Remembering Robert Hamill

Matthew 20:1-14

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Our sermon today remembers Dean Robert Hamill and reflects upon the Matthean gospel of divine generosity.  The latter ennobled the former, and the former exuded the latter.

Robert Hamill served in his last ministerial appointment as the Dean of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, from 1965 until his death in 1975.   During his tenure, here, the University and the country were convulsed in the throes of struggles over civil rights, over racial relations, over war and opposition to war, and over the authority of those governing and the responsibility of those governed.  He was third in the line of six deans here, alongside a number of others who served in interim capacities.   He was a Methodist minister.  He was a preacher. He was a teacher and author.  And his first name was Robert.  In short, he was fully qualified for the position (J).

Dr. Hamill came here following a long and distinguished ministry in the mid west, including work on campuses and in college communities.  He wrote regularly for MOTIVE magazine.  He helped Howard Thurman in the last years of Thurman’s ministry here, without much recognition in that era.  He had the task of following an iconic figure, filling big shoes, and carrying forward the work of Marsh Chapel in a turbulent time.  He died of cancer on the job.


Meanwhile, now, in Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’. (Bultmann) The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity.  Its point:  behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same.  As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice.  To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay.  To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive.  To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs.  To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.    The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers.  When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath.  When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.


On Alumni Weekend each year, we have remembered one of our forebears—like Franklin Littell or Daniel Marsh or Allan Knight Chalmers or Howard Thurman, and others.  This year, Robert Hamill.

Hamill’s time in the vineyard was long and difficult.  His years in this pulpit were long and hard years.  He did not come into his labor at evening, or even at noon, but early in the day, and did not find his rest until he found his eternal rest at the day’s end.  He worked, here, in the time my friend yesterday, a visiting alumnus, referred to as the time of ‘the troubles’. Unlike his predecessor, he did not enjoy quite as wide a range of recognition, nor quite as strong a national following, nor just as steady a range of response to his pulpit work.  Unlike those who had worked in the fifties, a time of relative peace and prosperity, his era 1965-75 was fraught with conflict, with anxiety, with discord, with strife.   A Christmas Sunday 12/24/74 sermon in his last year, whose recording was found and heard earlier this week, decries the war in Vietnam, and a bombing campaign in progress.  A 1970 sermon on racial justice and black power, preached some years earlier, became required reading for work in racial justice on campuses in the south.  An earlier book of sermons on the theme of freedom, exhibits clearly the clouds gathering all about of constraints.

In other words, Robert Hamill lived within the rhythms of some comparative difficulty and injustice.  On more than one occasion, you could perhaps surmise, he might have paused to wonder aloud, crossing Commonwealth Avenue, about the justice of it all, the unequal distribution of generosity, the unfairness of circumstance, the pain and pained crucible of disappointment.   He did not live anywhere near long enough to see that particular war ended, to see the gradual amelioration of some racial injustices, to see the still expanding circle of his great and beloved theme of freedom.  He got to work before dawn, labored through the noon day heat, and went to eternal sleep after dusk, with no retirement to enjoy, no decades of cruises and tours, no relaxed season to hold the grandchildren, no sunset years.

For instance, in October of 1970, early on a Sunday morning, 200 federal marshals, Boston Police, and FBI agents entered the chapel in which you are sitting, and arrested an AWOL Army Private whom the chapel congregation had given sanctuary.  Students keeping vigil in the nave were awakened and cleared from the aisle.  Rev Hamill later led a Sunday service of worship here that morning, broadcast on WBUR.

The fissures and fractures that were fragmenting the country as a whole, epitomized May 4 1970 at Kent State, were visible and tangible right here.  One can imagine that Hamill and his wife may well have wished that the timing of their ministry here had been other than it was.  Yet when Deda, whom I knew, (Hamill’s second wife whom he married after the death of his first wife, Hannah,) herself died two years ago, a mutual friend brought us the guest book used in those years at the Hamill residence.  What is striking is that for all the turmoil of the times, worship continued on Sunday mornings, and the Hamills regularly offered hospitality over a traditional Sunday dinner in their home.  The book contains the personal signatures of their guests, over the months and years, after church on Sunday:  Takako Shimo, James and Eunice Matthews, Robert and Pat Nelson, Walter and Martha Muelder, Robert Luccock, Max and Betty Miller, Merle Jordan, F Thomas Trotter, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, Ruth and Paul Deats, Earl Kent Brown, Joe Bassett, Edward Carroll, Marjorie Metcalf, Harrell Beck, Peter Bertocci, Joe Polak, Kathryn Silber, John Silber, Loumona Petroff, and many others.   The work in the vineyard continued, in season and out.


Let us return for a moment to Matthew.  Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others.  Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace.  Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter.  The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.  Oye ve (J).

Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power.  The allegory is clear.  God is obliged to nobody.  Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late.  In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago.  (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.)  Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same.  Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’.  ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.


The steadiness, the weekly, seasonal consistency in Robert Hamill’s hospitality at table, Sunday by Sunday, continued throughout his years here.

Some here will remember that no graduation service was held at Boston University in 1970.  Here in Marsh Chapel in May, 2010 we gathered for a service of remembrance before some of those received their diplomas, forty years later, the next day.  The chapel was packed, hot, and tense. The pianist played Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Let it Be, and We Shall Overcome.  Midway into the proceedings a spirited woman stood up and interrupted the Dean’s remarks.  From the back pew she began to preach her own sermon.  Somehow, it did seem to fit the time, class and occasion.  After a bit I told her I could not hear her, and went on.  James Carroll, now a married columnist, but in 1970 the Catholic priest at BU, offered a powerful pastor meditation, remembering Hamill, the Armory, the war, and concluding as he asked:  What are we doing here tonight?  Have we not come in order to face, and thereby to let go, of a troubled time long ago?

            The recording of Hamill’s 1974 Christmas Sunday sermon includes his admonition to those listening to join him in rising on Christmas Day and before presents and fellowship and turkey dinner and all else sending a letter to the White House demanding an end to the war.  His voice is raspy but his challenge is clear, six months from death.  In his sermon book HOW FREE ARE YOU he noted:  When you get into the fight for freedom, you encounter trouble for sure.  One of the notable preachers of our time who consistently fought for free men in a free society was Dr. Ernest Fremont Tittle.  One day I asked Dr. Tittle how he handled controversial material, and he gave three rules of thumb:  ‘Be sure of your facts.  Speak the truth in love.  Then be unafraid of the consequences.’  (Freedom, 77). Hamill may have been thinking of Tittle coming toward his own last Christmas day.


Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, we have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith.  Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing.  Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too).  (If faith comes by hearing it help if you are in earshot.  You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letter to the Philippians:  live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

You may have been impressed this week by Ken Burns’ ever engaging latest documentary on the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin and Eleanor.  Eleanor as an orphan was raised by drunken uncles and others in the small Hudson River village of Tivoli, a little town where my grandparents met and where my grandfather is now buried.   It happens, I learned this week, that a great aunt, Ella Lascher Coons, my mother’s aunt, with some others in Tivoli sewed Eleanor’s wedding dress.  We are that is, neither in space or time, all that very far from Tivoli and the New Deal.

All three of these iconic American leaders suffered—Theodore in childhood illness and adult defeat and early death, Eleanor in childhood loneliness and adult betrayal and isolation, Franklin in polio.  Whether they would have taken Paul’s formula as theirs, he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well, one cannot say.  There certainly is no justice to any suffering as such, and certainly not to theirs, intimately and poignantly depicted in Burns’ fine film.  Yet there is something underneath the grumbling of the workers, the hiddenness of the landowner, the various and capricious deposits of weal and woe, in the Matthean parable, in the Roosevelt lives, and, more to the point, in our very own.  Call it a different light, a refraction out of a different lens, of the divine generosity, and what happens when someone seizes—or better is seized by—that glorious, mysterious divine radiance, divine goodness, divine generosity.

There is a scene in Burns’ film inwhich the camera shows polio afflicted children swimming in the Warm Springs Florida pool.  This is the pool that finally allowed Franklin, buoyed and warmed in its water, to stand after months and years of utter torment.  The camera scans the children, playing, swimming, dunking, and laughing.  Then the camera closes in on the biggest of the children, the six foot tall future president, who is right there, soaked and joyful in the midst of them.  It was unmistakable, even at this distance of years and miles and technology, to see the glint and gleam in his eye.  The divine generosity was splashing through him and out onto all the similarly afflicted children round about.  Something happened to him, in all the injustice and unfairness and inscrutability of his hours in the existential vineyard.  Something happened that made a difference—to the poor of the depression, to the nearly conquered in Europe and Asia, to the women and people of color and otherwise abled whom Eleanor prodded him, cajoled him, and implored him to aid.  He found a part of himself able to help, really help, others similarly afflicted, and somehow that part, once raised to life, opened his life to all the rest.

I wonder about you? and me?  Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week?  Are we better people than we were last Sunday?

John Calvin (for once) on this parable:  We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God.  From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling.  Finally we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)


I think back, or try to think back, fifty years—a flick of the wrist, a batting of eye, no time at all.   Here is Robert Hamill, walking toward us in the memory, this Alumni weekend 2014.   He knew the labor in the vineyard.  Yet Sunday dinner he offered every week.  He knew the unheralded service in ministry during a time of tumult, a time of trouble.  Yet Sunday dinner was served every week.  He knew the unwelcome unfairness of the difficulty on his watch, the intractable conflicts therein, the lack of resolution thereof, and, to top it off, early death at an early age.  Yet Sunday dinner’s hospitality, the Hamills’ form of faithfulness, never lagged and never flagged.  Around that table, come Sunday, with china and linens and silver and meal, one feels, there was, amid all the pain of the ‘troubles’, a refraction of glory, a reflection of the divine generosity.

Somehow, knowing Robert Hamill’s labor in the vineyard, somehow I think I, and I expect we, can find the energy and courage generously to live, so generously to live, as well.

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

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