Archive for October, 2014

October 26

Religion on Campus

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 22:34-46

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Love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:35)


A. A Sociological Perspective:  Safety on Campus

Our siblings at the Bossey Institute in Switzerland focus weekly on Bible, Church, and World, while we do the same here at Marsh Chapel, as lenses upon the love of neighbor.  With our theme today we take them in reverse order, World, Church, Bible.

Religion on campus today is blessed with sociological, ecclesiological and theological opportunities, on a grand scale.  To all three of these blessings we will return during the rest of the year, for more detailed attention.  Today’s sermon is meant as a map of the whole territory, religion on campus, in three dimensions, social and communal and spiritual, on behalf of this marvelous Marsh community, for whom Jesus is our ‘beacon not our boundary’.


First, in the very present, with increasing attention, our nation has recognized a pervasive malady within student life and culture, certainly not limited to any one college or city, a callous disregard for the safety of women.  This is not a women’s problem, this is a men’s problem and a community problem. In this past year, appalling renditions of campus life have gradually brought about a ‘raised consciousness’ (a phrase whose currency we owe to the women’s movement of a generation ago).  Read again the March (Caitlin Flanagan) Atlantic article on fraternity life.  Look once more, if you can endure it, at the New York Times early August account of assault and rape in Geneva, NY, at Hobart William Smith.  Peruse the various columns on acquisition and education, excellence and sheep, like that of William Deresiewicz. Assess the attention last week to Harvard’s administrative change, and the objections of their law school faculty.  Sift through carefully the daily details of what young adults recount of their own experience.  A young friend this week related the chilling experience of being chased for blocks in the early evening on a well-lit street, through no fault of her own.  One student at Columbia now carries, cross-like, day-by-day, from class to class, the mattress on which an assault occurred some months ago.  Groups of students readily volunteer to help.  No campus across this land is free from the responsibility and the opportunity of facing and addressing, in real time, the issue of safety on campus.

Unlike many other problems—tornados, cancer, mortality—these are problems that need not occur and have both consequences and cures.  One reads that 20% of college women are harassed, attacked or assaulted during their student years.  That is going to change.  That has to change.  That will change, if only because those funding college tuition payments over time will make sure it does.

The voice of religious life (history, community and leadership) has everything to offer to this dilemma.  Where there are still religious voices to be heard, on campus, where that is there are still pulpits, on campus, (a mere fraction of the number a generation ago, a tiny fraction of that two generations ago) religion has been consistently, faithfully and aggressively engaged with issues of safety on campus, in concert with many good people and leaders across campuses like this one.

At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will continue to provide sacred space that is a safe place. Come Sunday, in worship wherein we remember that life is lived before God, and that our experience rests in the presence of ultimate reality.  And on weekdays, by employing and deploying sexual and other minorities in ministry and for ministry—the Inner Strength Choir, the LGBTQ work, and all manner of life affirming and spiritual enriching groups, events and programs. Spend a Friday evening with the Seventh Day Adventist student group and you will feel and see this in action.  Learning, yes, but also virtue and also piety.  Knowing, yes, but also doing and also being.  Mind, yes, but also heart and also soul.

A few years ago I met with a group of theologians at Yale.  At dinner, a highly accomplished professor approached. ‘I picked up that you work with religious groups.  What can you tell me about Intervarsity?’  His question carried a nervous apprehension.  I replied that they were a campus group, more conservative than I, and my tradition, but reliable and experienced.  ‘Why do you ask?’ I responded.  ‘Well, my daughter goes to that group here at Yale.  She was raised a Presbyterian.”  I asked why she chose Intervarsity:  ‘did she like the bible study, or the leader?’  ‘Oh, no’, he answered. ‘I think she just was looking for a group her age who were not drinking every night’.


At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will also continue to uphold a vision of a beloved community among women and men on campus.  A beloved community, and nothing short of it!

A while ago someone asked why religious leaders on campus weren’t saying more about campus safety.   It took most of what little self-control I have not to blurt out: ‘where have you been?  Are you interested in these things?  Really? Then why aren’t you in church with us on Sunday?  If you were, you would see, hear and know just steadily we have done so.  So if you are really interested in a beloved community of women and men on campus, then I expect to see you in church on Sunday.  Put your body where your mouth is!  Come to Marsh Chapel.

Here is a community of faith living weekly in the shadow of a monument to Martin Luther King.  His dream is greatly deferred, we confess.  But the dream lives, we affirm.  The dream of a beloved community, including such a community among women and men on campus.

Here you might be greeted by an African American woman from Atlanta, like one of our former ushers, Jennifer Williams, now researching her PhD dissertation in urban planning at the University of Michigan, with a winter in South Africa.  Here you might be greeted by an Asian man like Maadiah Wang, one of our former ushers, now in business in Toronto, who was baptized by immersion on Easter Eve, on the side lawn here, last spring.  Here you might be greeted by Dominique Cheung, one of our former ushers, a BU graduate who taught for a year in Taiwan, and who has now returned this fall for a Masters degree in Education, and is an usher again, an usher both former and current. Go ushers!

