Archive for September, 2019

September 29

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

Luke 16:19-31

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The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, on any college campus today, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.  Or was.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness. Sin is the not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.   Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.  I doubt it.  Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this year.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls. Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.


For more than a decade, Music at Marsh Chapel has cultivated our own little plot of land – the rich and fertile soil of the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The endeavor around the recreation of this extraordinary repertoire by our players and singers is its own form activism, faith, tithe, and over time and shared commitment, Jeremiah might even behold restoration.

This year’s cantata series explores four works Bach composed for New Year’s Day. At the highest altitude, these are joyful and celebratory cantatas — at least in the outer movements. To be sure, the inner movements can be counted on to remind us of our sin at some point. Today’s cantata – No. 41 ‘Jesu, nun sei gepreiset’ or Jesus, now be praised, numbers among the great Chorale Cantatas from Bach’s second annual cycle of cantatas in Leipzig. In these remarkable works, the great hymns of the faith – Chorales – are the Alpha and Omega. Today’s cantata sets the outer verses of Johann Herman’s 1593 text exactly in the opening and closing movements, while paraphrasing the inner verse of the chorale in the arias and recitatives within the cantata.

The passing of the old year and the welcoming of the New Year takes on various dimensions for each of us, and for Bach and his congregation, they were reminded that as the Old Year is analogous to the Old Testament, the New Year reveals the hope of resurrection from the New Testament — Law and Grace. And perhaps a more obvious temporal analogy, our mortal life on earth is the old year that passes, and the New Year represents our hopes for the life eternal. For this reason, the central text offers a prayer for mercy and salvation upon the believer’s death. Finally, the bass soloist reminds us that this mortal life is constantly thwarted and threatened by Satan’s works, potentially jeopardizing our hope for life in eternity, the New Year of our soul.

Musically, this cantata is extraordinarily rich in invention and detail from the first measure to the last. For the central aria, our principal cellist Guy Fishman plays a five-stringed cello called a Cello Piccolo with music that seems to depict our earthly toil in sincere and honest strains of remarkable difficulty. And the joyful soprano aria heard immediately following the opening choral movement features dance rhythms and a choir of merry oboes.

However, nothing can sufficiently prepare the listener for the glorious opening movement. The chorale is faithfully rendered in long tones in the soprano part with truly astonishing invention all around. Here Bach gives us bold concertante writing in the latest style (think New Year) with the final two lines set in the old contrapuntal or fugal style, before recasting those lines to the new music. Truly a dialectic of old and new styles transformed by their relation to one another.

As academic communities at schools and colleges throughout the country commence a new year this month, they too engage in this dialectic of the hope of new beginnings forged in the knowledge and wisdom of those who have gone before. And of those who have gone before, few surpass Bach’s capacity to reveal new heights and hopes for our daily strivings and our future together.


You may want and need to shift your perspective, to alter your angle of vision, to see things from even higher ground.  Some measure of health or salvation, or mental sanitation may require it.

The Matterhorn is the most beautiful mountain on our planet.  Today, the beautiful, tomorrow, the true, the next day, the good.  An excellent view of the majestic Alpine peak may be found in Zermatt.  If and as memory serves, you can drive to Zermatt—rent an old deux chaveaux—a pristine Alpine village, snow laden in the summer, its shops and hostels wind swept and well kept.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship. The Matterhorn!  Just before you.

There is, though, a better view, for which though you will need to shift your perspective, to alter your angel of vision, to change your location, in order to see things from even higher ground.  High up to the southeast, in the craggy mountain cliffs, there is, farther up, the small hamlet of Gornergrat.  To get up there, if memory serves, you must take an open air, chair by chair, chain rail car, ascending at 45 degrees, up and up, and on up, nearer to the summit, and far closer to your ideal, aspirational vies of beauty.  Or truth.  Or goodness.  Acrophobics need not apply.

The ride is short but terrifying.  At the top, mid-July, thick snow, hard ice, brisk wind and a coldness of cold await you.  As does the mesmerizing thrall of the mountain.  The Matterhorn.  Step gingerly out of the old open rail car.  Get your footing, your mountain sea legs.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  There.  A new way of seeing, and so of thinking, and so, then of being.  Health and sanity may impel or compel you to higher ground.

My sixteenth book will be published this fall, a collection devoted in part to the New Testament, in part to preaching, and in part to ministry—Bible, Church, World as we in the halcyon younger days of the World Council of Churches intoned.  None of the sixteen is a best seller, none a game changer, none found in every home.  All but two are still in print, and several in both print and cyber forms.  They are the work of Zermatt.  Fine.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship.  The Matterhorn!  Just before you.  But.  But.  But.

As an acrophobe the rail car ride up is not appealing.  But it is time for me to move on up, to take higher ground, to climb on to Gornergrat.  Ice.  Snow. Cold. Wind.  That means the prospect of one more, a very different book, for a very different look.  A different look takes a different book.  It will be, here, for me, the work of the next decade, in pulpit and study.  As you cannot get to Gornergrat but through Zermatt, this project depends in full on all that came before:  books on the New Testament (John), on preaching (Interpretation), and on ministry (prayer and practice).  The next climb is up on to craggy cliff village—ice, snow, cold, wind—of an overture to A Liberal Biblical Theology.   Here is a marriage of Rudolph Bultmann and N.T. Wright., a partnership of Paul Tillich and (the early) Karl Barth, an aspirational possibilist (that is Methodist) correlation of history and theology, Bible and Church, accessible to the average reader.  Our climate, nation, and denomination, all in peril, hang in the balance.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

September 22

Remembering Howard Thurman

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:1-13

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Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable.  There is no easy interpretation for this parable.  Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know.  Why is his master happy to be cheated?  We cannot say.  Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell.  What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend (“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations”? ) We do not see.  What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs?  Little at all, except that they all deal with money.  How did this story make it into Luke’s travel narrative?  It is not clear.  Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)  Perhaps!  And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate (Spirit and Presence Both) to be found in our reading today? The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news:  Faith gives spiritual health in the midst of change, including the transition into college life, in the voice of Presence Spirit, Spirit Presence.

Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst.  Spirit.  Presence. We can announce his spirited presence today, again today.  He is among us:  dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust.  So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him.  In the strange world of the Bible.  In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church.  Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life.  Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, “L’Etranger”, “The Stranger”.

His spirited presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political.  He draws us, lures us, and enchants us.  So he sets us free.

For St. Luke in chapters 9 to 19 has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”.  We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church.  We are making a trip to the promised land.  We are headed in a certain direction.  With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey.  Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread.  There they became the slaves of Pharaoh.  But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness.  He brought them the ten commandments.  At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey.  In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed.  They even built a temple, and chose a King.  Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong.  Although the prophets did warn them, listen to Jeremiah today, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc.  On these hundreds of years of history depends the cry of Jeremiah, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people.” (9:1). Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.  Faith heals, manages, handles the hardest of change.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the maelstrom of wild, unexpected change and economic crisis.  On the road, the journey of faith, the Gospel of Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses, the issue of money.  Remember how Luke traces the Gospel.  Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor.  John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward.  Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed.  Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’.  Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?”  Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions.  And, by the way, get ready in conclusion, to meet Lazarus and Dives.  Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a community and as a community of faith and as individuals.

Two Christological Perils


            Our son Ben said once of his grandfather, ‘I love to hear his voice’.   One year, his grandfather survived a nearly mortal illness.  There are not words to convey the joy, the gratitude, that we his family experienced in his escape.  Those who have been on the brink of death can appreciate the gospel promise, ‘I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’(John 10:28).  Not all such deliverance has an earthly horizon.  Some freedom and some grace must await us across the river.  And I don’t mean Harvard.  But some comes to us here.   He and my mother lived here in Boston 1950-1953.  In 1975, he wrote the following sentences in the back of a book.

            The temptation for the people of the church in every age is to believe: a) Jesus is only human; b) Jesus only appeared to be human.  For those who settle on ‘a’ there is no power, no mystery, no pull to pry them out of much of life.  For those who choose ‘b’ there is no hope because mankind cannot ascend the heights of divinity.  Both are heresies.  The pious wise men of 325ad  saw, though they could not explain it, that he was fully human and fully divine.


            My parents departed from Boston in 1953 just as Howard Thurman came to town.  Rev. Peter Gomes recalled, one year, as he and I exchanged pulpits, that George Buttrick and Howard Thurman used to do the same.  Thurman’s voice carries us into two dimensions, two realms of reality.  He was 100 years ahead of his time, 50 years ago, so he is still 50 years ahead of you (and me).  He evoked the Christ of Common Ground, transcendent, universal, shared, unconfined, free.  He evoked the Christ of the Disinherited, immanent, particular, grasped, embodied, back against the wall.  Two Christs.  Spirit and Presence.  Calling out to you to know the grain of your own wood, not to cut against the grain of your own wood…

                        We turn for support to Howard Thurman.  To his book, THE SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND.  To his book, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED.


