Archive for March, 2014

March 30

Calvin for Lent: Love in Mind

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 22: 34-40

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‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and soul, and mind’


Patriots’ Day


Almost a full year ago, many of you gathered in our home for breakfast on Marathon Monday.  You came with clothing fit both for sun and cold, sol y sombra.  You received a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, the reading of a Longfellow poem, and sang together a couple of familiar, patriotic hymns.  You sang well, by the way.  You prayed over a simple breakfast and enjoyed eggs, bacon, juice, toast and coffee.  In order to see the race completed, you walked a block over to Kenmore Square, and basked in the sunlight of Patriots’ Day, the thrill of the Boston Marathon, and the convivial consanguinity of our annual Boston family picnic.


Some then went home.  A few were tempted into study.  Others of you walked down Commonwealth Avenue, had some lunch, and enjoyed lollygagging along the Commonwealth Mall.  Two of you had volunteered to work in the medical tents, healing blisters and skinned knees and heat exhaustion.  One couple turned right on Exeter and went over to Boylston, and next to the Fire Department, so important to us this week, a fine Richardson Romanesque building, and rather than going down Boylston, you chose a quieter path, past the hotel and onto Huntington Avenue.   Odd, loud sounds, blasts of no identifiable origin, you heard, and then you walked back to Massachusetts Avenue.


By then someone had told you what had happened.  Some of you came to the chapel.  With the rabbi and others, you opened the doors and gave shelter, blankets, water, facilities, land lines, prayers and hugs to hundreds who were walking back west, without benefit of trolley.   The BU police came to take us to BMC, where a BU student lay critically injured.  She survived, praise God.  But the next day, awake, she asked, ‘where is my friend, where is Lu Lingzi’?




         You could see depravity, even total depravity, in bombs that killed a child and our student and others.   You could see randomness, election, strange if not unconditional, in the sheer random horror of some hurt and some spared.  You could really for once recognize limited atonement—not just every one, not all have been captured by the gospel of Christ, the love of neighbor.  You could also observe grace, an irresistible grace, in the two who went to the tent for bandage and stayed for tourniquets, and in so many first responders like them, and in those who ministered from the front steps of Marsh Chapel.  From that day, a year ago, you have watched perseverance, a perseverance of the saints, through grief, through trauma, through amputation, through restoration, through renewal.


Yet in our experience, especially our Boston Marathon 2013 experience, the hard realism of Calvin’s TULIP formula was visible—evil, randomness, hatred, yes, but also grace and perseverance.  Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, yes, but also irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints.


Calvin had a friend in Faulkner.  In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf.   A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable: ”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.

This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant.  It is fitting that we began with Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

(A friend wrote recently:  It seems to me impossible to speak of Calvinism without mentioning the famous/infamous acrostic for the 5 points of Calvinism—TULIP  Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). 


With due respect we honor the divine freedom affirmed in Calvin’s TULIP form.  More, we honor the divine freedom in his vision of the glory of God, the majesty of God, the beautiful nothingness of God, the indeterminate mystery of God.   Yet alongside this divine freedom we place the human freedom given us in the Gospel, given the church, that capacity to define loyalty or as exit or as voice, that wonderful communal living letter of recommendation, that deep thirst for the divine, and tradition that keeps love in mind.


For all our warlike failings, there is still grandeur to the human being, a grandeur personally known in love, and that love modeled after its partner in the divine love, love divine, all loves excelling! (Excelling but not erasing).


A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon a common hope. T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something lasting  of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence.


Love in Mind


Our gospel lesson today, Matthew’s curt summary of the Markan teaching, gives us a way forward, a way to live out such a common hope.  Unlike some philosophy and some religion today, the gospel does not separate head from heart, does not separate, mind from faith, does not separate the spiritual and the cerebral.  In fact, here, to love with heart and soul means, emphatically to love with the your mind.  Do you?  Do you have love in mind?


Matthew has shortened the passage from Mark.  He has taken out the positive reference to the Jewish interlocutor.  He has winnowed the narrative structure of the text.  He has emphasized mind.  Especially he has removed the kind response Jesus makes in Mark to his questioner:  ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God’.  What he has added is an introduction that describes a conniving collusion of the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘test’ Jesus.  In Mark Jesus is invited to help, and he does.  In Matthew he is put to the test.  Love of God.  Love of Neighbor.  On these two depend all the others.  That is, even in the darker condition of the church, perhaps in the fear of the terror of Domitian, reflected in Matthew, the gospel stands.  Love means love in mind.


And ‘mind’?  Almost every NT use of the mind, is in Paul, as this morning in Romans, a measure of his Greek outlook.  There, in Paul, and here, in Matthew, the word refers to the breadth of human intellect, ingenuity, and creativity.  But in Matthew there is a prefix, and  the word gives a breathing, process, dimension to the root of the noun, which you will recognize, nous.  Here:  Not so much thought, as thinking.  Not so much mind, as minding.  Understanding as gerund:  “if I am understanding you…” A disposition.  A manner of thinking, like ‘after a manner of speaking’. (BGD, loc cit).

Let us live with love in mind.


Something temporal.


Boston University under the leadership of President Robert A. Brown and former Mayor Thomas Menino gave last week a day of reflection and instruction about last year’s Marathon bombings in which four people were killed, one a child and one our student, and several hundred were maimed and injured.   The immediate crisis response, medical response, security response and civic response, in retrospect, proved to be stellar, superior, and ultimately life saving for many.  Some of you in this room were part of that heroic effort, and many more of you, listening from afar this morning, were also a part of that heroic effort.

Something temporal.

Something universal.


Love in mind!  Use your head for something more than a hat rack!  You cannot be both good and stupid!


And be very careful about mindless misinformation:


In the film, Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, told this story:


A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have blamed false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you cut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’

And from another rooftop, in Poland in 1982, recently deceased Solidarity leader, and physicist, Zbigniew Romasewski, broadcast for a minutes a day Radio Solidarity, sending worldwide, feathers of freedom:  ‘Solidarity is not a name only, it is a value’ (NYT, 3/28/14)


Something universal.


Something lasting.


You will need it.  You will need your wits about you to navigate the swells and tides of what Christian Smith describes in Lost in Transition:  The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.   A generation caught up, to a great degree, in amoral sexuality, steady inebriation, rampant drug use, limitless greed, self celebration and adulation, and an almost complete lack of empathy for the hurts of others.   This generation reminds you of their parents.


