Archive for December, 2013

December 29

Sing We Now of Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 2: 13-23

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

All in a Lifetime

Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble.   He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt.   So the prophet had predicted.


Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy.   Herod fulfills another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour.  So the prophet had predicted.


Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty.  His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean.  So the prophet had predicted.


Jesus is immersed in our full life.  Jesus is our childhood’s measure.  Day by day, like us he grew.   He was little, weak and helpless.  Tears and smiles like us he knew.  And he feeleth for our sadness.  And he shareth in our gladness.


The Christmas Gospel is this:  God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh.  For our present congregation, and especially come Christmas for our faithful radio congregants, listening from afar, we gladly announce this good news!


He came that we might have life and live it abundantly.   In the next century after his birth, Irenaeus was to say, in summarizing his salvation:  “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”


The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.


Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons:


For everything there is a season

And a time for every purpose under heaven


As we pause between Christmas and the New Year (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can incarnationally celebrate the seasons of life.  Look with me out at 2014, from a theological, liturgical, and religious perspective.  Listen on radio, from afar, to the ecumenical voice of Marsh Chapel, wherein all the families of Christendom, and of the earth itself, find a real home.  For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven!  Here is what I mean.  Every theological insight is here liturgically on site.


To Every Denomination there is a Season


  1. A.   Calvinists


You may not think much of the Presbyterians.  They can be cold people, I know.  ‘God’s frozen people’, said one.   You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair.  You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film.  But there is a time and a season.  When Ash Wednesday arrives in a couple months, we are all Presbyterians.  Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin.  For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught (more on him in a moment).  We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God.  We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others.  In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”.  His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight.  Yikes!  That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos.   I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one.   As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say:  “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!.” Marsh Chapel embraces Presbyterians, especially on Ash Wednesday.  As we have done other years on Atonement and M Robinson and D Bonhoeffer and J Ellul, we will preach on Calvin this March, 2014.  Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.


B.   Jesuits


Speaking of Lent, you may be thinking about the Jesuits.  Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. (I have taught in one, Lemoyne College, since 1989). Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior.  Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits.  In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline.  You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus.  You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation.  You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic.  In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you.  But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit.  As Teresa of Avila put it, “even when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” (Her voice we will need with our annual Marsh prayer brunch this Marathon Monday, April 21, 10am, here). Marsh Chapel embraces Jesuits, whether in the Vatican or on the street, especially in Lent.  Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.


C. Lutherans


Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due.  Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride.  I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia.  Lutherans!  We love you at Marsh Chapel! The Cross alone, come Good Friday, is our teaching.   Luther’s grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there.  We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short.  Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong.  It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry.  Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray.  Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing!   When it comes to the Cross, “nobody does it better” than Luther.


D. Baptists


I have just mentioned the Baptists.   This, you worry, brings the camel’s nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus, you say.   You give them an inch, they will take a mile, you say.  Speaking of miles, they can seem a mile wide and an inch deep, you say. They give anarchy a bad name, you say.  But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody.  Especially the Baptists.  For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit.   Every week I know you try to invite one person to join you in the joy of Marsh Chapel.  Baptists are embraced here. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us.  Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!”  (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.  Remember, we are gathering some Methodists here at 10am on May 22.)   Beware your caution about Baptists.  The Baptists are not all canoe and no paddle, not all axe-murder and no sheriff, not all fire and no hose, not all hat and no cattle, God love ‘em.   Not All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say.   The Baptists may seem almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity!  I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through.   When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little.  Yes you do.  Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble.    Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”  See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!

E. The Orthodox


The Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday.  Or on Monday.  They happily meet in Marsh Chapel every Monday evening, and there is but little hollering.  They’re not big shouters, except during their summer festivals, which happen to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday.  The more liturgical churches, Orthodox and Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, better than others.  We love the Orthodox at Marsh, especially come Trinity Sunday.  This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Muslims say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say).  God is three, three, three Faces in one.  Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us.  Their wedding services last three hours.  One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps.  When you come to June 15, go to a Greek festival and dance to the Triune God.  Go ahead.  Hug a Trinitarian in June!   A few blocks down Commonwealth, at Arlington Street, the ghost of William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self.   As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem,  “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.”  Our national 2014 summer preaching series, on the theme, ‘The Gospel and Emerging Adulthood’—with preachers Nix, Walton, Romanik and others—will help us revere God in our time.


F. Roman Catholics


Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics.  Every third member of our Marsh community today comes out of a Roman Catholic background.  Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this move accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds.  On World Communion Sunday 2014 we will all be Catholic! Especially this year and next when we look back with joy on Vatican II, and its explosion of aggiornamento—renewal.  Aggiornamento:  I love the chance to say a word in Italian. You are listening on the radio to Marsh Chapel.  With the universal church we here celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  With the universal church we here acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.  With the universal church we here recognize the global character of the Christian communion.   It has been the Roman Catholic church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time.  It has been the Catholic church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate.  It has been the Catholic church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us.  Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome.  John Wesley preached a whole sermon on extending an olive branch, a sign of peace, to the Romans.  From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people.  We know the value of an olive branch.  On World Communion Sunday , come October, we shall affirm here at Marsh, one holy, catholic and apostolic church.  We remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time.


G. Anglicans


Now, I just mentioned the Anglicans.  Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way, on little cat feet, into our seasonal review?  Typical.  You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse.  To the Episcopalian, a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”.  Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso.  They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints.  They agree to disagree, agreeably.  They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character.  Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma.  A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good!  Tallyho!  Pip-pip! Cheerio!   It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints.  One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast.  On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans.  (And on Halloween, too!!!).  Marsh Chapel loves Episcopalians.  They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III.  They are optimistic people!  Said Queen Victoria, “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”.


H. Quakers


Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, are ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors.  In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through.  Oh, you worship God.  You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second.  Still, the city of brotherly love, only a few hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature.  “I have called you Friends”, said our Lord.  I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus.  It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist!  The Quakers may not have been always as militarily committed as others may have liked.  In faith, they may have stepped aside when others had to step forward.  Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him.  In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesesteaks and twinkies and sculling on the Scuykill River.  We all await peace.  We remember Mother Ann Lee and the shaking Quakers singing, “in truth simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come round right.”


I.              The People Called Methodists


Do you suspect that we have saved the best for last?  For come December 2014 it will be Christmastide, again.  Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel!  A song greets the dawn.  It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation.  You are here to invite somebody to come to worship with you in 2014.  So you will ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale of Christmas.  Christmas means invitation.  The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains.  People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. Emerson:  the human being is convertible. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing.  In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, carolling, at youth group, by yourself.  To sing is to be a Methodist.  A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares.  All sing, but none so sweetly.  All sing, but none so vibrantly.  All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war 3.  All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys.  To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar:  let the games begin! And what shall we sing?  Carols of course.  And which carols.  Those of the English tradition of course.  And which of these? There is but one of the first rank.    It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist.  The primitive church told two stories of Jesus, that of his death (Holy Week and Easter) and that of his birth (Advent and Christmas).  You must sing both, not just one, or the other.  So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.  So they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless.  (I love my church with all my heart, even in the teeth of all our difficulties.) So they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal—orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including 128 US schools and colleges, with Boston University leading the parade. So Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, 17 of whom survived, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!”, another of whom, Charles, gave us the gospel at Christmas:


Hail the heaven born prince of peace

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Light and life to all He brings

Risen with healing in his wings

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that we no more may die

Born to raise the us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the herald angels sing!

Glory to the Newborn King!


Can you hear this?  It begs a hearing.  If you do, I challenge you, call you to a resolution:  find a church in 2014!  Worship God once a week next year!  Join us here at Marsh Chapel!  And bring a friend with you!


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

December 24

Christmas Experience

By Marsh Chapel

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’  and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (A Schweitzer, QHJ, 389).