  1. Thurman and Transcendence:  The Search for Common Ground (Hillary)


Spirit.  Hillary, what does Howard Thurman say about Spirit?

As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53)


In the voice of Howard Thurman, 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, there is a regard for mystery, silence, presence, the transcendent.  One in kinship with all of creation. One in kinship with every human being, so that nothing human is foreign to us.  One in transformative engagement with our natural world, our home, our condition, our circumstance.  One in openness to the great differences and diversities of personal, that is to say religious, expression, including myth from long ago and far away.

The Spirit.

  1. Thurman and Immanence:  Jesus and the Disinherited (Mahalia)


Mahalia, what did Howard Thurman say about Presence?


‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities.  He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.


The Presence, as well.


An Invitation


How will you live out the deep river truths, spirit and presence?  How will you live down its opposition, however you understand it?  Have you truly intuited the brevity of life?  Have you really absorbed the capacity we have as humans to harm others?  Have you faced the dualism of decision that is the marrow of every Sunday, every prayer, every sermon, every service?  Are you ready to make a break for it?  Are you ready to discover freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation?  Are you set to place one hand in that of The Spirit and the other in that of the Presence?

As Director Katherine Kennedy once said, “The beauty of Thurman is that he wasn’t trying to convert people to Christianity. Rather, he wanted people to see that there is a common ground we can reach by respecting one another’s differences, while still holding onto those beliefs that are uniquely ours.”


Jan and I came over here to Boston fourteen years ago, in order to invest the last quarter of our ministry in the next generation of preachers, teachers, ministers of the gospel.  You hear today voices that will change the world for the better.  A few years ago, I asked in Thurman fashion a half dozen undergraduates to say something about Jesus.

Tom, what did they say?



is all the world to me…

loves me…

is perpetually ripe….

means freedom…

shows us that self giving love is the way to life…is my transforming friend…

has got my back…

is the consoler of the poor…the lamp of the poor …

is unconditional love…

is the constant companion on life’s journey…

My greatest gift…

Patient pursuer….

In love with us….

the Hound of Heaven…

Friend on the Journey….

challenges us because he loves us…

brings out our best self…


He is…

Known in the promise of this season


Reflected in the joys of autumn


Overheard in the words and vows of commitment


Expanded into the lengthening evening daylight


Enjoyed in the gatherings of families and friends


Celebrated in the ceremonies of completion


And carried forward from this hour of worship and day of remembrance 


In the words of Emily Dickinson:

I stepped from plank to plank
A slow and cautious way;
the stars above my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
would be my final inch.
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call experience.

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

September 15

All Count

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Luke 15:1-10

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        A long time ago JB Phillips wrote a good book titled ‘Your God Is Too Small’. On another day, a sermon from St. Luke might pursue that theme. But the parables of sheep, coin and prodigal, Luke 15, take us in the opposite direction. Sometimes, ‘Our God Is Too Large’. All count, all sheep, all coins, all prodigals, all however small, all count.


        All listeners count. They say on the radio you should think of speaking just to one person. Have one person in mind, not a blurry assembly of many. So, Krista Tippet has one person in mind, say, when she interviews Imani Perry over the radio waves from Chautauqua Institution. Or the Red Sox play by play announcer has one fan in mind, not a township, say. Perhaps we should sometimes do the same here. (After all, if we have 200 in the sanctuary, and 20,000 listening from afar, that is a factor difference of 100.) So…

        In southern New Hampshire, it may be, then, a woman is listening this morning. The house is quiet. Her teenage children, one back from college, are still asleep. Her husband is golfing, probably stopping right now after the ninth hole for any early beer and hot dog, before the back nine. She is alone though not lonely. She plunks a bagel in the toaster, and sips coffee. She loves WBUR, and tolerates the Sunday morning worship service. That said, she loves the music and tolerates the sermon. She loves the familiar pieces, ‘Lead me Lord’ and the sung benediction (I wish he would talk less so that I could hear that more often.), and tolerates the new sounds. She loves the old hymns, but sometimes a new one will spark something in her too.

