Archive for August, 2015

August 30

Take and Read

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Gracious God, Holy and Just, Whose Mercy is over all thy works

We invoke thy blessing today as we embark on this new journey

Guide us as we sail out for points unknown, ports unseen, and horizons unexplored

Be our North Star, our compass, sextant

Keep a clean wind blowing through our lives to make us happy and humble

Help us to seek shelter when the gusts of loneliness and failure threaten to capsize

Bless and help us to be a blessing to those commissioned to sail this ship, to the set our course, and to the lead the way

And a special intercession today for all sailors and crew on the good ship 2019

For those on the bridge—wisdom

For those learning the ropes—patience

For those working the in the rigging—a light heart

For those who bid farewell at the gangplank, our parents and sponsors—thanksgiving,

thanksgiving for the birthpangs that brought life, the hands that prepared us to sail, the hearts that forgave and conditioned and seasoned us, for the tear filled eyes and proud hearts that wave to us as the ship leaves the harbor, our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and our communities of meaning, belonging and empowerment—thanksgiving, thanksgiving.

O Thou who stills waters and calms seas, grant us fair winds, bright skies and an adventurous voyage


Here is a matriculation account. Vernon Jordan went to Depauw, a small Methodist school in Indiana, lead by various BU graduates.  His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off their in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Lousiana.  Weeping, his father said, “Vernon, we are not coming back until four years from now.  You are here where your future opens.  At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row.  This is your time.  I have one word of advice.  Read.  When others are playing, you read.  When others are sleeping, you read.  When others are drinking, you read.  When others are partying, you read.  When others are wasting precious time and encouraging you to do the same, you read.”   He did.  Read, that is.  Last week, on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Jordan celebrated his 80th birthday, in the company of Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Speaking of Presidents, Boston University’s third President, Lemuel Merlin, left Boston for Greencastle Indiana, to become the President of Depauw, nearly 100 years ago.  All of our Presidents—Warren, Huntington, Merlin, Marsh, Chase, Christ-Janer, Silber, Westling, Chobanian, and Brown—would salute this Augustinian slogan, ‘take and read’.

For like our gospel lesson today, they and this University, have been interested in what makes a person human, in what makes a human be human, in what lies not outside, but inside, not in measurement but in meaning, not in the visible but in the soulful, not in making a living, only, but in making a life, fully.   Our gospel lesson today from Mark 7 is about the inside.  Set aside the details.  Set aside the religious conflict about kosher laws as Christianity moved out from Judaism.  Set aside the cups, pots, and kettles.   Set aside the ancient language that depicts what is evil.  Licentiousness is not a word we use a lot, however present the reality to which it points.   The inside.  The passage is about the priority of what is inside, about the priority of the heart, about the priority of the soul, about the commandment of God which ever trumps tradition. Gospel ever trumps tradition.

You hear echoes of other verses.  One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God…Cleanse the inside of the cup….What will it profit to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul?…Enter in at the narrow gate…

Your challenge in these fours years is not only to earn a BA.  Your challenge is to do so without losing your soul.  Your challenge is to do so gaining your soul, tending to the inside, walking in the light, becoming your own best self, finding the place where your heart, ‘the inside’ comes alive, uniting the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, and uniting vocation with avocation, ‘as two eyes make one in sight’.  Frost:

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes. 

Take and read.  You read.

Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices.  There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix.  In Mark 7, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic attention to cleanliness.  There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community.  Here the community is reminded about the priority of the ‘inside’.  The tenor line is that of the evangelist.  Mark here, marking his own appearance in the record.   The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies:  “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” (in Richardson, ECF, 377) (If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.)

Take and read.

Our focus this year at Marsh Chapel is prayer.  Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.  An hour a day, a day a week, a week a quarter, a quarter a year.  8am, Friday, school break, summer.  But prayer is mostly resistance.  Resistance to what harms the inside, to what eclipses the soul, to what makes us less than human.  Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to earn your degree, as you will want to do with all life’s future earnings, in a way that leads to life.  In a soulful way.  In a hearty way.  In a healthy way.

Here is what we mean.  For a moment, we will take an imaginary walk, along with my colleagues Ms. Jaimie Dingus and Ms. Kasey Shultz.  We will set out and walk down the Esplanade, enjoying the sights of sailing and sculling.   When we come to the statue of Arthur Fiedler we will stop, and read, perhaps a passage from Chaim Potok.  In ‘My Name is Asher Lev, the young artist recalls a moment with his father.  The artist is six years old.  A bird has died and lies along the curb.


“Is it dead, Papa?”  I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

        “Yes”, I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

        “Why did it die?”

        “Everything that lives must die”.


        “You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


        “And me?
        “Yes.”, he said.  But then he added in Yiddish, “But may it be only after you live a long and happy life, my Asher.”

        I couldn’t grasp it.  I forced myself to look at the bird.  Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

        “Why”, I asked.

        “That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom mad this world, Asher.”


        “So life would be precious, Asher.  Something that is yours forever is never precious.”


