Archive for November, 2015

November 29

A Lukan Horizon

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 21:25-36

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Jesus meets us today in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next twelve months. On this first Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era. Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us. We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find? Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients. First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, Luke 21. Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases. This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew. An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service. Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’. Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward. We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say? This will take us the year and more to unravel. We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one apocalyptic pronouncement at a time. Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that. Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history. Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds. The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church. Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Now Look again at Luke 21. It is a traditional Christian apocalyptic teaching, which Luke has faithfully transported into his gospel. It is not its mere presence, but its particular interpretation in Luke that we watch for this morning.

Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur. All were mistaken. Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope. Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed. It is early Christian mythology. (As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us. But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is not the gospel.)

It did not happen. What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen. The end did not come. And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts some years ago, did not make it so. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.

Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through. Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope. So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, to serve the present age.

Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so. Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘so, be alert at all times, praying ’. Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in later verses: you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared. But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found later still, in the Gospel of John.

Luke knows the tradition of apocalyptic teaching from Mark 13, and makes space for it here. But he turns apocalyptic into action. He puts eschatology to work in the service of ethics. Its import, all this fiery symbolism, language and imagery, is in the last verse, ‘be alert at all times, praying’. The life of faith is the life of developing, expanding, creative responsibility, of responsibility taken. Action, not apocalypse. Ethics, not eschatology. Here, Luke’s own engagement in history will help us.

Stacy Schiff wrote eloquently, recently, about the Salem witch trials, but ended with a warning like that of Luke:

We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take the satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. (NYRB, 12/3/15, p.23)

Of course, we are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture? Nor are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.

We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—out onto a far-off apocalyptic falsehood, in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life: negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through (repeat).

Here is our freedom. Pray daily for the hope of the world. Think creatively about the hope of the world. Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope.

One of my heroes in life and work is Ernest Fremont Tittle. Dr. Christopher Evans of Boston University wrote his PhD dissertation about Tittle. A close friend of mine, now deceased, was the husband of Tittle’s long time secretary. Robert Moats Miller wrote his biography (How Shall They Hear Without a Preacher?). Tittle preached in Chicago (First Church Evanston), during the depression and the Second World War. He died in his early sixties, at his desk, while working on a commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Tittle was arguably the greatest Methodist preacher of his time, a traditional Protestant and an unwavering champion of social justice. Since we are following Luke in worship this year to come, Tittle and his own comments upon the third Gospel have been much on my mind. For the record, and as may be interesting to you, I excerpt a passages from that commentary, a typically homiletical paragraph about persistence (Luke 18:1-8):

There is a special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leaders like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, and Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence. 

I find it somehow heartening to hear, across the decades, the strong voices of Tittle and others who have walked many of the same paths we now walk. Today we face serious global challenges to peace and justice. May the very difficulties inherent in these challenges cause us to develop the moral fiber and spiritual resilience of our brother from Evanston and so many others like him.

Today our apocalyptic gospel from Luke 21, a fading late 1st century prediction of the end of time, no longer occupies, twenty centuries later, the kind of literal centrality for Christian teaching, which it did in the year 90. Even then, by Luke’s time, apocalyptic was waning. The church, beginning with the church’s formative influence on the New Testament, converted apocalyptic eschatology into ethical exhortation. Portents and predictions of wars and rumors of wars became, in the main, as they are today, words of caution and preparation, and warning. ‘Be alert…’. Be prepared. And on that basis this morning we shall render, interpret Luke 21.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Then do your most. And leave all the rest.

Be alert. Not all tragedy befalls someone else. Not all inexplicable, hurtful, senseless accident happens to other families. Not all fire burns in the next town down the line. Into each life a little rain, and more than a little rain, does fall. If every heart has secret sorrows, which every heart does, then every home harbors potential hurt, as every home does.

