Archive for September, 2015

September 27

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

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Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

Alumni Weekend itself is a two level drama, a stereoptic, bifocal collision of past and present, of hope and fear, of what we expect on the one hand, and what we experience on the other, expectation and experience never quite becoming equivalents.

On Alumni Weekend you walk past a classroom where you heard something new. As was once said by a famous baseball player, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again’. You see a teacher’s office where you learned the hard news about a midterm result. You pass by a tree under which you hugged or kissed your then boyfriend or girlfriend.   Your memory is quickened by the spatial, locational power of a sunset on a river, or a trolley bell ringing, or the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. You watch and you see.

As Yogi Berra also said, ‘You can observe a lot just by watching’.

But all these memories are held in a new way, in a second level recollection, that of today as today looks at yesterday.   You enter a restaurant and where others simply see a television, you see a television on which you watched and heard 7th BU President John Silber interviewed in 1980 on 60 minutes by Mike Wallace. You look out over Nickerson field while others watch soccer, and you remember a football game. (Oops…). You sit in Marsh Chapel as the sermon meanders on toward its inevitable conclusion, or what you hope will be its proximate conclusion, but you hear some other voice once uttered here, or a song once sung here, or a prayer once dropped with a full heart into the prayer request box.

Three honored alumni yesterday spoke in this manner. ‘BU became my passport’. ‘At BU I grew up’. ‘Here I was taught that the authority of the highest idea should prevail over the idea of the highest authority’. (Not who has the idea, but what idea is best; not power but truth.)

Time and space are not quite as absolute in determination of our being as sometimes we think. It helps to have a bifocal, stereoptic vision, a two level drama, of sorts.

That is the nature of the New Testament, shot through from Matthew to Revelation with apocalyptic language and imagery. Our Holy Scripture, both Holy and Scripture, is both heaven and earth.   It is both sacred and secular, at the same time, both divine and human. Its Word walks with human feet and sings with divine voice. Its word faces earth: Syria—200,000 dead, 4 million refugees, 7 million dislocated. Its word sings with a divine voice: each one of these is a child of the living God.

(By the way, the apocalyptic warnings of Mark 9 are not to be taken literally. We know this. We know about hyperbole. Even the convoluted hyperbole of a famous ballplayer describing a once favorite restaurant: ‘Nobody goes there any more—it’s too crowded’. Let us pause one good moment to recognize that, and why, we do not understand the Bible as utterly inerrant and divine. The Bible is inspired and so inspires us, and is our first point of reflection, prototypical but not archetypical—first but not exclusive in the church’s long history of the search for truth. These verses, harsh and judgmental, need careful interpretation. So Matthew cuts half of them, in his use of Mark 20 years afterward. So Luke cuts all of them in his use of Mark 25 years later. Even Mark himself shifts the weight from fear to hope, even in this passage, as he wrestles to interpret what he has inherited, from whatever source: be salt, have peace among yourselves, who is not against us is for us.)

So it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music, that begins its life as an ornament of secular gaiety, that began its life as music by which to feast and dance and revel. It began as joy. And then it was transformed, so that ‘our joy could be complete’ (Jn 15:11).

Charles Wesley wrote hymns, many of which we still sing, and found the music, the melodies and harmonies, in the sung music of his day, did he not? St John of the Cross, the greatest of Spanish mystics, whose poetry strikes the heart to this day, composed his lyrics with the help of Italian, pastoral love poetry, did he not? The author of the Song of Solomon, who wrote a torrid, fierce, erotic ballad of human of love, would perhaps have been bemused to see how quickly Judaism made of it by analogy the love of God for the covenant people, and how quickly Christianity by analogy made of it the love of Christ for his church, we she not?

In our time, wherein the attempt to embrace the secular with the sacred, to express a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith, to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, has become so marginal, pitiable, nearly a lost cause, of a sudden, this Sunday, Come Sunday, we have Bach’s secular music magically, alchemically made sacred, in this beautiful 18 minute poem. For all our fears, of heaven and of earth, it does ring out a note of hope, does it not?

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen today, we who remember St. Augustine’s proverb, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage’?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Dean Hill.

(Dr. Jarrett)

Dean Hill….

This year at Marsh Chapel, our annual cantata series surveys Bach’s musical-sermons for Easter, beginning today with Cantata 66: ‘Rejoice, you hearts, fade away, you sorrows.’ Our cantata dates from Bach’s first year as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a period of remarkable industry and accomplishment. Bach’s greatest achievement in those weeks was surely the composition and first performance of the St John Passion heard just days before the cantata we perform this morning. For Easter Sunday morning that year, Bach revived an earlier work – Christ lag in Todes Banden, which we will perform later in this series. For Easter Monday, he again drew on earlier material, written in 1718 for the birthday celebrations of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. With a reordering of movements, the addition of a final chorale, and fitted with a new text, the resultant cantata marks the splendor of Easter with great joy, dance, and, as we shall see, no shortage of the human dialectic – hope and fear.

Bach’s text was the story of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus from the 24th chapter of Luke. As you’ll recall, the story depicts some fairly thick-headed disciples, in shock over the fate of their Jesus rebellion, and still grief-stricken from his betrayal and ultimate demise. Only when the traveler breaks bread with them do they realize he is their risen Lord.

Marsh Chapel congregants have come to understand that the cantatas, just like sermons, follow a structure, not just musically – choruses, recitatives, arias, and chorales – but also theologically: from opening an chorus of praise and joy, to more explicit exegesis from soloists, moving toward reflection on the human condition both personal and corporate. Typically, the cantata concludes with a four-part chorale setting attaching the newly composed music to cherished and beloved hymns of the faith.

The key element of the older cantata from 1718 was a dialog of two allegorical characters, Bliss and Fame. For Easter Monday 1724, these characters became Fear and Hope. And in their material, we find the central human predicament – a willing spirit, thwarted by the will of the flesh; a spiritual aspiration weighed down by a human frailty; the promise of redemption tinged by doubts that we are unworthy. Or as in Mark 9, we wish to be salt, but have we lost our saltiness?

As you listen this morning, note the joy of the opening movement a bright dance in a triple meter. Caste as a large-scale da capo chorus, the middle section sung by alto and bass foreshadows the theme of anxiety and fear, heard poignantly in descending chromatics. In the bass aria – the most direct nod to the Emmaus story – listen for the lighting bolts of string arpeggios at the words, “Jesus appears”. And as the alto and tenor sing their dialogue, observe the remarkable layering of these voices and their texts at the same time – truly reflecting our own complicated condition. In the final duet, listen for the spirited violin obbligato, played today by our concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill. It’s as if the violin is the voice of the Refiner’s Fire, enflaming our hearts towards Love’s fiery-hue. The final chorale, though exultant with threefold Alleluias, concludes with a solemn Kyrie eleison, as if to say, “Look up from the Grave, but stay fixed on the Cross.”

After the atonement and self-reflection of Lenten and Holy Week observances, only the radiance of the Risen Lord can redeem. The tomb is empty, the stone is rolled away. Will my faith be strong enough to roll the stone of my own heart away? Can Christ restore my saltiness? Or will my fear outshine my hope?

Rejoice, you hearts, fade away, you sorrows, the Savior lives and rules within you. You can drive away mourning, fear, anxious despair. The Savior revives his spiritual kingdom. Alleluia!

Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

Hope indeed has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are. And courage to see that they do not remain as they are (Augustine of Hippo).

Our collegium, and our choir, and our congregation offer out into the unseen world around a dynamic dialogue, of heaven and earth, of sacred and secular, of divine and human.

It has become quite difficult to do so.   A Christ against Culture fits easily and well with a popular Christianity, Bible drenched, which rejects the world around. Harder it is to think, speak and sing of a Christ in Culture, a Christ transforming Culture. So slips away the religious commitment. So also, from the side of the society, there grows an unwillingness to admit of the value of propositions that are not verifiable but may well be true. Harder and harder it is to say ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’, or ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity’. Or, as today, ‘have peace among yourselves…who is not against us is for us’

Yet here these are today, interwoven. As we hear at the end of the cantata, fear and hope, both so deeply human, sing around and around each other. As we hear in the Scripture—who is not against us is for us; be at peace with one another.

Maybe, among other things, this is why the current Papal visit has made such a resounding though perhaps only partly articulated impact. Here is a religious voice, speaking in the halls of government. Here is a sacred person, addressing the nations as united, in the United Nations. Here is a representation of the Holy, riding the streets of the most secular of cities. Not the church mumbling its prayers behind closed doors; not the culture, its government and its authority and its society, stumbling ahead with its decisions apart from a final horizon. But sacred and secular singing together.

Maybe, among other things, this is why there are still a few University pulpits, whose calling it is to remember and to remind that the point of education is helping people. What makes this University unique is its capacity to harness learning to help people. Education is meant to help people. Period.

That is. One one hand, it is good to know as Einstein showed that gravity is a manifestation of the curvature in space-time resulting from the presence of matter and energy. On the other hand, it is great to see that insight and others like it making space, in new inventions and discoveries, for safety, for progress, for care, for health. Helping people.

Just for a moment. A heavenly hope embracing an earthly fear, both real, both true. Just for a moment, this morning, prayer, soul, eternity, faith, heaven, judgment, salvation, love, God.

I truly fear the darkness of the grave\I do not fear the darkness of the grave

I lament my Savior is now torn from me\I hope that my Savior is not torn from me

RAH: I truly fear the darkness of the grave\SAJ: I do not fear the darkness of the grave

RAH: I lament my Savior is now torn from me\SAJ: I hope that my Savior is not torn from me

This music, this Scripture, this day, this week, this life, just now, they do give you a sense, for all our fears, that hope survives and may just prevail. After all, did not Mr. Berra also say, ‘it ain’t over ‘til its over’?

A colleague and friend, Rev. Rick Black, said this week: ‘When people hear us they should think, Things are not as bad as we think they are, and these folks are helping to make things better.

Herein perhaps we find the valence of the dominical sayings,

He that is not against us is for us. He that is not against us is for us.


Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.

Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.

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


Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

September 20

A Tradition of Principled Resistance

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:  30-37

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As the songwriter says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

Michael Deng was the son of two immigrant Chinese parents.  He worked hard to enter Baruch College in NYC.  In order to find some support at the largely commuter college, he signed up for a fraternity.   The fraternity was attractive to Michael and others because it offered friendships, a sense of community, some solidarity over against the rest of culture, and the prospect of mutual support through the rigors of college life.  Community, meaning, belonging, empowerment.

Michael’s photo shows a bright-eyed young man, smiling, eager, energetic.

He died on December 9, 2013, outside a rented house in Pennsylvania.  The house looked like a fraternity house.  The brothers went there to haze new members.  Michael was blindfolded, forced to wear and sand loaded backpack, lifted and dropped on his head, and ‘speared’ by a classmate running at him full tilt with his head down.  The ritual was called the Glass Ceiling, a reference to constraints against advancement for Asians in America, something the fraternity apparently wanted to challenge.  An icy back yard, a snowy evening, a cold night—and an unintended, tragic, loss.

According to one account, Deng drew the ire of others because he ‘resisted’.  He realized, too late, that what was happening was wrong, dangerous, and perhaps potentially fatal.  So he resisted, and thereby became the focal point of heightened abuse.  No reporting, yet, has identified how many others may have been spared, or saved, due to his resistance, and, tragically, the necessary attention given to his unconscious state, his labored breathing, his bruised torso, and, finally, his death.  No reporting, yet, has placed this incident quite fully in the fuller narrative of the rigors and perils of American student life.  But most notably, no reporting, yet, has tried to understand Michael’s last moments, his decision to resist, his resistance—bringing his demise and perhaps sparing others some measure of hurt—within a tradition of principled resistance.  

Sometimes you follow a story, as clearly I have this one.  It has bothered me, hounded me, for many days, for a variety of relatively easily named reasons.  And I have wondered about its meaning.  Stephen Weinberg famously wrote that ‘the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more its seems pointless.’  Comprehensible. Pointless.  It is a serious ‘point’.  Yet comprehension requires the mind, alone.  We deem pointless what seems pointless, though, as a choice.  It is if you think it is.  Pointless.  It is if you choose to live like it is.  Pointless.  There is a dualism of decision haunting this world, not just in the pages of Scripture, but also upon every day.

At the very end, it seems, from what little we comprehend, that Michael Deng made a choice to resist.  He pointedly and in a tragically costly moment decided to fight back, to object, to refuse, to resist.  And there, in that moment just now, in light shadow, in a whisper, in a ghostly echo, one may sense, we may choose to sense, just a measure of meaning in the heart of an otherwise awful and pointless story.

That is where you come in, this morning.  Yours is a tradition of resistance, and you have that tradition to offer.  In fact, you have offered moments of entrance to the tradition of principled resistance for a month.  In a kindly way, of course.  One Sunday, you gave the conclusion to a summer national preacher series on ‘The Beloved Community”.  Come, you said, join with Thurman and King and us.  One Sunday, you hosted a Matriculation gathering.  Come, you said, ‘read, take and read, read’, join with Augustine of Hippo and us.  One Sunday, you marked Labor Day with the Lord’s Supper, and a opened a year long theological overture to prayer.  Come, you said, join with Jesus, the crucified, and the church and us.  One Sunday, you celebrated International Sunday, and extended a particular Methodist handshake to students and others from abroad.  Come, you said, join with Wisdom, wisdom that offers power to withstand what we cannot understand, and Luther and Pope Francis and us.  Next Sunday, you will open our musical year, beautiful it promises to be, with a full morning bathed in beauty, bathed in musical experience.  Come, you say, and join with choristers and orchestra, and learn from Bach how to meditate upon the cross and resurrection, and wing with us.  

For those, perhaps few, with eyes to see, and ears to hear, you offered the shelter of a particular tradition.

The Gospel of Mark, read more than preached these weeks, announces, affirms, and extols this tradition.  For Mark is written with the cross in mind, and is written, at least in part, to make sure earlier Christians, the community of faith, fully understood the call to resistance.  Jesus is raised from the dead. Yes.  But.  Life in him means bearing a cross, bearing up under suffering, and resistance all that cheapens life ‘in this adulterous and sinful generation’.

So, early in Mark 7, you heard Jesus teaching resistance to falsehood, to lips that move but hearts that lie.

