Archive for October, 2015

October 25

Son of David

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:46-52

Click here to listen to the sermon only

The Bible is largely about failure and defeat.

Its stories and letters and teachings record ways people have lived with defeat.  This makes the Bible difficult for us to understand.  For we as a people have run and swatted and laughed our way past learning the language of failure.  We don’t admit to it.  We won’t accept it.  We do not countenance it.  So sermons, this one and others, which are fumbling footnotes to the Scripture, hit us from the side if they hit us at all.

But by grace, it is the resurrected Christ who addresses us in the preaching of the church, in the announcement of the gospel.  The passages of the Gospel allow us safe passage to the Gospel because Jesus is present to us.“In all the sayings of Jesus which were reported, he speaks who is recognized in faith and worship as Messiah and Lord, and who, as the proclamation makes known his works and hands on his sayings, is actually present for the church.” (Bultmann, HST, 348).

Our blind beggar, ‘Bar Timeaus’, shouts out an unexpected nametag for Jesus.  ‘Son of David’.   To call Jesus such is to remember…failure…to remember…difficulty…to remember warnings unheeded from long ago…to remember David you have to remember Saul and to remember Saul you have to remember Samuel.

Bartimaeus calls Jesus by the name of David—David the personification of hope, of millennial portent, of national pride, of the chance to get things right.  Son of David!  He throws of his garment—maybe a sign of baptism—and comes naked to see if there is another chance for him.   Here is another in Mark’s ‘book of secret epiphanies’ (Dibelius\Bultmann).  His ‘faith has made him well’, a saying and a truth most precious to Martin Luther, whose Reformation we remember today, Luther who forever splintered the unity of the church into pieces, fragments, for the sake of the Gospel:  faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. (M Luther, introduction to Romans).

Our Gospel seldom uses the title, ‘Son of David’, in order that Jesus not be mistaken for the hoped for national Messiah, the hoped for political conqueror, the hoped for restorer of Israel.  Jesus is known by failure and defeat.   But the name of David also carries the reminder, with Samuel, of surprise, of a second chance, of another chance, of new beginnings.  

You remember Samuel’s story in 1 Samuel 15:34ff. read a moment ago.  Samuel didn’t want to be a prophet, but he got saddled with the job anyway.  He didn’t want anything to do with kings, but he had to pick one.

The people wanted a King, just like we at our worst always long for some imperial president, some imperious presence on which or on whom we may cast our concerns.  Then we don’t have to live with our own freedom our own birthright from YHWH  I AM THAT I AM, the Sinai God  of freedom.  We are free, though often we choose to misuse or underuse our liberty.

Samuel revered the God of freedom and the Godly freedom in each person.  In fact he revered the people’s freedom more than they themselves did.  So much so that he helped them choose, even when  he knew they chose in error.  You want a king?  You shall have a king….. and much trouble.

So, Saul, trouble, came and went. Leadership is everything.   I mean:  leadership is everything.  But leadership is not dictatorship.  Authority is not domination.  Integrity is not willfulness.  Leadership, authority, integrity—they become real when they revere the God of freedom and the freedom of each person.  Leadership increases personal freedom for all.   

So Samuel, who knew about freedom and leadership, and who could have shouted “I told you so” to the children of Israel, instead went to Ramah, that place you remember from Christmas, of wailing and loud lamentation, and he wailed and lamented:

Why O God have you made my people a group focused on difference and not the common good? Why should there be a few rich and many poor?  Why should our tongues carry words about death? Why should our distinguishing characteristics be so undistinguished? Are we forever to love appearance above reality, image above heart?

O my God, are we never to see your peace upon the earth, your gracious splendor among our people, your kingdom of love?

So, we may imagine, in a hot dusty cave near Qumran, Samuel wept.  And wept.  And muled and puked and wept.  He cried in his beer.  He cried in his soup.  You get the picture.  Until, at last, he stopped.

And as so often happens, once he stopped his weeping, his self-concern, a marvelous thing happened.   God gave another chance.  He said, “Samuel you old coot, codger, geet—get up and head over to Bethlehem and see Jesse.  I’m going to give another chance.”Off Samuel went to the house of Jesse, in Bethlehem.  

We worship a God of second chances, of new starts, of  make up exams, of  I for give you, of  surprise opportunities.  In a way, in Christ, God has simply become Another Chance.

Early on Sunday morning, we pray before worship We wonder about the congregation and the community.  We think of people.  Some giving birth and anxious. Some breaking up and anxious.  Some struggling to stay together, and anxious. Some aging and anxious.  Some ill and anxious.  Like Samuel, we have our hurts.  

Up Samuel goes to see what God will do.  God tells him that there will be a new King, of God’s own choosing, out of the family of Jesse, who had seven sons.  