Here you might find a friend like mine who guided me to a column by Emma Green, Atlantic, 11/14:  Americans born after 1980 are less likely to identify with a religion.  But.  Religious people report more satisfaction with their love lives and sex lives.  Church\service attendance protects healthy people against death.  College grads born in the 1970’s are more likely than non-grads of the same age to identify with a particular faith.  Maybe there’s something about contemporary campus life that maes people more, not less, likely to gravitate toward traditional institutions—or maybe college grads have simply learned that religion is pretty good for you.

Here you might catch a glimpse of what love can be, neighbor to neighbor, what loving kindness, chivalry, honor, care can be.  We still teach Shakespeare at Boston University:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.  Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.[1]

In sociology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

B. An Ecclesiological Perspective:  Love and Law

Second, religion on campus has an opportunity with regard to religion off campus, an ecclesiological rather than a sociological responsibility, one of church rather than college.   That is, the voices of religion on campus can provide a hopefully humble but also historically nuanced counterbalance to contemporary church vision and leadership.

For instance, as only one example, and turning to our own situation and heritage here at Marsh Chapel, there has been an historic, creative tension between the preaching leadership and the administrative management of the Methodist church, dating back at least to Peter Cartwright and his tangles with various presiding elders.  Both are important, both spirit and structure. Our ministry at Marsh this year emphasizes spirit, but structure has its role, importance and place.  Today, however, with most of the preachers in many Methodist conferences now lacking full education, and lacking ordination with consequent guarantee of appointment, the balance of power has shifted dramatically in the last generation.  Those whose primary weekly commitment is to interpreting the scripture are outweighed by those whose primary annual commitment is to upholding the discipline.  The gospel trumpeted in Scripture and tradition, freedom and grace and love, for all, including especially those in minority, including sexual minorities, is overshadowed by the rules and constraints re-voted every four years.  University pulpits, the few that remain, bear a significant responsibility to model dimensions of humility, integrity and courage (along with those healthy, strong churches whose northeastern voices you heard a summer ago, from New York, Washington, Rochester, and Boston).   As Lou Martyn said, we are free here to set heaven is a little higher.  So we need to take responsibility to lead, along the fewer strong, stable pulpits across the land.   We have the advantage of resources in interpretation, in memory, in thought, and in reflection that can be of some use, in this particular time.


One illustration.   Ministry is now denied to gay people in Methodism.  Ordination, that is.  But think about this for a minute, in a University chapel.  We have spent more than a generation re-learning that ministry belongs not to the ordained, alone, but to the baptized.  Entrance into ministry does not begin with the bishop laying on hands, at ordination.  Entrance into ministry begins with the pastor laying on hands, in baptism.  99% of ministry is conferred in the sacrament of baptism, and 1% in the sacramental rite of ordination.  Those who really would consistently exclude gay women and men from ministry should never have allowed the church to baptize or confirm or commune gay people. That would have been more fully effective and consistent bigotry.  But in baptism– the barn door has been opened, and no amount of shutting it will ever work!  Gay people are baptized, and therefore are already in ministry! It is a short way from denying orders to denying baptism.

Christopher Morse, my theology professor, and a Methodist minister from Virginia, told us once at dinner about a humorous baptismal moment.  Forty years ago you baptized every infant in the northern half of the county, no matter what county, on Palm Sunday.  38 baptisms in a row.  He moved down the line, seizing the children one at a time.  ‘What name shall be given this child?’  John.  Mary. George.  Pinundress.  A French couple, just learning English, presented the child.  So, ‘Pinundress, I baptize…’  A distraught father came up later to show Christopher the pin on the dress, on which the name had been clearly written, ‘pin on dress!’  We are not so hasty now.  We have spent a good deal of time on the prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace of God in baptism.  All the baptized are all in ministry.  Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight.  But it is our religious opportunity, on campus, freely and safely to think about these things, with humility but also with honesty.


Another illustration.  The rules in Methodism explicitly state that the pastor alone is to decide whose marriage will be solemnized, ‘in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the church’.  No local committee decides.  No vote of session.  No poll of the community or neighborhood.  No family habit of a patriarchal auction of a daughter to an opposing family.  No.  The pastor shall decide.  There is an accrued wisdom in this, the leaving of these lasting decisions to those in the local situations, in the contexts in which they are to be lived out.  Would you want a General Conference every four years voting on a list of those to be married in Boston, those to be allowed to marry in Los Angeles, those types of people fit for matrimony in Wisconsin?  Surely not.  That is why the primary directive in the discipline leaves such to the discretion of the pastor.

Marriage:  UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a.  (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.  The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.  So.  Do we mean this?  Are we going to ‘enforce’ as one general superintendent in the book, FINDING OUR WAY, ‘enforce the discipline’?  Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple.  There is no shading here, no hem or haw.  The pastor decides.   After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules.  No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different.  State law 50 years ago to prohibit interracial marriage was widely ignored by Methodist clergy, who performed interracial marriages in states prohibiting such.  Not to marry a gay couple is now to contradict the laws of 30+ states who protect the right of gay people to marry.  Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister.  “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”.  Not the General Conference.  Not the General Superintendent.  Not the District Superintendent.  Not the Charge Conference.  The pastor. And that is as it should be.  Thanks be to God.

In ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

C.  A Theological Perspective:  Freedom to Dream

Third, religion on campus has a theological chance, a spiritual opening, the opportunity and freedom to dream, both regarding creation and regarding redemption.


That is, the remaining significant campus pulpits (Marsh, Harvard, Duke, and just a few others) have the spiritual opportunity to challenge and engage thought forms in college and culture, including some forms of popular atheism and agnosticism, and introduce them, for example, to some religious forms of atheism and agnosticism.  Leslie Weatherhead did this already sixty years ago with sermons collected as THE CHRISTIAN AGNOSTIC.  Edward O. Wilson this fall wrote:  “Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.”  But the contrary is true as well:  “Love is the one thing that makes otherwise bad people do good things”.

The asperity with which the Holy Scripture summarizes creation is only matched by the asperity which the creeds of the Church summarize creation.  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Period.  ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’. Period.  Scripture and creed say what reason and experience know:  we have the brute fact of the brute creation.  Period.  The rest of the Holy Scripture, all 65.9 other books, and the rest of the creed, the long second paragraph and the shorter third, go on from there.  The love of God comes accompanied by faith and hope.  Creation is the occasion of love but does not occasion love, does not occasion faith in love, and does not occasion a hope for a loving future.  God is Love is more about the second person of the Trinity, the Christ of God, than about the first person of the Trinity, the creation of God, more Fairest Lord Jesus than For the Beauty of the Earth. Love is in the Second Person of the Trinity.


When invited to come to Marsh Chapel, I looked back on the great dreamers, the voices, influential and real, that had formed me.   My father-in-law, who built a Wesley Foundation from the ground up in the 1960’s in Oswego, NY.  My dad, who served a college town church and helped create an ecumenical form of college ministry, UMHE, in the same decade. My mother and mother in law, who in those years hosted and graced endless fellowship meals for nervous pre-seminarians, bruised freedom riders, troubled conscientious objectors, chastened veterans, and their various boyfriends and girlfriends.  Our friend, the Chaplain at Colgate, RV Smith, whose presence and courage, in hard years, were sustained by MOTIVE magazine.  William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Williams, and then at Yale, before becoming our pastor at Riverside Church in NYC in the 1970’s.   Coffin’s preaching ministry, in New York and at Columbia and through Union, continues to be a large part of my model for work here at Marsh, in Boston and at Boston University and through the School of Theology.  Peter Gomes, both colleague and mentor, who succeeded at Harvard, as he famously said, by being ‘ubiquitous’.  The years and losses have mounted up in equal measure for religion on campus.  There are but 1 for every 5 to 10 pulpits now on campus that there were 50 years ago.  But we are here.  You are here.  Where there is life there is hope.

All of these fine ministers, for all of their substantial theological differences, when it came to spiritual theology, shared a freedom to dream.  In fact, far beyond their own limited spheres, they kept dreams alive, in decades of confusion, and kept preaching alive, in years when across the land there was, in Amos’s fine phrase, ‘a famine of the word’.  They read Paul Tillich and made his ‘depth’ available to others.  We can do the same, here, with the great theological minds of our time, some of whom are close at hand.

The Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano said recently, “I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years.”  And I have felt the same, preaching or trying to preach the same sermon for the past 45 years.  I preach love.  God’s love.  Love is God.  All of us are better when we are loved.  Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.  Love God, love neighbor—so the Bible says, today.

Religion on campus can give future leaders, secular and religious, a sense of possibility, imagination, freedom and breadth in the theopoetics of God talk.  Those who attend worship at Marsh Chapel over four years as undergraduates, that is, will have also virtually acquired much of the vocabulary and content of the first year of graduate study in theology—biblical, historical, philosophical, and pastoral theology.  At no extra charge!  What a bargain!

We shall give King the last word:

“Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship.  Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return….   When one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him.  And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.  I think this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘love your enemies.’  I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people.  Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights.  But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.”[i]   

If a student, your question is, where are you found on Sunday morning?  If faculty, that one, plus a second, where are you on the weekends, when pedagogy gives way to life?  If an administrator, both the former, plus a third, how have you planned in finance and leadership for the growth of a beloved community?  And if a community member all three of those, plus this one:  are you with us or not?  We need you.  We have not a person, hour or dollar to spare.

In theology, as in sociology and ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

Jesus, the very thought of thee

With sweetness fills the breast

But sweeter far thy face to see

And in thy presence rest


Jesus our only joy be thou

As thou our prize wilt be

Jesus be thou our glory now

And through eternity

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” in A Testament of Hope, ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco:  Harper, 1991), pp. 46-7.  Washington notes how King relies expressly on Nygren in his depiction of agape and also amplifies what he finds, p. 16.  For an interpretation of King’s account of love, see James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm and America:  A Dream or a Nightmare ((Maryknoll:  Orbis, 1991), e.g., pp. 120-150.

