Archive for December, 2018

December 30

A Call to Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Romans 12:9-13

Luke 2:41-52

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The only Scriptural account we have of Jesus’ growth and boyhood is located in today’s reading.  Only here does the Gospel allow us a glimpse of Jesus growing up.  In this one picture of our Lord’s maturation, we find him engaging the great teachers of his time.  After three days they found him the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Later ages, and later writings, did not resist the urge to imagine Jesus in his boyhood, clever, magical, boy deity, able to make birds from stones and animals from the very dirt at his feet.  But the Holy Gospel of St. Luke, for which and in which we stand, refrains from wilder speculation.  Only here, just for a moment, does the writer relent and, in the reading meant for the Sunday after Christmas, show us the young Jesus, the young man Jesus, Jesus as a young man, which in some measure he would be for the whole of his earthly life.  He who was to call disciples, now himself, just this once, is a disciple too.  He whose life is the heart of faith, the call to faith, a daily call to faith, for this Christmas moment, is himself so called.

What good news this is for educators near and far, and for grandparents and parents and teachers and all who labor and are heavy laden in the educational projects of our time!  As he blessed weddings in Cana and healers in Bethany, so now Jesus, by his presence and practice, blesses those who teach, who prepare the ground for a lifetime, a lifesaving call to faith.

Jesus is our Lord and Savior, born in a manger.   Come Christmas, He is our transforming friend.  We have gathered, after already much church this week, to pray and listen for grace, because of Jesus, our transforming friend.  We bear witness, today, that Jesus has transformed our life, made us happier and better people than otherwise we would have been without him.  How we hope that people, others, especially young people will experience his power and love, in their own way and time!

E.J. Dionne

A friend down south sent me a copy of an article by E.J Dionne (WAPO, 12/23/18), from a week ago.   It rightly celebrates those who come to church come Christmas, perhaps only then, or only then and at Easter.  Perhaps you have come on Christmas, hoping for—what?, waiting for—what?, ready, it may be to hear a call to faith.  Dionne wrote about the difficulties in organized religion, particularly Christianity, today:  a decline in religious observance, the rise of the ‘nones’ (now a quarter of the population in the US, and 40% of those under 30), about unwelcoming attitudes and practices regarding the LGBTQIA portion of the population, about clergy sexual abuse, about the ‘complicated and compromised structures of churches and denominations’, but went further:

            Christmas remains wondrous, but it arrives at a difficult moment for Christianity in the United States…Regular worshipers can be disdainful of the Chreasters. But these twice-a-year visitors deserve our attention and, I would argue, our respect. Their semiannual presence is also testimony to the enduring hunger for the experience of the sacred…

Dionne then went on to name and cite three people whose work and teaching I have personally known, with whom I have taught and studied, and who have meant a great deal to me and others.  Theology matters.  Dionne’s capacity to call up these three wise persons, for our inspiration, also matters.

One is Gabriel Vahanian:  (Dionne) What the theologian Gabriel Vahanian observed decades ago in his influential book “The Death of God” explains the larger context: “Christianity has long since ceased to be coextensive with our culture,” he wrote, and “our age is post-Christian both theologically and culturally.” I remember Vahanian granting me an interview in his SU Hall of Languages third floor office, one winter day, and his comment, in a beautiful French accent, Ze will of man, it is more inscrutable zan ze vill of God!

One is Peter Berger, whom some of you knew here at BU:  (Dionne)The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger offers a clue in “A Rumor of Angels,” his 1969 book about the persistence of faith in the face of rapid secularization…the stubborn refusal of human beings to give up on the transcendent. I picture Berger at lunch here on Commonwealth Avenue, chastising the Lutheran church he very much loved, and warming to tell a truly funny joke.

One is N.T. Wright, for whom I was a teaching assistant at McGill over three years: (Dionne)The biblical scholar and former Anglican bishop N.T. Wright sees “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships and the delight in beauty” as human aspirations beyond the material that can be heard as “echoes of a voice” pointing toward God (from Wright’s book, Simply Christian).  I picture Wright both curious and frowning as I guest lectured on the Gnostics, and inviting me to dinner in his Montreal home, with four beautiful growing children, and his desk stuffed in tiny closet under the hallway stairs.  A few summers ago we lunched across the river, and he thanked me for a sermon title from decades ago, What a Friend We Have in Paul. (J)

Jesus had his teachers, and we our own. Vahanian, Berger and Wright, in very different theological voices, would approve Dionne’s reliance on them.  Seeing their books cited was a joyous Christmas gift.  You might like to read them!  My friend (Mr. Art Jester), in sending the article, brought these teachers back to me, and so gave me back a part of myself.  And that is what friends do, they give us back ourselves.  And finally, then, Dionne himself, who preceded us in our room the week before we were at Chautauqua Institution, a summer ago:

(People) show up twice a year because some part of them is in rebellion against a society defined solely by self-interest and calculation, by the visible, the measurable and the tangible. They have an intimation that the world is made up, in the words of the Nicene Creed, of both the “seen and unseen.”…Christmas sketches “a picture of a cosmos capable of love.” (Joseph Bottom).

