Archive for November, 2018

November 25

Bear Witness to the Truth

By Marsh Chapel

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Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

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When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities? When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?  Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.   The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Flashing Lights

From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018 we had only two days of real rain.  From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018, we also had only two days without grandchildren, of some number and assortment and age, with us.  They were not the two same days.  On the evening of August 4 we set out with our dear friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  An experience of warning soon ensued.  Now and then, the Gospel itself comes in a word of warning.

In 1959 our family moved to the little college town of Hamilton, NY, where we attended seven years of grammar school, where and when grammar was taught in grammar schools. The evening of August 4 we drove over Hamilton Hill, where our scout troop once hiked.  We passed Andy McGonnis’s Farm, he who in the sixth grade starred with me in a two voice drama, ‘Brainy and Brawny’, about a strong good person and a smart bad person.  The better title might have been Brawny and Scrawny.  Andy is still farming his family land fifty years later, down the road from where my friend Bill lived as a Colgate senior.  By the way, if you happen to enter the town from the north west, as we did that night, be sure to slow down after Andy’s barn, to the legal 30 MPH limit, even though the road seems a 55 MPH roadway.  Otherwise you will contribute unwillingly, ticketed for speeding, to the township budget, funded in part by this particular passage. We moved from Hamilton in 1966 but I have been there through the summers for part of every year since.  Or, I have been there ever since.

That night the twilight gleamed and we were celebrating.  I noted Andy’s farm and with body memory slowed to 30 MPH.  Our friends who have eleven grandchildren to our mere seven, were also, for the moment, grandchildless on the lake, and ready to party.  Coming down Hamilton Hill I remembered my fortieth birthday, on the evening of which I had driven down the hill to hear my old teacher Cornel West hold 1,000 Colgate students mesmerized as he spoke without notes, but with wise passion, for 90 minutes.  After the entry to town, from this odd angle, there is a crossing onto the main street that involves a tangled intersection with one yield and one stop sign within 20 feet of each other.  I navigated the intersection and headed into town when—you will recognize in viscera the moment—red lights swirled behind me atop a local police SUV.  We pulled over.  A portly policeman about my age came to us, and you can write the next lines yourselves. ‘May I see your license and registration please’.  ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ (Here, for the young, I simply note that one never says anything like yes to that query.  Your answer is ‘I truly have no idea occifer’)  “No I don’t.”  “You went right through the stop sign back there”.  (Again, for the young, I note, the response here is no response). ‘Are you aware of that’.  “Well, no, actually, I did not recognize that”. “Well, you did.”

Now.  I assume that he was right and I came to a rolling but not full stop at the aforementioned intersection.  Whether I did or not does not matter.  It is his view that matters.  A long pause ensued, during which he surveyed the audience, the driver, an aging white guy with a comb-over, as my son likes to describe me, and three other Caucasian passengers with white hair.   For once, I was delighted to be an aging white guy with a comb-over.  While the portly policeman pondered his next move, I fleetingly wondered what would have happened if I had been 28 years old, black, and with dread locks; or alone, female, and 25; or Hispanic, speaking limited English, with crying children in the back seat; or Japanese, with a newborn, and not fully sure of the ways of our people (like my daughter in law, a native of Kyoto, who had flown back to San Diego that afternoon).  Yes, this was one good time to be older, white, balding and accompanied by similar cue tips fore and aft.  “Well” said the officer “you did slow down coming into town, that was good;  but that intersection does have a yield and a stop sign; you blew through the stop. I am going to give you a warning.  Learn from it.  Have a nice evening going out to dinner.  But remember you have passengers with you and we have a town here that we want to keep safe.”With that he returned my license and registration and shook my hand. 

Hostile Environment

I come back to the warning in a minute.  As a 12 year old I left my hometown of Hamilton in 1966.  By 1986 Jan and I were in ministry with a struggling urban regional church in Syracuse, an hour north and west of Hamilton.  The church was growing, thanks to excellent lay leadership and willingness to engage the neighborhood with a new day care center, a renewed nursery school, two new scout troops, a new dance school, a new senior citizens’ program, a new student ministry, a new writers’ project, and an added second Sunday service.  People tolerated the preacher, largely because they liked his family.  One new couple, Pam and Josiah Young, a thirty year old African American couple, joined us perhaps in part because our congregation, like that at Marsh Chapel today, had become solidly racially integrated, say thirty percent people of color with 200 in worship on Sunday.  One night we had Pam and Josiah to dinner.  They later left our church, with some struggle and misgiving, because our bishop planted a black congregation in the same part of the city, and they felt that had to support him in that.  But for some years they helped lead the church, were tithing and faithful in worship, and were good happy people to have around.  She was a partner in a law firm downtown, and he taught, at, of all places, Colgate, in my hometown, in the Religion department.  Over dinner we listened to music Jan had chosen and Josiah appreciated.  We got better acquainted.  At one point, I expostulated on the bucolic joys of Hamilton where I learned to skate and play hockey, where I fished in the swan pond at will, where we stole freshman beanies off the heads of newcomers, where I pitched for the little league team, where I became a tender foot scout and camped in the woods in February, where Andy McGonnis and I became friends, and where we were enthralled by the Colgate funded fire works every year on July 4th.  Pam and Josiah listened graciously.  After the lengthy peroration, I asked: ‘Josiah, how do you like teaching at Colgate and being in Hamilton part of each week?’.  I will never forget his reply.  It was a warning.  “It is a hostile environment” he replied.   Of course, he did so with grace, and acknowledged my own experience, and was endlessly careful not unnecessarily to offend.  But he was honest, not just kind, but kind and honest. For a thirty year old black man with a beard and horn rimmed glasses, Hamilton coud be pretty hostile territory.  I knew that, sort of, but I knew it well when he said so.

As our portly officer retreated, Josiah came to mind.  What would have happened had he been the driver, not me?  Maybe the outcome would have been the same.   I know the policeman would have fully noticed my own Massachusetts license plate, and on a weekend when the Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight games at Fenway, things Boston were not popular there in the heart of New York.  But the officer forgave the Boston license, even though a ticket for an out of towner is low hanging fruit.  Maybe he would have been equally gracious with Josiah.   However, only 20 miles north from Hamilton, some years ago, our son, then with shoulder length hair and tank top, was pulled over before the policeman saw my wife, sitting next to her son (she had been slumped in the seat sleeping).  Surprised, the officer made some comment and moved on.  He had wanted to ticket a hippie, perhaps, but then mom reared her head.  He moved on. 

Words of Warning for You and Me

On August 4, I was given a needed, just and kindly warning.  Be careful when you go through that intersection again.  I took it to heart.  We had a fine summer dinner, and I drove home later at four miles an hour. Warnings matter, in the little and in the large.  They are gifts, often kindly shared, like the portly officer’s warning gift to me, like Josiah’s warning gift to me.  Be careful, says such a gift.  Stop when the sign says stop.  Stop. Look.  Look around you at what another person in the same little town, but with different aspect, might experience.  Look.  Listen. Listen for what the warnings may mean. Warnings are good things.

Jonathan Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.  How well can we honestly ever ‘see ourselves as others see us’?  All of us can learn from Haidt, to some measure.  He is warning us, like the portly officer warned me, and like the Colgate professor warned me, and now, like this sermon, we hope with love and humility, is trying to warn you.

There are at least two words of warning available to us, with the lights of John 18: 33 flashing, for a moment, this morning.  They are both for us all.  One though may be a bit more for those of us on the right, and the other a bit more for those of us on the left.  And as the Apostle would put it, ‘on this I have no word of the Lord but I give my own view’ (parallel, 1 Cor. 7: 12, 25).

For those more on the right:  You may be a 48-year-old mother living in southern New Hampshire, or a 60 year old plumber living in northern Connecticut.  A couple of years ago, and again a couple of weeks ago, driving into town, and passing Andy McGonnis’s farm, you slowed down to do your civic duty, and to enter the election season.  You obeyed the speed limit, you thought about your choice, and you acted, you chose, you, say, voted.  You came to a confusing intersection, and maybe, just maybe, you let a rolling stop substitute for a full stop.  Maybe what you thought you meant, was, you see in hindsight, not what it means.  For what it means is what it does, to others. So you see in the rear view mirror, you see in conversation with a portly officer dressed in a Sunday sermon,  a country thrust into a time of humiliation, mendacity, racial divides, diminution of women, fear of immigrants, neglect of the environment, support for the wealthy and disregard for the poor, a time of Charlottesville, Helsinki and children taken from their mothers’ arms.    So now, up comes a sermon, in uniform, and asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation’?  Well, we all have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.   Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

For those more on the left:  You may be a 50 year old college professor living in the Boston suburbs, or a 22 year old musician making ends meet in the east end.  It may be, this morning, there is warning in the morning for you:  slow down.  Slow down.  The laws are meant for us all.  We are a country of ‘laws and not of men’, as my college classmate Kiki Kliendienst’s dad, Richard Kleindienst, said in the spring of 1975, just before he went off to prison, one of the last convicted in the Watergate affair.  The laws, including traffic laws, the laws, including stop signs and yield signs, the laws, from sea to shining sea and from border to border, are for all of us.  You will not turn a 330 million person ship around in one fell swoop.  It will take a decade, or more, and that is if you really work at it.  And it will take a just regard for just law, liberty and justice for all.  So there are not short cuts, and up comes a sermon in uniform, and he asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ Well, we all make mistakes, and have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.  Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

 When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities?  When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God? Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.  The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”


–The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean 



November 18

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 13: 1-8

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

The passage today from St Mark is sometimes called the ‘Little Apocalypse’. The reading is another place in the Gospel where and when we overhear the troubles of Mark’s community. They face persecution. In facing trouble, they wonder whether the end of time has come.

The Gospel writer records the Lord’s response that ‘the end is not yet’. The rest of this long chapter, which will include some apocalyptic language and imagery from the first century, continues to make the same point. The end is not here. There may be trouble, trauma, and persecution, but the end is not quite yet here. In end, at the end of Mark 13, we will be counseled that no one can see the future, and that we should therefore be watchful.

Herein, Mark 13, we are reminded of what we have heard from Mark through the past year, now brought to a sort of conclusion.  Jesus ‘expected the end of all things imminently, or at least within a generation of his own lifetime’ (J Marcus, 864).   Oddly, this chapter begins with a traditional listing of signs that will precede such an end.  Yet when we come to the end of Mark 13, the end of the end of the end of things, as it were, the opposite view is presented, that the end, like most if not all endings, will come without warning, suddenly, unexpectedly, and so on.  Further, the ongoing fear or pain of persecution in Mark’s community bubbles up in this chapter, beginning to end.  ‘Cognitive dissonance’, in our beloved Peter Berger’s phrase, oozes out of every nook and cranny.  As do the references to Daniel– take ‘Son of Man’ to stand for many.  Mark knew his Hebrew Scripture, or so it appears.  He also appears to have had some preaching competitors, whom he is quoting to discredit; when you hear of…That said, Mark is using standard eschatological language and imagery, right out of central apocalyptic casting, traditional, customary in his time, if utterly baffling and odd in ours.

At home, listening, ready it may be for the beauty today of the Bach, you may wonder what on earth or under the earth any of this matters, and fair enough.  Yet it mattered to the early Christians, big league.  It mattered to them that there was meaning in and beyond their suffering.  It mattered that the momentous changes of their time—religion destroyed in the fall of the temple, say—were endurable and surmountable.  It mattered that the good news of God’s love, in the end, by gospel teaching, prevails, over against all manner of other endings.  These things matter to us as well.  Further, Mark, as Paul, is unafraid to metaphorize using birth pangs, labor pain, to convey both the reality of hurt and the joy of impending new life.  These men wrote of what they did not know, but, truly, they told the truth.

Taken as whole, the New Testament books, while shot through with apocalyptic language and imagery, like that found in here Mark 13, expectations of the end of time current at the time the books were written, these books bring their own slant, their own perspective to inherited apocalyptic thought. Some adopt that thought. Some discard it. The Gospel of Mark adopts it. The Gospel of John discards it.

In its place, in the main, the New Testament books proclaim a way of living in thanksgiving, a way of living in love. In our day, and in our particular part of history, including these past several months with their own troubles and their own trauma, we may want to take a clear reminder with us of thanksgiving, of love. ‘Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’.

That is, in much of this, the Gospel lesson is not that different from the reading from Hebrews, where we are similarly encouraged to be gentle, thankful, loving, and watchful. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”. A remarkable, beautiful admonition.

In the end, coming to the end, when all is said and done: Plan for the worst.  Hope for the best.  Then do your most.  And leave all the rest.

Live with thanksgiving as the harvest draws near.  Harvest with love as thanksgiving draws near.  Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice, and give thanks for others, for people, for a bounty of people, for a thanksgiving of soulful people, as our friend Max Coots wrote:

“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.”