You will need love in mind.  You will need your wits about you to navigate the swells and tides of millennial culture, what Charles Blow calls the ‘self(ie) generation’ (NYT, 3/8/14):  unaffiliated with religion, distrustful of politics, heavily indebted, largely unmarried, distrustful of others, digitally native:  all in all we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal minded detachees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual and social networks are digitally generated rather than interpersonally accrued. 


You will need love in mind. Learning that begets virtue and virtue that begets piety.  Knowledge that begets action and action that begets being.  Love in mind—your thoughts, your understandings, your perspectives.


Geena Davis, BU\CFA 1979, spoke to us Friday.  She remembered being told that 1% of theater majors find lifetime work acting, and reflected, how sad for those other 99!


In the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, another sort of TULIP, inverted if you will, is expressed:


T. In the Gospel, Jesus loves and teaches love.


U. In the Gospel, Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are.  Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in.  These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected.  Look at David, whose foibles and faith, together make him the man he was, in conjunction:  David and Saul.  David and Goliath.  David and Jonathan.  David and Bathsheba.  David and Nathan.  David and Solomon.

L. In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, all, like a hen with a brood.


I. In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that these people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love.  They must not have been powerless.  Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross.


P. Here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage.  Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one.


Something lasting.

Something imaginative.


You need love in mind!  Deuteronomy had ‘heart and soul and strength’, but the gospels prefer ‘mind’.


John Calvin put it this way:  Only the free service of our wills is acceptable to him… in Hebrew the word heart often includes mind…


Augustine:  “What are kingdoms without justice but large bands of robbers”.


Coffin:  “Be loyal to a truth that is good for all.”


Daedalus:  “I go forth to forge in the smith of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”


Norman Maclean:  “you can love completely without complete understanding”.


Erazim Kohak:  “A life wholly absorbed in need and its satisfaction, be it on the level of conspicuous consumption or of marginal survival, falls short of realizing the innermost human possibility of cherishing beauty, knowing truth, doing the good, worshiping the holy”


A Wilder:  ‘life is more volcanic than we thought…art provides human beings with the incentive to go on living…Theopoetic ‘reversing the process of disenchantment…the modern world has lost the sense of the sacred…a more general awareness of the mysterious and unpredictable in life’.


None of April 15 2013 was God’s will.  Not the grace and not the depravity, not the perseverance and not the limitation. No, all this was the will of man, for ill and good, not the will of God, the freedom of man, for ill and good, not the freedom of God.  God gives freedom but does not dictate its use.  Gabriel Vahanian:  ‘The will of man is more inscrutable than the will of God.’  Perhaps you are an apophatic, but if so, be an emphatic apophatic.  God is mystery, wonder, spirit, presence, and lies beyond all reason.


Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.



Something imaginative.


Something powerful.


American higher education is the envy of the world.

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?

Something powerful.




This world is not going to get better only with the comforting aid of sentiment, feeling, emotion, and things of the heart.  It will take a hard headed realism, and a hard minded love to transform this TULIP world.  That is where you come in.  You have gained admission to a stellar university.  Smarty Pants.   Good for you, smarty pants.  When you write your history of John Wesley, summarize please his teaching in TULIP formula.  The future, God’s future, needs your mind:  T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something of lasting love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Some real power.


From this day forward, will you live with love in mind?


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

March 23

Deep Thirst, Living Waters

By Marsh Chapel

Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

John 4:5-42

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I thank Dean Hill for the privilege of sharing as a preacher in our Lenten observance.  It’s good to be back in this pulpit.  Dean Hill wants us to think through Lent with the eyes of John Calvin whose theology is not always in accord with the Wesleyan tradition of Marsh Chapel.  Our texts for today illustrate some of the principal issues of Calvin’s theology.  God is imagined many ways in the Bible, and Calvin picks up on most of them, from the most anthropomorphic to the most sublime.

Our Exodus text is from the saga of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt to take possession of Canaan, which they viewed centuries later when composing these texts as God’s Promised Land for them.  The relation between God and the Israelites was not a happy one, as they told it.  God did not consult them concerning their departure from Egypt, and you remember the desperate flight in front of the Egyptian army that God miraculously destroyed at the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea).  This hair-raising escape was enough to make them nervous, especially since they had stolen all the goods they could from the Egyptians, at God’s command (they reported), and now had great herds of animals that needed to be fed and watered.  Shortly before the incident in our text, the Israelite company had run out of food and the people angrily asked Moses why he had led them away from the fleshpots of Egypt, that is, the diet of meat and a plenitude of bread, to die of hunger in the wilderness.  That’s when God send the manna from heaven, a nourishing special condensation of dew.  But traveling on they ran out of water and complained to Moses again.  God was royally provoked but stood on the rock which Moses struck with his staff and water poured out, saving the people.  This satisfied their literal thirst and that of their flocks.  But God was indeed provoked by their lack of faith in his providence and their complaint that they should never have left Egypt in the first place.  We know from our responsive reading, the 95th Psalm, that God therefore determined that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who had complained about thirst would have died.  That included Aaron and Moses. Only afterward were the Israelites allowed into Canaan.

The image of God here is plainly primitive.  We tend to read the later image of God as love back through these parts of the Hebrew Bible. The practice of giving a “spiritual reconstruction” of the Bible based on the theological principle that God is Love was common in Christianity from the earliest times up to the Reformation. Those stories of God’s pettiness and genocidal ways were construed to be allegorical expressions of something else, something consistent with an orthodox Christian theology of God’s perfect justice, mercy, and benevolence. But this is in fact to be inattentive to what the Bible says. The Reformers, Calvin as well as Luther, said our theology should be based on a careful reading of the Bible, not the other way around where the reading of the Bible is based on a preconceived theology. Read straight, God in Exodus is arbitrary in choosing the Israelites over the Egyptians and Canaanites and is jealous about the Israelites’ loyalty, which was shaky.  God is depicted as one deity among others who wanted to prove his superiority to the Egyptians Gods, and later to the Canaanite ones.  To prove this God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as not to let the Israelites go until afterGod had killed all the first-born of the Egyptians.  This was genocide of untold numbers of innocents.  But it is hardly worse than God killing off nearly all the animals and people on Earth at the time of Noah. Read straight, the God of these stories is a primitive tribal deity whose crimes against the humanity of everyone except the Israelite tribal ingroup are atrocities.  He was even tough on the ingroup, as I say, requiring the deaths of all those who complained before letting them enter the Promised Land.  Later Jewish and Christian interpreters had to find ways of taking these stories to be not true literally but symbolic of something closer to the God of justice, mercy, and love.  There is a story I’ve heard of from the Jewish Talmud, for instance, about the angels and deities in Heaven having a party after the drowning of the Egyptian army and rescue of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. But they noticed God standing off the side weeping. “Why are you not rejoicing at the salvation of your people Israel,” they asked him.  “I’m weeping for my people Egypt,” God replied.