Are we lovers anymore? Christmas comes along with a question:  Are we lovers anymore, or are we resigned to a post-agapic, post-agape, ‘post-love’ world and life?  (From my point of view the Christmas longing is not only for transcendence, but also and more so for love.) And in the question there is a call.

Romans 12: 9

Might we hear in this a call to faith this morning?  Following the candles lit and lifted, following the sense of the numinous, the moments, fleeting moments of transcendence at Nativity, might there follow, for one or another, a straightforward call to faith, spoken and heard and heeded?

Here we may rely on our Epistle, speaking of teaching moments.  St. Paul leaves speculative, less practical theology and jarringly tells us how to live, in Romans 12.  He outlines a call to faith.  He describes what a life of faith might look like, for you, and for me.

You might not expect such from the author of the rest of the Epistle to the Romans, the one who traced our condition (our sin) from creation through conscience in Romans 1 and 2. Impractical theology there, though most treasured and precious.  You would not expect such from the Apostle who poured out the great watershed (our salvation) from Christ to Cross in Romans 3-5.  Impractical theology there, though pearls great in price, field hidden.  Nor would you expect the 13 lightning bolts of 12: 9 and following from the elliptical, emotional, tent-making, bachelor, spit-fire—what a friend we have in Paul!—who unveiled Spirit, Holy Spirit, in the freedom and grace, in Romans 6-8,  who wept and conjured and pleaded about his own extended religious family in Romans 9-11.  Impractical theology, there and there, though the high water mark of all his writing, a Spirit interceding for weakness, speaking of love and need.  Imagine your shock.  Not sin, not salvation, not Spirit, not synagogue, come Romans 12: 9.  Rather, some utterly practical, applicable theology.  Say, a Christmastide call to faith, especially for those who may have come by only at Christmas, just this Christmas.

Romans 12: 9ff,  the ‘Pauline 13’ may be your best threshold, liminal line, front door response to the question, ‘Can you help me get going on this?  What does it mean to hear a call to faith?’

What does it mean to hear a call to faith? It means to LET LOVE BE GENUINE.  All these, note well, are plural imperatives, communal commands.   The command in Genesis ‘be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth’ is not an individual demand.  Your family doesn’t need to do so alone, though Samuel and Susanna Wesley certainly did their best.  It is communal.  You all.  All you all.  In fact, given our ‘limitations’ (being kind here), there is no way for us individually to accomplish such commands.  Not all love is genuine.  Not all is from the heart, nor true, nor durable, nor real.  But it is our call, to be lovers in a post-agape world.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hate what is evil.  Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.  In sin, salvation, Spirit, and synagogue he has now confidence that—for our own time, we shall know the place of hatred and the outline of evil.  Implied here:  new occasions teach new duties.  Not all of life is good and clean.  Some is, some is not.  We are free, nay called, to hate evil.  You overhear Amos:  ‘I hate I despise your feasts’ (5:23).

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hold fast to what is good.  Hold fast to what is good! Notice again the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.   Of one odd Scriptural admonition, Krister Stendahl said, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God…for me.’  Time makes ancient good uncouth.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to love one another with mutual affection, brotherly affection, a bond that is fraternal, sororial, militant if not military, visceral and reciprocal.  Real affection is mutual.  Affection wherein one party has all the say and the other does all the work is not affectionate.  It is affectionless, affected, not effective.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to outdo one another in showing honor.  Creative generosity, happy hospitality, courage in counting others better, here is our way.  Forebear one another in love.  Light, salt, sheep:  people need to see you giving honor, taste the spice of your commendation and expect willingness to honor to be shorn, clean cut, readily recognizable.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means not to lag in zeal, to be ardent in spirit, and to serve the Lord.  These three dicta largely place before you the directive to get yourself out of bed, into some clean clothes, over to Marsh Chapel, and be seated in a pew, come Sunday.  A walk in the country or on the beach is good. Turning on the radio is good.  People have so many reasons not to go to church.  Some of them are quite good.  Others range from the pitiful to the hilarious.  Hear a call to faith, and come to worship!  Your sister, here, needs the encouraging support of your zealous presence.  Your brother, here, needs the example of your ardent spirit.  His service is perfect freedom, and this service is one hour.  People become so lackadaisical about worship:  and I am not only speaking of us academics (J).  In a lifetime, you have 4,000 Sundays, 1,000 haircuts, 60 income tax returns.  And 525,600 minutes ayear.  Zeal, spirit, service, Sunday:  prize your time now you have it!