        Then we will walk a little farther, stopping for a moment in the Public Garden, as lovely a common space as there is.  We see Commonwealth Avenue, what Winston Churchill called the loveliest street in America.  We notice and name the flowers, enjoy the shade, perhaps take a boat ride.   Then we open a volume of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins:


    We are not far from the Public Library.  We enter, and go up the stairs.  We notice the civil war remembrances.  We look at the frieze that includes the Hebrew prophets.  John Updike came regularly to this great reading room—to read, and then, to write.   We pull up a chair for a moment.  At hand is a copy of David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character.


“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed (p. xi).”

    The day is bright and cool—beautiful autumn in New England.  We choose the path along the Emerald Necklace, an unusual place to stroll, to saunter—saunter, a saintly walk.  A bench beckons.  We sit.  A Boston surgeon’s book is in our bag, Being Mortal.  We stretch and read his meditation upon medicine and meaning in the twilight of life.  


    “People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives…avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete…our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet those needs” (p. 155)

    Take and read:  an awareness of wonder may greet you on the Esplanade, an awareness of beauty in the Public Garden, an awareness of virtue in the Library, an awareness of mortality by the Emerald Necklace.    So that when you return to campus, you may take a seat for a moment in Marsh Chapel, under the window of St. Augustine, just here, who amid tears, misery and lamentation reclaimed his own soul by reading:

  1. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Take and read…

Take and read.

Take and Read!

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

Treasuring the best of all that’s old, searching out the new

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

August 23

Chariot of Fire

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 6:56-69

Click here to listen to the sermon only

For a year we have embraced spirit.  Listen again to the prayer response in a moment.  Spirit. Presence. Awareness.  Conscious embrace.  St. Mark revealed Spirit.  Jonathan Edwards preached Spirit.  The Beloved Community awaits Spirit.  The Gospel of John adores, prioritizes, lifts the Spirit.  Our word 2015 has been Spirit.

Today, to conclude, we bring a familiar story and a spiritual question.  The story is that of Elijah.  The question is that of your legacy.

The story.

In (or near) the year 850 bc, Elijah, the prophet, stood against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  He alone stood against 450.  The enemy prophets called on Baal to bring fire.  Baal did not.  But Yahweh did, at Elijah’s imprecation.  Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing.  Or he is inside.  Or he is on a journey.  Or he is asleep—he needs to wake up.  Maybe he does not hear well.  Try again.  Elijah also announced the end of a great drought.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 820, Elijah went up a high mountain, not unlike that on which Jesus stood some weeks ago in Mark, and listened for God.  He heard God.  Not in fire, or smoke, or whirlwind, or techno wizardry, or techno frenzy.  For God was not there.  But in a still small voice.  In silence, the silence before hearing and speech. In conscience.  In mind and will. The Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire—a still, small voice.   On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 800bc Elijah, the troubler of Israel, saw King Ahab, through his wife, Jezebel, take the garden of a poor man, Naboth, and kill Naboth in the process.  I will give you a better vineyard for it.   But Naboth did not want another, but his own.  And Ahab sulked, vexed and sullen, and lay down on his bed, and turned his face, and would eat no food.  But Naboth held onto his vineyard.  But Jezebel said, ‘Do you govern Israel?  Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful.  I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.  But Naboth resisted her, too.  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.  And Jezebel said, go and take Naboth’s vineyard, for he is dead.  But Elijah confronted the king.  Have you killed and taken?  Then I tell you—In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.  Elijah, the troubler of Israel.  It is one thing to desire another’s property, and another to take it by force.  Elijah held a mirror before the country that wanted such a king, and the influence of such a queen.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 30ad, we saw this winter, Elijah’s spirit awakened Peter, who went up a high mountain, with Jesus, to see Him changed.  Elijah brought reason and morality to the religion Moses founded.  Lent is meant to remind us of the priority of worship.  Find a way to get to worship.  Worship brings the insight of personal need, lifted in prayer.  Worship brings the insight of another’s hurt, lifted in communal, singing, four part harmonic hymns.  Worship brings the insight of clarity, a word fitly spoken, lifted in the sermon.  Worship brings the insight of choosing, the choice of faith, not thrill but will, lifted in the invitations, to devotion, discipline, dedication.  Worship brings the insight of loyalty, of heart, lifted every Sunday in the offering of gifts and tithes.  Elijah brought hope, prophetic hope, into the tradition and minds of his people.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 90ad, our Gospel today acclaimed Spirit.   Notice the theme of ascent in the Fourth Gospel, through and through.  You notice here that John turns the tables on flesh.  All chapter 6, you are expected to recall, accounted for feeding, the feeding of 5,000.  2 fish and five loaves and all satisfied.  Or was it five fish and two loaves and all satisfied?  Then ancient discourse upon the food that perishes, and the One who is the bread of life.  Then, too, more traditional language, in chapter 6, we are expected to remember, about ‘the last day’, about bread of life, about flesh given for the life of the world, about ‘munching’ the flesh of the Son of Man, and then our passage, starting, ‘my flesh is food indeed’.   And then?  All, come John 6: 56-69, all the above is set aside, abrogated, trumped.  By…Spirit.  No not flesh, no not bread, no not eating, no not muching, no not tradition, no not table, no not eucharist.  ‘See the Son of Man ascending’, LIKE ELIJAH LIKE ELIJAH LIKE ELIJAH.  ‘It is the Spirit that giveth life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.’  There is no last supper in John.  Yes, 1 Cor. 11.  Yes, the pastoral epistles, TTT.  Yes, the Synoptics MML.  But not John.  He prefers the actual service of foot-washing, and eliminates the Eucharistic meal, supplanting it with—Spirit.  There is no last supper in John because for John the supper does not last (repeat).  Your words will long outlive your deeds. What you say and the way you say it have much longer life than what you do.  Odd as that may seem.  What lasts?  Spirit.  What ascends?  Spirit.  Elijah, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1735, we saw this winter, the spirit of Elijah rested on the New England community of North Hampton, and the ministry of a Puritan divine, Jonathan Edwards, our Calvinist interlocutor this Lent.  Edwards saw the divine light shining in the human soul.  Edwards saw that the material universe exists in God’s mind.  Edwards saw faith in the willingness of saints to be damned for the glory of God.  Edwards saw religious affections, inclinations, dispositions, all gifts of God in faith, the love of God that kindles joy, hope, trust, peace and ‘a sense of the heart’.  Edwards saw the centrality of the experience of faith: a person may know that honey is sweet, but no one can know what sweet means until they taste the honey.  Edwards saw that ‘God delights properly in the devotions, graces, and good works of his saints.’  Jonathan Elijah Edwards, our New England precursor, walked along the Connecticut River, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1865, in our nation’s capital, the spirit of Elijah touched the tongue of Abraham Lincoln.  Months and days before Lincoln died, Lincoln cried out, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in.  Real cost, real costs, occasion our very freedom to gather in community for worship this morning.   The same spirit, of 850bc, that presence, that quickened consciousness, that affection, that devotion, that inclination were present with Lincoln, and are with us today.  You have the brute fact of the brute creation.  You have too the spirit.

In the year 1951, the spirit of Elijah rested in the mind of Ray Bradbury.  He wrote a book, Fahrenheit 451 (this is the temperature at which paper burns), an eschatological prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading, the end of memory.  The novel ends along a river.  Montag finds himself with hoboes around a campfire, along the river bank.  He is surprised to find that fire, the mode of book destruction he has resisted, can ‘give as well as take, warm and well as burn’.   He waits in the shadows.  The men around the fire summon him out of the dark, and take him in.  He learns that each one of them has committed some book to memory.  One is living Plato’s Republic.  One is the work of Thomas Hardy.  One has memorized several of the plays of Shakespeare.  Byron, Machiavelli, Tom Paine, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—all these are carried in the minds of hoboes, walking libraries, the remaining memory of the art of the race.  “What have you to offer?” they ask Montag.  “Parts of Ecclesiastes and of the Revelation to St. John”, he replies.  In 2015, an age that has eschewed reading for scanning, books for blogs, google for memory, and earning for knowing, Elijah Bradbury’s word resonates.  On the way out from the river Jordan.

In the year 1965, we recalled this year,  in early March, 50 years later, the spirit of Elijah walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  John Lewis was there, ‘not angry, but full of righteous indignation’, as he said.  Through the history, offices and gifts of Boston University we sat next to him over dinner three years ago.  He wanted to be a preacher, growing up: I would come home and preach to the chickens, he remembered. If nothing else, perhaps 50 years hence we could remember that real change is real hard but comes in real time when people really work at it, on the ground, in personal conversation, then in small groups, with gifted leadership.  Down on the way from the River Jordan.

In the winter of the year 2015, Elijah, the spirit of Elijah brooded over the face of New England snow fields.  The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   But also.  The sore memory muscles wrestling with the horror and mayhem—needless and cruel—of  Marathon 2013.  The blizzard of feeling and thought inevitably brought by a current courtroom trial to the surface.  The rush of anger alongside the search for the better angels of one’s nature.  You may not daily recognize Elijah.  But he is present.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.  (People have such odd reasons for avoiding worship.)  On the way forward from the river Jordan.  Elijah: elusive spirit, mysterious ghost, the divine present absence, personified.

In the year of spirit, 2015, the spirit of prophet Elijah hovered in the nave of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.   The chapel has given, to you and others, over many decades—beauty, grace, preachment, music, recollection.  Some here have found God, and some here have been found by God.  Marsh—a gift.  And so you have responded.  By listening on the radio—good.  By joining us one Sunday—good.  By giving to and through this ministry—good.  By inviting someone to listen, too.  By inviting someone to come with you.  Good.  By dreaming of an even more permanent place, and even stronger witness, and even more vibrant voice at Marsh.  One of you may choose to endow the deanship of this chapel.  Good.  Elijah awaits us.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the summer of 2015, the spirit and voice of the prophet Elijah echoed here.   We together ruminated about ‘beloved community’, whose root is the Gospel of John, whose trunk is Bostonian Josiah Royce, and whose branches include the hope of Martin Luther King.   David Romanik had some homiletical advice:  Larry Whitney gave some ecclesiastical advice: the beloved community is not easy.   Chapin Garner added a warning, not ‘your God is too small’, but ‘your God is too tame’.  Bob Hill added footnotes on intimations in social history and influences of personal faith.  Regina Walton taught us to ‘abide’, and pointed out that we are branches, tangled, not potted plants, aloof.  And Brittany Longsdorf ended with a poetic hymn to love.  In a phrase, what shall we hold from this summer?  Beloved Community.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 20??, I apologize, I have mislaid the exact date, the prophet Elijah will be on my doorstep, and knocking on your door.  Perhaps at midnight.  Maybe at noon day.  Possibly at dawn.  Or in the wee hours of the morning.   The eschatological prophet, the prophet of the last things, the one invited by Peter to a booth with Jesus, Elijah, the prophet of God, will make a pastoral visit.  In the last hour of my life, and yours.  There will be the river Jordan.  There will be a mantel slapped on the water.  There will be a parting of the ways.  There will be a step forward.  There will be a chariot, a sweet chariot, a swinging sweet chariot, a firey, swinging, sweet chariot.  There will be a presence.  Could it be that the weeks of cascade, the days of Nevada, the snow and snow and snow of our 2015 New England winter of discontent should carry an evocation, a query, a reminder, a call, premonition, a measuring, a warning, a promise?  Most of what we spend our time on, and our money, doesn’t matter at all.  It is the spirit that giveth life.  

In the summer of 2015, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit  ushered us toward a new book of Harper Lee, a surprise and an adventure.  In this newly discovered book, I understand, Scout is grown up, and Atticus Finch is old, and the setting is not the depression but the early civil rights movement.  We know whence Scout emerged.  Maybe we will re-read ‘Mockingbird’, including its spiritual conculsion.  TL Butts preached:

“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene.  Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man.  She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people.  The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered.  It is over.  Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door.  Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?”  She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle.  Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes:  “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.”  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard.

Here is one way to live.  In Spirit.  Elijah’s way.  The spirit way.  The way of confidence born of obedience.  The way of the journey of faith, the obedience of faith.  In this way, we live with the trust to see things through.  To cross over.  To cross the river.  To trust our past.  To  trust our experience.  To trust the spirit.  To trust our Elisha’s, our friends and successors.  To trust that in some way spiritually similar to Elijah at Jordan, a sweet chariot awaits.  So, Elijah’s story.

Now, the question.

Yes, to end, we promised a question.  A story, Elijah’s.  A question,  yours.

Elijah leaves Elisha a double portion of his spirit?  What do you hope to pass on?  What do you hope to leave behind?  What legacy is yours?  You are 22 and you have been to college and you have 15 year old sister heading that way?  Any advice?  You are a young parent watching your toddlers toddle.  What do you want to give them that they will never lose?  You are a grandparent, and you have some things you would like to bequethe.  What are they, and what will you give in management, money and material to make it happen?  It is the spirit question, the Elijah question, the community question, and it is yours.  For me, the answer is simple.  I want to pass on the possibility of preaching, of a word fitly spoken, of a saving intervening word,  Spirit in speech, for the next generations.  As the chariot approaches, what do you want to leave behind?

And here it comes…A chariot of promise.  A chariot of freedom.  A chariot of hope.  A chariot of deliverance.  A chariot of salvation.  A chariot of heaven.  A chariot to carry us home.

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green

And was the Holy of Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen…

I shall not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

August 16

Breakfast on the Beach

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 21:4-19

Click here to listen to the sermon only

The text is not available for this sermon.

–Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, Multifaith Chaplain, Bates College, Lewiston ME

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

August 9

Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton on The Beloved Community

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 15:1-8

Click here to listen to the sermon only

I’m very happy to be back with you at Marsh Chapel, and greetings to you also who are listening on the radio. Our theme this summer is the Beloved Community, so it’s a little funny to begin with a story about a hermit, but that is what I’m going to do. This story comes from my favorite religious psychologists, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century. It’s called “The Angry Brother and the Water Jug.”

“A brother was a [monk in a monastery] and was often moved to anger so he said to himself, ‘I will leave and go live by myself, and, because I won’t have anything to do with anyone and will be at peace, my passion will cease.’ So he left and lived in a cave by himself. One day he filled a small jug with water and put it on the ground and all of a sudden it fell over. He picked it up and filled it a second time and again it fell over. Then he filled it a third time and it fell over. Enraged, he grabbed hold of the jug and broke it. When he came to himself, he knew he had been mocked by the [Evil One] and said, ‘I’ve left and gone to live by myself, and even here, I’ve been defeated. Therefore, I will return to the [monastery]. There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.’ And he got up, and returned.” [Tim Vivian, ed. Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Cistercian Publications, 2008, p. 190-191]

The desert fathers and mothers were a quirky bunch, but I love them. With just a few words and a few key details, their stories express so much about the human quest to know the divine. Brevity and clarity. Would that preachers had these gifts as well! But they elude so many of us in the pulpit.

The monk in this story thinks at first that his brothers are getting in the way of his spiritual development. He has a quick temper, and in community he has a lot of other people to exercise it on. Much better, the thinks, to live alone, with no annoying fellow monks around. Then he’ll make some real progress. Of course he realizes, after he smashes the innocent water-jug, that it is not his fellow monks who are the problem, but himself. Community, he’s come to understand, is not a stumbling block after all: it is a training ground, a school of virtues, a school of love.

This is a sermon in two parts: the first is about Christian community, and why we should bother with it. And the second part names three qualities of beloved communities as I see them.

When Jesus in John’s gospel talks about beloved community, he uses the word “abide.” Jesus says in John 15, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

“Abide” is now archaic; except for the movie The Big Lebowski. We don’t say, “Abide here in the car while I run into Starbucks.” (pause) “Abide by the law” is one of the only current uses of the word. Some other contemporary translations of the Bible use “remain in my love” instead. But there is reason to retain “abide” apart from the poetry of it. None of the synonyms for “abide” fully capture the state of being that Jesus is describing. It can mean “remain,” or “stay,” but it also has shades of waiting and expectance, waiting in this state of love until Jesus comes again, to “dwell,” (another archaic word) in Christ’s love. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, translates this verse as “Make yourself at home in my love.” He is connecting “abide” to another word to which it is related, “abode.” (The place where you abide.)

    God welcomes us into God’s love, and this love is our shelter. But Jesus, in asking his disciples to abide in his love and to keep his commandment to love one another, is using a poetic word to ask them to do something extremely difficult. The abode that he is inviting them in to has many other guests all trying to make themselves at home as well.

To abide in Christ’s love requires something from us. It is not just a cozy meeting of like-minded individuals. It is hard work. All of us trying to make ourselves at home in God’s love; we bump elbows sometimes.

That is part of the appeal of being what is commonly called “spiritual but not religious.” Or as it is sometimes abbreviated, SBNR. One can be SBNR without any kind of community. Or, SBNR community can be fluid and without much accountability, like a yoga class. One advantage of finding God in watching a sunset, or on a mountaintop, instead of at church is that, well, you don’t have to deal with anyone else on the mountaintop! It’s just you and the view.

But the story of the Angry Brother and the Water Jug challenges the SBNR view of things. “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.” Getting away from it all spiritually will only get us so far.

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. Actually I think of her as my former employer, since I used to work as a docent in her house when I was in college in Western Mass.  She famously wrote, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church/I keep it staying at home/With a bobolink for a chorister/And an orchard for a dome.” Beautiful lines. Deeply true for her, since she loved nature with all her heart, and really hated going to church. Actually if there had been radio church in Dickinson’s day, I think she probably would have tuned in, if only for the hymns.

Every summer for the past 15 years, I have gone to a retreat center where I can look out on a meadow and hear lots of birds, maybe even a bobolink or two, and that time apart is very important to the health of my soul. That time of awe and wonder in God’s creation has given me many wonderful gifts. But it can’t give me everything I need. The peace of the meadow refreshes me, but only for a while, until I’m stuck in traffic again. The bobolink, with its peaceful chirping, can help to give me some clarity about the parts of my life where I am falling short. But the opportunities to actually do that work of inner change require leaving the meadow. Because, in order to grow into the full stature of our exemplar, Jesus,  “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.”

Patient endurance is a good synonym for “abiding.” “Patiently endure in my love.” “Hang in there in my love.” It’s a process.

The New York Times pundit David Brooks in some columns and in his book The Road to Character says this:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

[David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List, The New York Times, April 11, 2015]

We Christians might call eulogy virtues “the fruit of the Spirit,” from Paul’s list in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I’m a parish priest. What I hope we are on our best days at my parish, Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, is a School for Eulogy Virtues. We are all students, and Jesus is our teacher. It’s a funny kind of school, since no one ever graduates. We don’t graduate, but we do grow. It’s an organic curriculum, the Jesus-following life.

And Jesus, our teacher, says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Stay close, Jesus says. That’s how you become more like me.

The best grapes are produced closest to the vine, where the nutrients are. That’s why the branches are pruned, so they don’t get too long. Long branches ramble away from the vine, and produce small and sour grapes.

So spiritually, we want to stay close to our energy source. Otherwise, we are just putting our sour grapes out there, into a world that has enough sourness and bitterness already.

How do we do this? How do we abide in Christ’s love, staying close to our energy source? In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, we take the vows of our baptismal covenant as the blueprint for abiding. The first set of questions is about our Christian beliefs, but then there are questions about how we are to live our lives.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” This is not easy stuff, by the way.

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

And the answer to all of these questions is, “I will, with God’s help.” Because, there needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. We answer these questions not only with our lips, but with our lives, every day. And of course we fail at them all the time, and ask God’s forgiveness, and begin again. That’s part of abiding, too—the grace of always beginning again.

Very few of us are cut out to be spiritual hermits. In community we learn from each other, and we learn about ourselves. We abide. At my parish, our abiding usually involves food, and lots of it. Abiding and constant snacks go quite well together, actually. (pause)

Jesus uses the image of vines and branches. Branches tend to be all tangled up with each other. There’s a messiness in that. Many of us would prefer it if Jesus had used houseplants as his model, each one of us in our own little self-enclosed pot. But we’re not houseplants; we’re vine branches, tangled, woven together, and sometimes in each other’s way.

Beloved communities are examples of mutual abiding. They are also places of radical welcome. That is why the story we heard from Acts, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, is a story of the Beloved Community to me. Two people in the middle of nowhere—not much of a community, on the surface. But nevertheless, a story of how we come to abide in God’s love, and one that that Christians are made, not born. Following Christ is a process of becoming. This story is from the early days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, when the disciples are learning to listen for the Holy Spirit guiding them. And Philip hears the Spirit telling him to head south on the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. Holy Spirit as GPS. The text says, “This is a wilderness road.” And as he walks along this road, he comes upon the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the Queen’s treasury. Philip hears the Eunuch reading from the scroll of Isaiah, since these are the days when everyone read aloud. And he says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Eunuch says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” This story reminds us that the Bible was just as confusing then as it is today. And it reminds us too that the Church has always been struggling with issues of sexuality and race and culture. After all, being a eunuch was hardly a lifestyle choice promoted by ancient Judaism. The eunuch had been at the Temple in Jerusalem to worship; but he likely would not have made it past the outer gates, because of his sexual difference. He was a proselyte, or maybe what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, but for cultural or ethnic reasons did not convert. In any case, he had made a very long journey to sit in the outer courtyards of the Temple. A person of great importance in his country, he would remain a second-class citizen in the Jewish faith. And yet a hunger to know the God of Israel drew him over many miles to Jerusalem.

Philip joins him in the chariot, and they continue on together, as Philip opens the scriptures to him, and tells him about Jesus, and about baptism, and about adoption as God’s children through Christ.

When they pass by some water, the Eunuch says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And so the wilderness road becomes a place of beloved community, of radical inclusivity. The eunuch goes home, no longer on the outside looking in, but a part of the whole, a member of the body of Christ.

Philip doesn’t just welcome him; he forms him in faith. He interprets the scriptures to him. He listens to him. He answers his questions and addresses his confusion. In all of this he is led by the Spirit.

Philip walks the wilderness road, but he brings all the resources of his faith with him. He is open to the Spirit and its surprises—but it is the practices that he has cultivated in synagogue and with Jesus and the disciples, of prayer, of scripture reading, of discernment—that’s what he has to offer.

We are in a moment, as people of faith, when we are called to walk the wilderness road. We are called to reach out and walk alongside new people, in new places, and to be open and adaptable in ways not imaginable before. But we won’t be very effective in all this, if we leave the resources of our tradition behind us. We won’t be effective out in the wilderness if we have left behind the practices of prayer and scripture reading and worship and discernment that nourished us within the walls of our churches. We won’t succeed with the new technology, as rapidly as it evolves, if we also don’t remain plugged in to the “old school” technology: of relationships and showing up for each other in authentic ways. We won’t succeed as faith-based activists, if we are not also faith-based contemplativists, always listening for the Spirit’s guidance. Philip’s witness to the eunuch teaches us this.

So Beloved Community is about abiding, with God and with each other, in Jesus’ name. And Beloved Community is about radical welcome, taking the tools we’ve learned in our sanctuaries, and carrying them out to the Wilderness Road.

And there’s one more thing: Beloved Community is about what we will not abide.

Martin Luther King Jr., graduate of this university, spoke about the Beloved Community as the outcome, the end result, of nonviolence. It is the fruit that grows out of this good soil.

So inherent in the Beloved Community is a continuing stance against violence and oppression in all forms. The epistle reading from 1 John reminds us of this: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Today is the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I hope to God that we are on the verge of a new Civil Rights movement in this country. There are things that we cannot abide, if we want to be the Beloved Community. If we dare to proclaim that we follow Jesus. We live in a complicated world. But there are three things that should not be complicated for us in the church. There are three things that are really no-brainers for us to get behind as American Christians of any stripe, for us to march for, and to demonstrate for, to be a force for change. Three things about which there is no excuse for our silence; we simply cannot abide them.

First: systemic racism, especially against African Americans and people of color. I believe the church is especially called to stand up to systemic racism as it is expressed in our public schools and in our criminal justice and prison systems. There are special opportunities for the witness of the church there.

Next, the peculiar institution of American gun violence. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it is this way nowhere else in the world. This epidemic, combined with the epidemic of racism in our land—you read the papers too. You know. It has to stop. We have unique opportunities as people of faith to witness against gun violence, and for peace. To change the laws. To change our culture. So many lives needlessly ripped away. But perfect love casts out fear.

Third, the destruction of the environment. It’s right there in Genesis: this world, this created order, is good, and sacred. Time is running out. We have abused our position as stewards of the earth. Jesus called us to lives of simplicity and generosity, to live in harmony with each other, resisting the forces of greed and waste.

We serve the God of love and life. In these three areas, the shadow of death is creeping over us. We serve the God of reconciliation, of resurrection, of re-creation.

There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. And God’s help is everywhere. Indeed, that is the only way we can hope to have any impact on these issues at all. The only way. Struggle and patient endurance and calling on God’s help. That is the stuff of abiding. May God bless us, and empower us to live out this calling, together, and in Christ’s name. Amen.

–The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Rector, Grace Church, Newton, MA

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

August 2

Personal Faith and the Beloved Community

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 6:24-35

Click here to listen to the sermon only

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Among the powers that drew us here to Boston, was the chance to labor in the shadow of Howard Thurman and to preach from the pulpit he once filled. Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel, 1953-1965.  This summer, read his autobiography,  With Head and Heart.  In the work of grieving and departing from one setting, Rochester, and entering another, Boston, I was telephoned by a friend and parishioner.  She wanted to set an appointment to talk, before we left Rochester. A saintly woman, Donna Adcock, made an appointment, a good formal appointment, to see me.  ‘A chat after church won’t do for this’, she averred. That Wednesday she brought in a poem which she had typed out from an original handscript.  Typing is an ancient technology, no longer in use, but some years ago, even, still around.  (I do not linger to define keystroke, white out, ribbon, carbon paper, or Smith Corona (not a beer, by the way)).  ‘This poem Howard Thurman your predecessor at Marsh Chapel recited in a sermon in Kansas City, my home, in 1950’, she said.  ‘I was years old, 56 years younger when that sermon changed my life.  I spent the next 50 years in ‘full time Christian service’, through the YWCA.  I heard something that summer day, in Kansas City, in 1950, that changed my life.  I want you to have this poem.  You do not need to live in New England to love it, but it does help. The fact that I heard it through Howard Thurman’s beautiful voice adds to it for me”.

The ‘little duck’ is a poem about the freedom of a duck floating on the waves, written in 1947 by Donald Babcock. Here are verses from that poem…

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic

And he is part of it

He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic

Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is

And neither do you

But he realizes it

And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it

He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.

That is religion, and the duck has it.

He has made himself part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him.

I like the little duck.

He doesn’t know much.

But he has religion.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Three years ago we hosted the memorial service for Dr. Ken Edelin.  Marsh Chapel was full.  At one point we asked the congregation to recite together the 23 Psalm.  Family and friends in the first pew did so.  Colleagues and physicians across the nave did so.  Leaders of national organizations near and far did so.  In the balcony, twenty white coated medical students together did so.  Either at that point or another in the service they stood silently together, to honor the life and faith of the deceased.  That day I met a friend a personal physician of Arthur Ashe, whose life, prowess, faithfulness and service have always so inspired me.  Read again this summer his autobiography, Days of Grace.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

In the collation following the service, Charlayne Hunter Gault introduced herself.  You will remember her, as we did, from her many and fine contributions to the News Hour, with Jim Lehrer.  She said, ‘I need to talk to you later about the 23 Psalm’.  I was so pleased to meet her, and then so worried that I had somehow offended her, that the collation time passed anxiously.  It needn’t have done.  She wanted to recall a memory.  A memory of her younger self.  At 18.  The first African American to integrate the University of Georgia.  The daughter of a Baptist minister.  Alone in a big place, a strange place, a new place.  Walking home the third night, there were taunts and threats.  The University that day had suggested she might want to go home, at least for a while.   She went into her room.  She closed the door.  She turned out the lights.  And she waited, until quiet came.  And then—it was the only thing that came to her mind—the prayer of David in Psalm 23 came to her.  And she spoke the psalm, alone, afraid, uncertain, at night.   ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.’

Sometimes words are all we have.  A regular radio listener from Rhode Island telephoned a few weeks ago.  He said, ‘sometimes words are all we have’.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

In late June from this pulpit we invited those moved to consider the possibility, to spend a Sunday worshipping in an African Methodist Episcopal Church this summer.  ‘Take with you the greetings of Marsh Chapel’, we suggested.  This sort of visit is not for everyone, and can take many forms.  It has been interesting, and encouraging, to see that this summer some of you have done so.  One friend, regular in attendance here, did so a few weeks ago.  He has a story to tell, and has made a personal connection or three.  One radio listener, virtually present by radio or podcast week by week, went further.  She is arranging a neighborhood gathering, she hopes, and hopes we can help her.  Real change is real hard but happens in real time when real people really work at it.  There is a latent goodness, a common faith a common ground and a common hope, all about us, like the ocean holding the duck, like the still waters that restore the soul.  My friends, you are bringing a personal to bear upon the emergence of a beloved community.   Look at what Robert Gates has done, in the right time in the right way, in leading the Boy Scouts of American in a new direction.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Coming to communion you come with your lost loved ones in mind and heart.  This last winter we bade farewell to a father in law, Charlie. When we receive the Lord’s Supper we do so with the communion of saints all around us.  Charlie was a lover.

He loved nature.  Garden.  Seed time. Harvest. Planting. Weeding.  Watering.  Like the parables of Jesus.  He had a green thumb.  Most plant benefitted by the touch of his hand.

He loved work.  With his hands.  Carpentry.  Also some good company in carpentry, if I remember the Bible that they had us memorize at church camp.  14 features of our cottage have known the touch of his hand.

He loved the poor and the other.  In his study group. In work with Abraham House, Retired Teachers, and Habitat for Humanity and various churches and causes.  He loved others, and I mean others.  Of other religions, other places, other races, other backgrounds, other orientations.  He loved.  Others, and they felt the touch of his hand.

He loved his country.  He was not a member of any organized political party.  His patriotism, his love of country was not only liberty and justice, but liberty and justice FOR ALL.  And with his own hands he lived that.

He loved his church.  Its committees, its pastors, its building needs, its study groups, its quirks and oddities.  Especially he loved the reading he did with others.

He loved his family, and expressed that love in rocking horses and tools given and evergreens planted and windows replaced and sincere, repeated words of love.

He touched us in the most touching of ways.

He loved God by loving the things of God, the creation of God, the tasks of God, the people of God, the church of God.

He was our ‘dad’ and we learned from him.  We all need models of personal faith, people who can show us by example the dimensions of spirituality we so desire.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called…

Some years ago, Jan and I went out onto the bay in Mallorca one Sunday. Once a year we try to go somewhere, alone, together.  In that bay a boat called the ‘Marco Polo’ will take you ten kilometers or so south, or north, dock for a half hour swim, then bring you back to port.  We embarked covered with sunscreen.

In the stern a dozen Germans were gathered, stoic, and after a while they began to sing, in German.  Sort of like our Marsh choir sings some Sundays.  Madrilenos, Catalans, Natives of Andalucia, other Spaniards, sat up front with the youth, maybe a dozen young people.  Thence much laughter.  Sort of like our Marsh Community lunch.  We sat under cover, mid-ship, with the British enfrocked in bonnets, sweaters, long stockings, sunglasses.  We sat against an open window, beautifully open to the sea in the middle of the earth.

Like a large sea gull, we bobbed along, in the summer beauty, summer sun, summer heat, summer grace and freedom and love.  An earnest relationship with work you may find in America, among Americans.  Vacation belongs to the Europeans.  A hearty relationship with vacation they have.  Anne Murrow Lindbergh, a European at heart, to paraphrase, said, ‘A vacation is a month, at least.  Take a month, at least, or don’t bother’.

Above us in the ‘Marco Polo’ was a roof covered with life jackets, an old anchor, some rope, other flotsam and jetsam.  We sat with the dour British—Spanish laughter a fore, German song aft, and watching the tide role away.  There is just something about the ocean.

A gull floated along with us.  Wind, sand, stars—ocean.  St. Exuprey.  Of a sudden, to the right appeared several feet!  Small feet, young feet.  Left foot, right foot, hay foot, straw foot.  The young had commandeered the roof, dangling their feet, kicking, drumming, jostling, lounging and lifting their feet out toward the sea in the middle of the earth.  Then, gone.  The lifeguard must have appeared.  It made me think of Paul, in Corinthians, ‘shall the head say to the feet, I have no need of thee?’  And of Isaiah, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings’.  And of Jesus, washing in humble service the feet of 12 men, disciples, whom he called ‘friends’.

Of a sudden! To the left, across the cabin, outside the other window, feet, numerous feet, numinous feet, kicking and leaning and pushing.  Young people can take the world and make it young again.  Dangling feet, dangling prepositions, dangling thoughts—you will make the world playful, youthful, happy, hopeful.  Just don’t fall overboard, but that is another sermon.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

One of our fellow seekers of the beloved community offered this prayer, with which we conclude.

Adonai, we pray that all may come to the understanding that one person’s grief is a shared experience that we will all face, one person’s love is a love that all will someday experience, one person’s exclusion or shunning is one that we all hope never to experience. One person’s success does not in any way diminish us. Friendship with someone new does not change the friendships that are already part of us. A person being praised and appreciated does not mean that we are not, it is just not your turn, or that there are reasons why they needed those words more at that moment. Consequences of actions born of love have a way of transforming who we are. Until each human being realizes that inflicting harm to another either intentionally or unintentionally or participates in such group dynamics that do, we will not have peace on this earth. Yet when a whispered prayer reaches out to you Adonai, and you reach back to us. We have reached the center where we know that we are loved, and nothing on heaven or earth can change that. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. (TERRY BAURLEY)

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.