        The house is solid, the roof is new last summer. The lawn is mowed. Her kids are grown and growing. They will take you for a ride, she thinks. She does not love her job, but who does? Her husband seems happy enough, and they too together. Men. She heard William Sloane Coffin say once that ‘Preachers are egotists with a theological alibi’. She smiles and thinks ‘Men are egotists with a cultural alibi’. Men. She chuckles.

        The Gospel, she realizes, is about a woman cleaning a house. That sounds way too familiar. But it is good that the woman is the star. Actually, she now remembers, in this Gospel of Luke woman are often set so. She mulls that for a while. In the story, the woman is hunting for a coin. She thinks about last Christmas when for love nor money could not find the bracelet that she wanted to wear for the company party. Then she found it on a snow day in February. The sermon is about finding the lost, including the outcast, hunting for the one in a hundred in real need, and how God’s grace finds the lost, includes the outcast and hunts for those in need.

        At book club last Tuesday, they talked about politics, she remembers, as the sermon drones on. She vaguely hopes the choir will sing that ‘walk through the valley in peace’ afterward. At book club she thought about the last national election and how she voted. She is middle of road, middle aged, middle class. She had an idea about why she voted as she did, but she now has a funny feeling about that. Somebody at book club had said, ‘I realize about that now what I meant is not what it means. I meant one thing but it turned out to mean something else.’ She enjoys the bagel. The sermon meanders on. Where does he get this stuff?, she wonders.

        Then for some reason she thinks about last February when they went to San Diego. They decided to go down past Chula Vista and into Tijuana. There is a piercing, sharp memory of those poor children, looking into the train window, some with shoes and teeth and some not. She thinks about her two teenagers. Then her mind wanders back to her grandmother who came over from Scotland, and held every penny tight as if it were a hundred dollars, and counted every coin in her purse twice, and waited for the sales to buy anything, not that she ever bought anything. Then she thinks of those families in the Bahamas, one blind man who had to walk out of his blown down house carrying his disabled teenaged son, right in the middle of the storm. She thinks about her two sleeping teenagers. She remembers reading in college a book by Howard Thurman, The Disinherited. She thinks about her two teenagers, and wonders what they are reading…or are they reading at all? The sermon ends.

        And the choir sings. Come noon she walks out onto the patio, thinking about the week ahead. All count. All listeners count.


        All words count. Last year this week we went to celebrate a wedding bear New York City. Driving home, past the Long Island Sound, my wife asked, ‘What do they call it that?’ Sound? A dexterous monosyllable.

        Is your faith sound?

        Does it have breadth, like a body of water?

        Is it reliable, durable, sound rather than unsound?

        Does it sound right, does it sound of off, does it make a sound, as the trumpet shall sound?

        Is your faith broad, durable and audible?

        Is your life? Broad, durable, audible? Here is a question: do you use email or voice mail, sight or sound?

        What is sound? What sound do you make and hear and revere?

        A long time ago, my dad gave me, with intent and portent, a book I believe titled, THE MAYO BROTHERS. He had read it and loved it. I set it aside for future reading. Fortunately, 50 years later, Ken Burns has saved me.

        One of the SOUND features, the saving features, of our shared, patriotic, national, purple common hope is, simply, health. Health, salvus, is a mode of salvation. If Gandhi rightly could teach that for the hungry God must come, and only, as bread, then we could add, with the Brothers Mayo, that for the sick, God must come, and only, as health, as medicine, as doctoral care, as nursing love, as healing. We might differ, a bit, about delivery and cost and structure. But when you have appendicitis, you want a good surgeon. When you break your arm in a boating accident, you want a skilled orthopedic clinic, nearby. When your hip is worn out and you need new one, you want somebody who knows what they are doing. We have an easier time cutting costs on other peoples’ medical care than we do cutting costs on our own. The place to begin thinking about medical frugalities is from your own hospital bed, when your own healing, that is life, is at stake, with your own family standing around in anxiety and tears. Most good thinking starts at the hospital bed side, in any case, as does much good praying. We say a direct personal word of blessing to those listening live right now in hospital, in nursing home, in rehabilitation, and right at home.

        But as Alf Landon said, ‘I am liberal, not a spend thrift’. Sound, that. So, we can still keep Ben Franklin close, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’. All count. All words, even those with single syllables, all count.


        All losses count. Today’s parable is about loss. Think for a moment about loss. About the loss of love, say, or about falling out of love.