To hear a call to faith, and to heed, is to ride the waves, in community, of shared hope and pain and prayer.  Hope carries us beyond pain through prayer.  Pain drives us hard back onto hope in prayer.  Prayer brings us up, out, forward, and through whether in hope or in pain.  When we have hope, we celebrate, as a community.  When we have pain, we endure, as a community.  Be constant, steady, regular, punctual, reliable, disciplined, in prayer.  This is an old saw, but a true one.  A man on Fifth Avenue asked,  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  The right response:  Practice, practice, practice.

A real call to faith? The Apostle reserves the two toughest communal challenges for last, one about money and one about time.  Time and money, money and time.  On money: You will take one tithing Christian for every 10 of the born again variety.  You will take one tithing Christian who remembers the ministry of the church in her will for every stadium full of political praying Christians.  You want to see less hat and more cattle.  A Christian vision along our southern border, say, will include a recollection of the Monroe Doctrine teaching us to care especially for our hemispheric neighbors, a recollection of the Marshall Plan, and what can be done to the benefit of all to reconstitute fragmented nations and communities, a recollection of the love poem of Emma Lazarus at our front door. Contribute to the needs, not the irresponsibility but the needs, of the holy community, near and far.  Our BU Business School and our BU School of Hospitality serve the same ends:  the nature of community.  Recent deans of both, we are proud to say, have been active here at Marsh Chapel, with exemplary faithfulness.  On time:  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Hospitality is how you spend your time (such an odd but choice phrase in American English).  Hospitality:  the making of the bed of friendship, the cooking of the meal of companionship, the pouring of the bath of empathy, the cleaning of the linens of suffering, the embrace of the journey through life:  welcome home, how was the trip?, let’s see your photographs.  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Practice.  Practice!  You will get better at both with time.


Here is your Christmas call to faith.  If this were a Methodist revival, we would line this out like a hymn for us to sing.  If this were a black church we would call you to response in call and response.  If this were Fenway Park we would start the wave or sing Sweet Caroline.  But this is Marsh Chapel, so we will just ask you, encouraging your memory, to remember together, entering 2019:  Romans 12: 9-13.

Let love be genuine

Hate what is evil

Hold fast to what is good

Love one another with mutual affection

Outdo one another in showing honor

Never lag in zeal

Be ardent in spirit

Serve the Lord

Rejoice in your hope

Be patient in tribulation

Be constant in prayer

Contribute to the needs of the saints

Practice hospitality

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

December 23

Simply Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

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Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch.  Children are the landlords for the kingdom of heaven.  Children show the manner of entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Children receive the touch of the kingdom of heaven.  The little place we chose has a long history of children and summer, of burgers and ice cream.  It sits nestled into a long, lovely valley, an actively agricultural valley of corn fields and dairy barns.  We were not quite alone in the small dining room, though that designation itself seems overwrought.  The room   simply provided space for a collection of tables and chairs.  An older woman sat, back to door, enjoying her luncheon hot dog and potatoes.  After lunch, as a reward for eating all of lunch, our granddaughter had an ice cream cone.  I want to try to interrupt all the twittering texting emailing rushing half listening cacophony of our current life with the dripping joy of one two year old an one small vanilla cone.  Our older friend peered over her hot dog and potatoes and with eyes bright pronounced a silent blessing.  Everything about an ice cream cone in the summer brims with what is good.  The cold clean taste.  The texture soft and grainy.  The drip drip of melted cream falling on lips, then chin, then tiny hand, then shirt, then floor.  The dive nose first down in for more.  Sheer happy joy, for the moment,  attends such a child on such a day with such a treat.  Simplicity.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them’

Some of the old, good things about life well before and well beyond college age can bring their refreshment, a powerful refreshment, into communities of twenty year olds.  I notice the way our students respond to children when, occasionally, there are little people on campus.  You can see the minds moving: this once was me; one day I will have children.  An education frees you from the confines of the early twenty first century by immersing you in Plato and Shakespeare and Galileo and the Russian Revolution.  In the same way, just a glimpse of the child and cone free you from the confines of life at twenty.

Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. I notice how much detail my granddaughter sees that I miss.  The dog in the water.  The bird behind the tree branch.  The rabbit peeking out from under the berry bush.  The sound of the water running into the culvert.  Perhaps it is this simplicity of direction observation, dulled over decades that causes us to misstep.

