Archive for September, 2017

September 24

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Matthew 20: 1-16

Click here to listen to the meditations only 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Here at Marsh Chapel over the last decade we have endeavored to offer our listenership around the globe, and our congregation here in the flesh, a distinctive confluence of music and word, come Bach Sundays. By experiment and practice, we have tried to allow the preaching of the Gospel, God’s external word of grace in sermon, and the music of the church, the praise of God in voice and instrument, to dance together, to become a mutual enrichment, and a call to faith. Over time that has led us, Scott and me, to reform the service and sermon, upon these Sundays, into an antiphonal teaching, including a sermon in dialogue. To our current knowledge, what you hear, here, is sui generis, not like something or anything else, what we hope is a part of what across the oikoumene is distinctive, better and best about Marsh Chapel.

In preparation for the confessional humility of today’s cantata, we give ear to our Holy Scripture. In Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’ as Bultmann put it. The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity. Its point: behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same. As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice. To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay. To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive. To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs. To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.   The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers. When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath. When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.

Let us attend carefully for a moment to Matthew. In the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others. Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace. Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter. The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett on Bach  

Today’s cantata offers a similar version of the “Last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. You’ll recall with me that Jesus’s parable depicts the outwardly pious Pharisee praying ostentatiously, taking advantage of the presence of the tax collector to boost his own piety. By contrast the Tax Collector remained in the back of the temple, out of side, head bowed, beating his breast, in complete humility. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. So sit up straight this morning!

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Listen again to the words in St. Matthew, a portion of his gospel that is all his own, unshared by Mark, unshared by Q, unshared in the rest of scripture. Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power. The allegory is clear. God is obliged to nobody. Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late. In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago. (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.) Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same. Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning, there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’. ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.

We have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith. Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing. Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too). (If faith comes by hearing it will help if you are in earshot. You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letters: live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

I wonder about you? and me? Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week? Are we better people than we were last Sunday? Are we able to pray each day? Martin Luther, the 500th anniversary of whose reformation we remember this autumn, recommended morning prayer to include a recitation of the Ten Commandments, a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, morning by morning. Will the remembered humility of this parable in Matthew 20, and the powerful call to contrition today of this music, bring us to our knees, morning by morning? And, are we better, as a people, than we were last Sunday? Luther celebrated the external word—not just spirit and experience. The external word in preaching. The external word in sacrament. The external word in forgiveness (confession and absolution). Can we somehow find our way to church to hear and be fed and receive that external word?

Here too is John Calvin (for once) interpreting this parable: We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God. From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling. Finally, we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music

September 17

Remembering Elie Wiesel

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Exodus 14:19-31

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18: 21-35

Click here to listen to the meditations only


After some significant internal struggle, come Senior year of college, I finally decided to go to seminary.

That spring I visited Harvard, Boston University, Yale and Union. I stood outside the chapel here, and have a picture to prove it. Union in New York was easily the right place, for me. In part I went on the advice of a friend that ‘a year of seminary never hurt any one’. Once in for a penny, I was in for a pound, and really never looked back. Your calling is what you sense is your best response to God. And that can change. In fact, you need to practice the art of ‘editing your dreams’. They need writing, but they editing too.

What a world opened up in New York City at Union! How grateful I am. The urban world, the ecumenical world, the theological world, the biblical world, the world of the gospel and its preachment. It is an embarrassment to admit to you how little I knew about the Bible, for all my parsonage tenure, small Methodist college degree, summer camp leadership, and generational background. I knew nada. And into that mental wasteland vacuum swept Samuel Terrien, George Landes, Raymond Brown and Lou Martyn, four horsemen of the apocalypse, to furnish its empty mental apartment books shelves with, well, books. I fell in love with the Bible, with the Strange World of the Bible. There too were James Forbes, Cornell West, Chrisopher Morse, Linda Clark (who later came here), Horace Allen (who came here later), and many others. William Sloane Coffin came into the Riverside pulpit. Across the street was the Jewish Theological Seminary, whence Abraham Heschel had come in the autumn afteroons to walk around Grant’s Tomb with Reinhold Niebuhr, just a few years earlier. That image of interreligious, interfaith theological discourse inspires still.

It happened that Union was in the throes of a renaissance of sorts, and the President, Donald Shriver had somehow convinced Robert McAfee Brown, a longtime Union alumn, faculty member, and Union family member if you will, to leave his beloved California haunts and come back to New York, with his wife Sydney (a missionary’s daughter). Bob and Sydney met in the summer home of Reinhold Neihbuhr near Heath, MA—they were in that sense god-children of the Neihbuhrs and so of that tradition at Union. Brown stayed at Union only three years, but they were the very three I was there. He had been the Protestant Observer at Vatican II and taught a course we fought to gain entrance too, titled, the Ecumenical Revolution.   He knew about Heschel and Neibuhr walking in the autumn light on Riverside Drive very well because—he fell and love and got married under Neibuhr’s roof. Brown encouraged us to go and work in 1978 at the World Council of Churches, in Swizerland, in the Office of Urban Ministry, run by the one and only George Todd, Brown’s fellow Presbyterian. Due to health issues, we left Union and New York suddenly and precipitously in February of 1979. In that early winter of 1979 we retreated to a church in Ithaca, to heal and to begin the work of ministry, among the students at ‘godless Cornell’.

Before we left, perhaps a week or so before, Bob and Sydney Brown held a winter dinner party in their home, which was an apartment in McGiffert Hall, under the wing of Riverside Church along Claremont Avenue. It may have been, if memory serves, that the dinner guests were his seminar students and spouses or friends from the course on the Ecumencial Revolution. Many things for us were unsettled at the time, a time of existential fright and anxiety. The welcome, the warm welcome of that home, the dim awareness we had of who Brown was, who the Browns were, and their very humble circumstance, hospitality and kindness to 2.5 itinerant Methodists stands out after forty years. Robert McAfee Brown had a special reason for the dinner, because he had invited a special guest, colleague and friend of his, whom he had met at Stanford, but who was also now in New York, though he spent a part of each week in Boston. Our dinner guest had been invited to a University Professorship here at Boston University by then President John Silber, and, after some hesitation, as I understand it, he accepted. In a way, Brown’s firm, lasting friendship with Wiesel, at least it seemed to me, reflected the friendship of the earlier generation between Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel (who delivered Neibuhr’s funeral eulogy in Stockbridge MA, 1971, just 5 years before we arrived at Union). So it was that we came to know Elie Wiesel.

Robert McAfee Brown’s vision of the oikoumene included Elie Wiesel, his celebrated dinner guest that snowy evening in 1979. By precept and example, then, Brown taught us to consider thinking and living in the same way. The later edition of NIGHT comes with an introduction by RM Brown, after which Brown wrote his full book, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, which includes this passage: I have tried very hard, my friend, not to write this book. At every stage it seemed a tampering with things I had no right to touch. But because each exposure to your work moves me more deeply, I fell compelled to share of portion of what you have given me. To receive and not to share—that would be a denial of all I have learned from you. You have said that to be a Jew means to testify; such must also be the obligation of a Christian. And you have taught us all—Jews, Christians, and all humanity—that before testifying ourselves, we must liest to the testimony of others. I have tried to listen to your testimony. And now I feel obligated…to testify (p. vi.)

 There is a gracious power in hospitality, like that which Professor Wiesel showed us in the Browns’ residence, forty years ago. It lasts, the warmth and authenticity of it, they last. Said Unamuno: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost’. (Not the night of unknowing, but the frost of unloving—that is what kills). Speaking of night…


Through the eighties I pursued a PhD at McGill. As the dissertation was slowly writing itself—we shall sell no wine before its time!—I began teaching in various schools. Montreal had an excellent film library, free and substantive, which I would raid on occasion for the course taught in community colleges along the border, up north. One perennial was a reel to reel film of Professor Wiesel.

Later still, the dissertation simmering nicely on the back burner for most of a decade—do not take my example—in teaching at Lemoyne College, Syracuse, we read NIGHT, as so many have done over the years. The course prepared the way for it by use of another film—ancient technology—ON RITUAL, whose JTS lead figure was Professor Gillman, whose daughter Abigail is now our colleague her at BU. Gillman: ‘The central Jewish vision is that whole world made holy: all of life raised to its deepest and highest level’. The film follows the annual, weekly, and daily ritual life of woman named Carol, one of the first women to enter the rabbinate in Conservative Judaism, and so teaches about Sabbath, and then about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Booths, Hannukah, Purim and Passover. Ritual brings order to life.

Wiesel was the quintessential teacher. His books carried his voice out across the globe. Those who studied with him here regularly remember his remembrance of them. My Norwegian friend vividly remembers Professor Wiesel gradually getting him to come out his shell, by telling funny stories. Our students in the small Catholic School, where most were the first in their families to attend college, connected with him from afar. In particular, the students always read and could always fully engage Wiesel’s book. I taught it by showing the points at which the ten commandments were engaged or broken (pps 50, 59, 71, 73, 90, and others). I never had a chance to ask him whether that was a fair way to teach the book, and whether he had the Decalogue in view for its structure. We learned from Wiesel and his book by raising questions. What is the central theme of the book? What is its weakest point? How do you describe the ‘voice’ of the author? Which scene did you dislike most? What other writing does it recall? What would you ask the author if he were here today?

All of us are far more human than anything else, including and especially those who remind us best of our own best selves, like Professor Wiesel. There is I am sure a full set of observations in loving critique that can and should be raised, and will be in the sessions offered this morning and afternoon in his honor. I wonder, for instance, just how inclusive his perspective was with regard to gay people. I wonder about his relationship with non-Orthodox Judaism. Like every sermon, every life has its points of challenge. But I, for one, have been deeply and lastingly influenced by the life and work of this one who lectured to us here thrice each autumn over 40 years.

Franklin Littell, the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, was not in the habit of mincing words. One ongoing application for those of us who have been seized by the confession of the church, who have been loved by the faithfulness of Christ, is to look again, to look long, to look hard at the Holocaust. We have yet to understand what happened to Christianity in the dark abyss, the hellish, ghoulish fire of Auschwitz. Crucified, Judaism has risen from the dead. But what will become of Christianity? Will there arise a movement from religion to faith? Will there appear on the earth a religionless Christianity? Seventy years later, and the clock is ticking:

Nazism was in no sense a revolt against ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Neither was it ‘secularist’. Quite the contrary: in its central creed the party affirmed a devotion to ‘positives Christentum’. The Fuhrer and other party orators made constant reference to ‘divine providence’, ‘spiritual renewal’, ‘moment of decision’, ‘immortal destiny’…and the like. Many of the party hymns were simply new words written to popular gospel songs, with the same brass bands marching and evoking from crowds the same emotional response. The key question, and here the issue of ‘heresy’ arises, is why the millions of baptized and confirmed Christians had no sense that they were now responding to visions and programs antithetical to the biblical faith. (F Little. The Crucifixion of the Jews. 70)

Yet it was not finally the acute academic work of Littell and others that brought a fuller witness to and understanding of the holocaust to the American conscience. That work was largely the influence of Wiesel. Just think back to the most horrific and jarring passage in NIGHT: 

“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

 The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live Liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

 “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

 At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”

 Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive… 

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ” (Night, 78)

             There is a fierce power in memory. Marcel Proust with his madeleine moment teaches us best: a single minute released from the chronological order of time has re-created in us the human being similarly released…situated outside the scope of time, what could one fear from the future…(these are) resurrections of the past (Proust, RTP, II, 992, 996).


From your own losses, your own experience of loss, you will know perhaps the power of kindness in the hour of grief. Our manner of grief, the way we grieve, is about the most personal thing about us—more individual than our eye color, height, skin pigmentation, gait, or fingerprint. Our friends and loves ones give us ourselves, and when we lose them we lose whole body parts, full and veritable pieces of our own most selves. For some grief is light, for others heavy, for some tearfilled for others ‘not something we cry about’, for some long and for others short, for some traumatic and for others timely then gone. At least, we could be aware for others of others manner of grief, and respect what we can see and know and understand.

Our Gospel lesson today, neither taken from St. Mark nor from ‘Q’, but from the particular reservoir of Matthew’s own sources (it is not found elsewhere), stands out, up and alone, and hardly needs interpretation. Is there not a poignancy in this pericope, not unlike that known in grief, the recollection of a beloved teacher? The parable itself is as clear as a bell, and as plain as the nose on your face (or, plainer still, as the nose on mine). You have been loved, now love. Greatly have you been forgiven, so greatly now forgive. IBD, Matthew 18: 21-35: ‘Man can have no more important privilege that to mediate to others the forgiveness which he himself experiences.’

In the weeks following my Father’s death seven years ago, there came many expressions of condolence, all of which were deeply appreciated, personally meaningful, and part of the healing, or the healing in grieving, or the health in grieving. It is a sacrament of sorts, grief is, as one friend said. At that time, June 2010, one of our leading choristers and dear friends worked here at the University. She was and is at the heart of Marsh Chapel to this date, even though she and her husband and children live in France. Her French is impeccable. Here, at the University, she worked as an assistant to Professor Elie Wiesel. At the time of my dad’s death I received from her a note I cherish today, still:

Dean Hill –

Professor Wiesel asked me to send you the following message.


Dear friend,

My deepest condolences. In our tradition we say: may you be spared further sorrow.

Elie Wiesel

            There is a poignant power in kindness. Abraham Heschel: “Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.”


 Remember the words of Psalm 139…

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.


September 16

Peter Berger: A Rumor of Angels

By Marsh Chapel

Alumni Memorial Service 

                     After my dad died seven years ago we began to go through his things, as families do. Desk, tools, books, guns, clothes. (Order, play, hope, justice, humor). We did not make much progress at first. After three years I noted: ‘We still have not made that much. His desk, somewhat more ordered, is laden drawer after drawer. The many tools, both inherited from earlier generations and purchased as needed over a life time, still lie here and there in the basement. A doll house, made for a granddaughter and then taken in for repairs years ago, and then left unattended, did migrate to the home of the great grand daughter. The guns—a relic of another time in the woods and deer hunting of northern New York—were carefully removed by two lawyer siblings. The papers and records now are in boxes with little titles—an improvement of sorts. His clothes still hang in the old closet’.

I was either assigned or self assigned or asked (or not) to begin to take care of the books, forty years worth of books in the lifetime library of a Methodist preacher whose preaching teacher at Boston University, Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, had admonished his pupils to read one book every day.   That is to say, there were more than a few books to look through.

I dawdled, lollygagged, procrastinated, avoided, and otherwise shirked my solemn duty. I asked all those I could to go through the library and take at least two books. The books are mostly signed and dated, and of course they have the personal underlining and notes which are typical for most of us. I appropriated a few: a set of Jacques Ellul, for a Lenten series two years ago; a few books from BU—Booth, Chalmers, Bowne; sermon collections from Weatherhead, Gomes, Tittle, Fosdick; others.   But I found my progress slow and slower. With each book, my willingness to skim and skip diminished. I found my intrigue at his notes increasing, and my attention to his underlining expanding. I dream on and off of a large oak door, heavy with metal locks and frame, unopened, chained shut: my dad on one side and I on the other. In the lasting grief I feel at the earthly loss of my dad, it has happened that his preacher’s library has become a kind of spiritual bridge, a mode of ongoing conversation between us.

There is range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience. Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

One day this summer, on one of my less than fruitful forays into the library, I came upon a book, the title of which is borrowed for this morning’s sermon (A Rumor of Angels: NY, Doubleday, 1969—portions quoted below found therein). Published in 1969, hardly more than 100 pages, accessible to clergy and lay alike, brisk and direct in style, sprinkled with salt and light in humor and aphorism, the book, it happens, was written by a Boston University colleague and friend of mine, the premier sociologist of religion of our time, Peter Berger. Professor Berger has graciously endured lunches and conversation, including some semi-successful jokes, with me over these last few years. I knew of this book, both its title and its general argument, which is that God is not dead, religion is not dead and religious experience is not entirely absent from this earthly vale of tears. But I had never read it. I stuffed the book in my bag.

It is hard to try to recreate the context, 1968, in which Berger was writing and thinking what hardly anyone else was thinking and writing. I will not try to do so. 1. But try to imagine, or remember, a time when Time magazine’s cover read, ‘Is God Dead?’, or 2. when the most potent religious word was ‘secular’, or 3. when administrative malfeasance led to a drug experiment on Good Friday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, or 4. when the most successful camp meeting was a mud soaked musical weekend in the Upstate New York village of Woodstock. Just when all hell was breaking loose, Berger wrote about heaven. Like debate participants try to do, he caused people to take a second look at something, or someone.

There is transcendence—he speaks of the ‘supernatural’—all about us. Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Alumni weekend. What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience? Berger’s summary still works. You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears…

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order. Some of you are hoarders, of sorts, and bring order by refusing to get rid of anything. Others are the very opposite, ‘when in doubt throw it out’.   You have a desire to see things set right, one way or another. What were those kids doing at Woodstock, in the mud, listening to Janis Joplin, fifty years ago? They were shouting to the heavens that things were not right, that something was out of order. Berger: A. This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality. This faith is experienced not only in the history of societies and civilizations, but in the life of each individual—indeed, child psychologists tell us there can be no maturation without the presence of this faith at the outset of the socialization process. B. Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience. Talk a bit about it, parents and children.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play. 1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun. 2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what. 3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4. Families were mesmerized this past summer, glued to gymnastics in England. 5. Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade? Berger: A.In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood…(Viewers of the recent film Moonrise Kingdom readily understand this). The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence. It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B.This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these. One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.” Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Third, we sense the (my word) supranatural, the transcendent, in the experience of hope. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Hope keeps us going when otherwise we would not. 1. You may have seen Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones dramatize this in the midst of their struggling marriage. The movie title: ‘Hope Springs’.   2. Parents hope their children will thrive in college. Students hope so too. So do professors and administrators and Deans of Chapels. We hope. There is something lasting, real, meaningful, costly and true about hope. 3. Where there is life there is hope. Better: where there is hope there is life. People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence. Berger: A. Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B. Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason…Faith takes into account the intentions within our natural experience of hope that point toward a supernatural fulfillment. I wonder if the generations sitting together in the pews this morning might, come Christmas, talk a bit about that most unreligious religious experience, a thing called hope, a place called hope, a time called hope, a feeling called hope?

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account. Berger uses, well, the word damnation. I am using slightly different language because I cannot make his argument as well with this word this morning. It is too loaded. But the heart of the intention is true and strong. We want people who get away with murder not ultimately to get away with murder. E Brunner, after WWII, was asked why he spoke about the devil: Said he: Two reasons. Jesus did. And I have seen him. When we think of mass murder, of horrific injustice, intentionally and painstakingly executed, we demand justice. There is something down deep in the human heart that just will not let things go. This is not about forgiveness. It is about retributive justice. Sometimes young people have a keener sense of this than their elders. Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions…A. There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…Not only are we constrained to condemn, and to condemn absolutely, but ,if we should be in a position to do so, we would feel constrained to take action on the basis of that certainty…B.Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell…No human punishment is enough in the case of deeds as monstrous as these…(this is) a moral order that transcends the human community and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human. When adults talk as adults, younger with older, there arise memories and understandings, dark in hue and deep in sentiment, that call out for an extraordinary, unearthly, transcendent justice. How shall we talk about these? Talk a bit, bit by bit, in the years to come, parents and children.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the supranatural or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice. 1. Here I will pause to tell an ostensibly humorous story. I was asked to pray at the start of a billion dollar campaign. My reply: ‘It would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure.’ 2. People ask about interreligious life on campus and I say: ‘The Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with’. 3. Phyllis Diller died this year. You remember her husband: Fang. You remember her mother in law: Moby Dick. You remember her sister in law: Captain Bligh. You remember her self deprecation (‘I once wore peek a boo blouse. One man peeked and then shouted ‘boo!’). You remember her cackling laughter. Humor, real humor, stops time still. ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh’, says the psalmist. Berger: There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe…A. The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…B.Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the might who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity. When you gather at Thanksgiving table, after the prayer and before the turkey, tell one funny story, or one joke, or one humorous memory. Talk a bit, talk a bit, talk a bit, parents and children.

Here is our theme: Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think. But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor? These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary. Talk a bit about it, parents and children. As Bonnie Raitt put it: let’s give them something to talk about!

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

September 10

A Season of Remembrance

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Matthew 18: 15-20

Click here to listen to the meditations only


It felt so good last week to come back, after a summer of travel and preaching, to be at home in our church home, to lean forward from our home pulpit, that of which we are the current, temporary stewards.  It is like when you go away for a week, and you come home.  You turn the key in the latch.  You pick up the mail.  You turn on the light.  You open the refrigerator to see if anything has arrived or departed (why do we do that?).  And we take in, you savor, that sense, scent, sensibility of being home.  It connects you again to who you are, reminds you of who you are.

Last Sunday a couple who had been married at Marsh Chapel fifty years to the day earlier attended worship here.  Our attentive usher team made sure, amid Matriculation madness, that the dean had a chance to greet the happy couple.  We asked them their secret of success.  He replied, ‘She is the secret’.  He did not miss a beat.  They came to remember who they were, who they are, who they want to be.  Fifty years goes by more quickly than you might think.  They had connections with Kingston Ontario, and Queens College there—a beautiful college town, a fine school, along the lakeshore.

Our summer travels took us, as it happens, to Kingston, Ontario in the last days of June—near Queens college, in that beautiful college town, along the lakeshore.   We went in something of reminiscence, since decades earlier it had been a regular family vacation destination.  Then only 2 hours away; only a couple of hundred US dollars for a few days; only a ride across the Thousand Islands Bridge, and, wa-la, another land, another country, a different currency, a slight difference in inflection.  In those years we had gone, summer and winter, to a hotel with a big pool, an indoor gym, hot tub and sauna:  a place where the kids could play and the parents could enjoy seeing them do so.  What one would or would not give to return, for an hour or a day, to that young adult  happiness, in a Canadian hostel!  In the hot tub, we found ourselves with two couples, one French and one English speaking.  We watched as they watched as their kids did exactly what our kids used to do, in the same spot, the same splash, the same laugh, the same joy.  We talked as travelers do.  They four were headed the next day to Ottawa to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the birth of the Dominion of Canada.  All six of us could remember the World’s Fair, MAN AND HIS WORLD, from the Montreal of 1967.  All of us had been there.  They spoke of their new leader, son of a former Premier, Justin Trudeau.  They spoke plainly, eloquently, proudly, lovingly, and personally.   The English wife said, ‘You know, it’s just that, I mean, it’s just that…He reminds us of who we are, at our best’.  As in that moment we did refrain, so here in the sermon we will refrain from making any comparative remarks, regarding current Canadian and US leadership, as to what each has reminded us about.  ‘He reminds us of who we are’.

Who reminds you of your own most self, your own best selves?  You could ponder that this week, and let us know next Sunday.  Whose memory, whose books, whose voice, whose example, whose life and the living of it re-clothes you in your rightful mind?


With that question, we offer a word of invitation to you, an invitation to discipleship and through Marsh Chapel.  Welcome to the varied ministry of Marsh Chapel at Boston University!  We look forward to getting to know you, as you sign up to sing in a choir, as you volunteer to usher or greet, as you attend a fellowship or study group, and especially as you worship with us on Sunday at 11am!

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is to be ‘a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city’.  To that end Dr. Jarrett will invite you to vocal expressions of faith in the life of our music program.  To that end Ms. Chicka will invite you to global outreach in our work with International students.  To that end Br. Whitney will invite you to take part and take leadership in campus student ministry.  To that end Mr. Bouchard will solicit your support for work and works in hospitality.  To that end I will invite you to formal membership, to joining Marsh Chapel, on October 22:  mark the date!

This year, with our emphasis on ‘voice, vocation, and volume’ in our shared life, we are using as a focus for our work the word remembrance.   Our fall and spring term worship and community life are laden with moments of remembrance.  2017-2018 is a full season of remembrance.  On September 17, we remember Elie Wiesel.  On October 29 (and again in November) we remember Martin Luther.  In Lent 2018 we remember Thomas Merton.  Then in April 2018, in the week following Easter, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Come and join us throughout this year in a special season of remembrance!

Where I can be personally helpful to you, and where our staff, chaplains, and campus ministers can be a benefit and blessing to you, do not hesitate to call up on us.

John Wesley famously called for a means of grace to ‘spread scriptural holiness and reform the nation’. May grace expand and extend in meaning for us in the fall term, 2017!

A Season of Remembrance

Elie Wiesel reminded and reminds us, at Boston University, of who we are.  From the very first day of the life of this University, the school has welcomed with open arms all people, regardless of gender, race, or religion.  Women, Blacks, Jews—all—matriculated with day one.  Today we would quickly add—all religions, all nationalities, all sexual identities, all varieties of physical abilities.  Wiesel’s lectures, attended by more than a thousand a night, thrice each fall, in a stroke set a moral compass for the year’s study.  Every era, though few quite as despicably as our own, tempts us, particularly public leadership, to sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  To sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  It is not only a leader taking us, say, toward authoritarianism who is to be resisted and rejected, but it is also and more so those who, without recantation, abet and abide with that leadership, those who are collaborators, who use the same language, who take the same partisan identity, who quietly allow the drip by drip accretion of unfettered power that leads to the great hurricane of later trouble.  It starts with a few drops.  Wiesel reminds us at BU of who we are.

Martin Luther reminded and reminds us, in Religious Life, of who we are.  Many are the difficulties to arranging a proper, nuanced recollection of Luther, Protestant Reformer, Biblical Genius, Person of Courage–and Virulent Anti-Semite.  Down and up, though, for ill and good, he reminds us that religion is indeed like the weather.  Sometimes sunshine, sometimes rain, never perfect, and in need of steady meteorological, that is to say, theological prediction and predilection.  To be a protestant is to apply the protestant principle, as did Luther, and to subject religion to utterly, fully religious critique. (It was Paul Tillich who best did articulate the protestant principle, that all authority, including and especially religious authority, is subject to critique when it makes what is relative, absolute).  The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  You see how sharply our moments of remembrance do diverge this year, from Wiesel to Luther and beyond.  SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, but SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  The Gospel in St. Matthew today, a rehearsal of an inherited Jewish tradition, with a remarkable and telling late use of the word ‘church’, ECCLESIA, certainly many decades after Jesus, itself places us in this ongoing reformation, from the first century on.  Luther reminds us in Religious Life of who we are.

We will trust to Thomas Merton to remind us, as he did in life, of the better angels of Christian nature.  His artistic spirit, his international range, his mysticism, his Catholicism, his brilliant writing along the climb up life’s SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, have much to commend them, for us just now.  This is an age in this country when a group of nine or so religious leaders in Nashville, who having studied the Bible surely know better, can stand together and dehumanize 10% of the world’s population, straight forwardly dehumanizing anyone not straight.  This is a season in which 81% of Evangelical Christians have supported the recent cultural affirmation of white nationalism, without so much as a fare thee well, and, to date, without recantation.  Here is the bottom line:  You shall love the God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The reason your dean ended up preaching\ speaking 18 times not 8 this summer is in part that there is a wide-open field out there for Christian preaching that is biblical, traditional, theological and practical—that is, in a word, liberal.  Who is to speak for the full, deep, wide, global body of Christianity—the Nashville 9 and the Evangelical 81? Or the deeper wisdom of scripture, tradition, reason and experience? The deeper wisdom of the church has not yet found full voice or hearing, over against the conservative cacophony.  It will.  But it will take a decade, and the capacity to endure humiliation for a decade.  A light touch, a little whimsy, and deep wisdom: Merton reminds us as global Christians of who we are.

Come April, we will turn toward Martin Luther King, Jr.  We will need to do so, to recognize and honor his sacrifice, the loss of his life in and for the cause of Right.  While most are not yet across the land, or even our community, focused on the season, this will make 50 years since King was murdered, April 4, 2018.  Whatever others may not or may do, Marsh Chapel, we have a song to sing, a bell to ring, a word to say, and a responsibility to meet.  The statue out front, the doves, the remembrance of King, does not give us the endless troubles that schools near and far are having with their own statues.  My brother is proud graduate of the law school at Washington and Lee, for instance.  But it does ask something of us, and specifically of you, Marsh Chapel. With every gift, there comes a task, in the economy of grace.  It asks of us a season of remembrance.  Our cultural amnesia leading toward fascism, our Christological amnesia leading toward exclusion, our collegiate amnesia leading toward silence finally stand under the shadow of the King statue.  King reminds us as the Marsh Chapel congregation, virtual and actual, past and future, tithing and non-tithing, you and me and all, of who we are.

A Word of Faith in a Pastoral Voice toward a Common Hope

We await a common hope, a hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We await a common hope, a hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We await a common hope, a hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We await a common hope, a hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We await a common hope, a hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We await a common hope, a hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We await a common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.


            Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’.  He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’.  He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name’.  He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.  He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us!  I mean it.  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

September 3

Spiritual Life in College

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Exodus 3

Romans 12

Matthew 16:21-28

Click here to listen to the meditations only


 There is a great rush, a wind of life, energy, and hope with which every school year begins. May we not ever miss the privilege and joy of this Matriculation moment. Here you are, having bid farewell to mother and father, and said hello to Alma Mater. Your own life, your own most life, your second but truly first life now begins, or commences in another way. We should, all, remove our sandals, for this holy ground. ‘I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Spiritual life in college, as in all life, but in a particularly particular way, causes you to walk, to walk pretty, to walk in a certain way. You will walk in a moment down Commonwealth Avenue, whose more Eastern blocks Winston Churchill called ‘the most beautiful street in America’. He was not wrong. Like the heart beating lub-dub, like spirit and flesh engaged together, like ear and eye, mind and heart, sol y sombra, one two, one foot two foot, hay foot straw foot, you are on the trail. I take my hat off to you, and bow before you, as did St Vincent De Paul before his students, with the dim awareness that in your midst is genius, somewhere someone somehow.

Boston is the country’s best walking city, a pedestrian palace of nature and culture. You know from the SAT the French phrase, ‘flaneur dans le rue’, to saunter down the street with no especial task, just the breathing joy of breathing, and so you are a flaneur of the spirit. Walk. Walk at dawn. Walk. Walk in the mid day. Walk. Walk in the evening. Walk in the sunshine and especially the snow. But walk. And for those otherwise abled, guide the walkers with a sense of strength in difference.

Come Sunday, that’s the day, walk to worship, walk to church, walk to the Chapel. It is the one walk most needed, on which all the rest in some balefully unappreciated measure does depend. You are child of God. Walk here and hear so.


Now the spiritual life takes shape. Here you are. Come and listen. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century set out his orders for his order, beginning with the first and most important. Listen. It is not what you see but what hear that matters, lasts, counts, gives meaning. Faith comes by hearing not scanning. Hearing comes by the Word of God, not the words of a screen. Tweet, tweet. The eye is the window of the soul. The keyboard is not the window of the soul. What holds, molds, scolds, folds, for youngs and olds, is in the hearing. We have three regular blind parishioners who will remind you, in their faithfulness, of the primacy of the ear. Listen.

Listen for what is not said, for the dog that does not bark. Listen for what engages, and for what enrages, both. Listen to the sounds of silence. Listen for a word of faith offered in a pastoral voice toward the prospect of a common hope. Listen for a word of faith offered in a pastoral voice toward the prospect of a common hope. “Dad, I heard something fantastic the other day. It went like this…’ We have two ears, and one tongue.

What Jesus said in 30ad is written down at last by Matthew in 85ad. There was a long line of listening, hearing, sharing, speaking, long before the writing. In part we know this because the two saying here are at odds, one offering to hearing and faith the paradox of saving and losing life: you only have, only possess, only truly hold what you have the power, grace, freedom and courage to give away. If you do not have it, you cannot give it. If you give it, truly, you then show you have owned it.   The sayings were written down together in Matthew 16 because they shared a tag word—life. What can you give in exchange for your life? (Here the message is conservative: hold on, flee false forfeit, prize life now you have it). Whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses is life will find it. (Here the message is liberal: splash around with generosity, give with no thought of return, take up the cross, follow). The two teachings are at daggers drawn. Which one for which day on which way will you say? It’s up to you. Over time, you will need them both. Listen. Tune your ear to God.   Life is short.


As today, so every Lord’s day, much is read, come Sunday. A love of reading conjured in college—for this we pray for one and all.   Not scanning. Reading.   Reading will take you out beyond and behind the twin towers of your birth. You have come of age in the shadow of the toppled towers, class of 2021.   You were born in the shadow of two falling, flaming towers. You came to breath under the ash cloud of nineleven. Its soot and its debris and its loss. In 2011, ten years on, as University Chaplain I telephoned the BU families, some 50, who had suffered loss that day. Some I could not reach. Some hung up. Some listened, offered thanks, and bade farewell. Some paused and spoke, in remembrance. In the shadow of the World Trade Center.

Yet there is, by analogy, another set of towers that came down as you came up.   At your birth two great towers fell. The tower of peace. The tower of voice. Terror toppled the tower of peace. Technology toppled the tower of voice. In that era, 15 or twenty years ago, extremism emerged to quash peace. In that era, 15 or 20 years ago, the internet emerged to quash voice. The latter, the loss of voice to the omnivorous screen, is by far the more pernicious. Tweet, tweet. Though, with a nod to Stockholm, and its syndrome, a whole generation, global, has come to love it. We kiss our captor. We snuggle up to our tormentor. See where we have come. T plus T equals T. Terror plus Technology equals Trump. F plus F equals F. Fear plus Falsehood equals Fascism. Tweet, tweet.

Read. Thereby you escape the confines of the early 21st century. Are there no other escape routes? No. You read. While other party, you read. While others drink, you read. While others play, you read.   You will come to a great land that has been awaiting your arrival. It is the land of memory. See the meadow, bright in the morning! Memory. Hear the chorus of birdsong at dawn! Memory. Now you are ready to move into memory in reading.   Pick a favorite verse. Read it well enough to commit it to memory. Dr. Jones at Trinity College said last week, When you start to memorize you start to notice the things you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading. As the congregation knows by frequent infliction, today’s epistle is one of mine. (Let love genuine…). Reading will take you to a land of memory, the location of a deeper story.


Heather Heyer’s mother spoke clearly about the spiritual life, as she gave grieving lament for her daughter’s death.   You come of age in a dark time in the history of our land, a decade of humiliation under the aegis of leadership devoted to ethnic nationalism. We are one year in, or almost so. It will take nine more, or more, before we are on the brighter path again. You will want and need to think how we got here. Start with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. You dwell in the tenth floor of a building whose first three stories were constructed with stolen land and enslaved labor, free land and free labor, for the benefit of anyone who had or used money, then or now.

You have the subsidized freedom, for four years or more or less, to think. Think things through. Think from the top down and the bottom up. Go where others are trying to think, and think with them. Challenge them. Question them. Press them. See what lasts. I am not afraid of the Gospel. It is the power of salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith’.

You remember what the bereft mother of a college age daughter killed in Charlottesville by a marauding white racist driver, and a marauding white racist crowd, and marauding white racist leadership said, quietly, said, gently, said truly, said directly to a feckless, heedless national leadership, ostensibly the soggenante leadership of the free world: Think before you speak. Think before you speak.

Spiritual life—walk, listen, read, think—spiritual life true to your own-most self, is the only primary nourishment you will need for the next four years. Or the next forty. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?



– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.