In 1978, barely married one year, Jan and I were living in a tiny apartment, too small even for a piano, under the wings of Riverside Church NYC.   Jan worked as a secretary in the Interchurch Center, the ‘God Box.’  To help finance the operation I was working at night as a security guard, studying for my afternoon classes and making rounds from 11pm -7am, then sleeping until noon.  Near Christmas, Jan had a day off, and went shopping,  by accident leaving our apartment door ajar.  I awoke about 11am to see a poor street woman standing over me, with a knife and rosary beads.  Somehow she had passed the receptionist and found her way in.  I hoped the rosary beads meant more to her than the knife.  But seeing her I shouted.  She promptly raced into the bathroom and locked the door.  About noon Jan came home to find police cars and a crowd outside McGiffert Hall.  ‘Your husband was down here in his pajamas’ one said.  ‘Really?’, Jan replied.  “Police are up in your apartment’ one said.  ‘Really?’ Jan replied.   ‘There is a woman in your apartment too’ one said.  ‘Really?’ Jan replied.  ‘She is taking a bath up in your bathroom’ one said.  ‘Really?’ Jan replied.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the poor—the street cast, the mentally ill, the drug harmed, the urban lost—the poor.  The poor, like the Shepherds abiding in the field.


In 1980, with one child asleep upstairs, and one on the way to his birth three months later, we sat down in a small Ithaca parsonage for a Christmas Eve dinner.   Services were over.  Snow was falling, heavy, snow on snow.  The hillside Warren Drive was all white.   The baby grand piano sat silent next to us.   Jan went up to check the child.  All of a sudden, a large four-door sedan careened down the hill, turned sideways, nearly flipped, and smashed into the guard rail, just feet from our dining room.  Out stumbled three natives of the subcontinent of India.  Waiting for a truck, they sat with us, and ate a little and drank some tea.  ‘They look like the three wise men”, Jan whispered.  Dark, darker, and darkest—Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. It takes a while to get a truck on Christmas Eve.  When he did arrive, the driver gave evidence of Christmas cheer.  He was a jolly, happy soul.  ‘They look like wise men from the east’ he said.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the globe—the 6 billion siblings on 7 continents and myriad tongues—the globe.  The Wise Men 3, bowing before the Christ.


In 1983, on Christmas Eve day, in the drafty living room of the Burke NY parsonage, an hour south of Montreal, with two children asleep for nap, and one on the way to his birth seven months later, we stood beside the baby grand piano for a wedding.  A farm hand and his girlfriend, living up the road in a trailer, with the minister’s wife as witness, musician, caterer, and greeter, took their vows after carols and before cookies.  As the rings were exchanged the two ostensibly napping children peered out from the stairwell.   Leaving, he gave me four dollars.  They were going for lunch to celebrate at the Cherry Knoll diner.   They had nothing, and they had everything.  It was a sort of Norman Rockwell scene—and aren’t these all?  Rockwell has finally come into his artistic kingdom, this year, 2013, at last honored as real artist.  But that Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime reminder of the mystery of marriage against a background of rural life—farm work, cattle, livestock, milking, the good earth—farm life.  Mary and Joseph and the utter mystery of birth.


In 1988, 25 years ago this weekend, we left our children by the piano with a sitter, and went by foot, through the snow, to see the Syracuse Orangemen play basketball.  The game was interrupted with the stark announcement of a new tragedy, the crash of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie Scotland.  Neighbors of ours, students, and other students from other schools perished in what in retrospect was a harsh harbinger of further such acts of violence to come in 1995 and 1998 and 2001 and 2013.  I looked again at the Christmas sermon preached later that week, an offering drenched in sorrow.   SU Chancellor Melvin Eggers I believe never really recovered from the crash.  Maybe none of us has.  Twelve years later, dropping our son off for college at Ohio Wesleyan, I chanced to meet a man with deeply sunken eyes, who, as it happened, was the head of SU study abroad that year.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a warning about the way the world would change in the decades to follow, and a call to gentleness in an age of violence.  Rachel is still weeping for her children.


