Archive for February, 2019

February 24


By Marsh Chapel

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Gen. 45:3-11, 15

Ps. 92:1-4, 12-15

1 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-50

Luke 6:27-38

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With deep gratitude, I thank the Rev’d Dr., Professor Dean Hill for the invitation to preach today. One of the best things I’ve ever done was to be instrumental in hiring him to improve the preaching when I finished my terms as dean here. Beth and I have been associated with Marsh Chapel since the fall of 1988 and we have seen many changes. Robert Thornburg was the dean in those early days, and his ministry focused on undergraduates, especially the athletes. He went to nearly athletic contest. He was succeeded by the Rev’d Hope Lucky who focused on undergraduate women evangelicals. I succeeded Hope in 2003 and focused on making Marsh Chapel’s pulpit a leading intellectual voice for Christianity in the nation. When Bob Hill came in 2006, he actually did make it a leading intellectual voice. Ray Bouchard came here with me and he now presides over what is most likely the most ambitious university chapel in the country. Scott Jarrett came with Hope Lucky and, with Justin Blackwell, has now made our music program second to none in New England. Many on our staff now, including Brother Larry Whitney LC+, were around as students during my time or, like Jay Reeg and Mark Gray   began coming during my tenure. What a great privilege it is for me to see so many more of you, so many new, since my days as dean! The changes have been wonderful!

To be sure, some things seem not to have changed. Some of you have been coming since the days of Bob Thornburg. Thornburg was himself the third Bob to be Dean of the Chapel, I’m the fourth, and Bob Hill is the fifth. The acoustics of this chapel remain great for music and wretched for the spoken word, despite many improvements in loudspeakers and microphones. There are five levels of floors in the building, making real elevators almost impossible. We are stuck with the outside lift that Thornburg installed. Still, even these seemingly unchanged things have changed at least by getting older. Some of you have knee joints that agree with me.

Let me call your attention to our three scriptures about for today, one about an incident in one of the world’s most dysfunctional families, one about Paul’s bizarre ideas about resurrection and immortality, and one about Luke’s strange portion of his Sermon on the Plain.

The Genesis reading is part of the story of Jacob, the part where his son Joseph reunites his family. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the first schlemiel in recorded history, to my knowledge. Isaac as a boy was almost killed by his father to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to God. As an old man, Isaac was tricked by his wife and Jacob into giving his blessing to the wrong son. Jacob as a young man was strong, if not particularly ethical, and did plot to secure his father’s blessing that belonged in Esau. Isaac sent Jacob to his Uncle Laban to get one of his daughters as a wife; the candidates were Jacob’s first cousins, if you keep track of biblical family practice. He fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and served Laban seven years to pay for her. But on the wedding night Laban substituted the veiled older daughter, Leah, for Rachel and so Jacob was married to Leah. Wanting Rachel instead, or as well, Jacob worked for Laban another seven years and finally married Rachel too. The two wives constantly fought. Leah bore Jacob the sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. With a concubine, Bilhah, Jacob had Dan and Naphtali. With another concubine, Jacob had Gad and Asher. Leah became fertile again and bore Jacob sons Issachar and Zebulun. Then, last, Rachel bore Jacob Joseph and Benjamin. You will note that the sons of Jacob were ancestors to the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s name won from his fight with the angel. With all those warring mothers, the sons of Jacob were hostile to one another, but especially to Joseph, the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. You remember how they were offended by Joseph’s coat of many colors and sold him to Midianites who took him to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph worked his way up from slavery to friendship with the Pharaoh who made him Prime Minister of the kingdom.

This is where our story today takes up. During a great famine, Jacob’s other sons except for Benjamin came to Egypt to beg for grain. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. He sent them back home with instructions to bring him Benjamin, which they did. And as you can see from our text, Joseph, after some trickery, reconciled himself with his brothers. They brought their father to Egypt where Jacob enjoyed the greatest hospitality and reunion with Joseph. The good times of Jacob’s family in Egypt lasted for generations until there is a pharaoh “that knew not Joseph.” The moral of the story is that, at least for a few generations, the enmity within Jacob’s family was overcome and they lived reconciled with one another and in the good graces of the Egyptians. What an extraordinary change! Everyone changed! In the time of famine the Egyptians became super-generous and the household of Jacob was happy.

A moral of this story for us is that the enmity between nations, between parties, between families can indeed be overcome. Appearances to the contrary, those of us who have been aggrieved because of race, nationality, religion, or anything else can change to have the spirit of forgiveness, and forgiveness can bring about peace and happiness. Remember Joseph said that his brothers ought not think of themselves as guilty for doing something horrible to him, but that God used this to put Joseph in the high position where he could help them. Joseph not only effected the vast change of reconciliation in his family, he changed his older brothers from guilty to being instruments of great good.

Of course, we don’t really know what happened in the Jacob story; even the part about Joseph being the prime minister of Israel does not have verification from any other source. We know only what the biblical sources say. The case with Paul’s discussion of immortality in 1 Corinthians is very different. We know a lot about the range of opinions about that topic in Paul’s day.

The basic Jewish view prior to the encounter with Greek thought was that death of the body and its decomposition meant the death of the person, with no separable soul that lasted long. Some people thought that the soul lasts a short time in Hades after death and then dissipates like smoke. In Jesus’s time, the Greek-influenced Pharisee party that Jesus followed believed in the resurrection of the dead, not the dissipation of the person. The old school Sadducees teased Jesus and the Pharisees about this; remember when they asked Jesus whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection who had married several brothers. Some people believed that only the fortunate would be resurrected by God and that the others would just die. The few who would be resurrected had to be given a new embodiment either immediately upon death or at a later Last Judgment. Others believed that the human soul is separable from the body and is itself naturally immortal. For these natural immortalists, some people found a new life in heaven, but if they didn’t merit heaven there had to be a hell for them to go to. Later Christians in medieval times elaborated the place for the next life to include limbo for unbaptized infants and purgatory for the purification of sinful souls that eventually would get to heaven; no one in Jesus’ time, however, would think about limbo and purgatory.

St. Paul accepted the natural cosmology of his day that said that the universe exists in layers with different physical properties for each layer or plane. On the plane of the earth, people had physical bodies that die and decay. The higher levels had incorruptible physical properties, like layers of angels, all the way up to God. Planes lower than the earth had tormented physical bodies where the demons were. Souls sometimes can traverse from one plane to another. Remember his hymn in Philippians where Christ lives at the top with God but then descends to Earth where he takes on a corruptible physical body as a slave. In Corinthians, Paul said that the afterlife consists in obtaining an incorruptible body and that Jesus assures that those who believe in him will be given an incorruptible body at the Last Judgment. Paul believed the Last Judgment would come within his lifetime, although some Christians had already died. The souls would exist bodiless from the time of death until that Last Judgment resurrection. Many Christians today believe this, but many other Christians also believe that people are raised with incorruptible bodies immediately after the death of their corruptible physical bodies. Either of those theories is a version of reincarnation that was almost universally assumed in South Asia and that came to Israel through Greece.

All of these opinions concern the afterlife as coming (or not) within time after the end of historical, temporal life. The authors of Ephesians and Colossians, whom scholars believe now to have been students of Paul, developed what scholars call a “realized eschatology.” This is the belief that it’s not the future but an eternal and present relation with God that counts. Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection with Christ and now already live rightly related to God. Therefore, those letters say, we should live with love and generosity now in this life, not worrying about any life to come. Eternity does not mean something that last forever, like two people and a ham (my wife told me to tell that joke). Eternity is rather the creative act that creates all moments as future, all as present, and all as past, all together, eternally together although temporally unfolding. Given what we know now about the dependence of the soul on the brain, body, health, and socialization, many of us now do not believe in life after death but rather in an eternal relation to God that we live out within the days of our temporal life. I myself believe that our day to day temporal life is but an abstract part of our real concrete life that is eternal within God’s eternal creative act. The realization of this eternal identity transforms our temporal lives in mind-blowing ways. My book, Eternity and Time’s Flow, explains my theory with lots of arguments and illustrations. Acceptance of any of these views of immortal or eternal life, however, causes huge changes in how we live day to day. We come to live before God, not just within the world of our interests.

I don’t know what you believe about these matters about which Paul wrote. All of them have biblical warrant, and they are all hard to believe. It is much easier to focus on Christianity as about how to live now, which is the position of the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke. In keeping with Dean Hill’s emphasis on comparative gospels, I urge you all to look up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that encompasses three long chapters, five through seven. Read that against Luke’s chapter six, beginning with verse 17, a terse rearrangement and reinterpretation of the earlier text Matthew and Luke have in common that neither Mark nor John has. Matthew was writing for a mainly Jewish audience of Christians and so emphasized how Jesus sharpened Jewish law and attacked hypocrisy regarding Jewish practice. Luke was writing for Greek Christians, pretty much ignored Jewish law, and interpreted Jesus’ saying simply as how to live before God.

For Luke, the Christian life is not so much about obeying God’s law in our heart as it is about being like God in what we do. Because God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, so we should love our enemies, be good to everyone including sinners, and lend without expecting to be repaid. For Luke, Christian life is not so much about being good citizens of God’s law-governed kingdom as it is about being “children of the most high.” Children succeed by taking on their parents’ work, and we should continue the work of God who loves everyone, even the sinners. The Greek Christians can understand that without knowing much about the Kingdom of Israel. So can we.

Is it not shocking to learn that we should become children of God and heirs to God’s work? What greater change can we be called to than to behave like the merciful creator who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked? The Bible of course had no conception of justice as the attempt to change social structures to eliminate poverty or prejudice. It even had nothing against the social institutions of slavery. Those insights did not arise until the modern era and we late-modern Christians can add them as part of what we need to do to be just in the world. Luke would remind us that God loves the billionaires and racists, and loved the slaveowners, no matter how bad they are in a calculus of good and evil. A condition of us loving the wicked is that we forgive them, as we must do to be like God. What a change in the way we ordinarily think about justice!

Our three texts today are about changes. Joseph finishes the Jacob story by reconciling his family and turning his older brothers’ guilt into God’s instrument for reconciliation. Paul’s  understanding of Christian salvation is exchanging our perishable bodies for imperishable bodies so that we can rise with Jesus to the plane of God and enjoy fellowship with the divine. The journey upward through different planes of reality might not be how you think of a right relation to God, but there is surely a change from living in ordinary history to living in a history that is part of the eternal creation. Luke’s understanding of true Christian life is not just to be good by worldly standards, nor even to be obedient to divine commands, but to become children of God acting like God in daily life. How different that is from the way we ordinarily live!

These three texts draw a distinction between the steady way things are and the constancy of change. Forget about the way things are. Pay attention to how they are changing. By the imitation of God, make the changes for the better that lie within your means. Look for ways to make changes that you otherwise would not notice. See that in making these changes you are part of God creating with love even for the ungrateful and wicked with whom we are intimately bound. Remember that we have two bodies, as Paul would say. Our historical body lives day to day with all the ambiguities of life, our successes and our failures. That historical body is only a part of our eternal body within which we are connected with all other things, including the past and future, within the eternal act of God’s creation. When we realize that today’s body is only a part of our eternal body, we can accept the fact that what we do today, obligated as it is to be just, cannot escape the love of God even if we do what we ought not. Who knows? Our best intentions today might be great evils that will be shown up in future generations. We can take comfort that even the worst of us are part of the eternity of God’s creative act. Today we must act. In eternity we just rest in the bliss of God creating. Change exists in eternity.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Dean of the Chapel, 2003-2006 




February 17

Happy in God

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Corinthians 15: 12-20

Luke 6: 17-26

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At age 85, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was asked the ‘chief end’ of being human, the meaning of life.  He responded: You are made to be happy in God.  Today his Methodist church is roiling in unhappiness, heading toward a special General Conference in St. Louis next week, to struggle, as has every such meeting since 1972, over the humanity of gay people.  Two modes of reflection beyond the procedural, administrative, governmental, disciplinary, and connectional ones that tend to dominate or predominate in these meetings deserves some sermonic attention. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

Theological Perspective

First, at theological perspective.

I am grateful for the open, broad minded traditions of our church, especially our theological traditions, the spiritual waters in which we have learned to swim, from prone float to butterfly, and especially the Wesley quadrilateral, that four verse hymn to Jesus as our beacon not our boundary.

As we prepare for this 2019 conference, we could perhaps give shared attention to our sources of authority across the United Methodist Church.  At our best, our love of Christ shapes our love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience.  We are lovers and knowers too.  Yet we are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine.  In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love.  We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of faux certainty.  It is tempting to substitute the security and protection of certainty for the freedom and grace of confidence.  But faith is about confidence not certainty.  If we had certainty we would not need faith.


Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its Psalmic depths.   Psalm 130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names.  Obededom comes to mind.  You love its proverbial wisdom.  ‘One sharpens another’ comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His embrace of children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as the medium of truth for the practice of faith.  Around our common tables in family, church and community we share this reliance and this love.  We all love the Bible.  I have been studying and teaching the Bible for four decades.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of perspectives present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture.  We may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s aspiration:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But. The Bible is errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of historical-critical study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to re-mythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, John 8, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples. Did you ever try to get the list just right?  Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and after that it is a free-for-all.  The various ‘twelve’ listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the synoptic Gospels.

Our discussion next week in St. Louis does not occur within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We are not Baptists nor are we Calvinists  We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  As an example, many synoptic passages present an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  Luke is writing 55 years after the ministry of Jesus.  What do you remember from 55 years ago? Nor were they written for that kind of certainty.  They were formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.  They are, as W. Brueggemann once put it, stylized memories.


You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  One central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.   Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

Our linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls before grace and freedom.  We roundly cajole our Roman Catholic brethren for requiring universal combination of the gifts of celibacy and ministry for ordination.  ‘You may love God or a woman but not both at the same time.’  But then we turn around and by the same logic require universal combination of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry for ordination.  ‘You may love God or your partner but not both at the same time’. It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out.  But it has no future.  Equality will triumph over exclusion, just as gospel ever trumps tradition. Gospel first, tradition second.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…


You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning. You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind. You love the reason in the same way that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course, reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs the fetters of virtue and piety.  More than anything else, learning must finally be rooted in loving.   Do we still hear the one thing requested in Psalm 27?  To inquire in the temple.  Inquiry!

The universe is 14 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a, is the, reasonable hypothesis, says F. Collins, father of the human genome project,  author of The Language of God, and, strikingly, a person of faith.  Yet 38% of Americans reject evolution (Gallup poll, May 22, 2017).

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  And their conjunction waits for us on the shore line of the new creation.


You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too. You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

But a simple or general appeal to the love of experience, in our time, is not appealing or loving.  It is not experience, but our very existence which lies, right now, under the shadow of global violence.  We are going to need to move our focus toward a balance of religious experience with existential engagement in our time, in our culture, in our world.  For example:  to have any future worthy of the name we shall need to foreswear preemptive violence.  How the stealthy entry of such an ethical perspective could enter our national civil discourse, 2002-2019, without voluminous debate and vehement challenge, is a measure of our longing for false certainties.  Our existence itself is on the line in discussions or lack of discussions about violent action that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and reckless.  One thinks of Lincoln saying of slavery, ‘those who support it might want to try it for themselves’.  Not one of us wants to be the victim of preemptive violence.  We may argue about the need for response, and even for the need of some kinds of anticipatory defense.  But preemption?  It will occlude existence itself.   Our future lies on the narrower path of responsive, communal, sacrificial, prudent behavior and requires of us, in Niebuhr’s phrase, ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’.

There are indeed theological temptations in an unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience.  Let us face them down.  Let us face them down together.  Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence.  The measure of ministry today, in the tradition of a responsible Christian openness, is found in our willingness to address errancy, equality, evolution and existence, in our rendering of the meaning of traditions.

So, first, a theological perspective.

 Pastoral Perspective

Then, second, a pastoral perspective.

I am grateful for the magnanimous, loving people whom we have known in the experience of pastoral ministry, who have embodied and awaited the new creation.

Jan and I went to London in late August 2017 to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.  We had not been there for several years.  Yet the memories and ghosts of earlier visits quickened quickly, once we had landed. We had taken a church group through London in 2000.  One parishioner,  then in her mid-eighties, along with her husband struggled to move her luggage along through customs, back then.  I could feel her alongside us in customs again this summer.  She sang in the choir; she led in the service ministry; she volunteered to answer the office phone.  In her early years she had ridden along with her mother to Methodist gatherings in New Jersey, to sort out the shape of the WSCS.  She remembered the mission work in China before it ended.  When asked about her service, her giving, her happy singing, and her faith she invariably said, ‘We just don’t want to leave anyone behind’.  That was her way of speaking about the divine inclusive incursion into the orb of the human condition, by the way of the guidance to leave no one behind.  She very much meant, by the way, to include gay people in the loving evangelism and stewardship of the church, in its own frail attempts to live into the new creation—‘we just don’t want to leave anyone behind’.

On our recent London excursion, once we were settled into a hotel near Westminster Abbey, other ghosts and memories emerged. Alongside, by the mind’s eye, sauntered long dead Ralph Ward, our one-time general superintendent, who took a group of us in 1972 to London and into the Abbey.  He made sure we saw the Methodist sites.  He arranged a dinner at Methodist Central Hall, recalling Leslie Weatherhead.  The superintending minister of Central Hall moved us, moved us to tears, even those of us only 17 at the time, speaking of the Second World War.  Central Hall, he reminded us, had hosted the birth of the United Nations.  This summer, Jan and I worshipped at Westminster Abbey, our feet resting on the memorial to William Wilberforce, and then went across the street to see the Hall again.  In 1977 or so, Ralph Ward, by then removed to New York City, hosted some of us who were by then seminarians in the same city, at a Friday evening gathering at Washington Square UMC, to support ministry with gay people.  He and his Manhattan DS, (if memory serves, the Rev. Bernie Kirkland), presided with grace and love: ‘this work is crucial to the future life of the church’, said Ward.    Some years later, after his retirement, Jan and I saw Ralph and Arlene in the narthex of Riverside Church, after worship which concluded that day with the singing of ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’. Finish then thy new creation…

We also sang that hymn at the funeral of Arlene Chapman in Watertown, N.Y, in 1989.  Her husband Bruce (BU undergraduate, Yale Divinity), along with my Dad, took me to my first major league baseball game at age 8 in Cooperstown, NY. (The last place teams, Al and NL, were conscripted to play once a year upstate, as punishment for their losing ways.  One of the teams was, of course, the Mets).  Driving home, I foolishly waved my new Mets hat at a passerby on Route 20.  The wind blew it away.  But Bruce turned the car around and we found the thing.  In 2011, at Annual Conference, Bruce spoke quietly and gently into the microphone, “In 1980 and 1984 I was a General Conference delegate.  I opposed the inclusion of gay people in orders and marriage.  Others did too.  How utterly wrong I was.  How foolishly wrong we were.”

Bruce still supports Boston University, with an annual gift to Marsh Chapel.  Tom Trotter was the first person to preach at Marsh Chapel, after it was finished in 1949. Today Tom’s grandson is an intern at the same chapel.  Both Bruce and Tom were at BU during the Thurman and King years.  As a pastor, Bruce could tell you what every pastor knows who has at least five years of good working experience:  virtually every extended family system in Methodism and beyond has, somewhere, at least one gay person in it.  I asked Bruce a year ago what he would teach seminarians about ministry, after his own 60 years of experience:  ‘Stay close to your people’, he said.

Jan and I have had the honor to serve in ten churches, one district, one University pulpit, and several general church efforts, including several promising ones in preparation for the 2019 General Conference.  Every congregation we have served has had gay women and men in it, or in the extended families therein.  That any of these good people have stayed at all in connection with our connection given our exclusion of them is truly a wonder.  I love my church and am staying with it.  Born and baptized a Methodist, I will so die and be buried.  I am not giving over the church I love to a mode of exclusion contrary to the heart of the church in which I was raised, and have lived and served.  But we should be mightily circumspect about what bigotry against gay people has already done–to us.  I pass over the innumerable women and men who have left ours for ordination in other denominations.  I pass over the hurt to evangelism and stewardship that comes with ribald exclusionary doctrine.  I pass over the diminishment of membership, particularly in the congregations of the US north and extended north, due to young adults, especially millennials, who sense the homophobia in our sanctuaries and find another place.  Here is what I mean:  this is a spiritual issue, not one of numbers, a theological issue, not one of members, a biblical issue, not one of bodily strength, a homiletical issue, not one of disciplinary interpretation.  This cuts to and cuts into our soul.  Gay people are people, but we preach otherwise.  God loves gay people, but we teach otherwise.  In Christ ‘there is no male and female’, but we argue otherwise.  Such spiritual, theological, biblical and homiletical malignancy and mendacity is crippling us.

Nevertheless, a lifetime in pastoral ministry has provided Jan and me with many snapshots of grace touching the lives of gay people, that grace being the beachhead of God’s incursion into life:  here is a young man, age 19, in the rough, poor rural upstate NY border country, realizing his identity, struggling with his family, his church, and himself, and talking slowly to a novice minister, in the snow of February, 1982;  here is that same pastor, a bit older, attending a community dinner in his city neighborhood, seated with 8 women—no, he suddenly realizes, seated with 4 bright, happy, earnest, loving couples, September 1991;  here is the minister calling on a recently retired school teacher, and her partner, long time and long suffering servants of God and neighbor and members of a United Methodist church, listening as they are crying and crying out in bitterness over the ignorance and exclusion they have known in a large, purportedly accepting city, 2004;  here is a minister of the gospel, new to University deanship, employing and deploying an openly gay campus minister to serve across a large campus, one with a liberal history and spirit, that nonetheless had never hired such a person for such a position, 2008. And here he is in September of 2017 offering prayers, at the BU School of Public Health for those who ministered to and those who died of AIDS thirty years earlier (often without willing pastoral care from their churches). To repeat: any competent pastor who has done the minimum two dozen or so weekly visits over at least five years knows full well that almost every family system, near or far, has within it gay women and men.  This issue is not somehow out there, long ago, far away, foreign, peripheral or minimal.  Unresolved, the issue will hobble the ministry of the church, across the globe. The preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, starts with God’s love.  A preliminary incision to curtail the divine love, and thus the church’s mission, by excluding, dehumanizing, and imprisoning gay people in a pseudo-biblical jail constitutes the articulation of another gospel, not that there is any other gospel. Then, second, a pastoral perspective.

At age 85, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was asked the ‘chief end’ of being human, the meaning of life.  He responded: You are made to be happy in God.  Today his Methodist church is roiling in unhappiness, heading toward a special General Conference in St. Louis next week, to struggle, as has every such meeting since 1972, over the humanity of gay people.  Two modes of reflection beyond the procedural, administrative, governmental, disciplinary, and connectional ones that tend to dominate or predominate in these meetings deserves some sermonic attention. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

May the spirit of the living God fall afresh on us!

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





February 10

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18: 31-43

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Bach’s music surrounds our Gospel from Luke 18.  Here Luke has returned both the content and to the outline of Mark’s Gospel, which, as we saw last week, predated Luke by 15 years or so.  From this point forward, more or less, Luke will stick to Mark’s course, or outline, for the Gospel through the triumphal entry and through the week of challenge, and through the passion of the cross, on to resurrection, the theme of the music today.

If you will, pause a bit, speaking of grief, to see how Luke changes, supplements, reduces and applies what he has inherited to his own time—another decade than Mark’s, another community than Mark’s, another setting than Mark’s, another pastoral moment than Mark’s.  What good news that in the Bible itself there is such freedom, fungibility, flexibility and creativity! The presence in absence of Jesus Christ, risen, whose Spirit dwells with the church, did not in any way appease in full the haunting grief of his death, his ignominy, his sacrificial, tragic death.  Faith is born in grief. Faith is awakened in grief. Faith is quickened in grief. Faith is made in grief.

Luke omits the blind man’s name, given in Mark as ‘Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus’.  He may have done so because this is a phrase from the department of redundancy department, that is, the Bar means son, so Son of Timaeus Son of Timaeus is repeated repetition.  Luke wants an orderly account, befitting his love of history.

Luke then adds the new fact or stylized memory or pure imaginary addition that a ‘multitude’ was passing by, a great throng.  He may have done so because he wanted to emphasize the power and glory of Jesus’ ministry, and to brighten and expand the response to Him during his earthly preaching, teaching, and, here as elsewhere, healing.  Further, rather than simply choosing to ‘call’ the blind man forward, here the Gospel has Jesus ‘command’ him forward. No mere suggestion is made for this audition, but a commandment to come. Luke wants a certain kind of Christ, befitting his love of theology.

Luke leaves no doubt as to whose power and influence have made this miraculous healing possible.  In Mark, we hear simply that faith has made the man well, ‘your faith has made you well’. In Luke, ‘Receive your sight!’, and then the same statement connecting faith and salvation.  One’s wellness, one’s salvation—here we can draw a direct line to Bach and Luther—is by faith, by faith alone, by grace, by grace alone. Luke wants no shadow between the passion of Christ and the compassion of Christ.

Luke here, as well, makes space for the expansion of the church.  ‘And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God’. What is a private moment in Mark becomes a public display in Luke.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Dr. Jarrett, as you have lovingly and compassionately done for us now over many years, can you help us approach the audition of today’s cantata, with appreciation of both history and theology, a passion for compassion, and a regard for the church, through the ages?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

As much as the Gospel lesson from Luke 18, our point of departure this Bach Sunday is Paul Eber’s 1582 hymn ‘Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ or ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God.’ Bach’s librettist draws literally and poetically on eight of Eber’s stanzas, connecting Luke 18 to Luther: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, said the blind man; Jesus in response, “Your faith has saved you;” and so Luther teaches, “Sola Fides, Sola Fides!” We have now just sung two stanzas of Eber’s hymn, whose melody, texts and message, imbue Cantata 127 not just in name, but bar by bar, word by word.

For the interior of the Cantata, Bach calls on a tenor to set the predicament in a recitative describing how in our own failings, our depths of grief, our final hour, it is our faith, just as the Blind Man, that draws us to Christ’s Passion and the assurance of his redeeming grace. The soprano and bass take up the cause at this point in two of the most astounding arias in all the cantatas. In echo with a heart-rending oboe obbligato, the soprano brings us without fear to our final: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. In the background, the plaintive oboe and soprano lines weave together supported by two recorders and continuo marking an unrelenting and unwavering pulse, the inevitable tick of time. In the middle of the aria, the soprano seems to engage with the tick of clock: Call me soon, O funeral bells, I am unafraid of dying, For my Jesus shall wake me again! As the soprano sings the word for funeral bells — Sterbeglokken — the sprockets and gears of the clock seem to come to life in five measures of upper string pizzicato.

The bass draws us one level closer to life in eternity, with invocation of the last trumpet and the harrowing day of judgment. As the earth’s foundation are shattered and sunk in ruin, Jesus will be our advocate and redeemer: Believers shall survive forever; they shall not be judged, and shall not taste eternal Death; Cling to Jesus for your salvation.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.  It may be, for you, this Lord’s Day, that his appearance, in word and music, takes the form of honest grief, honesty about grief, good grief.

Out of all manner and mixture of feelings, grief, usually unnamed and unspoken, can bring us to worship.  We do not come usually or specifically to church to grieve, unless, perhaps in attendance at funeral or memorial services.  We do not say, slipping into the pew, today I am here to grieve, in grief, grieving. Grief is bigger, miles higher and longer than that, beyond depiction, beyond description.  Yet alongside us, walking alongside us, come Sunday, it may be, paces grief, our grief.

Grief is a sacrament.  It has a mysterious cast and quality to it, something well afar from our own control, like the grace given us in the Gospel, in that way.  Nor is it enough for the preacher to utter the word ‘grief’ for us to greet grief ourselves, of a Sunday morning, on personal terms. Here is where memory may come in.  The memory of a partially remembered verse, or homily, weeks later, may trigger something that then allows you to say to yourself, Well my goodness, that is what this is, this mid-winter something alongside me:  it is my grief. You don’t have to count Citizen Kane your favorite or only favorite film to recognize the cavernous, celestial, capacious range of grief.  Grief takes years.

One of the reasons that over more than a decade here at Marsh Chapel we have tried to preach with notes as well as letters, with music as well as words, on Bach Sundays, is just around this corner.  The music may release from the semi or sub conscious that which has blocked healing, blinded salvation. Resurrection music may bring remembrance that itself is a mode of resurrection. Robert Hass says the movement of grief has something in it of the desert’s bareness and of its distances.

Listen to his sly poem, variations on a passage in edward abbey

A dune begins with an obstacle—a stone, a shrub, a log,
anything heavy enough to resist being moved by wind.

This obstacle forms a wind shadow on its leeward side,
making eddies in the currents, now fast, now slow, of the air,

exactly as a rock in a stream causes an eddy in the water.
Within the eddy the wind moves with less force and less velocity

than the airstreams on either side, creating what geologists call
the surface of discontinuity. And it is here that the wind

tends to drop part of its load of sand. The sand particles,
which hop or bounce along the earth before the wind,

begin to accumulate, creating a greater eddy in the air currents
and capturing still more sand.

It’s thus a dune is formed.

Viewed in cross section, sand dunes display a characteristic profile.
On the windward side the angle of ascent is low and gradual—

twenty to twenty-five degrees from the horizontal. On the leeward side
the slope is much steeper, usually about thirty-four degrees—

the angle of repose of sand and most other loose materials.
The steep side of the dune is called the slip face
because of the slides
that occur as sand is driven up the windward side
and deposited on or just over the crest.
The weight of the crest
eventually becomes greater than can be supported by the sand beneath,
so the extra sand slumps down the slip face
and the whole dune
advances in the direction of the prevailing wind, until some obstacle
like a mountain intervenes.

This movement, this grand slow march
across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scouring
movement of glaciers,          

and an internal one in the movement of grief
which has something in it of the desert’s bareness
and of its distances. (repeat)

Here is our affirmation:

It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place


It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place

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

February 3

A Lukan Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 4:21-30

Click here to hear the sermon only


We come to the Lord’s Table today, of glad heart and open mind, ready to receive Christ Jesus, even as He receives us, by grace, in grace, through grace.   Walking the sawdust trail toward the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we pause, as have others for two millennia, to listen for a good word, a God word, God’s word, read in Holy Scripture and interpreted in the community, for the community, with the community.

Upon this Lord’s Day, Jesus meets us, today, in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next several months.   This year, 2019, with a preparation in Advent in 2018, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.  We have shifted our perspective, our angle of vision from the first Gospel, Mark, to the third Gospel, Luke.

In Spain’s wonderful museum, The Prado, now turning 200 years old, you can stand mesmerized by the paintings of El Greco.  One in particular, secured in the pages of St. Luke, carries our gaze into the moment of Jesus’ birth, in this Gospel. Not here before all time, with God, as in John.  Not here, with the wise and powerful, the Magi, as in Matthew. But here, among the poor. Here, among the Shepherds. So El Greco’s majestic painting of the shepherds in awe and wonder, with their long hands and long beards and long faces and long, light reflecting countenances.  God born among the poor.

Overture to Luke

What meets you in St. Luke this year?

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

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

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

What does Luke say, and how does he say it?

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

Hold most closely the compassion in Luke.  At every turn, there is a return to the least, the last, the lost; those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life.

Notice, record, the way Luke puts it, beginning, middle and end:   He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?…Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old…When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind…You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just…Said Zacchaeus, ‘behold Lord the half of my goods I give to the poor’…They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…

Luke’s Hebrew Scripture Inheritance

In all this, and more, Luke draws on the well-springs of inheritance from the Older Testament, the Hebrew Scripture.

Let us read together the books of the Law, like Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt….For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat.”

The Hebrew Scripture, our Older Testament, was largely composed in the dark days of a later slavery, the bondage of Babylon.  In that moment of memory, the community of faith recalled keenly their earliest history of God’s love and power, the God who brought them up out of the land of slavery to the land of milk and honey.   We know what it means to be poor, to be oppressed, to be outcast, to be downtrodden. Once we were ourselves. THEREFORE, there will be justice in our land for the poor. You and you all may need to search your extended family histories and memories for what happened to your people in the Great Depression.   We learned something, or were reminded of something, then, as were the Israelites dragged again in chains to Babylon. Luke writes in earshot of Babylon.

Let us read together the books of the Prophets, the very heart of the Old Testament.  In all of religious literature, in all human history, there is nothing quite as sobering, as piercingly and stingingly direct, with regard to justice, as these 16 voices, four the louder and twelve the lesser.   Malachi teaches tithing. Isaiah affirms holiness. Hosea preaches love. Micah shouts, ‘do justice, love mercy, walk humbly’. Together the prophets consistently rail against human greed, human selfishness, human covetousness, human apathy.  The harvest here for our theme is so plentiful it is difficult to select an exemplar, there are so many.

Perhaps Amos will do best. In the eighth century BCE, a shepherd boy from Tekoa went down to the gates of the big city, Jerusalem, and cried out against it.  He pilloried the shallow religion of his day. He assaulted the reliance, the naïve overreliance of his government on weapons of war, he bitterly chastised the amoral, post moral practices of human sexuality of his day.  But he saved his real anger for justice. The Bible trumpets justice, economic justice, justice for the poor, and for all! If all we had were the poetry of that shepherd boy from Tekoa, Amos would be sufficient:

“I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes—they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7).  “Hear this you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘bring that we may drink’, the Lord God has sworn by his holiness that behold the days are coming upon you, when they will take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:1-3).  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 21-24). Remember Martin Luther King reciting these verses, down in the sweltering little jail house of Birmingham Alabama.

Let us read together the books of wisdom, especially, as we do each Sunday, the book of the Psalms. Let us read together the books of Wisdom.  Love is for the wise, and justice is the skeleton of love.

“When the just are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan…The just man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge…If a King judges the poor with equity his throne will be established forever” (Proverbs 29)

‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise’, says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs’ (Psalm 11: 5).    “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge’ (Psalm 14:6).

In an odd way, the most sobering judgment about justice is offered by Ecclesiastes, who speaks least directly to the theme.  But his philosophy is clear.  I look at all the toil of the sons of men, and I see—vanity.  That for which you strive will not last, that for which you suffer will not endure.  “What has a man for all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest’ (Ecc 2;23).  As an Indian proverb puts it:  ‘In his lifetime the goose lords it over the mushroom.   But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter’.   I have officiated at 800 or so funerals or memorials, in 40 years of ministry.  Each a reminder:  Justice lasts, not acquisition.

Luke Later

Our New Testament came together a century or so after the writing of Luke.   Luke had an afterglow role in this, too. The books of the NT were written between the year 50ad (1 Thessalonians) and the year 160ad (2 Peter).   But they were not put together until (at earliest record) the year 175, as recorded in the Canon Muratori. And their collection, their canonization, happened in a curious way.  Marcion, the most popular preacher in Rome in 150, the son of an eastern ship builder, was a Christian Gnostic who put together the first proto-New Testament. As a Gnostic, he believed that the God of creation was not God of redemption, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; he separated the God of creation from the God of redemption.  To solidify his position, he put together a canon, of sorts, heavily weighted with redemption, which included the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Notice all that is missing from that shorter Bible—no OT, neither Law or Prophets or Writings; no other Gospels, Matthew or Mark or John; no other letters, Peter or John or Jude. It would have made teaching the Bible much simpler!  And he chose Luke, it might be said, for Luke’s passion for compassion, his regard for redemption. Well, the emerging church came along and said no, and excommunicated Marcion, and reconnected creation and redemption, and added Law, Prophets and Writings, Matthew, Mark and John, the Letters of Peter, John and Jude (and let’s not forget the Revelation) to make of the Bible not a short collection of 10 books, but 66 books in two testaments.  That makes teaching the Bible less simple! You see, the Bible has a story, too. The Gospel of Luke was playing in the pre-season games, but also made it to the Super Bowl (couldn’t resist)!

Luke in Communion at Marsh Chapel

Boston University was born in 1839, and incorporated in 1869, by Methodist ministers, John Dempster and William Fairfield Warren.  It was led,from 1926 until 1951, by its fourth President, also a Methodist preacher, Daniel Marsh. (Marsh’s daughter was with us for worship at Christmas, a month ago, our own dear Nancy Hartman).  Marsh and his wife are interred right here, right below the pulpit, right behind the communion rail at which we gather in a moment. From birth, our school has been in service of the working poor, people of color, former slaves, women, those of other and varied religious traditions. Of all the Gospels, it is St. Luke that best guides us, here at Marsh Chapel, and prepares us, here at Marsh Chapel, to realign ourselves with our own founding principles, to re-clothe us in our own rightful mind.  Luke will faithfully guide us this year, as we strive to live as a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.

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, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

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