Then, later in that chapter, you heard the gentile woman resist Jesus’ exclusion of her—‘even the dogs get crumbs’ she said—and Jesus’ own reversal, his inclusion of her, his healing of her daughter.

And, in Mark 8, you heard the hallmark word of resistance, which the church placed on Jesus’ lips, ‘If any man would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.  What does it profit a man to gain the whole world lose his soul, his life?’

Like today, in Mark 9, you just heard resistance to heavy-handed leadership proclaimed in the affirmation of servant leadership, and resistance to the tides of disenchantment proclaimed in the figure of childlike innocence.  Would you lead?  Then serve.  Would you love?  Then hold a child.

Your tradition is one of principled resistance.   On Sunday morning in worship at 11am you resist the temptation to sleep the day away.  On Sunday evening in worship at 6:30pm you resist the anonymity of student life with the offer of a beautiful oasis, dinner and eucharist.  On Wednesday morning in worship at 11:10, with the School of Theology, you resist the separation of learning and vital piety.  On Wednesday eveningat 5:15pm in worship, in the Episcopal eucharist, you resist the midweek Christological amnesia that can emerge in a post Christian culture, in an secular University, in a sprawling big city.  On Thursday noon, served communion on Marsh Plaza, you resist the temptation to forget God, to forget love, to forget faith, to forget the humanity of your neighbor.  In all, some 300 gather in these services, a mere 1% of the number of students at BU, but a witness, salt an light, a reminder of your tradition of principled resistance.

I say at funerals, perhaps like that offered Michael Deng, ‘one who has loved, one who has been loved, is never lost’.  Maybe I should add, ‘one who has resisted, who has lived the tradition of principled resistance, is never lost’.

Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come Sunday, come this Sunday.

This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own.  Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve refusal and resistance:  refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend.  Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.  

With all your heart you may want to refuse, to refuse.  An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order.  Your heart may say:  This is not me, not right, not good. Resistance always costs.  Resistance means sacrifice.  Resistance hurts.  The slings and arrow of fortune’s discontent draw blood.  Resistance, refusal.  Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living?  Dare ask:  Does God evoke and use refusal?  Does Christ, God’s everlasting Yes–in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes–Does Christ desire resistance and refusal?

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in trouble.  You enjoy the story, I know.  Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death.  Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.

For Naboth, refusal came more dear.  Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one.  He asked for the land.  Naboth refused.  He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice.  Naboth refused.  Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue.  Naboth refused.  And Ahab went whimpering to bed.  Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head.  Refusal can either cost you a king’s friendship, or your head, or both.

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book.  Refusing to worship Caesar?  Names jeeringly attached to Rome–beast, satan, whore?  Resistance to the more established synagogue?        

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor?  Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together?  Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled refusal, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift.  A tradition of principled resistance.

Several summers ago an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home.  The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: “We are raising a generation of hooligans.”

Pummelled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right.  Yet she resists!  You may recognize her, now.

This was Rosa Parks.  A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world.  For some reason, she refused to move.  Bus stopped.  Police came.  Crowd gathered.  Anger, shouting.  The Montgomery bus boycott began.  A tradition of principled resistance–this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

The prophets of old knew this.  They spoke about God’s unbending holiness.  They spoke about God’s own refusal to set a divine seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power.  They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering.  They spoke about God’s justice, critical of every established power.  They refused.  Here it is:  “Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression.” (Brueggeman).

My son had only one request for a gift one year.  He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat–$59.95”   Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman.  And I inflicted a story on my son, as parents do.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman.  Kinshasha, Zaire.  November 2.  Ali predicted:  “The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed.”  60,000 cheering fans, shouting, “Ali Bu Mal Ye”, which antiseptically translated means, “Go get him”.

Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6.  Forman 25, young, strong, powerful.  Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton.  Ali: 32, guile fitness and will.  After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered.  3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd:  “He don’t hurt me much”.  5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated.  Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes!  Ali, later:  “The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter”.  Then, 8th round:  “Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion’s hardest blows suddenly in the next instant he springs forward and brought Forman down.  Down the strong man went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the resistance of evil, the binding of evil.  It’s not pleasant.  Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion.  But there is an eighth round coming!  There is an eighth round coming!

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth.  God is at work, in part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali’s rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man.  The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 30 years of blows to the midsection.  God’s spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement.  But the eighth round is still coming…

A tradition of principled resistance.

I can imagine an objection or two.

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far:  some refusal is Godly, but some is not.  Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish.  Agreed…But we speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are.  Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by enduring body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play.  Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance.  But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so.  Most resistance is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded.  Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows.  Most real principled resistance is very ordinary.

Prayer is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. (Our theme, for this year). Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good.  Choosing carefully is primarily a form of spiritual resistance:  “We live in a society that primarily starves our soul…we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul…but…if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don’t see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly.” (Moore) Tithing is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone.  Education is primarily a form of spiritual refusal to view the world as pointless, as in our BU School of Public Health which right now, this month, resists HIV in 37 million, resists the denial that health care is a right, resists kidney disease in 20,000 in Central America, resists the danger of alcohol for 20 years olds, resists the 32,000 deaths from bullets annually in America (Dean Sandro Galea, in presentation, 9/18/15, Boston)

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta.  He did everything he could.  Finally he sent them a note:  If you do not submit at once I will invade your country.  If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight.  If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground.  The Spartans sent back this one word reply; “if”. (laconic).

You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance.

You might want to remember that.  On a cold night when some activity seems not quite right, and you need to summon a courage to resist.  On a day when a choice in vocation arrives, unannounced, and you need to summon a kind of confidence to resist turning aside.  On an evening when you know the driver has had too much to drink, and you need to ask to be let out of the car.  On a weekend when you see something and need to say something.

On the other hand, you may not need this word right now.  But you may want to remember it, especially if you are young.  For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment.  You may need to draw on the tradition of principled refusal, principled resistance..

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to resist.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

    and confidently waiting, come what may,

    We know that God is with us night and morning

    And never fails to greet us each new day.”

-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.

September 13

Living With Wisdom

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 7:24-37

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Good Morning! It is a pleasure to speak to you once again from the pulpit of  Marsh Chapel. I want to thank Dean Hill and the rest of the Marsh Chapel staff for their support and encouragement as I have taken on my new role as Interim  University Chaplain for International Students. As many of you know, I’ve served as the Lutheran Chaplain here at Marsh for the past three years, and all I can say is that the sermon you are about to hear may be my least Lutheran sermon at Marsh as I’m preaching on an apocryphal text (those books that Martin Luther outright rejected from the Protestant Bible) and I’ll be quoting the Pope.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my new position is that there is a definite learning curve. Even though I’ve worked here for the last three years, taking on more responsibility and having a broader presence to the BU community comes with learning new names, navigating new systems, and finding new ways of relating to a population of the student body that itself is quite diverse. After all, “International” basically means anyone not from the United States, a globe’s worth of culture, tradition, and faiths to relate with and welcome. (I promise it sounds more intense than it actually is, though!) But let’s think about the reverse of this, an international student coming to a completely new culture, expected to not only to seek education, but also to grow as an individual and somehow “fit into” what maybe a very different context. Learning facts and figures in class may be the easiest part of this! Cultural wisdom can be elusive. Expectations of students in the U.S. differ wildly from those in other countries. Social interactions are defined by different standards in the U.S. And even just speaking in a language that is not native to you can feel like a terrifying experience. But fear not.  Fortunately, there are plenty of resources at BU which are designed specifically for International Students to help them get acclimated, to have a place to feel comfortable, and to find ways to meet new people. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m one of those resources.)

Additionally, every year, BU Today, the daily e-news source for the university complies a “Words of Wisdom” video for the incoming class. The wisdom comes from the previous year’s graduating class, offering advise and guidance on those every day things that you won’t necessarily learn in the classroom or at orientation.

Here’s some of what was offered to this year’s class:

On meeting new people:

“One of the first things you should do at BU is make some friends…Pretty much everyone’s in the same boat you are. Everyone wants to make friends. Everyone’s terribly alone.”

“If you see somebody that just looks interesting, just say “hi!” They might become your best friend.”

On new eating habits:

“The freshman fifteen is absolutely real.”

“There’s a lot of stuff you can grab from the dining halls. There’s a lot of cookies. There’s a lot of brownies. Don’t be tempted to touch all that.”

On abbreviations:

“So, when you come on campus, you’re probably going to notice that we love our abbreviations here at BU.”

“Acronyms. Learn acronyms really quickly.”

“Whether it be COM, CAS, GSU, SHA, HTC, and what is SAO?”

“By the way it’s CAS not cas. That’s a pretty important one.”

On being an adult:

“Get used to doing laundry on your own and also do it often, because people will notice if you don’t. And you don’t want to be that person.”

“I think that no matter how grown up you feel in college, always talk to your parents. Always just tell them “Hey, what’s up? This is what’s happening.” Whenever they hear your voice, I’m sure they’re just like “Yes! They called me!””

Now, I intentionally selected some of the funnier words of wisdom from this video, but you get the point. These are things that you can only glean from experience. Or from someone who’s had more experience. But they’re important to know in order to be successful as a student here at BU. And much of this wisdom can be carried forward into life after BU – being a responsible adult who is healthy, clean, respectful of others, and has a community with which one can relate. Wisdom is more than just knowledge. While the University administration hopes that students acquire knowledge while they’re here, we also hope that students’ experiences and interactions with others will lead them to wisdom. Wisdom is not just facts and figures. It’s experiential. It’s dynamic. It comes from interactions and experiences. It can be passed from one person to another, but sometimes is best when it is developed internally. We generally think that wisdom is attached to age – the older you are, the wiser you become. Now this may not be true in all cases, but the logic behind it stands to good reason. The longer you have been alive, the more experiences you have had which have enabled you to learn about which are the best choices (sometimes by making the wrong choice the first time around). This can lead you on a path that enables greater clarity into the ways people interact, how the world works, and the best ways to apply the knowledge that you’ve acquired. Some cultures revere their elder members because of the wisdom they possess – their life experience is seen as valuable for future generations. But wisdom from those who come before us is only as valuable as the amount of attention we’re willing to give it.

Wisdom is relational – it allows us to form connections with others by sharing our experiences – don’t you feel closer to those students I quoted earlier, maybe because you somehow relate with the advice they were giving? Or who among us cannot think of someone – a parent, an older sibling, a friend – who has shared their wisdom with us to help us become who we are today? Because of its relational nature, wisdom necessitates a certain way of approaching the world and other people. It requires us to seek it out by processing our experiences in a way that will educate us into the future. We must be aware to live with Wisdom. It surrounds us, but has to be sought out. Wisdom is pervasive, but we must take it in of our own accord. It does not just hit us over the head in an obvious way. We must

do some work to be intentional about our development into wise people.

Wisdom is also a pretty awesome female symbol in the Bible who isn’t necessarily talked about extensively. She is Justice. She is Righteousness. She is Equity. She is in all things. She guides humanity (for those who choose to follow her). To have full knowledge of Wisdom is to be the closest one can be to God. In today’s readings, particularly the reading from Proverbs and the Psalm reading from Wisdom of Solomon, we hear two somewhat contrasting versions of the biblical description of Wisdom. In the Proverbs selection, the Woman Wisdom is a prophet. She is crying out to the people who fail to see and take in her essence to become closer to the will of God. She bemoans the foolish who fail to heed her warnings and listen to her thoughts. She goes so far as to laugh and mock those who foolishly rejected her while they experience panic, calamities, and distress. This Wisdom is rooted in a fear of God, of God’s power, a very common notion in the Hebrew texts. We’re often uncomfortable with these kinds of texts which paint a picture of a violent, sometimes vengeful God whose believers act purely out of fear. I would disagree, in our context today, that our wisdom necessarily must come out of fear of God. Instead it should come out of a desire to make connections with others, addressing wrongs in the world, establishing justice, and seeking out righteousness.

In Wisdom of Solomon we have a gentler, almost enamored, description of Wisdom. The Woman Wisdom here is a righteous and beautiful expression of God’s eternal light. Evil cannot prevail against her. She is goodness and light. The author, depicted as King Solomon in the text, in other parts of the book announces his desire to wed Wisdom in order to be the closest to God he can be. But like the description in Proverbs, Woman Wisdom is omnipresent. She is accessible to all, but one must have a certain desire and drive for her to access her. It is an on-going relationship wisdom seeks, not an initial flirtation.

These descriptions are opposite sides of the same coin. Wisdom is beautiful and strong, full of goodness and light, but the results of rejecting her can lead to suffering. Wisdom is a transmitter of the will of God, but rejecting her will ultimately lead to negative consequences. Wisdom and God have a symbiotic relationship. God creates Wisdom, but wisdom exists with God and enables God’s action in the world. As the text states, she is “a spotless mirror of the working of God, an image of his goodness.” Biblical scholars refer to Wisdom and God’s relationship as “hypostasis” – in which Wisdom acts as and on behalf of God, but is not equated with God.   In Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-23, just before the passage we read today, the author


“There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.”

These descriptions could easily be swapped to describe God. Wisdom is the means by which all of creation is ordered and coheres. Wisdom is a changing and transforming entity, found permeating all of life. While ever-present, we must choose to acknowledge Wisdom and engage with her – she will not force herself on us. But if we choose to reject wisdom, then we choose to reject God’s will in the world.

In Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, “Laudato Si” or “Praised Be,” his main focus is on the Catholic Church’s response to climate change as a justice issue that not only concerns the wellbeing of the Earth, but also as a justice issue for the poor and oppressed. I highly recommend reading it – it is very well written and accessible for both theologians and laypeople alike.  In addition to a rousing call to the global populace to recognize the need for action around this issue, the Pope also deals with the idea of wisdom as necessary for building community to face the challenges of today and into the future. He states:

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. “

The Pope points out a new way that wisdom has been obscured in our, now global, society. While we have increased our connections, we have decreased the quality in those connections, and actually created distractions from what true wisdom really is. We have access to data and information, knowledge, really, but we lack the wisdom we need to effectively address the challenges that climate change will create environmentally, socially, and economically.

Our present world experiences so much pain, alienation, struggle, and conflict that we often fail to see how wisdom could ever shine through to lead us forward into a new way of being, into a global community. Syrian refugees seek asylum from a tumultuous civil war and political situation in the face of closed borders. U.S. citizens are denied rights and in some cases their ability to live because of their race, who they love, or how they identify. Global climate change is creating droughts in some areas, flooding in others, endangering those who do not have financial or technical means to combat it and also crippling national economies. These problems seem so large that we feel helpless, we bury our heads, we pretend it’s not happening, we say “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Or “That doesn’t affect me directly, so I don’t necessarily need to do anything about it.” Or “It’s easier to keep living my life the way I live it. I can’t devote time to fixing these enormous problems.”

Prophetic Wisdom is calling out to us, standing on our street corners, imploring us to see her and process her ways. In ignoring or denying that we have anything to do with the global struggles that happen every day, we also deny opportunities for becoming part of the solution. However, it’s not too late for us to seek out and live with wisdom.  Just like it seems that pain and struggle pervade so much of our shared global life, beyond them is wisdom from our experiences and those who have come before us which can guide us to face these challenges. Maybe the wisdom we have is not a one to one match with the challenges we face today, but that’s the cool thing about wisdom: when people bring the bits of wisdom they have from their own experiences and share them with each other, in a deep, relational way, new wisdom forms. New ways of seeing the world. New ways of seeking justice. New problem-solving tactics.

At BU, we’re lucky. We’re in a place of privilege, studying everything from neuroscience to medieval literature. We come from places as close as Brookline to as far as Beijing. Our community is a global place, allowing for so many conversations across ages, cultures, religions, sexuality, gender, and economic backgrounds. There are immense possibilities for new and creative wisdom to shine through to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.  So yes, we can share wisdom about how to be a successful student and adult while at college, but we can also share the wisdom we’ve developed by taking the knowledge that we have and applying it to our lives. There are glimmers of these wise conversations happening all over campus – at the Howard Thurman Center, here in Marsh Chapel, in the classroom…but we must be intentional in seeking them out. Our congregation is also a great resource for these kinds of conversations. We have folks of various ages, backgrounds, and cultures who can all share their wisdom with each other. I invite you to do just that. Today, after our service, we will have our weekly coffee hour in the Marsh Room in the lower level. This is a great opportunity to chat with someone you don’t know, meet someone who is different than you, make a new friend. And we have lots of international-themed snacks to help nourish your body while you nourish your mind. We must invite Wisdom into our lives, live with her, and not expect that she will appear to us without our concerted effort.

In conclusion, let’s return to our “Words of Wisdom” from the class of 2015. We started by talking about the difficulties of being a new or international student on a campus such as BU, but this time, I want you to think about these words of wisdom and how they might apply to your life:

“Definitely focus on academics, but understand that a lot of your personal growth is going to happen outside of the classroom.”

“So many people have so many different perspectives and ideas and it’s important to kind of take that in and internalize it and kind of make it your own too.”

“Enjoy the time that you do have here because it goes dang fast.”


–Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students ad Interim

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

September 6

The Senses of Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:24-37

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Be opened.  Ephphatha.  Be opened.

Jesus’ utterance today, in the swirl of two strange stories,

commands an opening of the senses, a new opening of the senses in prayer.

Today the Gospel asks you about your soul, about your inner life, about


Prayer is a kind of shadow boxing, the struggle of the soul for

one’s own life, over against all the forces outside arranged against us.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in Gift from the Sea, “Every

person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year,

some part of each week, and of each day.”

Prayer is the possibility of an inner life, of communion with

God—whether in the graveyard, the library, the symphony hall, the art

gallery, the study, the beach.  Or, in church.

A sanctuary is a place to be quiet, in order to reconstitute our

real life:  “the very best prayers are but vain repetitions, if they are not the

language of the heart.” (J Wesley)

The soul, personal or collective, is boxing with its shadow in


Before the firelight of a hard decision, as your soul sees its

shadow lengthen into something like fear

Before the blue haze of the computer glass, as your soul sees its

shadow lengthen into something like listlessness—acedia

Before the searching, searing floodlight of clear and painful

memory, as your soul sees its shadow lengthen into something like hatred

Prayer is one great battle, your soul locked shadow boxing in

combat with what maims and harms life.

What are the senses of prayer?


Prayer tunes out many of the frequencies of this world.  Prayer

is deaf as a post, stone deaf to the text beep, to the telephone, to the radio, to

the world around.

One older, beloved hospital patient, who had only one working

ear, found peace and healing at a fine medical facility by lying with his good

ear straight down, planted firmly in bedding, muffled in the starchy pillows.

He turned a deaf ear to the orderlies and nurses and heavy constant

dehumanizing noise.  Prayer is like Beethoven at the end.  So in prayer, if

you will steal away, you will hear another music.

The song of the soul

The chance for an inner life

The language of the heart

Ears to hear THE REAL YOU, your own-most self



Remember Job, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your

heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are

on earth, therefor let your words be few.”


Prayer has different taste buds.  An inner life makes room and

has a taste for even what is sour and bitter.  No sweet tooth for prayer, but an

openness to hurt, to empathy.  Such an unlikely taste in taste.

In prayer we can taste the grief of a husband’s death.

In prayer we can taste the anger over a co-worker’s cancer.

In prayer we can taste the emptiness at a mother’s passing.

In prayer we can taste the fury in conflicts of vision.

In prayer we can taste the ashes of defeat, which salt us all.

In prayer we can taste the sting of adolescent and adult

mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  No one is good at everything.

In prayer we can approach the sense of violation another carries

after vandalism, literal or spiritual.

In prayer we can taste the awful bitterness of lament.

So central, then, in worship, are the psalms, for they are, simply

said, of two types:  thanksgiving, or lament, thanksgiving, or lament.  To

them we return every Lord’s Day.


There is the smell of the desert in prayer, the arid and heated

dryness of the desert.

Some of you have traveled to Israel.  Do you remember going

to Qumran at the Dead Sea?  Down in the Dead Sea valley, 1000ft below sea

level, did you see the remains of that ancient Essene community, 100

degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  Do you recall the scent of the desert—a

land stark, lonely, without any potable water, without any green, not a sign

of life.  Wind, sand, stars, heat.

Why in the decades before Jesus lived, would 100 men come to

the desert?  Why, they had that scent of prayer.  They smelled the difference.

They came to prayer, in secret, to the Almighty God who sees in secret.

They came to enter the closet of Palestine, and to shut the door.  They knew

about boxing with the soul’s shadow.  They knew that life is short.  They

came to struggle in mortal combat for the possibility of an inner life.  They

craved that “purity of intention without which none of our outward actions

are holy” (J Wesley).  There is such a thing as inward holiness.  God’s heart

is open to you there.  There is such a thing as inward holiness.  Prayer is its


Inward holiness prompts you right now to find and hold a

particular moment in worship, as God’s approach to you, and your response.

Mine is the hymn.  Hers is the prayer.  His is the sermon.  Theirs is the

offering.  In coming to worship we pray for, we anticipate, an experience of

the genuine.  Of beauty, truth and goodness in music, word, and prayer.


To be touched at the heart is to be forgiven.

The heart of prayer is forgiveness.  The point of prayer is

forgiveness.  The goal of prayer is forgiveness.  Yes there is much

else—entreaty, expostulation, confession, thanksgiving, recollection, praise,

adoration, meditation, intercession.  Still, the heart of prayer for the

followers of Jesus is forgiveness.  Jesus prayed, according to Matthew, at the

critical moments—in the wilderness, in teaching, in the garden of

Gethsemane, on the the cross—“Father, forgive them for they know not

what they do.”

Do you seek forgiveness?

Are you earnestly awaiting its touch?

Are you adept at its arts and ways?

Do you pray for it?

In specific cases?

Among nations and groups as well as persons?

In rumination this summer I wondered about the two phrases,

‘Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5: 44).  It

had never occurred to me before that they might, perhaps should, be read in

apposition.  Here is how you love your enemies:  you pray for them.


Did you ever wonder why now and then in the prophet Isaiah

there is the comment about seeing and yet not seeing?  There is a kind of

blind sight that is all too common to us.

Some years ago, we buried a man of faith and of sight.  He was

a photographer.  In his last year he wrote out what the sight sense of prayer

can be.  For those of us who see and see and yet do not perceive, this is a


“A photographer’s function is to see so clearly that others will

see the work that they have not noticed previously.  By analogy with guide

dogs for the blind, we can think of photographers as seeing-eye people.  We

are helping people that don’t see much.  Unfortunately, that’s most people,

because we don’t pay attention and see clearly much of the time.  We can

get a lot of help from photography, which doesn’t censor reality as much as

our unaided minds do, and forces us to focus.

“Practicing the art of seeing should become a habit in all of us.

In that practice, I soon learned that there is beauty in almost everything if we

only will look… In order to see God’s work, humans have to make

themselves “see” the detail in creation, to become aware of the fact that God

is truly around us all the time.”

It takes a practiced blindness to the rush and blur of the way we

live to sense the sight of prayer.

Perhaps this is why, at the end of his faithful, shared life, Oliver

Sacks wrote about Sabbath, and about his memories of Sabbath.  His mother

exchanging her surgeon’s attire to make gefilte fish.  The ritual candles.  The

fresh clothes.  The silver wine cup.  The chants and blessings.  ‘The

observance of the Sabbath’—he quotes Robert John—‘is extremely

beautiful…It is not a question of improving society, it is about improving

one’s own quality of life’. (NYT 8/16/15)

Call to Prayer


A Deaf Ear to Dehumanizing Noise

A Touch of the Heart in Forgiveness

There are Senses of Prayer

The Arid Scent of Inner Holiness

A Taste for Empathy and Lament

A Sight that sees the details

Be opened.  Ephpatha. May our lives be opened to the senses of prayer.

-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.