth of a very cold secular wind.

 

You will have heard what Jeremiah, the prophet, said to his forlorn flock way off in Babylon in chains.  It is a truly striking word that strikes the heart.  It is a word that can kindle in you a truer longing.  Jeremiah tells the people to put their hearts and minds and souls and labor into the very secular, cold setting into which they have been thrust.  Their well being now depends upon their overseers, who do not share their faith or their values.  So:  build there.  So:  grow there.  So: plant there.  So: marry, bear children, bear grandchildren, live and die—there.   Jeremiah is reproving homesickness, that is, the homesickness that looks backward as well as forward:  he is speaking against that dissatisfaction, that age-old human will to revolt that can wear so many different garbs (von Rad, 102). Resignation and fanaticism:  Jeremiah speaks against both the doubters and the dreamers.  His word celebrates the doers.  Jeremiah leads his readers to the validity and the duration of this their present…How objective here is the summons to simple involvement in society, against a fanaticism that believes that this interim situation does not at all deserve to be taken seriously!…Jeremiah’s directions are amazing:  they contain a justification of what is secular, worldy; indeed, they propose to offer encouragement to what is worldly (101).

 

Your salvation evokes a capacity to receive the divine generosity, the gift of faith, and so to let go…of home.  Your salvation relies upon your hearing of another word—student, professor, retiree, laborer, all!–the promise of a truer longing, a desire to plant here, grow here, build here, covenant here, and so let go of homesickness.  Fear not the secular setting in which you find yourself. Draw by faith on the gifts of God—in Word and Sacrament—for the people of God.  Then leave behind the dreamers, and leave behind the doubters, and align yourself with the doers.  For this exile, this deportation, this time in an alien place and a foreign culture, has its limit.  It does not last forever.  It is circumscribed, bound by a foreordained limit.  For Israel, that was the fall of Babylon two generations later, 538bce.  For others, that will be the baccalaureate service of May 2016, following, after a brief interlude, on last Sunday’s matriculation service of September 2012.   In the mean time, I wonder what in particular about this place will help us all nurture a sense of truest longing.

 

4. Rev. Jen Quigley:

 

Within the rhythms and rituals of this setting, Boston University, where the work of the mind is the ordered and ordering principle of the place, there is good news; in rhythms and in rituals you find the best remedy for homesickness, because as you develop your own rhythms and rituals in this place, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, the paralysis relaxes into a stretch, and so slowly you hardly even notice the change, in this new place, with these new people, in this new way of thinking, with this new faith, you feel less homesick and more home.

If you are new to this place, or if you are sensing some new discomfort or dislocation in this fall season, the advice of our Scripture this morning is this, to plant gardens, build houses, to see your children married. The Prophet Jeremiah urges the people of Israel to get to know the Brave New World of this strange Babylon, and to not hesitate to put down roots. For our time, in our place, perhaps not exiles but feeling a little exiled nonetheless, we might try to learn how these three things are done at Boston University, and to try them ourselves: Do laundry, read, and develop relationships. Here at the Chapel and around the university, there are people eager to help you learn how each of these is done at BU.

1. Do Laundry: I was saved from bankruptcy, despair, and theft alike by the community of saints in 188-190 Bay State Road. As a community, we eventually agreed never to use that trick with the tape and string, because the tape would get stuck and the washing machine would break. Instead, an enterprising student with some electrical and computer engineering skills reprogrammed our drier to dispense 99 minutes of drying for every quarter spent. I am not endorsing what still probably amounts to petty theft, but rather saying that there are people around you who can help you find quarters, share an extra dryer sheet, tell you how to fix your blinds, and explain where to hang your towel in Warren so that you neither soak your towel nor flash your entire communal bathroom. Ask your RA, ask your roommate, ask the sophomore or junior or senior in your building. Learn the best ways to do the little, ordinary, everyday things; often they make all the difference. Our habits make for a better home.

2. Read: There are certain well-loved, well-worn works around Boston University, and reading them will help you learn some of the parlance of this place. Spend an afternoon with Jesus and the Disinherited by the Reverend Doctor Howard Thurman, former Dean of Marsh Chapel, while sitting in the Howard Thurman Center in the basement of the GSU. Read a Letter from Birmingham Jail in the MLK reading room, on the third floor of Mugar Library, surrounded by King’s letters, photographs, and schoolwork. Pick up a copy of Maya Angelou’s On the Pulse of the Morning, and, as Dean Elmore suggests at the start of every school year, rally a few others to join you at sunrise on the BU beach, where the rock, the river, and the tree meet, to take turns reading lines from the poem. Wondering what to read next? Ask your professor, your TA, a chaplain, what work inspires them, their work, and their passions?