        Sometimes we fall out of love. Love of a job, love of a house, love of a vocation or avocation, and, well, other loves too.

        More is written in all modes about falling in love, and so it should be. But sometimes the reverse occurs. What once drew now repels, what once beckons now repulses, what once enticed now sours.

        Our youngest, Christopher, is an athlete. People would come to watch him at age 5, in children’s soccer, to see how many goals he could score in 10 minutes. I saw him hit the only hole in one I have seen live. He played baseball, basketball, football, golf, and, especially soccer. He was team captain on a good team. Yet I saw something memorable in his senior year of high school. He fell out of love with soccer, his favorite sport. I watched him game after game becoming more and more listless, less and less engaged, no longer seeing the field, no longer leading the squad, content to play his position and finish the game. His talent was the same, his ability the same, his condition and capability the same. He just no

        longer loved the game after 12 years of loving it so. He really could give no explanation, though he did try, and I did pry. His heart just was no longer in it.

        Have you ever fallen out of love? Academics might pick up again Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man, which is largely about a man who falls out of love—with his work, with his employer, with his co-workers, with his vocation, with his parents, with his children, with his baseball team, with his friends, with his place in life. It is an uproariously funny novel. Yet, underneath, it is a meditation on what it means to fall out of love. Sometimes something happens to somebody that steals from them a way of loving something or someone, that breaks whatever energy current was running, or that somehow fractures an ability to love. You have seen it, in life, in pastoral care, in reading, and in reflection.

        Sometimes you just fall out of love. Better to admit it, whatever you end up doing about it. Sometimes the way out is the way through, through love lost to love found, found like a coin after cleaning and sweeping and hunting. All count. All loves count, both past and future.


        All souls count. The gospel comes in meager morsels. 3 years of preaching, teaching and healing: the ministry of Jesus. 27 short books: a New Testament. 12 original followers, fisherfolk and others: the disciples. An audacious claim, God-Love-Resurrection-Faith-Heaven, resting on a tiny patch of land, an outback area of history, a single individual, a scandalous, small, particularity. Jesus Christ and him crucified. Yet today you in love may of a sudden be ready, in the small, in the heart, for a new love, a divine love, a loving life of faith.

        Nancy Marsh Hartman, of blessed memory, lived faith as a singing Methodist all her life, right here, and said often, Life is how you take it.

        Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said: Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.

        Speaking of listeners, from New Haven our dear friend Dr. Kristopher Kahle sent a line from the Polanus, a reformed theologian: God is able to raise up for Godself children from stones—he can establish inanimate creatures as the heralds of divine glory. As with a coin lost.

        Lost, we. And then, of a sudden, by dint of a still small voice, found, in God, found, of God, found, by God. All count. All souls count, all. You count. You count. You count.


        8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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

September 8

Counting the Cost

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Luke 14: 25-33

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‘One small step for (a)man, one giant leap for mankind.’

            Our steps fifty summers ago were up and down the red rock mountains of Cimarron NM, and Philmont Scout Ranch, including July 20, 1969.   We ascended that day the sheer rock cliff known as the ‘Tooth of Time’, fourteen fourteen year olds and a beleaguered kindly insurance man scoutmaster.  ‘They should be on the moon by now’, he said.   But the detail we would only learn coming out of the wilderness some days later.

 ‘We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’  Hard.

            That was said in a New England voice, with a New England accent, by a young, imperfect but brilliant New England President, who could celebrate Washington DC and its combination of northern charm and southern efficiency, and could compliment a room full of eminent dinner guests by saying they were the most intelligent dinner gathering ever convened in the White House, with the exception of those evenings when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.  He was a war hero, but an accidental one, as he said that he became such in a simple way: ‘they sank my boat’.    His wife could speak French, charm Royalty, set fashion directions, comment on musical selections, and light up a room, and the globe, with a smile.  He said, in introduction, ‘You will recognize me as the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris’.   Grace.  Charm.  Elegance.  A fit for the office and for the house and for the role.  Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

            Decision, self-sacrifice, service above self.  The greater good.

            And look at us now. Look at our national ethos, culture, rhetoric and leadership now.

            SMH.  ‘Shakin’ my head’.

            We know better.  Or at least you do, New England.   You know better.

            Out on the Tooth of Time we looked at the stars on that night, July 20, 1969.  The world of possibilities in the world around us flickered and sparkled and blazed.   It asked of us a certain height.

            The Gospel, Luke 14, interpreted here bears up under the weight of shame, of bitter conflict, of family feud.   The Gospel gives you the grace to endure, to withstand, to withstand when you cannot understand.  And its means to such a saving end?  Arithmetic.  Counting.  Counting the cost.  Hear the Gospel of Luke 14, the saving power of arithmetic.


            Count the cost.  Ahead of time, count the cost.  By way of illustration:  in business, and in war.  In war that is big business and in business that is warfare.  And in everything in between.  Count the cost.

            Do the arithmetic, study the detail, count.

            You, careful listener, you recognize that Luke 14: 25-33 is not Jesus talking, but Luke writing.  You realize that Jesus left no written record, like Socrates in that.  You recognize that he spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and whether or not he was literate.  You recall the arithmetic of his life, death and destiny, the years 4bce to 33ce, and the distance of those from our reading, Luke 14, in 85ce, to the earliest (some would date Luke much later).  What we hear this morning is, in the first instance, not the voice of Jesus but the composition of Luke.   Of course, and granted, there will be traces of Jesus’ voice, along the way, Luke 9-19, especially, and especially therein the parables, his own mode of teaching, without which nothing.  In all, though, and on the bigger whole, this is not Jesus’ voice but Luke’s writing.  This makes all the arithmetical difference in the world, these 50 years and 2 opposed forms of rhetoric.

            Now, it may be, gazing again at the bulletin, or ruminating on the remembered reading of the Gospel, the high-water mark of our worship each Sunday, you begin to wonder, to ponder, to question.   Here are your questions, or some of them.

            Why this discussion of hatred, when the Gospel in other clothing is about love?  Why this denigration of family, when the family is one of the protected entities in the Decalogue:  protection of truth, of communication, of speech, of worship, of family, of life, of property, of marriage, of law, and of commerce?  Therein, whence the rejection of life itself, when otherwise the Gospel acclaims life, having life, and having life in abundance?   There seems to be some counting and accounting needed.

            More so:  What is the mention here of the cross?  Jesus in this narrative is preaching, teaching, healing, going about in Galilee and Judea a free itinerant prophet.  All of a sudden, here comes a word from much later, ‘cross’.  Was Jesus making a prediction that only he could see and understand?  Or is this a clue to the fountain and origin of this passage?  Cross?  Cross?  I thought we were sharing parables and blessing children and rounding up disciples.  Moreso, the cross is ‘one’s own cross’.  The writer seems to assume that all will get the reference, including you, and me, to the cross.  How all this talk about the cross when Jesus just now in Luke is teaching in parables and healing the sick, a long way from Jerusalem and ‘the cross’?

            Even more so:  How is it that all of a sudden, everyone around Jesus is expected to be a monk?  Ridding oneself of all, all, not most, not much, but all possessions?  All.  That’s at a lot, even in an era of tunics, ephods, camels, donkeys, sandals, fishing, shepherding and travel by foot.  All?  What is transpiring here?

            Nor does this seem metaphorical, in a way that our current preaching would likely choose.   Hatred—well, you know, not exactly hatred but mature self-differentiation.  Life—well, you know, not exactly life in the sense of breath and nourishment, but in the sense of deep meaning.  Cross—well, you know, not exactly crucifixion in the bloody and excruciating physical sense, but self-discipline, more in the sense of yoga.  Possessions—well, you know, not in exactly the form of car, home, bank account and pension, but in the sense of a general materiality, of not letting your possessions possess you.  No, actually Luke 14 does not seem or sound metaphorical at all, regarding hatred, life, cross, or possessions.  It sounds literal enough.

            Forgive what is only an interpretative guess, even less than that, yet after many decades of hearing these harsh words, even in Luke–the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of love, the Gospel of church, the Gospel of freedom—these are phrases that sound like the esoteric, ascetic, anti-worldliness of the emerging gnostic movement.  It is as if here, in Luke and Matthew, by way of Q, some measure of the enthusiastic pessimism, the bodily asceticism, the turning away from the world which we know in full in full Gnosticism, has grown up alongside the gospel, wheat and tares together sown.    There are strong parallels, almost identical, in the Gospel of Thomas, a gnosticizing document of about the same time as Luke. And there are strong parallels in Poimandres, a fully gnostic document of about the same time as Luke (Fitzmeier, Anchor, 1064).

            Uncompromising demands regarding self, regarding family, and regarding possessions may well be part of the life of faith, warns Luke out of the gnostic shadows of his sources.  Like all serious engagements, this spiritual one is not be entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly and in the fear of God.  ‘Jesus counsels his followers not to decide on discipleship without advance, mature self-probing’.   It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘come along, I want to make this for you the hardest decision of your life’.

            So.  This may mean that the struggles under this passage of Holy Scripture, our sufficient rule of faith and practice, are from 85ad, not 30ad.  That there is in the emerging church a set of conflicts that require some arithmetic, some counting and accounting.  How much home, how much away?  How much kindness, how much honesty?  How much self-affirmation and how much self-abnegation?  How much materiality and how much spirituality?  Before you set out, to go to college or to take a job or to move in together or to get married or to sell the farm or to go to war or to build a tower, well, you might want to…do the math.


            A few years ago, both at Marsh Chapel and in other pulpits, and not to worry if you remember it not, we will not be offended (much), we offered a sermon on the theme ‘Exit or Voice?’.  The heart of that sermon engaged a dilemma familiar to many, perhaps to you:  do I stay and lift my voice in a situation I find intolerable, or do I leave an intolerable situation and lose my voice to effect its change?   An economic study from MIT in the 1970’s, on a similar though commercially related thesis had partly inspired the sermon.  The question in the Gospels generally, about freedom and determinism, human will and divine will, gave the theological background to the sermon.

            The difficulty—exit or voice?—is in some ways a daily one for people of faith, in matters tiny and gigantic.   It requires arithmetic, and a counting of cost, an accounting.  Do I leave my church because of its current discrimination against gays, or do I stay to lift my voice in opposition to that discrimination?  Do I leave my party, perhaps the party of my upbringing, now become party of ethnic hatred and rhetorical ugliness, or do I stay and live to fight another day?  Do I leave regular relationship with my extended family out of real painful hurt occasioned in conversation, or do I stay and take my lumps and hope for sunshine at the next holiday gathering?  The determining impact and influence of conditions and situations, well beyond my control, is undeniable.  But so is the freedom, or sense of freedom, I feel to make a choice, make a decision, and make some difference, one way or another.  You will not be surprised to know that the theme still enervates, reverberates, and agitates, near and far.  Call it a daily cruciform arithmetic.

            Here is an example and application of our gospel lesson. Three years ago, summer 2016, David Brooks took time to consider a meaningful, cultural and personal issue, perhaps a newly nuanced though unintended approach to ‘exit, voice’, ‘at the edge of inside’.   He starts, though with different language, at the juncture of exit and voice.  Then, adds:  there’s also a third position in any organization:  those who are at the edge of the inside.  These people are within the organization, but they’re not subsumed by group think.  They work at the boundaries, bridges, and entranceways…I borrow this concept from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who lives in Albuquerque.  His point is that people who live at the edge of the inside have crucial roles to play…You are free from (a group’s) central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways…A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.  A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer (think of Martin Luther King)…A person on the edge of the inside knows how to take advantage of the standards and practices of the organization but not be imprisoned by them…Now more than ever we need people who have the courage to live on the edge of inside, who love their parties and organizations so much that they can critique them as a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist that they live up to their truest selves.  (NYT, June 2016)

            One could hear, here, encouragement for University congregations and pulpits, at once on the edge of the academic inside, and on the edge of the ecclesiastical inside too.  One could hear, here, a question for you to take home, about your social location in gospel ministry.  Again, with Luke, a reminder of the need for some basic arithmetic.


            It is a matter of arithmetic, of counting and accounting.  Try to fit that for which you hope into the waist and shirt size of the clothing you have to put on.  Calculate.  (Such an interesting word, referring to counting pebbles!) Sometimes that counting and accounting is found inside and sometimes outside.  Sometimes this is about what you can hold in your hand.   We begin 21 minutes ago in New England, where also we shall conclude. Not all great poets and poems come from New England.  But…But you are now in New England.  So, to conclude, Robert Frost,  ‘And what I would not part with I have kept’.   Be able to count what you can count on your own experience.  And leave the rest.

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.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

September 1

A Day of New Beginnings

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14: 1, 7-14

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We believe in God who has created and is creating, who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the spirit…

We remember and respect the ten commandments, Thou shalt have no other God before me…

We recall and are nourished by the Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor in spirit…

We affirm the creed, though perhaps not in every phrase with all fulsome understanding, We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…

And we begin the day, the Lord’s Day, the first day Matriculation day, the lasting and every day of God’s mercy and peace and love with hope.  We are here to offer a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,


And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.


