Archive for April, 2019

April 28

“Divine Presence”

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

Click here to hear the sermon only

Good morning! Happy Eastertide! Happy Earth Day! There are so many things to be thankful for this morning. Some of us are nearing the end of another academic year, some of us are finishing degrees, and some of us are just happy that life appears to be returning to Boston – trees are sprouting new leaves, flowers are in bloom, and you can hear birds singing in the early morning hours. I’m happy for all of these reasons. Happy for my students that they have succeeded academically through another semester, happy for those who finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that is accomplishing a graduate or undergraduate degree, happy that we have a constant reminder that new life and growth is possible. Plus, we’ve entered into the 50 days of Eastertide, a time when we rejoice in the reality of resurrection – of finding hope when there appears to be no hope left.

Today’s gospel tells us the familiar story of Christ appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. The disciples were frightened, having just lost their teacher and friend via state execution, probably wondering if the same fate would await them as his followers. Even though Jesus indicated that he would return, the disciples did not think it was a possibility. They didn’t believe the prophecies that Jesus proclaimed during his life which prepared the way for his return. So, when he appeared before them in a locked room, they of course were unsure how to process the information in front of them. But after Jesus appears to them, they tell Thomas, who happened to be away that evening. Thomas, like the others, cannot believe that Jesus could be back. He knows that Jesus died and for the others to claim that he was alive again does not make any sense. Jesus still appears to Thomas, who insists on physically touching the wounds of Christ to fully accept that he had, in fact, returned to life after death. Jesus appears and acquiesces to Thomas’ need for physical confirmation, but cautions that those who have faith in the reality of the divine presence of Christ in the world after his death are especially blessed. Should we criticize Thomas for his insistence on getting to see what the other disciples also saw the week previous? I don’t think so – Thomas is trying to wrap his head around an impossible possibility. The only thing that will change his mind is the assurance of divine presence.

This past Monday was Earth Day. Maybe you were extra aware of this because of local initiatives to remind you to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Or maybe you celebrated Arbor Day this past Friday by planting a tree. Here at the chapel, we hosted over 20 BU students and staff to make their own tiny terrariums to help green their desks, dorm rooms, or apartments. Earth Day is our yearly reminder to be more in tune with the state of our home. It’s like a state of the union for the planet. A time when we can choose to tune in and analyze the ways we’ve contributed to healing the Earth and in what ways we could be doing better. I recognize that not everyone has the same frame of mind when it comes to the importance of Earth Day – I am particularly attuned as someone who studies and analyzes environmental problems and the ways in which our Christian faith can guide our care and concern for the Earth.

At the beginning of this month, I attended an eco-symposium which brought together scholars and activists in the field of ecological justice and environmental sustainability to think about the ways that we can collaborate with one another to create change and the roles that faith can play in making that change. It was a great opportunity to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to share the ways that they are incorporating concern for the Earth into teaching, preaching, and civic engagement at both local and global scales. One of the presenters was the Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies here at BU, Dr. Adil Najam. Dr. Najam co-authored the Third and Fourth Assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the guiding document for scientists and other environmental policy advocates on the issues of climate change. Dr. Najam made an excellent point in his presentation to us. If you were to look at the Earth as an outsider like you would assess a country, based on overall economics, health, and sustainability, our planet would not seem like a very good place to live. In fact, Dr. Najam referred to the Earth as “Third World planet.” A large portion of our population is impoverished, many face illnesses and even death on a daily basis, and the overall health and sustainability of our planet is poor and decreasing each day. Dr. Najam called our present time an “Age of Adaptation” in which we must address several failures that have led us to our current status – failure of wisdom about scientific consensus, failure to negotiate the necessary responses and responsibility for contributions to climate change, failure of vulnerability between those who are affected and those who cause problems, and a failure of morality in not fully understanding the ethical implications of the complex environmental, political, social, and economic factors at play.[1] He advocated that there needs to be massive overhauls in how we understand our relationships to one another as neighbors living on the same planet, and also how we view our relationship with the Earth.