(Max Coots)

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.  Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen this morning to this morning’s wonderful cantata?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Thank you, Dean Hill. This morning’s cantata is a musical reflection on verse from the 19th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem with waves of palm branches and loud Hosannas, but already he observes the reaction of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and prophesies God’s anger that they have not recognized God’s grace. His despair boils over to anger in the following verse when he overturns the vendors tables in the Temple. Bach and his librettist have created in Cantata 46 a masterpiece in miniature that connects the modern day congregant to the people of Jerusalem who did not recognize the grace of God. We are reminded that our own sin gets in the way of our ability to love and accept God’s grace. As a consolation, we are reminding in the alto aria that even as Jesus punishes, he watches over his faithful as sheep and little chicks.

The cantata opens with a verse from Lamentations: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow, like unto my sorry; for the Lord hath afflicted me with great misery in the day of his wrath.” These verses depict Jesus’s anguish and prophesy of judgement from the Luke text. This opening movement is structured neatly in two halves: a low lament with weeping triads for the singers, followed by a gnarled fugue that depicts both our misery and God’s wrath. Bach thought so highly of this music that he used it to fashion the Qui Tollis of the B Minor Mass compiled a decade later.

The two arias that form the corpus of the cantata are for bass and alto, respectively, and both draw on images from nature to state their case. In the first aria, heralded by a trumpet, the bass sings of the brewing storm clouds that are the harbinger of God’s judgement. Listen for the lighting breaking through the clouds both in the marvelous melisma for the bass but also the virtuosic scales darting around the orchestra.

For the reminder of Jesus’s protection of the faithful, the threat of bad weather is momentarily quelled. Silent are the strings of the orchestra; silent too is the continuo group. Taking over a lonely walking bass of a continuo line are two oboes da caccia playing in unison, as two gentle recorders  ruminate on the theme. At the end of the end, Bach takes one more opportunity to remind us of gathering storms when we are reminded that when storms reward sinners, Jesus helps the faithful to dwell securely.

The final chorale reminds us of the language from the opening movement, but here it is Jesus’s passion that calms the storm.

This presentation of Cantata 46 concludes Marsh Chapel’s survey of cantatas written in the summer of 1723, weeks marked by astonishing displays of Bach’s theological and musical wonders. What a gift they must have been to Leipzig congregants as they are us to us today.   

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

         To conclude our sermon today, as is our tradition at Marsh Chapel in this season, we offer Howard Thurman’s magnificent Thanksgiving prayer.  We offer his prayer in devotion to God, in the moment.  We offer his prayer in gratitude to you, especially you who may be looking for a prayer for Thursday at dinner time:

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. 

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music.

November 11

Hold Fast To What Is Good

By Marsh Chapel

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Romans 12: 9

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            Hold fast to what is good! (Romans 12: 9)

This is a verse we remember and revere.  To return to it, to a beloved, familiar passage evokes, most evoke, some sense of humility rooted in praise, some sense of understanding rooted in wonder, some sense of life rooted in an awareness of death, some sense of love rooted in need, some sense of longing rooted amid all the daily ennui, acedia, and loneliness of life.  Come Sunday, for all the guns fired mid-week and all the fires burning weekday and weekend, we reach up and reach out to hold onto the good.   So, come Sunday, we return to a familiar verse in a familiar space, a space like this one, Marsh Chapel, laden with the recollections of the good.  We listen for a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.


Four Chaplains 

            This November 11, 2018, one hundred years since the end of the first World War, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, ‘the war to end all wars’, we notice again that in our balcony here at Marsh Chapel you can find a stained glass window which remembers four veterans, chaplains in the Second World War.   On this Sunday Veteran’s Day, we remember them. As Daniel Marsh reminded us:   In the early days of WW II, the SS Dorchester laden to capacity with soldiers was struck by a torpedo.  On board were four chaplains. They were of different denominations and traditions, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.  Their ship was hit and began to sink.  In prayer, the four determined to take off their life jackets, and to give those four jackets to four young men who had none.  It is a bracing, warning sign and story for us.  Life is unpredictable.  You never quite know what may emerge.  Granted that most of us are not and will not be in the crisis faced by those four chaplains, nonetheless their courage, their courage unto death, their courage as veterans and as ministers, humbles us and inspires us too:  George L. Fox, a Methodist preacher; Clark Vandersall Poling, a Dutch Reformed preacher; John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi.  Fox was a graduate of Boston University. They were on deck together, praying, when the stricken ship made her final plunge. (D. Marsh, The Charm of the Chapel, 136).