Two weeks ago a small gathering of undergraduate students and others considered the tragedy in Paris, and other similarly awful events, which continue to this weekend. One question was how the events of our time compare to experience and events of years and decades past. ‘Has it always been like this?’ one asked. It was a faithful question, a good and mature and faithful question, to which the various responses from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ were given.

In this student group, there emerged an ongoing sense of responsibility, a longing to take some responsibility for the shape of the future: We all have some responsibility here. You and I have responsibility. You and I have responsibility in your time and in our way to strive for the things that make for peace. You and I can make a difference. We can do so by taking the initiative to learn something about a religion or religious perspective other than our own, as we have often emphasized from this pulpit. We can do so, gazing out from the Lukan horizon, by making our own efforts to help those in need. By keeping healthy balances in life. The teaching of faith is in part an effort to help us keep things in balance. There is a point to the cultural emphases of this weekend, of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Football Sunday and Cyber Monday. But these alone will not allow us to make and keep human life human. For this gratitude will need to inspire generosity. There is a broad, deep generosity across this land. There is. Yet it takes the continuous reminder of others’ need, and our responsibility, to bring the latent to life, to make it patent and to make it potent. St. Luke, and his gospel of the compassionate Christ, encourage us so. The gathering of the church encourages us. The prayers and the hymns of the church encourage us. The teaching of the faith of the church encourages us.

D Bonhoeffer: Religion is only a garment of Christianity. When religion disappears what remains is Christ himself, in all his immediacy: In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion but something quite different, really the Lord of the world (NYRB, 12/3/15)

So let us look out from the Lukan horizon. Let us prepare ourselves spiritually for the unforeseen future. Let us be alert. Let us meet violence with patient justice. We can learn to be responsive not reactive, that is to seek patient justice. Let us inculcate in ourselves and others ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’. Let us learn the arts of disciplined endurance. I think at some low level of our collective psyche we are pushing toward this. Hence the increase in jogging, in running, in cycling, in all forms of physical endurance. At some bone level our bodies are telling us to be prepared for a long twilight struggle. Let us hold fast to he lasting commitments we have to freedom, peace, justice, and love. As Luke remembered his apocalyptic inheritance, let us remember our full religious inheritance, in the voices of those who can encourage, admonish, and advise us. That is, let us be alert at all times, praying that we may have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

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

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November 22

A Thanksgiving Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 6:25-33

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World Walk

One of our contemporary journalists has decided to leave behind his usual round of assignments, and to walk around the world.

We remember Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s drive across America with his pet dog.  You may remember a similar, more post-modern drive across the outback of America by William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways.  Another such volume a few years ago was A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins.

But this fellow, Paul Salopek, is walking around the world.  He has been at it for a couple of years already.

The television camera and crew caught up with him in Eastern Europe.  He has been through four pairs of shoes.  He carries very little in his backpack:  a change of clothes and a computer.  He has some traveling buddies, part guide, part protector, part friend.  He asks people in various towns to let him stay with them.  And they do.  Then he interviews them, doing a video interview once a month.

One thing he said really struck me.  The world is a very hospitable place.  With only a few exceptions, this world is a very hospitable place.  People receive, welcome and offer you hospitality.  The world is hospitable.  Paul Salopek began walking I believe in January of 2013.  His irenic voice has a faint but real resonance, Thanksgiving 2015, as we are immersed in reports of violence around the globe.  This Sunday each year we remember to be thankful.

Being Mindful

Are we mindful of sources of gratitude?

