Archive for the ‘The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel’ Category

August 2

Good Trouble

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22–31

Romans 9:1–5

Click here to hear just the sermon


“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful; be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether life has meaning.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether love is real.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether struggle is redemptive.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether friendship is nourishing.

The Hebrew Scripture

Our psalm and lesson from the Hebrew Scripture recoil around us to recall for us the place of struggle in life.  In pandemic and pandemonium, in political and presidential reckoning, in personal and familial realignments and choices, we right now may benefit from such a reminder.  After all, why return Sunday by Sunday to ancient writings, if not for a chance to orient our own selves and lives by the light of what our forebears have seen and done?

One the great gifts of Boston University to our life has been the immersion and inclusion in a tradition of struggle, redemptive struggle.  Over dinner, courtesy of the Gotlieb Center, perhaps six years ago, we sat with John Lewis.  Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres, say the Spaniards.  Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.  After the meal he quietly told stories which had the aspect, for one who tells stories, of frequent narration, as overtures to good trouble.  In particular it brought a full smile to hear his childhood dream of being a preacher, a story that was new to us, but well known to others, and now to the world.  He would come home and preach to the chickens as he fed them, and baptize them as they were born, and bury them with dignity and the end of their egg producing days.  Hence, Lewis picked up the nick name, Preacher.  Yet it was really his life that spoke, and that commitment to a sense of redemptive struggle.

Now Marsh Chapel, you remember that on May 19, 2018, Mr. Lewis sat right here in the second pew before the pulpit of this nave.  You remember that he sang the hymns of faith, and heard the words of Holy Scripture, and prepared himself to address 20,000 at Commencement.  You remember his lingering among us on the Plaza, as the bus driver nervously waited.  You remember that, like any good preacher, he was willing to take the time to take you seriously.  Said the parishioner, ‘I just wish that the preacher in his sermons would take my life seriously’.  Well, by the echoing hallelujahs sent his way later that day, from the voices of the class of 2018 and others, you could hear that he did.  Take their lives seriously, I mean.  You remember the climax of his address.  Yes, class of 2018, you will get jobs and find work and buy cars and build homes and raise families and take trips.  Good.  But what else?  What else are you going to do?  What else are you going to do in the brief span years you have? Will you help make this world a better place.  And to do that, will get into some good trouble along the way?  In my years at BU Commencements, it was the rhetorical high point, and that’s saying something.  Later, in the President’s gracious lunch, we stood next to him for a photo (I was uncertain whether to interfere so, but Jan said, ‘No, let’s get a picture).  And I looked at it again this morning, from two years ago, and wept. One the great gifts of Boston University to our life has been the immersion and inclusion in a tradition of struggle, redemptive struggle.  What an inheritance, what a legacy, Marsh Chapel, you have to share.

Now recall just a few of the words offered in memorial across the nation to John Lewis:

Moral authority…aggressive yet self-sacrificial…animating a mass movement…non-violent protest grounded in the principal of ‘redemptive suffering’……from the Rev. James Lawson…and Mahatma Ghandi…’something in the very essence of anguish that is liberating, cleansing, redemptive…opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves’…the essence of the nonviolent life is the capacity to forgive…’even as a person is cursing you to your face, even as he is spitting on your, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck’…At bottom, this philosophy rested upon the belief that people of good will—the Beloved Community—would rouse themselves to combat evil and injustice…in March of 1965—Bloody Sunday—Lewis suffered a fractured skull…the voting rights act…was signed into law that summer…the Supreme Court crippled the act in 2013…colleagues…we can best honor his memory by picking up where he left off… (NYT on J Lewis, July 2020)

Now hear the words written by our own congregant, friend, Marsh Chapel community member Kwame A. Mark Freeman, just this last week:

“I had the honor of meeting Mr. Lewis on a few occasions over the years. The last time I spoke with him was at Metcalf Hall in the George Sherman Union at Boston University.

Mr. Lewis was a humble man in the truest sense of the word. He was one of the last living civil rights titans of his generation who more than virtually anyone, had a grasp of the institutional memory of both the turbulent and tragic but yet triumphant period of Black people living in the United States during the period of the civil rights movement. The work Mr. Lewis engaged in on behalf of Black people is indelible and stretches over six decades beginning in February of 1960, at a lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee.

I want to thank Mr. Lewis for all that he has done for Black and brown women and men living in the United States. Just importantly, I want to thank him for what he has done for all of humanity by his clarion call for justice, both now and until the day and time when -injustice- becomes a fleeting memory and a tragic but yet another triumphant footnote in the annals of Black history in the United States.

 God bless Brother John Robert Lewis, and may his soul rest in peace.

Meanwhile, back in the Bible, in Genesis Jacob receives a new name, One Who Struggles With God:  Israel.  There is a redeeming quality in struggle, so much so that one’s full identity emerges in a different way, with a different name.  Jacob recalls for us the power of community, the formative range in the struggle of each community, including his own.  We sure need such a reminder this summer, in this summer of uncertainty. The summer, be it remembered of the use of unmarked cars and camouflaged federal agents in Portland.  We are on the brink of lawlessness from the highest offices in the country.  What shall we bring to this struggle?  A little honesty and a whole lot of ownership?  But also, a critical caution, in our choices?

In the spring of 1972, graduating soon from High School, I was watching as various communities were struggling, including that of the USA itself.  My father had bought a pool table that winter, the first of its sort to adorn that Methodist Parsonage.  Looking back, I think he had some idea to try to connect more fully with a teenage son who was about to leave home.  And it worked.  We spent some evenings playing pool and talking about nothing and about everything.  It was down in a pretty dank basement full of the things you throw in a basement.  He would smoke his pipe and I would talk about things I really knew nothing much about.  But I had opinions.  That spring there was a protest against the War in Vietnam, and I had decided to go, and we discussed it.  It was to be held outside his old high school, where he had been elected class president in 1949.  He had gone on to serve in the Air Force as a chaplain, so he was a military person but was himself also and strongly against the war.  Yet when I told him about the protest, well, he did not try to talk me out of it, but he filled his pipe and racked the balls for another game.  I could tell he was trying to tell me something, or teach me something, or something, without being too parental.  Anyway, the gist of his question, as I remember it in the haze of faulty memory and pipe smoke, was, ‘Do you know who is organizing this?  Who is running this?  For what reason?’  Well, we did not argue.  I went ahead and attended the thing, such as it was.  But that careful, critical edge, that question, who is really doing this and why, stayed with me. I cannot begin to number the times, in so many different situations, when that basic question—who is really behind this?—has come back to help me.  And this is still a struggle today, across the land, trying to do and know how to do, the right thing at the right time, in the right way.  Good trouble.  It is almost like that hymn, ‘You Got Good Religion?”  Or not.  ‘You Got Good Trouble?’  Or just trouble?

The New Testament

Likewise, our two New Testament passages, lesson and gospel, guide us in redemptive struggle.  In Romans, Paul is about to launch into two chapters of farewell to his own beloved religious inheritance, his own spiritual legacy, his mother tongue, the law.  Religious faith sometimes means leaving things behind, shaking the dust from one’s feet, and moving on.  In a way, every day has some measure of that leave taking, of saying ‘Thank You’ and of saying ‘Good Bye’.

In our weekly staff work here, we are guided by a set of values, in which we embed our ministry, music and hospitality, and which share a curious quality of leaving some things behind.  We try daily to 1 build trust, to 2 foster consensus, to 3 seek unity (not uniformity) in peace (not dishonesty), 4 to review all communication that speaks to or for the whole  5 to avoid any secrets, surprises or subversion, 5 to live a life that becomes the gospel 6 to speak to others in their presence not of others in their absence, 7 to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Christ law, 8 in teaching to search the Scripture, 9 in daily work to reflect on our envisioned mission (‘a heart in the heart of the city’ and our primary foci (voice, vocation, volume)10 in liturgy to be informed by the hymnal and book of worship, by Methodism and the ecumenical consensus 11 in all things to look for charitas, 12 to encourage by example regular worship, tithing, and interpersonal faithfulness, 13 to be punctual, frugal and industrious but not to worship work, for we are saved by what we receive not by what we achieve, 14 to offer attention to outsiders, first, as a matter of course, 15 to remember that the staff supports the mission of the chapel not the other way around.  16 To believe that God loves us into loving and frees us into freedom. 17 In working with staff our reigning interest is:  “Tell me what best exposes your authentic self (baptism) and what unshackles your fiercest passion for life and ministry (vocation)?”  We can build some real future around this. 18 In communications, we hope to model dimensions of spiritual health and honesty, specifically by responding promptly to voice-mail (same day or next day), e-mail (three days), regular mail (one week), interoffice memos (same day if possible). 19 Also, we believe that a good meeting lasts no more than 90 minutes, and preferably no more than 60. 20. We expect to be people who are “happy in God” (Wesley).

That is, we hope, a to find a way into ‘good trouble’, not just trouble.  Our community here at Marsh Chapel will continue to go through changes in rhythm.  Remember that once we thought we would be together again the day after Easter, April 13?  Hm.  With the insight, foresight and hindsight of Paul in Romans, we shall also need, for the long haul, the remembrance of Matthew, the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five barley loaves.  Not much to go on.  And yet, all were fed.  And more miraculously, according the Scripture, not only were all fed, but all were all satisfied.  All were satisfied.  Along with values to guide us, we shall need, Marsh Chapel, the gospel promise to keep us.  Satisfied.  Hm.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together. And all were satisfied…e


Our virtual congregant Milton Jordan in Texas reminded us this week of John Lewis’s words:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful; be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether life has meaning.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether love is real.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether struggle is redemptive.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether friendship is nourishing.

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

July 19

Elusive Presence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Genesis 28:10-19

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30

Click here to hear just the sermon


 One summer some years ago our family made a three-day trip to Maine.  We stopped in Kennebunkport and swam in the ocean.  That day the newspaper carried a little book review of a short book called On Presence.  The review noted that the book had been written by Ralph Harper, an unknown Episcopal priest in Maryland, who also taught a religion course at the local college.  The book won a prestigious prize.  The author was quoted as saying, among other things, ‘After preaching almost every Sunday for the past 31 years, I know how hard it is to say anything honest’.  I stuffed the review in my shirt pocket.  I finally bought the book (though nine months later).  On Presence is about the practice of the presence of God.  Harper writes, We have too short a time on this earth to pass up any chance to find words and images to live by.  I believe almost everyone is capable of being moved by some person, place, (part of) nature, or individual work of art.  Of course, there is instability and incoherence in and about us all the time.  There is also the inexhaustible store of Being to keep us permanently in awe.

 This summer we are not traveling, neither up or down the coast.  Perhaps you are doing so, and is so, many blessings to you. But the matter of presence, or the question, is freshly alive in the season of plague, the season of power and its policing, the season of presidential reckoning.  One asked, Just where is God in all of this?  To the few verses of Holy Scripture accorded us this summer morning, we may portage that question, of presence, of divine presence, of God, of God’s presence, or absent presence, or present absence, during pandemic, and pandemonium, and political reckoning.  Our Scripture affirms an Elusive Presence, oddly lodged in remorse, in scrutiny, in longing and in contest.  All of our lessons today explore this question, a good and honest question of faith, the question of presence.  But they answer in a Scriptural key, in a Biblical tongue, in a Holy honesty.  In a strange way, a strange answer, coming out of the heart of the strange world of the Bible.


 Sometimes presence appears in remorse, in hindsight.  From your campfire days you will remember Jacob’s ladder.  The Book of Genesis is about to move from Creation and Covenant, on to Providence, or at least to the naming of the sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes, with which the rest of the book will be consumed.  But first, there is the matter of Jacob himself.  Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending to and from heaven, and hears the promise of promise.  He awakes and rubs his eyes, and realizes.  He had not seen, he had not known. I knew it not!  In this place, with a baffling dream and a rock for a pillow, here, not in comfort or completion, or conquest, here, alone at night and in a dream, there appeared a strange presence.  But he sees so in retrospect, in reflection.  He sees after the fact.  And, with more than a tinge of remorse, he realizes what he had missed.  ‘Surely the Lord was in this place….but I knew it not’.  In case we are prone to think this a cheery tale, the lesson schools us otherwise.  For Jacob, we are immediately apprised, ‘was afraid’.  In hindsight.  In retrospect.  In remorseful recollection.  So that was it…was blind but now I see…If only… If only we had seen that coming tsunami of a virus for what it was, say, and earlier, say, and more fully and truly, say, and, well…

Consider, in hindsight, what you may have missed, along the way.   A season ago, or a decade ago, or most of lifetime ago.  Presence, though elusive, presence still.  So many are the examples.  The Gospel of John has as its main point, the ladder up and down to heaven, for sure, but more so, the utter grief of a congregation that only belatedly recognized just Who, just Who, this Jesus had been, among them.  God.  Divine Presence, but Elusive, mistaken, mistaken in identity.  Way and Truth and Life and, now we see in hindsight, we mistook Him—Way and Truth and Life—for so much less.

The hard truths of the strange world of the Bible include a somber recognition of divine presence, eerie and elusive, but presence nonetheless, seen most clearly in hindsight.  Presence? Yes, but known in remorse.


 Sometimes presence appears in scrutiny.  In being known in full and in truth and in person.  Seeing ourselves as others, or Another, sees us.  This is the wearying challenge of friendship, of partnership, of marriage, of employment, and of any long term, honest relationship.

You may love the 139th Psalm, as did Howard Thurman and as do I, perhaps more than any other in the Psalter.  Usually we hear it, and properly, as light in darkness.  O Lord though hast searched me…such knowledge is too wonderful for me…even the darkness is light to Thee…

 Yet some years ago, I offered it at a BU Commencement, a joyous and happy and celebrative day, in this, my preferred sense of it.  Still.  Afterward a friend and colleague, and a veteran lover of the Psalms too, came up and said, I heard that Psalm in a completely different way today.  In hindsight, I believe what he meant was, Thanks for a gladder reading of the verses, 1-12, but there is a more sober one too.  Think of being so entirely well-known by another, any other:  O Lord thou hast searched me…Thou knowest when I sit down and rise up…Whither shall I flee from thy presence…

A sudden sense of no escape, of being known through and through, of being seen for just who we are, of having no dark corner in which to hide, of having no fig leaf behind which to huddle…Even the darkness is not dark to Thee.  Yes, there is an elusive presence, at the sheer price of being fully known.  Is this not one of the great challenges of CORONA?  Our full social and cultural exposure, to full scrutiny?  Scrutiny of who suffers and who is healed, of who has and has not, of who can make easier strides and who stumbles through no athletic fault, but for lack and lack and lack?  I see your true colors…

 There is, for sure, a gladness in being known through and through.  But there is also, for sure, a sobering effect to such scrutiny, such an elusive presence in such scrutiny, be it human or divine or both.


Sometimes presence appears in longing.  Paul names for us the groaning, the groaning of all creation, awaiting the revealing of the children of God.  There is hardly a longing or groaning at more of a fever pitch in all of Scripture, or in all of literature, or in any life, than here in Romans 8.  Groaning inwardly…as we await…the redemption of our bodies…For this hope we were saved…but hope that is seen is not hope…who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see and wait for it with patience.  Patience. 

 Our time waits for such redemption. And ours is a hard, a challenging time, yet one within which there is a shared groaning, a communal longing.   My friend’s 7 year-old daughter, at the end of glad hearted family meal, as one or another mentioned the virus, the pandemic, burst into tears, saying, When is Corona going to end?  We hope for what we do not yet see.  And wait.  With a disciplined patience.  Without a vaccine, there will need to develop a semblance of antibody bulk, of herd immunity.   We need to have a sober mind, an awareness of waiting, waiting, waiting for what we do not yet see, and may well not see for some time.  This capacity in St. Paul and in my seven year-old, to long and long without yet seeing, but still to wait, too is part of the elusive presence.  We have a long way to go.  But the 7 year-old’s groaning is spirited expression of hope, presence, divine presence, though utterly elusive.  She awaits a hope, not seen, but awaited, as did Emma Lazarus.

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


 Sometimes presence appears in contest, in the contention of life.  The Gospel of Matthew leaves wheat and tares together sown, unto joy and sorrow grown, without yet a final winnowing, without yet an eschatological separation.  And here is our condition, too.  The challenge of every day, with decisions to make, small or large, or what appear to be small but are large, and what appear large and are actually small.  The challenge of wheat and tares is in the contest of the everyday, for and toward the true and the good and the beautiful. On your prayer list, it may well be, you have a place regularly to lift up those near and far who face rigorous, awkward and multiple daily decisions in a new era.

In this contest, we may need traveling partners, allies, those from and with whom to learn.

One may be David Brooks.  He wrote movingly this week about such an elusive presence, and the contest of perspectives needed to arrive at a better day.  It was striking to me, as a son of a BU graduate, who studied here in the 1950’s at the time of the high water mark of Boston Personalism, to hear Brooks use the term Personalism, without any reference to BU, or any sense that the term had a longer fuse than the one he lit under it.  Yet, perhaps by accident, or grace, or the influence in contest of an elusive presence, his conclusion came close to home.  We will leave quibbles for another day.

Personalism is about constructing systems where the whole person is seen and cultivated—schools where a child is not just a brain on a stick, hospitals where patients are not just bodies in beds, cities where cops are seen as people, communities in which each person is seen as rich interplay of multiple identities, economic systems that allow people to realize their full dignity as makers and earners.  Personalism judges each social arrangement by how well it fosters the kind of relationships that enhance the full complexity and depth of each soul. (NYT 7/10/20)

 In this contest, we may need our predecessors to lean on.  Elmer Leslie taught Hebrew Scripture here when my parents were at BU so long ago.  His son, James Leslie, became my chaplain at OWU, a mentor and model for chaplaincy, he, one of only two Chaplains OWU has had since 1960, each serving thirty years.  Elmer wrote on the prophets, who themselves needed their own predecessors, in the contests of the eighth century bce. Friends, we shall need a biblical grace, tough as well as tender, for the days ahead.   Let us draw down on our spiritual endowment, our religious inheritance.  It has been done before.  A favorite verse, perhaps for you, is Micah 6:8:  He has declared to you O Mortal what is good:  and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah drew on the three great prophets who preceded him, Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, finally to craft his magnificent verse:  justice from Amos, kindness from Hosea, and humility from Isaiah.  And so, drawing on the Elusive Presence, he could preach to the need of his time.


 When we ask about divine presence (and how can we not?) we may be surprised to hear a response—Jacob, David, Paul, Matthew—that affirms, strangely, a presence, but an elusive presence, hidden in, with and under, even the sobrieties of our day:  in remorse, in scrutiny, in longing, and in contest.  Who would ask for more remorse, tougher scrutiny, unrequited longing, and ribald contest?  Yet, of a summer Sunday, in the reading and reckoning with Holy Writ, we are sent their way.

Ask yourself about a moment of remorse, of hindsight.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about an experience of scrutiny, of being known, really known.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about a keen sense of longing, a cry at night, a groan at dawn.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about a kind of contest, struggle in contention for the good.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

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

June 28

A Reading Life

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 10: 40-42

Click here to hear just the sermon

Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.


At Marsh Chapel in June, we have a fairly long-standing set of Sunday traditions, honored this year, for the obvious reasons, in the breach.  On the first Sunday of June we gather for Holy Communion and monthly dish to pass luncheon, with a presentation by Sharon Wheeler of BU on planned giving, and a review of forms of ministry in our midst.  On the second Sunday of June we gather ahead of worship for a discussion of “suggestions for summer reading’, led by the Dean, or a staff member or a lay leader in the congregation.  On the third Sunday of June we gather for Fathers’ Day brunch, welcoming all of every age and station, fathers or not, ahead of worship.  On the fourth Sunday of June we offer a foreshortened Vacation Bible School, after worship and over lunch, with one leading the singing and another teaching the Bible.  Well, this June 2020, none of this has come to pass, a bit of a loss for or community, June being the optimal time, before vacation and after graduation, to focus on the congregation itself, University and Summer notwithstanding.

Still, though, it has been pleasant to think of these none so rare as a day in June rituals, amid pandemic and pandemonium.  More, it seemed perhaps fitting to offer a sermon, this Fourth Sunday in June, to pick up at least one of these threads, that of reading.  At least, in a fallow time, we may find more time to read.  Who taught you to read?  Not how to read, but to read, to love to read?  Who taught you to read?


In 1965 our sixth-grade teacher, Marjorie Shafer, began each morning by reading to the class.  She read for about thirty minutes, standing in the middle of the front of the room, glasses fixed and eyes down (though she could readily spot any movement, misbehavior, drowsiness or discourtesy).   While other books remain in some misty memory (Harriet the Spy for example), only one of the books she read from stem to stern hangs in the mind to this day.  This was JR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  My seat was somewhere in the middle rows, somewhere mid-way back, neither by choice nor personal assignment, but by the luck of the alphabet and a last name starting with H.  Jill Hance sat right in front of me as she had, more or less, every year of grammar school.  The Hobbit captured my imagination.  The figure of Bilbo Baggins.  The setting out on a journey from home to somewhere.  The various tangles and intrigues.  The mystical setting.  The return.  It was a sad day when the book ended.  In the spring, I learned that our family was moving out of town, the only town I really knew, and the place of school and friendships since kindergarten.  For some reason I became sick, and unable to go to school for about ten days.  One afternoon Mrs. Shafer came to our home to read to me from the last book of the year (Harriet), to make sure I did not miss the conclusion.

A few years later, rummaging in the ten-year old pile of Saturday Evening Post magazines in our summer cabin, there appeared a simple story.  The title, author, and details are gone.  Only the plot remains.  The high school quarterback and class president is challenged by his friends to date a very plain, bespectacled, socially awkward girl, a loner in their class.  On a bet and on a whim, he does so.  At first all goes well:  he is able to take her out and return to his friends and laugh with them about their trick.  But then something happens, or some things happen.  Given his attention, her attire and appearance change.  She starts to dress, well.  She doffs her spectacles.  She dotes on him, and is enthralled with his stories.  In short order she becomes something of a beauty.  Given her transformation, his own behavior changes.  The dates are no longer tricks, the words no longer jokes.  He stops seeing his friends afterward.  They fall in love, they fall fully and passionately in love.  Well.  Behold the power narrative.

One summer in high school, 1971, Tolkien struck again, this time in the form of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If memory serves, I read the three books that one summer.  They carried me away, into another place and kind of place, and into another mind and kind of mind, and into another story and kind of story.  The struggle of light and darkness, of what is good and what is not, compellingly conveyed, stayed in memory and in heart.

Then, two summers later, heading into a Great Books of Russia autumn course, taught at OWU by Dr. Ruth Davies, a Professor of fearsome reputation, I took to lifeguarding work at church camp The Brothers Karamazov. It seems as though it took me the whole summer to read it, and to savor it, and to capture and be captured by it.  You could feel the power in the pain of Raskolnikov and the love in Alyosha, without knowing much of anything, yet, about life and books and all.  Needless to say, the book served as a fitting preparation for an introduction to the course, which, of all college courses, in its readings, requirements and sessions, was easily the best, and the hardest.

I skip to For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in the hills up outside Segovia, Spain, where I lived and studied 1974-5, the last year in the life of Francisco Franco, and of his Spain, and where I read this perhaps my favorite book.

During the fall term of seminary year one, when I should have been reading the detailed notes about the 39 books of Hebrew Scripture, about which prior I knew next to nothing, and during which season my relationship with my soon to be wife Jan was settling and congealing, heading toward marriage the next summer, I found myself up late at night reading, for the first time, Moby Dick.  In another sense, my reading life began with this book, though, in detail and in full, it would be hard to say why.  Yet it proved to be an excellent backstage for theological study of the formal sort still proffered at Union, NYC.

Two years or so out of seminary, say 1981, before the long journey into doctoral work, I found myself at the cottage, in dead summer, reading, line by line K Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  It landed with the same demolition on my soul and ministry as it had landed ‘on the playground of the theologians’ earlier in the century.  You cannot speak of God by speaking of Man in a loud voice.  I was not, and am not, a Barthian, but I am a lover of the Bible, in part due to my reading of Barth that summer.  For many years into the next decade, it seems, any free time for reading, not sermonic or ministerial, was flooded into the dissertation.  There was gain and loss in that gain and loss.  I found myself reading less fiction.

That changed again in the 1990’s, for whatever reason.  The two books of Alistair Macleod, Island and No Great Mischief, with their silently beautifully rendering of the geography of Cape Breton, and of the inner geography of its people, stunned and captivated.  And from there I found my way back along the trails of older classics, especially Middlemarch, G. Eliot, whose close reading of close living in cloistered secular culture kept my imagination and interest.  And so many others…The Remembrance of Things Past, Proust…The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley…and on…Who taught you, not how to read, but how to love to read?

The Strange World of the Bible

 Those who fall in love with reading will often, over time, find the pages of Holy Writ.  Because in these there is a durability, a realism, a poignant sense of suffering, and a depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  As this very hour, in our lessons from Holy, Holy Scripture.

Take decisions, for example.  While Genesis 22, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the tragedy of choices.  People choose, but they do not choose their choices.  For three months, you have been choosing, and you have that freedom, and must use it with courage, but you do not choose the context—say COVID 19—of the choices.  So, each day carries a dim reminder that our choices, not fully ours, will have ramifications, even mortal ramifications, in the lives of others.  My friend said last week, in full heart confession, ‘I am suffering from decision fatigue.  I am suffering from decision fatigue’.  Maybe you know the feeling today.  Abraham, caught between faith and love, between God and son, at least reminds us that we are not the first, at this grim altar of choice.

Take change, for example.  While Romans 6, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the great watershed—god, freedom, love, grace, heaven—into which Paul has been washed, and to which, by apocalyptic poetry, he bears witness.  You can change, be changed.  The world can change, be changed.  A country can change, be changed.  The orb of sin, the wages of which are also grim, may be displaced.  Life may become an orbit around the planet of love.  HERE: Love God, Love neighbor.  Love, and do what you will.   Paul, exiled from his god, has now been enslaved in love by THE GOD BEYOND GOD.

Take contagion, for example.  While Matthew 10, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the power of contagious love.  It is a hundred years at least in Boston since the citizenry has been so aware of the dark mystery of contagion.  One finger touches another, one hand by doorknob traces another, one chill cough caught in the breeze catches up to another.  Beloved we are probably many months and tragically hundreds of thousands of deaths away from getting away from COVID 19.  Contagion is our condition.  But read the Holy Scripture, Matthew 10.  Here the power of contagion OF A GOOD SORT is the metaphor for God in the world.  Not, to be sure, the malevolent contagion of infection, virus, illness.  But the power of it.  That kind of power—and you have seen it, here and there, now and then—where one contagious prophet and prophecy touches another, where one contagious justice touches another, where one hand of faith, act of kindness, moment of self-abnegation touches, and gives birth to another.

Before you miss the chance, in a short life time, to befriend the Bible, reckon with its durability, realism, poignant sense of suffering, and depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  Especially today’s Gospel, Matthew 10.

Matthew 10

The authority of Jesus’ ministry is herein transferred to disciples, ancient and modern.  To you.

We meet Jesus today on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel in Matthew 10.  First. Jesus has been about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember Jesus ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect to turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples.

Hold that thought.

The clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.  Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours.

Which part of this ministry draws you?

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.  Many at BU did so, or tried to, this Wednesday June 24.

Reading Today

In consonance with the preaching of Marsh Chapel over long time, and especially in the last three months, Boston University this week offered a full day of teaching and reflection on racism and anti-racism, this past Wednesday.  What was central, and striking, in the rich hours of presentation and discussion, were the many, and extemporaneous, references to apocalyptic, revelatory insights, recalled by the speakers—aha moments!—in reading.  In reading.  Alongside our own ministry through Marsh Chapel and Religious Life, and that of the now beautifully expanded Howard Thurman Center, which you celebrated right here in worship on January 19, 2020, the voices and leadership of the faculty, staff, presidential and provostial leadership of the University, and then that of the African American Studies Program, the Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and the new BU Center for Anti-Racism, came together in a great watershed, a confluence new in my experience.  It was wonderful.  I commend to you its recorded version.  Let me leave you with ten sentences (out of a hundred that might have been quoted) from that day, rooted in a shared, reading life:

There is nothing innate about our racial hierarchy.

The final act of violence is the very denial of violence.

The heartbeat of racism is denial.

Racism creates a group differentiated vulnerability, and premature death.

Freedom, real freedom is a whole lot more than civil rights alone.

It is unjust to ask those marginalized by the current system now alone to fix it.

Even if you can’t do empathy, can you at least do justice?

People are rediscovering their own power.

We are at a point now that comes from a movement fifty years ago.

(And last, as a cautionary note, in a sermon on reading):  We can’t just read our way out of this.  (!!)

Is yours a reading life, liberally fed by what is read?  Happy Reading, summer 2020!

Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.

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

June 14

Better When Loved

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Romans 5: 1-8

Click here to hear just the sermon

All of us are better when we are loved.

Ride On

One day, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9-year-old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. They do. This was pre-COVID when there was still summer camp and horse camp and Methodist horse camp. But on Monday she fell off a horse, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago, somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First, he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full-throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast, straight pitch. And he hit it. He hit the ball! Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

 All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won. Number 43 is my son.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.


On October more than a few years ago, my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40-degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying. Romans 5: 1-8.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless, heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is, to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

Now friends, there are a lot of things wrong. You can find them fast enough. In climate. In culture. In corona. In classism. In racism. In connection. In church. Right now, there are a lot of things that just are wrong. It may be that the tragic, horrible death of George Floyd will galvanize and focus us, as a people, in a new and different way. There are for sure a lot of things wrong.

But friends, there are also a lot of things right. We are going to need to hold on to these, too, in order to have a future worthy of the name. Just this week I see and hear them. Where? In the self-less ministry of our BU Catholic Chaplain, Fr. David Barnes, giving last rites for two months, recently described in the New York Times. Where? In the advent of Professor Ibram X. Kendi, coming soon to BU to found a new Center for Anti-Racist Research. Where? In a kind note from a former student, Sam Needham, now finishing his PhD, applying to lead a University Chapel, hoping to ‘incorporate both academic work and pastoral leadership into my ministerial career, as you have done so well’. Where? I give no better sermonic encouragement than that found this week inn the hopeful words of our fellow Dean, School of Public Health, Boston University, Dr. Sandro Galea:

There is no question that the circumstances of the moment are unremittingly difficult. That many millions are, and will continue, suffering ill-effects from this great national trauma for years to come. That the consequences of the moment include a loss of hope and of trust in our collective capacity to grapple with complex problems and an anxiety and fear that will haunt our dreams for years. There is no question that the moment will further entrench social divides and that these divides themselves will continue to challenge our capacity to see one another as we do ourselves, separating us by widening gulfs of experience, straining our capacity for empathy.
And yet, and yet, we shall, perhaps against all odds, survive even this moment. Why? We know that the country has survived dark moments and has gone on—at least for the privileged some—to thrive. We did survive 1918, 1933, 1968, 2001. We also survived two world wars. Each of these moments seemed to defy hope, to threaten our sense of safety and stability for our world. And yet, there was a year that came after each of these moments that brought better, a dawn after a stormy night.

Each of these moments found some resolution, in some cases vastly imperfect, that allowed the country to move on. We also know, and have seen even in this moment, that the country has stores of fierce determination to survive, to get past the dark. We have seen it in the abundant cases of heroism in the face of COVID-19, in first responders—not only nurses and doctors, but also grocery store clerks and morgue attendants—who continue to do their job, at high personal risk, because it is is the right thing to do, and because it is what is needed to ensure that our society continues to function, that we make it past the moment. We have seen it in the acts of generosity that have sustained so many through the economic hardships of the moment, and in the acts of courage in the face of unimaginable adversity shown by those who are speaking for social justice, facing down entrenched systems of structural racism that are larger than all of us. The past, and the abundant traces of hope offered by the tenuous present, both suggest that we will emerge from this moment. That there shall be sun after the dark of 2020.
Dean Galea brought us a timely, saving word of loving encouragement. For love alone has the grace and power, savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

Just so, Romans 5 brings a clear, even simple, word of encouragement, some bread for the journey. Better when loved, better when loved. Like many of you, we learned first this power of encouragement from our parents. My mother died, Friday, at 7pm, in a COVID encased nursing home. We were able to be with her for the hours prior to that, an opening in protocol that came just soon enough for family to gather with her. She turned 91 last Saturday, and carried her genial and congenial spirit, her smile, her gracious spirit to the very end. Before Friday, I happened to be the last person to be immediately with her, in conversation, on March 9. After that it was only through nurses (wonderful), FaceTime (equally so), and arranged ‘through the glass’ waves and greetings with my sisters (not so good, but better than nothing). It is reminder of the torrents of unexpressed, unaddressed grief around us, that will consume our work for months, perhaps longer, into the future. And, although she did not say it directly, she surely lived it fully, this saving word of loving encouragement: all of us are better when we are loved.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we’re loved.
All of us are better when we are loved.

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

June 7

Ground of Being

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 28: 16-20

Click here to hear just the meditations

We are a people drenched in sorrows. As this sermon is recorded, today, Wednesday, June 3, we are a nation afflicted, caught somewhere between pandemic and pandemonium. So, come with me for a moment aside, a moment apart, wherein we scour together the high ground, the background, and the common ground of our current condition, the condition our condition is in.

The High Ground

First, the high ground.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson led us toward high ground this week. He had done so before. Right here. Some of you will remember his voice in 2014 from this pulpit. Secretary Johnson preached from the Marsh pulpit on January 25, 2014. Present with Johnson and the Dean of Marsh Chapel were Charlene Hunter-Gault, two dozen BU medical students in their white coats, another physician who had been the doctor for Arthur Ashe, the then President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, and about 300 guests, family, and friends. We were present to honor the life and faithfulness of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a BU alumnus, renowned physician, and national civil rights leader. Marsh Chapel was full. At one point we asked the congregation to recite together the 23 Psalm. Family and friends in the first pew did so. Colleagues and physicians across the nave did so. Leaders of national organizations near and far did so. In the balcony, twenty white coated medical students together did so. Either at that point or another in the service they stood silently together, to honor the life and faith of the deceased. That day I met a friend a personal physician of Arthur Ashe, whose life, prowess, faithfulness and service have always so inspired me. Read again this summer his autobiography, Days of Grace. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

In the collation following the service, some of us remembered Arthur Ashe. “Arthur Ashe: Ashe suffered a heart attack in 1979. He would later undergo surgery for quadruple bypass, but continued to suffer chest pain. This forced him to retire from tennis with a record of 818-260, including his three Grand Slams.

He remains the only African-American male to have won any of these Men’s Single titles. Ashe would have to under-go a second bypass surgery in 1983. During this operation he received a blood transfusion: the blood Ashe received was infected with human immunodeficiency virus—HIV. In 1988, this discovery was made. The condition was kept private until 1992, when Ashe announced to the world, he had AIDS. When asked if having AIDS was the toughest challenge he had ever had to face, Ashe replied: “No, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with was being a black man in this society…having to live as a minority in America. Even now it feels like an extra weight tied around me.” (Blaine Spence, 2009).”

Also, in the collation following the service, Charlayne Hunter Gault introduced herself. You may remember her, as we did, from her many and fine contributions to the News Hour, with Jim Lehrer. She said, ‘I need to talk to you later about the 23 Psalm’. I was so pleased to meet her, and then so worried that I had somehow offended her, that the collation time passed anxiously. It needn’t have done. She wanted to recall a memory. A memory of her younger self. At 18. The first African American to integrate the University of Georgia. The daughter of a Baptist minister. Alone in a big place, a strange place, a new place. Walking home the third night, there were taunts and threats. The University that day had suggested she might want to go home, at least for a while. She went into her room. She closed the door. She turned out the lights. And she waited, until quiet came. And then—it was the only thing that came to her mind—the prayer of David in Psalm 23 came to her. And she spoke the psalm, alone, afraid, uncertain, at night. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.’

I do not recall the full content in that memorial of Secretary Jeh Johnson’s eulogy. I do clearly remember his necessarily taking over my downstairs office, with two fully uniformed attaches carrying the famous black box, who announced, ‘we need to be next to a telephone land line’. I do also recall what Johnson said on Tuesday of this week, keeping us focused on the high ground, the high ground. June 2, 2020: “Protest, as Martin Luther King said, is a form of language by those who believe that their voices are not heard. And the grievance here is legitimate. Protests that crosses into violence is counterproductive to the message. It undermines the message. It cedes the moral high ground and it strengthens those on the other side of the debate…looting undermines the larger effort here. It undermines the message, it distracts from it, and it gives — it strengthens the hand of those on the militant extremist law and order side.”

As the sermon last Sunday affirmed, order matters, order matters…in order that the legitimate grievance be heard, the language of protest be heard.

The Background

Second, the background. From high ground to background.

We have covered this ground, call it the background, from this pulpit, many times before. A few from several examples: We did so under the theme ‘A New Birth of Freedom’, in reference to Jeremiah Wright, January 18, 2009. We did so under the theme ‘Learning Together, in reference to Ferguson and Treyvon Martin, August 24, 2014. We did so under the theme, ‘Still Point’, in reference to the Charleston Nine, June 21, 2015. We did so under the theme ‘Bear Witness to the Truth’, in reference to Charlottesville a year earlier, November 25, 2018. We do so today under the theme ‘Ground of Being’, in reference to George Floyd. These are offered with encouragement that if you have the time and energy, you take the time and energy to read these, or other materials, to know better our background.

Not everyone will find satisfaction in listening to or reading old sermons. Pity. So, you may simply want to read, and read. So, read! Don’t scan. Read.

Start with James Baldwin:

‘Nothing is fixed forever and forever, it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting and the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down the rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them, because they are the only witnesses we have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to one another, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with each other, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out’…James Baldwin: whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves. (Letter from a Region in my Mind (New Yorker, reprint, 12/3/18)

Continue with William Faulkner, Light in August, say, something bracing and dark, Faulkner on fire:

…a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and dont try to hold him, that he cant escape from.” …He said, ‘Remember this. 240

The past is not dead. It is not even past.

But don’t stop until you have read Cornell professor Edward Baptist’s,

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. You dwell in the tenth floor of a building whose first three stories were constructed with stolen land and enslaved labor, free land and free labor, for the benefit of anyone who had or used money, then or now. Now bear with me a moment, as we cover the contours of our background.

Read Baptist on the building of the new south, 1807-1861: The massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire—this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power (xix).

Read Baptist on the investment incentives therein: And because the main in the iron collar and all who followed him into the depths of the continent would make not a luxury product but the most basic commodity in a new kind of endlessly expanding economy, there would also be no limit to the number of enslavers, or to the number of investors who would want to chase enslavement’s rewards. Only conscience, or the inability of the world’s investment markets to deploy enough savings, could impede the transfer of capital to slavery’s new frontiers (41).

Read Baptist on avarice: A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of a continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible…Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the constitution and the beginning of the Civil War. It made the nation large and unified (413).

The Common Ground

Third, the common ground. We conclude with a Trinitarian reminder of our common ground, from high ground to background to common ground, in our holy gospel.

Our gospel lesson, the conclusion of St. Matthew, is an early introduction of the Trinity, the relational mode of divinity so struggled after and so central to early Christianity. In that way, the Trinity is the original Christian common ground, the divine dimension of the possibility of relationship. We can use that reminder this morning in early June 2020. We conclude with a Trinitarian reminder of common ground, in our very humanity.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All eight billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All eight billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All eight billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All eight billion. We all age, and after age fifty its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All eight billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All eight billion.”

We conclude with a trinitarian, that is a relational reminder of common ground, in our communion with one another, the communion of saints. A reminder that given our endless fallibility and our ending mortality, we need each other.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for Eucharist. We are not together to receive together the bread and cup. But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer. And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel. Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past

Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints… Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

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

May 31

Receive the Holy Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20: 19-23

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For the months and years ahead, we shall need… Spirit. Those who worship shall worship in spirit and in truth. Receive the Holy Spirit, beloved. Today is Pentecost! Receive the Holy Spirit!

Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience. Spirit involves reason and experience. A question for you, day by day as our mortally challenging pandemic reminds us, is whether we can find the courage to trust our own experience and whether we can find the capacity to rely on our own reason. Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available. But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed. More: not many of us signed up to make decisions, choices, on almost a daily basis, that may in fact have direct impact on another’s safety, health and well-being. We have the freedom of spirit, but there is a weight, a dead weight to that freedom. Said Robert McAffee Brown, This is God’s world. But it is a crummy world. And we have to live with both realities. It is the Triune God as Spirit that empowers, makes a space, for Brown’s proverb.

Wind at midnight. Wind from the sea. Summer wind, blowing in. The wind blows where it wills. Wind of God…

The strangest of strange outcroppings of Spirit in all of Scripture is located in the Fourth Gospel, in the odium theologicum of John 7, and on the windswept steppe of John 14, the ice-covered snow peak of the Bible, the haunted moonscape of planet Gospel, and, especially, come Pentecost, today, in the elusive presence of John 20. In John both the mystical eye and the ethical ear, in Samuel Terrien’s phrase, are alive, ethics here only meaning love God and love your neighbor. Once you have ascended John including to the last discourse, John 14ff, you are clearly in a strange, strange land and landscape. The venerable preacher who originally spoke to the late first century community in the town of Ephesus (say) if nothing else had absolute confidence in his own experience. It led him, and thus his church, to establish what became later emerging Christianity. Here, Logos. Here, Nicodemus. Here, Blind Man healed. Here, Lazarus—raised. Here, Beloved Disciple. Here, Paraclete, especially, Spirit, by another name.


John has had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament: Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet. But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned. In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them. No parousia. Paraclete. To face our present challenge, with courage, neither with recklessness nor with anxiety, neither with rashness nor with timidity, as the President of Notre Dame put it this week.

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit. In the COVID time, it may be, you will have the time or take the time or make the time, to become better acquainted: with the Bible, with the Gospel, with John. With faith. Faith, says my friend, is a response in the affirmative to the question whether life has any meaning. Is there meaning in life, to life? Faith says ‘Yes’. My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’ emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant. But when we get to the summit, John 14 and following out to John 20, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle: Spirit. Paraclete. The endless enemy of conformity. The lasting foe of the nearly lived life. The champion of the quixotic. The standard bearer of liberty. The one true spirit of spirited truth. Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation. And maybe that is as it should be. Paraclete eludes us. Spirit evades us. Paraclete outpaces us. Spirit escapes us. There is, says faith of meaning in life, says faith in meaning in life, there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

Notice that the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not. Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies. Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those of us whose memory may slip a little). Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘the world’ in the later chapters—another dark mystery in meaning. Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit.

John, Spirit in John, may be the verses of the Bible we most need in Corona Time. Especially recent graduates. Six months ago, you had multiple opportunities, jobs and internships and travel and study and any myriad of combinations thereof. Today? Today we need the Spirit to empower us to edit our dreams, to recognize past dreams and edit them for a new, challenging time.

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail. The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of exaggerated but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul. The

Pastoral and Catholic Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure: presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition. We need memory. We need structure. Neither can hold a candle to Spirit. That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or any other can suggest, Paraclete provides. By Spirit we hear the Word God. God reveals by Spirit. God self-reveals by Spirit. Here the stakes are very high.

Raymond Brown: People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82). You. You living by the Spirit will be the only way others will be convinced of faith, of the affirmation of meaning in life.


Parakletos, Paraclete, is a word used only by John. In the first letter of John the word is used to describe Jesus. The word comes from kalein, to call, to call along side of. It is the legal form for advocate, one who has been called along side to help (ad vocare). The Holy Spirit will tell you what to say: this is the Synoptic claim. But that is not quite what John says here. Here the Holy Spirit is a prosecuting attorney. He puts the world on trial. There is a legal sense to Paraclete. A lot of this language and imagery ought to be understood in light of the trial of Jesus itself. The Paraclete is Jesus’ Spirit. The Spirit is not just a memory but is a living force.

In Job we hear “I know that my defender lives”. The figure here is probably an angelic defender. He will prove to the world Job’s innocence. The angelic figure in the Job passage is translated by the rabbi’s as “paraclete”. “My defense attorney”. The angelic spirit is related to the individual.

However, “the Advocate” is not the whole picture. “The Comforter” is also a part of this. The Spirit will comfort, will hold your hand. Paraclete has this notion too. Luther’s Bible emphasized the notion of the comforter. Thus, we have in English the Paraclete as comforter. Furthermore, this figure is a ‘he’, though there is no intention to emphasize maleness. This is Jesus’ Paraclete since he is our own defense attorney. And the Paraclete is with us forever.

Even Jesus was confined by time and space. But the Paraclete is not bound by time and space. The Paraclete is given to all who love Jesus and keep his commandments. There is no contract here for John. The Paraclete is not given only to a few. (In Acts, by contrast, the spirit is tied more directly to the twelve). In John, the Spirit is the property of all. The Spirit is an internal force which the world cannot see. The world cannot see the Spirit. And the Spirit has no name. His identity comes from Jesus and the Father. The Spirit takes on the role of Jesus, and is sent in Jesus’ name. He will teach. He will remind. He will tell. Just as Jesus did. This is the Teacher

for the Johannine community. He will not speak on his own. He will speak only what he hears. He will speak of the things to come.

At the end of the first century, the apostolic churches had a moment of paralysis. All the leaders were now dead. “How are we going to survive?”, they mused. We will hold on. Preserve what has been given. One way to cope is to structure, to pass on. This structure is the test of the Spirit. It is a mechanism for preserving the situation. There is a human witness, to be sure. But that witness is only powerful because of the Paraclete. Thus, the Beloved Disciple is so exemplary, because of the Holy Spirit. This is the notion of passing things on, in a viable, adaptable way.

The Paraclete teaches.

There are two different visions of Christian mechanisms for dealing with the future. One: Acts, the Pastorals, preserve and remember. Two: John, the Spirit. This is a most interesting tension: spirit guidance plus guidance from structure.

Here the Paraclete is also the grounding of the community. Says Jesus: For your own good, I will go away. The presence of the Spirit in the long run is better. I have many things to say, but you cannot bear them now.


The person who possesses the Spirit possesses Jesus.

The Spirit is the Advocate. He calls forth and calls out and calls down. The word for Spirit, pneuma, is actually neuter in gender. Our friend Linda, an OWU and BU graduate, lives by Spirit. She happened to call, a Friday ago, to offer thanks for a BU program she had heard. When she finished her BA in Delaware Ohio and wanted to go on to study religious education her chaplain, James Leslie, son of former BU Old Testament professor Elmer Leslie, suggested BU. “Who knows, you may even meet your husband there” he said. She went and she did. Last year Linda was spotted holding a sign in traffic near an upstate New York shopping center. She and her husband Gary, a BUSTH graduate of 1964, served a dozen urban and rural churches together, never really complaining about itinerancy or salary or ministry. Gary retired and unexpectedly died shortly thereafter. Linda teaches Sunday school, writes letters to the editor, checks in on elderly preachers’ widows, and reads poetry. This particular day she was moved with a few others to stand in a busy traffic area holding a sign, ‘Remember the children of the Middle East’. An advocate. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Advocate?

The Spirit is the Counselor. A recent college graduate, call her Emma, works for an outdoor therapy program, aimed at delinquent teenagers. She loves nature, having studied the environment and environmental science in college. A 15 year-old boy asked her why he should bother to get up in the morning. He meant it. She

had no answer, at first. But then she brought him a paragraph the next day from Thoreau. She meant it. Somehow, maybe more for this trust in her and her care for him, a saving, an intervening word of counsel was spoken, and more importantly, was spoken and heard. Faith is the affirmative response to the question whether life has meaning. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Counselor?

The Spirit is the Comforter. On the edges of mayhem in various parts of the world, let us not forgot for all our current troubles, there are camps for refugees. Millions of refugees. There are tents, there is food, there are medical units, there is some semblance of order. Temporary, insufficient, makeshift order, but order nonetheless. A photo of one of the nurses in one, eyes wide and tear-filled and kind, stood out from the newspaper the other day. She stood for all the heroic first responders right around us in this pandemic. We all cannot do such work. But we can appreciate and admire, respect and support, those who do. We take order for granted, to our peril. One day we shall need the succor of such women, and the safety of such order, however temporary, insufficient and makeshift. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Comforter?

The Spirit is the Helper. Brian was admitted to my alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, but really could not read well. He was failing everything, left and right and center. His history teacher told him ‘you do not belong here’. He tried, but he could not continue. He found his way to the registrar, and got papers to withdraw. He sat on the steps of Gray Chapel one afternoon, filling in the forms. A secretary in the admissions office saw him, remembered his spirit and spunk, his energy and courtesy, from the spring. She stopped looking into her computer and went out to look at him, asking what he was doing. He began to weep. He stumbled through an explanation. They sat quietly. “Brian, you are not going home, at least not today, and at least not in this way. We have help here. We are a small school and we take care of our kids. We have a writing center here. We have ways to make this work for you. Just come with me.” You may have seen or heard Brian. Today he is a prominent news anchor. He told this story the day our third, our youngest child, graduated from OWU. “She saved my life by helping me” he said. Do you possess, or are you possessed by, the Helper?

Hear the Gospel: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you…These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you

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

April 26

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-25

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          There come episodes in the course of a battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become bound, chained, held.   

          Right now, if the view along an empty Commonwealth Avenue this morning is any clue, we are in the heart of such experience, deep and dark, today, surrounded by a swirling pandemic, which shows no immediate abatement.

           You may have known this condition before, this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  And now, April 26, 2020, the shared experience of distance, of loss of rhythm, of disorientation not just distance, comes to mind in Sunday fullness.

          And how to speak and think of these things? Over the years you may have grown frustrated by your own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.   Anyway, you, well beloved, by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that we are lastingly thankful.

          Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

          Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…We can make our way…I can find a handhold or foothold…We can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

          Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lift a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here, at Marsh Chapel, right for a moment today, this Sunday, we want to accentuate Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.  Or, at least, to give us grace in a grim time, grace in a viral time, grace in an anxious, depressive time, grace to get by.  To make us, as in Luke 24, not just followers but also witnesses. ‘They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been make known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

          And on a personal note, I look forward with eager anticipation to the gathering up time, one fine day, when our congregation will not be remotely virtual, but beautifully, beautifully actual.  Like the psalmist, my soul longs and my heart cries out in the void and silence of this time of distance for the healing presence of the divine.  

          Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?


          Bach’s cantatas take their names from the first line of text, and today’s cantata, No. 74 sets verse 23 of John 14: ‘Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten’ or Whoever loves me, and keeps my Word. Bach originally conceived of the cantata for use on Pentecost Sunday in 1725, where we find the Holy Spirit come down to ignite the movement among the Disciples that would become the Church. The Disciples and followers of Jesus had remained stunned, suspended in disbelief that their movement and leader had been cut down so devastatingly. Today’s lesson of Jesus’s appearance on the road to Emmaus finds the Disciples in the initial stages of their grief, no doubt deep in their own ‘thought-feeling’. 

          Though a cantata for Pentecost, there is surprisingly little reference to the Holy Spirit, but rather a focus on Jesus’s promise to return, and that faith will create a dwelling for Him in our hearts. The cantata is rich with arias – four total. The first two arias are the more personal – almost a dialogue between the ardent believer and the reminder of the words of Jesus. These mutual assurances exchanged, the final two arias turn outward t the Church and beckon us to follow suit in making room for Jesus within our hearts. Both of these arias find their vigor with representations of the earthly trials each of us face in a life of faith, but also a reminder of the sufferings Jesus himself endured. You can’t have a Bach cantata without a reminder of the Passion and the snares of Sin, afterall. 

          Musically speaking, Cantata 74 is many things. The opening movement is unified by the motive of the first words, rather than a Chorale tune defining a structure. And for a movement with festival trumpets and timpani, the bluster is replaced with elegance and confidence of stride. At the outset there seems an error in order or at least an imbalance of arias and recitatives, but there is a clear internal structure that features a single recitative between each of the two aria groupings. Those two recitatives serve as musical and theological connectors to the arias on either side.

          Within these eight movements, we hear extraordinary variety from Bach, from the winsome Soprano solo, and anxious Bass continuo aria that hints at our own doubt of Jesus’ promise, to the Tenor aria that nearly takes flight, and the blazing bravura of the final Alto aria. Here we have musical and theological reminders of both Penance and Atonement, but also the assurance of Love and Grace.

          And on a personal note, as we enter our seventh week of disciplined societal distance from one another, I, like those disciples, remain stunned and stunted by the loss of contact with the divine. For me, that divine contact happens when we make music together, our nobler selves revealed enjoined in the grace of music’s art. Like the psalmist, my soul longs and my heart cries out in the void and silence of this distance for the healing presence of the divine.


          Dean Hill: Our Gospel lesson from Luke, brought as an interlude into our yearly reading of Matthew, reminds us of the healing power in ordered worship.  First, in a recitation of the gospel.  Second, in an interpretation of that Gospel.  Third, in a communal engagement of the gospel, in the common bread of the church, in the common cup of the church, in the common life of the church.  ‘They knew him in the breaking of the bread.’  For some, the emphasis will fall on the knowing; for others, the emphasis will fall on the thanksgiving, the Eucharistic bread broken.  For some, the what.  For others, the how.  For all, come Sunday, come this Lord’s day, the possibility of new life, even if dimly perceived, even if shadowed.


          Dr. Jarrett: For those, that is, who have walked past a graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world searching for enough common ground to allow a common hope, for a nation reeling from a winter and spring of worry and loss, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden viral traps, the unforeseeable viral dangers, and steel jawed viral snares of life, there is something encouraging about this Easter song:  “They knew him in the breaking of the bread”


          Dean Hill: Emmaus Road brings a hymn of the heart, one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  Not certain but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? If we had always certainty we would not need faith.  Once you are on the road, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

          Dr. Jarrett: For those today, for instance, trying hard to think through what the rest of 2020 might be like, those in the thick of unexpected transition, the Word has this support for you, the gift of the next step:  the gift of getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home, not pausing to worry about the small stuff. This song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead, not seeing yet too far down the road.  You are not sure.  But you sense a presence, and receive the courage to take one more step.


            Dean Hill: Step forward.  Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, let everyone be convinced in his own mind.  The random remains random.  We shall face our challenges in our time.  We shall face a common illness, infection and virus with a common faith, a common hope and a common love.  Just this:  we need not face them alone, but in the company of the Gospel, and its interpretation, and its community engaged together, one day in Eucharist, say, one day in music, say, one day in service, say, but every day with an uncanny sense of the presence of One Risen.

         Dean Hill and Dr. Jarrett: In the name of the Resurrected Son, and of the Creating Father, and of the Abiding Spirit:  Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire, that unity may be our great desire.  Give joy and peace, give faith to hear your call, and readiness in each to work for all.

The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel, and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

April 12

Easter at a social distance

By Marsh Chapel

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Colossians 3:1-4

Matthew 28:1-10

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            It is not so long ago that Jesus came to us wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We murmured with the Shepherds and knelt with the Kings. We sang: “Christ the Savior is born.” We were innocent and young and happy at his birth. True: some noticed the straw in his hair and the stench of the manger, and worried about Rachel weeping for her
children. Mostly, though, we happily received and reported glad tidings of great joy to all people. It is not so long ago that the trees and the greens, beautiful they were, came down.

            It is not so long ago that Jesus stripped himself and knelt in the Jordan. Granted, we have been busy carving our hearts and arrows into the trees of life. Granted, we have been finding jobs and homes and churches and relaxation. True: some of us noticed the mud on Jesus’ face after his baptism, and wondered at the humility of such an act, God stooping to be covered in the icy, rolling, filthy waters of this world.

            Mostly, though, we were happy to greet Jesus at his baptism, and day by day like us he grew. We went on to another month of paychecks and forechecks and last respects.

            It is not so long ago that Satan tempted our Lord. Jesus stood tempted and we with Him: tempted to make of life a scramble to the top, no matter who gets hurt; tempted to make of religion a closed shop, no matter who is closed out, tempted to take up government without a government of the heart. You saw him last month, just up the hill from Jericho, stalking in the wilderness. True: some blanched at the forty days, and pondered the choice of God to lavish love on a twilight world. Mostly, though, we thanked Jesus for his troubles and hoped not to succumb to the temptations he defeated. It was not so long ago.

            It was not so long ago that Jesus preached and taught the mystery and mastery of Love. True: some noticed the somber tone in the verses about hardship to come.

            Mostly, though, we tilled our gardens. And not so long ago. Is it only a few days ago that Jesus completed a life of servant love? Is it more than hours ago that Patience and Humility and Wide Mercy were nailed up to make way for the ‘god of this world’, whose violence has not yet been vanquished in fact as we trust it is in principle. A few—was it you?—spotted the hidden glory in such care.

            Mostly though we went to the market and to the bank, preparing for an earthly future we thought might be without end. We lived, not just the young, but all, as if ‘temporarily immortal’. No, it is not so long ago that the Lamb of God met us in poverty, humility, struggle, teaching and sacrifice. At Christmas, in Baptism, in Temptation, in Preaching, and in Crucifixion.

            And now, Easter. A silent Easter, an Easter at social distance, anno domini 2020.

            Here the Gospel: Christ the Lord is risen today: ours the cross, the grave, the skies. Love crucified is love raised. It is the same worn Jesus whom God calls ‘the future’. No wonder the disciples did not at first believe, and no wonder we have our doubts as well. The preacher leans against the cross on Friday, and leans against the resurrection on Sunday. For the cross is still with us, followed by but not replaced by the resurrection. Jesus is God’s future. His resurrection is our future. This future makes of Easter a change of heart—a saving change of heart—rather than just a remarkable weekend in first century Palestine. On the cross walk, resurrection is yours. On the way of the cross, you walk in newness of life. You receive resurrection eyes, resurrection ears, and a resurrection smile. For this change of heart John Donne longs: I need thy thunder,

            o my God…(Devotions xxi)


            The resurrection of Jesus Christ helps us see that the resurrection is meant for us, to open us to a new way of engaging in the world, being at home in the world, being confident in the world. Your struggle you can see in a new way, with resurrection eyes–if you will. What is most fragile in the world, which is grace, when seen aright, is the toughest, most intimate of entities.
Resurrection eyes see connections, possibilities, welcomes, openings, and spiritual friendships in the offing. We tend to see the world not as it is but as we are, but the resurrection gives us new eyes. All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. Resurrection eyes see an open future, open to God’s future, who is Christ Jesus. Even at a social distance.

            With such eyes, you can see current sacrifice through Easter eyes. Mom and Dad have sacrificed their New England home, for others’ health. The living room is now a class room. The dining room is now two offices. Institutions, educational and mercantile, have assumed, presumed to take the space—without rental offered, a need in emergency. Easter eyes see a future opened in this sacrifice, a future that saves lives. Aunt Grace is near retirement, but makes her way to the hospital as an RN, a first responder. Hers is an intimate sacrifice, potentially mortal. Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human. Easter eyes see a future opened in this sacrifice, a future for which lives are saved. You would like to take your mother an Easter lily, today, but she and others have foregone the joy of visitors, today, whether or not by choice, or consciously. Easter eyes see a future opened in this, a future for which, by something called a flattened curve, others’ lives are preserved. Ours in April 2020 is Easter at a social distance.


            The resurrection of Jesus Christ grants resurrection ears, too. On the cross walk, one hears rumblings of justice. It takes resurrection ears to hear it, but the trumpet sound, though far off, is ringing. Wrote Luther, for whom audition was all, and sight not to be trusted. Luther is all ear, no eye (he left sight for Ignatius of Loyola): “here in this life our heart is in too great straits to lay hold of it, but after death, when the heart becomes larger and broader, we experience what we have heard through the Word”. He is sounding forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat! My father, at his best friend’s funeral, said twenty years ago: Death takes the gift of life into an eternal dimension. That sounds like a phrase from his alma mater, Boston University. Death takes the gift of life into an eternal dimension. One leader said recently, “For all the grandness that is so apparent in our time, something is missing. There is a hunger for something to believe in and to hold onto, something grander that can lift our aspirations instead of lowering them. Something that appeals to the highest in us: our generosity, our optimism, our courage”. Perhaps corona distance is reminding us to listen for generosity, for optimism, for courage.

            Easter gives us an acoustical advantage, a better hearing, and affords a sturdier hope. There is a trumpet sound, a silent sound like the silent sound of our campus this morning, this long Lent, a gift from ‘elsewhere’. Elsewhere

            Vaclev Havel: Hope is a dimension of the soul, and it is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…It’s deepest roots are transcendental, just as are the roots of human responsibility…It is an inner experience…The most convinced materialist and atheist may have more of this genuine transcendentally rooted inner hope than 10 metaphysicians altogether…Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as the joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather the ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it has a chance to succeed. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere’. (V. Havel, DPT, 23). Take out the ‘as it were’ and you have Easter, in the words of asecular prophet. He heard with resurrection ears.

            The Resurrection brings happiness, too, a resurrection smile. So Isaiah can sing out: ‘everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.’ As part of the alliance of servant love, one really has cause to smile. A resurrection smile—I have no interest at all in how much you actually smile—is a sign that you can risk. You can risk change, transition, a cross road. When the circus came to our little town, growing up, we watched the trapeze artists, enthralled. These aerial acrobats touch something deep in life.

You can swing from one bar to another on the existential trapeze. Back and forth the bars swing, and at least half a dozen times in life you will be changing bars. It’s scary. Waiting for the bar to come, you know you will have to jump. That is the thing about faith. There is always a bit of a leap in it. From home to college. Jump! From college to work. Jump! From single to married or married to single. Jump! From calling to second calling. Jump! From work to retirement. Jump! From chief household executive to nursing home. Jump! Easter gives a radiance to life that loosens us, smiling, for the changes in life. You are a part of the alliance of servant love. Go ahead and jump. Some of us will spot you, and be there to catch if you slip a little. Smile. The risks of change make sense at Easter. And every one of these jumps, courageously made, gives you further confidence in the Everlasting Arms of the last jump, the final horizon. Easter is the promise of eternal life!

            From this pulpit, at Easter, we smile, smile to remember the voice of Martin Luther King: No matter who you are today, somebody helped you to get there. It may have been an ordinary person, doing an ordinary job in an extraordinary way. There is a magnificent lady, with all the beauty of blackness and black culture, by the name of Marian Anderson that you’ve heard about and read about and some of you have seen. She started out as a little girl singing in the choir of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And then came that glad day when she made it. And she stood in Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic Orchestra in the background in New York, singing with the beauty that is matchless. Then she came to the end of the concert, singing Ave Maria as nobody else can sing it. And they called her back and back and back, and she finally ended by singing, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. And her mother was sitting out in the audience, and she started crying; tears were flowing down her cheeks. And the person next to her said, “Mrs Anderson, Why are you crying? Your daughter is scoring tonight. The critics tomorrow will be lavishing their praise on her. Why are you crying? And Mrs. Anderson looked over with tears still flowing and said, “I’m not crying because I’m sad, I’m crying for joy.” She went on to say, “You may not remember, you wouldn’t know. But I remember when Marian was growing up, and I was working in a kitchen till my hands were all but parched, my eyebrows all but scalded. I was working there to make it possible for my daughter to get an education. And I remember Marian came to see me and said, “Mother, I don’t want to see you having to work like
this.” And I looked down and said, “Honey, I don’t mind it. I’m doing it for you and I expect great things of you.” And finally one day somebody asked Marian Anderson in later years, “Miss Anderson, what has the been the happiest moment of your life? Was it that moment in Carnegie Hall in New York?” She said, “No, that wasn’t it.” “Was it that moment you stood before the Kings and Queens of Europe?” “No that wasn’t it”. “ Well, Miss Anderson, was it the moment Sibelius of Finland declared that his roof was too low for such a voice?” “No, that wasn’t it.” “Miss Anderson, was it the moment that Toscanini said that a voice like your comes only once in a century?” “No, that wasn’t it.” “What was it then, Miss Anderson.” And she looked up and said (smiling) quietly, “The happiest moment in my life was the moment I could say, “Mother, you can stop working now.” Marian Anderson realized that she was where she was because somebody helped her to get there. (M. L. King, “A Knock at Midnight”).
That’s power.

            Jesus’ resurrection giving you new eyes, ears and smile. The resurrection, granting new sight, new sound, new soul. Smile! One ancient writer, not an earthly success, not an ecclesiastical victor, nonetheless wrote in the year 160ad: “the resurrection is the revelation of what is, the transformation of things, and a transition into newness (Treatise on the Resurrection). Eyes, Ears, Smile. Today we are set free to wonder at life, to work for justice, to weather change. And to do so with grace.


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

April 5

The Tragic Sense of Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:1-11

Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 27:32-50

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          A few years ago, just before Holy Week, a particular story came around to haunt the season, the story of Joan Humphrey. She grew up on a farm in Kansas. She was born, the third of four children, to Donna and Jake Humphrey. The Humphrey farm of 480 acres, near Woodlawn Kansas, raised cattle and crops. Joan attended a one room school there until the eighth grade. She was a cheerleader at Sabetha High School. She also was an officer in her school’s chapter of ‘Future Homemakers of America’. She graduated second in her class. A class of 48. Here is the caption under her yearbook picture: “keen sense, common sense, no room for nonsense”. *

          Joan then attended Wheaton College, because her pastor was a graduate. Later on, she entered law school at Northwestern University. Her classmates there teased her about her slow prairie speech. They also envied her lack of stress over exams. In law school she met a boy named Michael. They worked summer jobs on behalf of the poor: disability benefits, evictions, food stamps.

          Joan and Michael were married in 1975. He wore a white suit.

          She wore daisies in her hair, and a white morocan caftan.

          Joan and Michael then began to raise their own family of four daughters. Every morning, he brewed coffee. He pre-heated her cup with boiling water, filled it with coffee, and carried it to the bed where together they could talk about the day to come.

          Joan’s life had two paradigms, professional woman and devoted mother. She cooked dinner every night. She established a daycare center in the courthouse where she worked. She packed lunches for four daughters, making sure to use Tropicana orange juice to limit the girls’ sugar intake.

          The newspaper quoted Joan as saying, “I wanted my family to be a family that shared their food and the mom could cook like my mom could cook.” Joan’s temperament and industry brought her, over some years, to the federal bench. She became a judge in the US District Court in Chicago. It was the culmination of a fine career, a position that had eluded her on other occasions. But, after a few years, one of her rulings angered white supremacists. One of these was convicted of plotting to have her killed. They did not succeed. Yet two years later, Joan’s husband Michael and her mother, both on crutches, were murdered. They were both shot in the head and chest with .22 caliber bullets.

          Holy Week, every year, brings us to the precipice of a most disturbing question. At some point, we grow up or wake up enough to ask the question that Joan’s daughter Meg asked her that week. “Mom, why is the world so evil?” Holy Week—with its fleeting laud and honor, its temple conflict, its night of betrayal, its day of trial, its hour of tragedy, and its subsequent, lasting silence—brings us right to this matter of evil. Why? Why Mom? Why is the world so shot through with evil—sin, death, the threat of meaninglessness?

          After 300 of his students died in a plane crash near Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, Chancellor Melvin Eggers of Syracuse University brought the question, via a newspaper interview, to his religious leadership at Hendrick’s Chapel. I will never forget his interview, the pain of it, the grief in it, the troubled angst of it, which never left him over the few remaining years of his life. It broke his big heart.

          After 3000 died on 9/11, 2001, that next Friday, 9/14/01, hundreds of people filled our sanctuaries, without invitation or liturgical preparation. Here they were, truly hunting for the language and heart with which to assess the same question. What in the world is wrong with this world?

          After 300,000 were lost in December on the day after Christmas, 2004, out of a numbed and fogged stupor, there gradually emerged a serious question, a question about bearing, perspective, and, ultimately, about faith. What kind of world is this? Who is the God who has breathed life into such a place? “Mom, why is the world so evil?”

          After the market collapsed in 2008, and graduates for the following years worked three jobs each, while carrying student loans, the question, sometimes uttered, but often silent behind the eyes and tears, and the more bitter for that, was the same: What is wrong with this world? Now, since the first US death just a month ago, corona virus has caught us up again in the depth of the meaning of Holy Week. January 11, first death in China; February 5, a cruise ship, Diamond Princess, quarantined in Japan; February 23, Italian cases go from 5 to 150; February 29, the first US death, in Seattle (barely a month ago); March 15, the CDC warns against gatherings of more than 50; March 26, The United States officially became the country hardest hit by the pandemic , with at least 81,321 confirmed infections and more than 1,000 deaths; March 30, this week, 265 million Americans told to stay home. Today, by current count, 8,000 dead in America, and 64,000 worldwide. And our question, the Holy Week one: what is wrong with this world? We have been here before. The same reckoning can arrive in quieter times, in a far more cotidian fashion. You alone, you in social distance, you with some quiet on your hands, might ponder the cotidian sense of tragedy. Tomorrow you might wake up to list the smaller showers of estrangement that meet us every day, long before we ever are drenched in the great thunderstorm of tragic pandemic:

          Premature resignation
          Partial self-awareness
          Indirect criticism
          Cold honesty
          Inflated responsibility
          Excessive enjoyment
          Needless worry

          Wasted time
          Careless haste
          Misguided loyalty
          Postponed grief
          Avoided maturation
          Partial planning
          Unconscious entitlement
          Pointless earning
          Self-serving posture
          Thankless reception
          You meet them every day…
          A contentious person is like a continual dripping of water… In our time, people of conscience are truly alive, suddenly and earnestly alive, to this question, which is, again, the whole content of Holy Week. It is a question that, in the main, is a matter of grief, trouble, and loss. Which is, of course, the whole content of the church’s experience and memory of Holy Week. It is a matter of deep, abiding grief to face the gone- wrongness in life. And, while we have tried, in our churches, to feed the hunger in this question, to slake the thirst in this question, to provide compelling responses to this question, to a great degree, across the land, we have failed. And failure is the whole content of Holy Week. It is a grief to this preacher that our pulpits, nation wide, have thus far failed to meet the grief and loss and especially fear that pervade our time like a mist in London along Aldersgate Street, like an invisible unholy ghost, just on the edge of
our awareness. Like a dawn that just will not come. We have not been able robustly and preparedly and piercingly to remember, to call to mind our biblical, Christian, tragic sense of life, when  most we have needed it. To hear Job on the ash heap: “What is my crime?”; and Second Isaiah: “A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief”; and Jeremiah’s lamentations; and the tears of the David, “all flesh is grass”; to evoke Ecclesiastes, speaking of 9:11, “all the rivers run to the sea”; “the race is not always….but time and chance happen to them all”; and the affliction of Paul, “persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed”; and truest of all Jesus himself, “if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me”. And: ELI ELI LAMA SABACTHANI. You cannot read all of Barbara Brown Taylor on Job the night of 9/11. It has to be read ahead. You cannot do all of a seminary course on Jeremiah the night after Tsunami. It has to be read ahead. You cannot absorb all that Paul says in Galatians, the afternoon of Lockerbie. It has to be read earlier. In wrestling we used to make weight, trying to lose 5 pounds in two hours by jogging in sweat suits through the school showers. Bodily life, Christian life, does not easily allow such last minute maneuvers.

          This morning, we try again, as we enter Holy Week: Jesus meets us today along this very road of tragedy in life: of evil, grief, loss, estrangement, and failure. His church lives still as a community that knows in its bones how to face evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. H R Niebuhr warned his generation to suspect the false sense that somehow a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”. Oddly, it is the starkness of the cross, the coarseness of Jesus’ death, the tremendous sense of loss and failure and grief of Holy Week that is your best gift in and to a pandemicized, frightened,world. His cross truly names the tragedy of evil. His cross permanently enfolds that tragedy in the larger goodness in life and the lasting goodness in God. His cross radiates a thin measure of hope, that there is life beyond brokenness, even beyond virulence. There is life beyond corona virus.

          Remember your baptism and confirmation. The world is largely good (good not perfect), the good handiwork in a mysterious divine goodness that passes all understanding and endures forever.

          Yet, the world is just not right, but somehow off track, wrongheaded, with something ‘loose’ rattling around in side it—the shadow of sin, the specter of evil, the sorrow of death. Older theologians wrote of the fallenness of creation

          We have to face both and to pray for deliverance from the latter to the former. So we teach our children to say: Deliver us from evil. Robert McAfee Brown said so memorably (how I miss his voice): “Friends, this is God’s world, but it is a crummy world, and we have to live with both realities”.

          To Meg’s question “Why?” I have no full, final answer for you. But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken. You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith. You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. You carry yourselves in belief. You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person Who defines the passion. You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. Oh, we want to be clear, now: the resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word. That is why Unamuno called his philosophy Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida, ‘the tragic sense…of LIFE. Life has the last word.

          Maybe that is why Joan Howard—her married name, Joan Howard Lefkow—she like Dorothy Gale of the Kansas farm, she like Billy Graham of Wheaton College, she like Ernest Fremont Tittle of Northwestern

          University, she like your own mother in kitchen and coffee and packed lunch, answered her daughter’s question (sursum corda!) in faithful witness (hear the Gospel!) to tragedy and goodness and hope.

          I confess that I read her statement some years ago, weeping, in the middle of an utterly boring Nashville denominational board meeting, and was for several moments unsure of where I was, or whether these few sentences were read from the printed page as human comments, or were resounding in the mind and heart as divine utterance. Which is this voice? Human or Divine? You be the judge.

          Joan says to her daughter, as the Gospel says to us: Honey…I am so sad…It is a human tragedy…Honey, most people are good, most people would not think of doing this…Remember the sermon years ago at the Episcopal Church in Evanston, where the girls sang in the choir and I made sandwiches for the homeless once a month…The priest said, ‘Some things are just broken…they’re broken…just broken…They’re broken and you go on from there…Don’t think you can repair them but get up and go on from there…But whoever did this, I want to look them in the eye and say…How could you?…How could you do that to me and my family?”

*New York Times, 3/10/05


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

March 22

The Vision of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-23

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Many near and far are praying for elderly or variously compromised loved ones, now in this season of virus.  The eerie changes, including our own here in a quiet sanctuary, bring out and back other memories. Of the hours following John Kennedy’s assassination.  Of the 1987 market crash. Of the Enron debacle. Especially of 9/11, and that particularly for those just coming to awareness of history and life in those years.  Of 2008, and what that meant for our graduates in those hard, lean months following. And now, Corona, 2020. Right now, you may be bearing the inability to visit a loved one in the necessarily confined nursing home, or care facility, in which he is located.  It is a season of dislocation, profound and pervasive dislocation.

My sisters, nearby and perseverant, provide most of the daily care, for our mother, at 90, in a nursing home.  Once a month or so I see her. She greets me, knowing that she should know who I am, and not wanting to appear discourteous or ungrateful.  I stumble through some sort of greeting. She is at ease, happy, bright. She then looks out into a distance that I do not see or understand.  I mention a conversation with my aunt, her sister. She nods, and then looks again out into a distant…something. I remember a conversation with my sisters, Cynthia and Cathy.  Cynthia and Jackie, she asks? Again, the turn out to the distance. I show a video of her youngest, west coast, great grandson. Nice, she says, then the gaze, the outlook, out to the beyond.  What is it that she is looking at, or looking for, or looking toward? A hug and a kiss and a goodbye.

My friend Sam told me a decade ago, about his mother, in this season of looking out into the beyond.  He always left her, saying ‘I love you’. And she always replied, ‘I love you’. Then one day she added, ‘Remind me, why is it that we love each other?’

Through all the traumatic and terrifying dislocations of life, the response, in the moment of the look out beyond, the response to the question, ‘And why do we love each other’, is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus Christ, the Son of Man.  We love because we are loved. Even in dislocation.

John 9

John 9 is about dislocation.  It is about the expulsion of a small group of Jewish Christians from a traditional synagogue.  One word, 9:22, holds the whole gospel of the day, ‘out of the synagogue’. They were thrown out of the synagogue, dislocated, a fearsome hurt now known by many directly, in illness, in separation, in isolation, in quarantine.  And known better, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, by those of us who may just acquire a little more sympathy, a little more compassion, a little more care, for those in need, as we swirl through this season of need.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ad), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in the community (90ad), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community. 

The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ad.  The story he tells comes from 90ad.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The opponents are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When others criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless your voice. 

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as the community gathers itself in its new setting (the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah, the Cherokee in Oklahoma) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two-level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.  Especially, in John 9, through dislocation. Tell me sometime about your worst lived dislocation.


Santa Teresa of Avila traveled endlessly to reform her Carmelite order.  Once, upon a rough Castilian road, she was heaved out of a lurching cart, into the mud.  What a fine thing you have done to me, dear God!  A voice replied, That is how I treat all my friends!  And her tart response, No wonder you have so few! She too knew dislocation.

There is a physicality to the mystical prayer, the contemplative devotion, in the work of Teresa, our Lenten conversation partner this Lent. Teresa had to have a carefully balanced approach to her writing and teaching, honest to herself, helpful to her order, but outside of or unscathed by the watchful critique of the Inquisition.  This is a dilemma many know, in searching the heart, while still mollifying the ‘powers that be’. (50, notes from Rowan Williams, Teresa) She even had something of an emotional ‘affair’ with a priest.  She reflected, praying about prayer, The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thought.  (Marcus Aurelius).

Teresa was a woman of some Jewish descent.  She was challenged by 60 “difficulties with inexperienced and insensitive directors” Yet she cherished “the absolute gravity of God’s grace, given beyond expectation or desire”, and admonished herself to be ‘content to be near the light’.  She longed for 63 ‘a state of prayer in which we sense ourselves ‘anchored’ in the presence of God’, awaiting “a sense of delight…the soul does not know whether to laugh or to cry”

Long before Hegel, she lived a dialogical spirituality: 68 both through her deference to the church’s challenge and critique, and through her confidence in the presence of God’s agency.   Her prayer rested in a physical involvement in the inner process (of prayer) 71 and a hostility to technique 72 (She could combine) her frailty and fallibility…with the irresistibility of her experience.  She could think twice, hold two thoughts, two vistas together at once.

That is Teresa developed her own, her own manner of prayer, as we should too.  For her, this included 73 ‘locutions’, a kind of speaking the spirit. 74 For her, this included, the companionship of Christ, an awareness of being loved by God, so loved sot that any need we have is met in advance.  For her, this included the assertion that 85 God does not want anyone to be a passive contemplative. 86 For her, this included an admission that God’s grace is a shock to the system, and the admission that we continually need to re learn the realities of friendship with God; God looks on the person, while worldly regard concentrates on wisdom and status (a warning for us academics).  And her conclusion: 89 Christ as a companion both affirms and challenges our emotions. Teresa developed her own manner of prayer. Can we do the same? Shall we do the same? In this quieter Lent, 2020, may we do the same?


As Santa Teresa of Avila learned from within her dislocation, finding grace in dislocation, we too pray to do so in our time.  We have help.

Steven Kinzer, in the Boston Globe, has helped us this week:  Our new crisis also illustrates the danger of continuing to define enemies the way tribes and nation-states have for centuries — as outsiders who threaten aggression. Protection from that kind of enemy may come in the form of a strong army, to be used in defense, counter-attack, or preventive war. In today’s world, though, civilization’s most potent enemies threaten all states. Pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change are the three most urgent. Yet we cling to traditional models of power politics and confrontation, even on matters of urgent common interest. If the Chinese and American governments had spent the last two decades nourishing their public health systems as generously as they have nourished their armies, our present crisis might never have emerged. (BG, 3/18/20)

Bill McKibben, in the New York Review has helped us this month:  The motto for those studying the real-world effects of (global warming) is probably ‘Faster Than Expected’.  The warmth we’ve added to the atmosphere—the heat-equivalent each day of 400,000 Hiroshima sized bombs—is already producing truly dire effects, decades or even centuries ahead of schedule.  We’ve lost more than half the summer sea ice in the Arctic; coral reefs have begun to collapse, convincing researchers that we’re likely to lose virtually all of them by mid-century; sea-level rise is accelerating; and the planet’s hydrological cycle—the way water moves around the planet—has been seriously disrupted.  Warmer air increases evaporation, thus drought in arid areas and as a side effect the fires raging in places like California and Australia. The air also holds more water vapor, which tends to drop back to earth in wet places, increasing the risk of flooding: America has recently experienced the rainiest twelve months in its recorded history. (NYRB, 3/20, 13).

We have spent now about two weeks to resituate and recalibrate our ministry together here at Marsh Chapel.  It is notable that, through all manner of dislocation, in concert with that known in your experience, with that of the Gospel of John, and with that of Santa Teresa of Avila, we have found God’s grace sufficient.  Down came the notices. Up went the strictures. Out flew the letters. In came the responses. As in the Gospel, we found grace right in the heart of dislocation. But not without cost. It is in the small things.  I was fine through all the big changes, more or less. But then, in her typically gracious, quiet way, our Director of Hospitality, Heidi Freimanis-Cordts asked, You know, Dean Hill, the sanctuary will be empty on Easter.  I guess, I mean I suppose, I mean I guess I need to cancel the Easter Lilies order, don’t I ?  And there it was.  An Easter without lilies, the first in forty two years.  Maybe, though, these lesser hurts will allow us to look up and see, and to learn to love one another, as Christ has loved us: ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

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