My belief in the centrality of Christian faith to guide our ethical decisions based in nature is primarily centered in a God-infused understanding of the world held in tension with a notion of God as wholly other and beyond human comprehension. The paradoxical nature of the assertion that God is both fully immanent, that is, present to us through the world around us, while at the same time transcendent, or separate and completely other. My claim to this understanding of the divine develops out of my Lutheran heritage that continuously asks followers of Christ to hold contrasting ideas together about divine relationships with humanity and the world. Luther’s own use of the idea of “finitium capax infiniti” or the finite bearing the infinite, amplifies this paradoxical nature. In particular, he uses this concept in discussing the nature of the Lord’s Supper, asserting that the original elements of bread and wine maintain their qualities while the divine is intermingled with them. Lutheran theologians and ethicists embrace a paradoxical way of approaching the world to guide the pursuit of self-understanding and seeking knowledge about the divine, and then ultimately, the ways in which we can employ such knowledge in our world.

Recently, the presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote an article for Living Lutheran, the monthly magazine of the ELCA. The title of the article was “All Created Things” in which Bishop Eaton discussed the importance of maintaining our connections with the world and environments around us. She started by quoting Luther who wrote, “God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.” The idea that all creatures are deeply infused with the presence of the divine is something carried through Luther’s theological claims. God is the undergirding force of all life on Earth – the alpha and omega, beginning and end, an intimate part of life on Earth. Reflecting on this divine presence, Bishop Eaton cautions “…setting ourselves apart from the creation is also physically and spiritually deadly for humans…Physical alienation has spiritual consequences.”[2] The more we disconnect ourselves from the world around us, the less contact we have with the divine. The less we see the ways that our actions affect others, both human and otherkind, the less we see ourselves as a part of the divinely-infused creation. We are incomplete if we deny our relationship with the Earth because that relationship is just as essential as every other relationship we hold dear to us.

It is often difficult to remember that we are a part of the creation. We are so caught up in our daily existence of going to work or school, attending this meeting or that event, caring for our family members, paying bills, making sure we’re keeping up with current trends, or even just spending hours staring at screens all day. We lose touch with the fact that we are a part of the natural world; that our actions have consequences, that we depend on the Earth’s systems for our continued existence. We all want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe and healthy foods to eat. We want these things ensured for future generations as well. But many times we do not act that way. We pretend that our individual behaviors are not contributing to environmental degradation. We choose convenience over sustainability. We want to protect other species of animals, like polar bears floating on untethered glaciers, but not if it’s going to create more work for us. Or we simply don’t know how to respond – it’s easier to push images of deadly wildfires, droughts, or flooding off into the corners of our minds if we are not directly impacted by them. We can’t see climate change as it happens. It’s hard to be fully conscious of long-term changes in sea levels and loss of biodiversity when we have so much else to be concerned about in our immediate future. We may love the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the calm of sitting next to the Charles River or the top of a mountain, but we find it hard to keep the divine nature infused in each and every bit of the world around us in mind on a daily basis.

For many of us today, just connecting with our human neighbors seems difficult let alone connecting with the rest of creation. We have found new and inventive ways of separating ourselves from one another – not only by physical location or physical barriers, but also through mindsets that automatically close us off from hearing information that could lead to greater understanding and appreciation of our neighbors. If all creatures are filled with the divine presence that is more intimate to them than they could ever know themselves, then all humans also possess this same quality. We encounter difficulties in seeing others as bearers of divine presence repeatedly through racism, xenophobia, and bigotry – the most recent example of which just took place yesterday at Chabad Synagogue of Poway on the final day of Passover and six months after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Or we can recall the attacks on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka last Sunday during Easter services…or the devastating mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last month. We continue to face the racism and xenophobia of those seeking asylum in the US, with thousands of children still separated from their families in detention centers around the country. Issues like these will continue to increase as climate change leads to massive migrations of people who will be climate refugees – unable to live in their current home countries because of drought, flooding, famine, or other conditions that will make life unbearable. Our world is in crisis in more ways than one and we must find new ways to respond.

The other day, a friend of mine posted about Fred Rogers. You might be familiar with Mr. Rogers from his PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Many of us grew up with him welcoming us into his home as one of his neighbors, taking us on adventures to learn how crayons are made or explaining that it’s okay to feel our emotions, and how to use our imaginations to take a small yellow and red trolley to a Neighborhood of Make Believe with a King and Queen, talking tigers, owls, and cats. Mr. Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister. While his show wasn’t overly religious, it exuded the central principles of Christianity in secular ways. Mr. Rogers was all about instilling messages of love and kindness in children while also helping them navigate the world around them. The quote that my friend posted an excerpt of what Mr. Rogers said he would want his last broadcasted message to be. He stated:

Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be. And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way. If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes on their neighbor and realize, ‘My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and that there never will be.’ If they could value that person – if they could love that person – in ways that we know the Eternal loves us, then I would be grateful.[3]

Mr. Rogers reminds us that we should value the uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves, because of our connections to the divine. While he may not use the language of divine presence, his words point to an divine presence that makes each person unique and valuable. Recognition of the unique value of other people is obviously needed in our world today. We can also expand Mr. Rogers’ valuation of human uniqueness to our non-human neighbors as well.

What we need and desire is connection. Our relationships are the things that bind us together as a community. Our selves, our communities, our Earth are built upon the divine presence that undergirds us all. As many of you sitting in the congregation know, I completed my dissertation this year in ecological ethics. Obviously, I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go by without sharing a quote from it with you that I think is particularly apt to the message of locating divine presence in all things:

To stand in the sight of the Earth requires us to acknowledge we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves that is a complex web of interactions. Observing the self as a part of this complex web, with the potential to create and destroy on small and grand scales, brings into question what the human role should be in light of the world. If we are truly a part of God’s creation – not just stewards, but intimately connected with the Earth through our very being – then we must acknowledge that our relationship with the Earth requires the same sort of consideration our other close relationships ask of us. To care. To love. To protect. To seek justice.[4]

We have the capacity for the care and ingenuity needed to address the daunting global environmental problems that we and others will face. We may not have Christ standing before us to prove divine presence in the world, but we do have each other AND the world which can remind us of God’s grace and love. If we are able to recognize the Divine presence in each being – human or not – then we can begin to take responsibility for one another. In our local contexts, whether it is our neighborhood, town, or ecosystem, we have the tools already present to us that can help us develop new ways of being in the world. We can expand our care for one another out of the love that Christ showed to us by recognizing the divine nature infused in each and every thing around us. We can respect the uniqueness of each person, each plant, each animal and what it offers to our Earth community that keeps us bound together in an interconnected web of creation.


– Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Adil Najam, “Age of Adaptation,” Presentation at Boston Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education, April 5, 2019.

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “All Created Things,” Living Lutheran, March 29, 2019, Accessed April 1, 2019:

[3] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 161.

[4] Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, God, Self Humanity Earth: Christian Ecological Ethics in Local Contexts, PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 2019, 271.

April 21

In Thy Light We See Light

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Luke 24:1-12

Click here to hear just the sermon


The Lord is Risen!  Indeed.

In thy light, we see light, confesses the church of Christ.  In thy light we see light…in Wonder…Weakness…Whimsy. “In lumine tuo videbimus lumen.”

Joanna, otherwise a stranger to us, has been included, in Luke, in the group of women who religiously approach the tomb.  She is a newcomer. You may be too. You may be leaning toward, even longing for, a first encounter in faith. Good.  In the main, this service, in the main every sermon, is mainly meant for you.

Joanna, and others. You. You are here on Easter.  Something, some lingering memory of a lingering memory, has brought you along. Ordinary, regular religious practice—ask Joanna—can sometimes, suddenly, surprisingly, bring illumination.   Our preaching, here, is in part for those who are in between. Not religious enough to come to church every Sunday, but religious enough to listen.  Still within earshot. A paper, a bagel, a to enter a bit of religious practice from afar, by radio, by i-pod, by internet, by computer. Come Easter, many have come here. Not preaching to the choir—at least not ONLY to the choir! The beauty of the Marsh pulpit: not preaching to the choir, but to the driver, the bagel muncher, the i-pod user on a bicycle, the ecclesiastical expatriate, the atheist, the one harmed by the church, the musician attuned—seemingly—only to the music, the academic, the lonely at home.

Our festival today affirms that religious practice, affirms your choice to be hear, to listen in, and affirms that the detailed discipline of attention to the sacred, can be showered with light.  They are keeping the Sabbath by waiting until the first day of the week. They are keeping tradition by anointing the body, with materials earlier prepared. They are keeping faith by facing death.  By visiting the tomb, the flesh, the corpse. Habits lead us forward. At early dawn. Death makes us mortal. Facing death makes us human. At the tomb.

Jan and I have grave plots in the local cemetery of Eaton, NY.  Where is Eaton? Exactly. It is nowhere. We bought them for $400 each, which is a real estate bargain.  Especially when you amortize the amount over eternity! All need to plan ahead, one way or another. In addition to burial or equivalent, you will want to employ the Robert Allan Hill planning for post-retirement system:  OOPS. O O P S. My mom always remembers the OOPS but then asks, what do they stand for? Order of worship. Obituary. Photo. Special papers (DNR, will).

Over the Hill from the fancy Hill post-retirement real estate there is a little town, Oriskany Falls, dating, like the graves in Eaton, from just after the American Revolution.  Our friend’s dad, Russell Clark, a Colgate and BU graduate, loved life as a pastor there. One winter a farmer, his lay leader died, and the widow was not in church for a long time.  The pastor tried to console and help, but she didn’t want company. Grief is a slippery dragon. If I had another two lifetimes I would spend half of one really studying, trying to understand grief.  It is a dark stranger, an opaque mystery, individual to each. For Russell’s Oriskany Falls widow it was too. Then one day she called to say that she would like a pastoral visit. She told him something, when he asked how she was doing.  She began: Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev.  (You know you are already in trouble with that prelude.)  It has been so unutterably hard for me.  There were days when I could not get out of bed.  But I did. And do know why? It wasn’t the resurrection sermons I have heard. No.  What got me going, got me out of bed was…the chickens. Every morning at dawn they would fuss, and rustle around and cluck, waiting to be fed.  They were hungry and they needed feeding. So I got up and put on my robe and went out and fed them. By then the sun was up, by then the mist was lifted, by then I was awake, and by then I could stand the thought of breakfast, and after that, well the day opened up.  So don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. (you know you are in trouble when…), don’t take this the wrong way, but the clucking of those hens meant more to me in my grief than all the hymns of Easter.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.

You see?  The rhythms of life, evening and morning one day, detailed disciplined attention to the routine can by grace admit illumination, the light in which we see light.  Including religious practice. Joanna, the newcomer, found it so. So can you, especially if you on Easter are a newcomer, looking for a first helping, an initial course in faith, a church family to love and church home to enjoy.  Particularly in grief. It is one thing to attend to religious practice, and another to do so, to visit the body, when you have loved the person. As some of you have done so this year.

These daily rhythms, in Easter fact, do in fact matter, a great deal. They matter in life, and they matter all year long, too.   Our Gospel this year, Luke 24: 1-12, follows on Luke’s keen interest in history—Roman history, Palestinian history, church history—by following the women to the tomb.  They are going about their regular rhythms, in the hour of death. They are finding ritual hand holds as they walk the dark path, the pre-dawn path, of grief. In grief, they stick to their regular routines.

And along they come, toward us, along the practice road. Your bit of religious practice has brought you out into the light.  How so? Just what are we doing here? Joanna and the women, moving at dawn, through the mist, toward the tomb, attending to the routine practices of the day, may teach us.    

Teach us what? What do we see illumined by the light in which see light?




In thy light we see…wonder.

They might affirm what we find all around us, when we pause.  At dawn, through the mist, toward the tomb, they find joy, order, humor, hope, virtue, beauty, music.  

There is the sweet scent of a newborn child, silent in the arm.  

There is the orderly happiness of that rarest of arts, a well-written email.  

There is touch of humor.

There is a calm.  Drop thy still dews of quietness ‘til all our strivings cease.  Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess, the beauty of thy peace.

There is the native hue of resolution behind hope.

There is the patterned simplicity of a well lived life.

There is the beauty of dawn or sunset or both.  There is music, beautiful music, invisible beauty, the ringing beauty of music.  

There are hints and allegations and forms of presence.  You cannot be fully alive, humanly speaking, and miss them.  Wonder.

Joanna teaches us:  The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder.  Or was that GK Chesterton?

Joanna teaches us: Philosophy begins in wonder. Or was that the founder of Boston Personalism, Borden Parker Bowne?

Joanna teaches us (trigger warning for academics here):   The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it.  The larger the lake of learning, the longer the lakeshore of mystery that surrounds it.  Or was that Ralph Sockman?

Joanna teaches us: I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.  Or was that e. e. cummings?

Joanna teaches us:  Just what are you going to do with your one beautiful life? Or was that Mary Oliver?

You listen to a child singing alone just before falling to sleep, and tell me you sense no enchantment?  

You watch a 9-year old, ball glove on, striding toward Fenway park, other hand in his Dad’s other hand, and tell me you sense no amazement?  

You see Lake Lucille.  You look down from the Matterhorn.  You walk in mid- December through a jewelry store.  And no wonder?

You come into a barn at dawn, with the milking in gear, and Louis Armstrong on the radio.  You watch a daughter caring for her father in the last month of life.  You hear the hymns of Easter.  And tell me you sense no enchantment? No wonder? No “thaumadzon”?

In thy light we see wonder.  Joanna schools us about wonder.


In thy light we see…weakness, too. Easter, inside the tomb, our frailty, our mortality, our fallibility is all too clear, well illumined you might say.

Twenty years ago, a good friend and I were competing for a position, which he ended up winning.  But so often the things we think we really want, don’t turn out to be that desirable. This winter, strangely, so quietly that I almost missed it, he said, of that job, I wish there were do-overs in life. On that one, I wish I had a do-over chance with that one.  It was a gracious, Easter, moment.  You know, sometimes, we get things wrong.  We err. You learn most, if you will let yourself, from mistakes.  

Inside the tomb, you see, in the shadow, as you see, there is much bowing and perplexity. Luke is accused sometimes of a lighter cross, that is, of seeing the cross as a human mistake, a rueful misjudgment on the part of his contemporaries, rather than the great Pauline cross of divine justice, righteousness, atonement and redemption.  Well, what of it? Let’s let Luke have his say: surely this man was innocent. (Remember Good Friday?)  A miscarriage of justice. Surely the cross is not less than that, whatever more it may be.  Luke tends to love the human side of things. So, Luke is more Methodist than Presbyterian, more Wesleyan than Calvinist.  He loves history, theology, the poor, and the church.

Most notably, we may humbly mention, the last sentence was not included in the RSV text, and would not have been read just a few years ago.  It (vs 12) is attached here, but only with cautions, for in truth it is probably a later addition. Added? Yes, added. Added to include Peter.  Added?  Yes, added.  Added to fit with what will come later near Emmaus.  Added? Yes, added. Added to record Peter’s ‘amazement’, which a few years ago was better translated ‘wondering’, which word has a tinge of perplexity, bewilderment, and uncertainty.

There is an admitted weakness, a humility, a vulnerability about Peter in the Gospels that does not always appear in the life of the church. Peter, in the Bible, is more humble than his church, in history.  Peter, come lately, at least scurries, at least sees, at least shows some humility before what in any case is beyond us. Come Easter, we may meditate on the importance, the propriety, of humility before what in any case is beyond us.

The natural horror of earthquake.  The historical tragedy of warfare. The social failure of poverty.  The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. Wonder comes along with a full measure of our weakness.  There is no avoiding or evading, and, worse, no explaining. As Ivan Karamazov tellingly put it, even one, just one suffering innocent defies explanation or defense.   Ours will be a muted, a humble, wonder, won by living through more than by thinking through.

 It is strange.  Some of the strongest people, the most radiant and generous, are often those who know weakness, who are living ‘after’ and ‘over against’ and ‘nonetheless’, and ‘in spite of’.   I knew ‘David’ for several years, admiring and enjoying his radiant generosity, his love for his family, before over lunch I learned his early loss of his first wife.  Emile Fackenheim, Canadian Jewish philosopher, said of his faith practice, post holocaust, that he lived so in order to deny Hitler any posthumous victory.  

In thy light we see weakness.  Joanna schools us about our weakness.


In thy light we see…whimsy, too.


The Gospel of Luke later makes a telling point: ‘he showed himself to those who loved him’.  Those who hear and receive the abandon, the self-abandon of faith, ‘see’ Him. Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly, like the angels. Not by historical inquiry, but by participation is the gospel known (Tillich).  By routine, by regular practice of faith in worship and learning and service.

Whimsy.   God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. Freedom means this: Reality is the arena of God’s cosmic process of redemption. (What is going on around us is infused with the divine.  Freedom is the Easter gospel laid bare, and lived out in happy abandon. It is the freedom to live each day on tip toe, to live each day as if it were the last, to live each day with abandon, to live each day with self-forgetful freedom.  Lost in wonder, love and praise! Or, lost in wonder, weakness, and whimsy. Watch fight and pray and live rejoicing every day.

A priest, minister and rabbi were driving across Ireland and had car trouble.  They emerged from the car and could see no one, only a horse. Suddenly a horse leaned over the fence and said, ‘Open the hood, and let me have a look’.  ‘You are a talking horse?’. ‘Yes. Clean the gaskets and retry the ignition.’ The car purred, and off the clergy trio drove, terrified. They stopped in a nearby pub to calm their nerves. ‘You look terrible’ said the barkeep.  ‘What happened to you?’ ‘You won’t believe it. The car broke down. Then a horse came up and spoke, and fixed the car’. ‘Really? What color was the horse?’ ‘Black. Why?’ ‘Well, you were lucky it wasn’t the white horse.’ “There is white horse over there, too?  But he doesn’t speak?’. ‘Oh, no his speech is fine, his English excellent. But he just doesn’t know anything about car mechanics.’ A little Irish whimsy, don’t you know.

Our seven sacramental moments in life are each and all meant to release us to self-abandon, self-giving, self-mockery.  In Tillich’s phrase, to move from self-centered life to life of the centered self. Don’t take yourself too seriously.  

We had a Bishop who loved golf, and would include college students to fill a foursome.  One day we finished and went to drink ice tea. A man from the foursome ahead of us shouted: “I left my putter on the eighth green. You were right behind us.  Why didn’t you pick it up?” I wanted to say, you know, he is a Bishop, but I kept quiet. After a while the Bishop excused himself. He was gone a while, then came in the shop door with a putter and silently laid it on the man’s table.  Afterward, thinking about cheeks and cloaks, I saw him in a new light, a confirmed light, a resurrection light.

Out of the blue in February a friend recommended Wallace Stegner’s novel, Crossing to Safety.  It is an exquisite book, about two couples, and about grief, tragedy, academic life, and, especially, friendship. In New Hampshire one summer, on a long hike, the men find themselves under a waterfall and near a beautiful natural whirlpool.  It demands baptism, one says, and in they go.  Of the swim, of the day, of the friendship, of the baptism, of that present moment, Stegner writes, It was a present that made the future tingle.  That gorgeous sentence is Easter in wonder and weakness and whimsy;  a present that makes the future tingle.  We could even say, a future that makes the present tingle, but that would take another sermon.

In thy light we see whimsy.  Joanna schools us in whimsy


Are you, like Joanna, new to the story, new to faith, new to religious practice?  Welcome. In light of Resurrection, we pray, Lord grant you, and grant us all, the revelation of wonder, the admission of weakness, and the liberation of whimsy.

I could give all to Time except — except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.

(Robert Frost)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

April 7

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Our two readings, Philippians 3 and John 12, confront us with the ranges of reality in loyalty and mortality. Philippians is about loyalty.  John is about mortality. In the blurr of activities, come Sunday, in Christ, one is accosted by loyalty and mortality, through whom, in Christ, ‘we become like him’.

That is, two very different readings from Scripture greet us this Sunday morning.  One describes loyalty. The other evokes mortality. Both are good news, and each story amplifies and explicates the other.   For you this morning, the lesson and the gospel raise a mortal question about your forms of loyalty, and a loyal question about your sense of mortality.  A hymn of love and a reminder of death are somewhere, somehow buried in every sermon and every service of worship. In decisions about loyalty and in the encroachment of mortality, we become like Him:  Jesus Christ, the loyalty of God; Jesus Christ, the mortality of the human being.

There is today a tendency to minimize Paul’s change of allegiance, as expressed in Philippians 3, and elsewhere.   So this scholarly trend would argue: Paul did not really distance himself from his earlier religious expression. Paul did not really reject his mother tongue, mother land, mother religion.  Paul did not expressly depart from the eighth day, the tribe, the law. Paul did not really intend to step aside from his inheritance. Paul was born loyal and died loyal, and his loyalty at birth and death were of a piece.  I suppose that scholarly trends, like fashion, move in and out of vogue, for and with some regularity. Certainly, the work of these mentioned scholars, and that of many others, reminding us of the depth and breadth of background to the letters of the APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), carry much of importance.  Still, there is the little matter of…rubbish.

Paul calls his inheritance rubbish.  SKUBALA. It is a remarkable Greek word, whose force you can hear in its simple repetition.  SKUBALA. Rubbish. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish.   It will not do to muffle Paul’s apocalyptic sense of loyalty.  In fact, much of the work of late that tries to do so ends up representing a view of Paul that is much more akin to the views of his opponents than to those of Paul himself.  But what of the particular inheritance, yours and mine and Paul’s? What of our particular, idiosyncratic, experiences and cultures and hues? In Paul’s case, what of circumcision, of covenant, of history, of torah, of valiant duty past?  I regard them as…SKUBALA.   We may wish Paul had been more temperate.  He was not. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, sea change in the fount of loyalty.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  

Across town, across the Scripture that is, and in the heart of the Fourth Gospel, meanwhile, we are engaged by another story.  Now mortality, not loyalty, addresses us. If there is a richer set of eight verses in the entire New Testament than John 12: 1-8, honestly, where would you find it?  Here is the Passover, the third in the fourth Gospel. Here too is Bethany, site of earlier astonishment. Here is Lazarus, who emerged from a tomb, covered with bandages, odorous and squinting.  Martha, of serving fame, and Mary, of praying memory, are here, too. A year’s wages are here poured out on feet, feet of course being of sacramental power in this Gospel, as we saw two weeks ago.  There is fragrance, the fragrant scent of perfume poured on holy feet, perfume dried in loving hands, perfume gathered on the hairs of the head. An astounding scene, already, but there is more. In comes Judas Iscariot.  There arises an argument about money, surely not the last religious argument about money. The poor and the present are set against each other, surely not the last religious argument about the good and beautiful. And then a dominical pronouncement:  keep it for the day of my burial.  After so many visual, audible, tactile, olfactory and savory images, we are sensorially exhausted and ready for  a nap. These images share a common trait. They evoke mortality.

The Passover is the scene of death.  Lazarus was raised from death. Mary has a premonition of death.  Martha and Mary pleaded with Jesus about death. Judas Iscariot is the agent of death.  The plight of the poor is mentioned to avoid a confrontation with death. The perfume is a symbol of anointing at death.  If there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—and it is not clear that there is anything more significant in Scripture than justice—but if there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—it is mortality.  Our gospel lesson this morning pulls out every stop to evoke mortality.

Reminders of mortality, like attendance in worship itself, which is one such reminder on a weekly basis, may make us squirm.  We have a way of thinking that death happens always to somebody else. We find ways to change the channel. In the last few years we have become experts at changing the channel.  Think for a minute about deaths in this country, over the last decade, due to gun violence. Diminishment to a part of the gentle hope, for a real spiritual culture and community, across this land, in our time.  Harm to some of the soaring ideals of a young republic, now seen from abroad as a pre-emptive behemoth. Defeat to a part of the great dream of those who built the United Nations. Yes, reminders of death make us squirm.

Dr. Jarrett, how does the music of Bach, aid us in our meditation this morning?


Bach’s point of departure tells another story of mortality and promise of awakening – of Resurrection. Luke Chapter 7 finds Jesus traveling to the town of Nain where he encounters a funeral procession. Moved by the mother’s grief, he calls for the dead man to rise from his funeral bier.

Cantata 8 was written a little more than a year after Bach began to work in Leipzig, placing our cantata in the second cycle of cantatas, the year of the Chorale cantatas. The chorale on the which the cantats is based is Caspar Neumann’s familiar “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” The 1710 melody is feature in the first and last movement, though treated slightly differently in each instance.

The cantata in concerned with mortality, and specifically, the hour of our final moment. We await the ticking clock toward the chime of our own funeral bells. In 18th century Leipzig, parishioners were notified of the death of a member of their community by 24 tolls from the tower bell.

In the opening movement, Bach creates an extraordinary Leichenglocken – funeral bells – using string pizzicatos, the wheels and sprockets of the interior mechanism of the clock, the two oboes d’amore chasing each other as the hands of the clock, and finally the flute tolling exactly 24 repeated pitches, punctuating and “chiming” throughout the movement. All of this extraordinary music accompanies the eight phrases of Bach’s setting of the Neumann chorale.

The clock continues to tick as the cantata turns inward for the first aria. The tenor takes up the strain with oboe obliggato. Typically when Bach wishes to call attention to a particular word or concept, he employs extended melisma. In this aria, note the treatment of the verb “schlägt” describing the striking of the final hour. Similarly, the place of rest – Ruhstatt – finds repose on a long, sustained pitch.

Fear, anxiety, worry are all dashed when the baritone steps forward to sing a gigue, reminding us that it is through Christ Jesus that we are called to new life and transformation. The flute’s somber tolling from the opening movement is transformed to the dance rhythms and melody’s of the baritone’s gigue. When the chorale returns in the final movement, it comes with confidence in full stride: Help me earn an honest grave next to godly Christian folk, and finally covered by earth never more be confounded!


Loyalty and mortality…

Let us return to loyalty for a moment.

In Philippians, our APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), has now stated for us the force and source of loyalty in Jesus Christ, as he does with equal power in Galatians 2 and Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith.  (The loyalty of Christ, the righteousness of God based on Christ’s loyalty.)   Paul has been found in a new life.  His earlier code and covenant have come to an end.  They are set aside. They are good and true and beautiful, but not by comparison with the truly good and the beautifully true and the divinely beautiful.  It is the loyalty of Christ to which Paul sings his hymn of praise as read this morning. The rendering of these verses depends upon a reading of the phrase, ‘faith..Christ’ as first in reference to Christ’s own faith, by which in faith Paul and we are ‘owned’.  It may be that Paul has written these words in prison, and it may be that these words from prison were written at the end of his life. He will have had, as we do on some days, and Sundays, a clear sense of the fragility of life and its brevity.

So let us return to mortality for a moment.  

The several marks of mortality set before us in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, are also reminders of divine love.  Lazarus evokes such love from Jesus that, in that shortest of verses, we are reminded, ‘Jesus wept’. Mary and Martha are the figures of serving and praying that we know so well in the teachings about disciplined love.  Judas is never portrayed as doing ill for the sake of doing harm, but is found to mistake some love for all love. Most strongly, the pouring of perfume in lavish expense is understood as the full fragrance of affection and love.  

Our readings today give us grace to live by faith.  We may want to consider, on a bright spring Sunday afternoon walk, the examples of abiding loyalty and loving mortality which we have known.  We are meant to ‘become like him’, and so we shall want to notice the forms of loyalty and limitation that are ever before us.

We may want to remember something of Josiah Royce, and his evocation of loyalty. You may recall from your own life and family experience, the example of a truly loyal friend.  You may recognize that sometimes lesser loyalties must be laid aside in the face of greater loyalties. No one wants the lower lights to occlude the one great loyalty of life. You may recognize the difference, say, between asking forgiveness for a promise broken, and asking forgiveness for a promise that should never have been made in the first place, whether kept or broken.  We may deeply recognize the need we have to reclaim the language of remorse out of our religious traditions, so that we might walk again in newness of life, following Lenten confession.

We shall want to find and practice the forms of loyalty by which, and through which, we may dimly acknowledge our mortality.  Any pastor will tell you that young people live as if they were immortal, and not only young people. There is a youthful courage in this, but also a tragic risk.  We may want to recall the verses of Scripture that warn us about limits. Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume…All flesh is grass, it withers and fades…Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire…The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…This night is your soul required of you…

Here is a potentially saving word.  It is the intimation of mortality that puts steel in the spine of our loyalty.  It is the practiced sacrifice of loyalty that gives us courage for the facing of the last things.  Where there is a sense of mortality there is a sense of loyalty. Where there is a preparation of loyalty there is a preparation for mortality.  The one inspires the other. (Where there is no inkling of mortality there is no spur to loyalty). Perhaps that is why, in the mystery of all things, and in the planning for Sunday readings, Philippians 3 and John 12 were yoked.  Think this lent about your lasting commitments. Think this lent about your limitations. And recall the hymn written next door, in the school of theology, by then Dean Earl Marlatt, singing of Jesus, a beacon to God, to love and loyalty…

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