3. Build Relationships: Relationships in college develop in those ordinary and extraordinary moments. You might meet your soul mate at orientation or your best friend in a random roommate assignment, but you won’t figure out whether you have or not until you go to the dining hall with them, talk with them about anything other than schoolwork in your common room, proofread each other’s papers, and get lost in Boston together. Your financial investment in college is significant, but your personal investment in the people you meet has just as much value.  And if in the midst of all these adventures, you have a question about your deeper longings, you can always come and see a chaplain.

Dean Hill:  So the chaplains are one of the resources available in this particular time and place.  What would happen if I went to see one of these people?

Rev. Jen Quigley:  Well, just what are chaplains anyway?

Dean Hill:  My question exactly! We could say they are people who believe in the value of helping you connect your greatest passion with the world’s greatest need.

Rev. Jen Quigley:  Precisely.

Dean Hill:  Are you one such?

Rev. Jen Quigley:  I am!  In fact my title is:  Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment.  What about you?

Dean Hill: I am as well.  As for my titles, well, they are many, but one’s life does not consist in the abundance of positions!

Rev. Jen Quigley:  In conclusion, we hope and pray that those searching for their truest longing will find their way in the college experience.  If they need a friendly guide along the way,  we are here for fellowship, discernment, conversation—and even some expert advice about laundry!

 

Call to Confession:

Over the last 72 hours my prayerful mind has hovered over one meditation:  the vast goodness around us, and especially the vast goodness in this University, the vast goodness in its history, people, thought and service.  Boston University.  Since 1839 a history of learning, virtue and piety.  A long proven inclusion of women, Jews, blacks, and immigrants.  An endowment of voice soaring past color of skin to quicken content of character.  Healthy movement in thought, from Methodism to personalism to pragmatism to naturalism.  Today, this morning, many here with us:  a brilliant student body who are growing in moral discernment, resisting substance abuse, rejecting amoral sexuality, setting limits to material greed, and developing empathy for the least, the last and the lost.  The real story here is far less salacious and much more hopeful than sometimes we think, thanks to good people, good leadership, and the underlying goodness of God.  We are in good hands, and so may gladly bear one another’s burdens.  As fallible people, honest about our failures, let us offer our prayers of confession

 

A Pastoral Epistle

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

James 1: 17-27

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Welcome to a new year.  There are various points at which a new year may be celebrated, according to various religious, national, familial and personal calendars.  Matriculation is the University new year festival.  Welcome back. (Yesterday on Bay State Road there was family with son and daughter, and a car with chairs and stuffed animals hanging out the windows.  On that street there were good people—police, resident advisors, custodians, administrators, chaplains, faculty, staff—around to say hello, as in the song:  ‘you say yes, I say no, you say stop and I say, you say goodbye and I say hello’ (one Dad started to sing the old Beatles tune!).

We will begin with a pastoral epistle, a little spoken letter, spoken from heart to heart, we trust.  Both of our primary readings, but particularly the passage from James, lure us in this direction.  You will think too of advice you gave, or were given, encouragement you gave, or were given, when a new day dawned, and a new horizon opened.  Your mother simply cried and asked you to call once in a while.  Your dad said to remember where you came from.  Your girlfriend said she would see you at homecoming, if you came home.  Your younger brother just smiled and waved.  All of these too were pastoral epistles, probably more significant because more personal.

When faculty enter or return to campus, they come with a sense of the new.  When administrators come or return to see the wave of others now present though months absent, they come with a sense of the new.  When business people and retirees and the many searching for work come to the chapel on labor day, in a season that really does not overly respect labor anymore, they come longing for a sense of new possibilities.  And you?  What brought you here, to sacrament and sermon?  We are so glad you have come.

On arrival, come the new year, it can seem that this is someone else’s place and somebody else’s time.  Especially in the heart of pretty fair sized city, with the noise and traffic of the urban landscape, you can get the feeling that other people know the place better and other people have a better sense of the time here.  There is a kind of comforting, though false, sensation that goes with this sensibility.  Others know better.  I am new, or new again.  This is not really my space.  I don’t even know what they mean by esplanade, by Fenway, by beach, by garden.  They must know better.  And I don’t really have any idea what is transpiring around me here.  I guess I will just sit and watch, or sit in my room, or sit by and wait.

The word from this pulpit and chancel this morning is not meant to dissuade you entirely from a bit of caution.  Caution when you cross the street.  Caution when you choose your friends and locations.  Caution when you are invited, as steadily we all are, to live in a way that is bitterly beneath who are you meant to be.  Caution when you make your plans.  Be slow to speak, slow to anger, slow to forget who you really are.   Two years ago a tiny young fresh woman from a small South Carolina town came in after a car had hit a cyclist out front.   She just sat and trembled.  She was remembering who she was.  No, we do not discountenance the importance of caution.