M Atwood:  ‘Children begin saying ‘That’s not fair’ long before they start figuring out money…Debt, who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid, is a subject much larger than money.  It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all our exchanges with our fellow human beings’. (NYT 10/08).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A childlike attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Last month of a Sunday afternoon we gathered for Holy Baptism here in the chancel.  Afterward, one of the guests asked who was in the Rose Window above.  “That is the Lord Jesus Christ”, we replied.  “But he looks like the Buddha” came the response.  With some pique, it could be added.  Well.  There is a simplicity here, shared it may be, between the two.  Our latest grandchild is now being raised by a Methodist father and a Buddhist mother, and will be baptized this winter.  So the question had traction.  Granted so many differences, simply put, there are similarities, as in our time granted so much diversity, there is unity yet.  And we are going to have to learn to share the spiritual care of the globe with some other religious traditions, now and then, are we not?

Like the Buddha, we need to come down from heaven, down from our very worthy, but limiting intelligences.  Like the Buddha, we need to celebrate any birth, with Siddhartha’s birth.  Like the Buddha we need to explore the world outside the palace, to explore other spaces and times.  Like the Buddha we need to find our own forms of Siddhartha’s famous renunciation.  Like the Buddha we can benefit from the simplicity enjoined in any and every ascetic practice.  Like the Buddha, we face the challenge of Mara’s temptations, of life’s temptations.  Like the Buddha, who preached his first sermon, we find our true voice by finding our earlier voice.  Like the Buddha, we seek peace, a kind of nirvana.  Such a simple peace allows us to move, to grow, to change.  “What’s won is done, the joy is in the doing”, wrote Shakespeare.

This is why experience matters.  As D Brooks wrote not long ago:   ‘How is prudence acquired?  Through experience.  The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what has not’.

Our age needs prudence: the capacity to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters.’ (anonymous).

Dr. Jean Twenge, of San Diego, in her new book, iGen, identifies markers of health to aid those struggling with depression and suicide, in *face to face interaction and conversation, in *reading printed material, and in *attending religious services (SKY citation).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

A church service like this one reminds you of your childhood.  Not your youthful past, your childhood.  You are a child of God.  Howard Thurman famously concluded his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, with just this thought.  To allow such kingdom sensibility to live, though, requires all the heavy thought and truth telling we can muster.

J Mang: ‘it is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church.  But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than the longing for unconditional comfort’.  The two cannot finally be disjoined.  Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey).

A GM executive, wrote:  ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’.

D Sorokin:  ‘The 21st century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers.  One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture’. Would you not love to master the simple art of efficacious compassion?

Proust wrote, ‘Beauty.  That beauty of which we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over stimulated by regret’.

Sometimes the simple voice of conscience will rise up and touch us:  ‘I felt like I was betraying myself, like this isn’t really what I like to do, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t the experience I want to be having.’

Simplicity can be paradoxical.  Tillich: ‘God does not exist.  He is being-itself, beyond essence and existence.  Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him’ (ST 1, 205). Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Here is the traveling experience, rendered with simplicity, of a Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish:

                  We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if traveling is the way of the clouds.  We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees.  And we said to our wives:  go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey.  To the hour of a country, to the meter of the impossible.  We travel in the carriages of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies.  We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon.  Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path on your shoulders.  Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee.  We have a country of words.  Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone.  We have a country of words.  Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel. (‘Victims of a Map’).

The Holy Scripture assumes a multi-generational perspective, no more so than in the narratives of Advent and Christmas.  Notice that Luke pictures a conversation in the womb, Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth.  Real change takes a long time, generations of time, when it comes at all.  Do you remember what you were confronted with 30 years ago, exactly a generation ago?  For some of us, almost to the hour, 30 years ago, it was the sudden announcement on a bitter snowy night, to a stunned basketball crowd in the Carrier Dome, that a plane with many of our own neighborhood students, our own Syracuse University students, and students from other regions including Boston, had crashed in Lockerbie Scotland.  The portent of that moment in 1988 eluded us, eluded all, but it was a harbinger of the struggles of the next thirty years, in one limited, little simple horror and tragedy, 182 dead.

‘They have been called upon to face up to mystery, actually the most terrible mystery of all, and facing mystery is something that everyone must do for himself.  In the face of such a disaster one must fall back on faith or find only bitter meaninglessness in the universe.  To my mind this is the greatest challenge faith offers—to believe that the hand of God has not been withdrawn from the world when such things happen’.  (Said of those who lost children in the 1958 Chicago fire, this could be said of us all.)

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child-like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One of my favorite Boston vignettes is set in the public Garden.  EB White liked to take his step-son skating on the Frog Pond, when they visited relatives in Beacon Hill.  Both step Father and Son loved Boston, and its charming garden.  One day they hiked down from their relatives apartment, took off their shoes, stuffed them under a bench, donned their skates and skated until the sun set.  This was in the depths of the depression.  When they returned to the bench, their shoes were gone.  ‘Someone needed them more than we did’ was all White would say.  Then the two hiked up Beacon Hill together.  Still in their skates.  That image of the great writer, enjoying the winter, loving the garden, enthralled with ice, kind to the needy, and hiking up Beacon Hill on the tips of his skates—that image stays with me.

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.

‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb’.

It was a Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, no stranger to Commonwealth Avenue, who wrote the simple lines of our familiar carol:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O Come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

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

December 16

The Mark of Being Alive

By Marsh Chapel

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Zephaniah 3:14–20

Philippians 4:4–7

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‘Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive’ (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Where we are, our location, shapes who we are, our recollection.  Spaces, places, sounds, scents, tastes—these directly affect, impact who we are.  Location shapes recollection.

For some weeks, off and on, I had been struggling, without success, to remember a name.  I take it you will know the struggle.  Off and on, and who knows the switches for either or both, I would conjure the memory of a person whom I have not seen in a decade or so.  He was an impressive spirit.  A tall African American gentleman with a rich baritone voice, he would attend worship  here, now and then.  His daughter in those years was an undergraduate at BU and on occasion they would attend together.  He was a world-renowned vocalist, and taught voice here at the University.  For some reason, every so often this fall, he came to mind.  But not his name.  I would reach out in recollection, but fall short, and give up, on to other things.   He, my unnamed friend, was a generous, gracious soul, with his talents, his time, and his treasure.  He had founded a small school elsewhere to support recent immigrants.  What was his name?

Then last week, it happened, I found myself stopping in our College of Fine Arts, to bring a greeting to the new dean there and to drop off some extra post cards as invitations to our Lessons and Carols service.  Almost 1,000 of you attended the services, with tens of thousands more with us by radio and internet.  You may remember the experience of praise, hymnody, choral beauty, prayer.  It is the elementary mark of being alive.  I left the cards and loped down the long stair case.  At the turn, I remembered his name.  I hadn’t been trying to remember, but the name came, unbidden—bidden or unbidden, God is with us.  A rush of gladness captured me, in stairwell descent.  His name: Simon Estes.  The recollection of his name:  due to the location of that day, a return to the building where I had called on him in his office, now and then.  The physical power of the physical location gave me the recollection I did not and could not gain elsewhere.

To collect ourselves, we rely on recollection.  You may return to read St. Augustine on this one day.  Being in a particular space is the difference so often between hearing and not hearing, knowing and not knowing, remembering and not remembering, breathing and not breathing—life and death.

Zephaniah and Isaiah both call us to the recollection of praise, of singing, of prayer, the elementary mark of being alive.  Worship.  But here is the blunt, Advent, John the Baptist word: your recollection depends on your location.  To know the Presence you need to be present.  In church.  Somewhere.  All of the unspoken allusions to God, before whom in prayer, we remember ourselves, are conveyed in saving measure, in location.   Here we sing, preach, and pray in the same space, the same room, the same seats, the same sanctuary as did Howard Thurman.  Right here.  We admire him.  We aspire to learn with him.  We hope to acquire his faith, especially at Christmas, when the song of the angels is stilled.   Yet here is the John the Baptist challenge:

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without prayer

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without song

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without hymns

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meditation

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without candles

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without study

You can’t very close to Howard Thurman without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without gathering

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without community

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meaning

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without belonging

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without preaching

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without praise

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without worship

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION


Our gospel today goes deeper, still, from location on to language.  Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Not one of us can learn a language without labor, without attention and work.  Think of your Latin conjugations and declensions.  Think of your study of the periodic table, of the Kings and Queens of England, of theorems and formulae.  Worship, the elementary mark of being alive, has a language too, which bears practice, bears learning, bears knowing, bears discipline.

Later last week, a friend  and I were talking. For some inexplicable reason, I asked him to remember the theology he studied in the School of Theology.  He named a book from some years ago, by George Lindbeck, titled The Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck was a Yale teacher, and a good writer, too (not that those two are at odds, by the way).  Inspired so I vainly hunted for my own dog eared copy of years ago, hunting in the usual suspect places, four in number, to no avail, and retreating to get a library copy, then sitting in a different posture suddenly spied my own book on the third shelf after all.  Anyway.  Lindbeck produced a couple hundred pages of dense argument, easily summarized in this way.   Faith comes from knowing the grammar of faith, the syntax of faith, the spelling of the nouns and verbs of faith.  Coming to faith is like learning Japanese or Koine Greek.  In worship we learn a new language.  Yes, propositions, doctrine and dogma are present and important (Lindbeck complements the conservatives).  Yes, experience and expression are important (Lindbeck complements the liberals).  But the real nature of doctrine is embedded in the life long struggle to learn your real mother tongue, the language of praise, prayer, worship—the language of faith.  To do so, you have to speak it, to sing it, to utter it, to name it, to lift it.  Or, you won’t know it or have it.  So Lindbeck:

Just as an individual becomes human by learning a language, so he or she begins to become a new creature through hearing and interiorizing the language that speaks of Christ. (62) The grammar of religion, like that of language, cannot be explicated or learned by analysis of experience, but only by practice. (129).

 Language, the language of faith, is crucial.  We might though argue to Lindbeck as well, that his own emphasis benefits too from the others.  Learning a language is meant to prepare one to speak truth, and truth may come in proposition and especially in experience, and that truth may well require changes in inherited language, grammar, syntax and spelling.

Our Gospel prepares us for Jesus, to know Jesus, by knowing his people and his predecessor.  Luke has greatly expanded on what Mark earlier taught about John the Baptist.  Here the Baptist lines out the language of faith.  Be it readily remembered that real religion is never very far from justice (repeat).  What says John?  Turn your neighborly attention to equity, your legal tax work to fairness, your regimental armor to protection.  All of these lines are about justice, economic justice.  The Baptist could have been more economical himself, talking to neighbor and tax collector and soldier, simply by saying this:  tithe.   Such a John the Baptist word.  If everyone tithed we would need no charities, no taxes and no armies.   The language of faith would be the grammar, syntax and spelling of the common hope.  It is the language the world most needs and that which Jesus teaches, from alphabet to sonnet.

So here is the challenge, the very Advent, very John the Baptist, very timely challenge:

You can’t get very close to Jesus without prayer

You can’t get very close to Jesus without song

You can’t get very close to Jesus without hymns

You can’t get very close to Jesus without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meditation

You can’t get very close to Jesus without candles

You can’t get very close to Jesus without study

You can’t very close to Jesus without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Jesus without gathering

You can’t get very close to Jesus without community

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meaning

You can’t get very close to Jesus without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Jesus without preaching

You can’t get very close to Jesus without praise

You can’t get very close to Jesus without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Jesus without worship

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION


 Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

The gospel takes us deeper still, down from language and location into listening.  Right now, you may not be drawn to Howard Thurman.  Right now, you may not even be drawn to Jesus.  But you have no choice about knowing yourself.  And the sermon, we pray with care and omitting any surgical mistakes, cuts to the bone, to the heart, to the marrow.  Worship is about being alive—the elementary mark thereof—in the face of our death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.    And if you read the Bible, and if you worship in the church, if nothing else then the utter god-forsakenness, the deathliness of death is unmistakable.

Just a few days ago I was sitting in the beautiful relatively new atrium of our Business School (no longer Management, but Business, by the way).  I was waiting there, reading a newspaper.  After a while a young man put down his various devices, eyed my name tag, and sat down next to me.  We began to talk.  Conversation is a grace.  It is a grace.  Prize your conversation now you have it.  After a while—his name too was Robert—he admitted why he had sidled up to me: ‘I never see anyone reading a newspaper.  What is it like?  Why do you do that?’  Well, I gave the usual reasons: ‘I like the fuller length of the articles, I like to be surprised by turning a page onto something unexpected rather than cyber-guided.  I like the texture of the pages in hand.’  It was not a debate or a matter of convincing.  He was happily curious.  And I was glad to be a curiosity.  I invited him to Lessons and Carols.  Here he might find a pastoral guide to listen to him.  Here he might find a friend in the pew to listen to him.  Here he might find a kindred spirit to listen to him, someone who could befriend him even better than the newspaper covered dean who listened to him that day.

When Paul acclaims, so beautifully, “Rejoice….” he has taken us beyond location and language, into a deep listening, a listening of and for the soul.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It is a question whether in the end there is any real rejoicing that is not always and utterly ‘in the Lord’.  But what makes a lifetime of difference is whether there is someone there to listen when you sing, when you pray, when you worship.  To listen your soul into life.  In worship, you put yourself in earshot of relationship, in earshot of acquaintance, in earshot of friendship.  Yet here is the challenge:

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without prayer

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without song

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without hymns

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without spirituals

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meditation

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without candles

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without study

You can’t very close to YOURSELF without Scripture

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without gathering

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without community

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meaning

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus YOURSELF empowerment

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without preaching

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without praise

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without Psalms

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without worship

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will need to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.  So the Baptist preaches, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

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

December 9

Lessons & Carols

By Marsh Chapel

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols. Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below:

Click here to listen to the full service

December 2

Communion Meditation, Advent 1

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Click here to hear the sermon only


We welcome you into this season of preparation, Advent 2018.  What a rich array of worship, fellowship and service opportunities you have given to the community, here at Marsh Chapel, December 2018.  Thank you for all you do in music, hospitality, global outreach, and ministry! Bring a friend with you to worship sometime this month! This newsletter carries information about services and events.

Of particular note, Jan and I welcome you again to our annual Christmas Open House.  Please stop by and join us following Lessons and Carols in worship December 9, 2018. The Open House is held in the newly renovated ‘Castle’ a block from the Chapel, 225 Bay State Road, 12:00—2:00pm.

As the Christian year begins and the secular yearly calendar ends, I give great thanks for your ongoing generosity.  Over these years you have greatly enhanced our annual giving and support. Particularly our Ministry and Music Endowment, our Friends of Music initiative, our new Ministry grants, and especially your general, undesignated weekly giving have built this growth.  The pursuit of our mission, to be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city, with emphasis on voice, vocation, and volume, depends upon your ongoing generosity. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

In addition, sometimes people ask, come year end, is there anything in particular, or in addition to all of these possibilities, that you would encourage us to consider for giving in December.  And the answer is ‘yes’. I encourage you to consider support of whatever size and substance for the Endowment of the Deanship of Marsh Chapel (link here). I recognize that the $4.2M goal of this dream is lofty.  But for the long term future, for the future of all that we are currently doing, and will yet do, there is nothing more important. It may be that one person, a member or a listener or a friend or a colleague, will make a single gift of this endowment, or a planned gift for this endowment, in one fell swoop.  But there are other ways for us to get there, if my 5th grade arithmetic is still accurate:  4 gifts of $1M, 40 gifts of $100,000, 400 gifts of $10,000, or 4,000 gifts of $1,000.  Life is full of possibilities!

Daily Devotions

You will want to continue, as we enter the season of Advent and the transition into a new liturgical year, with regular daily devotions.  May they be Scriptural, as in Exodus 20 (the decalogue is here recited). May they be Creedal, as in the Apostles’ Creed (here recited). May they be Blessed, as in the Beatitudes (here recited).  May they be practical, as in the Pauline Thirteen (here recited). When we transition into a new beginning, we rely heavily on grace.

Once we had a guest minister who could not remember the Lord’s prayer.  He finally asked the congregation, ‘Folks, could you please help get me started?’  He did fine once he got started. Sometimes we need just a little help to begin, to get started.

How do you begin to live as a person of faith?  You come to ordered worship, Come Sunday. You read the Bible, in church and at home.  You pray, over meals and at the beginning of the day. You keep faith in work, in life, in marriage, in partnership, in thought and speech and deed.  You keep faith. You receive the Sacrament. You bow in silence. You give yourself in service to others. You discipline your use of time and money. You make a decision to tithe, to give away a certain percentage of your income each year.  You live rejoicing. You face down anxiety. You begin by making a beginning.

How do you begin to live as a person of faith?  You read NT Wright’s book, Simply Christian.  You read CS Lewis older, similar volume, Mere Christianity.  You read a collection of Marsh sermons, from Howard Thurman or Robert Cummings Neville, or the current dean.  You read a chapter a day, for two weeks, of the Gospel of Mark, which will get you right through the earliest Gospel.  And you come to church, to the hear the Holy Scripture read and rendered.

It helps to remember some things by heart.  At 18 Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the first student to integrate the University of Georgia.  She was taunted, threatened, stalked, and frightened. She went into her room, locked the door against the night, pulled the blinds, and decided not to go home.  She recited through the night the 23 Psalm. It helps to remember some things by heart

Scriptures of Transition and Beginnings

Today, Jeremiah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Luke all address us this morning in the matter of transitions, of beginnings.  That is the thing about faith. It takes a leap. So we speak of the ‘leap of faith’. Faith takes a leap.

For Jeremiah, that leap in transition toward a new beginning relies on the promise of God.  This is true of the entire Old Testament. God is the God of promise, the God of future, the God faith, the God of hope.  They are the promises of God that sustain the starts and changes and transitions and beginnings for the journey, for the itineracy, for the traveling people of faith.  Faith is a continuous exodus from established positions. Ask Abraham, or Deborah, or Miriam, or Moses, or Joshua, or Samuel, or Saul, or David, or any one of the sixteen prophets, including today Jeremiah.  He preached four decades worth of unheeded sermons and was buried in an unmarked grave, sixth centuries before the turn of the ages. Yet he could still lift a prophetic promise, in the name of God:  Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell secure…a branch will spring forth from David…The Lord is our righteousness.  We inherit and depend upon the wayfaring experience of Israel, upon the God who keeps God’s promises.  Jeremiah helps us to begin.

For David, or for whoever wrote our Psalm this morning, our start in faith, our beginning in faith begins with the prayer to know thy ways…teach me thy paths…lead me in thy truth.  There is a prayer of confession, more true as one ages, but true in all ages, remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions, according to thy steadfast love remember me.  The paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness. There is some work involved here, on our part, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.  Faith and the life of faith, like anything else, benefit from some actual attention, labor, work, discipline.  The Psalmist helps us to begin.

For Paul, the beginning of his collection of letters, his epistolary fame, is on display this morning.  I Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament, from the year 50. In that way it is the beginning of the Gospel, and fit especially for the first Sunday of Advent.  The whole of the letter is a celebration and an anticipation of the Coming of the Lord. Every chapter, five in all, contains this theme, the Coming of the Lord, including with emphasis our reading from chapter 3 today.  Our beginnings are enmeshed in His Advent. May…our Lord Jesus Christ direct our way…so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints. Thanksgiving, joy, faith, love—at the beginning of the faith of Christ, we find exuberant encouragement.  Paul helps us to begin.

For Luke (now you note we have turned from Mark to Luke, from 2018 to 2019) the traditional expectation of an apocalyptic end time, the beginning of end if you will, is here recorded.  Luke moves from eschatology to ethics, though, as our reading shows. Watch at all times…have strength…to stand before the Son of Man.  The prophecy here rendered, the prediction given, as it happened, did not occur, did not occur:  this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.   Yet Luke’s Gospel teaching, inaccurate in terms of time, is nonetheless timeless in terms of accuracy.  You begin by abstaining from evil. You begin by turning away from what brings harm, to yourself or others.  You begin by putting distance between yourself and drunkenness and dissipation. Frances Willard in our back window would have agreed.  Be prepared, at all times, in all places, in all ways, in all ages, be prepared. Begin by being prepared. Luke helps us to begin.

You know, faith takes a leap, a leap of faith.  And faith leads into a land of kindness and gentleness.   This weekend as a nation we remember our 41 President. We remember his ability to leap out of airplanes, past the age of 90.  And we remember his hope, stated in the 1989 inaugural, for a ‘kinder, gentler’ nation, country, land, people.

Celie Johnson

“I received an email that would change everything for me. Wheelock College as I knew it was going to close effective June 1, 2018, and that Wheelock would be merging with Boston University. As expected, I had a minor meltdown and LOTS of questions spinning in my head. I told my mom, essentially, ‘I did not sign up for this, I am not going to Boston University!’ I really considered transferring to Emmanuel College, which I had gotten into along with Wheelock. My mom eventually talked me out of it, even though I was hesitant still.

Sophomore year flew by, and it got to the point where there was a lot of tension at Wheelock because people wanted answers. This was another transition because I had to transition into getting ready to essentially start my college career all over again. I finished Sophomore year and went home determined to spend the summer preparing myself for the transition and the new school year.

I returned to Boston ready for the challenge of a bigger school, more people, and tougher classes. I was also determined to get involved in some way at BU. However, the most important thing for me was to find a church and a church family. Soon, I found my church and church family at Marsh Chapel, got the internship of my dreams, and rushed Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed fraternity focused on community service. Even though I knew that the transition would not be easy, I knew that the transition would be part of life, just as my mom told me growing up.

‘Transitions themselves are not the issue, but how well you respond to their challenges!’

This quote has been one of our family sayings for years. Our lives prepare us for the transitions the future brings. Sometimes when we’re going through the hardest transitions in our lives, such as when I had to let go of Wheelock and become part of a new community and part of something bigger than myself. I’ve always been told that how well you respond to change and transition says a lot, and I truly believe that’s the truth. However, I believe that my faith has really played a role just as much in how I handle transitions and change. I have my God to thank for how well this experience has gone so far for me, and I would be where I am without my faith. I believe that before the semester, and I believe that now.”

You are invited!  Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of  your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, come, draw near in faith, and take this sacrament to your comfort.  Especially those who intend to start out, to begin, to make a transition into a new life!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill