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

October 17

Servant Leader

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10: 35-45

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Friday on the walk into the office a dear friend caught up and came alongside to walk along with me.  As friends do.  Coming alongside that is, walking with us that is.  The luxurious, languid autumn of New England this year allows more outdoor conversation.  The river to the right, the buildings old and new to the left, with students and faculty kicking up some leaves along the way.

We had not seen each other to talk since Covid.  We talked about exercise and failing knees, about what we done or not in the pandemic.  Outdoors, no distance, no mask, no immediate existential worry.  Just two friends, a while apart and now again together again.  What a simple joy, an authentic moment in the midst of various forms of service.  He like many at this good University has given simple, authentic service, servant leadership, over many years.

He then told me that in Covid he would come alone to the Chapel, now and then.  You have heard me say already and many times that the very best thing we do at Marsh is–nothing:  we do nothing, we unlock and open the doors and let people come in, bask in the beauty of the nave, sit, relax, snooze, meditate, pray.  Yes, he said.  I know he said.  One day, he continued, I was getting up to leave and decided I would take a video on my phone of—nothing.  A video of the empty church.  A video of the quiet nave.  A video of stone and glass and wood and all.  He said, I timed it to one minute.  So that, every day, when I wanted to, though I was miles away from BU and Marsh, I could return, return to the simple, the authentic, the quiet.  Thank you, he said.  It was nothing, I responded, truly nothing, I replied.  It was nothing.  And that is the best thing we do.  Nothing.

Carrying some quiet then from Covid, we meet Jesus this morning on the hinges of the earliest Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel continues to swing 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.

Now faith may come like a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.  It may.  But most of the time it rather comes one stumble, one step, one stop at a time.  One step.  One step on the walk of faith, wherein it helps to have a friend alongside.  As a person of faith.  Take a step a day, a step a week.  Health, healing, salvation, salvus, wellness, wellbeing come in small doses, occasional, discreet, bit by bit. Some like Paul are blinded by a moment on the road to Damascus. Most of us though are seized in faith, brought to healing, in a gradual way, over time, as my teacher of blessed memory Fr. Raymond Brown was used to say. Not lightening but enlightening and enlightened day by day. Sermon by sermon we could say. One step at a time. The Gospels tell us so, whatever the Epistles may opine. Faith comes one step at a time.  This week can you take a step in faith? The step this week may just be toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, Servant Leader?

One step in faith comes in service.  The considered use of influence, of leadership, in service.  The Gospel today tells us that authentic authority, real responsibility are a matter of the heart. What are your models for this?  Do they include at least a little simplicity, a little steady service?  Can you take one step, a step this week, a step of faith, in some manner of service?

It is intriguing that the Gospel lessons about living, in Mark, are set in the humble reaches of the lake country of Galilee. Writing in Rome in trouble in 70AD, there must have been some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for the persecuted urban Christians in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along the lake. There is calm along the lake. There is peace along the lake. There is serenity along the lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort.  The still waters still restore the soul to stillness.   The regatta, later this month, outside our Chapel, at the head of the Charles, in its pristine beauty and vigorous discipline, will bring a kind of peace, too.

Yet, though our lesson is ostensibly set in the country, up in the north country lake region, make no mistake:  these few phrases are crafted in urban Christianity.

Our Gospel lesson today is a place where the priority, of Mark, is clear.  Mark is the earliest gospel.  Notice how his successors cringe at his composition.  Most tellingly, Matthew removes the selfish request from the lips of the disciples, and has their mother ask!  But then Matthew still has Jesus respond to the disciples!

Luke simply erases the passage, and so ‘spares the twelve’.  They too knew the embarrassment of some ranges of inherited Scripture, as we do too when troubling passages arise:  what is your sense of the most offensive? John, the Jews? Psalms, and the revenge therein? Genesis, rape and violence? The full story of David (not a children’s story)? The household codes in Colossians, and the NT assumption of slavery and of patriarchy? it is a long list. These readings come around and we mutter, ‘Is this really necessary?’  In that spirit, Luke simply erased the today’s passage, 15 years later.

For Mark is determined to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, intentionally miss the point.  The point?  There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, there is no service worthy of the name, without humility, none without some anxiety, some suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job (who today hears the crushing voice of the Lord from the whirlwind) none without a caring heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make.  If, in your work, you have seen humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart.  You have taken a step, one step, a step in faith.  Good.

Here also in Mark 10 we have a strange reference to ‘glory’. The intonation of glory is a clue that we are reading from years after Golgotha.  The stark reference to the cup of sorrow bears a memory of Golgotha.  The knowing, and the counter knowing of the question about baptism, and its portents reveals the hurt of Golgotha.   The shadow of grief that darkens this discourse is the shadow of the Cross of Christ. And the final phrase is unmistakable in its reference:  to give his life as a ransom for many.  And this, this cost, this cost of discipleship is ever a steep hill to climb, a hard lesson to learn or teach.

“The basic inability of the disciples to grasp or accept Jesus’ concept of messiahship or its corollary, suffering discipleship, becomes reflected more and more in their total relationship to Jesus.  The conflict over the correct interpretation of messiahship widens into a general conflict and misunderstanding in almost every area of their relationship” (Weeden).

Yet there is a true kind of encouragement here, for us, as we take one step in faith.  Our Gospel records the misunderstandings of the disciples, and their reluctance quickly or easily to comprehend in full the nature of faith.  It takes them time.  That should reassure us.  It took them time.  And it takes us time.  It takes one step at a time.  But that one step can bring an opening to faith.

You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes you smile, that makes others smile, that makes God smile. Step by step it may be, you may become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to the divine countenance.  In your own life of service, of work, even of leadership, there may emerge, may be wrought, a fuller, a more authentic, a simpler way.  A step toward servant leadership is a step, one step, in faith.

Think of the Shaker community.  In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners and class meetings, the Civil Rights movement with its various and contending interpretations today, the Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

There is an authority that is visible in every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon.  Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found an authentic simplicity, a way to live with abandon, to take oneself lightly and so fly, like the angels.  They learned, over time, to model a daily heartfelt affirmation of the shared good, the common good, the communal good.

Mark 10:35 is one of the spots in the earliest gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible.  And Christianity wrestled with institutional, formational questions in the first century:  For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority?  What, How, Where. And Who?  That should reassure us too.  They struggled to make things go right in shared, communal, institutional life.  And so do we.  They resisted triangles, they reached for I and Thou relationships.  And so do we.

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age. Notice and emphasize in your hearing the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

In a time like ours, the very real fears of pollution, pandemic, politics, prejudice and pain tend to shove us toward a fearful taste for authoritarianism, here and around the globe.  The fears of the day and night can make us afraid of freedom, our birthright, and inclined to align with authoritarianism at all levels, including at the highest ones.  Be careful here.

A few years ago, my friend Charles Rice spoke of service, and of the minister as  the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel.  Then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon and moved on.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image—phs, phs–making it clear again.  A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her.  Maybe that is part of what we hope for come Sunday, a gentle washing away of accumulated piety, to make room for what is real and what is authentic and what is not simplistic but bright and simple.

My friend had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what ministry was meant to be: a humble daily washing away from the face of Christ of all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.  Including pretense and presumption and position.  And such service, service that lasts, is both deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady, one step at a time.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.  Steady, sincere, even suffering service.  Think of someone who helped you once when you needed help.

Every one of us has some influence, some leadership. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority. The question, one that provokes a response and that then allows us to take a step forward is just this:  how will you use, render, apply, shape and offer the authority you have?  Just how will you use the authority you have?

Our gospel today suggests a response.  A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of servant leadership.

Here is leadership:  simple, authentic service.  Here is leadership:  simple, authentic service.  Here is leadership:  simple authentic service.