Yet that is not the gospel this morning, as important as it is.  Be careful.  But be caring too.  Be protective.  But be proactive too.  Be self critical.  But be self confident too.  This is your time.  This is your place.  The God of wholeness (‘the perfect law’) and the God of freedom (‘the law of liberty’) is loving you into love, gracing you into grace, and freeing you into freedom.  If you hear that, and I hope that you do, then go and do it.  Be careful.  But be caring too.  Be protective.  But be proactive too.  Be self critical.  But be self confident too.  It may seem or feel otherwise, but hear the good news:  this time is your time, not somebody else’s time.  These days and months that will fly by are not somehow primary reserved for other people, or somehow better grasped by other people.  That fellow who has been teaching thirty years, and you are just starting, is not somehow more fully drenched by this present moment.  No.  This day, autumn, year, decade—they are your time.  Carpe diem.  Sin is not taking what is offered:  that is the definition of sin, not taking what you are graciously given.  We need to work, and to respect those who offer work.  I know ours is a capitalist not a laborist system, capitalism not laborism.  But this is Labor Day weekend.  Perhaps we could remember for a moment those great voices who protected the wives and children of coal miners, of factory workers, of dock yard laborers.  Lincoln:  Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.  Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.  Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration (First Message to Congress, 12/3/61) Here is life!  Live it.  Here is learning! Love it.  Here is friendship! Embrace it.  Here is challenge!  Face it.  Here is failure!  Admit it.  Religious experience is not primarily religious, in the sense that it is not primary found in the hours of church or tutelage or liturgy or devotion.  Of course I am contractually obligated and also personally and profoundly committed to imploring you to get yourself to church on Sunday.  This you will want to do.  But religious experience comes through life, not church only, or mainly.  It comes in seizing the day, and embracing the time.   Life: L I F E.  When you come to church the next several weeks, come thankful for times when time stood still for a moment.  In an honest debate.  Reading Kant.  Pouring yourself into an experiment.  Rowing.   Seeing the sunrise across the ocean.

Nor, by the way, is this massive space, the 350 buildings of Boston University, and the 350 years of Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, somehow somebody else’s.  They are yours for the knowing.  This great city opens its heart every day to anyone with a good pair of shoes.  Your plan is to make this historic city yours.  Buy a standing room only ticket to see the remains of the Red Sox.  I mean the Red Sox season.  On the first day it snows, walk through the public garden.  Take the fast ferry to Cape Cod, once at least.  Whenever you hear music coming from a classroom, an auditorium, a concert hall or a chapel, like this one, stop and listen.  Make one of the Italian restaurants in the North End a personal favorite.  Make that two.  On Columbus weekend, walk or jog the whole of the Emerald Necklace.  Find your way once each term to the seashore.  Do not assume that others, sleeping off steady drinking, or endlessly watching as in a mirror (‘one who observes his natural face in a mirror’) some cyber image, or carelessly involved with someone else’s body, or making plans for future acquisition, or simply hiding out somewhere, do not assume that such others know this place or own this place more than you do. You will be invited to live in ways that are bitterly beneath you.  A pastoral letter:  hope to grow in the capacity for moral discernment—good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse;  avoid a staple, steady diet of addictive substances, drugs or alchohol—stay and be healthy, with some sense of balance;  intend to honor others, in this BU home of personalist philosophy that guided MLK and others, by wanting to honor others, especially in their spirit, soul, body, and person, including those most intimate encounters and involvements—honor the other in the other; step aside from the tide of greed in our era:  there is more to living than becoming the richest woman in the graveyard;  learn from others the habit of empathy—feeling another’s hurts and understanding another’s fears; find some places—nature, worship, friendship, quiet, reading, prayer—where your ownmost self can come up for air.

Life is what you DO in it.  You might keep in mind the widow and orphan, the lonely and the needy.  Life will provide you many examples.  Be no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts.  This is your space,  your place, your current and your personal  location.  Take a second seat to no one.  You can and should sit in the front of the bus.

Time. This is your time.  Space.  This is our space.  It has been my summer prayer, thinking of our faculty returning, and our administrators on the qui vive, and our staff in full throttle, and our students arriving, and our community coming home from the days of sunshine and family, it has been my prayer to send you this pastoral epistle.  Now is your time.  Here is your place.

Listen to Robert Frost’s poem about a star…

What will this year bring?  It is up to you.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, Holy and Just

Thou Silent Mystery, beckoning deep

In whom we live and move and have our being

Grant us peace, we pray

Give us grace, we pray

 

In the eyeblink of these four years

Give us peace to resist what we would regret

Give us grace to receive what will make us rejoice

Four years hence, diplomas in hand

May we be heavy with joy and free of regret

 

Help us to avoid the regret that follows abuse of ourselves,

Of our environment, of substances, and of others.

Warn us away from what, lastingly we will regret.

Fill us with a daily sense of adventure to embrace

What lastingly we will enjoy:

 

Friendship, discovery, reading, effort, achievement, accomplishment,

Self-giving, devotion, and love.

 

Grant us peace to resist what we would regret and grace to receive what

Causes us to rejoice.

 

Amen

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel