September 8

Spiritual Fulfillment in College

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 14: 25-35

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Your spiritual fulfillment in these years may come from an honest, full reading of Scripture, an earnest, full exercise of reason, and an ample, full appreciation of tradition.


Consider a verse of scripture:  “Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33)

You may have occasion to take a quiet walk this week. On the Esplanade.  Down through the Public Garden.  Along the Emerald Necklace.  Out on the beach.  (Your monthly ocean visit, which you promised last Sunday), As you walk, wander, and wonder, as you saunter with a saintly step, along the Commonwealth Mall, say, ponder our Scripture today.

Luke’s collection of sayings here, Luke 14: 25, in the middle of ten chapters or so, Luke 9-19,  that are Luke’s own developed composition, including many of the most memorable teachings of primitive Christianity that are nonetheless not found elsewhere (the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep and Coin, the Prodigal Son, and other), are, in all honesty, somewhat inelegantly jumbled together, in ways that do not necessarily fully harmonize.

(Following Augustine’s advice that a sermon in form should resemble the form of the Scripture on which it is based, you here are offered in this sermon a collection of teachings that in all honesty are somewhat inelegantly jumbled together, in ways that do not fully harmonize (J)!)

Luke 14: 25ff. is composed near the end of the first century, the dating of Luke being somewhere between the writing of Mark, and Luke’s first citation in other sources—a wide berth to be honest.

The passage carries a hyperbolic dominical saying, not unlike the hyperbole in ‘if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out’, setting distance, a disciplined existential distance, between self and parents, self and spouse, self and progeny, self and family, self and security.  (Following in faith will include loss and conflict.)  Striking, isn’t it, how this prediction of leaving kith and kin, leaving home, intersects with the experience of coming to college?

Our text is perhaps best understood in Matthew’s rendering, (Matthew and Luke both have received the sayings from a shared earlier document, known by scholars as ‘Q”) ’‘whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matt 10:37)

The use of the image of the cross probably means it was originally composed in the preaching of the church, not in the teaching of the Lord, whose cross was not yet, after all, at this point in the gospel narrative, on the horizon.  There is not a direct line, if there is any line at all, from Luke 14, in 90ad, to Jesus’ teaching, in 30ad.

Luke 14 is addressed to men (notice the absence, as S Ringe reminds us, of husbands in the list of those to be hated), a further indication Luke, largely inclusive of women, is using a document he has inherited, Q.

The reading does not reject the significance of every day economic, social, familial, political and even military life—the mini parables of tower and king keep our feet on the ground.  That is, there is a real respect here for what we might call common sense.  “Prudent action is the essential theme” (Ringe, LUKE, op. cit).

Luke 14  asks, in a serendipitously timely and direct way for us, considering Syria, that we count the cost.  The cost of a project.  The cost of a plan.  The cost of a conflict.  The cost of going to war.

Strictly speaking, the collection of sayings and mini-parables,(again, some written by Luke, some coming to us from the collection we call “Q”, then perhaps shaped by Luke) do not come to a neat conclusion in vs 33, the need to renounce all possessions.  The general point is clear enough though:  discipleship costs.  Nor, in sum, is this a call to asceticism, but more a ‘simple readiness for God’s demand’ (R Bultmann).


Consider a second verse of Scripture: “What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk 14: 32)

On your walk, you might be thinking about Syria.

You might be quietly thankful to live in a great country like ours wherein the uses of power, with responsibility, are considered and discussed.  Where a president turns to a congress for deliberation, debate and vote.  Where women and men in military service serve others by serving the cause of peace, and the keeping of the peace.

If I were with you I might chime in with a heartfelt gratitude for the freedom of the pulpit, and of this pulpit.  Our community has graciously over time listened to what it did not always like, and protected the statement of what it did not always affirm.  That is truly gracious.  We should bluntly repeat that on these things, grave issues of war and peace, people of good heart and mind, of good will and spirit, can honestly differ, and disagree.

You might also be thinking about religious teaching about war and peace. (I notice by Google, by the way, that there is exactly one book of sermons, in print, addressing the war in Iraq, 2001-2007.  I can tell you the ISBN number, if you like (J). )

From several rehearsals here, others with you might remember that our tradition has two sorts of teachings here, pacifism and activism.  On the left hand, we have the earliest teaching, Matt. 5 and elsewhere, not to resist the evil one, a pacifist tradition with far support than just the Mennonites, Quakers, Amish and others.  In fact this chapel and our school of theology, including my namesake Allan Knight Chalmers, embraced pacifism over many years, years ago.  ‘If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’.  But our debate today is more on the other hand, the right hand if you will, Rom. 13 and elsewhere, of just war theory.   Here is the recognition, speaking of wisdom and innocence, serpents and doves, that justice for the lamb sometimes means resistance to the wolf.  It will be easy, finger by finger, for you to remember the issues and questions in this second form of Christian teaching:  is the action responsive not preemptive?, multilateral not unilateral?, ameliorative not imperial?, foresighted not unforeseeable?, proportionally limited not potentially limitless?

In the particular case of Syria 2013, grateful for presidential leadership that is war wary if not war weary, and willing to engage discussion, other questions may touch you, as, now studying in a great University, you exercise your reason.

What is the exact desired outcome?;  what the possible unintended consequences?;  why 90 days for a 1 to 2 day missile shot across the bow?; who quietly or silently, and for what reasons, is propelling this?; for enforcement of an international norm to be real, must it be military, or are there credible other options? Just what would a limited, proportional, meaningful deterrent be?;  have we exhausted every serious form of serious diplomacy?; what sort of precedents are we setting?.

Alternatively, what are the costs to peace and order of inaction in the face of 1400 gassed to death?; does not such a ‘brazen breach of an important norm’ require response if such a norm is not completely to unravel?; is the country war weary or war wary or both?; can we say and do more for refugees, some 2 million today from Syria, than we have done?;  why have the Arab League, European countries, NATO, the EU, the UN and so far congress been unwilling to enter a coalition of the willing?; is what is popular necessarily what is right?; how are we truly and best to ‘deliberate carefully, choose wisely, and embrace our responsibility’ (B Obama, 9/6/13)?;  what are we going to do about this?.

For now, we here will raise these questions, and watch and listen as the debate ensues this week.  We shall affirm, though, listening to Luke 14, as well, that the skeptical voices need carefully to be heard, both from within the church and from within the culture.


Consider a third verse of Scripture: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).

Your walk may bring you back past Marsh Chapel.  Think if you do about our time here two days ago, on Friday.

It was a beautiful, sun-dappled, bright Friday on Marsh Plaza.  Thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences, ice cream was served from four formal stations, and hundreds came to partake.  The chapel organ was booming, as musicians prepared for a busy weekend.  The Charles River glistened beyond ‘the beach’.   Blue sky, cool air, communal gathering—and ice cream.  A happy hour or two, on September 6.

I watched as Terriers older and younger sample the ice-cuisine.  Some looked into the chapel—named for a Methodist minister, our fourth president, Daniel Marsh, as is the plaza itself.  Some squinted up at John Wesley, above the front chapel door, in a robe, reading his Bible—the founder of Methodism, an English Protestant movement, in the 1700’s.  A couple, finished with their cones, looked in at the Connick stained glass windows, glanced at the Methodist hymnals in the pews, and peer at Abraham Lincoln (not a Methodist himself, though his biography—personal faithfulness, and social responsibility—epitomized the best of Methodism in his nineteenth century).   Three young men ringed the Boston University seal, next to the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument, and, avoiding stepping on the seal, read its motto, crafted long ago by Daniel Marsh, a thoroughly Methodist triad:  learning, virtue, and piety.   I wondered:  how could I briefly say to these hundreds just what lasting meaning the Methodist provenance of Boston University continues to have?  What difference does it make that in 1839 John Dempster—at Methodist minister from upstate New York—founded the theological seminary that later became our University?  After all, BU today is a large, urban, non-sectarian, northern, private, research university, which includes women and men from the whole inhabited earth.  What lingers from its birth out of Methodism?

Learning. The seal tells the story.  From its inception in America, Methodism, more energetically than any other tradition, established schools and colleges, from Beacon Hill in Boston all the way to route 66 and Claremont in California.  Today 128 universities, seminaries, and other schools adorn America, all fruit of an early love of learning, exemplified by John Wesley himself—an Oxford Don, a classics scholar, a biblical theologian.  Speaking of his beloved Bible, said Wesley, ‘I desire to be homo unius libri’, ‘a man of one book’.  Methodism never invested all authority in the Bible, because learning about the Bible pointed Wesley and his followers to other truths, in history and in reason and in experience.  Learning was the key.  My namesake, Professor Allan Knight Chalmers, a mentor to ML King and others, implored his graduate theological students to read ‘a book a day’.  The old saying that, nihil humanum, that ‘nothing human is foreign to us’, expresses the love of learning inherited from our Methodist past. Recognizing, with John 8:32, the crucial treasure of learning, of knowledge, we drank education with our mother’s milk at the birth of BU.

Virtue. But Methodism has more than academic rigor to offer us, in reflection on our past.  Learning and virtue and piety—knowing and doing and being, if you will—all are part of becoming fully human.  Methodism emphasized, and emphasizes, the shared experiences in life:  ‘that which has been believed always and everywhere by everyone’; ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in things charity’; ‘a people happy in God’; ‘the best of all is, God is with us’.  Our BU history comes out of a movement of ‘doers’, in the main—dreamers, yes, and doubters, too, but largely doers. They put a church in virtually every county in the country.  They split, north and south, ahead of the civil war, over slavery.  Having been poor, they ministered always and fully with the poor.  They tithed (as most still do—giving away 10% each year of their earnings).  Wesley put it this way: ‘do all the good you can… Faith without works is dead.  Our modern BU work with the Chelsea schools can stand as an example of a dozen other great BU transformative gifts, which well up out of the ancient Methodist bone structure of the school.  BU over 170 years has defined itself, not by whom it excluded, but by whom it included—the children of the poor, the working class, former slaves, people of color, different religious traditions, women—and in our time, the otherwise abled, the gay and lesbian community,  internationals, and others.

Piety.  I admit this is a superannuated word.  It sounds vaguely and curiously cloistered.  But what it means is vital and crucial for you, and me.  That is, what we learn and how we act finally shape who we are.  There is a lasting, soulful dimension to the human being, an own-most self behind the public persona, a multi-dimensional person (in the tradition of Boston University’s own philosophical tradition of Personalism) down deeper than the one-dimensional surface.  At heart, for the Methodists, piety meant love, to love one another, even as God has loved us (1 John 4:7).  If we are not both lovers and knowers, both learners and lovers, we have left behind part of our souls.  But if we do love one another, these Methodists taught, God abides in us.  There are many ways to keep faith.  The tolerant, magnanimous openness of Methodism, at its best, reminds us so.  ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’, said John Wesley.  Under the seal on Marsh plaza, on a sunlit, gleaming day, there lies the wonder and promise of love.  And after all, without love, and an experience of love, what is life for?  Charles Wesley, John’s 18th century musical brother sang it this way, in a hymn written for the opening of an elementary school in 1762:  Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety…,

I have to think that all these long dead forebears would smile with delight at the next generation coming alive—knowing, doing, and being—in a happy gathering, in early September, on Marsh Plaza, Boston University.

Your spiritual fulfillment in college may include a leisurely walk or two, meditating on Scripture, considering the current quandary of Syria, stopping in the sunshine of Marsh Plaza to think again about our inheritance. Your spiritual fulfillment in these years may come from an honest, full reading of Scripture, an earnest, full exercise of reason, and an ample, full appreciation of tradition.

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


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