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Faith comes one step at a time.  This week: can you take a step in faith toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, the Servant Leader?

Faith comes one step at a time.  This week: can you take a step in faith toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, the Servant Leader?

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

September 26

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:3850

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

Time and space are not quite as absolute in determination of our being as sometimes we think. It helps to have a bifocal, stere-optic vision, a two-level drama, of sorts.

That is the nature of the New Testament, shot through from Matthew to Revelation with apocalyptic language and imagery. Our Holy Scripture, both Holy and Scripture, is both heaven and earth.   It is both sacred and secular, at the same time, both divine and human. Its Word walks with human feet and sings with divine voice. Its word faces earth: 670,000 souls gone on to the church triumphant, in one country alone. Its word sings with a divine voice: each one of these is a child of the living God.

The apocalyptic warnings of Mark 9 are not to be taken literally. We know this. We know about hyperbole. Let us pause one good moment to recognize that, and why, and so, we do not understand the Bible as utterly inerrant. The Bible is inspired and so inspires us, and is our first point of reflection, prototypical but not archetypical—first but not exclusive in the church’s long history of the search for truth. These verses, harsh and judgmental, need careful interpretation. So, Matthew cuts half of them, in his use of Mark 20 years afterward. So Luke cuts all of them in his use of Mark 20 years later. Even Mark himself shifts the weight from fear to hope, even in this passage, as he wrestles to interpret what he has inherited, from whatever source: be salt, have peace among yourselves, who is not against us is for us.

So, it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music.

In our time, to express a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith, to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, we have Bach’s  music in this beautiful 16 minute poem. For all our fears, of heaven and of earth, it does ring out a note of hope, does it not?

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen today, we who remember St. Augustine’s proverb, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage’?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:

The Feast of St Michael, celebrated each year in late September, with its fantastic images of Michael the Archangel slaying Lucifer, the Old Dragon, surely must have come as welcome reprieve from more didactic lessons on the weight of sin that marked the liturgical calendar in late summer. Bach’s musical essays written for Michaelmas prove daring innovation, bravura, and an astonishing capacity for both imagery and imagination. After a year of testing out the capabilities of the very fine Leipzig musicians, including chief of the local Stadtpfeifer Gottfried Reiche, Bach boldly deploys all his singers and players with confidence and ease.

The whole of Cantata 130 is framed around Paul Eber’s Chorale “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir”, known to the English speaking world as the Doxology: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Consistent with other cantatas from the second Leipzig cycle, the chorale tune is heard in long tones in the soprano part throughout the first movement. Despite the familiarity and prominent position of this famous tune, Bach’s newly composed music played by the instruments from the beginning both colludes and collides with the Chorale in one of the thrilling, majestic, and playful openings of all the cantatas.

The inner movements remind us that though Lucifer was defeated by Michael and cast down from Heaven, he still burns with deceit and torment for God’s little ones here on Earth. The tail of the serpent ensnares us at any time without notice or warning. Only the eternal presence of God’s angels all around us assures both protection but also victory. We are reminded that it was Michael who was with Daniel and who ushered Elijah to the throne of grace on a fiery chariot. And that, just like them, when we journey to heaven, Michael, the standard bearer, will safely guide us.

Both arias are bold departures with regard to instrumentation and style for the Leipzig Thomascantor. I challenge you to find other examples of trumpets and timpani deployed as the obbligato instrument for a bass aria. Bach and Reiche must have had a wonderful regard for one another. Professor Terry Everson plays the heroic parts today over and around Craig Juricka’s baritone. Whether the tail of the Serpent or the brandished saber of Michael, this marks one of the most difficult and exciting uses of these instruments.

The tenor aria sung today by Ethan DePuy features the Flauto traverso, also new to Bach in Leipzig. Cast in a pastoral gavotte in the new style, we are assured that Michael will be with us to the end.

The stere-optic vision heard in today’s cantata is indeed a multi-valenced thing.

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

Those who have paused, here, or now, to worship with us at Marsh Chapel in the last decade, are aware that we lift the Gospel, come Cantata Sundays, in word and music, together, juntos, in harmony.

Bach brings us the reach of beauty around the globe, a global sphere of orientation.  Bach brings us a stretch toward the universal, the reach up and out to what fully lasts, truly matters, and really counts.  Bach brings us an artistic angle of vision, rooted in Scripture and in an earlier Lutheran garden, nonetheless known by heart and in the heart, far and near, with those, today you and me, who will pause for the offering of the gift of faith.  Bach brings us beauty, a paean for sure to the true and the good, but no avoidance of the beautiful.  In our time, this hour, especially this week, we can truly appreciate, benefit from such a global orientation, a high universal reach, a feeling in faith, and the bathing of such beauty.

Given the maelstrom of this moment in our current climate, our current politics, our current globe, our current culture, the wind blasts of charge and counter charge, the examples of courage and also the instances of failures in courage, near and far, we, come Sunday, maybe especially this Sunday, look for the God who is a rock in a weary land.  Said Dr. Emilie Townes, ‘we want to cultivate a vibrant community of hope… we hope to beget an ever more piercing faithfulness’.  An ever more piercing faithfulness.  Yes.

Today we receive the gift in memory of the faith of the church, and we give ear to the beauty of our first Bach Cantata of the year.  We are truly ‘blessed’.  All the senses—sight, sound, scent, touch, taste—are enlivened today.

This is truly good news, especially for those who may be in mortal need of a living reminder, as the Scripture says, that we are ‘children of God’.  For we can sometimes acutely need such a reminder of belonging, meaning and empowerment.  Even at eventide.  Even at night.  We are acquainted with the night.  You are acquainted with the night.  As our New England poet memorably put it:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

So, it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music.  It is angelic music, written to harmonize with the music of the spheres, and to recall the angels of Scripture, the revelations of Scripture, the heavenly messages and messengers of Scripture, a worthy work to honor St Michael and all the angel chorus.

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

September 19

The Lord of the Harvest

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 9: 35-38

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The authority of Jesus’ ministry is today transferred to disciples and apostles, ancient and modern.

We meet Jesus this morning 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 bright autumn morning on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we—not just the ordinand but we ourselves–may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The harvest is plentiful.  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.  It opens for you the question of vocation, of calling, of your truest self, of your ownmost self.

Faith may come like a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.  It may.  But most of the time it comes, rather, one stumble, one step, one stop at a time.  One step.  As a person of faith.  Take a step a day, a step a week.  Health, healing, salvation, salvus, wellness, wellbeing come in small doses, occasional, discreet, bit by bit. Some like Paul are blinded by a moment on the road to Damascus. Most of us are seized in faith, brought to healing, in a gradual way, over time, as my teacher of blessed memory Fr. Raymond Brown was used to say. Not in lightening but enlightening and enlightened day by day. Sermon by sermon we could say, Sunday by Sunday. One step at a time. The Gospels tell us so, whatever the Epistles may opine.  Daily Questions of Faith, like… Is there a dark side to Forgiveness?… Is Education about the old or the new?… Do I hold onto things too long?… Do I practice Misplaced Paternalism?… When the time comes: How do we approach death?…Have we faced the inadequacy of a life without faith?…

This year, 2021-22, sermon by sermon, Sunday by Sunday, we will look for a single small step, one question of faith at at time.

A preparatory step is to read the Bible, to open the Scripture.  We do so four times in the Sunday hour of worship, whatever the sermon may portend.  Or pretend.  Including this morning.  And so we hear the Gospel:   Vocation…leads to an experience of God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand…when your passion meets another’s need.  The harvest is plentiful like an orchard full of ripe apples.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel in this part of Matthew. First. Jesus has been out and 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 he 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 a 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 the rigors of 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 for a moment.

The devil is in the details. The Gospel in Matthew 9 sends us into a sort of foreign territory, one, that is, in which and for which we shall need some translation. The biblical language is not always our language.  For instance.  We have other words, whether only modern or both modern and more accurate, to describe unclean spirits. We recognize that the list of disciples differs from other lists.  We do not regularly meet leprosy. We carry no gold in our belts, nor silver, nor even copper. We are not pilgrim peregrinators who arrive in town and camp on a doorstep. We sense that the hard distinctions we make between disciples and apostles were not made by Matthew. We do not readily conjure up the vision of Sodom and Gomorrah. We sense that the time of Matthew and perhaps persecutions feared or present under Domitian, 90ce, may have colored all or a part of this passage.

A confusion, a lack of translation here will allow us to avoid 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, and to span the globe, and to care for the globe and its environment, and to share the spiritual care of its inhabitants with the world’s many other religious traditions.

The verses and the chapter and the gospel carry a claim. Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him, said Albert Schweitzer.

Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to you and me, 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, today, draws you, and in which way?

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. I might argue that healing the sick has a medical degree of meaning, that raising the dead is about pastoral ministry in the Northeast where the church awaits resurrection, that cleansing lepers is about including those on the outside of the social fence, that casting out demons is reminding people not to fear, not to fear, not to fear, even, in the face of much trouble, including the twenty year shadow of 9/11. You could, rightly, challenge or augment the interpretation.

But personally, just where does your passion meet the world’s need? What are you ready to risk doing, to plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest?What are you going to give yourself to, to offer your ability, affability, and availability?

Who calls you, who called you, to your own real life, your vocation? Who gave you your sense of direction, vocation in life? Our colleague Robert Pinsky revitalized poetry by asking communities to gather and read their favorites. We at Marsh are trying to revitalize vocation in part by asking people to gather and remember their mentors. What about you? The world opens a bit when someone is called or reminded of a call to…preaching, teaching, healing.

Vocation…leads to an experience of God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand…when your passion meets another’s need.

Today one step.  Our step in questions of faith today, on reading the Holy Bible, is to discern our calling, vocation, that which makes not just a living but a life.   Others from history may help us, two in particular today, Martin Luther and John Wesley.

On May 24 of 1738, Mr. John Wesley, an Oxford Don and Anglican Priest, found himself in a Sunday evening service of worship on Aldersgate Street in London.  This was a rainy Sunday evening, and the weather of the moment it would seem matched Wesley’s despond.  Yet on the conclusion of the service, somehow, Mr. Wesley walked into the London fog singing in the rain.  His heart, he wrote later, had been ‘strangely warmed’.  In full he thought and felt and ‘feltthought’ that the passion, the gift of Christ, was for him, for him–John Wesley.  The moment became a touchstone in his life, and consequently, both for bane and blessing, in the movement that became the church that became the denomination that became whatever it is now to become which he and his dear brother Charles did beget.  Yet not often has Methodism looked back a little bit more carefully at the first part of his story of that fateful, eventful evening.  The service on Aldersgate Street started with Martin Luther, and with his commentary, summary, introduction to the Epistle to the Romans.  Here to hear is a part of that introduction, on the matter of faith:

Faith is a living, daring confidence in the grace of God, of such assurance that it would risk a thousand deaths. This confidence and knowledge of divine grace makes a person happy, bold, and full of gladness in his relation to God and all creatures. The Holy Ghost is doing this in the believer… Accordingly, it is impossible to separate works from faith, just as impossible as it is to separate the power to burn and shine from fire…Pray God that He may create faith in you…”

In a more personal vein, many of us have been shaped by the outworking of Luther’s thought and church, especially through the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Our first year of seminary on the corner of Broadway and (now) Reinhold Niebuhr place was sustained by shared evening meals, one clumsy amateur cook at a time, to share expenses in the main, and to share insights and friendship, as well.  This was on the second floor of then Hastings Hall at Union Theological Seminary, NYC.  Somehow, Eberhard Bethge was invited and chose to come to join us for our evening meal, a most humble affair in every direction.  He was a most gregarious, joyful fellow, who knew Bonhoeffer better perhaps than almost anyone.  He matched, in part, the person of faith that Luther described in the Introduction to Romans—a daring confidence in the grace of God, happy bold and full of gladness.  Last week, a friend who is in retirement from work as a cardiologist, who serves on our Marsh Chapel board, and in a new mode of vocation, is studying Bonhoeffer, in depth in and in breadth, sent photos from the 1930’s at Union of Bonhoeffer.   In those years Bonhoeffer wrote: Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (Cost of Discipleship)…. In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time, the one not without the other. The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world. (Ethics)

We have much for which to be thankful, given to our denomination and many others through Martin Luther, including the witness and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sometimes a direct encounter with a different religious tradition than our own, a different denominational tradition, a strangely and daringly distinct perspective, can bring our own vocational perspective into focus.

That is our ancient and future hope, in Scripture and in faith.  John Dewey spoke of a common faith.  Howard Thurman preached about a common ground.  Over fifteen years, in and from this Marsh Chapel pulpit, we have offered a common hope.

This is the hope of peace.  We long for the far side of trouble, for a global community of steady interaction, an international fellowship of accommodation, a world together dedicated to softening the inevitable collisions of life.  This is the hope of peace.

Without putting too fine a point upon it, this hope, the vision of the far side of trouble, is the hallmark of the space in which we stand, and the place before which we stand.  If nowhere else, here on this plaza, and here before this nave, we may lift our prayer of hope.  There is a story here, of peace.  You now, students and others, are become in presence and hearing, stewards, stewards of this story, this common hope.

For we at Marsh Chapel are like everyone else, only more so, as the saying goes—a wide and diverse community, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley), a common hope of peace, a unity shall we say that protects and promotes diversity.

Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”.  A common hope of peace.  Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “The events of my days strike a full balance of what seems both good and bad.  Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”  A common hope of peace.

Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our village green.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”.  A common hope of peace. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote:  “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 fifity, 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.”

Today, in memory and honor, with Luther, Wesley, Ghandi, Dewey, Thurman and King, we lift our hope for a day to live on the far side of trouble.  We remember our ancient and future hope, a hope of peace.  Here is a discreet question of faith.  One step, a small step. Does or will your calling evoke a hope of peace in others? or will your sense of vocation evoke a hope of peace in others?

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

September 6

A Balm in Gilead

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Mark 7:2437

Click here to hear just the sermon

Coming after 18 months hiatus to the Lord’s Supper, we announce the healing Gospel, the Balm in Gilead, in the breaking of bread, such a choice phrase:  A Balm in Presence. A Balm in Remembrance.  A Balm in Thanksgiving.


Month by month many of you gathered on the first Sunday, out on the Plaza at 8am, for prayer.  It was cold every month, including April for Easter.  Yet there were, sans heat, sans pew, sans communion.

In thy presence there is fullness of joy.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

In Love.  Love is the attentive gift of time, as in the course of a lifetime of friendship, or partnership, or marriage.  In Love.

In Joy.  Joy is happy embrace—physical, mental, spiritual, soulful—morning and evening.  In Joy.

In Peace.  Peace is the gift—all these are pure gifts of God—of real listening, listening with a full smile and a glad heart.  In Peace.

In Patience.  Discipleship needs persistence, the accelerator, and patience, the break, to make it over the mountains and through the deserts, and across the great plains of life.  Said the Buddha:  patience is self-compassion which gives you equanimity.  In Patience.

In Kindness.  Kindness is the long-distance run, the gift of a gracious long distance perspective, known in part in the openness to forgiveness.  In Kindness.

In Goodness.  Real Goodness bursts forth in generosity.  You only have what you give away, and you only truly possess what you have the grace and freedom to offer to someone else.  What you give is what you have.  In Goodness.

In Faith.  Faith is a gift, like all other signs of abiding love.  Faith is the capacity to withstand what and when we cannot understand (repeat).  When you face struggle, challenge, difficulty, may this gift be yours by divine grace.  In Faith.

In Gentleness.  Tea, sunset, backrub, quiet, handholding, prayer, worship.  In Gentleness. Where are the gentle people?

In Self-Control.  Self-Control, a gift of God’s Presence, guides you to work through any and all labors:  in care for family and extended family;  in stewardship of precious material wealth, never plentiful but always sufficient; in sensitivity in intimacy, sexuality, in preparing for an unforeseen future;  in the building of community—yes religious community, but also neighborhood, town, school, city, and a culture gradually amenable to faith.  Kenmore Square being rebuilt! In Self-Control.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

Through the year we recalled Thurman’s favorite psalm, 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Into Another Presence…

Dr. Chicka, in spiritual presence, what have we to offer our community this fall?

(Dr. Jess Chicka speaks)


A Balm in Gilead, in presence, and in remembrance.  Those quiet Sunday dawning taught us to take the covid quiet, or some of it, with us.  Thursday at noon I opened the front door of the chapel to leave it ajar, a physical invitation.  It was jarring, not the door, but the sight.  After months of empty quiet, with only a squirrel or an absent-minded professor crossing the plaza, there, then—throngs, hordes, multitudes, masses.  The plaza full of students.  The sidewalk full of students.  The streets and cross streets and all, full.  I wandered and one asked for directions to Photonics and another to Morse auditorium.

For students seeking directions we regularly recommend a walk on the Emerald Necklace once a month, a walk on the Esplanade once a month, a public transport and walk on the coast, the sea shore, once a month, and a look through the CAS telescope once a month.  For four years. Keep close to nature.  Remember the natural world.  Especially, Go to the ocean once a month, especially if you are from the Midwest.  The ocean keeps us balanced, as does the natural world in general, as a kind of creational Scripture.  Nature reminds us.

Low tide and high.

Storm and sun.

Winter and summer.

Heat and cold.

Evening and morning.

Sunshine and rain.

Day to day and night to night.

Easy and hard.

Good and not so good.

Seed time and harvest.

Wind and calm.

The natural world, let us recall,speaking by not speaking, can offer us balance, a reminder that not all is always well, but also that there is often a sunset even after a day of rain.

We remembered every month and do again today, Romans 12:  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Rev. Dr. Karen, in spiritual remembrance, what have we to offer our community this fall?

(Rev. Dr. Karen speaks)


A Balm in Gilead in presence, and remembrance and thanksgiving.

Eucharist means thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is the heart of faith, the marrow of faith, the sinew and bone and carne y hueso of faith.

The faith of a friend: We continue to be blessed by our God, being deeply appreciative and mindful that love and faith make us resilient and hopeful. We continue to be blessed by our God, being deeply appreciative and mindful that love and faith make us resilient and hopeful.

The faith of another friend: Maybe I will take deeply to heart my friend’s definition of faith: ‘the personal positive answer to the question whether life has meaning’. Maybe I will take deeply to heart my friend’s definition of faith: ‘the personal positive answer to the question whether life has meaning’.

The faith of the author of James, one of the earliest recorded sermons in emerging Christianity by the way, that faith is primary but works count too, and faith without them is really not vital faith at all.  Or, as the writer puts it, ‘faith without works is dead’.

The faith of a friend through writing: “Thirty years ago, my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”  (Anne Lamotte).  (Good advice for beginning the school year…)

With thanksgiving we lift the strange blessedness, the word means happy, Makarios, happy.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Dr. Jarrett, in spiritual thanksgiving, what have we to offer our community this fall?

(Dr. Scott Jarrett speaks)


Here we are, at the Lord’s table.  Present, remembering, giving thanks.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

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

August 29

Beginning A Conversation

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:18

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

How shall we begin?

*Beginning a Conversation: Includes Questions

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

*Beginning a Conversation:  Means to Read

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

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

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

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

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

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes.

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

*Beginning a Conversation:  Means to Face Mortality

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

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

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

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die”.


“You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


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

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

“Why”, I asked.

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


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

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.

*Beginning a Conversation: Spies Pied Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

*Beginning a Conversation:  Opens Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

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

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

August 1

Gift of the Lake

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 6:24-35

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As this summer we reflect on what we have been through, over the last year and more, and as we meditate together upon the mighty themes of the Gospel, we might recall earlier intimations, earlier voices, which paved our way, cut our trail, made a space and place in grace for our own hopes.

In New England now over many years we have been given a gift from the sea.  The warm welcome and friendly spirit of your presence and care has been a guiding spirit for us, here along the Atlantic coast.  In fact, you have lived out much of what Anne Murrow Lindberg described in her little book about the ocean and the soul, Gift from the Sea.  She recommends, strongly, time spent on the shore.  She wrote some years ago: “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”

In thanks for these years of sea gifts, we bring you this morning a Gift from the Lake.  A fresh water gift to honor a salt water gift.  We spend our summers largely among grandchildren and their parents, alongside a fresh water lake, of which there are many in our land of upbringing, along the Erie Canal.  This lake region bears the distinction of having given rise to many women and men who heard and heeded John 6, who did not leave freedom, the self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe, to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  Today, as a Gift from the Lake, we bring some of these fresh water memories.  They may recall for us that, while there are always at of things wrong, there are also always a lot of things right.  Yeats feared that the center could not hold:  the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the center cannot hold. And yet, over time voices of spirit and life have emerged to hold, to hold us, together.  To hold us together as a country, as a culture, as a community.  In a time when, for some, mendacity and violence seem to have become tools in the political workbench, we can recall and broadly affirm that in and with a measure of faith, the center can hold, the center can hold, in country and culture and community.  Hear then of a Gift from the Lake.

This is the lakeside land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this lakescape:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Cuyahoga.  The great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15th century the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common space, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk and the Erie Canal.

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn, NY.  Her neighbor William Seward, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.  Our 21st century theological issue is space.  Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on my church staff for a time in Syracuse on Euclid Avenue, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  His body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerrit Smith, founder of Peterboro, a community established for free slaves, a short 10 miles from our summer home, were not ‘compatibalists’ regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, he felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves.  Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Remember her wisdom:  “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord.  I always told him, “I trust you.  I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

You will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, buried in Rochester.  His burial plot is across the street Strong Hospital.  As one patient said, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed the “North Star” in Rochester, and through it developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “ The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his colleague Sojourner Truth, calling in the same reagon for voting rights a long while ago: “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been.  Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  My grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  My mother was born in Syracuse only a few years after full suffrage, and taught Latin.  My wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, many of my colleagues in ministry are female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  In the Episcopal tradition, Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her now in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella pronounced this blessing: “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.  I thought at first she was addressing me.  But no, she was talking to Emily. Thank you, our daughter replied.  You may visit the birthplace of women’s suffrage, the one hundredth anniversary of which we have just past during Covid, and more broadly the advent of feminism in Seneca Falls, on the shores of Seneca Lake.  Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others.  Who can forget the motto of Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86th birthday, 1906).  “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.  Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train went a bit astray across this lakescape.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions and occasional wanderings.  When we get so focused on the speedometer that we forget to drive the car safely, then trouble arises.  That is, Woodstock 50 years ago paled by comparison with the communal experiments along the Erie Canal 150 years ago. The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our discussion.  Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon (Albany area), not far from Tanglewood and our BU musical program there, the shaking Quakers firmly addressed the matter of social distancing.  They required it at all times, except in the sacred dance of Sunday worship.  They forbade it.  Women and men came together only once a week, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, hence their name.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself: infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent.  Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of hard work, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.   But hear again the beautiful Shaker tune:

Tis a gift to be loving

Tis the best gift of all

Like a gentle rain love falls to cover all

When we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight 

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Or you may want to read about the Oneida community in the book, Without Sin, the best review in our generation of their somewhat different experiment.  Also, along the Erie Canal the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  And they abandoned any and all social distancing.  It would another three sermons to trace through the detail of complex marriage, stirpiculture, and communal life among the Oneida Community.Although I went to High School in Oneida.  They I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment.  Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is the most fascinating.  After word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest.  Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except in some of  the silverware on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in many restaurants.  Let us remember the love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, the aspiration to spirit and life, even if we cannot affirm his conclusion: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”.

One last story in this Gift from the Lake.  Norman Vincent Peale, who began his ministry in Syracuse NY. When we were at Union Seminary in New York the faculty there, both regularly and rightly criticized the inadequate theology of his Marble Collegiate Church.  James Sanders sternly referred to this famed congregation as the “First Church of Marduke”, not an accolade.  Of course you know that for fifty years, a graduate of Boston University, and Ohio Wesleyan, and a proponent of the power of positive thinking held forth, without notes, from the Marduke pulpit.  His son in law, Arthur Caliandro, followed him, with notes.  You may not trust his theology.  I myself am a critic, schooled as I was in the dour, German realism of Tillich, Niehbuhr, and company.  You may find it too shallow.  Everbody has their criticism of Norman Vincent Peale.  Even Adlai Stevenson had gripes.  When attacked from the Marduke pulpit,  Stevenson defended his Christianity on the basis of the Apostle to the Gentiles, all this in 1956, and rounded out his peroration thus:  “Sir, I find Paul appealing, but Peale, appalling.”  You too may find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.  Yet as young man in Syracuse, University Church, hte found there a happy people.  He found there a positive people.  He found here a hopeful people, an optimistic congregation.  Why, they were so good to him that he relaxed and fell in love and married an SU coed, Ruth.  Our good friend Forrest Whitmeyer, a graduate of Boston Latin by the way, knew them both well.  It was that native buckeye spirit married to that native orange soul, and it produced the power of positive thinking, itself a form of faith and freedom not to be forgotten. Our daughter this last week affirmed her own commitment to the ‘power of positive relationships’. Well, it brought Norman to mind. The Peales, Ruth and Norman both, did not leave the project of freedom to somebody else.  It is biblical and within limits faithful to remember Peale’s seven most important words: “You can if you think you can.”   At least we could admit the contrary as true:  If you think you can’t, you probably can’t and probably won’t.

From the past, we may today receive a Gift from the Lake.  God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we celebrate today.  Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They lived with faitht that the center could hold. They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged.  They did not expect some magic insight.  They preferred deliverance to diffidence. Real love means taking historical responsibility.

In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, there awaits us every Lord’s day a personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom, spirit, life and love in our time?  Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share?  When it comes to spirit and life, as announced in John 6, will you lift a hand?

In thanks for these years of sea gifts, we bring you this summer morning a Gift from the Lake.  A fresh water gift to honor a salt water gift.  Recall what Anne Murrow Lindberg described in her little book about the ocean and the soul, Gift from the Sea, whose title has inspired this morning’s sermon.  She recommends, strongly, time spent on the shore.  She wrote some years ago: “This is what one thirsts for, I realize, after the smallness of the day, of work, of details, of intimacy – even of communication, one thirsts for the magnitude and universality of a night full of stars, pouring into one like a fresh tide…I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.”

So, dear friends, travel then 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, 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 and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together

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

July 4

A Sermon on the Mound

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Mark 6: 1-13

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So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. Mk 6: 12


Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be dead and gone before spring. One can try to imagine the rolling of the frigate in the surf, out on the Atlantic. One can feel the salt breeze, the water wind of the sea.  Not too very far from the nave of Marsh Chapel. The Governor is brief, in his sermon for the day: “We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”. A remarkable, truly remarkable warning, to our country, at the moment of its inception.


It is a cold day in early March, 1865. Four score and eight years after Independence, the nation has indeed become, as Winthrop prophesied in his Boston sermon, “a story and byword through the world”. 600,000 men will have died by the time Lee and Grant meet at Appomattox–approximately one death for every 10 slaves forcibly brought to the New World. This day in March, Mr. Lincoln delivers his own sermon, to the gathered and, we may assume, for once a chastened congress. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:

“The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Into the next decade the state of Mississippi will spend 20% of its annual budget, each year, for artificial limbs. Lincoln himself will die within weeks of the inaugural.

A remarkable warning, a Presidential warning, a sermonic warning.


Now we witness another gathering, and we hear another sermon. A hundred more years have passed.  It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capital. Thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural.  By some measure they have gathered too within the reverberated cautions given by Winthrop out in our Boston Bay. They have come—maybe some of you were there—with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, to strive to finish the work. A Baptist preacher captures the moment in ringing oratory: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

Remarkable, truly remarkable words.

Winthrop. Lincoln. King. 1630. 1865. 1963. These are three of the greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history. Do we notice that not one of them was delivered in a church? Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel.  They all apply the Gospel of Christ, and its ringing command in Mark 6, to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Winthrop. Lincoln. King. They believed in God’s presence. They trusted, through times of what can only be called terror, in God’s favor. And mostly, they thought  and felt and thoughtfelt and feltthought that persons, even they themselves, had roles to play in the divine human drama. They spoke in harmony with Jesus’ challenge:  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They spoke in a way that awakened the hearer.

All three knew tragedy, as we have again this year with 600,000 souls gone to glory, as we have again this winter with mendacity and violence used to usurp electoral outcomes, as we have again this week, with another tower like that of the biblical Siloam coming down in Miami Beach, for whose victims and families we truly do grieve.  They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy. What Winthrop prophesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King addressed is to some degree our national tragedy still. Though there has been progress, we still judge, far too much, by the color of skin and not by the content of character. As my predecessor Dr Robert Cummings Neville well said, from this pulpit one Sunday years ago:  Probably the deepest issue in our society is racism, a poisonous stain that mixes evil into the very best of our inventive history of democracy and our love of freedom.

A Sermon on the Mound

But God has not left us, nor does God abandon God’s children. God works through human hearts, to bind up the nation’s wounds. It is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which can bring peace. The church has nothing better to do, nothing other to do, nothing more important to do, nothing else to do than to preach. So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

And some of the best preaching happens beyond church. Some is spoken and some is lived. Said Benjamin Franklin, teaching the two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”.

Here is one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching. For what Walt Whitman said about poetry is doubly true for the Gospel itself: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and the night…Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few…the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.” The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.

Looking back forty years to Jesus’ ministry, our writer has in stylized memory recalled a powerful teaching moment. All the Gospels, including our text, were formed, formed in the white heat of early church life, when the hand of death threatened a frightened church, perhaps in Rome, perhaps in the year 70ce.

This is the meaning of a sermon, to wake us up from a death-like sleep, to take us out of the arms of Morpheus. With Mark’s frightened early church, we may again hear good news. Sometimes what seems like death—think of the Gospel last Sunday–is merely napping. For example, this holiday weekend, we may want to remember…

Branch Rickey

Next year we shall pass the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball.  Decades ago, the armed forces were still legally segregated. So were public schools. So, America in 1947, when a tee-totaling, Bible quoting, Republican, Methodist layman from Ohio, Mr. Branch Rickey, brought racial integration to major league baseball. Who remembers today this lone ranger type who spent much of a lifetime working for one transformation? Rickey was taught the Gospel in a church where there was to be no separation between a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. He was formed at a small Methodist school, Ohio Wesleyan, one of whose Presidents, Bishop James Bashford, peers down on us today from the beautiful stained glass of Marsh Chapel.  Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”. For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he maneuvered and strategized and planned—on the basis of an early trauma he witnessed coaching his college baseball team–and brought about the greatest change in the history of our national pastime. IT CAN BE DONE. Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold. It is well worth the three-hour drive. There is a sermon on the mound, not just on the mount but on the mound, preached in life, brought to voice through one lone Methodist, in one lone lifetime, in one lone sport, in one lone generation. Things can change for the better. IT CAN BE DONE. But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”. “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”.

Where is the Branch Rickey of American political culture?  Where is the Branch Rickey of honesty about January 6, of preparation for the next pandemic, of the continuing struggle with racism, of the challenge of climate? Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street? Where is the Branch Rickey to waken the church, including his own beloved Methodism and mine? Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban public schools? Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood? Where is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done? Where is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound? And where are the actual preachers of the next generation who will remember and hope, as he did, in grace and freedom?

Maybe one is listening today. Maybe you are she. Things can change for the better, when sleepers awake.

Twenty years ago I heard William ‘Bobby’ McClain, of blessed memory, a dear friend, a preacher of the first water, from this school and this city, an African American pastor, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening by radio to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  He said, “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him. When he struck out we did too. When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered. When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants. When he stole a base, he stole for us. When he hit a home run, we were the victors. And when he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south. He gave us hope. He gave us hope.”

Don’t let people tell you things can’t change for the better. They can. This country can work. We just need a few more Branch Rickeys.

And a few more sermons on the mound… And a few more sermons on the mound…

So, dear friends, travel then 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, 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 and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together, able to prepare for the challenges, the harvests of the future, able to imagine and preach and live a kind of sermon on the mound.

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

June 6

Preparing for Mark

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Mark 4: 26-34

Click here to hear just the sermon


Some big measures of the ice of contagion and the snow of infection and the wind of COVID have diminished.  For this we are thankful, and mindful, too of the actual and metaphorical powers of masks, of vaccinations, of protocols for distance.  The national pause for Memorial Day last week, including many memorials near and far, brought a sign of such diminution, if not the entire absence of cold and wind and the lingering feelings of ice and snow.

At our doorstep now the mystery of natural growth awaits us.  Some of faith and preaching is about the nature of ministry and some is about the ministry of nature and some is about both.  We are on the threshold of a new season, a season of natural growth.  Growth is a mystery.  All manner of growth is a mystery.  Ministry in and through this natural mystery is its own kind of mystery.

Somehow, together, we have weathered a hard and bitter fifteen months. Somehow, together, we have done something hard, together.   How shall we think of this?  What may we most want to remember, or not to forget, about this shared drama and trauma?  What has this hard, cold, shattering, shared experience taught us?  When someone stops you on the street, or over a meal, or on the church door step and asks, ‘What is your COVID story?’, how will you start off, and what will you say?  What is the first thing that comes to mind, and how will you put it?  I invite you to tell someone, sometime, or offer it in a meditative prayer, sometime, or write it down in poem, sometime.  Te invito.

Jesus taught in parables, teaching not without such, according to our Holy Scripture this Lord’s Day.  Some were parables of the mystery of growth, growth of the ministry of nature alongside the nature of ministry.  We are close today to the very voice of Jesus of Nazareth, in the parable served by St. Mark.  One example to stand for a dozen: so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.  Birds…of the air.  But…what other kinds of birds are there?  This is a Semitism, a sign of the Aramaic substrata of the passage, the closeness to the voice of Jesus, 2000 years later.  A mystery, too, this a mystery too.   Around us this coming month nature performs her ministry to our succor.  May this ministry of nature nudge us toward a fuller enjoyment of our own—in whatever walk of life—nature of ministry.  And the seed should sprout, he knows not how…

How shall we understand these holy words, ancient and potent?  We shall need to prepare for the work, for the work on these words, high and lifted up, in our Lord’s parable in St. Mark.  To get up high, we need a reliable scaffold.


Before you work high you build a scaffold to get yourself up there.  Over the past years, one of the most interesting church related figures, town by town, was the ‘steeple jack’, a person hired to go up high and fix things.

Steeple Jacks, famously and normally, do not use a scaffold. They use rope and pulleys, and they rightly earn a good salary. As one joked to me, sort of quoting Scripture, and speaking of the dangers of height, “Jesus said, ‘Lo(w) I am with you”. Meaning, he continued, ‘up high you are on your own’.

Our smaller churches hired Steeple Jacks for the minor tiling, shingling, painting and other repairs required of small church steeples on small steeple churches. One was squat enough (the church not the Jack) that he could go up by ladder.  Later churches had taller steeples. The trustees sometimes tried to get by with a Steeple Jack, every time repairs were needed, but most times, no, they needed to spend more. Once a section of copper plate fell off the steeple onto a University neighborhood street. Exposure, liability, act of God, randomness—these words appeared in sermons later that month.  Thankfully no one was hurt. Scaffolding went up the next week, and stayed up for several expensive days.

Both the interior and exterior spaces of churches require endless attention. As with care of the human body after a certain age, the motto for such care must be ‘maintenance, maintenance, maintenance’. Interior like exterior scaffolding also comes at a price.  (There are as you sense other sermons right here in the wings, as it were, which we will leave aside.  For now.)  Sure you prefer to change light bulbs and paint ceilings with a huge step ladder and a fearless Trustee or hired painter. Sure. But the higher the nave, the, well, I refer you to adage above. “Lo(w) I am with you”. Not high.   Even before any paint is spilled, and even before any long-lasting bulbs are replaced, there is work, there is cost, there is meaningful preparation.

Somethings similar is afoot in preaching. The preacher either swings in the breeze like a Steeple Jack, if the matters of interpretation are low fences, but, if the height is greater, scaffolding is needed.  What you see when the work is done, is the steeple repaired, the roof replaced, the paint (both coats) applied, the bulbs changed. But before all that there has been scaffolding up, so that the work could be done.  Today that is our work, to prepare for Mark.


We come this morning to the interpretation of Mark 4. Mark requires scaffolding. We cannot begin to work until we have someplace to stand. No light bulbs will be changed until we can reach the fixtures.  Come and help me a little with the scaffolding this morning.

As Mr. Cordts so ably reminded us last week, we know not who wrote Mark, only his name. He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown. He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus (15:21). The book is meant to help a community of Christians. It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith. While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later. So, it is not an evangelistic tract and it is not a diary and it is emphatically not a history.

You will want to know what we can say, then, about Mark’s community. If the community gave birth to the gospel, and if the community is the primary focus of the gospel, and if the community is the gospel’s intended audience, you would like to know something about them.

For one thing, the community is persecuted, or is dreading persecution, or both. Jesus suffered and so do, or so will, you. This is what Mark says. This gospel prepares its hearers for persecution. For another thing, the church may have been in or around Rome, or possibly somewhere in Syria. It is likely that Mark was written between 69 and 73 ce. For yet another thing, Mark’s fellow congregants, fellow Christians, are Gentiles, in the main, not Jews. He is writing to this largely Gentile group. He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract nor an ethereal piece of poetry. His is rather a ‘message on target’. Further, Mark’s composition, editing, comparisons, saying combinations, style and Christology all point to Mark as the earliest gospel (see, inter alia, J Marcus).

Pause over the word gospel. You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’. It is an old term. You could compare it to ‘ghost’. Gospel is to good news as ghost is to spirit, you might say. Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’. He creates something new. Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it.  Any other.  Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle. Examples of all these were to hand for him. Mark might have written one of any one of them. He did not. He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new. A gospel. His is the first, but not the last.  That is the mystery of growth.  Seed scattered on the ground…the earth produces of itself…when it is sown it grows…

Mark is not great literature. It is not Homer, not Plato, not Cicero, not Shakespeare. Nor is the Greek of the gospel a finely tuned instrument. It is harsh, coarse and common. The gospel was formed, formed in the life of a community, as described earlier. Its passages and messages were announced as memories meant to offer hope. Its account of Jesus, in healing and preaching and teaching, all the way to the cross and beyond, is offered to a very human group of humans who are trying to make their way along His way.

That is, the Gospel is a record of the preaching of the gospel. To miss this, or to mistake this, is to miss the main point of the Gospel, and of the gospel. It is in preaching that the gospel arrives, enters, feasts, embraces, loves, and leaves. It is in preaching that you may hear—that you may hear today– something that makes life meaningful, makes life loving, makes life real. It is in preaching that the Gospel of Mark came to be, as a community, over time, heard and reheard, remembered and rehearsed, as the story of Jesus crucified (his past) and risen (his presence). We should not expect narrative linearity, historical accuracy, or re-collective precision here. And in fact, we find very little. Let us put it another way around. Most of the NT documents are, in one way or another, attempts to remember, accurately, the nature and meaning of baptism. Well, Mark fits that description. What does it mean, here and now, to be a person of faith?

Two Marks

Let us put it this way.  Let us put up our scaffolding this way. Ours is a tale of two Marks. Is Mark a moderate critic or is Mark a critical moderate? How you answer will both depend on and indicate where you stand on the scaffold. Moderate critic, critical moderate? That is, across the length of his Gospel, is Mark actively criticizing others or is he carefully moderating, coaching if you will, the approach of others? Is the tone of the gospel polemic or irenic?  Granted there is both, when the chips are down, as they are today, which scaffold matters most?

Mark is clearly an apocalyptic writing, although clarity about this has only fully emerged in the last few generations. Mark expects the end of all things in his own time, and so the Markan Jesus so instructs his followers. In fact, Mark expects the culmination of all things, soon and very soon. To this coming dawn, Mr. Cordts so  poetically referred a week ago.  In this regard, and in regard to his understanding of the cross, Mark has some congruence with the letters of Paul. Given this apocalyptic perspective, is Mark a critic or a coach? Critic or coach?

The first option, Mark the moderate critic, was most piercingly presented almost forty years ago. First let me give you the outline of the planking in this part of the scaffold, and then let me tell you about the carpenter.

On this view, Mark combats, combats a view of Jesus that will not accept his suffering, his crucifixion. Long after the events of Calvary and Golgotha, spirited and strong people, singing a happy song, have caused the earliest church to forget their baptism, or its meaning. They expect ease, spirit, joy, and, soon, a conquering victory over all that plagues and persecutes them. To this, Mark says: ‘no’. To say no Mark remembers in delicate detail the story of Jesus’ passion, relying on a source, a document he has inherited. To say no, Mark pointedly shows the ignorance and cowardice of Peter, at Caesarea Philippi and in Jerusalem. To say no, Mark criticizes, diminishes the miracles of Jesus, letting them wind away to nothing as the Gospel progresses. To say no, Mark describes the disciples as dunces. They didn’t understand it and neither do you, he says. Mark stays within the fold of the inherited story of Jesus, the gospel of teaching and passion, of Galilee and Jerusalem, including our parable today.  But he does so as a moderate critic of those who are unrealistic about the suffering that continues, from which the gospel does not deliver, any more than Jesus had been delivered from the cross. Saved, yes, delivered, no. On this view, at the heart of Mark there is a bitter dispute in earliest Christianity about what constitutes discipleship, baptism, and Mark is out to prove his opponents wrong. As with the alternative, there is plenty of evidence to support this sort of scaffold.

One person who most powerfully presented this view is a dear friend. In fact, he was our immediate predecessor in our Rochester church.  Our eleven years in that pulpit immediately followed his seventeen. He is a Methodist minister who did his doctoral work at Claremont. It has taken some decades for the force and power of his argument to stand up and stand out in comparison to the work of others. Ted Weeden wrote: ‘Jesus serves as a surrogate for Mark, and the disciples serve as surrogates for Mark’s opponents…The disciples (in Mark) are reprobates’. (op cit, 163).

The second option, another scaffold, Mark the critical moderate, has in a way been present for a longer time, and, one could say, is still the more dominant, the majoritarian position. The culminating presentation of this position is in a two volume Anchor Bible Commentary.  The author was (once) on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology, Joel Marcus, now at Duke. On this view, things in Mark’s community are not so much at daggers drawn. There are differences to be sure, but the disagreements are differences among friends. The Markan coaching does not face strong spirit people, committed to an idea of the ‘divine man’. Mark is not so negative about miracles. The disciples are mistaken but not malevolent. The titles for Jesus are not so telling or convincing. The real trouble is not so much in the community itself (perish the thought), but outside, among the potential deceivers of the church. Hence, on this scaffold, Mark has the job of more gently reminding his hearers of the cross, of suffering, of discipline, of the cruciform character of Christianity, as a moderate, a critical moderate, but a moderate, a coach, more than a critic, a critical moderate.

We have a hard time imaging that our faith tradition was born out of serious conflict. It is like family stories. We really don’t like to imagine that our family tree is littered with broken branches, dead limbs, crooked roots, and Dutch elm disease. We like the picture of the Palm Tree, majestic and free. The second option appeals to our sense of pride in our Christian heritage. It is a more pleasing view. But the former, Weeden’s Mark, is over time the stronger scaffold, and what we need from a scaffold is not presentation but reliability, not beauty but strength.

Here is where my feet come down. Marcus appeals to my heart, what I wish were true or truer. But my mind trusts Weeden. Our passage today is a case in point.

From the vantage point of this scaffolding, the key verse this morning is 4:29: when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.  That is, there comes a time of completion, of testing, requiring not just coaching but also and more so warning.  Warning.  Listen this summer for the warning in Mark, more than the encouragement.  Listen for the critic not just the coach. The ministry of nature is meant to prepare us for the nature of ministry.  The parables of seed and growth are meant to prepare us for those challenging moments of growth that still lie ahead.  As individuals, and as communities, we prepare and need to prepare for the challenges, the harvests, of the future.  And, friends, there are serious challenges ahead.  There are riveting, sobering, critical challenges ahead of us in the country, around this globe, and in our churches, this year to come.  Challenges.  Challenges for you, your community, your nation, its constitution and its bedrock foundation of truth and freedom.  Listen for the warnings this summer in Mark.


And hear good news, in the ministry of nature and the nature of ministry.  The church is alive! The future is open! Love waits to fill the heart! The seed sprouts, we know not how.  Foretastes, all, of heaven. If the heavenly banquet has this menu, perhaps we need over these few earthly years to acquire a certain taste for certain things, faith and hope and love.  Just a little critical warning…

So, dear friends, then 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, 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 and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together, able to prepare for the challenges, the harvests of the future, able to prepare for Mark.

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

May 23

Spirit Days

By Marsh Chapel

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John 16: 4-15

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When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the Truth.

Spirit Days at Commencement

Pentecost, today, is the day of the Spirit.  Yet they are all spirit days are they not?  All our days, all, are spirit days. Especially, listening caringly to the Gospel of John, we are empowered and emboldened to proclaim that all days, each day, every day, they are all spirit days.  The Bible tells us so, as does Shakespeare, Scripture and the Bard being the two best sources for learning in college, and out of college:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.

On arrival in Boston, some years ago, we had no grandchildren. Then they came, one by beautiful, blessed one, beginning at the end of our first year.  As she grew, she spoke, one of her first words, beneath the great CITGO logo, was, ‘sign’.  Then she walked, and walked up and down every outside staircase on Bay State Road, one by one, counting the steps.  Looking for her grandfather, off at work, she later asked, ‘Where is…somebody?  Is…somebody…coming home?’  For once, her granddad was really ‘somebody’.  Now she is 13.  You will hear from her in a spirited moment, as so fully we did hear the spirit through Commencement at Boston University this last week.

One Club launched a free laundry demonstration, on a recent Friday noon, on Marsh Plaza.  Our staff made playful comments about…a rising tide lifts all boats…whisk them away…what do they have to gain by it …Yes, it was Ajax…a whole laundry list…Reap the bounty…We were going a little stir crazy, fifty four weeks later…but at the table next to them the Sojourners Campus Ministry was writing thank you notes to social workers, and encouraging others to do the same.

Spirit Days.

Maria Erb now leads a new department at Boston University, named the Newbury Center, which is devoted to supporting first generation students, those who are first in their families to attend college.  It is a center so in keeping with the heart, spirit, tradition, history and soul of BU.  She said a few days ago:  This is my vocation, my work with first generation students.  This is my calling.  This is my ministry.  I view it as a form and type of ministry, whereby I live out my faith.  Could someone say ‘amen’ to that?

Spirit Days.

After a stirring peroration offered to Seniors, of the best ways to live and thrive into the future, a fine faculty member added, as a post script, with humor:  And also…get a cat.  At that same Senior Breakfast, our friend and colleague Dean Elmore said, ‘My mentor, George Houston Bass, in “Breer Rabbit Whole” had this closing thought that has stayed with me:

May joy, beauty and kindness be with you,

Day after day. Night after night.

May joy walk beside you,

Let kindness guide you,

May beauty surround you,

May you always want to say,

To friends, kinfolk and strangers you meet along life’s way,

May God bless and keep you each and every day.

Spirit Days.

Graduate Soren Hessler, in his fine remarks for THIS I BELIEVE, said… I believe that the modern American research university, so often built upon the educational foundation of training Christian clergy, does well to remember its roots in cultivating personal character and equipping graduates to care for the needs of the world. I believe a quality professional education, regardless of discipline must “Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety: learning and holiness combined.”  Graduate Afsha Kasham, said, … Being a woman has taught me a lot. But it’s mostly taught me to speak up, even if my voice shakes. Maybe they won’t believe you, but at least you’ll know that you tried.

Spirit Days.

And for Sunday’s Commencement itself:   our pioneering neighbor, the creator of the Moderna vaccine, urging us to be comfortable being uncomfortable; to learn to weather rejection; and to stay curious, always thinking ‘what if?; the head of the Boston Food Bank bluntly asking us, ‘what are you willing to really work for?’; a congresswoman bringing back to this University the voice, the voice both in content and in calling, of Coretta Scott King.

Then Monday, to hear first with the Army near Faneuil Hall, then with Navy on The USS Constitution—to be so located for commissioning!…it is like being ordained a priest at the Vatican or a preacher on John Wesley’s porch—the repeated solemn vow, taken by such young courageous women and men—to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.  Can you hear that America, in May of 2021? To support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

Spirit Days in John

These are spirited voices, Johannine voices.  And John is so different, so radically inspired, so different and new and spirited.  Spirit abounds especially, even perhaps in full measure, only in John.  Only John places Jesus in Jerusalem thrice.  Only in John does Jesus raise the dead at mid Gospel—“Lazarus, come out!”  Only in John does Jesus preach for five chapters on the last evening, washing feet rather than celebrating mass.  Only in John does Jesus make the Jerusalem road fully and only a road of glory, from Palm Sunday to Easter.  Only in John does Jesus say, “In my Father’s House there are many rooms…”  He is going home, home.  And somehow, again strangely, we know the way where he is going.  For it is our way, too.  Only in John does Jesus walk serenely to Golgotha.  Only in John does Jesus walk to death like God striding upon the earth.  Only in John does Jesus pronounce GLORY from the jaws of death.  Remember his dying word.  Not “eli, eli” as in Matthew and Mark.  Not “Father forgive them” as in Luke.  Simply, serenely, powerful, triumphantly, yes, gloriously, he says, in John, “It is finished.”  It is done, completed, perfected—finished.  He dies to rise, and go home, making a place a space for the whole human race.  Spirit fully flourishes only in John

‘(Those who composed John) had a burning conviction that they had been given the truth (led into all truth) and that through this truth they would come to enjoy a freedom that would release them from the constraints to which they were subjected: ‘the truth will set you free’’(John Ashton, 95)

Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness.  The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199)  The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of (the other gospels) is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204)

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  But when we get to the summit, John 14 and following, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet 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.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us.

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 whose memory may slip a little).  Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘world’ here—another dark mystery in meaning.  Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit.

Spirit Days in Life

Now the granddaughter, with whom we began at the first of life’s stages is 13 and crossing into another, and mid-Covid her local news media picked up her spirit, as she honored a retiring crossing guard:

I am writing to you because my friend…and I learned that the Crossing Guard on Monroe, Vicky, by CVS is retiring soon and this Tuesday… is her last day. Vicky has been the crossing guard for 40 years here at Brighton. She was there on our first day of sixth grade and she has always been so kind to us.

Every morning, she greets by name on our walk to school and asks us if we have anything exciting happening. She wishes us good luck on any tests that we have, and gives us advice about school and life. When we come home, she asks us about our tests, or wishes us a happy weekend. She is almost a grandmother to all of the kids she keeps safe each and every day. Vicky has been the most amazing crossing guard to us, and we will be very sad to see her go.

You will take your nourishment as you find it, day by day.  As that quintessential romantic Alexander Herzen wrote, “Art and the summer lightning of individual happiness—these are the real goods”.

Spirit Days.  Spirit Days.  Spirit Days!

Speaking of art and of the summer lightening of individual happiness, we close with a little song.  Our own daughter, a generation ago, afforded us on stage the tune, the lyrics, and the inspiration.  Our children teach us, as she has taught us, on stage.  She has taught us the power of the spoken, live spoken word, to intervene, and alter, and make new.  It takes a while to raise parents right, but over time, we sometimes learn, learning that all days of life in every one of the seven stages are spirit days.  No one says such lightly, after the last fourteen months.  After more than a year of loss, we may be able to hear something of spirit from those who have known loss too.  After this last year, those who have suffered loss, those of us who have suffered the loss of loved ones, may yet await spirit days to come.

This week I remembered our daughter’s stage voice and presence, from some years ago, in a play about love and marriage and death and spirit.  After a lifetime of loss and disappointment, and the recent deaths of their spouses, two very elderly folks fall in love at the end of musical (I Love You.  You’re Perfect.  Now Change.)  Where is life there is hope, and where there is hope there is life and where there is spirit there is life and hope together. In the song, SHE SPEAKS first, and he answers second:


Well at our age that’s understood


Flairs up in June


I’ll get that soon.  No matter.   I can live with that.


Well I’ve had two


It looks nice blue


Well, people change.  I find you sexy


No matter.  I can live with that.


Sometimes I have to reminisce


It still does hurt, but not as long


Mine never leave


I tell tall tales


I drink skim milk


No matter.  I can live with that.


I’ve got a garden, I grow some squash


I wake up late


No matter.  I can live with that.


Next to my Sue is my gravesite


Someday I’ll die



And I my Sue


You think I do?

(Together): No matter. I can live with you. No matter. I can live with you.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.

Pentecost, today, is the day of the Spirit.  Yet they are all spirit days are they not?  All our days, all, are spirit days. Hear good news: When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the Truth.

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

May 9

‘This I Believe’ Meditations

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 15:917

Click here to hear just the meditations