Archive for March, 2013

March 31


By Marsh Chapel

Luke 24: 1-12

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Click here to hear the sermon only.


Wonderfully created, more wonderfully restored…

Often our experience falls short of our expectation, even very short.  We hope for love and find companionship.  We desire friendship and find alliance.  We expect vocation and land a job.   We have high expectations, but low experience.   So, over time, our expectations can diminish, and we find ways both to accept that outcome and to militate against it.  Experience ever trumps, and often disappoints, expectation.  We want an A and get B.  We want a Porsche and get a Ford.  We want a full church, and get half of that.

How different Easter!  The Easter gospel is so strangely, hauntingly different.  It is not just a matter of a church being full (though that is very nice).  It is the experience of the women, who come to the tomb, in the face of their expectation.  Luke begins and ends this gospel of restoration power with the women.  A gathering of women engaged in a traditional task of preparing a body with spices and ointment.  Luke revises, not to say restores, Mark’s earlier account.  Christ has triumphed over the cross and that triumph is based on appearances—experiences—of the risen Lord, experiences of restorative power.

For St. Luke, the resurrection of Jesus brings the restoration of life, the redemption of the world, the re-creation of the church.  Hence his location of all these stories in Jerusalem, where the spirit will come upon the church come Pentecost.

The Women

We might ponder especially this Easter the women in Luke 24, the prototypes of faithful people in the church, your own progenitors:  sent on a thankless mission…heading for the stench of death…facing a corrupted corpse and a corrupted hope…dreading the visual and spiritual encounter…worried too about the practicalities (spices, cloths, stone)…together, at least, in their dread and sorrow, together…leave the messy things to the women…carrying with them, at daybreak, the memory of Passover loss…perhaps hoping for one last earthly moment of connection with One who brought meaning, belonging, and empowerment… Jewish women of the first century, not exactly the Lords of creation…three for whom the ministry of Jesus was in ruins, consigned to failure…it is a tomb after all to which they march, conscripted into the army of the least, last, and lost…

‘I dread the sight of him, torn and bloody.  I dread the lifting of him, and the stench.  I dread the cold of the stone, the darkness of the crypt—it makes me shiver shake.  I dread to touch him.  I dread facing him and the future, and facing the future without him.  I dread how awful the world is, and now that light love glimmer doused.  I dread the walk home, full of emptiness.’

Come Easter we recall:  something happened, with power, to restore the life of a desolated community, and to restore the lives of particular women and men, who have given us the record of the Easter restoration.  Easter is about restoration, resurrection, rebuilding, re-creation.

They expected a corpse and found an angel.  They expected a stone and found an opening.  They expected and ending and found a beginning.  They expected death, real pungent death, and found life.  No wonder they were perplexed.

The women breathed apocalyptic air.  The church breathed messianic air.  The evangelist breathed dualistic air.  We are recovering naturalists.  Some assembly required here, that is, some translation, from worldview to worldview.  These are symbols to be interpreted more than doctrines to be propounded.

Easter: Wherein our worst fears are not realized in dread, in bread, and in spread. Wherein, for once, our experience if far better than our expectation. For the Easter news of Jesus Christ is not about creation, but about redemption, about restoration. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about building, but about rebuilding.  The good news of Jesus Christ not about the beginning, but the next beginning.  The good news of Jesus Christ is not about creation but about a new creation.


It raises a personal question for those in their later sixties:  with time remaining, what do you hope to restore? Endow? Rebuild?

As said EE Cummings “I thank you Lord for this most amazing day…”

As Tug McGraw so well said, “You gotta believe.”

As Butch Cassidy told the Sundance Kid, “Kid, I’ve got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.’  M Twain.

As Judy Collins sang,  “I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose and still, somehow, it’s life’s illusions I recall.  I really don’t know life at all!”

Exemplum Docet

You can hear restorative words every week:

“Hello, my name is John, I am an alcoholic…”  Restoration.

“I enrolled to start my education again…”  Restoration.

“I just called, Dad, it’s Easter.  I know we haven’t gotten along very                                   well. But I wanted to be in touch…”  Restoration.

“She joined the Y last month.  She had to start again toward health.”


“This meeting is about changing our company to save it.”  Restoration.

“We are here to try to prepare our church for the next century.”

“I took communion because I wanted my life to change.”  Restoration.

“In the time I have I will share my heart with those I love.”

“Hi Mom.  I went to church today.  It felt good to be there.: Restoration.

“I’m 45 years old, and I’ve never been able to commit to anything or

anyone.  With you, I am going to try.”  Restoration.

“For 30 years there has been a woman inside me waiting to come                          alive, to be.  I have crying other people’s tears.  No more.” Restoration.

“I made a mistake when I was 19.  I have been beating myself up for it

ever since.  I guess I’ll move on.”  Restoration.

“Today you made me happy.  I haven’t laughed like that since school.

Where have I been all these years?” Restoration.


New Creation Augustine

‘Twas not the creation which settled Augustine’s heart. Here is restoration from our neighborhood.  It was the grace of restoration.  No, he saw too well who we are by nature, and the restoration turn the redemptive God of Easter gives our souls:


Sloth poses as the love of peace: yet what certain peace is there besides the Lord?

Extravagance masquerades as abundance: but God is never ending store of sweetness.

The spendthrift makes a pretence of liberality; but God is the most generous dispenser of good.

The covetous want many possessions for themselves: but God possesses all.

The envious struggle for preferment: but what is to be preferred before God?

Anger demands revenge: but what vengeance is as just as God’s?

Fear shrinks from any sudden unwanted danger, for its only care is safety: but to God nothing is strange, nothing unforeseen. (Confessions,50).

It was grace, redeeming power: “not in reveling and in drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.   But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rather arm yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. )(Rom13:13)’”.  For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (Confessions, 178). “ That’s restoration.

Anderson Deliverance

Here is restoration from my neighborhood:  Several years ago, a young man from my neighborhood, upstate New York, one Batavia boy, set out for the Marines.  He did a couple of tours.  Then a job opened up in journalism. He was young!  First he went to South Africa.  And then to Israel.  Later, he chose to transfer to Lebanon.  Free, healthy, successful, gaining influence—what a life.  Then one Saturday he went early to play tennis in Beirut.  Along the way, a black sedan pulled him to the curb.  He was blindfolded, stuffed in the truck and whisked away, carted from basement to tenement to apartment.  He spent all day and all night hooded and chained.  For six years.

It’s one thing to build a life—free, healthy, successful, influential.  Another to redeem a life.

I remembered Terry Anderson’s story again this week.  In the darkness, in the bondage, through the terror, out of the misery he found … a new life, a new creation.  He found faith.  Or faith found him.  He read the Bible, cover to cover, more than 50 times.  It was his only story.  As it is ours.

50 times, he watched Moses slay the Egyptian.

50 times, he saw Israel run from Pharaoh.

50 times, he heard the chariots chasing God’s folk.

50 times, he wondered at the Red Sea parting.

50 times, he gasped as the returning water drowned Pharaoh.

50 times, he fidgeted as Israel just wandered and wandered in


50 times, he heard the promise of milk and honey.

50 times, he sat with Moses on Mt. Nebo.


Then, as Moses lay dying for the 50th time, a knock came at Anderson’s door.  And again he was whisked away, but this time, by grace, to freedom.  Do you remember his landing in New York?  Do you recall his walk across the tarmak?  Do you recollect his drive—they closed the highway to all traffic—to Midtown?  Do you remember his words?   “I have faith in God”.


It’s one thing to grow up in Batavia and build a life.


It’s another thing, hooded and chained and trapped in later life to see life redeemed.  And some bondage comes to us all. That’s power.  That’s restoration.  That’s power.