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

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October 19

The Things That Are God’s

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 22:15-22

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We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?  We are not told.  There is no live interview from the heavenly conference room.  There is no point-by-point bulletin, with details promised at 11pm.  There is no footnote, or explanatory second conversation.  We are left on our own by our Lord to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.   We are given a fair and good amount of freedom in doing so.

In conscience, do you wonder about ‘the things that are God’s’?

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  (In the Gospel of Thomas, [110ad?] a bit yet later than Matthew [85ad?] who is a bit yet later than Mark [70ad?] who is a good bit later than whatever Jesus might actually have said [30ad?], the Lord adds, ‘and give to me the things that are mine’!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine (GT, logion 100).

Matthew, true to form, intensifies the bitterness of Jesus toward Pharisees, of church toward synagogue, of Christian to Jew.  He hikes up entrap (Mark) to entangle.  He is ‘aware of their malice’.  To the question, ‘why put me to the test’ he adds, for good measure, ‘you hypocrites’.   His Jesus demands not just a coin, but  ‘(all) the money for the tax’.

Through the year, from this pulpit, we have tried continuously to trace the moves Matthew makes in 85ad away from what Mark, his source, had written in 70ad.  Mostly, we want to be crystal clear about the way the gospel changes, with the setting, changes with the occasion, changes, with the time and season and year.  New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

A standard reading of the passage is that the Herodians (supporters of Herod who is the Simon Legree of Rome in the cotton fields of Palestine) would want the tax paid to Caesar whereas the Pharisees (the French Resistance of Palestine against the Third Reich of Rome) would want resistance to payment of the tax.  Jesus is caught.   If he agrees with the Herodians, the people will kill him.  If he agrees with the Pharisees, the Romans will kill him.

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and these words were inscribed on his tombstone.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul?

The Starry Heavens Above:  Spirit

            Wonder.  Without wonder your God is too large.  Wonder at the small things, for they are the things of God.

1. Wonder marvels that small things make a big difference.

The boat motor idled well and even carried the pontoon boat forward, but at a snail’s pace.  All boats disappoint just like all dogs bite.   The summer on our lake is a series of boat breakdowns.  I wondered:  old age finally taking the motor?  Carburetor?  Choke?  Throttle wires?  I am no mechanic.  This usually means taking the boat out of the water and towing it 30 miles for repairs.  The motor casing came off easily.  In a few minutes, it was apparent even to a non-mechanic that a single connection, throttle to gas line, had slipped undone.  Just as easily, without tools, it was reconnected.  The motor purred.   Small things, little things, can make a big difference.

Our out cottage, a broken down old fishing camp, built probably on weekends by one guy with tools, a six pack and a rod and reel, has a pump.  On that well and pump depend cooking, eating, cleaning washing, showers and other forms of relief.  It is outside, so subject to weather and other beings.  The pump stopped one afternoon.  I am no plumber, but I know a good one.  We called him.  You worry when your family needs water and you have no way to provide it.  A new pump?  Line problems?  Dry well? What is wrong?  But it was something very little.  Ants had found their way into the electric box and broken the connection.  Two minutes of expert attention, ants erased, problem solved.  Small little things can make a big difference.

The dock itself is new, partly brand new.  The dock is our island into the lake, our portal into boating, our entrance into swimming, our bridge into fishing, our outpost of land in water.   It is just a wonderful territory in itself.  But in order to get from the hillside down onto the dock, a makeshift staircase is required.  It is fraction of the size of the dock, a farthing compared to a pound.  It is a humble set of six stairs in wood reaching out onto the magisterial dock.  Without the stairs, though, the dock is useless.  All the weight, all the space, all the expanse, all the expense of the four piece dock lies permanently adrift from the mainland without the simple steps.  Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of much, much greater things.

2. Wonder remembers the little things with lasting consequences.  Children begin to get hearts of wisdom in learning this.

Back from the fishing camp, and a warm water pumped shower there, now out on the dock beneath the stairs, ready to board the boat for a motor powered rid, our 7 year old granddaughter caught something in her younger brother’s rhetoric.  Brother said, “Eric said to me yesterday that he would take me tubing behind his boat today’.  Sister said, “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant.”  There is short, short way from birdie to bogie, from right to almost right, from what is said to what is meant.  To be able to hear that difference is a spiritual gift, a small, little, powerful, spiritual gift.  “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant!”  Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of real understanding.

It is a Sabbath reminder for us.  Little things can change the world. Remember when someone said something to you that intervened, helped, saved.  Sometimes the best medicine is whatever gives you the courage to take one more step forward.  You have the mind, heart, faith and voice to speak such an intervening word this week.  Will it make any difference?  Small, little things, make a difference.

Wonder keeps us from making God too large.

The Moral Law Within:  Soul

Conscience.  Without conscience your God is too small.

Without wonder your God is too large.  Without God conscience your God is too small.

Conscience is the beating heart of truth and justice.  Conscience is the soul of soul.  Let your conscience be your guide, for conscience is soul, conscience is one of the things of God.  Conscience reminds that the kingdom of heaven is not a present state of mind but a coming state of affairs.

1. Conscience recoils at the horror of injustice.

Peterboro is one of the poor, small towns with rich histories that dot the upstate landscape.  Like Seneca Falls, known for the birth of the women’s movement.  Like Palmyra, known for the birth of Mormonism.  Like Oneida, known for the birth of a communitarian utopianism which itself gave birth to the children of stirpiculture there.  Like New Lebanon, known for the birth of the Shaker community.  Like Fort Stanwix and Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Poughkeepsie, where the American Revolution was saved in thwarting British advance.  Like Fulton, which with Robert Fulton gave birth to the steamboat.  Like the long winding stretch of water forming the remains of the Erie Canal, Albany to Buffalo, the opening the west to commerce.  Like Lake Placid of Olympic fame, the retreat, home and burial place of the cloud-splitter himself, John Brown, who in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, and from his gallows pulpit did ignite the civil war, to free the slaves.  Like Orwell and Redfield, tiny northern towns, know home to Unity Acres, a ministry with the poor, and the places of origin for the Berrigan brothers, radical catholic peace activists over the last 50 years.  Like Onondaga Lake, the center of the Iroquois confederacy—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later Tuscarora, and the legend of Hiawatha.  Like the gloriously beautiful Finger Lakes, known as the ‘burned over district’ of religious fervor following the second great awakening.  Like Corning, Rome, Oneida, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Schenectady known for the birth of industrial development in glass, firearms, silver, film, salt, steel, and electricity.   Like Rochester, known for Frederick Douglass and his abolitionist paper, the North Star.  Like Syracuse, known for world wide leadership in the creation and development of air conditioning.  The Southern states owe a great debt to Rochester and Syracuse, for the two things that make current southern growth possible at all, civil right and air conditioning.  Peterboro is one of these now poor, small towns with rich histories.

Peterboro was founded by Gerrit Smith.  Smith was an ardent abolitionist with a trust fund.  He spent his father’s money to buy land southeast of Syracuse, along the high ridge at the northern end of the Allegheny plateau.  He used the land to provide safe dwellings for free slaves, who came up from the south in dark, crossing various rivers, Susquehanna, Genesee, Delaware, with dogs barking and slavers chasing, and the occasional Harriet Tubman as guide, armed with prayer and a pistol.  The tracts he gave to these people of misfortune and found fortune are still farmed today, and in some few cases by the familial descendants of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist largesse.  He also built an almshouse, a kind of hospital for the poor, in Eaton NY, nearby Peterboro, which as an 8 year old I remember entering as my father made a pastoral call on a dying man there.  It has long since closed.  The Methodist church in Peterboro, the remains thereof, includes people of color who are of the lineage of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist generosity.   It is rare more colorful hue in the pew than one finds in other upstate churches.

That is, there is much good, of good conscience, in the length and breadth, the history and legacy of Upstate New York.  That is, there is much good in the very village, the little town of Peterboro, a poor hamlet with a rich history.

Yet on July 8 at 7pm a tornado took the lives of four people in and near Peterboro, NY.   A four–month old little girl and her 35 year old mother died when their mobile home was crushed in the wind.  The local paper carried photographs of them both, two beautiful pictures on the front page.  Two others died, an elderly woman, and also the male partner of a female oncologist in the region.

Tornados are rare in New York, some ten or so per year, almost all minor and inconsequential.   Tornados are unknown, or had been, in this part of the upstate region, as Governor Cuomo said in his remarks about the tragedy, and the new normal in radical weather events.

Why do such things happen?  Why?

2. Conscience recoils at the violence and accident in nature and history.

During that tornado week, other cyclones hit.  A fine young woman gave birth to a baby daughter with a whole in her heart.  A salt of the earth carpenter, a laboring gentleman, had to clean of the car door against which his older brother had shot himself after years of financial difficulty and depression.  A 60-year-old saintly woman, who has given her life to pre school children and the Methodist church, in equal measure, was told she would need chemotherapy for the rest of her life.  A father of four, a recovering alcoholic, grandfather of nine, community leader and faithful soul discovered he has esophageal cancer.   We do not mention global rates of infant mortality, especially in the first month of life, statistics that have not improved at all in our time.   We do not mention 180,000 civilian dead in Syria, surpassing the number slain in Iraq.  We do not mention the hundreds of Palestinians killed without a single Israeli death, in the mini war of the same fortnight.  Just to say, that during that tornado week, scores of other cyclones, microbursts, wind blasts of various types and size did touch ground, in the heart of human lives.  From May 2012 to May 2013 we buried 13 BU students.

Why?  Why do such things happen?

We do not know why these things happen.  We know in our experience of random hurt the biblical truth in Jesus’ teaching that rain falls on just and the unjust alike.  We know in our experience of horrible, unspeakable tragedy the biblical reference to the tower of Siloam that fell killing dozens who were no better nor worse than those spared.  We know in our experience the falsehood of Job’s friends and counselors who in mistake and error tried to explain to Job his misery, which they had not themselves suffered.  We know in our experience of sin, death, meaninglessness the gut cry of Jesus in debate, ‘none is good but God, and in the garden, ‘let this cup pass from me’, and on the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’.

And in our experience, we confess, we find if far easier to discount in size, scope, measure and meaning the pain of others than we do to discount our own.  For instance.  How often have I thought, and heard, in some arguments, ‘things in this world would be different if men bore children and knew the pain of childbirth’. 6 to 3 votes in the Supreme Court can on this score be quite revealing. We do not know why these things happen, and we are prone to discount others’ lacerations by comparison with our own.  How many of us wish we had Syrian passports, Iraqi citizenship, or Ukrainian bank accounts this morning?

Conscience keeps us from making God too small.


            My wife Jan drove home, that is, on July 8 at 7pm, heading to our summer house, coming with 7 miles of Peterboro at the tornado hour.  She has never seen a darker sky, she says.  And if she had not gotten home?  That is, if our family were now living with the tornado tragedy and loss inflicted on others?  I would be of great gratitude, at a minimum, to find myself surrounded, as this morning, by a company of women and men, honest about hurt, graceful in grief, dignified in the hour of death, and loving in the face of meaningless, inexplicable, unintelligible laceration.  But I know I would harbor, for the long stretch of healing it would take, a white hot anger at the injustice of such a loss.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul, things of God.


I believe in God.  I believe in the creative divine power that unleashed the universe.  I believe that no one has ever seen God.  I believe in the potential for a purposeful existence by faith, the faithfulness of God in Christ in my case.  I believe that even the darkest moment and harshest experience is held, included, embraced and redeemed in the divine love, as a mystery and as a hope.

I believe in freedom.  I do not believe that God has a plan for every single life, free of human freedom.  I do not believe that God has a map quest route for your life, nor that God sends tornados to chew up poor towns with rich histories, nor that God brutally executes young mothers and little children living in mobile homes.  I do not believe that everything has a purpose, that everything is beautiful in its own way, that we will understand it better by and by, or that all experience is directly, divinely, precisely ordered.  Who would worship a God like that?

I believe in love.  The gospel is the gospel of freedom, of grace, of love, of pardon, of forgiveness, of acceptance, of healing, and of hope.  I believe all of us are better when we are loved by others and when we connect in faith with divine love.   For me, the statement, God is Love, is about the second not the first person of the Trinity. For those looking today for a more formally exacting or exacting theological position, my heart felt regrets and condolences.

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

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October 12

The Long Wait

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 25:1-13

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Trimmed Lamps

            The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life is a long wait.

Our gospel has made use of a story known elsewhere in antiquity (Bultmann, HST, loc.cit).  The power of the wedding, as you know from other parts of Holy Scripture, stood at the very pinnacle of experience and religious teaching, in antiquity.   Here the gospel writer has appended a (very noble) encouragement to watchfulness, to a parable re-arranged near the end of the first century of the common era.

Our more trustworthy manuscripts include the bride, too, ‘ten maidens…went to meet the bridegroom and the bride’.   In fact, nowhere in antiquity do maidens await the bridegroom.  They await the bride.  That is why we call them bridesmaids.  They attend the bride, and especially in the great exultation of the translation from home to home, from parents to spouse, like the sun rising from the eastern heavens, daily, the bridegroom with the bride runs the course with joy.

So, why has the writer eliminated the bride?  He does so to make the parable fit the church’s biggest spiritual disappointment, keenly and painfully suffered by 90ad.  Christ was risen from the dead which must mean the end of time which must mean his return in power and glory which must mean the soon and very soon parousia, the coming of the Lord.  But 30ad became 50ad and 50ad became 70ad and 70ad became 90ad.  And the bridegroom (here shorn of bride clearly a figure of Christ) delays.

The original parable is not about awaiting the return of Christ, more about this later in the great and glorious gospel of John, but about living through a long wait. The maidens, the bridesmaids, some prepared and some not, all have to wait.  And it is a long wait.  And that is just the point.

You may think of a woman waiting to give birth.  You may think of a population, long enslaved, waiting for justice to roll down like waters.  You may think of a war torn region, the setting for endless decades of mayhem and war and violence, waiting for the dawn of peace.   You may think of a doctoral student waiting for that final report, the dissertation is finished.  You may think of a denomination waiting the wisdom to affirm the full humanity of gay people now recognized across nearly three dozen states.  You may think of those afflicted and infected with a deadly virus awaiting a vaccine for healing.  You may think of a man hoping for a job and daily awaiting a letter.  You may think of a physician attending a patient suffering from a mental illness, hoping against hope for a delayed cure.  You may think of a lonely woman, a tithing Christian, waiting for a pastor to leave off further libraries and degrees and come to her church, and come to her house, and make a visit, and say a prayer.

Whether or not the full range of doctrine and teaching in Christianity convinces you, surely, at least at this point, you would admit its congruence with your experience.  Faith and life both are a long wait.

How shall we trim our lamps for the wait?  The parable moves quickly to the importance of preparation.  A little patience?  A little persistence?  Oil for the lamps during the long wait.

Patience and Persistence

Patience.  The patience of Job.  Patience is a virtue. Love, joy, peace, patience.  Patient in suffering.

Persistence.  Persistent prayer.  Persistence as insistence.  To exist is to persist. Labor omnia vincit.  The persistence of Paul.

The life of faith, the spiritual life, carries us down into the caverns of experience.  Our steadiness in faith, our reliance on faith, are most clear to us when everything else is murky, misty, dark and dank.  Faith is only faith when it is all you have left.

Two registers of the spiritual life, the life of faith, down in the declivities and caves of time, are patience and persistence.   Over the course of a week, or a year, or a lifetime, one needs both.  You need both.  You need both the passive receptivity of patience and the active resistance of persistence.

One is the brake pedal.  That is patience.  You are careening down hill.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your profession are going south.  You need a way to put a foot on the brakes, to slow the decline, to ease the demise.  Patience can help you to do that.  One day at a time.  Sleep on it.  Things will look better in the morning.  Patience is your way of managing the rolling ride down hill.

The other is the accelerator, the gas peddle.  That is persistence.  You are looking uphill.  The climb is before you and the incline daunting.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your profession are all in the balance, nothing is for sure, nothing is taken for granted.  You can rest, but later.  Now you need to put the peddle to the metal and climb the hill.  Slow and steady wins the day.  Keep on keeping on.  One step at a time.  Persistence is your way of empowering the grinding ride up hill.

Both patience and persistence are underrated virtues.  They shy away from the lime light.  They don’t do well in the bright light.  But for your faith to quicken and to continue, you will need both patience and persistence.  For sustenance, energy, endurance in the long wait, you and I need both.

Some of you are more naturally patient.  Make sure you practice persistence too.  Some of you are more naturally persistent.  Make sure you practice patience too.

The care of children requires and elicits endless patience.  Patience to rock.  Patience to feed.  Patience to listen.  Patience to play.  Patience to teach.  Patience to watch.  Patience to repeat.  Patience simply to live alongside a slowly developing person, personality, personhood.  Someone let you grow up, after all.  The patience you received will need to become a part of the patience you conceive and retrieve and give.  A part of our fast forward work culture can use the brake peddle, the quiet pause, the important lack of doing, that is the patience of the cure of souls in general, and the care of children in particular.   Honor, celebrate the hours and stamina given to breakfast cleanup, to snack and nap time, to bathing, to the settling of squabbles, the cleanup of messes, the endurance of crying, the midnight coddling—all and so much more that require the patience of parenting.

Learning any language, at any time, is a demanding enterprise.  The language of faith—the grammar of trust, the syntax of belief, the spelling of practice—is no different.  Children blessed in patient care to learn to speak, and then also to learn to speak in a language of faith, are given the gift of life.  To know from childhood the power of love.  To know from childhood the example of forgiveness.  To know from childhood the posture of hope.  To know from childhood the virtue of patience.  If you learn the language early, taking it as your mother tongue, and imbibing it with your mother’s milk, you have it all your life.  A hymn to hum.  A verse to remember.  A prayer to use.  A psalm to recite.  A story to tell.

You certainly learn to speak another language in mid-life.  People do so all the time.  That too requires patience, both for listener and for speaker.  It may involve a difference in pronunciation, an accent.

In the summer we cared for four of our five grandchildren over several days.  The older three one afternoon went with their grandmother, the fourth having been left for a nap with her grandfather.  She awoke after a couple of hours, not overly pleased to find out who had been assigned as her temporary guardian, or captor.  But she allowed herself to be held, to be given the chance slowly to wake up, to see the blue in sky and lake, and to let the breeze of mid summer caress face and hands, hair and skin.  She could sit, and wait.  She only needed a patience, a patient presence.

Sometimes though, in the life of faith, in the spiritual life, you need more gas and less brake, more persistence than patience.

We will offer one immediate example, literally present to Marsh Chapel today, and figuratively present in many, many settings.

Dr. Doug Reeves, in his blog CHANGELEADERS, has something to offer you, first for those finishing a PhD, and second, more broadly, for all.  His particular advice applies, well and broadly.   Patience is a virtue.  But so is persistence.  He offers the wisdom of persistence, in five forms:

(Top Five Tips for Finishing Your Dissertation by Doug Reeves)

1)  Call your advisor.  The top reason that doctoral students are stuck is neither their overwhelming literature review nor their complex research methodologies.  It’s failure to communicate with their advisor.  Pick up the phone, drop by the office, or as a last resort, e-mail.  Make personal contact with the person who will most influence your ability to finish your doctorate…

2)  Read exemplary dissertations.  Although this is your first dissertation, your committee has been through this exercise many times.  Ask them to give you the title and author of the best dissertation they have ever seen.  It may be their own, and it’s never a bad idea to read the publications of your advisor and committee members.  Exemplary dissertations give you the clearest possible idea of the substance and style that your committee expects of you.

3)  Create a cohort.  Boston College dramatically increased the completion rate of their doctoral program when they created small groups of four or five students who meet regularly with one another, sharing research, emotional support, and intellectual engagement.  If your university does not provide such a cohort, then create your own.  Find like-minded colleagues who are committed to walking across the stage on the same date as you will, commit to weekly meetings, and share a one-page summary of just one article or book that you have reviewed that week.  Ideally, the group will have complementary strengths – perhaps one with expertise in quantitative methods and another with a focus on qualitative methods. 