            We are drawn again to recall such sacrifice, in a week when a Southern California policeman, Officer Ron Helus, with a wife and family and year from retirement, lost his life responding to rapacious, outrageous, needless, senseless gun violence.  If all 49 other states had the gun laws of our Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we would be in much better shape as a country.  It is tempting to let dismay and discouragement overwhelm. Yet we will want to bear in mind that, over time, matters in public health can change, and do, and, may it be so, regarding guns, over time, will.   Fifty years ago 40% of American adults smoked cigarettes.  Today that percentage is 14%.  Real change is real hard but it comes in real time when real people really work at it. Giving up is not an option.

            Hold fast to what is good!


Inner Strength

            This calendar year, in all our preaching, summer and fall, on hope, and looking back 50 years, we honored the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in January with Dr. Walter Fluker, on April with Rev. Cornell William Brooks and Governor Deval Patrick, in September with Dean Lawrence Carter.

            Yet we also in the spring term honored and remembered the birth of our own Inner Strength Gospel Choir, 45 years ago.  We gathered on the morning of April 28, to learn, to listen to speeches and memories, and then to hear the Inner Strength Gospel Choir sing, under the adroit leadership of Director Herbert S. Jones.  It was a profound moment, impressive in its recollection that the choir came together to hold fast to what is good, to provide mutual support in a time and in an environment that could be fully hostile. We are pleased and proud to have the Inner Strength Gospel choir singing with us today.  Through the year we are proud to have the choir representing Marsh Chapel and the University in various guest appearances and travels.  On April 28 we were captivated and enthralled to hear the choir sing, as their concluding anthem, ‘O Happy Day’.

            How do we find inner strength?  In the face of sin and death and the threats of meaninglessness, we do so in mutual support, in the joy of song, and  by holding on to the good.

            Hold fast to what is good!


Mark 12: 38-44 

            Our exemplars from Scripture this morning are heroines of the Bible, both women.  Ruth’s complex, multi-valent story, a series of sermons in itself, which as you remember began last week with the courage to leave the familiar, continues today in her grasp of security for the future. Naomi reminds her, and she reminds us that we need not fear to state our needs.  Say what you need, name what you need, so that, as Naomi says, it may be well with you.  Then in our Gospel, the famous widow of Mark 12 makes her appearance, as she does every third autumn, in our lectionary round of readings.  The ordinary perception of her, as a pillar of generous giving, which she is, misses the admonishment of those of us of means.  There is a poignant recollection here, in the comparison of one who gives much, we might read too much (everything she had, all she had to live on), in contrast to those who give little, we might read too little (out of their abundance).

            The widow’s voice is an alto, second level, voice.  Not that of Jesus—not soprano.  Not written only by Mark—not tenor.  Not absorbed in the history of interpretation—not bass (oddly, of all the early Christian writers, only one fully cites this passage—Commodianus, ANF IV, 221)

            She may have been included just here, simply by connection with the earlier teaching about disregard for widows.  These admonitions are like others from the gospels: woes for the cities of Galilee, woes for the rich, criticisms of the current generation, threats to this generation, threats to Jerusalem, woes to the daughters of Jerusalem, woes to those who say ‘lord, lord’, rejection of false disciples, warnings about the parousia, and others (RB, HST, 49). 

            The widow came to life in the experience of the early church—a true alto. This narrative probably originated in a sermon.  A sermon meant perhaps ‘to present the Master as a living contemporary, and to comfort and admonish the Church in her hope’ (RB, HST, 60)

            Later, Matthew has deleted the story of the widow–it is unclear why–while Luke keeps her, in keeping with his own emphases on generosity (think of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son).  Mark apparently puts her in, just here, because of the use of the word ‘widow’ in the sentence before.  Make no mistake about it: “at the sight of religion frozen into ritualism, at the sight of superficiality and love of self and the world—this message becomes a cry of woe and repentance”. (IBD, Mark, loc.cit)

            Hold fast to what is good!


Veteran Widows 

            In the widow’s more ordinary conscription to exemplify giving with generosity, one finds a harbinger of goodness waiting to be discovered again by another generation of women and men who will enter the ministry. There they will find her, salt and light, out in the life of ministry, endless in its labors but also precious in its gifts.  Her story in the Bible would not mean very much alone, if we had not also known her, in experience, in our own life and ministry. I call her out in her modern incarnations, this giving, generous widow.