I Expect Great Things


45 years ago, Martin King was killed.  But he transformed our land.  His words transformed our rhetoric.  His marches changed our culture. His leadership fashioned a new middle class.  His hope kindled our hope.  His courage inspired our own.  45 years ago.   I love a story he told many times about power, redeeming power.  So hidden we miss it, in borrowed upper room, in a tragic crucifixion, in a temporary tomb, in a woman’s report of resurrection, in little hands, scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing to finish the new creation…

The gnarled hands—the cross, Good Friday.  The expectation—the resurrection, Easter. (No matter who you are today, somebody helped you to get there.  It may have been an ordinary person, doing an ordinary job in an extraordinary way. )  Here is restoration from your neighborhood:

There is a magnificent lady, with all the beauty of blackness and black culture, by the name of Marion Anderson that you’ve heard about and read about and some of you have seen.  She started out as a little girl singing in the choir of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  And then came that glad day when she made it.  And she stood in Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic Orchestra in the background in New York, singing with the beauty that is matchless.  Then she came to the end of the concert, singing Ave Maria as nobody else can sing it.  And they called her back and back and back, and she finally ended by singing, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’.   And her mother was sitting out in the audience, and she started crying; tears were flowing down her cheeks.  And the person next to her said, “Mrs Anderson, Why are you crying? Your daughter is scoring tonight.  The critics tomorrow will be lavishing their praise on her.  Why are you crying?

And Mrs. Anderson looked over with tears still flowing and said, “I’m not crying because I’m sad, I’m crying for joy.” She went on to say, “You may not remember, you wouldn’t know.  But I remember when Marian was growing up, and I was working in a kitchen till my hands were all  but parched, my eyebrows all but scalded.  I was working there to make it possible for my daughter to get an education.  And I remember Marian came to see me and said, “Mother,  I don’t want to see you having to work like this.” And I looked down and said, “Honey, I don’t mind it.  I’m doing it for you and I expect great things of you.”

And finally one day somebody asked Marian Anderson in later years, “Miss Anderson, what has the been the happiest moment of your life?  Was it that moment in Carnegie Hall in New York?”  She said, “No, that wasn’t it/”  “Was it that moment you stood before the Kings and Queens of Europe?” “No that wasn’t it”.  “ Well, Miss Anderson, was it the moment Sibelius of Finland declared that his roof was too low for such a voice?” “No, that wasn’t it.”  “Miss Anderson, was it the moment that Toscanini said that a voice like your comes only once in a century?” “No, that wasn’t it.” “What was it then, Miss Anderson.”  And she looked up and said quietly,  “The happiest moment in my life was the moment I could say, “Mother, you can stop working now.”

Marian Anderson realized that she was where she was because somebody helped her to get there.  (MLKing, “A Knock at Midnight”). That’s restoration.  In the mother’s gnarled hands—the cross.  In the mother’s voiced and great expecations—the resurrection.


You are a people soaked in a sense of restoration!  The church:  women at the tomb!  The church:  loving rebuilding not just building! The church:  you present today, voicing redemption!  The church:  waiting six years with Terry Anderson in prison!  The church:  giving Augustine grace!  The church:  singing with the voice of Marian Anderson!

Wonderfully created, more wonderfully restored…



Come ye faithful raise the strain

Of triumphant gladness

God has brought his Israel

Into joy from sadness.

Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke

Jacob’s Sons and Daughters

Traveled with unmoistened foot

Through the Red Sea waters.


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

March 30

Coming to Ourselves

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 24:1-12

The real text for my sermon this evening is the two verses preceding the official text from Luke, namely, Luke 23: 55-56.  “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.  Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.  On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” Matthew and Mark agree that after Jesus was dead, the women gathered spices but had to wait out the Sabbath before they could embalm Jesus.  John differs by saying that Nicodemus already had embalmed Jesus with spices before he was placed in the tomb.  But they all agree that the Sabbath was a time through which the disciples just had to wait.  Our Easter Vigil symbolizes that waiting.  But unlike the disciples whose wait looked back toward the Good Friday death and desolation, ours points toward the joy of Easter.

Jesus’ original disciples spent the Sabbath in traumatized disorientation.  They did not know who or where they were after the shock of Jesus’ arrest, the hurried denials and evasions by the leading disciples, and the crucifixion.  The text says they rested, but that was because of the commandment regarding the Sabbath.  I can’t imagine it was a peaceful rest.

Consider this theological point.  There is a profound sense in which Good Friday and Easter are always simultaneously with us, not the latter succeeding the former.  Every day we orient ourselves to follow Christ by picking up our cross. Some days are worse than others but life is a continual minefield of crosses.  Likewise every day we enjoy the new life of fulfilled orientation to God as in Easter.  Every day grace abounds if we but have the eyes to see. Part of the maturation of spiritual life is keeping our feet on the ground as we traverse the minefield of crosses while keeping our eyes on heaven where we already live in God’s light and joy. But I want to say that the experience of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting after desolation and before joy, is also a dimension of every day.  Every day we live in a condition of profound disorientation, just like the first disciples, and we require a spirituality to embrace that too.

We orient our lives by a great many things, but I believe they fall into five ultimate categories.

First, we orient ourselves by how we deal with the choices in our lives.  Each of us every day faces value-laden possibilities, and how we choose determines our moral character. We all make bad choices sometimes and it is common for us to think of ourselves as sinners who need forgiveness and mercy.  We are disoriented with regard to our obligations when we do not know how to live with ourselves and our bad choices.

Second, we orient ourselves by how we deal with the need for wholeness and integrity in our personal lives.  Sometimes we are quite literally broken with illness, disability, or other crippling conditions that inhibit our integration.  In deeper senses, becoming whole means coming to terms with the important components of our lives, our talents and career dreams, our families of origin, God bless them, our social conditions such as race, class, wealth, and intelligence, the major historical issues of our watch, and a host of other things.  Each of us has a wrangle of internal conditions that are integrated one way or another but often in ways that are contradictory, fragmented, and deadening.  The quest for wholeness is deep and unending.     Third, we orient ourselves by how we relate to other people and to the institutions and natural ecologies of our environment.  In some respects, these others are internal to our own experience and we treat them according to how they lie in our orientation to personal wholeness.  But that is also to miss the very point of their otherness.  Those other things are not just part of us but exist in their own right.  Every religion says that we should love those other things.  Loving other people is not the same thing as loving institutions or loving various things in our natural environment.  But love involves some kind of appropriate respect for those others precisely as other than ourselves but equally creatures of God.  Jesus was particularly strong on the commandment of love.

Fourth, we orient ourselves by how we find worth and meaning in life.  Some of our value consists in how we integrate our lives’ components.  But we also have effects on others for better or worse, effects that they have to integrate into their lives in ways beyond our control.  We have impacts on the institutions in which we live.  Our very metabolism impacts the environment.  Our value-identity in ultimate perspective is not only what we have integrated into our lives but the effects for better and worse we have on others who have to integrate our effects into their own integral reality.

Fifth, perhaps the most important domain of orientation is how we relate to the very existence of our world, especially of ourselves and place.  Do we affirm the creation in gratitude and joy?  Or is there a low-voiced bagpipe drone of resentment at having to navigate that minefield of crosses, at having to live life so full of failure and suffering, of struggling alongside Job to respond to his wife’s advice to curse God and die?  Sometimes our orientation to life is to give up, and that temptation is nearly always with us.

The problems of righteousness, quests for wholeness, relations with others, what our lives add up to, and how we relate to our Creator are ultimate conditions of human existence. They define us existentially in ultimate ways.  To the extent we have symbols and practices to engage these ultimates, we are religious.  In one sense, everyone is oriented in all these ways.  But often we are oriented badly.  Sometimes the loss of those symbols and practices disorients us. I wager each person here has suffered ultimate disorientation at least momentarily when the religious path gets lost.

Consider the first disciples on the Sabbath.  They had been galvanized to transform their lives and follow Jesus by coming to adopt something like the following story.  Jesus brought them into a radical reordering of their religion’s moral life by saying it was a matter of the heart, not just behavior, as in the Sermon on the Mount.  Joining with him in this movement healed them in various ways and made them more whole.  The journey for which he was the new Moses required them to love one another, more, to love those outside their ingroup, indeed to love their enemies, and they were slowly learning such love.  Their lives were given transformative meaning because of their participation in this story of the incoming of the kingdom of God where Jesus would rule and the Twelve Disciples would be his viceroys over the tribes of Israel.  God in this story was not only the creator but the triumphant king who would bring about justice, destroy evil, and reward his followers with love and mercy.  Something like this is what they believed, and many Christians believe this today, indeed think it is the meaning of Easter.

But by the first Holy Saturday this story was in shambles.  The moral purification of his Judaism was ground to pieces in the underhanded collusion between its leaders and the feckless Pilate.  The sense of personal healing was destroyed by the failure of the renewal project and manifested in the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by the disciples.  The relation to the world that was supposed to be loving was slammed back in the dirty politics leading to crucifixion, snapping Jesus alleged kingship like a twig.  Jesus was not going to be king and rule in justice in the divine kingdom.  And the Creator sent no angels, did not take away the cup, and was just absent: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?!!”  Nothing that previously had oriented the disciples in ultimate ways was left.  That story was false.

Sometimes we suffer from a similar disorientation.  For instance, think about the Church.  One of the ancient images of the Church is that it is the Ark, like Noah’s Ark, that can carry us to salvation. The Ark is an orienting metaphor.  But then, when we realize that our Church in the 21st century denies the full humanity of large groups of people, for example homosexuals, or in the 20th century denied the legitimate findings of science in the name of a culture-bound misappropriation of the Bible, or in the 19th century defended the enslavement of large numbers of people, or in the Middle Ages whipped up crusades to kick ass for Jesus, the leaky Ark can no longer provide ultimate orientation.  Now, I could have referred to the crusades as “passionate devotion to hastening the Kingdom of God,” as they spoke of it then.  But they were so mistaken as to be vulgar, and my vulgar phrase is more appropriate.  When the aura of our customary communal orientations to salvation turns from holy to vulgar, we feel something of the disorientation of Holy Saturday.

Or consider your more personal senses of ultimate orientation.  Have you ever thought that some choice you made was so evil in its consequences, wicked in its motivation, and culpable regarding your moral character that you wouldn’t accept forgiveness if it were offered?  Have you ever felt so broken and contradictory to the core that you abandon hope for personal integrity of any sort?  Have you ever felt that your failure to love, not the heroic love of enemies that Jesus commanded but the simple love of friends he said was easy, is so egregious that you hate yourself?  Have you ever thought that all the things you believed make life meaningful are delusions fit for children?  Have you ever raged against the God, or the accident, that gave you life because it’s just not worth it?  I suspect all of us have even if we usually hide those feelings under an apple-butter layer of piety.  I suspect we have these feelings thrumming away in our psyches all the time.

In themselves, these feelings are part of life and are not disorienting.  What is disorienting is not to have religious symbols, beliefs, and practices that acknowledge them and give them proper orientation.  The problem with these feelings is that they undermine and show up as shams so many of the domestic orienting structures of our religion.  Holy Saturday symbolizes the pervasive and profound sense that our religion is in shambles.

I said at the beginning that we, unlike the first disciples, abide Holy Saturday with an orientation to Easter morning.  Now let me tell you what Easter is not.  Easter is not an affirmation of some old story that postulates victory so as to erase the desolation of Good Friday and the disorientation of Holy Saturday.  That triumphalist theology has been common in Christian history but it is just whistling in the dark.  Easter is not the happy ending of a story that had some dark moments.  In fact, Easter is the demonstration that, despite our many stories that give life proximate meanings, ultimate orientation cannot be in a story at all.  The problem is the belief that any story can give ultimate orientation.  One of the meanings of Good Friday is that the actual story of each of us is that we inevitably lose and die.  One of the meanings of Holy Saturday is that no story ultimately can justify our moral lives, or our brokenness, or our estrangements, or our despair, or our hatred of existence. The Easter gospel requires us to give up on stories for ultimate orientation and come to ourselves in God irrespective of our stories.

The resurrection means that God is never absent after all, despite how it seemed to Jesus on the cross.  The astonishing thing about the symbolic power of the resurrection is that it says that ultimate orientation for us all comes from finding our center in God the Creator, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  What happened in Jesus’ story and in ours, is not ultimately important, and this is ultimately important to recognize.  As sources of orientation, our stories are to be relativized in light of our fundamental orientation to God our Creator.

The problem with our stories, true as they might be, is that they make it seem as if we are the centers of our lives.  But to the contrary God is the center of our lives.  God’s creation is the ultimate cosmic reality, and our own parts in it are only proximately important and then only to us.  Easter is not about Jesus beating Pilate, or the Devil.  It is not about God rescuing his Son from a sticky situation.  It is about the glorious reality of God everywhere and always grounding and holding all our stories, a truth so easy to forget when we live under the illusion that our stories are ultimately rather than proximately important.

Our Easter joy is to accept our moral lives for what they are, including our failures, and to tunnel beyond morality to God the creator of an immensely value-filled universe.  Easter joy is to accept the brokenness of our lives and meditate into to the wholeness of God who gives us our complexities. Easter joy is to accept our estrangements and enter into God’s glorious fecundity in the Other anyway.  Easter joy is to accept the fragmentations of life’s so-called meanings and receive the depths of God who creates all things, even those that do not add up.  Easter joy is to accept the world as it is and consent to being in general because this is God’s act.

So you see that, with the truly ultimate orientation to God, our Easter joy brings a sense of humor to the proximate stories of our moral adventures, quests for wholeness, fumbling attempts to love, concerns about what we are worth, and essays to say whether life is worth living.  Because of God, whatever we do and are ultimately is just fine.  Life is a comedy after all.  Easter is a riot of laughter, from God’s perspective.

With such an ultimate orientation, decentering ourselves and centering our orientation on God, of course we should go back to ordinary life and try to do better morally, to become more whole, to love better, to enrich the world as best we can, and to love the God who gives us life.  Let’s hear it for sanctification! These proximate stories are the actual content of the life we must engage, the stories of our watch. Because of the Easter orientation to God we can start afresh in each of these ways.  But the Easter theme of “new life” is consequent upon coming to ourselves in God rather than hunting for ourselves in our stories.  Our ultimate identity is manifest when we take ourselves ultimately seriously with a sense of humor.

Have you ever wondered why our religion emphasizes Jesus as so meek and humble?  Why does it emphasize Passion-week which is the story of the failure of his regal story?  Why do we preach Christ crucified?  It is because we believe our true orientation is in God and not the historical victory of some regal divinity. What did Jesus do?  Beat the Romans?  Purify Second Temple Judaism?  Heal everybody?  Make proper theologians of the disciples?  Bring righteousness to Zion?  Behave like a proper Messiah?  No, he accepted the cross and commended his soul to God.

The Easter joy in which we come to ourselves in God allows us also to inhabit the particular stories of our lives with their Good Friday minefields of crosses, but with a sense of humor.  It also allows us to acknowledge our disorientations that come with the ambiguities of morality, integrity, engagement, meaning, and life-affirmation; we can abide Holy Saturday with a laugh—who needs all that story-orientation to be ultimate anyway?  With Easter joy we consent to God in our small ways as God consents to us in the great creation of which we are humble parts.  Amen.

~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

March 28

I Have Set You an Example

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Introduction (Nico Romeijn-Stout):

Three days before Life triumphed over sin and death, Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, took the time to gather with his closest community to celebrate a ritual meal.  His disciples thought that they were present to celebrate the Passover, but the evening did not unfold as any of them had imagined.  Instead their time together in the Upper Room was full of new experiences, of new rituals.

Here tonight we will embody three ancient Christian traditions associated with Maundy Thursday: foot washing, communion, and the stripping of the sanctuary.  This worship service can become a bit overwhelming with so many rituals back to back.  We challenge you, as we navigate this service together, to be mindful of the reasons for the rituals.

As we hear in today’s Gospel lesson, during the meal Jesus got up, took off his outer robe, and washed his disciples’ feet.  The Teacher and Lord humbled himself in service to his disciples.  Jesus set for them and for us an example, a pattern of service which we should emulate.

In that same meal, Jesus also set for us an example of how we should eat as a community.  In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, Jesus gave us a pattern by which to remember him.  When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are reminded of the Life and Covenant through Jesus Christ.

Tonight we also follow in ancient Christian tradition by stripping our sanctuary of all decorative and liturgical objects as a reminder of both the barrenness of a world without Christ, and also to make room for the new Life we find in the resurrection of Easter.

Jesus, who is the path to Life Eternal, recognized that we would need nourishment in order to thrive.  And so he gave us Life-giving rituals to sustain us.  Tonight we remember those rituals.

Stripping (Caitlin White):

Stripping of the altar is an ancient tradition that Christian communities celebrate in many different ways. Some, like Marsh Chapel, believe that this is a time of reflection on the weighty emotions and issues of the passion and resurrection. Here at Marsh Chapel, we strip our sanctuary of liturgical decorations to reflect the barrenness of a world without Christ. We make the space to reflect on the worst of human deeds on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Ours is a theological position that allows people to embrace whatever truths they might find in their own reflection- whatever personal narratives relate for them, whatever view of sin and redemption they understand, whatever beauty or disgust they behold in the crucifixion- it makes room for the truths of many people.

Many communities with a similar understanding of the ritual also strip the sanctuary of everything but leave a single cross shrouded in dark cloth, a symbol of the spiritual weight and mourning of the season.

Many Christian communities are much more fixed upon the notion of atonement- the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die for us to be forgiven. Many strip the altar to remember how Jesus was stripped of dignity, clothes, and finally his life, but that may not be a theology that all of us embrace. At least, that might only be one aspect of all that the cross can be for you.

As Dean Hill reminded us in his meditation on the Passion this past Sunday, “Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.”

My challenge therefore to those who hold an atoning, sacrificial way of thinking about this ritual is not that I necessary disagree, but that Christians in our culture (myself included) have a poor understanding of sacrifice, of waiting and of loss. How can we? In a world of fast food, fad diets, and disposable everything, we have forgotten patience and the seasons of life.

Perhaps the question for us today should be: What are you being stripped of? Why did we just do Lenten reflections?  Why give up chocolate – is it just a way to not gain weight in time for spring break and the beginning of summer, or is there something more there? I often think we get caught up in the altar mentality- we give up things because it is hard, not because they are wiser left behind.

Any good gardener knows that the first thing you must do in the spring is pull up all the weeds that have taken over your soil. If anything good and intentional is to take root, it can’t be bumping into other forces, other agendas that rob it of the resources to survive.

The purpose of our ritual should be to root out what distracts us, those noisy things that rob us of positivity, purpose, and connectedness to God, ourselves, and one another. We need to give our time, resources, and communal creativity to something that feeds our spiritual growth and brings more light into the world.


Communion (Nico)

An incredibly intelligent 9 year-old named Becca, in order to be allowed to recieve communion, explained it like this:   Jesus knew that his friends would miss him. He also knew they had to eat every day. So, he told them to remember him when they ate and that they should eat together. That way they’d be able to be friends and get through anything.”


The communion liturgy I am most familiar draws upon 1 Corinthians 10:17 in which Paul writes “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul chastises members of the community for the way in which they are eating their communal meals – a practice probably tied closely to practices of communion.  What was happening was that some members of the community were beginning to eat before others had even arrived, causing a rift in the body.


You see, from Paul’s first-century pen to Becca’s twenty-first century lips, Christian understandings of communion have always been founded upon community.  When we gather at the table, we are united in this meal.  When we break bread, we are one body.  This is a meal to cast off divisions, to cast off hierarchies and inequalities and simply to come, in unity as one body.


In the tradition of Marsh Chapel the communion table is open.  All are welcome to come forward and receive communion.  But the question we must ask is not so much who is welcome, but who is invited? And that question must begin to be asked not in the middle of a service of worship, but rather after  the service, when we leave the sanctuary, go into the streets of Boston, into our neighborhoods.  It is a question we must carry with us as we prepare to gather again every Sunday for ordered worship.  It is a question which must dwell as much with pew-dwellers as with pulpit-dwellers.


The ritual of Holy Communion is a life-giving ritual.  It is a meal in which we may be physically and spiritually fed.  Jesus gave us this ritual of community, a ritual to sustain the lives of his followers.    Given its life-sustaining nature, perhaps we should interpret communion in light of the example-giving life Jesus led.  In his life, Jesus gave us the example by which we should be in community, by which we should feed ourselves and others.  In his life, Jesus gave us the example by which we should live, and by which we should serve.

Foot washing – service (Caitlin):

The service of foot washing- that moment you have all been waiting for, grooming for, wondering how many days your neighbor has recycled those heavy wool socks for. It isn’t a very common spiritual practice for many people and I will be the first to admit that it can be awkward. I will also tell you that it can be thought provoking and spiritually enriching as well- precisely because it is uncomfortable. So why of all the ways to display service did Jesus chose this strange ritual? Why did Jesus choose a ritual at all?


Psychologist, speaker, and activist, Staci Haines might have some insights for my questions. In 2011, I attended a Calling Congregations conference offered by the Fund for Theological Education where she spoke to a crowd of both clergy and laity who seek to renew the church particularly by involving and equipping its young people. She challenged them with the findings of psychology that in recent years has begun to understand that our memories are really in our muscles. The body, in time of panic and adversity, will bypass logic and emotionalism and shortcut to whatever patterns we have trained our muscles for. Aristotle was right- we are what we habitually do. Our problem in the church, she observed, is that our vision- our ideals- our mission statements do not sync up with our practices. We want to put an end to suffering and hunger but we treat service like an event, not a life style. We want to throw our doors open to everyone with love but we haven’t gotten to know anyone who doesn’t look, act, and live like us in so long we’ve forgotten how. We have to retrain our practices to look more like our hopes.


Perhaps, Jesus also understood that rituals can retrain our bodies and our practices. So he took this last chance to serve his disciples.


In tonight’s service, we sing hymns, read lessons, and receive communion, all before foot washing. Honestly, that is because we think it is gross to touch feet and then food. However, in the Jewish custom of Jesus’ time, foot washing would have been the first event of the evening. Ritual cleaning is how you prepared for a meal, for Jesus’ breaking of the bread, to hear his message… Jesus started the evening with service. In times of danger and doubt, serving others was his first reflex, his instinctive response. And he asked them to imitate their Lord- to learn to serve one another in the same humbling way.


Of all the things Jesus could have saved to say for that moment- that last meal- he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… Just as I have loved you.” At least that is how the writer of John reports it to us. But was it really a new commandment? Didn’t that whole love other people concept show up a few times by then? I’m not convinced that it was all that groundbreaking for Jesus. I suspect that this has a lot more to do with our human tendency to need reminding.  And given how absentminded the disciples are portrayed throughout the gospels, I’d guess that they were no exception to the rule. Jesus knew that we need practices that Remind us that love was the way of Christ- Remove us from old habits to try-try again until service is our first instinct- AND Reform our vision for the future so that we might live into it more fully.



(Nico) In removing us from our old habits of living in isolation from our neighbors, isolation even from those who sit at the table with us; in reforming our vision so that we may see a future in which we are all more fully alive, Jesus has shown us the way.

(Caitlin) In showing us the way, Jesus last teaching to his community was love – and so it should be ours as well.

(Nico) We walk in the footsteps of Jesus when we… Love others.

(Caitlin) We walk in the footsteps of Jesus when we… Serve others.

(Nico) We walk in the footsteps of Jesus when we…Break bread with community.

(Caitlin) As we are stripping the sanctuary, we are stripping it of things, not of people.  As we prepare to remember the death of Christ, let’s not strip Jesus’ message of Life.  It is Life that has the last word – and that word is Love.

~Nico Romeijn-Stout and Caitlin White, Ministry Associates

March 24

The Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 22:14-23:56

A Meditation on the Palms

Seeing With the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010

The Dean:   If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts

People:   And we doThe Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe in God

People:   And we do

The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust in God

People:   And we shall.

A Meditation on the Passion Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Deliver Us From Evil, 2005

The Dean:   To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.

People:   Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.

People:   Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.

The Dean:   Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.

People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.

The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.

People:   Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.

The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi‐colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

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

March 17

Filled with Fragrance

By Marsh Chapel

John 12: 1-8

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Our mentor and friend Rev. Russell Clark, a Colgate and Boston University graduate, served a small church in Oriskany Falls , NY for many years.  He dodged and weaved as appointments elsewhere were offered, to bigger churches and salaries.  He stayed.  He fell in love with a quieter life, natural beauty, the intrigue of pastoral ministry, the mystery of the cotidian. The Clark home sported a large twirling book shelf in the living room, filled with novels and histories and poetry.


His lay leader died after some years, to the regret and lasting hurt of the community.  People are not replaceable.  The widow, usually of regular perfect attendance in worship, stayed home, for some time.  At last in Lent she appeared.  Russell asked her how she found her way through the morass, the mess, the maze of grief, and got back home to church.  “Well, it was not the scripture, though I love all the scripture.  It was not the hymns, though I sing them to myself day by day.  It was not your visits, though they were most gracious.  It was not the family care and feeding or that of the neighbors.  It was not my personal faith in the resurrection, though I do have faith.   It was not even prayer, though I practice formal prayer, evening and morning, at meals and at bedtime.


“It was just this:  the chickens had to be fed every morning.  So I had to get up every morning.  Once I was up, the rest of the day—and at last, over longer time, the week and month, including Sunday morning—seemed to fall in line.  It was the chickens.  The clucking of those hens.  The clucking of those hens meant more to me, in healing, than all the hymns of Easter.  The regularity of feeding them, early in the morning, restored me, over time.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.”



Come Lent, here at Marsh Chapel, we converse each year with our sibling Christians out of the Calvinist tradition.   We grow and learn, from and with, the slight differences, in sibling traditions, wherein we do not always agree, but agree to disagree agreeably.  Our interlocutor this year, 2013, is Marilynn Robinson—essayist, novelist, Calvinist.  Her love of Scripture, her sense of the eternal, her rendering of John Calvin, her prophetic defense of wonder in our time, her unwillingness to buy the cheap goods of a culture that languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, her celebration of quiet life, pastoral ministry, providential grace, and the deeps of love:  all these human gifts we gratefully receive from her this year.  Especially her sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary, health in the clucking of hens, helps us this year.

On Scripture:  One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded…(227)…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder

On Speech: What should we call the presiding intelligence that orchestrates the decision to speak as a moment requires?  What governs the inflections that make any utterance unmistakably the words of one speaker in this whole language-saturated world? 120

On Sin: It took, for instance, three decades of the most brilliant and persistent campaign of preachment and information to establish, in the land of liberty, the idea that slavery was intolerable. 249


On Salvation: (Calvin’s) theology is compelled and enthralled by an overwhelming awareness of the grandeur of God…his sense of things is so overwhelmingly visual and cerebral, that the other senses do not interest him 221…heaven’s essence for him is that it is inconceivable in the world’s terms, another order of experience

On Service: We should maintain an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know…encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are… The Judeo Christian ethic of charity derives from the assertion that human beings are made in the image of God, that is, that reverence is owed to human beings simply as such….Our civilization believed for a long time in God and the soul and sin and salvation, assuming, whatever else, that meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world. 84…I do not think it is nostalgia to suggest that it would be well to reestablish the setting apart of time traditionally devoted to religious observance… 99 Science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality.71…  137



Speaking of speech, my former teacher Tom Driver recently remembered:


“I was twenty-five years old in 1950, a bachelor newly arrived in New York City to attend graduate school. I bought a single ticket and went alone to see director Harold Clurman’s production of The Member of the Wedding, by the southern author Carson McCullers. With the rest of the audience, I was put under a spell by Ethel Waters singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” There came another spell at the final curtain. The play’s central focus has been the longing of a pre-adolescent girl to escape from her loneliness. Young Frankie Addams (played by Julie Harris) wants to be part of the forthcoming wedding of her older sister. This privilege is not readily granted, but In the last scene, the way becomes clear, and she exclaims with joy: “The wedding will be the we of me.” Curtain.


“I will never forget what happened next. There was long applause and several curtain calls. And then we just sat there. No one wanted to leave. The strangers sitting next to me were just as slow to move as I was. After a few moments we hitherto strangers began to talk to each other. The theater had become the “we” of us. The performances on stage (and everything that Harold Clurman and the crew did to enable them) had performed something over and above the dramatis personae roles. They had created for that brief moment in time — less brief than most such occasions — a community of people whose lives otherwise did not cross. It is called theater magic, which means no one quite understands it and can never predict just when it will occur. But when it does, our joy is immense. It is similar to an experience of religious transcendence.

“In an age in which the term “public” has been denigrated in favor of “privatization,” when housing is increasingly “gated “if it is affordable at all, when public education and health care and transportation and all manner of intrinsically social services are either neglected or attacked as impingements upon “liberty,” when guns are thought to be necessary almost everywhere in the name of freedom and self defense — in such a time, the liminality engendered by ritual, theater, and religion, carries an important potential.”

Our gospel then raises for us the question of authority.



Religions wrestle with authority, all the time, everywhere.  The current change in Rome, and the ascendancy of Francis, our brother, whom we honor, encourage, and celebrate, recalls for us centuries of struggle over authority.  To the Calvinist right, all authority is vested in Scripture.  The Bible is the only full authority, ‘sola scriptura’, an historic, in some ways tragic manner of interpretation of life and love.  To the Catholic left, final authority is vested in the Bishop of Rome.  Before we, or more specifically I, become too critical of these vested stations, we, or I, must also recognize that at some point, some one has to break the tie, make the decision, guide the church, be ‘primus inter pares’, whether in the form of a breathing holy person or in the form of a spirited, breathing holy text.  My own tradition attempts to have it all or both ways, not always with shining success.  Methodism combines catholic tradition, reformation message, puritan discipline, Anglican liturgy, and pietist feeling.  Methodism interprets Scripture through Tradition, and Tradition through Experience, and Experience through Reason.  Such a separation of powers, by the way, has great advantages in a university setting, like this one.


But what of our gospel?  What form of authority does the Gospel of John prefer, select, elect, prize?  Ah, glad you asked.  No church in John, just a communal experience of Christ.  No leadership in John, just the deeds and words of the risen, I mean crucified, I mean incarnate, I mean spirited One.  No worries about ethics in John, no catalogue of virtues or vices, just a single command, to love.  No hierarchy, patriarchy, oligarchy, ecclesiology in John.  Just this:  Spirit.  Another Counselor.  With you forever.  A guide into all further truth.  How is that going to work?  Exactly.  That is why we have the letters of John, uno dos y tres, because, clearly, it did not.  The letters add in:  leadership, orthodoxy, ethics, teaching, form, all.  They wake from the Johannine dream.  But what a dream!  A spirited dream of spirit befitting any high Calvinist view of Scripture and any high Catholic view of clergy.  A dream of Spirit, leading to truth, over time.  A fullness of fragrance, spirit in life.  As in Proust, ‘What matters is to transform common occurrence into art (NYRB, 3/13).’

You will recognize the story of the anointing at Bethany.  Sort of…

It is like the familiar parable (sic):  A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who had fallen among thieves, so he went and he asked his father for his inheritance.  The father gave him seeds to plant, but most fell on rocky ground.  He appealed to a judge, who would not listen, and then to a dishonest steward, who would listen, but who stole the rest of the seeds, and then planted them and they multiplied thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.  But he left 99 of the fold and went after a lost sheep.  On the way, he stumbled on a lost coin, and put it in his tunic.  This will be like a mustard seed, he thought, which is small but grows a big plant.  He went back to his father and said, I am not worthy to be a son, but make me a worker in a vineyard, and pay me as much as you pay those who started at dawn.  Which of these do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?

I know you remember that one.

That is, John has somehow combined a story which was also known to Mark, and used by Matthew, with a story from Luke, unused by Mark or Matthew, and has added his own special ingredients, Johnannine special sauce if you will.  Or maybe a redactor re-edited portions of this passage.  For the record: John has added Judas as the stingy knee jerk liberal; John has added Judas’ motive, not so liberal, of greed;  John has not kept Mark’s ethical admonition, ‘For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want you can do good to them’. (But Matthew also apparently erased that sentence, for who knows what reason.)  John also has misplaced or erased the fine conclusion, which Mark writes and Matthew copies, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. John also neglects to repeat that Jesus said of Mary’s act that she has done a beautiful thing for me.  In other words, what has been told in John was not so much in memory of her, though perhaps in the rest of the whole world it was so.  Most delicately, Mark and John both use a rare adjective, rendered her by the English word ‘pure’, which comes in the original from the same root as the word ‘faith’.  The gospels repeated an admonition from Deuteronomy 15, ‘the poor are ever present’, not at all to discountenance care of the poor (so important to us, and rightly so), but to lift the fragrance, the wonder at the heart of the gospel, to the highest level. (Bultmann, perhaps rightly, hears here a reference to the full fragrance of gnosis spreading throughout the world.)

John, alone, fills the room with fragrance.  That is his point, here.  Incense, the sense of the holy, the mysterium tremendum, the idea of the holy, the presence.  Resurrection precedes crucifixion in this reading.  Crucifixion is merely a coming occasion for incarnation in this reading.  Incarnation is a lasting fragrance in this reading, the fullness of fragrance.


My friend Rev. John Holt says of his work in ministry:  ‘we are trying to help people discover their spiritual side so that they can make a difference for good in the world’.  That is what I am trying to do in and from this pulpit, trying to help people discover their spiritual side so that they can make a difference for good in the world.


Our poetic friend George Herbert wrote:

Love bade me welcome: yet my sould drew back, Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here : Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them : let my shame Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame? My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat.


A friend, of some more years than I, brought her children to worship on Christmas eve.  Afterward, she asked each one—6,8, and11 years old—what they most liked.  Said 6, ‘I especially liked the candle, except the wax dripped on my finger and that hurt.  Said 8, ‘I liked communion and the way the choir music drew us forward, together, into it.  Said 11, ‘I like the way you feel after you have been to church’.  6,8,11—they came to themselves.  And grandma did too.


Our neighbor Ron Dworkin wrote before his death: I shall take these two—life’s instrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty—as paradigms of a fully religious attitude to life…These are not convictions that one can isolate from the rest of one’s life.  They engage a whole personality.  They permeate experience:  they generate pride, remorse and thrill.  Mystery is an important part of that thrill. (NYTRB, 68, 3/13).

My friend Frank Halse has written of the presence, recently, a letter and seven poems.  Frank is a double Terrier, CLA\STH, now in his late eighties, a widower, living alone in the great snows of the Tug Hill Plateau.  He was the Protestant Chaplain at Syracuse University from 1965 to 1975.  He drew a short straw and did marvelous ministry.  He is a poet, and now his poetry is all about presence:

Dear Bob,

Joyce’s death left me empty.  Stunned even.  That emptiness stayed for the 1st year.  Then, two years ago, I began to be bumping into something that I finally put a name down. ‘The Presence”.  My first experience with the mystic corners of our world.

I felt unprepared and awkward, but in time, I began to experience what can only be described as whisperings quietly in my ears.  So I began to struggle with poetry as I think I was hearing:

God is as close as my breath

My heart pulsing my breast

No search reveals the Presence;

Only exhaustion, tragedy, and

Failure will temper my vision to

The point where I can sense the

Presence who responds to my

Needs with gifts of patience

From:  F Halse, Epiphany at Kennebunk Pond, 8/16/01



On the Sacred, Marilynn Robinson:  So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.  I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation.  With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.  The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.  In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous.

What is eternal must always be complete, if my understanding is correct.  So it is possible that time was created in order that there might be narrative—event, sequence and causation, ignorance and error, retribution, atonement.  A word, a phrase, a story falls on rich or stony ground and flourishes as it can, possibility in a sleeve of limitation.  Certainly time is the occasion for our strangely mixed nature, in every moment differently compounded, so that often we surprise ourselves, and always scarcely know ourselves, and exist in relation to experience, if we attend to it and if its plainness does not disguised it from us, as if we were visited by revelation.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Not everything measurable is meaningful, and not everything meaningful is measurable.

The greater the sea of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it.

The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.


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

March 10

A Prodigal Thought

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 15: 11

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Have you ever found yourself on the edge, verge or cusp of a new insight, or maybe even on the edge of a new life?

How much do you need (to acquire, to achieve, to conquer) before you are open to God? Open my eyes that I may see…

Maybe this winter morning, this Lenten hour, you too will have a prodigal thought, and you will come to your self.  Such an interesting phrase.  But when he came to himself…On coming into his true self…

There was a man who had two sons.  Notice all that is not here, before us today.  No incarnation.  No pedagogy.  No transfiguration.  No temptation.  No trial.  No passion. No crucifixion.  No resurrection.  Only a story about a man with two sons.  One who stays home.  And one who goes away.  Most of the listenership and most of the congregation today know this story, or at least have a vague lingering memory of some of it.  With the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is the most famous of Jesus’ parables, and rightly so.  It is the account of the lavish love, the personal love, the uncritical love, the joyful love, the parental love, the patient love, the courageous love, the magnanimous love, the ecstatic love, the gracious love—the love of God. For you.  God loves you.  You are loved, so you can love.  Because God loves me, I too can risk love.

A Turn of Phrase

Prodigal means extremely—extremely something:  wasteful, generous or abundant.  The verb is (an Aorist participle):  and coming (in) to himself (a moment in time, a process in thought).  “For till then he was beside himself, as all men are, so long as they are without God in the world.’ (J Wesley).

But notice that the gospel, love, is hinged today on a single phrase.  After his travel and squandering, and before his return and reception, the prodigal has a thought, a prodigal thought at that.  All of the gospel this Lord’s Lenten day turns on a thought.  When he came to himself…When he thought to himself…

Three pulpits ago Professor Roland Wolseley endured this minister’s more youthful preaching.  Now deceased, Dr Wolseley was the preeminent scholar in the field of African American journalism.  Through his post at Syracuse University he almost singlehandedly created the discipline, through the publication of many books, the guidance of doctoral students, and a dogged, fierce love of his field, the struggling saintly newspapers and journals of the black community.  Roland went to Medill in Chicago, at Northwestern.  There, in his twenties he fell under the spell of my own greatest pulpit hero, Ernest Freemont Tittle, at Evanston First UMC, then the largest UMC in the country.  Tittle, a pacifist, as was Wolseley, gathered a group of graduate students for fellowship and reconciliation.  Wolseley met his wife, Bernice, there, and she went on to be for many years Tittle’s secretary.  You can read about Tittle in Robert Moats Miller’s older biography, or in Christopher Evans more recent monograph.

In those Syracuse years, Roland, a person of deep faith and quiet humor, would trace the work of Tittle in contrast and connection to what he was hearing.  Occasionally, too occasionally, he would say, leaving church, ‘Tittle would be proud  of that one’.   Another of those early 1940’s graduate student couples, it happened, awaited us when we moved to Rochester, where Ruth and Vernon Lippitt then lived.  These people, young in the forties, were mature the eighties and nineties, but had lost nothing of their early conviction, a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement, found decades earlier, in the arm of a University congregation.  Marsh Chapel:  the seeds you plant today will flower and blossom and grow for decades, with telling affect.  Faint not, fear not, flag not!

Roland also kept us alive during administrative meetings, using punctuative humor.  Our trustees usually hired the same painter, a fine painter named Bogus, when the decay of the building outran their native parsimony.  When they couldn’t wait any longer to the paint a room, they made a motion to ‘hire Mr. Bogus’.  After the motion and second, with practiced timing, and with all knowing what was coming, yet unable not to laugh when it did—some things are just funny for no real reason—Dr. Wolseley would compliment the recent extravagance of the trustees in hiring Bogus, then add, speaking of Bogus, ‘Is the is guy for real?’  In eleven years I think I heard that question thirty times—‘Is Bogus for real’?—and yet it always made me smile.  After three hours of administrative board meeting, it doesn’t take much, that is true.

Roland was a careful listener.  He wanted the best for preaching and preacher, and, from Tittle, he knew the best, and he knew the rest.  Once the sermon including the phrase “I thought to myself”.  Afterward he asked sharply, ‘Why the redundancy?  Just say, ‘I thought’.’  He was probably thinking of William Strunk, ‘omit needless words’, a fence I have long since jumped, as you have the scars to attest.  But I took his advice.

Except, today, with love and real affection for Roland who is now in heaven, we wonder…When he came to himself.  There is something in that lingering middle voice construct in a language like ours that has no middle voice, only active and passive, but has lingering forms like this one.  The phrase shows the mind circling on itself,when he came to himself.   We do this in memory, come to ourselves.  We do this in discovery, come to ourselves.  We do this in prayer, come to ourselves.  Give some Lenten minutes to memory, discovery and prayer.  We do this in those moments when we realize there is more to life than meets the eye.  When he have a prodigal thought.  A new, wayward, slightly reckless, excessive, extravagant, prodigous thought.

Gnostic Thought

Now I put it to you:  how long has it been since you have had a prodigal thought?  The prodigal son is prodigally reckless in departure.  But he is prodigally excellent and ecstatic in return.  His negative prodigality in descent is eclipsed by his positive prodigality in resurrection.  How long has it been since you have come to yourself?

Though no one says so, and to my knowledge no one has yet so written, Luke 15 may be the most Gnostic of chapters in the New Testament.  It is about gnosis, self knowledge, coming to oneself. As the Gnostics taught, we are trapped in a far country, a long way from our true home, like a man who has squandered his birthright, and moved from light to darkness.  As the Gnostics taught, we are meant to get home, to get back home, to get back out from under this earthly, fleshly, pig slop bodily existence, and back to higher ground, to heaven, to the heaven beyond heaven, to the land of light, to the loving father, like a prodigal son returning to the home that is truly his.  As the Gnostics taught, there is just one way to get back home, one key to the magic door.  That way and that key is knowledge, self knowledge, the knowledge of one’s own self—whence w come, wither we go.  As the Gnostics taught, salvation comes from this sort of esoteric, personal, soulful knowledge.  When he came to himself…

It is jarring, I give you that, to admit that this most traditional and most popular and most orthodox of parables may well have grown up outside the barn, outside the fences of mainstream Christianity.  But there is nothing orthodox about the prodigal and his coming to himself.  His is truly a prodigal thought.  I need to get back home.  Back to the land of light.  Back to the pleroma.  Back to the God beyond God.  No ‘Christ died for our sins’, here.  No ‘lamb of God’, here.  No settled orthodox Christology here.  No cross, no gory glory, no Gethsemane, no passion of the Christ, here.  It all comes down to self awareness, to awakening, to a moment of clarity.  When he came to himself.The parable of the Prodigal Son is the most Gnostic, most heterodox, most Johannine of them all.  Stuck here in the middle of Luke, read here in the middle of Lent, interpreted here in the middle of March.

The Gospel challenges us to come out from hiding.

You cannot hide behind a distrust of organized religion today.  The prodigal thought soars beyond that.  You cannot hide behind a disdain for clergy, for formality, for robes and choirs and altars and candles.  This prodigal thought pierces all that.  You cannot behind the hideous moments in religious and Christian history—many there be—as a way to fend off the gospel, at least not this morning.  The knife cuts deeper, to the deeps, to your very soul.

You cannot hide on the left behind a critique of Catholicism today.  Prodigal thought soars beyond that.  You may reject the celibacy of the priesthood, the sacrifice of the mass, the subordination of women, and the infallibility of the pope.  But many, very many, Catholics do the same.  No, the gospel undercuts your smart but narrow critique, and asks about your soul.  You do have one you know.

I cannot hide on the right behind a critique of Calvinism today.  Prodigal thought soars beyond that.  I may reject Calvinist total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  Not all saints persevere, grace is resistible, atonement limitation is not divine, election has a human dimension, and depravity, well, it certainly is present, but not total.  But you know, many Calvinists, very many, would agree.  No, the gospel undercuts my own smart but narrow critique, and asks about my soul. I do have one, you know.

It asks whether you are coming to know yourself?  Are you?  This is the parable, oddly enough, that calls the seekers’ bluff.   Today the Gospel attacks where you have finally no ready defense.  It moves to your mind, your soul, your own most self.

Calvinist Interlocutor Lent 2013 M Robinson

As our Calvinist Lenten preaching partner this Lent, M Robinson, writes in The Death of Adam, and in Absence of Mind, prodigal thought is soul thought, and meant to change your life. She is a powerful voice today honoring the mind. A prodigal thought is a tussle between the mind and the world, the mind and the soul, the mind and itself.  Give her voice some space in your mind:

It all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos. 3…

Consider…The deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations and communities to be nurtured by the thought and culture they find there 9…The mind as felt experience…

We suffer today the exclusion of the felt life of the mind 35…A central tenet of the modern world view is that we do not know our own minds, motives or desires 59

The mind is an illusion according to modern theory… The renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind… 75

Yet we have… A singular capacity for wonder as well as for comprehension 72…

For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently

Soul is…a name for an aspect of deep experience  116… The self that stands apart from itself, that questions, reconsiders, appraises. 119…


How does your soul fare?  Are you open to the challenge of a prodigal thought—in memory, in discovery, in prayer?

When He Came to Himself in Memory


In my fifties I have come to myself, at least in one sense.  I realize I now have time for opportunities I no longer have.  Once I had opportunity but no time.  Now I have time but no opportunity. I walked on the Charles River the other wind swept day, along the northern bank, along Memorial Drive.  The wind blew hard and cold.  Now seven years into a delightful deanship, with things rolling, no tenure to earn, ten books out, 1000 sermons written and delivered, and so on, I have the real mental and spiritual freedom easily to converse with my dad.  But he is dead.  Now that I have time I don’t have him.  When I had him I didn’t have time.  Now I have the time.  Stepping along the river bank, in the heart of the city of Boston he so loved, across the river from the University he so loved, thinking of him whom I so loved, I came to myself.  And what would I not give for another conversation with him?  You know this in your own experience.  I am driven to memory, and saved by memory.


When He Came To Himself in Discovery

Our son is a thirty five year old lawyer in Albany, NY.   He wrote a letter to the editor of the paper there, about a man in his church who had died:

“The front page article ‘Religion? More reply ‘none’”, Oct 21, about the decline in our community, particularly in my demographic, forced me to think about why I still go to church, despite its flaws.  As I continued through the paper, I found my answer in the obituaries.

“I met Dr. Wesley Bradley at Trinity UMC about five years ago.  I was immediately drawn to him—to the earnestness of his handshake, to the comforting advice he offered me as a new dad, to the way he proudly strolled down Lark Street with his lovely bride as if it were their first date

“Although I did not know the extent of Dr. Bradley’s professional accomplishments until I read his obituary, I knew the greatness of his grace.  I witnessed the faith that had sustained him and I learned from his humble and caring example.


“The church provides a time and place for God’s grace to touch and connect us.  But for church I would not have known Dr. Bradley.  My soul, which now grieves his passing, would have remained unaffected.


“I go to church to feed my soul.  It’s not the only way to do it, but I think Dr. Bradley’s life of faith is worth my generation’s consideration.”


When He Came To Himself in Prayer


We stood with 500 eighteen year olds gathered Thursday evening past, in the wake of the death of our 18 year old student.  For many, in their teens, a first harsh encounter with death.  In a secular gathering they offered a secular prayer.  Some came to themselves that evening, thinking:


“We mean to be thoughtful, and to be together in our thoughtfulness.

We are not alone in our thoughts.  We have each other to lean on.

We will lean on our friends,  those with whom we can share a hug.

We will lean on our groups, classes, dorm and hallway neighbofrs, those who know our names and call us by name.

We will lean on our own traditions of memory and hope, so significant, now, those words and events and stories that place all experience in ultimate perspective.

We will lean on our religious traditions, wherein we sing and kneel.

We will lean on our faith, that dimension of life that is deepest and truest to our own most self, our soul, the dimension of deep experience.

We will lean on some snippets and memories of words and phrases—goodness and mercy will follow me, let us love one another, love is God, let us watch over one another in love.

We may be moved to wonder again, at life, the meaning of life, the boundaries of life, and our own choices and actions and words therein.

We will be thoughtful and we are not alone in our thoughts.”


Memory. Discovery. Prayer. What will it take for you?  How much more do you need (to acquire, to achieve, to conquer) before you are open to God?  God is patient.  He waits.  Like a dad who has time when his son does not.  He waits.  He waits at home, hoping for little dust rising on the trail a long way off, sign of a boy coming home.  He waits at home, knowing the pig husks we can mistake for real food.  He waits at home, having already given more than enough in inheritance.  He waits at home, awaiting that moment that may come—today?—in a far country, in a rough circumstance, in an unwelcoming place.  That moment of prodigal thought….But when he came to himself…My life flows on in endless song…

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


March 3

Lenten Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 13: 1-9

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

This Lent in our preaching we converse with Marilynn Robinson.  Each year we have chosen a voice from the Reformed tradition, a tradition different from the Methodism of Marsh Chapel, with whom to learn and grow, from whom to develop a fuller sense of discipleship, in whom to find ways to expand our circles of faithfulness.  So these years we have heard also from Bonhoeffer, Barth, Ellul, Edwards, Calvin and from varieties of interpretation of the Atonement.


Robinson is a contemporary novelist and essayist, and a Calvinist, perhaps the strongest living American exponent of Calvinism.  Her depiction of the Rev. John Ames, in the novels Gilead and Home, has been deeply meaningful to many of us.  Her writing celebrates the privilege, terror and joy of pastoral ministry.  Her writing celebrates the goodness of village life.  Her writing celebrates providential grace.  Her writing celebrates the power of story, of parable.  Her writing celebrates the beauty of the world around us.  Listen to her voice in that of the Rev. John Ames, depicting dawn in Iowa:


“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’, but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.”

Jesus taught in parables, stories with a point.  Two today, the latter which affirms a second chance to love, the former which acknowledges random hurt. They challenge us to follow their form and tell our own parables, two today. The first challenges us not to take for granted those closest to us.  That is the point of the parable:  care for those closest to you.  The second reminds us of the hurts hidden in each human soul.  That is the point of the parable:  remember that every heart has secret sorrows.


Let us care for those closest to us…


Some time ago, in a small upstate village, there lived a man and a woman. They were of middle age and middle class. In fact, they ran their own business, a “mom and pop” store. Through the village, the man was known for the attention which he showed his partner. He doted on her. He opened doors and bought flowers and made compliments. For her part, she also was devoted to her man. She stood by her man. She baked and sewed and entertained. In church, they sat in the front pew, holding hands for the Sunday observance.


The pastor in the town for years admired them, and during wedding services would quietly pray, Lord make these young people like them, devoted to each other. One night the pastor was invited to visit the home of these two lovebirds. After the usual chitchat, it became clear that something was afoot. Wringing his hands and sweating, the man awkwardly asked, at last, whether the pastor would have any qualms about performing a wedding ceremony. “Not at all,” the parson replied. “For whom?” Silence followed, the man coughed, and the woman blushed. Dimly, the pastor realized that the wedding was to be theirs. Yes, they had come to the village many years ago, had fallen in love and worked together, and then lived to together, first in aid of their business, and then as the townsfolk began to refer to them as MR and MRS, they began to relax and enjoy one another. They were very happy.


The wedding ensued, quietly performed in the parsonage living room.


Exactly one month to the day after the wedding, late at night, the parsonage phone rang. The man, panic stricken began in a rush, “It’s all over.” Our marriage doesn’t work. Please come and help us.” The pastor took the two aside to hear their confessions. “For years, you were so happy, and now, married, you are not? What has happened?” The man began, “Well, it used to be, you know, I just never knew whether she would stay. We weren’t really married. She was free to go. So every day was special. I watched what I said, and I watched what I did, and I watched her. I wanted to please her. But somehow, after that ceremony, I let down. I guess I figured she was there to stay now, so it didn’t matter. I think I took her for granted.” And he cried. The woman also reported, “It used to be that every day was an adventure.  I knew he could leave at any time. Every meal might be our last. Then we actually got married and I let down. I guess I figured it didn’t matter as much now. I think I took him for granted. Pastor, what are we going to do?” After more hours of tears and talking, the pastor finally prepared to leave the home. As he left he commanded the couple to promise each other that from that moment forward, they would live as if they were not married. He said to the husband, “You are to live as if you have no wife.”  So he interpreted Scripture, I Cor. 7:25.


Marilynn Robinson in two fine novels, Gilead and Home, over the past several years, has given you a sympathetic reading of determinism (fundamental or radical), which, ultimately, though cautiously, she rejects.  Here is the climax of Home:


This second book places the apparently damned Jack in earshot of a young woman who has married an old preacher:


“Just stay for a minute”, she said, and Jack sat back in his chair and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself.  Then she looked up at him and said, ‘A person can change. Everything can change’…Jack said, very gently, ‘Why thank you, Mrs. Ames.  That’s all I wanted to know’. (p 228)


There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error…You must forgive in order to understand.  Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding…If you forgive…you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace (p 45)

Luke 13, a second chance with the fig tree to love.  Luke 13, a remembrance of shared, random hurt.  One lesson:  do not take for granted those closest to you.  A second: every heart has secret sorrows.

Remember that every heart has secret sorrows…


Several decades ago, a poor boy was growing up in a small town along the Finger Lakes. His family worked hard, but had little extra, and so he would work himself on a neighboring farm. There he became friends with the farmer’s son, a boy about his own age. They became fast friends, cleaning the barn, and milking, chasing the cattle in the summer, filling the hay mow. At Christmas the farmer gave both boys trumpets. They sat down together and carved their names into the handles. Then they fell to practicing, and found the joy of music. Every night, after chores, the poor boy would cross the valley and ascend the hillside where his home lay. Then, as night fell, he would turn and face across the valley toward his friend, and slowly play a melody. Then, with the other trumpet, the friend would reply. “Day is dying in the west…” For some years this was their habit, and the farm folk and villagers in this Finger Lake region came to rely on the trumpet duet as a call to evening prayer.


Then, the farmer’s son was drafted and, in short order word came that he had died in the great world war. The poor boy was devastated. He had known little of the comfort of life, and little of friendship, and now, what he had known, was taken away. He became bitter, and his life drifted on, building itself around the heartache at the center of his soul. He grew old. One day the pastor came to call. The pastor dreaded the visit in this home, because there was so much hurt, and so little comfort. On this day he happened to ask if there was any good memory, any happy memory that the man could share. After some silence, the man replied, and told the story of the two trumpets. He told of his friendship, his love of music, his acceptance in the farmer’s home, his bitterness at the tragic loss. The pastor asked to see the trumpets, and then asked if he might borrow them.


Some weeks later, the old and bitter man was seated rocking on the porch, in the summer heat. Suddenly, a familiar tune came his way. From his left afar off he heard, “Day is dying in the west…” and then from the right “Holy Holy Holy…” It came closer… and closer… and with every verse, somehow, a bit of the faded memory came clearer. Two boys, high school age, came playing the trumpets, grateful for their use, prompted by the pastor to offer this tribute. What a precious gift a friendship is, the old one thought. How lucky I am to have known even briefly, its power.   The parable interprets for us the meaning of the psalmist, Psalm 100.


Marilynn Robinson could put it this way:



Come to the table of remembrance, and of presence, and of thanksgiving.

Greet and so be greeted, here, by the Lord Jesus Christ, our Lenten Grace, of whom we sing, ‘Blessed is He whom comes in the name of the Lord.

As those who have known betrayal, in the active and the passive tenses and senses, come for mercy.

Join the angelic chorus, singing hosannas, in the highest, meaning the very height of heaven.

Make of this moment a readiness to join lasting banquet, the heavenly banquet of grace, freedom, and love.

As Christ offers Himself, come to offer yourself, to love, for God and neighbor.

Come, partake.  Receive with grace the Lenten Grace.


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