Archive for December, 2012

December 30

Living on the Threshold

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 2:41-52

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Some of you know that I have practiced, for decades, the spiritual discipline of tree climbing. I have surprised neighbors all across the country as I’ve tumbled out of moving vans and immediately ascended my way to a view of the new heaven and new earth on my new street.  It’s a matter of seeking new perspective.

Well, today, December 30th,  we’ve all  figuratively climbed up to the top of year, and we’re perched way out on the tree limb of 2012, still holding on to the days of Christmastide, remembering the events of this year…the branch sways a bit under weight of both the joys and agonies of these 12 months. From this lofty vantage we can see ahead to new branch of 2013 just over yonder.  With the dropping of a ball and raising of cheer, with the flip of a calendar page we can just about see it.   It is already, but not yet.

Or another metaphor, this one requiring not a courage of heights, but a courage of imagination-  this is a time when we are called to live on the threshold. Abiding in the liminal places, not quite in the past, not quite in the future.  Pitching tent with Emmanuel who comes to camp out with us. Pausing with our sister Mary to ponder many things in our hearts.  A time to recollect back and wonder forward.

This is a day for a gem of a story from Luke, told with dual perspectives.  This is a day where two generations meet, where youth ministers and campus chaplains engage young adults precisely in the context of their journeys, where parents and children perplex and irritate one another- can you imagine! Where professors and students sit in the Temple and wrestle with texts and traditions.

Some of us live today with Mary on the Parental threshold of holding on and letting go- today her 12 year old son Jesus stretches out beyond her protection into a world that she already knows  is piercingly beautiful but piercingly violent as well.  Mary says today, “Kids, they grow up so fast.  It seems like it was just this past Tuesday that Jesus was born!  My baby! And now he’s 12 going on 20.”

Some of us live today with Jesus on the Emerging Adulthood threshold of “hello world, ready or not here I come!”  and  “yikes, this economy, this multitude of options and yet restrictions, hello Parent’s basement, I’m baaack!”  Jesus says today, “Give me some room at the Inn to learn more and become more until I am really ready to launch.”

Let’s climb into our Lukan story and see the world from one another’s perspectives.

Let’s begin with Mary.  Revered Mother of Jesus.  And here in today’s gospel, a very real Mom, one many of us recognize in the mirror or in the family portrait.   Clueless, panicked, relieved, angry, perplexed, astonished, perseverant.  All those experiences of parenthood the owner’s manual never mentions.

In ancient Roman mythology, “Janus” is the god of beginnings and transitions, the god of gates, doors, and thresholds. Janus is depicted as a god with dual profiles, looking at once to the future and to the past. “January” was named in honor of this threshold – inhabiting Janus.  Now, I confess that I know this not because I am a classics scholar.  I know this because I am a Mom and I have a 529 college savings plan with a firm called “Janus Investments,” and this two-faced image of Janus has been stamped on my statements for the last dozen years.  I inhabit a world lately with many conversations including these particular numbers – a sort of secret code of American parenthood: 529. For many years my husband and I have clink clinked our quarters into the savings plate, fretting over its too slow expansion.

Our son Andrew is now a High School senior, living on the threshold between HS and College…. Between clicking “submit” on the Common App and the arrival of satisfactorily large and thick acceptance envelopes in the mail.  With Mary I shake my head and remember my son’s first day of Kindergarten, which seemed like last Tuesday.   On that very first day of the big yellow bus, Andrew was treated to a one on one visit from the school principal.  A kind man who very gently suggested that biting your neighbor’s forearm on the bus-ride to school was not the best start to an academic career.  This I cannot help but remember as my 17 year old stands before me and requests the car keys – himself a Latin scholar, a fine writer,  a person of sterling character, now with advanced bus-riding social skills. The forward facing Janus Mom says, “I’m so proud of you!”  The backward facing Janus Mom cannot resist to comment, “but don’t bite anybody.” Already but not yet.

Mary, today I companion with you as we parent sons so close to stepping into new worlds beyond our doors.   I like to think of Mary as the biblical Soccer Mom. Now, if this has not occurred to you, bear with me for a moment.  Her eldest child is 12, and we know from biblical text that she has at least another 6 children by the time Jesus is an adult.  Four of Jesus’ brothers are named, and references are made to his unnamed sisters.  Before I thought about this fact of Mary as parent of 7 or more children- I admit to a more serene image of Mary-  quietly pondering, piously robed in blue, sitting beside a well-behaved  baby, shining a halo or two in daily housework chores.   But now I imagine she and Joseph busy with all the demands of running a large household bursting with children’s activities and religious practices and carpentry projects.

I can understand how Jesus got lost in the caravan that day, on the annual pilgrimage to and from Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The original HOME ALONE screen play.  It was a 150 mile round trip journey– 3 days there and 3 days back- from the sleepy hill country of Nazareth to the bustling epicenter of the city of Jerusalem, bordering the Negev desert to the south.  2 places so very different from one another.  2 members of one family, having such very different experiences of the same event.

I imagine that Jesus the first born had been declaring his desire for some independence from good ole Imma and Abba for some time- so they  relented on their vigilance and said OK, son, you can travel further back in our caravan with extended family.  Mary probably couldn’t stop herself and called out parting advice, “Don’t bite anybody!”  OK- all you young adults, You totally get to roll your eyes here at your parents for all our awkward comments.

It’s really more the world’s bite that Mary is afraid of.  She knows the reality of injustice and state sanctioned violence.  She knows the powerlessness of being young, poor, female, occupied, from the no-account back country. She and Joseph and baby Jesus fled Bethlehem 12 years ago, narrowly escaping the murderous arm of Herod who commanded that all male babies under age of 2 be killed.  Her family was refugees in Egypt, relying daily on the kindness of strangers, relying daily on the magnificent promises of God.

Mary knows that in 2012 alone over 153,000 refugees fled her neighboring Syria, running from violence and terror. Mary knows that in our country there have been some 30,000 deaths in 2012 from gun violence.  Mary knows that the Slaughter of Innocents is not some ancient biblical tale, but a reality proximate to our lives.  Mary weeps for the innocents. Christmas Eve- next door to my recent home town- Webster NY –  2 first responders to a house fire,  were ambushed and killed by gunshot.  One a 19 year old, covering for older firefighters so they could be home with their families.  Mary weeps for the innocents. Sweet babes at an elementary school in Connecticut, an Oregon shopping mall, a Colorado movie theatre, an off-campus street in Allston. Off campus- our campus. These towns -our towns.  These streets – our streets. These children –our  precious family.  Let us wake up and let our collective tears become a tidal wave flow of change – in hearts and minds and legislation.

And here’s why I Iove Mary.  And here’s how she is a vessel of God’s love.  Mary lives on the threshold of the world, seeing all its pain and darkness and she chooses life.  She chooses to open the door of her heart, a familiar expression of Howard Thurman.  Thurman who prays let the door of my heart be swinging. Secured in place by the axis of identity as a beloved child of God,  yet swinging open, welcoming love, attentive to splendor, open to new insight.  Mary doesn’t hide out in Nazareth, with firmly locked doors to protect her very special child.  She lives.  She trusts.  She reflects. She acts.

Mary sees the bleakness and chooses to light a candle of blessing rather than curse the darkness.  Perhaps Mary is tempted to lock the door and live in fear- to insist that Jesus never leave the protection of Nazareth again.  But Mary does NOT place an armed guard at every threshold we hold most dear- she does not armor backpacks – instead she clothes herself in “compassion, kindness, humility, patience, and most of all love.”

When Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is missing, they abruptly change all plans and rush back to Jerusalem to find their son.  They are panicked.  They know what can happen out there in the big world.

After 3 days of searching, they find him! In the Temple of all places!  Not in the market squandering shekels on sweet cakes.  In the temple! Sitting there with the elders deep in discussion about matters of Torah.  Holding his own.  Mary’s panic gives way to relief, gives way to anger.  She raises her voice and says “SON!  How could you do this to me?”  And Jesus answers her, “why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?”  Not without a little attitude.  In this moment, Mary really doesn’t understand her son.   But she pauses.  She doesn’t react, she reflects.  She’s good at pondering life’s mysteries, even when they come in the package of a misbehaving child.

Jesus leaves with his parents, and back home in Nazareth they give him some remedial lessons in the commandments.  Like, hey Jesus, remember # 5 of the top 10?  “Honor thy father and mother.”  Mary continues her stewardship of the home, observing the beauty of each Sabbath eve and day, encouraging her children in the living of the law, trusting the words of the angelic visitor so long ago “FEAR NOT.”  She does her best.  And her son grows in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

But we have climbed our tree today to gaze out in two perspectives.  Jesus also lives in the threshold of emerging adulthood today, almost there but not quite yet.  Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, Light of Lights, Hope of the Ages.  Perhaps we’re better versed in the full divinity of Jesus Christ than in his full humanity. But here in today’s treasure of a story we see a young adult some of us recognize in the mirror or in the family portrait – eager, idealistic, curious, confident, hopeful, and determined.

Now, we know most definitively that Jesus is 12 here.  What the text does not say, and we can imagine, is that he is reaching the age of majority, or of recognition as an adult in his religious circle.  B’nai mitzvah- the coming of age of Jewish boys at 13 and girls at 12 is not yet an established practice in first century Judaism.  I suspect Jesus is on the threshold of what we call today becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, one with personal accountability for observing the Law.  A bar or bat mitzvah is full of questions and obligated to study biblical passages in depth.  So, just where else would Jesus be, but at the steps of the Temple, taking the rare opportunity to dialogue with and learn from the greatest scholars of his day.  Indeed, when reproached by his mother, “how could you do this to me?,”  he is likewise astonished- do my parents understand nothing about me?  How is this not obvious?