For all his Biblicism, Calvin did not escape imposing his own consistent Christian theology on the Bible.  For instance, he was a super-monotheist whereas much of the Hebrew Bible is polytheistic. Calvin has a lesson for us here, however.  Realistically, the world is not balanced and just.  Some people are rich and others poor.  Some nations are favored, at least for a while, and others are swept aside. Some people move easily into a life of general benevolence with only minor setbacks while others damn themselves again and again despite a heart-felt will not to do so. Calvin’s God is arbitrary, creating a world where some are saved and others are damned.  The imbalance in the world must be the result of divine creation, said Calvin, because God is sovereign and somehow everything that happens, even the bad stuff, is the result of the divine will.  Perhaps we do not like this and want to attribute a generous loving spirit to God.  But then, given the realities of unequal life, God would have to be blind or inept, or not personal at all, or at least not sovereign.  Calvin says, do not close your eyes to the shocking inequalities and injustices of the world and assume that God is really behind the scenes trying, without much success, to make it right.  Life sometimes runs out of water.  When God supplies the water, as at Rephidim, it often comes at a great price: death before the Promised Land.  Sometimes God’s water is a deadly flood, as the Egyptians discovered.  God is Wild, knew Calvin.

Now Calvin and I are not supposed to be talking this way.  We are supposed to deflect attention away from the primitive God to the spiritualization of the metaphor of thirst.  We are spiritually thirsty, and God can satisfy this spiritual thirst.  This is the background orientation for the text from John’s Gospel.  Jesus turns his own human thirst at the well into a spiritual interpretation of the thirst of the others for the water of life.  The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is chock-full of boundary-crossing elements—talking with a Samaritan, talking with a woman, describing her dubious sex life without moral judgment, and offering her the water of life when he had originally only asked her for a drink from the well for himself. I presume you have heard a multitude of sermons based on this text about how we have a spiritual thirst that is far more important than physical thirst.  Jump from John 4 to John 6 and you find Jesus claiming to be the bread of Heaven, quenching a spiritual hunger that he contrasted with the mere physical hunger satisfied with manna from Heaven.  You all know how to think about the spiritual life in terms of the metaphors of thirst and hunger and you have my permission to rehearse in your mind’s ear what you would say if you get bored with the rest of what I am about to say.

Calvin’s greatest genius was to see that religion is about God more than about us.  For Luther, and for most other Christian theologians, religion is mainly about our salvation, including God’s role in it through Jesus.  Calvin paid lip service to the salvation problem and wrote many pages about how Jesus is our savior.  But the main intentionality of his vision was focused on God.  He had the largest conception of God in Western history. For him, God is unmeasurable, glorious beyond imagination, so radiant in beauty that of course God is sovereign. Nothing can compare with God.

So what Calvin would lift up today from the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is Jesus’ shocking dismissal of the tribal and religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans.  Forget about whether one should worship in Jerusalem or on the Samaritan mountain. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Jesus does not dismiss cultic differences, and says that the Jews know whom they worshipp whereas the Samaritans do not.  But he relativized cultic differences.  Real worship is a spiritual matter that should not be limited to cult.  Calvin would read John 4 as testifying to the transcendent sovereignty of God.  Just glimpse God and you are blown away.  Worship in spirit and truth is something that can only be approximated from a cultic base.

Of course, this is unmanageable theophany. It seems we need to domesticate conceptions of God for them to be to useful.  Calvin then turned to the Bible for finite things to say about this infinite and sovereign God.  He tried to make out a consistent biblical set of affirmations about God and about commandments for human life.  Like his symbolically interpreting predecessors he was reading in more than he was reading out.  But he assembled a rather detailed special interpretation of what the Bible is supposed to mean that has organized his Reformed tradition ever since.  Because we cannot live up to God’s beauty in creation, human beings are utterly depraved, Calvin said; this is not a politically correct position today.  Most of us take offense at that part of Calvinism.

Even worse, by subordinating the project of human salvation to the transcendently beautiful glory of God, awkward consequences such as predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation have followed since the Geneva days.  In the Synod of Dort at the beginning of the 17th century the Calvinist divines had to decide whether God offers salvation to anyone with free will who takes it up, or whether God determines in advance whether you are saved regardless of what you think you choose.  The former group, led by Arminius, was followed by the Methodists who continue to believe in free will.  The latter group won out at the council and so Reformed people, that is, Presbyterians, are supposed to believe in total predestination.  This put subsequent Calvinists in a panic to discover whether they were predestined for salvation or damnation. For Calvin, all these sometimes awkward consequences were not half as important as acknowledging the sovereign majesty and beauty of God.

This transcendent beautiful sovereignty of the infinite Creator cannot be described in words.  Some theologians had said that God is the fullness of reality that is whittled down in finite form to create the world.  Calvin said yes, but more, God’s creation cannot be understood as the domestication of divinity.  It is the wholly new creation of the world that embodies the divine beauty.  Every thing in creation is good, if you could but see it with God’s eye.  The swell of the oceans, the transience of the sunrise, the special thisness of each bird chirping in the bush, the vastness of the cosmos, the remote radiant heat of the Big Bang, the supernovas destroying worlds, the flooding of the coastal peoples, the parching of the deserts, the wars for dominance, the numbing poverty of our economic system, the blighted lives of the oppressed, the sick with poor care, the dying on our doorsteps, our own deaths coming anytime—all, all, bespeak the strange beauty of God.  What a horrible thing to say, we think! Moral protests abound against Calvin’s vision and Calvinists themselves have been at the forefront of movements to relieve suffering and transform the world to a more nearly just comportment.  But in a profound sense, perhaps only glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the Calvinist vision says sit down and shut up. It’s not about you, it’s about God. May I whisper softly, Calvin had it right in the long run?

No one can bear this stark vision of divine glory for long, so think back to the human side, as Calvin suggested at the beginning of his Institutes.  For what do we truly hunger and thirst?  Forget the metaphor that we are spiritually empty vessels longing to be filled with divine substance.  Our ordinary condition is to be spiritually filled with mediocre satisfactions.  The ordinary metaphors of thirst for God’s living water can too easily be turned to consumerism: we are needy—so we think of God as the resource to fulfill our needs.

Calvin blows this off.  Forget human needs!  Look to God’s glory: this will create a need for satisfaction you had never imagined.  Look to God’s beauty: you will be drawn with an infinite passion that will strangely show you beauty in life’s smallest details and worst horrors.  Look to God’s sovereignty and you will develop a thirst beyond your parchest history, a thirst deeper than any moral plumb line, a thirst that leaps over any water brook for which you had panted, a thirst that forgets your own proximately valid priorities, a thirst that brings us up short to gape without guile at God’s glory in the “thises” of creation.  Calvin dares us to look at God through the corner of the eye, through thick filters prepared for eclipses, and to be blown away.

Although Calvin in fact gave all sorts of suggestions about Lent and the moral life, suggestions that have their place, his fundamental message was, forget about it!  Ultimately, we are not important enough to worry about.  So you need more discipline, ok, get a program.  So you need to practice forgiveness, ok, get on with it.  So you need to confess, oh, duh, yes, yes, we know you are sorry and will do better next time.  Or not.  For the glorious God in whom we live, it does not make much difference.  Forget yourself. Forget whether you are saved or damned.  Forget for the moment the need to fix the world. Instead look to God whose beauty will create in you a thirst of inhuman proportion.  God beauties forth in all creation.  Beauty elicits the thirst and the more you crave the closer you come to God.  Calvin knew God does not satisfy thirst: God increases the craving.  The whole creation is God’s living water.  The more we smell that water, the thirstier we become for God.  Forget satisfying the thirst.  Intensify it.  God’s immense, transcendent, and immanent beauty calls forth the deepest thirst that unites us to God.  So, flee from spiritual satisfaction. It’s not about you.  Increase your thirst. It’s about God. Calvin understood something, didn’t he?



The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

March 16

Calvin for Lent: Letters of Recommendation

By Marsh Chapel

John 3: 1-17

2 Cor. 3: 10

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‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)


Freedom and Melancholy


In July of 2003 my dear best friend and family doctor drove us to a nearby book sale, an annual event, in a converted barn, along a country road, nearby to–nothing.  We go every summer.  He is an historian by temperament and some significant private reading, largely English history of the 17th century.  We browsed among the mildewed racks of lost tomes, lost to their original readers and lost on a generation growing impatient to reading.   For 25 cents one could buy the 1200 pages of Marcel Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, volume 1.   For eleven years, now, 2014, and now into the second volume, about page 230, this strange, difficult work has provided me some occasional early morning company.  You can see that progress has been slow.  Some months go by without a page being read.  In fact, after some real difficulty with sentences a page long, a whole year went by.


On page 233 of volume 2, Proust pauses mid remembrance to remark that with the onset of real adulthood, with the arrival of the experience of genuine freedom, with the sudden realization that one’s own life is in one’s own hands—an experience not unknown in college life—there comes melancholy.  Melancholy, for students for parents for retirees for all, melancholy comes in part from a full feeling, full thought of freedom, of the responsibility, the unique and unrecoverable responsibility of life, of living one’s own life.  Melancholy is a whole lot more than homesickness.  We sometimes presume that young adult ennui comes from homesickness.  Not so.  The real root is spiritual melancholy.  Though we respect Frederick Beuchner’s astute meditation, years ago, on the resemblance of homesickness to faith, a real rehabilitation for homesickness if ever there was one, what gives one pause in coming of age, at whatever age, is more—it is Proust’s melancholy.  Proust’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:


But by these very words which left it to myself to decide my own happiness, my mother had plunged me in that state of doubt in which I had been plunged long ago when my father, having allowed me to go to PHEDRE and, what was more, to take to writing, I had suddenly felt myself burdened with too great a responsibility, the fear of distressing him, and the melancholy which we feel when we cease to obey orders which, from one day to another, keep the future hidden, and realize that we have at last begun to live in earnest, as a grown up person, the life, the only life, that any of us has at his disposal.


Dear friend.  Your melancholy has a good in it.   Your avoidance of others, reluctance to engage, willingness to self medicate, endless sleeping, absence from worship, repetition of the verbal sign of the age, ‘whatever’—your melancholy—comes in part from a deep, perhaps pre-conscious awareness of life, of freedom, of responsibility, of the chance and necessity and dangerous challenge of really living.  Take heart if you are down.  Down is the marrow of up.


Calvin and Nicodemus


At least, that is what Nicodemus found.  Melancholy kept Nicodemus up at night, too, and one night he found, or was found by, Spirit.


This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant.  It is fitting to hear of Nicodemus at night, this morning, as we consider Calvin, this Lent. (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)


Calvin’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi: Christ mans that the movement and operation of God’s Spirit is no less perceptible in the renewal of (the human being) than the movement of the air in this earthly and outward life, but its mode is hidden.  And we, therefore, are ungrateful and (miserly) if we do not adore the incomprehensible power of God in the heavenly life, of which (God) shows us so outstanding an example in this world, and if we asbribe to Him less in restoring the salvation of our souls than in preserving the estate of our bodies:  Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed (person). (vol. 4, p, 68, NT Commentaries).


Calvin and Corinthians


Likewise, John Calvin emphasizes, rightly, in 2 Corinthians, Paul’s own stress upon the ‘fragrance’ or the ‘scent’ of the gospel.  Of course, Calvin means this both happily for the graced and sadly for the reprobate, both of whom are known in response to the preaching of the good news.  His ease in naming the ‘reprobate’ is hard for us, I expect, and makes sense only, and only in part, underneath his overarching celebration of the glory of God, God’s glory, known in all things ordained by God, both gain and loss, found and lost.  “The power of the Gospel is so great that it either quickens or kills, not only by its taste, but by its very (fragrance).’ (vol. 10, p. 35).

Calvin carefully follows Paul’s thought:  Continuing with the same metaphor, he says that the epistle was written by Christ, because the faith of the Corinthians was His work.  He says that it was ministered by himself, likening himself as it were to the ink and the pen.  In other words, he makes Christ the author and himself the instrument…(and later) For by the letter he means an external preaching which does not reach the heart, and, by the Spirit, life giving teaching, which is, through the grace of the Spirit, given effective operation in (our) souls. (p. 42)


‘You yourselves are my letter of recommendation’. (2 Cor. 3:1). Such a marvelous, supreme, beautiful commendation to you, hear at Marsh Chapel, to you, listening by radio signals, to you the community of Christ, near and far, old and young, visible and virtual.  You are a letter of recommendation!


So the Apostle Paul addresses his beloved Corinthians, and replies to those who seek a more formal epistle of reference.  You are… the recommendation.


Letters of recommendation—their solicitation, composition, delivery, reception and perusal—litter the academic landscape.  Graciously to request one is a delicate art.  Honestly to compose one is a delicate art.   Critically to assess one is a delicate art.  Over many years, having benefitted from the kindness of others who wrote them, I now, as writer, much more fully appreciate the effort therein invested.  Long before cyber files, e files, and electronic mail.  Each letter written, typed, enveloped, stamped and sent, over a kindly personal signature!   Letters of recommendation.  A pause:  may those this week composing such receive a personal blessing for a quiet labor, a thankless gift, a generous portion.


We may wonder about recommendation.  What do you and I commend, by our living?  What does our living, our mode of thinking, our manner of working, our habit of being, what does our living speechlessly recommend.  ‘None preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing’ (B Franklin).  What happy shadow, what felicitous echo, what alluring existential fragrance do you cast about yourself as you sally forth on the trail of life?  So that heads turn.  Are you—how are you?—a spiritual head turner?  We may wonder about recommendation.


Let us head off one misapprehension.  The gospel probes what you recommend, not just what you represent.  You represent—this or that.  Good.  Well and good.  But do you truly recommend what you represent?  Recommendation is spirit, representation is flesh, a distinction the Apostle most strongly asserts in Galatians 3, and again here in 2 Cor. 3: 1ff.   Here in Corinthians, Paul says, ‘you are my letter of recommendation’, not merely of representation.  Does your life sparkle, shimmer, quiver, shake, rattle and roll, outflowing in recommendation of what you represent?  In living, do you truly recommend what you dutifully represent?


You are a banker.  Good.  As such you represent savings, thrift, delayed gratification, the long view.  You represent what others can bank on, what others can count on.  As a banker you represent solid investment.  Does your own life recommend solid investment?  Do you save?  Do waste not, want not?  Do you prepare in visible ways for a rainy day?  Does your life shine with a soundness, a reliability, a trustworthy confidence, which others credit, and which others bank on, and which others can count on?  You are a banker.  Good.  But are you a banker I can count on?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?


You are a teacher. Good.  As such you represent curiosity, inquiry, learning, discipline, the converted and convertible life, as Emerson might have put it.  You represent what can be taught and learned.  As a teacher you represent the value of learning.  Do you?  Learn, I mean.  Do you learn something new, every day, and thrill to do so?  Do you seek out new vistas—another language, another land, another literature, another logarithm? Do you like to learn?  If not, what are doing teaching?  Does your conversation simmer in new sauces of tasty, salty apprehension?  Do you know how to ask questions that travel between the Scylla of banality and the Charibdis of the nonsensical?


You are a professor, an educator, an instructor.  Good.  You represent learning.  But do you recommend it in a life that exudes the happiness of understanding, the thrill of discovery, the contentment of mastery?  Are you a decent docent?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?


C.S.Lewis said ‘wake up’.  Sigmund Freud said ‘grow up’.  Paul of Tarsus said ‘show up’.  We ask you today—‘what up?’  What does your life joyfully recommend to others?


You are an American.  Looking at you, would and do others long to be one too?  You are an athlete.  Watching, do others desire to be one too?  You are an academic.  Living next door to you, do others decide to go after a PhD?  You are a political activist.  Does your dentist see and do likewise?  You are an atheist.  Knowing that, do others smile and drop belief?


You are minister.  Good.  As such you represent good news.  GOOD news.  You represent the gospel of freedom, grace and love.  You are a part of the representative ministry.  Congratulations.  You represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages (J Wesley).  You represent love divine, all loves excelling.  I couldn’t be happier for you and for all you represent.  Just one small question.  Does your life at all recommend what you ostensibly represent, what your ordination represents?  In your living, day by day, as you walk the streets where others live too, as you pass by, is there a hint of freedom in your gait, is there a scent—a fragrance– of grace in your cadence, is there a glimpse of love in your stride?  Is freedom something just to talk about on Sunday, or is it something you live out, on Thursday?  So too, grace and love.  You preach liberty, laughter and love.  Good.  Do you ever take a vacation?  Do you keep your friendships in good repair?  Do you give with a happy generosity, a carefree (not careless) abandon?  Ministry is ministry with people.  Do you spend any time with people?  Ministry is with hurting people.  Do you spend any time with hurting people?  Or is it just another day in front of the computer screen?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?  How will others hear the gospel of freedom, grace, and love if they never see ministers of the gospel who exemplify freedom, grace and love?


You are a Christian.  I am glad.  But.  Can others bear witness that you would give them the shirt off your back, go with them a second full mile, offer coat and cloak as well, and love those who make it frightfully hard to love them?  Does your life recommend or merely represent Jesus Christ, and him crucified? Do you set out in the morning to love, to live as a love letter, to live out the knowledge and love of God with mercifully spirited existential letters, sent in multiple copies, and laden with grace, prayer and presence?


Is the print legible in the letter of recommendation, which is your (pl.) life?  Can people read it, read you, read, and reading, there, read gospel?


At least we may take the intensity and zeal of Walt Whitman going forward. Whitman’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:

I celebrate myself

This is what you shall do

Love the earth and the sun and the animals

Despise riches

Give alms to every one who asks

Read these leaves in the open air

In every season of every year in your life

Dismiss whatever insults your own soul

And your very flesh shall be a great poem


Well beloved!  Lift up your hearts!  Let us this season live what we love, behave as we believe, recommend what we reference, be born of the spirit!  Hear the good news:


‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)


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

March 9

Calvin for Lent: Exit or Voice

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 4: 1-11

Romans 5: 12-19

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7

(Philippians 1: 19ff.)

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.



Over pasta last summer, a hot July night, six of us of long friendship ate and talked.  Our dear friend Anita has been for decades a committed lay reader in her summer church.  She has taken pride in her work, praying and practicing for her lector role, recruiting others, and helping in worship.  With spaghetti and wine and the warmth of long relationship we nodded and supped.  But something had happened.  The old pastor left.  A new one came.  He was, sadly, rude and belligerent with his helpers.  Not just once, or twice.

Said Anita:  “What should I do?  I love to read, and I love my lector team.  But his behavior I cannot abide.  I have talked to him.  He rebuffs me.  If I stay, I endure and even collude in his misbehavior, but I will still have my voice in church and with the committee.  If I leave, I exit from what I love and also leave behind any influence I might have to help, support or protect others.  I am loyal to my church, but I am ready to go.  What should I do?’

Hours, days and months are actually shot through with this form of dilemma in choice.  Exit or leave?  A famous study forty years ago laid out for economists the dimensions of the dilemma.  (Albert O. Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)  But such a condition goes well beyond the marketplace.

Exit is as old the exit from the Garden of Eden.  Voice is as old as the dominical voice of Christ resisting temptation.  Exit and voice: how do the Scriptures frame such living choice?

Our lessons from Holy Scripture this morning propound the moral and mortal limits of life in sin and death.  As does every Sunday benediction, sung or spoken, Genesis 2 and Romans 5 and Matthew 4, directly remind you:  your life is brief and messy.

The ancient myth, beginning in the garden of paradise and moving to the east of Eden, entwines fragility and fragmentation, existence and estrangement, sin and death.   The tree of the knowledge of good and evil provides the symbolic substance, the serpent provides the symbolic occasion, and the fig leaves provides the symbolic covering of the entanglement of sin and death, shame and loss.   The strange world of the Bible—not strange in the sense of odd or wrong but strange in the sense of numinous and monumental—accosts us today with a ringing reminder of suffering and death.

Others may put these verses in different frames (a pan-religious frame (Joseph Campbell), or in a salvation history frame (G Von Rad), or in a tradition historical frame (Rudolph Bultmann), or in a literary religious frame (Diana Eck)).   For us in worship, though, these words are holy writ.  They function as words with divine import for human living.  They remind us of moral and mortal limits to life in sin and death, suffering and death.  They set before us the perilous multiple choices of life in a certain realistic context, as we shall see in a moment with regard to the choices, hourly and daily, between exit and voice.

The deep, hard cold of a real old time religion winter season, like ours here in 2014, befits our Holy Scriptures today.  It is bracing to feel the full wind and cold of winter.  We are thus reminded, perhaps even made mellow and melancholy, no bad thing, by the stern icy reminder of morality and mortality, sin and death.

This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant.  It is fitting that we begin with Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

Our passage from Romans 5 gives us Paul’s own apocalyptic rendering of the themes of sin and death.  We should be careful to recognize that the words are the same here as in Genesis 2 and 3, but the meanings are different.  For Paul both sin and death are spheres of influence, orbs of control, dominions and principalities and powers.  His apocalyptic worldview makes a changed use of the inherited terms from Genesis.  Likewise his philosophical mode is quite different from the narrative structures in Genesis 2 and 3.  The freedom found in Christ smashes the controls of the orbs of sin and death, for Paul.

So Calvin writes, about this passage: To sin is to be corrupt.  The natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, although it does not produce its fruits immediately, is still sin before God, and deserves his punishment…Grace means the pure goodness of God, or his unmerited love, of which He has given us a proof in Christ, in order to relieve our misery. You did hear the Apostle say that this grace was given to all men.  That sounds fairly universalistic to most readers.  All.  Yet Calvin says otherwise:  Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all…not all receive him. (Commentaries, loc.cit.)

            Like that wind you felt on the Esplanade the other day, these sentences from Geneva in 1540 or so have their purposes.  They posit that we are not in possession of grace as much as we are in need of grace.   Grace is the gift of God sorely needed by the people of God.  130,000 dead in Syria.  A four year old pummeled to death in New England.  A mother driving into the surf with her children in Daytona Beach.  Construct your own list, following a good reading of the Sunday newspaper.  A cold, sober realism is found both in Romans 5, on Calvin’s reading, and in the daily reports of suffering, near and far.

Our passage from Matthew 4 connects with Adam and Christ along the trail of temptation, from the garden of Eden to the wilderness of Palestine.  This gospel, a teacher’s gospel, makes sure to begin with the harder news, that even Christ himself was tempted to make improper use of freedom.  In Calvin’s view, every form of temptation comes with a divine purpose, a gracious protection, and a form of grace to be received:  The temptations that strike us are not fortuitous, or the turn of Satan’s whim, without God’s permission, but that the Spirit of God presides in all our trials, that our faith may be the better tried.  So we may take our sure hope that God, who is the supreme Master of the ring, will not be unmindful of us, or fail to succor our weaknesses, as He sees we are unequal to them. (Commentaries, loc. cit.)

In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf.   A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable:  “Himself was his own battleground, the scene of his own vanquishment and the mausoleum of his own defeat’ …’aint only one thing worse than not being alive and that’s shame’…”they learn only through violent suffering, with words written in human blood”…”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.



How shall we use our human freedom faithfully in the light of the divine freedom known to us in Christ?


Exit or voice or resignation?  Fight or flight or play dead?

Your roommate smokes for breakfast, drugs for lunch, drinks for dinner.  Do you leave—him, school or both?  Do you confront—‘one of us is crazy and I think it’s you’?  Do you grin and bear it?


Your faculty has taken a new direction, that is, a wrong turn.  For well- intentioned reasons, they have exchanged birthright for pottage.  Do you politic, agitate, criticize, and combat in what may well be a losing cause?  Do you call a friend who has wanted you to come to Brown or NYU for a long time anyway, and prepare to exit?  Or do you close your door, grade your papers and play a little more golf?


Your brother is about to marry the wrong woman.  He is impressionable and she is impressive—an empress if you will.  Do you shout a warning and then risk never speaking to him again?  Do you reason, consult, have lunch, empathize and appeal to the better angels of his nature?  Do you throw up your hands, send an early shower gift, and bite your tongue?


You are a major world super power.  With limited success you have partially pacified a resentful Middle Eastern Muslim nation.  Now what?  Do you exit, stage left, leaving behind a decade of warfare, tens of thousands dead, tribal hatreds still much in evidence, and hope for the best?  Do you stay, increase your footprint and military presence, give voice to the rights and needs of children, women, non-muslims and others?  Or do you practice a little benign neglect, and put your energy into health care, immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, Chinese economics, and the next election?


How much for exit and how much for voice?  How much for flight and how much for fight?  And, then, when do you just pull your turtle head back into the shell and play dead?


In 54 ad Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, in a verse with subterranean links to Genesis and Matthew, exit and voice, wrestled with the same angel\demon.


On one hand, he wrote, ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain. Yet which I shall choose I cannot telI.’ (Phil. 1: 21). For once his regular apocalyptic eschatology, the horizontal primitive hope of the day of the Lord, which he fully expects to see in the flesh, gives way to a simple, vertical, Greek, gnostic eschatology, an immediate translation to glory.  Troubles, trouble in the churches it may be, spark Paul’s momentary exit strategy, his longing to  ‘depart and be with Christ’.


On the other hand, he considered, ‘To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account’.  I am for you, so I should be with you.  It is better for you that I am here.  We can add:  to raise my voice, to lift my voice, to write my letters, to preach my Gospel, to have influence into the next generation.  Paul longs for exit.  Paul lives for voice.


How much for exit?   How much for voice?  How much protestant exit?  How much catholic loyalty?  How much reformation?  How much counter-reformation?  How much pulpit?  How much table?  How much discontinuity?  How much continuity?  How much new world?  How much old world?


On these spiritual balances  hang the cure of our souls.  Needless to say, there is not an answer, no formulaic response, no ‘one size fits all’, no ethical Procrustean bed.  Another Pauline verse beckons:  ‘only let each one be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Rom 8:44).  We could, in faith, though, at least carry away from Lent 1 some shared understandings as people of faith.


We understand that on a daily if not hourly basis, we are choosing, by the freedom of the will, between exit and voice.  To have voice means to have to stay.  To exit means to give up voice.  To exit may be your statement, your voice, within a certain context, but it is, then, your valediction, your swan song.  On the other hand, your voice may be your exit, but it is then a prophetic utterance, with all the continuing costs attested in the 4 greater and 12 lesser prophecies of our Hebrew scripture.   Or you could just sit this one out, take a siesta.


We understand that most decisions involve some admixture, some balance—neither Webster only or Calhoun, only; but the shadow of Henry Clay, the great compromiser.


We understand that where we place our physical self, our body, where we place our standard on the field of battle, our social location, makes a difference.  Starting with showing up for worship, to speak with our neighbors, to sing the hymns of faith, to utter our prayers, to attend to the Word.


We understand, too, that whatever voice we lift, even the muted voice of silent witness, has a hearing, makes a difference, marks our faith, and influences the faith of others.


Exit?  Voice?


Over forty years, in painful relationship to my beloved Methodist Church, I with others have struggled about exit and voice.  Many of my friends, colleagues, students, and companions have chosen exit, one way or another.  In some limited ways, I have, too.  These are faithful people making hard decisions.  I honor the cradle Methodist who chooses Episcopal orders, the Methodist seminarian who reluctantly becomes a Congregationalist, the gen-x and millennial cohorts leaving us behind


I stay.  I stay to raise my voice, and to reject giving my orders, my position, my influence, and, over time multiple generations of pastoral leadership, to a currently afro centric general church.  I stay because I believe that over time, around the world, under the influence of a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe, the mighty scourge of homophobia will be rejected by a body that in its singing voice and reasonable mind—in its spiritual bones—lives the gospel of freedom, grace, love, acceptance, kindness, and forgiveness.  Over time, Methodists will not want to harm 9 year old gay children.


But.  This response is generational.  It will take longer than my limited life time for this change fully to come.  This response is global.  It will require a change of heart, over time, in African Methodists.  This response is gritty.  It will mean underground railways to marry gays and deploy ordained gays.  It will mean prayer and withholding apportionment dollars.  It will mean seasoned, genuine response in many settings:  charge, annual, jurisdictional, global and intergalactic conferences.  It will mean upomone—longsuffering, longsuffering, longsuffering.  It will involve political love.


(Political love, active love in institutional life, is a crucial, necessary feature of realistic faithfulness.

Political love is political because it occurs by intention within the city community.  Political love is love because it is divinely gracious—an incursive addition to life.

Love listens and remembers.  Love compliments with sincerity and pointed limitation.  Love watches for another’s unspoken longing.  Love uncovers festering injustice.  Love shows up, attends, responds, and then invites.

This political love accepts the requirement of alliance, even alliance with opposition, without neglecting friendships, or forgetting the beauty of friendship.)

Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.


Exit or voice?  You be the judge.

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

March 2

One Means of Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 17: 1-9

Click here to hear the full service.

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Walk with me for a moment, if you will.  You are saintly souls, so you will smoothly saunter along.   Our seminarians want to think about the way they walk, through the town of their service.  People can tell a lot about you by the way you walk.  Is she approachable? Always in a hurry? Open to interruption (ministry is interruption)?  Able to kick up leaves or snow?  You as a community know how to saunter.  You do.


Our walk is the journey of faith.  Faith is a gift.  The gift is the gift of a journey, of travel, of motion and movement and progress and regress.  It may be that in a lifetime we create more problems than we solve.   Who is to say?  Yet we do learn, step by step, whether in progress or not, whether in fruitfulness, or not.  After failure, after defeat, you can always ask yourself, or another:  ‘what did you learn from that’?  ‘For all that hurt, what did you learn?’  That can be as healing as anything, for those with whom you walk.


Ahead of us on the trail—just take a moment to lift the gaze and train the eyes—we can see or foresee some trail markers ahead.   You will come walking, sauntering, the saints of God to feast on the holiness of God, down the aisle in a moment for One Means of Grace.  You foresee Holy Communion.  You will walk further and later this week into the forty days of Lent, starting Wednesday.  You foresee preparation, discipline, study, fasting, come Lent.


You see out more than a month, and just at the end of Lent, too, another marker.  A return, one year later, to Boylston Street.  A return, step by step, a year later, to Marathon Monday.  A return, just about Easter, to the horrific violence, the unspeakable and damnable bombing of our New England family picnic.  A return to the death of Lu Lingzi, our BU student.  We are preparing services and vigils and gatherings, including at 10am Monday April 21, here.  Hold those hurt in prayer, those hurting in prayer, those who helped in prayer, those healing in prayer.


There is something, one step two step, something of heart beating as we walk along, lub dub, lub dub, the beating of the heart as we beat along the path in the journey of faith.




Take one step.  You are coming into One Means of Grace, which it the holy meal of Christ, the Eucharist.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.  Eucharist is thanksgiving.   As the years pass, the gospel of Transfiguration becomes so dear, does it not?  In a lingering moment, a poetical beauty, the three disciples without Andrew, high on a mountain, are entranced, enthralled, enchanted.  They worship.  They truly worship.  They give thanks and worship God, bowing to Moses (law) Elijah (prophets) and Jesus (grace).  Love—how can you not?—the painting Matthew does:  a face of sunshine, a deference (‘if you wish’), a bright cloud, falling on the face, filling with awe, the vision.


Follow the trail of this text, Matthew 17.  Its seedbed is in Exodus 24, by the way.  Its roots are in Mark 9, which Matthew has appended and amended.  It has its own beauty, right here right now.  It is preached upon, early, in 2 Peter.  The gospel itself steps along, moves along, makes progress.


The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  To a friend last week:  “I am aware of the increased attention to Calvin and Calvinism, even in newspapers (N.Y. Times, others).  I believe the attention is in part due to the overall substantial theological material therein, and in part to what you allude to below, which is the gracious grandeur of the creator behind the creation, so emphasized in Calvin.  It is striking to me that Calvin, working in the beauty of the Alps, and Robinson, growing up in the beauty of the Rockies, have a kindred sense of the mountainous greatness of God.”   Pause just a moment on the mountain.


When you come to worship you place yourself in earshot of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  To be thankful, Eucharist.  To give thanks, Eucharist.  To sing a song of thanksgiving, Eucharist.


Opposition:  Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time.




Take another step. You are coming into One Means of Grace, which is the holy meal of Christ, in remembrance.  This do in remembrance of me.  To remember and to recall are not the same things, but memory and recollection are cousins, at least.  Do you ever have conversations with loved ones who are now ‘in a greater light and on a farther shore’?  The bath of baptism and the meal of communion, simple gifts, remind us of who we are and whose we are.


There is here bread for the journey.  But some of that nourishment is found not in the meal but in the mind.  You are walking now, or soon, up the sawdust trail that is our center aisle, or imagining that walk from your breakfast nook, your front seat, your living room, or your desk.  This One Means of Grace reminds you of your best, own most, truly faithful self.  Such a reminder can be blinding, joyous, painful, and costly.  Your social location does truly matter.


Boston University invited students and others to apply to run the Marathon, this year, in memory of our student, Lu Lingzi.  200 applications came for 7 spots, a process well ordered by our Dean of Students office.  Some of us read through the applications in order to select 7.  They are private so they are not quoted, here.  But moving?  Emotional? Wonderful? Real?  All, and more.  This do in remembrance of me.  All 200 wanted to lace their sneakers and don their running togs and endure the 27.3 miles—to remember.  In a way, these worthy applications were themselves sacramental.  This do in remembrance of me.  In our congregation we have others who are running, this year especially in remembrance.


Such kindness, such reverence, remind us who we have set out, and sauntered on, to be.   Good people can differ about real and big things, people of faith can see things in varieties of ways.  There are many ways of keeping faith.  Yet, when one hears the call to exact the death penalty, even for such heinous and miserable violence a year ago, one wonders, in remembrance.  This is not really about two brothers, one dead and one heading to trial, is it?  This is really about us, about you and me, about what kind of community we are, and want to be.   Taking life as a way of protecting life—is this who we want to be?  Opposing killing by killing—is this who we want to see when we stand in the mirror of judgment?   You may well feel the real and raw urge for vengeance.  Who would not feel some at least of this?  But who are we?  This is about us, about the people of Boston, and who we most want to be.  It is something to think about on the long walk, the journey of faith, from Eucharist to Lent to Easter to the marathon.




Take a third step. You are coming into One Means of Grace, which is the holy meal of Christ, in real presence.  In, with and under the humble elements of bread and wine, changing nothing and changing everything, we are met in presence. ‘You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.  2 Peter is the latest document in the New Testament, written in the name of Peter more than 100 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth (Jude is its second chapter!).  The tradition and memory of the Transfiguration lives on, and lives on well, here.  We need not fear the dark.  We need not fear death.  Death is not like a candle snuffed, but like a lamp turned down because the dawn has come.  Eliot poetized that we humans are ‘fear in a handful of dust’ and so we are, full of anxiety—existential anxiety, survivors anxiety, performance anxiety, emotional anxiety.  Into fear and anxiety intrudes a sense of presence.  For your journey of faith, take along a hymn of thanksgiving, take along a word of remembrance, but take along as well a sense of presence.  For all the forms and understandings of disenchantment around us, there lingers, here and now, a sense of presence.   Presence is all about.  Immediacy.  Inwardness.  Experience.


We are coming to communion.  My grandmother, born in 1893, spent five decades as communion steward of her little Methodist church.  Four times a year she filled tiny shot glasses and carved small bread cubes, juggling the trays into church, and waiting anxiously through the hour to see whether she had prepared sufficient elements.  I do not remember her remembering to me a single communion homily, by the way, though she will have heard more than fifty years’ worth.


At communion I remember her.  I am thankful for her.  I sense her presence.


After graduating from Smith College she went to teach school in Tivoli NY, a little town on the Hudson River, east shore.  There later she met my grandfather, in a boarding house for single teachers and others, run by his mother.  His first wife died very young.  One cold winter day—it may have been 100 years ago this winter—she skated on the fully frozen Hudson (rarely so fully frozen), from Tivoli down (south) to Poughkeepsie, 14 miles.  Then she skated back, 14 miles.  Here she is, a young woman, free of the farm, teaching German, meeting young men, falling in love, and skating 28 miles on the rarely so frozen Hudson River.  I see her lacing her skates, in the bright cold air.  I imagine her arranging her coat and cap and scarf and mittens.  I watch her push off, across the clear smooth ice, like that on the Charles this morning.

She pauses, mid skate, looking up into the blue tinted evergreens on the shore line, smiling, happy, free.  All the wonderful Olympic skating of Sochi pales by comparison.  She skates in the Presence.  A real presence, in, with and under all else.


At communion I remember her.  I am thankful for her.  I sense her presence.  She embodies what the greats have taught:


Tillich: ‘such a degree of entanglement between worldly wisdom and divine revelation that culture is considered the form of religion and religion as culture’s depths’

Kelsey: ‘God actively relates to us to create us, to draw us to eschatological consummation, and to reconcile us when we have become estranged from God’

Neville:  Live the Ultimates.   Be Just.  Develop Wholeness.  Be Compassionate.  Accomplish Something.  Be Grateful.  Honor the universality of value in anything that has form.  To be is to have value.

M Robinson: ‘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 (Adam, 84).  We hope to acquire rather than to achieve.  We still believe in the seriousness of being human, while we have lost the means of acknowledging this belief.  We are spiritual agoraphobes.’



William Sloane Coffin offered his generation ways of thinking and living One Means of Grace.  With happiness we may call one another to the walk, the journey of faith in remembering his wisdom (from the Faces on Faith series)

Faith:  faith is being grasped by the power of love.

Safety:  God provides minimum protection and maximum support.

Adversity:  We learn most from adversity.

Sin:  Sin is a state of being.  When the triangle of love, GOD SELF NEIGHBOR, is sundered, there is sin.

Guilt:  Guilt is the last stronghold of pride.

Will:  The rational mind is not match for the irrational will.

Mercy:  There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

Justice:  Pastoral concern for the rich must match prophetic concern for the poor.

Love:  The religious norm is love.

Trouble:  It is what is known and unspoken that causes the most trouble.

Truth:  Faith gives the strength to confront unpleasant truth.

Journey:  Faith puts you on the road.  Hope keeps you on the road.  Love is the end of the road.

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