Samuel sees the first son, and thinks—yes, this must be the one, right name, right place, right pedigree, right education.  But, again, something strange happens.  Samuel, given to hearing voices, hears a voice.  God says,  “easy big fellow, easy.  Don’t look at the appearance.  Forget the outside.  Don’t be misled by the image.  Look inside.” All that glitters is not gold. You can be a saint abroad and a devil at home. Cleanse the inside of the cup. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

We see the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, Samuel still has the seven sons on interview.  

Job title:  King of Israel

Profile:   Perfect leader

Responsibilities:  Bring salvation, justice, and peace.

Salary and benefits:  commensurate with experience.

But he remembers:  look on the heart.  ELIAB. No. ABINADAB.  No. SHAMMAH. No.  And so on.  Seven no’s.

It is tough to live in between.  Like many who are here today can testify.  Samuel would have loved to have settled things early.  But he remembered the God of Another Chance, and trusted and waited, and hoped.  Anybody can make a decision.  It takes real courage to be indecisive.  Anybody can decide.  It takes guts to wait.  Anybody can judge by appearance.  But God looks on the heart.

Mark and the early Christians knew this perhaps better than anything else.  They knew about being in between.  Maybe that’s why, providentially, their letters and writings have become our Bible.  We are always a bit in between, and we need the confidence, daily, of Another Chance.  The earliest Christians, Paul’s city Christians, Mark’s Roman community, were very much in between.   They were often what the sociologists call status-inconsistent, like Paul himself.   A Jew, yet a Roman citizen.  Educated, yet a tent-maker.  So they were too:  Women, yet rich.  Artisans, yet slaves.  They knew about being in-between.

As the Apostle says:

In between the Body and the Lord

In between Sight and Faith

In between Home and Away

In between Judgment and Love

In between Crazy and Sane

In between One and All

In between Self and Others

In between Death and Resurrection

In between Old and New

In between Appearance and Heart

When you’re in between you know the joy of Another Chance.   God sees the heart, and sees past appearances.  The heart of a nation, or the heart of a person.

Well, dear old Samuel, is about ready to throw in the towel.  He has been through all the sons of Jesse, and has not found the new king.  He has found a lot of old king once removed, but nothing new.  He is packing up his ephod and girding his loins and otherwise getting ready to shove off, when, again, something strange happens.  

We worship the God of Another Chance.

If nothing else this morning, hear the Gospel.

Today is another chance for your family.

This week is another chance for you work.

This fall is another chance for our church.

This year is another chance for our city.

This decade is another chance for our country.

Where there is life, there is hope.

God in Christ is Another Chance.

Realism and Idealism are not alternatives.  Either you have both, or you have neither:  witness Isaiah 60, John 3, 2 Cor 5, and the Sermon on the Mount.  There is still time.  As the crusty Yankee said, when asked, “Have you lived in Boston all your life?”   “Not yet”.

I Believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  And in Another Chance, God’s only Son Our Lord ANOTHER CHANCE!  To stand in God’s presence.  To learn to help others.  To have a meaningful life.  Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem…Samuel, turned as he was going, and looked at Jesse and said, “are these all your sons”?  

Jesse got that sheepish look we all get when the truth starts to come out.  Well, yes and no.  I mean these are all the grown ones, the ones who are worth looking at.  “You mean there is Another Chance?” said Samuel so excited he dropped his staff and ungirded his loins and lost his ephod.  “Well there’s the little guy, but we left him to tend the sheep.”  

Bring him.

And they brought David up and he was little and young and ruddy and handsome and beautiful, but mostly he had the right heart.  A heart of songs and courage.  A heart of love and strength.  A real person.  A real person.  Another Chance.  Like the Tibetan Buddhists hunting for three years in the outback of the universe to find  the Dali Lama.  Like the birth of Jesus, also of Bethlehem.  Like the moment your child came into the world.  Like every single outburst and outcropping and intrusion and explosion and invasion of the NEW CREATION—there was David, Another Chance.  And Samuel, old superannuated Samuel could see what none of the young turks could see—the heart.  And Samuel wept, this time for joy, and said, “THIS IS THE ONE”.  Hire him.

We worship Another Chance God.

Beloved, you are not last chance, anxious people:  You are God’s people

R. Niebuhr wrote, praising Christ Another Chance:  “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.  Therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or good or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.  Therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.  Therefore we must be saved by love.”

-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.

October 18

Prayerful Leadership

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:35-45

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We come upon our forebears, our spiritual parents of long ago, at an awkward and unappealing moment.  They are haggling, arguing, engaged in a bit of religious one-up-man-ship.  James and John are seeking power, authority, and places of honor.  It is sad to come upon those whom otherwise you respect, at such an awkward and unappealing moment.

There are dangers in religion, hence the need now and then for a reformation or two.  Superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.  Pride, sloth, falsehood.  But another is this one:  religious rivalry.    Apparently in the emerging church of Mark’s day, in say 70ad, rivalry lived.  So the Gospel depicts a memory of James and John, the sons of thunder, asking an impolite question, and misunderstanding the journey of faith.