In our era, a new term has surfaced for coming of age, called “Emerging Adulthood.”  It’s generally associated with the ages between 18-29, and is understood not as a generational characteristic particular to the Millennials, but as a new life stage.  Nearby in Worcester MA our colleagues at Clark University are spearheading this research.  Dr. Jeffrey Jenson Arnett and his grad assistant Joseph Schwab have just released their poll on American Emerging Adults, and find that these folks are overall: Thriving, Struggling, and Hopeful.   Sounds a bit like our own emerging Jesus to me.

“Life is not easy for emerging adults,” state the researchers.  We know this. Our own WBUR ran a series in December called Gen Stuck.  Ouch. I learned that 30% of young adults are boomeranging back home to the not-so-empty nest, the highest percentage since the 1950s.  Merry Christmas, young adults, here’s a present called Fiscal Cliff.  Happy New Year!


I quote from the Clark report, “Emerging adults have an unemployment  rate that is consistently double the overall rate.  Those who have a job usually make very little money for most of their twenties.  Nearly all aspire to a college degree, but fewer than 1/3 have attained one by ages 25-29. Most move away from the comfort and support of the family home to take on the formidable task of finding a place in the world.  It’s not surprising, given these circumstances, that so many of them say they often feel stressed, anxious, or depressed. “

Hold on, though, recall that 12 year old energy, confidence, and curiosity of Jesus.

“What may be more surprising is that, despite the challenges of the emerging adult life stage, most of them remain hopeful that their lives will ultimately work out well.  Nearly 90% agree that they are confident that they eventually  will get what they want out of life:  almost as many agree that “At this time of my  life, it still seems like anything is possible.”  And, despite frequent claims that they face a diminished future and will be the first generation in American history to do worse economically than their parents, more than 3/4s agree that “I believe, overall, my life will be better than my parent’s lives have been.”  End quote.

Jesus, God with skin on, knows this in-between time.  He stands in the threshold right there. And he is present in the silent waiting years.  From ages 12-30 we know nothing about Jesus’  life.  We can imagine he is home preparing, living faithfully, and getting ready to launch into public ministry – finally at the age of 30.

Young adults- if your Baby Boomer or Gen X parents get a little impatient with your travelling through this life stage, say, “hey I’m  Emerging right on target with Jesus.”

Jesus had a hunger for discovery.  So do the young adults I know and love.

3 dozen Emerging Adults- also known as “Students” gathered at Marsh Chapel  just before finals for a “Reading Retreat” – a day set apart for study and reflection.  We focused our spiritual practices on one of the masters from this holy Temple– Howard Thurman- absorbed his words and wisdom.  Each participant went around room declaring the study intent for the day- and it was fascinating to hear the variety of subjects embraced by 6 of the schools of our university.  I am making my way through a 500 page tome on international relations and the CIA,  I am immersed in my reams of Hebrew Bible class notes for final exam, I am writing a paper about cross-cultural pedagogical implication, I am simulating human voice through a prototype robot I am making, and so on and so on.  Fascinating!

They remind me each day to be a  life-long learner. To appreciate excellence all around.

For instance, our ushers, right here at Marsh Chapel are superb in hospitality.  Each Sunday they are greeting at our doors with smiles and welcoming information for first timers.  Now, I come up the stairs from the lower level  – not in our ushers’ line of duty.  So most weeks I go out the front door, so I can turn right around and come back in. And I say to the usher, I want my greeting!  I want my smile and handshake or hug.  I want to start my day by receiving the excellence of your mission.  And Charles, 7 year old Charles who is head usher of the balcony.  Cannot have a Sunday without a Charles smile and high five.

Friends, this day we look back, we look forward, and we look from many perspectives.  We go out of our way to cross thresholds into places of joy and love.  Let us go into the New Year, with hearts as swinging doors –opening to the comfort of God’s grace, moving out to the needs of the world.



~ The Rev. Dr. Robin Olson

See: Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, December 2012:







December 23

Dream Child

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 1: 39-45

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


A long time ago, a young woman headed out, uphill, into the uplands, the highlands, the hill country.  It is striking that we see her walking alone, given her condition, given the human condition, and given the conditional blessing she carries to us and to others.  She is alone.  There are many forms of solitude, including the joy of birth and the grief of death, and the power of dreams.  You will picture her, in an awkward tunic, walking at dusk, up into the hills.  We know (remember the Good Samaritan) that those roads harbored bandits.  She goes quickly, perhaps for that reason, and with haste enters the home of the husband of a second cousin thrice removed.


One thing we learn from these two women, right away, is regard for a sense of self-mockery.  You could say self- awareness, or you could speak of the centered self, but Elizabeth and Mary, like their forebears, Sarah and Hannah, have gone further and have learned to smile at their own fragile limitation.  They model self-mockery. They can laugh at themselves. ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?’

It is possible that their self-abandon gives Elizabeth and Mary the ears to hear a divine promise.  One of the interruptive intentions of Sunday worship is to offer you, and you, and you all, such an awareness.  “Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly like the angels.” (W.S.Coffin).  A little spiritual distance, a little self differentiation, a little non anxious presence—these go a long way when you are hungry and thirsty for a reassurance of meaning, a reassurance in the face of our deeply violent and violating culture, a reassurance that life yet bears meaning.

The Gospel According to St. Luke reverses our expectations.  Those outside are on the inside, when the gospel comes.  The commoner has the inside track in this monarchy.  Who first hear resurrection news twenty four chapters and twenty four  weeks later, come March and Easter?  Women.  Who follow unstintingly, across Galilee and into Jerusalem?  Women.  Who, today, first hear the plan for redemption, the coming birth of the Dream Child?  Women.  (In case you miss the point, Luke brings in the shepherds Monday at 7:30pm).

How could it be?  How could these things be?  Who am I?

Over time, you begin to project less, on the world, and see more.  Projection only gets you so far.  After three or so decades of seeing what you hope to see and want to see, you begin to stop and look and listen, and lessen projection–unless you are one of these women.  Not of them the saying, ‘Too soon old too late smart”.  They get it early, earlier.  Schleiermacher would be proud.  They have that sense.  Some things only the women seem to get right.  They have that feeling.   Do you?  Do you?  However are you going to survive slaughter news without it?  John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, at the sound of Mary’s voice, Mary the mother of Jesus.  Good Greek mythology, and helpful to a church trying to keep the Baptists in the pew, at 90ce.

Mary is blessed.  Why?  Because she has believed, had faith. In what?  Here, as in the verse identifying the singer of the psalm, there is some textual doubt.  Is it that she has faith that she has been promised to deliver a child, and now sees that she will?  Perhaps.  I judge the stronger promise to be the stronger, though.  She is blessed because she has faith that these promises WILL BE fulfilled (that is the verb, simple future, not conditional, not subjunctive).  She trusts that a day will come: WHEN THE DREAM CHILD WILL COME AND HIS REIGN WILL NEVER END.  And her faith is ours.  Her faith is the gift of the Dream Child to us at Christmas.  You have the gift of faith and love and hope that–in the teeth of slaughter–you can affirm that one day, one day, one getting up golden morning, one fine dawn day, one glistening day, the dream of the Dream Child will neither slumber nor sleep.  Do you hope for that?  Do you?  Without it, however are you going to survive slaughter news? Mary’s blessing is not the birth of a child but the birth of the Dream Child.


Another more obvious thing we learn from Mary and Elizabeth and from birth in general is a respect, a healthy regard, for human vulnerability.

I learned this week that there are 120 ‘centers’ at Boston University.  Each is the dream child of some professor, who has an idea about connecting ideas and money, and marrying them up in an academic center.  I may open my own, someday, ‘The Robert Allan Hill Center for Wonder, Vulnerability and Self-Mockery’

I had my first real job, and first real boss.  I ran the water front, under the stern eye of Koert Foster, who ran the campground.  Koert never went to college, but he became President of his Rotary Club.  He never went to college, but he flew and owned a Cessna 172.  He never went to college but he talked theology nose to nose with those who did.  He never went to college, but he was a scratch golfer and a prince of peace.   Here:  when one of the 250 campers per week was injured, he would slow down, as he walked toward the broken arm.  He did not rush to calamity.  He walked, and he walked more slowly than he usually did.  ‘Take your own pulse first”, his slow, steady approach taught me.

Koert was a deer hunter, as were most of the men around whom I grew up in the uplands, hills, hill country of upstate New York.  I went my junior year to Spain—give me another such some lifetime!—to read Antonio Machado and Miguel de Unamuno,  and prepare to teach college Spanish.  One December day a tiny thin aerogram, in my mother’s hand, came to Segovia, to the Campos de Castilla.  ‘Bob, Koert died in a hunting accident.  He was shot by accident by his best friend, the town mailman, on the hairpin turn, halfway to the lake’.

I had not planned to go back to work the followings summer at the summer camp, but Koert was dead, and we all went back, and ran it.  At age 20.  Occasionally a busy Methodist minister would check in to see if things were OK.  They were.  20 years olds can do a lot.  We worked from 6am to 8pm and then, in the twilight went waterskiing up and down that long finger lake, across from the nudist colony.   I was driving the boat, and throwing the ski rope.  Peg, Koert’s widow was the spotter.  ‘God called him home’, she said.  ‘Did God call him home?’ she asked.  Coiling the rope, I shrugged, and hurling the ski rope I said I didn’t think so.  ‘If you go to seminary, figure it out’, she said.

Friends, we need to be clear about not going over the theological cliff, in horrific tragedy.  You were here last week, when we said:

As we sing carols let us soberly remember.  Faith does not exclude us from calamity, but faith prepares us to fight it.  Faith does not give us the capacity to understand, but it does give us the courage to withstand.   Faith is not an answer to every question, but it is a living daily question of ultimate concern.  Faith in God is faith in God, not in another creaturely being.  Our faith in God is cruciform, faith in the crucified God, who has chosen to make our vulnerable condition his own. I know the early church rejected patri-passionism.  But barely.  And developing the capacity to meditate on profoundly unanswerable questions is why three times a fall we go and listen to Elie Wiesel. Faith does not protect us from calamity.  Gravity, bullets, floods and earthquakes respect nothing about faith, and faith from them offers no protection.

By apocalypse, evil shows us a part of who we are.  We are revealed, this week, in Newtown, as a people, to be other people than we pretend and other people than we intend.  We pretend to protect the weak, but we do not.  We intend to protect the innocent, but we do not.  That is, our penchant for acquisition, our desire to acquire rather than to be a choir, makes some other things expendable.  As in a mirror, and not so dimly, a dark inner part of our common life is illumined.  Not just one deranged killer, but a culture of guns and a culture of violence and a culture of acquisition, and a culture of apathy, these are brought to light, in this unfathomably tragic, unspeakably awful, sinfully evil crime. We are reluctant to give up even a slim measure of our power to purchase, to acquire, in order to protect children.  Foolish we are, with a foolishness that brings tragedy.  I think of the years I spent in Canada and the months in England, and I think we have some things to learn from both sibling cultures.  Here in the USA, there is a cheapening and coarsening of life happening all around us, all the time, and we, though sometimes we find the temper to resist, are the worse for it.  A decade of warfare has numbed us, made us tolerant of violence in ways we never were before.  Take a walk with me some day on a college campus.

Over forty years, as a culture, as a people, we have more and more given ourselves over to acquisition.  We no longer preach to the choir, we preach to acquire. To acquire one turns sometimes to violence.  Our culture is drenched in violence.   We from New England need to remember the stern hope in the New England theological tradition from Edwards to Emerson.  Edwards:  “Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.”  Emerson:  “Men are ‘convertible’ and this is the work of education, to awake the slumbering soul from its habitual sleep.” Last week Night came, but unattended by repose. After a holocaust, there is no faith so whole as a broken faith.  We need models of living with a broken faith.  We need to become, one by one, and as the faith community of Marsh Chapel, a model of living with a broken faith.  How?

To begin, in faith, we leave behind who were, and take up our cross, and follow.  Our cross, in our time, as has been steadily acclaimed from this pulpit, includes the hard heavy lifting of ridding this country of gun violence and of protection that does not protect.  Granted that foolish and harmful things are done all the time, we need not participate in them.  Our cross, in our time, as has been steadily acclaimed from this pulpit, includes the hard heavy lifting of growing, improving attention to mental health.  Our cross, in our time, as has been steadily acclaimed from this pulpit, includes the hard heavy lifting of setting aside some cyber-cultural influences.  We shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall our sword sleep in our hand, til we have no guns, mental health and a clean culture, in this green and pleasant land.  You have a voice, you have a wallet, and you have a vote.  Do you know this?  Do you?  How else will we ever face slaughter news?

A digression:  careful limitation of ammunition, requiring of its purchasers what we now require of those taking an airplane ride, full and personal and complete and discomfiting inspection, may be our best strategy.  Buy your guns, if you must, but if you want ammunition for them, that is another story.  If I can be groped at Logan airport to fly to Chicago, you can be checked and monitored, bullet by bullet.  Yes, too, to : bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tightening rules for sales at gun shows and re-examining care for the mentally ill.  It is a collective self defense, fit for the 21st century, which we need, not an individual self defense, forged in the 18th.

A second digression: Fundamentalist readings, harmful and foolish they are, are not limited to readings of Holy Writ.  Fundamentalist readings, equally harmful and foolish, and similar in scope and reasoning, are also given to national writ, constitution and bill of rights.   What words meant in 90ad, in Luke, require current, contemporary, living interpretation.  What words meant in 1800ad, in the bill of rights, require current, contemporary, living interpretation.  What is most novel may oddly be truest to the tradition, and what is least traditional may be truest to the meaning of the tradition.


Our heroic women, Mary and Elizabeth, teach us something else, too.  Every day is our last, until the next, and they live so.  They sing so.  They live on tip toe and sing on pitch.  They magnify the Lord.  The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.  How is it that Luke, 20 centuries ago, eclipsed the men and evoked the women?  How is it that, come Christmas, people who sleep on Sunday will come to worship? How is it that in the candle lit dark of Christmas Eve, 7:30pm, there is a dim, palpable sense of the numinous, so easily forgotten all year?  How is it that the beauty of the carols and anthems and hymns, even against the steady cold wind of the merely material, manages to get through, come December?

All this is true, because of the proper translation of Luke 1:45:  Mary had faith that God’s promise will be fulfilled.  You have that faith, have been given that faith, have been seized by the church’s confession of that faith. Down under, down deep in the American psyche, there is a surging heart felt generosity, unknown, untapped, uninvited, unbidden, unwelcomed by our ostensible leaders.  Ernest Campbell:  “To be mature is to:  build schools in which you will not study; plant trees under which you will not sit; grow churches in which you will not worship”.  Ah, to worship.  Let me end with a little jeremiad about worship, for your consideration as look to 2013.  Think of it as a recommended resolution.

If you do not have one hour, each week, in which to face your own mortality, your own fragility, your own dependence, what is any other hour worth?  Luke alone tells these stories.  Why?  He is struggling, as we are,  to build the church.  Some, inside the church, whom he wants to hold onto, are followers of the Baptist.  So Luke recalls a story that honors not only the Baptist, but also his holy birth.  Others, outside the church, whom he wants to embrace, are Greeks who like their religions sprinkled with birth legends like those of the Greco Roman Gods.  So Luke recalls a story that has an altogether Greek birth miracle, like the Virgin Birth story itself.