In 1992, we wrapped presents beside the piano, to give to a father and children on Dell Street, in the Westcott Street neighborhood,  assigned to our church by the rescue mission.  The dad we knew as a pizza deliverer.  The 6 year old was in our son’s class.  Both were names Stanley Grobsmith, senior and junior.  Our son had been to a birthday party in their very modest home.  We had left him off for an hour or two.  Dad brought his three children to worship, sitting in the back pew, those weeks near Christmas.  He was a boxer, a single father.   That winter he was arrested for murder—I pass over the gruesome details—and hung himself in jail.   We were committed to city ministry, to work with the urban poor, to rebuilding a city church, to teaching in city schools.  But we were chagrined to realize the danger we had placed our son in.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, bone chilling reminder of violent evil—murderous, wild, ever present, harsh, sinful wrong—violent evil.   Herod on the hunt, from whom the wise fled, going home by another way.


In 2005, on Christmas Day, and following 5 Rochester Christmas Eve services and 1 Christmas morning, Jan and I stopped up the street to visit Lucille Burke.   She had been in surgery mid-week, and now was home, we were told.  A round faced, elderly, Bible studying, daughter of a Methodist minister, she would stop sometimes and listen to the piano lessons in our living room.  I saw Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels on her shelf.  With wide eyes—hers and ours—she told us her hospital experience.  On the day of surgery, she heard her name called, prepared herself in body and spirit, lipstick and prayer, and saw the stretcher coming.  It came right to her room and then went right on by, to the room next door, inhabited by a non responsive patient.  They took her in place of Lucille, even though Lucille rang bells and waved and called out.  Fortunately, before the wrong knee was replaced, someone saw the confused woman’s wrist band, and brought her back, and took Lucille up for surgery.  That Christmas morning we offered a prayer of thanks and talked about malpractice.  I thought, walking home, about the rarity of physicians’ malpractice and how at most its effects last one lifetime.  I also thought about metaphysical malpractice, bad theology as opposed to bad surgery, and recognized it lasts three generations at least.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, sobering reminder of metaphysical malpractice, and its multi-generational endurance.  Sober John the Baptist, winnowing fork in hand, separating theological wheat from spiritual chaff.  More on this in the sermon coming January 26, 2014.


At Christmas we are reminded to learn with the Shepherds about the poor, with the Magi about the globe, with Mary and Joseph about the mystery of marriage,  with Rachel about weeping, with Herod about violence, and with John the Baptist about metaphysical malpractice.  We learn from our own experience.  We learn in our own experience.  Christmas is about incarnation, about divine presence, about the word made flesh, about spirit in life.  We learn from our own experience, as, one Christmas, Albert Schweitzer did say:


            He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’  and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).


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

December 22

Gentle Christmas

By lwhitney

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.

We can live in a new way.

“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do.  This is a day of new beginnings.  Our God is making all things new”.

You can continue to live in the old way.

Or you can live a different life, beginning today.


Paul’s Christmas Gospel

Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He introduces himself this morning, to the Romans and to us, in our first lesson. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth.  Or of birth.   Of Christmas, he says only:  “born of a woman, born under the law”.  (Gal. 4: 4 When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons)  A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.

Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church.  Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season:  Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.

In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached our reading from Matthew 1: 18-25, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum.  How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and a complicated birth?  How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in women?  How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s calling, vocation, blessing and authority?

More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with the multiple nursery scenes found in the first three gospels?

You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth.  All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment.  What do we know about it?

And Paul?

How can men–how could Paul–possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth?  Especially when this birth is not just birth but–Incarnation?

Paul has had a hard ride for the past 50 years.  In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed.  In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of gradual acceptance of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed.  In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years.  From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.

Which brings us to Christmas 2013 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”!  Hear his self-introduction from Romans today and behold:  Paul understands the Gentle Christmas Gospel.  Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in another of his letters, his earliest, 1 Thessalonians 2:7

I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to spank out a claim on you.  If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody.  Even me, even you.  Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns.  Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside.  Especially if all this imagery—shepherds, kings, Mary, Herod, the Baptist—does not appeal to you, and you feel a bit on the outside.  Actually, in the main, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.

In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel.  It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!

This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same.

The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul.  From Pharisee to freedom fighter.  From inquisitor to preacher.  From religion to faith.  From law to gospel.  He was been given the “wings of the morning”.  There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.

Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”.  Gentle?  Paul?  Apparently so, at least now and then.    And then, “nurse”.  The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethescopes, or medications.  It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid.  We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”.  The word, ηπιον, means wet nurse or nursing mother.  The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning.  Paul is staggeringly clear, however.  He describes himself as like a wet-nurse!  Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving.  As in, nursing a child.

I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing.  If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!

A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:

Here is conversion in great might.  It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”.  But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid.  Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ. (IBD loc cit)

Yet Clarke climbs only half the mountain.  Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast.  What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way!  That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.

Paul probably did not know the account in our reading from Matthew 1 today, with its picture of Mary and Jesus, or its siblings in the other gospels.  He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives.  I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity.

But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.


Your Christmas Gospel

And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices.  Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes.  Yours can too.

Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.

Yours can too.  You can live in a new way.  You can.

It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile.  It is the way of love for those who are not lovely.  It is the way of the love of enemies.  It is the way of forbearance.  It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness.  It is the way of prayer for those who persecute.  It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children.  Gentle as a nurse…

In a year of violence past, we may be ready to hear this.  After Newtown.  After Marathon Monday.  After Syria.  After a long train and strain of losses, more personal and private.

Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way.  Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.

If Paul can “get it”, all can.  This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart.  The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  Hearing by the word of God.

We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence.   But this is Christmas.   With Matthew we may marvel at the mystery of Christ.  With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.

We can live in a new way.  The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.


Three Applications

First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community.  In a year that included Newtown and Marathon Monday, we can afford to listen to the strange language of the Bible, and of Paul.  I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove.  We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all.  We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time.  As Inman says, in the novel Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”.  Collisions are virtually inevitable.  But they can be softened.

My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened.  Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached:  in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless.  Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established. 

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable.  Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way.  A little dull as a solution you will say?  Yet there is some truth in this view.

Second.  More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice.  I saw recently 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus.  They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

         He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.

         And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

         And all flesh shall see it together.

         Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)

         Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!        

So they receive Christ.  Here is a door held.  There is a criticism softened.  Here is a preparation made.  There is a courtesy extended.  Here is a listening ear.  There is a gesture of welcome.

As we follow our course let us not become coarse.

I remember a Christmas more than thiry years ago, when we lived in NYC.  Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play.  One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly.  She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience:  “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.

At our best, Marsh Chapel and this community both set a fine example of acculturated gentility.  (That is a compliment, by the way.  Just so you know.)  It is not just what you do that counts, it is how you do it.

At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”.  Men and women both.   I can be even more personal.  The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister.  It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care.  Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other.  Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist.  Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough.  But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids.  That means time spent.  That means some tolerance for untidiness.  That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness.  That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical.  That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect.  Life is messy.  Community life is particular messy.  That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant.  That means risking getting bitten.  That means burping and wiping and holding.  And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of now young life!  That sounds like hard work!  Manger work.  Nursery work.  New Creation work.

Third.  Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse.  Someone wrote, mimicking, yes, Paul, in 1 Cor 13:

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that  I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.  Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.


A Time to Choose 

This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart.  “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”.  Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.

Are you ready to live in a new way?

For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard.  So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing.  There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah.  No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger.  “A smoking cradle”, said Karl Barth, is all we have of Christmas.   How about you?  Are you ready for Christmas, for a gentle Christmas?

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

December 8

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Matthew 3: 1-13

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Dean Hill:

Before Jesus there was John, before the Christ there was the Baptist.  Jesus was a disciple of John.  John prepared the way for Jesus.  As we listen with word and music, perhaps we can ponder the power of precursors.

Before Christmas there is Advent, before the incarnation is the anticipation.  The feast of Christmas comes after the penitence of Advent.  The joy of birth comes after the anxiety of expectation.  As we listen with word and music, today let us ponder the power of precursors.

Before tradition there is event, before understanding there is experience.   The rolling voice of the Baptist is the event through which we each year pass in order to come to our understanding of Christmas.  The joy of the feast comes after the murky dark water of the Jordan river, and the towering ferocity of John, in camel’s hair eating locusts.

Before Matthew there was Mark, before teaching there was preaching, before catechesis there was kerygma.  Matthew is an interpreter of Mark.  Mark is the model for Matthew.  As we listen with word and music, perhaps we can ponder the power of precursors.

We might want to pause a moment to greet Matthew in a personal way.  He will be our gospel guide for 51 weeks, walking alongside us as we climb the mountain of existence.   He is not eating locusts and honey nor wearing camel’s hair and sandals, though his attire is both strange and ancient.

His is a difficult introduction to make.  “The difficulty is rather the character of the Gospel itself—a Greek Gospel, using Greek sources, written for a predominantly Gentile church, at a time when the tradition had become mixed with legend, and when the ethical teaching of Jesus was being reinterpreted to apply to new situations and codified into a new law…It cannot have been written by an eye witness.  It is a compendium of church tradition, artistically edited, not the personal observations of a participant” (IBD 242)

The outline of Jesus’ life in Matthew is like that in Mark.  Galilee.  Jerusalem.  Country. City.  Small. Large. (A good pattern for the trajectory of much ministry).

Matthew has added a collection of teachings to Mark (but just added it to situations already known to Mark).  He also adds legendary material (infancy narratives).

As in Mark, Jesus is a teacher and healer. Geography and scenery are the same.  Are there two sibling gospels and three synoptics?

He combines Mark’s chronological and geographical outline, with lots of new material, so that we have a real catechism, sometimes seen as five different sections.  Matthew likes the number 7.  He exhibits a lot of ecclesiastical piety.

Matthew comes from Jewish rabbinic circles.  And a Christianizing of the portrait of the disciples. ‘The reference to the fulfillment of prophecy which pervades the whole book and derives from the author’s theological as well as his apologetic anti-Jewish interest’. (R Bultmann, HSG, 381) He raises the stature of Jesus into the divine.

“His prose differs from that of Plato to approximately the extent that the English in the news columns of a well written daily differs from that of Shakespeare and the King James Version” (IBD, op cit, 239).

Our passage prepares us for worship, for the singing of God’s praises, for glory to God in the highest.  Is this not, Dr Jarrett, our reason for hearing this Bach this Sunday?

(Dr. Scott Jarrett speaks)

Dean Hill:

We ponder the power of precursors, in days during which around the globe we ponder the influence of Nelson Mandela.

You will at some point sense a nudge to join in this parade.  Some will do so by listening on the internet.  Some will do so by tuning in via radio.  Some will do so by coming to 735 Commonwealth Avenue.  Next Sunday with Lessons and Carols would be a good one to do so, and to bring a friend.

It is a privilege and weekly joy to see this community of faith gathering at 11am on Sunday.  A student, bagel in hand, trundles up the stairs.  A couple who have driven from an hour to the west find an aisle seat, then following worship have lunch and do one city thing each week.  A husband and wife, catholic and protestant, join us for two services, this one at 11am—then a break—and catholic mass at 12:30.  A young couple with tiny tots finds the energy and discipline to bring the family for worship and study.  An older man, alone some of the week, becomes a part of an empowering community.

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder.  Sunday at 11am, one way or another, is the way back to wonder.  To hear something that is beautiful.  To see someone who is good.  To hear some word which is true.  These are the seeds of wonder.

Then, from here on Sunday, you may find your way elsewhere during the week.  To audit a class on Lincoln on Monday.  To hear a panel of 12 interfaith students on Tuesday.  To watch the basketball team on Wednesday.  To hear a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls on Thursday.  To attend  the Shakespeare Project on Friday.  To take in a concert on Saturday.   Friends, your life of faith in worship can be centered at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and for your fellowship, education and service you may swim through the whole University!   I do not know—anywhere—a better way to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.  I do not know a better way to nurture the soul and so to grow great hearted future leaders.  And we do need such…

  – The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music

December 1

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

The sermon text for today is unavailable.

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