            Here is Bernice Danks, whose husband ran the Cornell Veterinary School, she an Ithaca Nurse, later widow, and a teacher of nurses, whose favorite word was the word ‘routine’:  ‘I tell my students to protect what is routine.  We call the most important things the routine things because the most important things are the routine’.   Singing with joy in the choir, attending countless, endless meetings with a good humor, greeting the day with its losses and its gains with a steady, real smile, here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Here is Setta Moe, a North Country widow, living alone for years on a small pension, reading at dusk in the cold tundra twilight.   On her own, years earlier, she had gone from house to house to raise money for some beautiful stained glass in an otherwise modest church.  ‘I felt I could do something for the church.  We need more beauty here, more beautiful things around here, to keep us going’. Here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Here is Mickey Murray, a Syracuse widow, whose husband died at 40, She raised her three children alone.  Every Wednesday in those years she went to the church after work and cooked a full meal for her own kids and twenty or so others, then had them play, sing, read the Bible and do their homework together.  She had every reason to complain about the cards life dealt her. Instead she practiced a communal generosity, and made a difference in her city neighborhood.  Here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Here is Ruth Lippitt, a Rochester widow, who all her life gave voice to the longing for peace and justice she had learned as a graduate student in Chicago, under the influence of Ernest Freemont Tittle.  She gathered ten elderly friends for dinner in her home to meet the new minister, a year before she died, and, before the meal said bluntly, ‘tell him who you are, one by one, you have two minutes, and I will ring this bell if you go longer’.   Yes the ministry has its rigors.  But it also has its own sheer joys.  Here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Hold fast to what is good!



           Beloved!  Let us draw ourselves together and affirm our faith!

           Whence cometh our hope?

           From the Lord who made heaven and earth.  The Creator. The Ground of Being.  The God beyond God.  The invisible, unknowable, unutterable, unattainable.  The first, the last beyond all thought.  The Transcendent.

          What is the point of our living?

          The meaning of life is in the living of life-To worship God and glorify God forever. 

          How is this possible, in the face of silence, darkness, mystery, accident, pride, immaturity, tragedy and the threat of meaninglessness?

          By walking in the dark with our Transforming Friend, the Transcript in Time of who God is in eternity, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace, our beacon not our boundary, the presence of the absence of God,  Jesus Christ our Kyrios, our Lord..

          Given our failures, our gone-wrongness, our sin, what daily hope have we, as those who hope for what we do not see?

          Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  Where there is freedom, there is promise.  There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe. There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

          How do we follow the trail of the Spirit?

         By generous giving, by ordered Sunday worship, by honest faithfulness in relationships.

         And at Marsh Chapel, what is our envisioned mission?

        To be a heart for the heart of the city, and to provide a worship service in the service of the city.  We are making headway in the areas of voice, vocation, and volume. 

Hold fast to what is good!  Hold fast to what is good!  Hold fast to what is good!


-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

November 4

Toward A Common Hope

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the entire service

Mark 12: 28-34

Click here to listen to the sermon only

And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

We listen again for the windchimes of hope, whispering and singing to us, beckoning us into and out from an unseen future.   The chimes ring today in Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

Scripture:  Gospel

The passages we have read, during worship this fall, in the Gospel of Mark, our earliest gospel, show us in living color what sorts of things were on the minds of early Christians, say in Rome, say in 70ad, say among mostly gentile people.

There is Jesus’ prophetic affirmation of a higher law, of a more empathetic view of women within divorce, along with a command to protect them.  In response to a direct question, he thinks the question through.  Intellect.

There is the celebration, welcome and embrace of children, as measures and exemplars of the faithful life.  They have not yet had their spontaneity squelched, nor their emotion demoted, nor their sensuality sabotaged.  They have an infant, primordial freedom, toward which it could be the rest of us might well lean.  Spontaneity.

There is the warning, the stark recognition of the pervasive omnipotence of wealth.  A camel might go through the eye of a needle before a rich man might go into heaven.  A certain amount of wealth, to support one’s living and work and love makes sense.  More than that harms and hurts, because it corrupts the gift of freedom.  Emotion.

There is the ever present need of the ill, the sick, the blind.  One is made well, made whole–blinded he sees.  Her Mark is about baptism, about seeing a way into a new life, as the language (Son of David), the garment discarded (his tunic), the cry (Lord, KYRIE, which in Matthew becomes KYRIE ELEISON), the eyes opened (the miracle of faith)—all tell us.  Bartimaeus is you and me, an example of a new disciple. Sensuality.

And today, as if to sum up, our passage hears Jesus, again to answer a religious question, bringing focus to the commandments:  love God, and love neighbor.

We know not who wrote Mark, only his name.  He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown.  He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus (15:21).  The book is meant to help a community of Christians.  It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith.  While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later.  So it is not evangelist tract and it is not a diary or history.  It is a Gospel.

Gospel.  You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’.  It is an old term.  You could compare it to ‘ghost’.  Gospel is to good news and ghost is to spirit, you might say.  Yet Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’.  He creates something new.  Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it.  It is not popular today any longer, no longer fashionable, to say this.  It is however true.  Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle.  Examples of all these were to hand for him.  Mark might have written one of any one of them.  He did not.  He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new.  A gospel.  His is the first, but not the last.

A wind chime in Scripture.

Tradition:  Unity

My sister in law’s minister in Arlington Texas, Stephen Langford, evokes a tradition of unity:

“Unity in diversity, expressed in community.” The term expresses the idea of oneness that embraces differences. In this way of living, differences are viewed as strengths that contribute to enriched life in community with one another. The term is used describe the pattern of relationship in the Godhead as the Three-in-One, in marriage in which the two become one, and in the church as the body of Christ.
“Uniformity is not unity…Perhaps it would be helpful to remember the words of John Wesley from whose ministry the original Wesleyan movement began. In his sermon entitled “A Catholic Spirit,” Wesley asked, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” In that same sermon, he went on to say, “If your heart is as my heart – if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more – give me your hand.” Wesley is also credited with a saying that originally came from Thomas a Kempis and was a part of the Moravian movement that helped shape Wesley:
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity (love).” For Wesley, a common commitment to love God and others (the heart) was the grounds of relationship, not agreement. Love, not agreement, was the determining factor in relating to one another.”  Langford Blog, Arlington UMC, Texas.  Supplied by Rebecca Steimle.

Politics is downstream from culture.  Culture is downstream from religion.  Religion is downstream from faith.  Faith is downstream from a word spoken and heard.  In this discreet moment:  Do you know God to be a pardoning God?

Granted that your opponent is wrong about everything.  But is there something maybe about which he is right, just maybe?  If that were so, what would that be?

A wind chime in tradition.

Experience:  Consanguinity

 North of Boston you come close to the Dominion of Canada.   We served two churches on the St. Lawrence river, an hour plus south west of Montreal.  You could see the river from our back bedroom.  Our friends and parishioners had farms all along the border, a couple of which had land on both sides.  The hay looks just about the same, north and south of an utterly invisible border.  One autumn my lay leader Earl Friend, one of those with land on both sides, shot a bear near his cow barn.  He had strung up the bear to have it drain, so it was hanging between two trees to the left of his front porch.   Our daughter Emily was four, and for some lastingly strange reason, I thought she would like to see the bear, so we drove over in our old 1973 Mustang convertible, which had only a few more years in it.  Earl took our photo in  front of the bear.  From the bear to Canada was maybe 30 yards, a stone’s throw.  Then, as now, just over the fence, you could have free health care, whatever your annual income, and free education through college, including at globally fine Universities like McGill.  Just a stone’s throw away.   Our middle class in this country deserves and needs what on the other side of the cow barn they would already have.  Education and health care, in a free society, for the sake of the freedom in the society, are far more right than privilege, especially for poor children.  Most Americans agree.  It is, by reason, a step on toward a common hope.  As are full rights for sexual minorities and women.  As are fulsome and loving support for churches and community groups. Volunteerism in a free society is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

Or listen to our own victorious Boston Red Sox this week, bringing clear reason to a full moment:


Alex Cora:  ‘I was young, inexperienced, and still learning, and I still am’.  (Humility)

JBJ:  ‘you just need to focus on your preparation’ (Discipline)

JD Martinez:  ‘this is not about any one player, this is something we do together, as a team’ (self-giving)

Nathan Eovaldi:  (on pitching 6 of 18 innings)  ‘I expected to pitch one inning, and one became two became six;  that’s the thing about baseball (and life) it is just unpredictable’ (flexibility)

A wind chime in experience.

Reason:  Hope

Most reasonable people would agree:

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.

Most of us would agree.

A wind chime in reason.

We listen again for the windchimes of hope, whispering and singing to us, beckoning us into and out from an unseen future.   The chimes ring today in Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.