I’ve heard it in the chilliest land

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

(E Dickinson)


Last year on Matriculation Sunday, following the Matriculation service at Agganis Arena, three freshmen come up upon me, walking back this way on Commonwealth Avenue, now nicely restored, in the heat of that day, one year ago.  They could see that I continue to try to earn the prize as the slowest walker at BU, and they graciously accommodated my pace.  We walked.  We strolled.  We sauntered.  We were flaneurs, flaneur dans les route.  We lollygagged.  There is time, even in college, for real life.  One from China, one from Maryland born in Puerto Rico, one from Florida.  We talked about the Matriculation service.  They had gracious, kind things to say.  Especially the third, who said:  “Well, I am the first person in my family to go to college.  I am first generation student.  Today at Matriculation I learned that 17% of my class are first generation college students.  That really was meaningful to me.  And then I heard the President, President Brown say, that he himself was first generation college student, the first in his family to go to college.  And he has a PhD.  And he’s the President!”  Another asked her, “Do you want to be a college president some day?”  “If I have time, I might!”  What an exciting, joyful day this is, full of new possibilities.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.


Walk with me some day, in a slow pace, and tell me your hopes, along Commonwealth Avenue.  Come alongside me and tell me what you hope to have time for down the road.

And listen now and then for a parable or two.  Jesus taught in parables, teaching not one thing without a parable, and today’s two are clear as a bell two millennia later:  one on humility and one on generosity;  be self-critical, self-aware, count others better than yourself, make space at the table; and, be generous, give to those who need, who cannot give you something back, tithe, remember those less fortunate;  one on humility and one on generosity.  Good reminders at Matriculation.

So taught and inspired, we will offer a third parable for the day, for those starting a four year journey.

Be careful.  Four years from now, may your happy memories be many, and your sour regrets be few.  I preached for a week in Ohio in June. After the Sunday service, a college classmate of mine came up and re-introduced himself, Lenny Baker.  My freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan, Lenny had taken me home for Easter break, in Canton, Ohio. He is now retired, married to a Methodist minister—just a great guy with whom I had sadly lost touch.  I had not seen him since graduation in 1976.   Later that week, at luncheon, he rose to tell a college story about us.  I admit I was a little nervous about what he might narrate!  He said:

We lived together our sophomore year together in the TKE house, which was a little wild.  Bob was often, though not always, a voice of reason.  One day some of us went up to the roof with a cat we somehow caught, for which we had made a parachute.  We were going to throw the cat over the roof of the three-story ante-bellum house, when he said, ‘Don’t do that.  You will kill that cat.  Look, instead, experiment. Go down in the kitchen and get a milk bottle, and fill it to the weight of the cat, then use the parachute first with milk bottle.  You will see then if your parachute works.  You know, pilot your idea first.’  Well the brothers of TKE were not inclined to delay and debated that for some time, but in the end voted for the experiment and fetched the milk bottle.  We latched up the parachute, counted to three, and threw the flying milk bottle off the roof of that three story—former stop on the underground railroad in mid-Ohio by the way—fraternity house.  It fell on the driveway and splattered into smithereens.  The brothers silently let the cat go free, with eight lives left to spare.  I said, ‘Lenny, I don’t remember that.  Is that true?’ ‘Bob, I have been telling that story for thirty years and it sure is true.  It is a happy college memory’.   

Of course, there is a Matriculation moral to this feline fable.  Be careful.  Think twice.  May your happy memories be many, and your regrets few.


May the Gracious God, holy and just, on this day of new beginnings, give us hope and joy and anticipation, as we in faith lift a common hope.

A common hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

A common hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

A common hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

A common hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make fine education and excellent health care truly available to all children, poor and rich.

A common hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

A common hope that our families, in some many ways divided, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey but also talk turkey and pass the potatoes but also pass along a word of kindness in a spirit of honesty.

A common hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

A common hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that your own days be long upon the earth.

Today we lift in common, a hope not of this world only, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just life but eternal life, not just earth but heaven, not just creation but new creation.

We sing with our forebears of old: Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be, let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee, changed from glory into glory, ‘til in heaven we take our place, ‘til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean