Hold Fast To What Is Good

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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

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