4)  Forget perfection.  There is a technical academic term for the perfect dissertation – it is called “unfinished.”  You are doing important work, and while you should not tolerate sloppy research, you must forgive yourself for imperfections.  You will think of many reasons that your research could be better.  You could have a larger sample size; you could use a more contemporary analytical technique; you could add fifty more citations to your literature review.  The list never ends.  As my advisor told me many years ago, “this is not your last piece of research, it’s your first piece of research, so get it finished.” 

5)  The 45-minute rule.  Don’t wait for the sabbatical, vacation, weekend, or free day.  The vast majority of dissertation writers are working professionals who have many demands on their time, so the key to finishing is not waiting for the illusory gift of free time, but rather the work-a-day chore of finishing a paragraph, an article, or a quick synthesis – something that you can do in 45 minutes.  One of the best ways to give yourself 45 minutes of uninterrupted time is to turn off e-mail – not forever, not even for a full day, but for just 45 minutes.  You will be amazed at what just 45 minutes of focused energy will provide for you.

How remarkably, with just a little here again there again revision, these points about persistence may fit your own and very long wait!


            The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life, as in the story, is simply a long wait.  It is a long wait, and that is just the point.   The primitive Christian church endured such a lengthy wait through nearly seven decades , prior to the Gospel of John and the new commandment, to love, the new gift, of spirit, the new hope, of truth making free, the new gospel dimension, really, of an hour coming that, somehow, now, is.

Here is an invitation.

You may benefit, should you seek patience and persistence, from consort with a community born in patience (that is, suffering) and persistence (that is, endurance.  Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  Why?  Because of the Love of God that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

You may of course sally forth on your own.  Many do.  Most do, it may be.  But how are you going to know the power of persistence without immersion in a persistent community of faith?  How are you going to gain the capacity of patience without involvement in a patient community of faith?  How are you going to go up the hills and down the hills of life without some, genuine, comraderie along the trail, some consanguinity on the hike, some compassion amid the passion of the heat of the day?  Life is hard enough, the wait is long enough, without some church family to love and some church home to enjoy and some church community of faith with whom to keep faith.  Especially for children as they grow.  Especially for adults trying to ferret out some meaning in life.  Especially for the more elderly, wise but lonely, having much to offer but not much mobility with which to offer it.  It gladdens me when one or another, elsewhere or here, finds a seat in the community of patient persistence, of persistent patience.

Need we even pause to add that such a fellowship, of faith working through love, could never have given itself birth, and could never have sustained itself by merely inventive imaginative activity, and could never have conjoured for itself the sustainable energies uphill and downhill, patience and persistence?  Such fellowship, sustenance, and energy come from the divine presence, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Love of God, the transcript in time of God in eternity, whose own lasting love through the long wait, marked on the cross, is, finally, all we have, and all we need.

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

October 5

The Marsh Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21

Philippians 3

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Praise:  Max Miller


Today:  American Cancer Society Fighting to End Breast Cancer

Classical Music, Methodist Hymnody

Max Miller 2013

Praise:  Psalm 17

Marsh Nave Greetings

Marsh Nave Echoes

Word and Music:  Bible and Hymnal

Vancouver 1983

Out of Poverty: Industry and Frugality

Life Together:  Invitation, Compassion, Vocation, Aspiration


Passion:  Earl Marlatt


Passion for Compassion

Earl Marlatt 1934, Sermon centered curriculum: B,H,S,P theology
First Serving of Faith

Bill Murray

Passion:  Religion and Vengeance in Mt 21

We are not exempt:  Krister Stendahl

Pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy

BU Graduate students take a church

Weddings in Barns

Thanksgiving and Christmas on the Frozen River

George Kirk Marlowe Trout River 1982


Personality:  Susanna Wesley


Should be in a window: 20 Children

Love Divine:  Are We Lovers Anymore?

You are the Gospel others read and hear and see

Personality:  Paul:  Press On

Conversion comes from the heart

L Cohen:  Ring the Bells that still can ring

Marital Benedictions

Communion Liturgy




Marital Benedictions


Good Morning.  Good Morning

Sleep Well?  Not too bad.

Have a good one.  You too.

Be careful.  I will

How was it?  Not bad.

I’m sorry.  Not to worry.

I apologize.  No problem

Please forgive me.  I forgive you.

I don’t understand.  Let me say it another way.

Do you agree?  Not really.

Could we talk about it? We could talk about it.

How much does it cost?  I don’t remember.

Does it hurt?  Not so much.

Do you?  I do.

Will you?  I will.

Do you promise? Yes, I promise.

Thank you.  You’re welcome.

Thanks.  You’re welcome.

I love you.  I love you.

Good night.  Good night.


Marsh Greetings and Echoes


Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:


The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you


The Chapel’s sixty-year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you


The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you


The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you


The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.



Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…


All the good you can…


The two so long disjoined…


Heart of the city, service of the city…


Learning, virtue, piety…


Good friends all…


Hope of the world…


Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…


Common ground…


Content of character…

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