August 29

Beginning A Conversation

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:18

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We in worship today at Marsh Chapel, Matriculation Sunday, August 29, anno domini 2021, have the privilege of worshipping alongside a new class of first year students, the class of 2025.  We bow and we tip our invisible hats to them.  For they are beginning a conversation.  It matters how a conversation begins.  We with the women and men of 2025 also are beginning a conversation, an… autumn …postcovid … thoughnotyetreallypostcovid …séance… tertulia… conversation.

How shall we begin?

*Beginning a Conversation: Includes Questions

Two friends have moved north of the border, to teach and work in Canada.  As they cross back and forth, crossing the border, they will receive and respond to questions, questions at the border (4):  What is your name? Where are you from?  Where are you headed?  Do you have anything to declare?  The border between strangers headed toward friendship in the freshman year involves just those questions, with which a conversation begins: What is your name? Where are you from?  Where are you headed?  Do you have anything to declare?  Let us learn in these years the power of questions, and the prudence of listening to the answers.  As the Letter of James reminds us: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God

*Beginning a Conversation:  Means to Read

The advantage of an education is the freedom not to dwell only in the 21st century, or only on shores of your own home lake, or only in the dreams with which you arrive, that may need editing, or only in America, Boston or even this hallowed university.  You begin here again a conversation with antiquity and with novelty.  Is education about what is old or what is new?   Well, however you land on that one, the conversation opens with reading.  Here is a matriculation account.  One young man who would later become a significant African American leader went due north to Depauw, a small Methodist school in Indiana, led by various BU graduates.  His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off there in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Louisiana.  Weeping, his father said, “Son, we are not coming back until four years from now.  We just can’t do it.  You are here where your future opens.  At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row.  This is your time.  I have one word of advice.  Read.  When others are playing, you read.  When others are sleeping, you read.  When others are drinking, you read.  When others are partying, you read.  When others are wasting precious time and encouraging you to do the same, you read.”   He did.  Read, that is.

Speaking of Presidents, Boston University’s third President, Lemuel Merlin, left Boston for Greencastle Indiana, to become the President of Depauw, nearly 100 years ago.  All of our Presidents—Warren, Huntington, Merlin, Marsh, Case, Christ-Janer, Silber, Westling, Chobanian, and Brown—would salute this Augustinian slogan, tole lege, ‘take and read’.

For like our gospel lesson today, they and this University, have been interested in what makes a person human, in what makes a human be human, in what lies not outside, but inside, not in measurement but in meaning, not in the visible but in the soulful, not in making a living, only, but in making a life, fully.  Matters of the heart matter, as the Gospel warns today:  This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

*Beginning a Conversation:  Is about Gaining an awareness of Soul

 Your challenge in these fours years is not only to earn a BA.  Your challenge is to do so without losing your soul, to do so while gaining soul.  Your challenge is to do so gaining your soul, tending to the inside, walking in the light, becoming your own best self, finding the place where your heart, ‘the inside’ comes alive, uniting the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, and uniting vocation with avocation, ‘as two eyes make one in sight’.  So, Frost:

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes.

In the New Testament, each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices.  There is the soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix.  In Mark 7, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic attention to cleanliness.  There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community.  Here the community is reminded about the priority of the ‘inside’.  The tenor line is that of the evangelist, St. Mark here, marking his own appearance in the record.   The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies:  “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” (in Richardson, ECF, 377) If our church music carried only one line, we might be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.  Hence not only the beauty but the spiritual, soulful work of choral music heals, hymns and choir and organ and all.  As the Song of Songs sings: the time of singing has come.  And as the psalm directs: come into God’s presence with singing.

*Beginning a Conversation:  Means to Face Mortality

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Speaking of reading, pick up sometime My Name is Asher Lev.  As a boy walking with his dad—one thinks of Martin Buber imploring us in living to eschew relations that are ‘I and It’ and to celebrate those that are ‘I and Thou’—Asher at a young age wonders about a fallen bird.

Is it dead, Papa?”  I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

“Yes”, I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die”.


“You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


“And me?
“Yes.”, he said.  But then he added in Yiddish, “But may it be only after you live a long and happy life, my Asher.”

I couldn’t grasp it.  I forced myself to look at the bird.  Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why”, I asked.

“That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom made this world, Asher.”


“So life would be precious, Asher.  Something that is yours forever is never precious.”

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.

*Beginning a Conversation: Spies Pied Beauty

Not only the true and the good, not only learning and virtue, not only the true and the good, but beauty, beauty, beauty opens a conversation, learning and virtue and piety.  Our cousin of blessed memory’s favorite poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:  
Praise him.

*Beginning a Conversation: Recognizes Virtue, too, as does the BU motto

Speaking of virtue, wrote David Brooks a bit ago: “Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed (p. xi).”

As he would agree, not all things end well.  Sometimes things end well, as Ecclesiastes hoped: Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.  Yet sometimes, sometimes things end badly.  We are thinking about this, this fortnight, about Afghanistan, and praying for as much safety, as much peace, as much protection, as much survival, as much healing as possible.  But also, we recognize an ending, when we see one.  And sometimes things end badly.  That’s why they end.  Sometimes in life, in work, in relationship, in commerce, in academia, in government, in politics, things end badly.  The very fact that they end badly is proof positive that they badly needed to end.  They end badly because they badly needed to end.

*Beginning a Conversation:  Opens Scripture

To conclude—ah, that blessed sound in a sermon or lecture…in conclusion, as I take my seat, and finally…It is Sunday.  We are in Marsh Chapel.  Part of the conversation we begin here, alongside the class of 2025, starts by opening the Holy Scripture, at least every seven days if not more often.  Augustine of Hippo did so in the late fourth century, and his heart changed, his life changed, his spirit changed, he began a truly and fully new conversation, as he remembered in his Confessions:

  1. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tole lege, tole lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So, I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Hear the Matriculation Gospel!  Beginning a new conversation includes questions, means to read, gains soul, faces mortality, spies beauty, recognizes virtue, and opens Scripture.

Class of 2025:  we are here with you because we are here for you (repeat).  We have come from many regions of the world and many ranges of your past experience in order to be present here, to share your presence, and our presence with you.  Here with you, we are here for you.

May you sense daily the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through conversations well begun—well begun is half done–these footprints, these touches of grace.

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

Treasuring the best of all that’s old, searching out the new

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

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