We are not always as thoughtful as we could be, not as mindful as we should be…

Then let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the 126th Psalm…

Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the blessings of God, as sung in the beatitudes…

Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend Max Coots…

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

by Reverend Max Coots

The Good Earth

Our lessons from ancient Scripture surround us with thanksgiving.  The prophet Joel attributes directly to the Lord, in a way we might not in our time, both the weal and woe of natural cycles.  Yet his spirit of thanksgiving could not be more evident, as he acclaims gratitude for the good that is given, in pasture and tree and vineyard.  Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Our psalm, very directly, also recalls a dreamlike time of plenitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder to those who use this psalm that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.  Our epistle lesson in 1 Timothy turns from nature to history, from harvest to governance.  As elsewhere in the New Testament, we find here an unsurprising thanksgiving for order.  In a prayer recently, we heard the petition that we might serve God ‘with a quiet mind’.  Not all order is godly, especially when purchased with the counterfeit currency of oppression and injustice.  But Timothy has a point, too.  A quiet and peaceable life itself requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  But it is our Gospel, today, that shines most clearly with gratitude, a beatitudinal thanksgiving prayer itself.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you. The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’.  Friday night our Inner Strength Gospel choir, fed earlier by the loving care of Marsh Chapel members Cecilia, Sandra, Jerry, Carolyn, Victoria, and Melvena, gave a compelling witness, in the heart of a week of turmoil, to thanksgiving, grateful praise.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one (Carol Zahm) remembered in the figure of her friend:

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years


All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

The Age of Violence

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today.

We have been this past week through a very dark patch.   The torrent of images from Paris, and elsewhere, threatens so to inundate as to overwhelm, and then to drown.

Under the aspect of thanksgiving, let us pause for a moment to collect our thoughts, to gird ourselves in faithful cautions.

We will want to be careful to remember that individual choices, to kill say, or to heal, say, are real, they matter, and they count, in the long run.  Some one chose to kill in Paris.  The bombs were not set by systems, or structures, but by men and women of flesh and bone.

We will want to be clear that for all the structural, systemic and acculturated sources of violence—how potent they are—it is nonetheless an irretrievable, and irremediable, individual choice, to take another’s life, and to take another’s innocent life.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, however perversely, however violently, however despicably that freedom is used.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace that speaks lightly of forgiveness for the murderer, the terrorist, the sadistic extremist.  The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, forbid it.  Those of us who heard the explosions on Boylston Street in 2013 empathize in a particular way with Paris 2015.

In helping one another, and our children, as one friend has said, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.  With a soulful abandon, with a Parisian panache, going forward, we can go forward as a ‘flaneur’ of old, to saunter, to wander, to stroll, to make our own the streets and boulevards of life.

Howard Thurman Gives Thanks

So let us be mindful this Thanksgiving, as was Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago.  His poem:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.


I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

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

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

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November 15

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 13:1-8

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Dr. Neville

Dr. Jarrett, Bach’s cantata, “Bleib bei uns,” or “Stay with us,” worries a very old theme, the need for light.  It is hard to think of a time when the troubles call for light more than now.  The incomprehensible violence, the tragic deaths of innocents, the rage that knows no containment, of the Paris terrorist attacks has cast the world in darkness.  They were acts of war by a regime that does not distinguish its politics from religion, though by no means are those acts of war condoned by other Muslim regimes.  Will France of necessity declare war on the Islamic State?  How can that war be fought if the Islamic State soldiers live among people whom they have conquered?  Will NATO go to the aid of France?  Will the US? How can our Middle Eastern neighbors in Europe and the US not be under suspicion? Will such suspicion turn friends into enemies?  These are political and moral problems.  But the depths of the troubles press against the limits of our very being and so these are religious problems, for all sides, including us.  Where is the light in these increasingly dark times?

The metaphor of light arises on the first page of the Bible, as the very first thing God says: “Let there be light.” And there was light.  This implies that darkness is the primordial, the aboriginal, situation.  The narrative also implies that prior to speaking, God is just part of the darkness.  Presumably God could have eliminated the darkness altogether, but instead arranged the light and darkness in the alternation of day and night.  So darkness is always with us or just around the corner.

In biblical times there was much debate among both Jews and Christians over whether God and God’s speech are one thing or two.  On the one hand, in the human analogy we ordinarily say that a speaker and the speaker’s speech are one; a human being is an agent or actor and speaking is one kind of acting.  Perhaps we can conceive of God on the analogy of such an agent, existing in some sense in the darkness before light as an agent ready and able to speak, but just not yet.  The difficulty with this analogy is that the creation of the world, beginning with light distinguished from darkness, is such a vast change that it is difficult to think of God as an agent at all without some equally primordial world to work on.  God is radically changed by becoming a speaking God whose first words create light.

On the other hand, many people have allowed that there are two things, God not speaking prior to creation, and the divine Word that comes into being as God speaks and in fact structures the whole of creation.  This view was elaborated in the sayings of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, who affirmed that she was present with God at the creation but complained that people did not pay enough attention to her and did not live in the light of God’s creative Word, which had moral connotations.  The Prologue to the Gospel of John lays this out in a familiar way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:1-5)  According to John, Jesus was the incarnation of the original divine Word spoken by God in creation and the condition for all things created, a Word characterized as light.  The Word of God came into being as God spoke it in creation; it was phrased for human beings in the Sinai covenant, though too many people rejected it; it was present in common sense as Lady Wisdom, but too many people ignored it. So then God caused this Word to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the foundation of John’s theology, and it generally won the day in Christian theology overall.  To say that Jesus is the Light of the World, in the sense Bach’s libretto meant it, is to say that he is the embodiment of the divine Word in creation that begins by saying “Let there be light.”

Dr. Jarrett, Bach seems to buy into this identification of Jesus with the Light of creation, although in our cantata there still seems to be a troubling darkness for which the Light of Christ needs yet to cover.  Is this right?

Dr. Jarrett

The second in our series of Easter cantatas is “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” – ‘Stay with us, for evening comes.’ Scored for choirs of oboes, strings, and voices, Bleib bei uns draws both title and subject from the 24th Chapter of Luke in which Jesus appears to a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus.

As we have come to expect from Bach, the full range of human experience and emotion is everywhere explored and considered. And, as much as Bach acknowledges human frailty, the doubt of our conviction, and the daily crisis of faith, he provides clear paths for musical and theological reconciliation. Consider the Bach passion settings – in particular, the St Matthew Passion which we perform later this year in February – Bach provides an astonishingly accurate mirror of our human circumstance. He knows how each day, we become Judas, or a Peter, or a Pilate. In today’s cantata, we connect instantly with the hapless disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Stricken with grief that their leader has been tragically cut down in the events just days before in Jerusalem, their eyes remain blind to the true identity of Jesus until he breaks bread with them – a theological reminder of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

But references to the Luke 24 story remain allegorical in Bach’s 1725 cantata for the second day of Easter. Here, Bach focuses on the sadness, fear, and even anxiety at the loss of Jesus. In a sense, Bach connects us to the end of the John Passion as Jesus has been laid to rest in the tomb. With sarabande rhythms and a melancholy C Minor, the final chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ lays an elegiac garland on the heavy tomb stone. In cantata 6, the same C Minor music reveals the crisis of loss with low pulsing string parts, all of which yields to a frenetic fugue depicting both the disarray of the Jesus movement, but also our growing fear as darkness encloses.

The progression of arias begins with a courtly petition for Christ to stay longer. With alto oboe and alto singer, the entreaty is marked by both an upward ascent in the vocal line to accompany the text ‘highly praised’ and descending whole-tones to depict the encroaching darkness.

The central aria is a chorale setting, reminding us that Word and Sacrament are, indeed, the light. And the final aria, scored for tenor and strings, reminds us that the image of Christ and his passion are the surest way to avoid the pathways of sin.

The theology, of course, is that even though Jesus ascends to heaven, having fulfilled the prophesy, we are shored up by the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return. But the challenge of daily faith is very difficult without the true presence of Jesus. How will we continue? How can we remain Christ-like in our living without his daily presence? The answer is the renewal, affirmation, and cleansing purity of word and table, table and word.

Though we perform an Easter cantata today, the extraordinary need for the light of Christ to dispel the gloom and shroud of sin, calls us to an advent penitence. In the timeless words of the Psalmist: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Dr. Neville

Yet we seem to have little light for our path these days.  This is why it is so important continually to advert to those things that bear the light, even in dark times.  The sacrament of the table habituates us to gratitude and hope, even when we don’t pay it much attention.  The Word in scripture, in preaching, and of course in the founding structure of the world solicits our attention to the important things even when it is obscurely understood, mumbled, and apparently incoherent.  What are the important things in a crisis riding on blind terrorism?  To remember that our first thought about enemies is that they need to be loved by us.  To be kind always, which includes sharing the grief of those under attack.  To contain rage with disciplined moderation.  To insist, against all our darkened passions, that moral and religious judgment belongs only to God.  To understand that what little light we have allows us only fallible plans and purposes in matters of war and peace.  To wait in hope for the joy that comes in the morning when the light of creation dawns again.  Amen.

–Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University

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

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November 8

Artful Generosity

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 12:38-44

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Long has Mark’s poor widow summoned to us. Her mite, her mighty mite, ‘two small copper coins worth a penny’, abides with us, to disquiet even the quietest mind.

Artful generosity. Yes. But of what sort? Personal or Communal? 

Personal Generosity

First, on one hand…

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Tell me after worship or by email your earliest memory of a sermon on ‘the venerable doctrine of Christian stewardship’.

A poor mother and son (an early memory of a stewardship sermon). The son needed to see a doctor, but the mother’s work prevented her from taking him. She called the local WSCS to ask if someone would help, but heard nothing. That night she told her son that she did not know whether he would have a ride and they would have to trust God to help them. A woman came the next morning. On the way home the boy shocked her, and touched her, by asking, ‘Maam, are you God?’ Far from it, far from it, she thought, and said. ‘No. Why?’ ‘Well in our prayer last night my mom said that God would have to help me get to the doctor. And you came and got me there. So are you God?’

God helps. Or help is God. Gandhi said for God to appear to the hungry, God would have to come as bread…

I look across nine pulpits and forty years, and I see her in every town. Amy Whetzel, alone, in Ithaca, caring alone for her bed-ridden dad. Setta Moe, near Malone, a chain smoker, who went door to door to raise money for her church’s (beautiful) windows. Syracuse had Mickey Murray, whose husband died when they were forty, but who raised her family alone and still had time to run a Wednesday evening junior youth group dinner. In Rochester, Barb Steen, who by then had lost both children and her husband, and got up every morning, made a list of 5 names, and wrote or called or visited every one. Widows all. And here at Marsh, Marsha Meade, County Durham, in the north of England.

One widow at 86, drives to church on Sunday, and on the way stops to pick up some of the ‘older people’. In 1965, with tears, she spent a Kennedy silver half dollar, a precious coin given her by her own recently deceased dad, using it on the last day or so of October, after that month’s salary was worn through, so that the parsonage porch would too have pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, like all the neighbors, all part of raising four children on a preacher’s salary.

The one committee a church needs, if any, is a stewardship committee to teach, by example and service, the artful generosity that is the marrow of Christianity.   You tell me how you give, and I will tell you who you are. You tell me the contours of your painting titled ‘generosity’ and I will tell you who you are. The only permanent possession you can claim is what you have given, permanently, to another. Only your gifts are real possessions, and this is mainly true of your time. As in the existential fragment of this one hour, in public worship of God.

We went north into the wilderness, just miles from Canada, to be within driving distance of Montreal. We did not really know how we were going to manage it. On Thanksgiving Sunday, both church offices, we discovered, were filled with food, for us, for the winter. You can live off the land if the landscape includes some women and men of artful generosity.

Our son earned his first $150 dollars as a coaching assistant one summer for a Colgate University soccer camp. He put the three fifty dollar bills on his dresser. That Christmas his sister was leaving for a term in Adelaide, Australia, and as she headed out the door he put that money, his only official earnings to that point in life, in her hand. All he had.

This all of having and giving, the giving of what one has, especially in the liminal moments, is the stage on which Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, appears. Our undergraduates, at young ages, entered the dark and deep of her great play about an older poet, her younger doctor and former student, and the long shadow of illness to death. The young doctor gives all he has but it is not enough. The older nurse gives what is needed, her very self, sitting on the bed, holding the poet, caressing and caring, and reading at the end from The Runaway Bunny: ‘ I guess I’ll stay and be your bunny.’ ‘Good. Have a carrot.’

You people at Marsh Chapel are the most generous of souls. You give of your time. You share your talents. You worship God in artful generosity toward your neighbors, including your soulful use of the collection plates. As people of faith, and in particular, as faithful religious people, Christian people, Protestant people, Methodist people, you tithe, you give generously in a disciplined way, offering year by year 10% of what you receive, to others.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Yours is the spirit of the psalmist. Who longs. Whose soul longs. Who thirsts. Whose soul thirsts. Who remembers. Whose soul remembers. Who despairs. Whose soul despairs. And yet who sings. Who sings songs in the night. Who sings songs in the night. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

We heard our own Lorelei poignantly sing Psalm 42 on Friday night. In their new, and newly arranged voices, one heard again the ‘agonic’ cry of the heart, of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow.

Artful generosity is personal. It harbors a longing.

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

 Communal Generosity

Second, on the other hand…

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a condemnatory, not a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

He excoriates. He judges. He criticizes. He condemns. Look. What a miscarriage of justice. All these others, religious leaders, take and receive. Fine clothing. Public status. Glorious meals. The best seats. They—don’t miss this—devour widows’ houses.

In this tone of voice, one not of commendation but of condemnation, Jesus casts a piercing dominical eye upon the lack of artful, communal generosity. Awful! She has put in everything she had to live on! An atrocity, not only because others have not given—surely bad enough. But more-so, that she, unwisely, mistakenly, foolishly, out of a kindness that kills, has given far more than she should have done.

The community has not cared for her. As it has not for the 9 year old boy in Chicago, who carried a basketball toward his grandmother’s house this week, and was shot dead. As it has not for the poor children in the rural outbacks of this great, good country, who lack multiple forms of nourishment. (There are more poor white children in this country than any other kind, most in hidden rural hills and hollows a long way from anywhere.) As it has not for the poorest quintile of households in this country, only 8% of whose children go through college, when 84% of children in the top quintile do: SAT scores and ZIP codes match exactly. As it has not for those children who tragically have been abused by religious leaders.

Jesus’ most venomous rhetoric is reserved for religious leaders. Long robes. Best seats. Respectful greetings. Banquet honors. They devour widows’ houses. They will receive the greater condemnation.

Here, from this angle of vision, the poor widow is not an exemplar of personal generosity, but a measuring rod of communal generosity, or lack thereof.   Real religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction.

We know about corruption in religious leadership, in local, lived, and shared experience. But lest you fellow Protestants think to Lord it over other denominations on whom a ‘Spotlight’ has fallen of late—beware. We too have our troubles. Protestant churches are not exempt from the trauma of clergy misconduct. 2 of the 9 congregations I have served have had past experience of clergy misconduct.

There he sits, across the plaza and watches. The compassion of the poor widow is not matched by a communal compassion, which should be heralded by, evoked by, sponsored by, the communal, say religious, leadership.

You also have read much of Thomas Piketty’s, Capital. So you know that beyond a certain threshold capital tends to reproduce itself and accumulates exponentially (395). You understand the multiplicative and cumulative logic of capital accumulation and concentration (373). You see that while the baby boomer generation may have thought that the influence inheritance was a thing of the past, the millennial generation sees the return of its influence with a vengeance.

After Jesus, and before Mark, Paul proclaimed: let those who have much not have too much and those who have little not have too little. (2 Cor. 8). On his proposition Boston University was born, has lived, and will thrive.

It is a biblical conception. Naomi and Ruth find their way together into an uncertain future. To do so they need each other, they need the courage to change, they need a partner or two, and they need an artful generosity that is communal not just personal.

It is a biblical conception. Paul Farmer, you spoke to us this week here at BU, and stayed for five hours, five hours, to sign books for students who waited for him to do so. He told us so in Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It is a biblical conception. One of the great BU traditions is the annual University Lecture. This week Dr. James McCann took us all the way up the Blue Nile, and taught us again, along the way, about a communal, artful generosity. A hope of a globe whose climate is conditioned by generosity. A hope of a continent, Africa, whose greatest river, continues to nourish, to slake the thirst of a needy landscape. The hope, especially, of a new form of ecological science that we are calling CHANS, coupled human and natural systems (11/1/15). 

It is a biblical conception of artful generosity, this communal one. You remember Amos. You remember his warning about a ‘famine of the word’. You remember his picture of Yahweh standing to measure his people against the plumb line of justice. Against the plumb line—of justice. It is a harrowing memory.

While far less traditionally asserted, and while much less useful, in the immediate sense, for church stewardship Sundays, like this one, the harsh word of Jesus much more naturally fits the flow of Mark 10, the general spirit of the whole of Mark, the full sense of Jesus’ criticism of religious leadership, and the plain sense of the passage itself. The first voice, of commendation, is the more familiar, more common, more generally heard and used. But the second, this one, of condemnation—she put in all she had to live on!—is the truer to the passage.

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Long has Mark’s poor widow summoned to us. Her mite, her mighty mite, ‘two small copper coins worth a penny’, abides with us, to disquiet even the quietest mind.

Artful generosity. Yes.

But of what sort?

Personal or Communal?

Merciful or Just?

Individual or Societal?

Today the gospel brings us two sorts of artful generosity.

Truth to tell: we may just need them both.

-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.

November 1


By Marsh Chapel

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John 11:32-44

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Whether or not a technological society will entirely overwhelm a doxological culture is up to us.

You have no choice whether or not to participate in the technological society.  You have some choice whether or not to participate in the nourishment of a doxological culture.  You are presented, by grace, this All Saints’ Day, with an abiding question:  doxa or techne?  Techne alone? Or doxatechne, prayer cautioning skill, praise denying work, the stealth emergence of a doxological culture within and underneath a technological society?

Take an hour a day.  Take a day a week.  Take a week a quarter.  Take a quarter a year.  For…doxa…doxology…DOXOLOGY!  Doxa is the human art of being artfully human.

To become human, over time, costs, requires deficit spending to replenish dire deficits in relationship, tradition, and health.  Although these deficits are shockingly, notoriously profound on college campuses, which tend to deaden relationship, ignore tradition, and warp health, they are by no means collegiate deficits alone.  They are cultural deficits—relationship, tradition, health—and they are deficits in your life today, and in mine.

Our saints, the community of saints about us, whisper reminders.  You need friendship: your computer will never kiss you.  You need tradition:  your little story is hardly a story at all without connection to a big story or two.  You need health:  mens sana in corpore sano.


One of our students recently said, interpreting the Gospel of John, and its famous introduction, ‘In the beginning was the word’:  Sometimes I hear my self introduction (student, divinity, future pastor), but the feeling beyond the words is gone.  I want that feeling in the words.

So our fourth Gospel presents Jesus saying of his disciples:  ‘I call you friends’.  Friendship is a mystery, a great deep.  It may be true that some have more capacity for friendship than others, but all have a friendship-shaped cavity in the heart, awaiting fulfillment.  How poorly we in the ministry of the Word have done, over time, to speak a kind word for friendship!  And for the time friendship requires.  And for the courage friendship entails.  And for the prayerful thought friendship demands.  And for the willingness as a friend to risk the friendship for the sake of the friend.

Note the arts of friendship:  introduction, attention, courtesy, invitation, and the grace to step aside.  Who teaches you these habits of mind, heart, and being?  No one.  You learn them, if at all, by way of example from others.  Ponder this week one , in your earthly life to date, who has best befriended you.

Martin Buber:  “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being… Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity…Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.”

Our Gospel, John 11, affirms the resurrection in relationship.  The Gospel of John turns on Lazarus.  Jesus’ crucifixion, in John, is triggered, not by the cleansing of a temple, but by Jesus raising of his friend, for whom he wept, from the dead, his friend, whom he loved, from the dead.   ‘A new relationship I give you, that you love one another’:  here is the resurrection in John.

Psalm 139

O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!


Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;

thou discernest my thoughts from afar.


Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,

and art acquainted with all my ways.


Even before a word is on my tongue,

lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.


Thou dost beset me behind and before,

and layest thy hand upon me.


Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is high, I cannot attain it.


Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?


If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!


If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,


even there thy hand shall lead me,

and thy right hand shall hold me.


If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,

and the light about me be night,”


even the darkness is not dark to thee,

the night is bright as the day;

for darkness is as light with thee.


One of our students said recently, interpreting the Gospel of John, and its famous revelation, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’:   Sometimes we let our precious truth get in the way of the life of our precious neighbor.  Jesus is not about truth and ends but about life and means.  

J Pelikan:  tradition is the living faith of dead people; traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.   An All Saints’ Day epigram if ever there was one…

In practice, tradition is a bridge connecting memory and hope.  You have a memory of Halloween that, in the outliving of your present, reaches in hope to a future you cannot see and certainly cannot define.  In the carving of a pumpkin, with a certain grimace, in a certain way, there is bridge shaped that spans the chasm between the memory, your memory, of the dead, and the hope, your hope, for the living.

Hence, in Isaiah 25, the Lord, one hopes, will bring upon the mountain the heavenly feast, wherein tears are taken away and death is no more and—most significantly—disgrace is erased.  As the grave swallows us, so, in time, will the grave itself be swallowed:  here is our hope, and here is that hope in sumptuous memory.

A friend recently sent a reminder, a bridge from past to future, of Paul Tillich’s teaching on prayer (our Marsh theme this year): God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,

the world and those who dwell therein;


for he has founded it upon the seas,

and established it upon the rivers.


Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?


He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to what is false,

and does not swear deceitfully.


He will receive blessing from the Lord,

and vindication from the God of his salvation.


Such is the generation of those who seek him,

who seek the face of the God of Jacob.[a]Selah


One of our students said recently, interpreting the Gospel of John, ‘we are called to witness and wonder:  to care and celebrate our part in the web of life’ .

Your mental, physical, and personal health are not someone else’s job.  For 10-20% of us, broadly speaking, health in all dimensions requires an attentive discipline regarding addictive substances.

Sherry Turkle: We expect more from technology and less from each other…We heal ourselves by giving others what we most need (ALONE TOGETHER).

Today in NYC there are 58,000 living in shelters, 40% of whom are children.  Our story in Boston is similar.

We await the apocalypse poetically depicted in Revelation 21.  Our health is connected to such a hope, such a prospect.  And the prospect is so faithful and so true, that the seer may in fact simply ‘write it down’ (21:5).

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;


but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.


He is like a tree

planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.


We have no choice, to some measure, about techne.  (Listen again to the Marsh Chapel sermons on Jacques Ellul, eminent Calvinist, some winters ago.)  If you have a job, you will have an email address.  If you are of a certain generation the still dews of social media will drop upon you until all your strivings cease.  If you are investing capital, and aim to make a profit, you will purchase in technology.  If you practice medicine, now, every examination will involve three faces:  your patient, you, and your computer.  If you work for a large corporation, university, or government agency, your life, periodically, will be upended, or worse, with a change of software and hardware, so beware.  

You have the faith of Jesus Christ, though, with which to choose doxa, or a little measure of meaning in doxatechne.  Let us live the Gospel!

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

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

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