A culture of violence will not disappear on its own.  A community of faith will need to erase it.  That means coming to church on Sunday.  A disregard for mental health will not disappear on its own.  A community of faith will need to heal it.  That means coming to church on Sunday.  A homeland sized addiction to firearms will not disappear on its own.  A community of faith will need to bring sobriety.  That means coming to church on Sunday.  To this hard work, you will bring the spirit gift of perseverance.  My friend said:  “90% of life is showing up.  The other 10% is perseverance.”  Show up on Sunday.  Persevere on Monday.

If singing the hymns of faith is not worth doing, what is?  If preaching the gospel of kindness is not worth doing, what is?  If supporting friends in community is not worth doing, what is?  If this one lone Sunday hour is not worth your time, your attention, your commitment, your devotion, just what is your time, attention, commitment and devotion really worth?  If the love of the Dream Child is not worth dreaming about, what is?


A long time ago, a young woman headed out, uphill, into the uplands, the highlands, the hill country.  It is striking that she is alone, given her condition, given the human condition, and given the conditional blessing she carries to us and to others.  She is alone.  There are many forms of solitude, including the joy of birth and the grief of death, and the power of dreams.  You will picture her, in some awkward tunic, walking at dusk, up into the hills.  We know, remember the Good Samaritan, that those roads hid bandits.  She goes quickly, perhaps for that reason, and with haste enters the home of the husband of a second cousin thrice removed.  We will remember her, as Christmas moves to Christmastide.

When the song of the angels is stilled

And the star in the sky is gone

And the kings and princes are home

And the shepherds are back with their flocks

Then the work of Christmas begins

To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner

To rebuild the nations

To bring peace among brothers

To make music in the heart

(Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman)

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

December 16

Lessons and Carols

By Marsh Chapel


The 39th annual Boston University community Lessons & Carols liturgy is modeled on the famous service from King’s College, Cambridge and does not include a sermon.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

December 9

Avent Grace

By Marsh Chapel

1 Thessalonians 3:10

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


To mend your faith, the apostle wrote, to mend, to mend faith…


A noun and a verb, faith and mend.


Faith is our personal reliance on God.


Faith is our willingness, both in doubt and in trust, to live each day.  You honor life by living it.  You find faith by receiving it.  Faith is the state of being grasped by the Spirit, of being grasped by the Holy Spirit in love and justice and truth.  Any real faith has got some doubt in it, to keep it honest.   Faith is the experience of being fully alive, of living with courage, of being willing to risk, to fail, and to start again. Faith is where and who you are when you are your own-most self.  Faith is freedom, real freedom.  Of course we seek the ultimate, the infinite, the divine!  Of course we do!  Whatever else is life for?  This is why I tend to think that everybody, or very nearly so, has some kind of faith.  You may not have it dressed up in fancy linguistic garments.  That’s all right.  You don’t have to be Paul Tillich to have the courage to be.  You don’t have to read his Dynamics of Faith to have faith.


And, you have grown up so you know what faith is not.  Not blind trust.  Not knowledge of all mysteries.  Not exception from the laws of nature, physics, gravity, motion.  Not obedience to authority for the sake of obedience to authority, religious or otherwise.  Not capture by false ultimacies like success or nation or even religion. Not protection from calamity. Born, we are old enough to die. Rain falls on the just and unjust.  This is what the cross is all about—the measure and correction of false faith, what faith is not.  Real religious faith is unsparingly self critical.


But your faith gives you the courage to withstand what you cannot understand.  Your faith lives in the courage to be, over against all the frightful existential anxieties of sin, of death, of meaninglessness.  On the street, right on the street, where you live. You may be at a point to hear this word, after a week of rending, of tearing, of cuts and bruises and untimely death.


Jesus has taught us that we are children of God, heirs of life eternal.  Jesus has made us children of God.  In word and sacrament, today, you are reminded and mended.  Mended.


The gospel in this word illumines and inspires.  You will have heard and read our phrase from last week’s lesson, ‘mend your faith’, before.   In a way you heard it again, moments ago, in Luke and Philippians.   The gospel, down under, down in the valley, expects a filling up to come, a kind of geological mending, mountains and hills lowered, crooked ways straightened, rough places smoothed out.  A mending of the earth, of nature, and a right beautiful reading.  The letter, composed in the slammer (add your favorite prison term—pokey, calaboose, hoosegow, grey bar hotel, municipal motel, stir, up the river, the joint), expects a freedom from behind bars, and more, a partnership of the gospel.  A mending of the yoke of bondage,  of history, wherein love abounds, and knowledge too, and discernment too, and excellence and glory! And praise!, and a right beautiful reading. You heard it here, this morning.


But you heard it last Sunday, in a sliver of a silver line.  Paul said he hoped to be with his favorite congregation, ‘to complete was is lacking in your faith’.  That at least is what you heard last week, from the NRSV.   A while back, a generation ago, from the RSV, you would have heard, ‘supply what is lacking in your faith’.  And at the building of Marsh Chapel, in the KJV, you would have heard ‘perfect what is lacking in your faith’.   Complete sounds like a final exam.  Supply sounds like an economic theory.  Perfect sounds cold to the bone.  Paul yearns to make things right, and the rendering of his yearning is carried to us in these translations.  Every person of faith, you and he and all, and certainly every minister of the gospel, at our best, yearns to complete, to supply, to perfect.  Because we are so unfinished! Because we are so famished!  Because we are so fragmented!  But there is a better way to render the original verb, better than complete or supply or perfect.  Happily, the concordance and references closely define the word, KATARTISAI, as ‘mend’.


Last Sunday before worship some of us sat quietly to read the lessons of the day.  One student quietly read 1 Thess. 3:10.  But he read—not from NRSV or RSV or KJV—but from NEB, another translation.  ‘To mend your faith”, his version read.   The slight change is a sliver of a silver lining.   Our faith needs mending.  Every one’s faith needs some stitching up, now and then.


Betrayal tears at the fabric of faith.   Faith needs mending. The former governor of California sat for years over many meals across a shared table, without mentioning that one of the caretaker’s sons was his.   After that, faith needs mending.  The former assistant to John Edwards, who testified energetically against him for his betrayal, knew early about betrayal.  His father, had been the Dean of Duke Chapel, but a sometime visitor at  a nearby Red Roof Inn, in the company of a non-spouse.  That early betrayal cut deeply into the fabric of later life.  Both his dad and his boss had been false.  Sometimes, come Sunday, faith needs mending.  A current leader learns the hard way that no email is ever private, ever.  Put anything you want in email as long as you are glad to have it on your tombstone, or on the front page of the Times.  But the public cacophony is pale, by comparison with the rending of the garment of faith for the loved ones.  Faith for sure, to be sure, will need a stitch or two.


And what about the bigger betrayals, when nature and history let us deeply down?  Some mending required.  When violence between middle eastern nations goes on endlessly, generation to generation.  Mending required.  When a good nation somehow quietly slides into  unexamined drone warfare, wherein a man in a blue shirt drives from Manlius to North Syracuse, to sit in a screen room, and push buttons, with deadly consequence, a world away.  And then to stop at Wegmans on the way home, to pick up Cheerios and an extra Christmas ornament—a quiet evening in the suburbs.  Some mending required.  Or, harder and more immediate, when the specter of untimely death descends upon a commonwealth on commonwealth avenue, and an early, unfair, unjust and tragic loss evokes a piercing question: “ Where was God?  I thought God loved us?”  Or, in the nature of things, when a formal and false accusation, untrue but lastingly cutting, maims one we love, we know about needing a needle and a thread and a stitch and a little tuck, a little mending, of our faith.


The route to Bethlehem goes through the river Jordan, the icy, cold, real, existential river Jordan.

As my student fellow student of the Bible remembered, Paul was a tentmaker.  He knew about canvass and holes and leaks and cuts and could mend as well as make.  That is what makes the NEB translation so mendingly meaningful.


Our son had a stuffed animal for many years.  The animal was a raccoon.  His name was Rooster.  Rooster raccoon.  I have no idea how such a name came to be his but his it was.  Rooster raccoon went with us on vacation.  Rooster—the raccoon I mean—went with us on boat rides, on tobogan rides, on car rides.  Rooster had his own seat in the way back of the van.  He swam at Marconi beach.  He rode over the Mercier bridge into Montreal.  He learned to swim, the hard way, by falling overboard.   He slept outside in a snow fort.   He was the first one up in the morning, and the last one to bed at night.  Sometimes the dog would take him by the collar and run around.  We sometimes asked him to say the grace at dinner.   He would offer a resonant, silent prayer.  After a few years he looked like he was about finished.  For stuffed raccoons, one human year is the same as 14.  By accident, near Christmas, one evening, rooster raccoon found himself seated a little to close to the macaroni and cheese on the stove, and up he went in smoke.  Or at least in part he went up in smoke.  He was left missing the left part of his left part.   I see the child’s hand holding up the smoldering dog eared raccoon, with no words, only tears, and an unspoken question.  ‘Can’t you do something?’  And then a quick, confident maternal murmur:  “Just let me have him.  You wait and see.  He will be good as new.  We can mend it.  We can mend it.”  And she did.  And rooster raccoon was and is the best looking stuffed raccoon, without a left side, that you could ever want.  He is the most oddly named, and now most oddly shaped, stuffed raccoon, this side of the Mississippi.


Now you will rightly say that some things cannot be mended.  At least not perfectly, not completely, not with full supply.  ‘Dean Hill, some things cannot be mended’ you will say.  And I will reply:  ‘Don’t I know it’.  The damage is done.   Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is hard to get it back in.  But the longing to mend?  That never ends.  The desire to mend?  That is everlasting.  The willingness to sew and trim and patch and weave and make it do or do without?  That urge to mend the tears in your loved ones’ faith?  That goes from heaven to earth.  And there is something in that wanting, to mend, that, like the Eucharist, brings heaven here.


Faith is our willingness, both in doubt and in trust, to live each day.  You honor life by living it.  You find faith by receiving it.  Faith is the state of being grasped by the Spirit, of being grasped by the Holy Spirit in love and justice and truth.  Any real faith has got some doubt in it, to keep it honest.   Faith is the experience of being fully alive, of living with courage, of being willing to risk, to fail, and to start again. Faith is where and who you are when you are your own-most self.  Faith is freedom, real freedom. Your faith gives you the courage to withstand what you cannot understand.  Your faith lives in the courage to be, over against all the frightful existential anxieties of sin, of death, of meaninglessness.


“We pray most earnestly night and day to be allowed to see you again and to mend your faith where it falls short” (1 Thess. 3:10)


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

December 2

The Bach Experience: Advent Joy

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


Dean Hill:

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

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

We need both the words and the music.  But music lasts even when words fail.  That tune you heard on the radio that took you forty years back in time.  That hymn whose melody was lifted in a high or hard moment, a wedding or funeral.  That new experience—as Bach is for many young adults and others today—that took you by the hand and led you out into the ineffable, the serene, the beautiful, the heavenly, the high and holy.  One of you may have found yourself Thursday listening during the memorial service for Dr. John Silber to the beauty of Brahms. We need both words and music, but the music sometimes finds an opening in the heart, a little crevice into which to maneuver, which would be too small and too angular for the word alone.  “I come mainly to sing the hymns”:  one of you might have said that.  I think one of you did.

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


Dr. Jarrett:

Today’s cantata is indeed one of joyful expectation. One of the happiest cantatas I know, Cantata 140 depicts the Christian soul as a bride awaiting her promised Bride-groom, Christ. Drawing on imagery from the Gospel of Matthew, with text from the Song of Solomon, Bach sets the stage for a beautiful wedding feast. The three verses of Philip Nicolai’s famous chorale punctuate the cantata and establish the structure. There are three soloists: the tenor in the typical role of evangelist, the soprano as the voice of the Bride, and the baritone as the voice of the Bride-groom, Christ Jesus.

From the start the festive nature is apparent with the French overture styled rhythms in the strings echoed by the three oboes. One of the best examples of this cantata style, the chorale tune is set in the soprano part in long tones, doubled by a French horn. You won’t miss it! The chorale tune appears again the central movement, this time sung by the tenors of the choir in unison. You’ll likely recognize this material as ‘organ music’; Bach adapted this movement in 1748 for inclusion in the set of chorale preludes for the organ known as the Schübler Chorales. Nicolai’s third verse concludes the cantata in the familiar four-part setting as found in your red Methodist Hymnal, No 720.

Between these bright movements, Bach unfolds the drama of the woman awaiting her bride-groom. As it says in the Gospel of the day, ‘Watch, therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of man cometh.’ The tenor evangelist calls to the daughter of Zion, “Macht euch bereit. Er kommt, er kommt! Make yourself ready, He comes! He comes!”

The first of the two love duets follows. Listen for the deeply expressive violin solo, the longing of the woman as she awaits her bridegroom –  in the background the calming voice of the baritone assuring her that he comes.

After the familiar second verse of the Nicolai chorale, the groom arrives to profess his vows. The words of Christ are accompanied by strings, an aural halo familiar from the same practice in the Matthew Passion. These words offer comfort and assurance, and at the end, even the promise of a kiss!

Perhaps the most famous of all Bach’s duets, ‘Mein Freund ist mein’ is completely delightful. With obbligato oboe, parallel thirds and sixths, the frolicsome interplay of melismas, this is one of the best love duets in the entire repertoire.

Vows exchange and love professed, we are invited to join the heavenly banquet with Nicolai’s final verse.

The longing, uncertainty and expectation are present, but this cantata’s focus is much more on the joyful moment when Christ comes to redeem the world. Watch, pray. Pray and watch. Trim your lamps. He comes, he comes!!

Dean Hill:

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

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

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

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

Bonhoeffer loved Bach too.  He wrote:

Tolstoy once said that the czar would have to forbid Beethoven to be played by good musicians, for he would excite the passions of the people too deeply and put them in danger.

Luther, by contrast, often said that next to the Word of God, music is the best thing that human beings have.  The two had different things in mind:  Tolstoy, music to honor people; Luther, music to honor God.  And regarding music, Luther knew that it has dried an infinite number of tears, made the sad happy, stilled desires, raised up the defeated, strengthened the challenged, and that it has also moved many a stubborn heart to tears and driven many a great sinner to repentance before the goodness of God.


‘O sing the Lord a new song’ (Ps 98).  The emphasis is on the word new. What is this song, if not the song that makes people new, the song that brings people out of darkness and worry and fear to new hope, new faith, new trust?  The new song is the song that God himself awakens in us anew—even if it is an ancient song—the God who, as it says in Job, ‘gives songs in the night’ (Job 35).

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music