You need not take the word of today’s preacher about the awkwardness and lack of appeal in this portrait.   When Matthew and Luke, some twenty years later, wrote their gospels, in 85ad or so, they gave the passage a haircut, and a bath, and some perfume.  Luke eliminated the passage entirely, and Matthew took off the disciples’ lips the religious rivalry we hear today.

But there is—is there not?—something also helpful in all this.  It is in a way encouraging to know that even the great ‘sons of thunder’, even the disciples of old, even the church of old, even our spiritual parents, as well as our earthly parents, are utterly human beings, being human as they were and are.   That is encouraging.  They made some mistakes.  They needed some corrective conversation.  At points they too misunderstood the costs of life, faith, discipleship and growth.  As embarrassing as is the passage, perhaps Luke and Matthew missed something when not including it.   Some of the most endearing and enduring qualities of our loved ones are, sometimes, not too far away from their utterly human qualities, even their failings.  That too is helpful to recall.  My dad, who died five years ago, smoked a pipe for most of his life, clearly a failing I guess, now that we are more aware of the dangers of tobacco.  Yet what I would not give for a few moments just to sit and enjoy that typical, personal failing with him.  To be surrounded by an unmistakable aroma and a cloud of smoke.  It was so ‘him’.  Enjoy your parents while you have them, for all their foibles.  For they are such utterly human beings, being human as they are.

‘Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you’, said the Apostle.

To the question of power and authority raised by the disciples, Jesus makes His reply.  Real leadership is prayerful, servant leadership. The way of faith, when it comes across the inevitable, and necessary landscape of power, breathes with prayer.  It is mindful, careful, soulful, prayerful.  It is simple.  It is communal.  It is humble.

I wonder as parents, and future parents, and as children and former children, whether you will hear this gospel and live it?  It is a respectful question, but a serious one.  Given your walking in faith, how will you handle the power you are given?  Given your journey in faith, will yours be prayerful leadership?


Is there not an existential simplicity in prayerful leadership?  We use often today the word ‘transparent’.  I am not sure we are always very transparent about what ‘transparent’ means for us.  In some measure, though, it conveys a sense of integrity, of openness or honesty.  

Mark wants to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, miss the point.  The point?  There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, without humility, none without suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job (of whom we read earlier), none without a pastoral heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make.  

If, in your work, you have shown humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart.  You are not far from the leadership kingdom of heaven…

The intonation of glory is a clue that we are reading from years after Golgotha.  The stark reference to the cup of sorrow bears a memory of Golgotha.  The knowing, counter knowing of the question about baptism, and its portents reveals the hurt of Golgotha.   The shadow of grief that darkens this discourse is the shadow of the Cross of Christ. And the final phrase is unmistakable in its reference:  to give his life as a ransom for many. The Christian community, we ourselves included, may not ever be unclear about the potential abuse of power.  That particular portal to blindness has been nailed, nailed shut.

I remind you of the Shaker community.  In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?

Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.

Who taught you about authority?

There is an authority that is visible in every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon.  Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found a simplicity, a way to live with abandon. Is there not an existential simplicity in prayerful leadership?  


Is there not a regard for community in prayerful leadership?  For simplicity, alone, has its limits.  What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander.  Protection of sheep means communal opposition to the wolf.  Machiavelli had a point or two.  Niebuhr bears reading still.  To acquire and then to use power in real life often involves more than love, or less than love.  Any community involves endless contention and intractable difference.

Our Gospel clearly addresses power and authority within the community of faith.  It less clearly addresses power and authority outside of that community.  ‘First..,among you’.   How are we to offer prayerful leadership in community?

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age.  I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.

I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a once popular book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great.” Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies (and universities) that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse.  A plow horse not a show horse.

A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.

Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Canada on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra. I forget the sermon, but I remember the hymnals.

Who taught you about power? Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.

Who taught you about leadership? Is there not a regard for community in prayerful leadership?


Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership? “The basic inability of the disciples to grasp or accept Jesus’ concept of messiahship or its corollary, suffering discipleship, becomes reflected more and more in their total relationship to Jesus.  The conflict over the correct interpretation of messiahship widens into a general conflict and misunderstanding in almost every area of their relationship

A few years ago Charles Rice of Drew spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel.  Then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again.  A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her…

Rice had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.  Including pretense and presumption and position.  Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady service.

Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.  Steady, sincere, suffering service. Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership? Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership?


For our gospel today, Mark 10:45, accosts us in this very way:

Can you drink the cup that I drink?  Whoever wants to be great shall be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first shall be the slave of all.  The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Parents, Students, Community, Listeners:  Can you drink that cup?  It is a respectful question, but a serious one.

Sursum Corda:  Things are not quite always as they seem, says the gospel.  There is more than a little difference between appearance and reality, says the gospel.  Real leaders serve others, says the gospel.  Ambition unfettered will not lead to happiness, says the gospel.  A true life is not always an easy one, says the gospel.  The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, says the gospel.   There is a mystery at the heart of life, says the gospel. 

And that mystery is Jesus Christ, and him crucified, one whose life, true life, is poured out like a ransom paid to free others. 

Underneath the tiny things lurk the great things.  A mystery, a ransom paid, a life laid up and laid out and laid down, lurking, waiting, present, like a breath, the eternal great things, hidden under the unlikely blankets of the littlest things.  Your calling to faith may be brewing…Under a desire for simplicity.  Under a love of community.  Under a feeling of hope, a longing for justice and a decision for humility.  And all through the cacophony of a noisy world, a hint, a glimmer, an echo, a breath, a prayer, and such a prayer as becomes prayerful leadership.

-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.

October 11

Praying for and with the Religious Other

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:17-31

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Good morning.

It is always good to be in this space, and I am especially grateful to Bob Hill for the opportunity to stand in the pulpit today. This fall, as Jen and I continue work on our dissertations, we enter our seventh year on the staff here at Marsh Chapel. In these years, Marsh has been our spiritual home, and the Sunday morning liturgy has been the service grounding the rhythm of our weekly lives.

In October of last year, I accepted a position as the administrator for the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education – CIRCLE – the interreligious initiative of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School which brings together rabbinical students and seminarians along with Muslim community leaders to cultivate authentic relationships across lines of difference and to live into caring for the world together. At its core, CIRCLE facilitates real relationships across religious and theological divides and seeks to transform religious education and religious leadership in the 21st century through this mutual encounter. The basis of the work is both eloquently simple and extraordinarily bold – take students from two neighboring educational institutions; create intentional opportunities for those students to interact, learn, and explore together throughout their studies; and ultimately change the culture of both institutions, and perhaps the trajectory of graduate theological education itself.

My work at Marsh Chapel had already helped me encounter the power in working across intra-religious difference. The Christian staff here over the last several years has included folks from more than a dozen Christian denominations and communities, and in that time I have grown to be a better United Methodist because I have learned about personal piety from Roman Catholic colleagues, the depth and importance of liturgy from my Anglican and Episcopalian friends, and the importance of speaking truth to power from a Southern Baptist minister-to-be.

In 2013, the World Council of Churches General Assembly invited young people from around the globe to gather to think about what formation in religious leadership can and should look like in the 21st century. As we learned the stories of one another, an Arab man living in war-torn Gaza, a Korean woman seeking a voice and place in South Korea, a Kenyan woman struggling to find the means to feed the orphaned children of her neighborhood, we discussed how religious leadership in the new millennium must move beyond cultivating community within one’s own tradition to loving and working across lines of religious difference for the sake of the world’s least and lost, poor and marginalized.

Our gospel passage today contains one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” As a university chapel community, largely-well-educated, attached to a premier research university, and benefiting from its education and social location, we ought rightly to wrestle with the consequences of these words of Jesus recounted in the Marcan text today. As a recent home-owner, I ponder that verse regularly (and I should); however, its full exegesis on a Sunday morning waits for another day.

My interest this morning is in Mark 10:29-30:

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

We still hear in this passage that following Jesus is hard, and that in following Jesus we give up and lose things along the way, sometimes even family, but the good news of this text is that in following Jesus we find new family. While the church understands itself to be a family, and in baptism we are reminded that we are incorporated into a Christian family that transcends space and time, the new family we find in following the will of God through Jesus is not limited to followers of Jesus. “For God all things are possible:” When we do the work of God, as we seek to love God and neighbor, we encounter new sisters and brothers, mothers and children who are also on that same journey of doing the work of God. In following Jesus, our new family may come to include those whom we would least expect.

As a United Methodist, experience plays an essential role in interpreting and navigating Scripture. Were it not for my work at CIRCLE and the relationships forged there, I would have trouble knowing or sharing the Good News I now hear in Mark 3:32-35 – “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” – and again in today’s text, Mark 10:29-30, we are reminded that through following Jesus we find family not just in the future eschatological promise of resurrection, not just within the four walls of our chapel nave, but in “whoever does the will of God.”

I want to share a story I was introduced to by my colleague Rabbi Or Rose, just a few days after I started my job at CIRCLE. He and Celene Ibrahim, two of CIRCLE’s co-directors, were presenting on a panel about multifaith college chaplaincy at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard as part of the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs. Or related a reflection of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – better known as Reb Zalman – about his time at Boston University, and I immediately knew I had a lot to learn about being a good and “trustworthy” Christian from from this Rabbi.

I relate these words from Reb Zalman’s 2012 memoir, My Life in Jewish Renewal [pages 88-92]:

In the spring of 1955, I was finally ready to embark on educational training to become a B’nai B’rith Hillel rabbi. Ever since Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and I visited Boston University in our first campus outreach for Chabad in the late forties, I had yearned to work in this capacity. It seemed to offer its staff wonderful, creative Jewish opportunities in an intellectual milieu. From Hillel’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., I learned that my smicha (rabbinic ordination) plus a master’s degree would be my entry ticket for a campus position. So I enrolled in Boston University’s pastoral counseling program. Its starting date lay a few months ahead in September, but I needed to complete several preparatory psychology courses during the summer. If all went well, I might eventually be able to earn my doctorate: that was my dream.

Boston University had an excellent academic reputation, but it certainly wasn’t nearby: it was two hours each way from my home in New Bedford. Leaving that first day at 5 a.m., I arrived with enough time to daven morning prayers as I had planned. But where? At that hour, everything on the Charles River campus was closed, except Marsh Chapel at 735 Commonwealth Avenue…

I went inside expectantly, but the ornate main chapel featured wooden statues of Jesus and the four Evangelists. I didn’t feel comfortable even thinking about davening there, so I headed downstairs to the smaller chapel. A cross was prominently displayed above the pulpit – again, not the place for me. Walking over to a small side room, the Daniel Marsh memorabilia room, I put on my tallit and t’fillin; facing east toward Jerusalem, I recited morning prayers and then I took my breakfast. Right after, at 8 a.m., I went to the first of my classes and drove back in the afternoon to New Bedford to teach Hebrew school.

I repeated this routine for several days, when one morning a middle-aged black man peeked inside the downstairs side room where I was davening. “Is there a reason why you don’t pray in the chapel?” I mumbled something about the symbols. To my surprise, the man warmly replied, “When you come back tomorrow, see if you don’t feel more comfortable,” and smiled enigmatically.

The next day, I entered Marsh Chapel and was quite curious about what I would find. In the downstairs chapel, a large white candle was burning, and the Bible on the lectern was open to Psalm 139:7, which says, “Whither shall I flee from thy Presence?” The large cross was no longer where it was the day before but rested on its side against a wall. Feeling very grateful to the janitor, I did my davening right there. When I finished, I replaced the cross in its regular position and turned the Bible to Psalm 100, the thanksgiving psalm – “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to Him, bless His name!” And so, the downstairs chapel became my prayer place from that morning onward…

Soon it was time for me to plan my spring course schedule. A catalogue course titled “Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” caught my eye. Ever since my teenage years in Antwerp, I had been fascinated by the subject of inner growth and studied it avidly with my Hasidic mentors in Brooklyn. However, this time the instructor would be no Hasidic rabbi but Minister Howard Thurman, dean of Marsh Chapel. Although the topic certainly intrigued me, the catalogue indicated that the course would involve “labs,” experimental class activities.

Deep down in my guts I felt anxious about entrusting my soul to a “Christian” – knowing that they all want to convert Jews. Was he open enough to allow me to learn spiritual disciplines and resources to make me a better Jew? AS a pulpit rabbi for several years, I had learned enough to know that such methods require ample trust to be effective, and to do that I wanted to make sure that Minister Thurman was trustworthy – that is, that he wouldn’t try to convert me to Christianity.

At the time, his name meant nothing to me, though he was already famous as a leading theologian and descent of southern slaves…

After making an appointment through Dean Thurman’s secretary, I appeared at his office and knocked on the door. To my amazement, Minister Thurman was none other than the kindly black man whom I had misperceived as the building’s janitor!

Talking over coffee with the dean, I explained that I really wanted to take his course and learn from his experiential methods. But I also confessed that “I’m not sure if my anchor chains are long enough” to relinquish self-control and allow him (a non-Jew) to guide me spiritually. With a pensive expression, he put down his coffee mug. His graceful hands went back and forth, as though mirroring my dilemma. Finally, Howard Thurman looked right at me and said, “Don’t you trust Ruach Hakodesh [holy spirit]?

To hear a non-Jew speak these Hebrew words so eloquently shattered my composure. As though yanked on an invisible chain, I immediately stood up and hurried out of the dean’s office without offering even a word of thanks or good-bye.

It was a profound challenge: Am I a Jew because God wants me to be Jew, or am I a Jew without reference to God? I agonized over my decision for three weeks, and committing myself to be led by God, I registered for Dean Thurman’s course.

“Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” was a tremendous learning experience for me… Under Howard Thurman’s able tutelage, we experimented with a variety of spiritual techniques, including guided meditation. In one memorable exercise, our class was instructed to translate an experience of one sense into another: for example, we would read a biblical psalm several times and then listen to a beautiful meditative Bach composition – in order to “hear” the psalm’s meaning in the sounds of music. In this way, we refined our senses and became better able to experience the divine around us. Beginning the first lab with the reading of Psalm 139, we reflected on it to Bach’s melody. When afterward Thurman played a recording of Max Bruch’s orchestral composition of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer sung on Yom Kippur, I allowed myself to relax. During the course I visited Thurman frequently during office hours to discuss my practice.

Several years passed, and when one of my sons was close to bar mitzvah, I introduced him to Dean Thurman and asked the minister to bless us both. For an instant he seemed surprised, then wordlessly prayed while placing a hand on our shoulders. This profound experience has stayed with me intensely for over fifty years. Decades later, I was moved to learn that Thurman long remembered this soulful encounter between us. In an unpublished part of his autobiography titled With Head and Heart, he wrote, “I’d never been in a position like that before, where the fact of being in the instrumentality of a blessing was so personal and intimate and exclusive. It was not like saying a blessing with a group at a moment of some sort of celebration, but here was the celebration of a common religious experience and a friendship and an affection that existed between two men, each of whom came from a radically different tradition but had met in that zone in which there is no name or label. And standing there I bowed and I prayed. I do not recall any words that were said, but what I do recall is the intensity of the religious experience in that moment, and the transcendent and yet penetrating look in his face when I opened my eyes and found that he from his kneeling position was looking up in my face.”

Now Thurman’s writings had been a vital part of my seminary experience, and he was even required reading in preparation for my own ordination this past summer, but I realized I didn’t really know Thurman or appreciate what his legacy meant to me or Marsh Chapel until I encountered a rabbi who loved Thurman.

So about a month ago, Bob Hill and I were sitting on a park bench behind the College of Arts and Sciences building chatting about the consequences of taking seriously three significant creeds spoken at the chapel regularly: 1) We believe that the Sunday morning liturgy is the heart and heartbeat of a Christian religious community. 2) We believe that we communicate the core values of our faith through liturgy. 3) We believe that we are called by the gospel to be in authentic community with the religious other. That conversation became the genesis of this morning’s liturgy.

Two years ago, Marsh Chapel took the bold move of hiring the first full-time university chaplain for international students in the country. Through that position my friend, the Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, became the university’s de facto multifaith chaplain, at least for the international student community. Her hire was a one way of living into the chapel’s commitment to “be on a journey with students no matter where they come from or where they are going.” Brittany reacquainted the chapel community with practices of hospitality as we extended a warm hand of welcome to students from a variety of religious traditions at various activities through each week of the academic year. Brittany cultivated communities of intentional interaction across cultural and religious differences, and that work continues.

Celene Ibrahim, one of CIRCLE’s co-directors and the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University, noted this week with enthusiasm that her job is to get people of different faiths “to bump into each other.” We cannot find new sisters and brothers, parents and children if we don’t really, truly engage them. How do we then “bump into the religious other” on a Sunday morning?

At Marsh Chapel, our theme for the year is prayer. You’ll notice that the title of the sermon today references this theme. How are we to pray for or with the religious other? Experience and Thurman both tell me we cannot pray for and we especially cannot pray with the “other” if we don’t know the other, and in coming to know the other, we may find that they are not really the “other” at all, they are in fact our sister or our brother, or a mother or a daughter on the journey of faith.

Bob Hill is fond of reminding us that Thurman was one hundred years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Thurman didn’t use words to pray with his Jewish brothers, and I am not here to suggest a way to find those words today, but I do want invite you to meaningfully “bump into” a new brother or sister in your life this week and learn something new.

Over the course of our many months working together, I’ve “bumped into” Celene a lot. We share office space both that Andover Newton and at Hebrew College, and I’ve learned she prays, a lot. In fact, she probably prays more each day than I do in a week. I didn’t really know about personal piety until I got to know a Muslim who took her faith seriously.

So, as a way to begin this process of bumping into new brothers and sisters on the journey, I have invited two colleagues to share wisdom from their traditions in the language of their traditions as we close today: Benjamin Barer, the Editorial Director of State of Formation, CIRCLE’s online platform for connecting emerging religious and ethical leaders, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College reminds us of the wisdom in Psalm 90 today and my colleague Shehla Zakaullah, the coordinator of the CIRCLE residential community and alumna of Boston University, offers a reading from the Quran [Q. 49:10-13].

When we hear a sister share from the Quran’s teaching on family, how do we hear the Gospel lesson from Mark differently? When we hear a Jewish brother meditate on the words of the Psalm in light of the pain and suffering of a faith community over hundreds and thousands of years, how do we hear the words from Mark differently?

Psalm 90 in Hebrew

Quran 49:10-13 in Arabic and then in English:

The believers are siblings; so make peace between your siblings, and revere God, such that you receive mercy. / O you who believe! Let not one people deride another; it may be that they are better than them. Let not women deride other women; it may be that they are better than them.  And do not defame yourselves or insult one another with nicknames; how evil is the iniquitous name after [your] having believed! And whosoever does not repent they are the wrongdoers.  / O you who believe!  Shun much conjecture. Indeed, so conjecture is a sin.  And do not spy upon one another, nor backbite one another. Would any of you desire to eat the flesh of a sibling?  You would abhor it.  And revere God. Truly God is Relenting, Merciful.  /  O humankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.  Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you.  Truly God is Knowing Aware.[1]

As Christians, we are not alone in seeking new sisters and brothers in faith, nor are we alone in our commitment to caring for the lost and the least. Our reasons for seeking one another out as friends and “new family” in God are different and complex, but a similar call resonates throughout our traditions.

Think about inviting the neighbor who observes dietary restrictions you don’t to dinner sometime soon. Learn why their food practices are important and meaningful to them. Have a real conversation about how to provide genuine hospitality. Come to know one another by learning of each other’s deep love of God, and in the encounter find the family you are promised in the gospel lesson today.

As we experience the beauty of each other’s traditions, may we know one another as sisters and brothers, sibling believers who seek to do the will of God, and as the Psalmist writes:

Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!


[1] Adapted by Celene Ibrahim from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, to be released by Harper Collins Publishers in November 2015.


-The Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership and Development

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


October 4

The Languages of Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 10:2-16

Click here to listen to the sermon only


‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

So, Abraham Heschel, whose mighty labors to interpret the Hebrew Prophets were drenched themselves in tears—the joyful tears of adoration, the bitter tears of confession, the heartfelt tears of thanksgiving, the worried tears of supplication.

Prayer comes in ACTS, and its languages are the tongues of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

Our theme this year, in the life of Marsh Chapel, particularly in our preaching and teaching, is prayer. ‘Pray without ceasing’, we are taught in the 5th chapter of the earliest document in our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians. Without ceasing.

We pray in silence before our worship begins, come Sunday. Here, in this sacred hour, we set ourselves for the week to come, and set before ourselves what we hold dear, and all in which we are dearly held.

Then: Sunday evening in Eucharist, Monday noon in meditation, Wednesday morning in theological community, Wednesday evening in communion, Thursday noon over an outdoor common table, and privately, meal by meal, morning by morning, we pray.

Prayer is to sit silent before God. Prayer is to give utter attention. Prayer is to think God’s thoughts after God. Prayer, like a poem, is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ (Frost).


A language learned in prayer is that of adoration. Here is the tongue of aspiration, delight, hope, imagination, wonder and praise. In the dim-lit daily world, adoration language can be hard to hear, hard to find, for it is the exuberant utterance of ‘why not’?, of ‘how about?’, of ‘oh my’!, sentences concluding in question marks and exclamation points.

Our gospel reading, at heart, is an aspiration, a high hope about human being, human loving, and human life.

Both Jews and Greeks made welcome space for divorce, as even our text attests (‘Moses allowed…’).   The church did too, before and after our passage, 1 Cor. 7 and Matthew 19. Paul before and Matthew after also make allowance for divorce. We too, out of our experience, know fully, for the sake of the institution of marriage itself, that sometimes divorce is the only course. Here in Mark 10, though, the early church remembers, from Jesus or for us, a very high view, an aspirational hope for human love. A prayer in aspiration, that the joining of two, together, might make way for the One among the Many. That upon this earth there yet might be—real friendship, real fellowship, real love, real marriage, the reality of the union of hearts, for which we are made. For a union: a hint of the eternal, a glimpse of the divine, a glimmer of joy without shade.

All this takes time and practice. We learn to follow each other’s thoughts, but imperfectly. A month ago I bought new sneakers, but made the mistake of hanging them, in a plastic bag, where I normally hang the trash, to be taken down for disposal by the next traveler down stairs. Jan did what she normally does, and should do, taking the bag and leaving it for disposal. Off they went, those new shoes. Oops. Or so we thought, until a kind, wise custodian, sensing something not right about the bag, found them, kept them, and returned them. There is a lesson here, a moral to the story. Our aspirations take the support and help of a community to last.

So, in the same breath, and in the same paragraph, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, and the Lord of Mark’s community, adores children, and offers their innocence (not their ignorance) as aspiration. He lifts them in his arms. A little child shall lead them, the holiness of aspiration, and adoration.

Hence, in a few months we shall sing, ‘Come Let Us Adore Him’. There is a prayer, a prayer in a wonder-land. What do you adore? Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

So we sing a hymn each Sunday.

Adoration. A language of prayer.


A language learned in prayer is that of confession. Such a dialect is much needed, in our time, in our generation. Contrition, compunction, regret, and lament. “I am sorry”. “Forgive Me”.

Today our choir sings, only for the second time in public, a lovely anthem, whose three stanzas lament sin and pray for peace.

1 O God of love, O King of peace,

Make wars throughout the world to cease;

The wrath of sinful man restrain;

Give peace, O God, give peace again.


2 Remember, Lord, Thy works of old,

The wonders that our fathers told;

Remember not our sin’s dark stain,

Give peace, O God, give peace again.


3 Whom shall we trust but Thee, O Lord?

Where rest but on Thy faithful word?

None ever called on Thee in vain,

Give peace, O God, give peace again.

You probably one day suddenly realized the power of confession. Bishop James Matthews once said, in a memorable sermon, that he came to a day when he just wanted to write down in a list his most memorable shortcomings. (I was thinking of him the other day, visiting our own C Faith Richardson, who was his secretary). He wrote down his mistakes and his regrets. His regretful mistakes and his mistaken regrets. That he did, and tossed the list into the fire, and resolved to live a great good life unrestrained by what was past. “I gave the list to God and to the fire”, he said, “and I headed out into the future”. Then he added: “I’m sure you all have done the same, one way or another”. I wasn’t so sure we all had, but I basked in the confidence—in the living pardon—of his confidence in us.

We depend on this reminder of our fragility. It keeps us from becoming naïve about the fragility all around us. Especially the disguised fragility of beloved institutions. Many churches are one pastor away from demise. Some countries are one government away from demise. Our schools, halls of government, businesses, families—all these are far more fragile than they sometimes seem. They take constant tending, mending, and befriending. They take daily, careful leadership. And when over time the fabric begins to fray, devastation may ensue: see the 200,000 dead and 4 million seeking refuge and the 7 million displaced in Syria today.   They take attention to small things. ‘Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’.

So we offer confession, KYRIE ELEISON, each Sunday.

Confession. A language of prayer.


A language learned in prayer is that of thanksgiving. My friend says that all birds are either robins or non-robins. Well, the prayer book of the Bible is the Book of Psalms, and in that same oversimplified way, the psalms are either laments or thanksgivings, and there are more of the latter. So today the psalmist is ‘singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds’.

We know gratitude in hindsight. Thanksgiving is the gift of retrospective. We learn, and we grow. But as R Sockman repeated, and we now with him, ‘The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance and in presence. Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord Jesus, his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, his death upon the cross, and his radiant resurrection, our beacon and life. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in presence, an announcement of the divine presence, the real presence of God, here and now, in the humblest of forms, in bread and cup. Eucharist means thanksgiving.

Emily Dickinson had her happy moments and happy thoughts and choice, true words of thanksgiving (amid darker hues aplenty to be sure):

The Props assist the House

Until the House is built

And then the Props withdraw

And adequate, erect,

The House support itself

And cease to recollect

The Auger and the Carpenter-

Just such a retrospect

Hath the perfected Life-

A past of Plank and Nail

And slowness-then the Scaffolds drop

Affirming it a Soul.

If you are wondering how to pray, start with a word of thanks, a thanksgiving, a generous recognition of a cause of gratitude.   You will not have far to look.

            The heavens are telling the glory of God. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom then shall I fear? God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.   Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, serve the Lord with gladness. I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence does my help come, from the Lord who made heaven and earth. O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

So we read a psalm each Sunday.

Thanksgiving. A language of prayer.


A language learned in prayer is that of supplication. We name what we need. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will open. Ask and it shall be given. Not always. Not frequently. Not in a timely way. But…

You don’t get what you don’t name as needed.

In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication. Free our land of horrid, tragic, gun violence. How will this happen? We see no easy way.

But then our minds begin to move. Gun violence is a matter of public health. You have lifted your voice in chorus with those who attack gun violence not as an issue of individual right or freedom, but as an issue of public health and safety. We have had success in other improvement to public health. Reductions in death from smoking. Reductions (some) in death from drinking. Reductions in highway deaths. Here is a different evil, so we shall need to think differently.

How shall we do so?

Maybe we shall restrict the sale of ammunition: keep and bear arms all you want, but ammunition we will lock down. Maybe we shall make those who make money on gun sales pay a stiff price for every misuse of their product. Maybe we shall hold households and home insurance responsible for mayhem that emerges from a house.

Congress regularly supports the so-called gun lobby, fearing to contradict the NRA. Oddly, though, they are mistaken about what Americans, and particularly gun owners, think about gun restrictions and gun safety. They mistake the representative voice for the people’s voice. ‘85% of Americans and 81% of gun owners favor gun show background checks, which Congress rejected…Since 1960 1.3 million Americans have died from fire arms, which amounts to 80 gun deaths a day.’ The broad swath of the American people, in harmony with the Book of Hebrews, offer prayers of supplication for an angelic deliverance. And here and there, there is change: ‘In 1970 ½ of all US homes had guns. In 2012 it is less than 1/3.’ Our tendency to conformity, our over-eager deference to authority, and our too willing adaptation to imposed roles weaken us over against these and other challenges.

In supplication, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. Hebrews:

            What is man that though art mindful of him, the Son of Man that though dost care for him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels.

            As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to them (the angels). But we do see Jesus.

So we offer our common prayer every Sunday.

Supplication. A language of prayer.


‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. ACTS in prayer.

In 1983 we hurried across an open field, arriving a little late to the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver. There was a great tent. Inside were many hundreds of leaders of the World Council of Churches. There they sang a hymn, and offered a confession, and uttered a thanksgiving, and cried out in supplication. Emilio Castro. Paolo Freire. Connie Parvey. NT Wright. Philip Potter. Another generation. Gathered in prayer. Yet their prayer is not yesterday, nor just today, but the fullness of tomorrow:

In Christ there is no east or west

In Him no south or north

But one great fellowship of love

Throughout the whole wide earth


In him now meet both east and west

In him both south and north

All Christ like souls are one in him

Throughout the whole wide earth

-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.