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

October 18

Liberal Faith

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 22:15-22

Click here to hear just the sermon

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. 

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street, 

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

(Robert Frost)

We too are acquainted with the night, and walk, together, in the rain.  Hear Gospel this Lord’s day, the good news from liberal gifts of faith.


There is a liberal gift of faith in the exercise of study, of sacred study, of exegesis, the careful study of Holy Scripture. The historical and critical study of Holy Writ, as practiced from this pulpit over 70 years, is a pathway to insight, interpretation, application–and sermon.

So, today, render to God the things that are God’s, God the elusive presence.

Samuel Terrien taught many the adventure of this labor, years ago, the search for the divine, for God: an elusive but real presence…not in nature but in history, and in history through human beings…a presence that does not alter nature but changes history through the character of women and men…a walking God not a sitting God, a walking God not a sitting God…nomadic, hidden, free…known in tent not temple, by ear not eye, in name not glory, in a spiritual interiority (YOURS), through a commission by command…that translates the love of God into behavior in society…demythologizing space for the sake of time…(phrases from The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology.)   Samuel Terrien.

So, today, render to God the things that are God’s, God the elusive presence.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?  We are not told.  There is no live interview from the heavenly conference room.  There is no point-by-point bulletin, with details promised at 11pm.  There is no footnote, or explanatory second conversation.  We are left on our own by our Lord to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.   We are given a fair and good amount of freedom in doing so.

In conscience, do you wonder about ‘the things that are God’s’?

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  (In the Gospel of Thomas, [110ad?] a bit yet later than Matthew [85ad?] who is a bit yet later than Mark [70ad?] who is a good bit later than whatever Jesus might actually have said [30ad?], the Lord adds, ‘and give to me the things that are mine’!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine (GT, logion 100).

Dear St. Matthew, true to form, intensifies the bitterness of Jesus toward Pharisees, of church toward synagogue, of Christian to Jew.  He hikes up ‘entrap’ (Mark) to ‘entangle’.  He is ‘aware of their malice’.  To the question, ‘why put me to the test’ he adds, for good measure, ‘you hypocrites’.   His Jesus demands not just a coin, but  ‘(all) the money for the tax’.

Through the year, from this pulpit, we have tried continuously to trace the moves Matthew makes in 85ad away from what Mark, his source, had written in 70ad.  Mostly, we want to be crystal clear about the way the announcement of the gospel changes, with the setting, changes with the occasion, changes, with the time and season and year.  New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

A standard reading of the passage is that the Herodians (supporters of Herod who is the Simon Legree of Rome in the cotton fields of Palestine) would want the tax paid to Caesar whereas the Pharisees (the French Resistance of Palestine against the Third Reich of Rome) would want resistance to payment of the tax.  Jesus is caught.   If he agrees with the Herodians, the people will kill him.  If he agrees with the Pharisees, the Romans will kill him.

And the response, with no real doubt of its authenticity—render to Caesar…and to God.  Render to God the things that are God’s.

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and these words were inscribed on his tombstone.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul?

There is a liberal gift of faith in the exercise of study.


There is a liberal gift of faith, in institutions, for the love of God and country both.

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

So here again, chapter 22: 15ff, is Matthew, being Matthew. He is looking at institutional life, political and religious, governmental and ecclesiastical, all 2000 years before our own similar challenges today.  In Matthew 22, we hear what we perhaps most need to hear in America, in October, in 2020, in the midst of political contest, even political mayhem.  Institutions matter.  Institutions matter. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

In 2017. When the institution of shared truth collapses under the weight oval office falsehoods, 6 lies a day (WAPO).  Or when the last Planned Parenthood in Iowa is closed.  Or when a Boy Scout Jamboree becomes a prop for perversity and mendacity. Or when promises to the Transgender Military are broken.  Or when Heather Heyer dies as a claim to goodness on all sides is made.  Or when an Alabama senator calls homosexuality ‘a crime against nature’.  Or when a tax cut gives 1% of the taxpayers 50% of the reducation.  Or when the mayor of San Juan is laughed at for saying ‘we are dying’.  Or when the US President lies to the Prime Minister of Canada and brags about it. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

In 2018.  When the government summarily deports 200,000 Salvadorans.  Or when countries of color are described with expletives.  Or when what is true shrinks to what the Leader says is true.  Or when an assault on memory comes with every new wave of every new week of every new absurdity and atrocity.  Or when competent staff individual after competent staff individual is humiliated and fired.  Or when the press is called steadily ‘the enemy of the people’.  All this linguistic, verbal, rhetorical chaos is stealing from you your daily happiness.  John Wesley taught, to the contrary, that we are meant to be people ‘happy in God’. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

In 2019.  When we can no longer willingly and readily tell a decent person from a scoundrel. Or when we have forgotten the Marine slogan, ‘Leadership is example.  Period.’  Or when a self-sacrificial POW become veteran Senator is mocked in life and death. Or when the leader’s ‘gut is superior to anyone else’s brain’.  Or when hard won peace by containment agreements are wrecked.  We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

Or in 2020.  When the power of office is used for threat, and so impeachment becomes necessary, and then when a global pandemic crisis belittled becomes a national health care tragedy betrayed, crisis become tragedy, and when leadership needed becomes evasion practiced, and when the hard won levels of trust and the painstaking pursuit of truth, trust and truth, and right perfection wrongfully disgraced and strength by limping sway dislodged, and when even the franchise, the vote, the basis of all else, becomes a bargaining chip…well, when institutions collapse or are corroded, we are more awake to their necessary, crucial importance. We are broadly or dimly aware, year by year, that institutions matter, but see so most sharply when they collapse.

As we mortally and tragically are today.  Institutions, particularly those of civil society, really matter.  Volunteerism in a free society is not a luxury, but a necessity.  For the Christian, for the citizen in a free republic, faith involves ‘intelligent and conscientious participation in politics so that God’s will may be done as fully as possible’ (IB, loc. cit.).

Just in time, Marilyn Robinson reminds us: This country would do itself a world of good by restoring a sense of the dignity, even the beauty, of individual ethicalism, of self-restraint, of courtesy. These things might help us to like one another, even trust one another, both necessary to a functioning democracy… As a liberal, I am loyal to this country in ways that make me a pragmatist. If someone is hungry, feed him. He will be thirsty, so be sure that he has good water to drink. If he is in prison, don’t abuse, abandon or exploit him, or assume that he ought to be there. If these problems afflict whole populations, those with influence or authority should repent and do better, as all the prophets tell them. (NYT, 10/11/20).

There is a liberal gift of faith, in institutions, for the love of God and country both.


There is a liberal gift of faith in respect of and for community, given through these institutions that shape community.  Community matters.  So.  Give of your life and breath. Till gardens you will never harvest.  Build schools in which you will never study.  Construct churches in which you will never worship.  And listen, listen to the voices that emerge in communal conversation, particularly those tart and salty.

Listen, not for agreement but for contrast, to Thucydides’ dour dicta:  ‘all moralistic ideals are meaningless postures of powerless victims’ ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must’.

Listen to a modern Thucydides: ‘Excess population, competition for resources, and random variation, with its attendant differential success in reproduction, constitute natural selection, yielding elaborate adaptations’. Quammen NYR 4/23/20 22.  Life is about evolution and evolution is about change.  But healthy evolution and change require faith and hope.  I fear what this time of fear is doing to my grandchildren, to their imaginations, and to their souls.

Listen to Peter Wehner, saying with harrowing accuracy, many find it “too psychologically painful to admit that the person they supported is deeply corrupt, pathologically dishonest and brutish.”

Listen to Andrew Bacevich January 20th 2020 in Cambridge MA, a gracious evening of rumination on:  hubris, common good, globalism, anger, alienation, anti-semitism, the end of the cold war, institutionalized assassination, and the need for community: ‘I will not write off 60 million Americans’. And he added, just last week, in our local paper, a gracious rumination on hopeful signs in our time.

Listen to lives that speak, for so the faithful gift of community abides, and guides us.

Over some years now, one of the treasures and delights of living in Boston is the grace, and care, with which lives are remembered in our Boston Globe.  No other paper, to our memory and experience, does so well, so consistently and so personally.  Those who are front line COVID workers and victims have had right, ample remembrance, here, on our behalf.  So too, this past spring, the recollection of 108 year-old Elinor Fosdick Downs.  A Smith graduate, she met her husband in Rochester NY, where they were both studying medicine.  He died young, unexpectedly in 1945, leaving her with two daughters.  She lived a life of adventure, possibility, and abandon.  She was one of the first to serve in the newly established WHO, World Health Organization. She said, ‘Be positive about all the bad things that happen.  Turn them around.  Make adventures out of them.’  And, ‘As my 100th birthday approached I began dropping hints that perhaps I was now ready to try an iPad’.  And, ‘Happiness for me is adventuring, especially when the outcome of that adventure is unkown or unexpected’.  Oh, and by the way, her dad was Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great liberal pulpit voices. (BG, 5/4/20)

There is a liberal gift of faith, in respect of, and for,  community.


There is a liberal gift of faith in the joy of discourse, of conversation.  Of all our losses in the last four years, this has been the greatest.  John Wesley even named conversation a means of grace.  All need warm, personal, true, glad hearted, genuine dialogue.  Especially, leadership needs dialogue, leaders need dialogue.

Leadership, said my friend,  ‘is disappointing people at a rate they can accept, or survive, or endure. At a rate they can handle.’ Liberal leadership includes saying things that those of the farthest left reject.  If there are at least three things liberals don’t get, forget and should reset, they are order, money, liberty.  Liberals can learn from conservatives about these things.

For a liberal: justice is a part but not the heart of the Gospel—justice is a part but not the heart of the gospel; equality and justice are not the same thing; public safety on the streets matters to all; poor children of every hue need and deserve our care in health, in education, in protection, in nurture, and in respect.

Over forty years most of my own lasting, painful and wrenching battles have been with those well farther to the left.  And still it is so.

All 6 Marsh Chapel deans have been, variously, liberal.  Liberal, not: fundamentalist, orthodox, traditionalist, or conservative.  Liberal, not: progressivist, successivist, anarchist, or Marxist.

The liberal will pause and ask questions like: Why is there so much distance between theology and ministry, theory and practice, when there is not such in medicine, dentistry, public health, hospitality, education, engineering, arts, social work and communications? Why?

There is a liberal gift of faith in the joy of discourse, of conversation. One level of discourse is that internal, soulful conversation—let each one be convinced in her own mind, Paul wrote—about the balance between Caesar and legitimate cultural demands, and God and pre-eminent spiritual claims.  With one shout, the earliest Christians set the balance in a firm phrase:  Kyrios Christos, Christ is Lord, to deny the chorus around them, Kyrios Kaiser, Caesar is Lord.

There is a liberal gift of faith in the joy of discourse, of conversation.

Study, institution, community, dialogue, gifts of a liberal faith.  Sursum Corda.  Hear Gospel this Lord’s day.  God walks with us, in the rain.  A walking not a sitting God. God walks with us in the rain.


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.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

 I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

 But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

One luminary clock against the sky

 Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

 (Robert Frost)

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

October 4

Liberal Arts

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 21:33-46

Click here to hear just the sermon

There is a liberal art in generosity.

Jesus meets us today to challenge us, to confront us and to inspire us with the hope of something new. Faith in Him, and love for his fruitful community, and a life directed toward a final hope—all these lie before us in this holy hour.

Some years ago, in our first year after seminary, a very small act of mercy, of generosity, on the part of a colleague, began to show me the power of the new life, found in the doing of the faith. As the psychologists say, the heart follows the hand.

We had only been married a couple of years, and had more recently entered the working world. Some of you are there today, others remember those days, others expect them, one day. Our little house was gradually filling up, or being filled up, with the materials of early married life. A car in the driveway. Clothing on the line out back. A crib. Dog food bow in the kitchen corner. Wedding and family photographs in new albums. It all happens so quickly! Marriage, degree, job, house, child, car, dog, clothes. All of a sudden. It hardly seems real, or possible.

One day during this period in our early life together there came a most surprising bit of information. This news was delivered in the course of a simple supper, as the dog barked and the drying clothes flapped in the breeze and the baby upstairs cried on to sleep. The information was in sum a medical bulletin, one of those little messages from doctor to patient to patient’s family, an insignificant bit of news as far as the televised world news was concerned, just another report, and a report on a lab report. Soon there would be another mouth to feed. What excitement! It hardly seemed possible, or real.

But reality did set in.

And reality did set in, was ushered in, not surprisingly, by means of the checkbook. Ah the checkbook. Stern reminder of the limits of life. Unerring measurer of the various pursuits of happiness. Implacable judge of the ways of humans. The checkbook. Clothes, dog, child, car and all finally had to be paid for, from one source. Reality did finally set in. Both Paul and Matthew, by the way, today in our lessons, in their own way, are trying to convey a sense of reality.

So, it was in this period of early marriage, the period of judgment by way of the checkbook, when, I recall, a real kindness was done.

Among many other unmanageable expenses, our car needed new brake pads. I did check to see the price that would be charged to have them installed. I wondered how we would afford it. Which is where things sat on a late summer evening, in a small cottage-like parsonage, nearby one of the great Finger Lakes, with the clothes flapping on the line, the dog well fed and ill behaved, and the baby crying to the moon above.

The next evening I met with a neighboring minister, a man about 15 years older than I. We did our work, and then set to talking about life in general. The topic of cars and brakes and brake pads somehow wiggled to the surface, and with it all the manifold cares and worries of this life, about which the Scripture says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This fellow minister then suggested that the next day, early in the morning, I bring the car to his house, where and when he would teach me how to change the brake pads on the car. This we did together. In the course of the morning we also talked through various strategies open to young married couples to avoid the stern, grim judgment of the checkbook. There are ways, it turned out, and he had been there.

I know this backwater tale of an unheralded act of generosity done in 1980 hardly constitutes earthshaking news. I guess it is just a matter of vineyards and harvest, of the prize of the upward call, of the way we ought to be, as people of faith. Such a recollection of such a simple generosity, a liberal art, one of the great liberal arts, hardly seems worth mention.

And yet it meant a great deal, and hovers in memory, years later, four decades later, as the very grace of God. Here is one doing what he and we ought to have done. Here is an act of compassion. Here is an act of mercy. Here is something new. Here is what Emerson meant: “virtue alone creates something new”.

Today, you may sense a hunger, a sharp hunger in the souls of women and men from all different walks of life. It is a hunger that does not abate with the ministrations of all that position and fortune and plenty can provide.  It does not wilt in the face of pandemic, of climate, of presidential contest and calumny, of abuse of law in the name of order, of personal betrayals near and far. It is a hunger that reaches for God. It is a hunger for God. There is a hunger for God today in the souls of men and women that will not be filled by anything else. It will not be filled by anything other than God. Finally, the hunger and thirst for righteousness—and there is such a fine, fine hunger in your own heart—can only be filled by God, by love, by freedom, by grace. By the faith of Jesus Christ and by love for his community and by a life directed toward a final hope of glory.

We can and will proclaim this hunger from this pulpit. We can and will announce God’s gracious love from this pulpit. But in the end you will find it, or it will find you, in your own experience. One by one. Two by two. You are likely to be shocked to faith by no more than one real encounter with one real act of generosity at the hand of one real person. Or, said negatively, as dour Matthew might, if one real generosity does not point you to new life, will a hundred, or will a thousand? One grace note, rung and heard, is all it takes.

Here is the vineyard, still. Here is the wine press, still. Here is the harvest, coming still. There comes a time when our time is no longer our own. So today: Let your own hand guide your own heart. Act in kindness and you will find that you are kinder too. Act in generosity and you will discover a generous spirit within. Act with faith and faith will find you. Your heart will follow your hand.

We come to meet Jesus who meets us in deed, now, not only in word. He meets us in the central moment of life, the full giving that is real loving, the real loving that is full giving, the offering of life for life.

The question is, are we ready to receive Him today?

There is a liberal art in generosity.

There is a liberal art in humility, especially the humility of labored self-criticism, the humility of communal and rigorous self-assessment.

We shall try to muster some such this morning, to try to interpret the parable from St. Matthew, his own interpretation of what St. Mark left him.  The last 250 years of rigorous, labored biblical self-criticism gives us the motive and the power to do so.  Our predecessors in this work gave us a lasting and graceful example of humility, here the humility to put every passage of Holy Scripture to the test of historical, critical study, as a basis for theological, homiletical reflection.  And this is an awesome gift, hard won, won with cost.  But the fruit of it is grace and truth, and also a way in which to make some sense of parables like this, which, served raw, without historical critical cooking, will produce dyspepsia and disease.  The humility to do so, since the 18th century is a liberal art, call it the art of humility. So, we learn that Matthew writes in 85ad, rewriting Mark from 70ad, who wrote about Jesus in 30ad.  So, we learn that ‘the stone the builders rejected.’ v 42, is from Ps 118 and is taken over from Mark.  So, we learn that in Mark the rejected stone must be Jesus, but Matthew, adding vss. 41b, 43 makes it refer to Christians. The nation is the Christian church, composed of both Gentiles and Jews. So, we learn that the passage seems to have been a commonplace of early Christian preaching, since it is also found in Peter’s speech in Acts 4: 11 and 1 Peter 2:7.  So, we learn that in 22:7 Matthew may also have the Jewish War in mind,  and that vs 44 is not original.  (IBD, loc. cit.).

Let Peter Berger, of blessed memory, remind us:

There is a huge literature about the problems raised by Biblical scholarship for faith and theology. The problems exploded with the rise of modern historical scholarship being applied to the Bible, beginning earlier but then progressing impressively in the nineteenth century. Much of this new scholarship took place in Protestant theological faculties, especially in Germany—a historically unique event of religious scholars applying the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of their own tradition (repeat). The meaning of “critical” here is clear: Biblical texts are analyzed in the same way as any other historical text, with the question of their revelatory status rigorously excluded from this exercise. Many Biblical scholars succeeded (and still succeed) in understanding the revelation being somehow preserved within the all-too-human processes that produced the text. (American Interest, blog).

I am one.

A good friend asked: ‘Why does Matthew say God tortures?’, referring to a gospel lesson from two weeks ago. And I wrote back to say I really couldn’t fully answer, except to note that Matthew’s dark side waxes as his gospel wanes, and much of that, in grief to humbly state it, is laced with ancient anti-semitism.  That is, in the latter chapters, Matthew’s language turns decidedly grim.  We hear that again today.  Yes, we keep the rhetorical mode of hyperbole in mind.  Yes, we recognize the religious penchant for odium theologicum,’theological hatred’.   Yes, we can see the dark clouds of the terror of Emperor Domitian on the late first century horizon.  But none of that alone will allow us to make sense of Matthew’s harshness here.  For that, we will have to render and conjure what lies just underneath most of these later chapters.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, protection of the church.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, and viral commitment to fruit:  “The fruits, unexplained in the text, are doubtless…good works, and the broad expression used shows that Matthew intends a general principle:  in all ages, the Kingdom of God is only for fruit-bearers…the Christian church, insofar as it ‘bears fruit’…It is noteworthy that the emphasis Matthew feels he must add for the proper understanding of the parable is the very one commonly neglected or reinterpreted today”(that is, the command and demand to bear fruit, pronounced by the addition to Mark of vs. 43). Parables of the Triple Tradition (C. Carlston), 143.

St. Matthew’s fiercest passion, wells up out of the scripture for these weeks in September. Matthew holds a very high view of the church, far higher than we expect, far higher than yours and mine, we could add. In waxing religion today, the church is largely an expedient – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then, if there is time, to be loved. If the horse is dead, dismount, says one. In waning religion, the church is often also an expedient – though here for causes more progressive than traditional, interests more mental than physical – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then perhaps loved. This the fundamentalists and radicals have in common. What did Augustine say? We use what we should love and we love what we should use. Yet for Matthew, the church is empowered with the means of lasting forgiveness, with a mind for sound ethics, and especially with the real presence of Christ: “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”.

Matthew trusts this risen Christ and this voice of the risen Christ to free him to follow his bliss, to succumb to his passion. It is the passion of an evangelist who finds every blessed possible way to connect a Jewish Jesus with a Greek world. It is the passion of an evangelist who enlists an old missionary teaching tract (“Q”) to spread inspiration, truth, and joy. It is the passion of an evangelist who portrays your Savior among pagans, amid harlots, appended to the cross, about the resurrection work of compassion. It is the passion of an evangelist who sums up his Gospel this way: “Go make of all disciples”.  The whole point of the gospel of St Matthew the evangelist is that he is an evangelist. He it is, not me, he it is, not we, who points you to a new passion, one you (plural) have not intimately known. Matthew’s passion? A people producing the fruit of the reign of God.  Don’t just talk, do.  Do you notice, and squirm? Matthew is moving the parable away from judgment on Israel toward judgment…on the church, if and as the church does not bear fruit worthy of repentance.  On us, if and as we do not bear fruit. (repeat). 

Generosity, Humility.  Two Liberal Arts.  Generosity, Humility.

Generosity.  What two things shall you offer, gratis, this week, to God and neighbor?

Humility.  What are the two truest, lasting criticisms of you that others see, but perhaps do not mention, the two areas of most needed personal growth?

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

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

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

September 27

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 21:23-32

Click here to hear just the sermon

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill:

This Sunday we are confronted by one of the most endearing, and most alluring little parables in all of Scripture, maybe in all of literature.

How it fits with the rest of the lesson is not entirely clear.   Nor is it clear how the lesson in Matthew fits with the other assigned readings for the day, Philippians and our Psalm, say.  Dark sayings from of old, indeed.

But the collision of order and answer, of beckoning and response, has to haunt.

A man has two sons. Already, the plot is thickened, with rivalry, with competition, with family intrigue.

Then the preaching of the gospel occurs. The vintner—we will prefer vintner to father here—tells something, it is a statement that beckons, not formally a question nor even an invitation. Simply a command. Go.

He commands. Albert Schweitzer would be pleased.

Go and live, go and work, go and love, go and prune, go and pluck, go and tend your garden. Go. Up and Go!

Every day and every Lord’s Day, the word arises to us, singeing our nostrils. Go. The day accosts us with a challenge to the good, to a choice if John Dewey is right between goods.

You know, you may have a feeling about a feeling abroad.

Some of us sometimes have the sinking feeling that things are not going so well, that things are drifting or worse.

We see cultural wounds that do not heal.

We see environmental gashes that we rue, fire burning, burning, burning.

We see a national economy that leaves out at least 14 million people, the equivalent of the total population of New England. Maybe twice that when you get everybody counted.

We see a beloved country and respected government that can’t seem provide national leadership to face a national pandemic problem, countrywide leadership to face an invasion with now 200,000 dead.  No national testing, no national equipping, no national protocols.

We listen again to the cries of anguish from minority communities, communities of color, stinging still from policing that harms rather than heals.

And, step lightly here, ten cuidado: It is hard to oppose without being shaped by what you oppose. Maybe to some measure impossible.

You know, then, there is an ennui abroad, measures of anxiety and depression, perhaps inevitable to some measure if one is aware, listening, thoughtful, a languishing in doldrums of pervasive malaise.

So, when the word comes. Come Sunday: Up! Go! You! Work! Vineyard! Today!

Uh…We pull up the covers and sleep in, or call in sick, or drive in late, or just are not really sure we can do anything about all these irremediable driftings.

What difference does it make what I do?  So the despond whispers.

So, says son one, I will not go. Son two, the craftier of the two, evades, the compliant not the defiant one. He says Yes Mrs. Cleaver, but he doesn’t go. He never meant to. He just doesn’t like conflict. Well who does?

But the first son has a change of heart.

Now we find this so encouraging, heartening, lovely. Up front, he says, no way, no way Jose. He is defiant, and willing to say it. I don’t think so, Mr. Vintner, Mr. Father, Mr. Voice, Mr. Life, Mr. Daytime. I think I will just turn in my ticket. Thanks, but no thanks.

But…he has a change of heart.

Will you notice with me that the main thing we want to know is not told to us?

We want to know, what changed the heart? What did the trick? What sealed the deal? What moved the lever?

And the Bible says, ‘Address Not Known’. Edmund Steimle would be pleased. In other words, it is shrouded in mystery.

So, we are a little free to speculate. We do not know what brought the change of heart.

But we know what can bring a change of heart.  And we are offered it today.


An experience of the beautiful can change the heart. A thank you note. A sunrise. A poem. A violin sonata. A student remembering a childhood hurt, and letting it go: there is a beauty in that moment. A cantata.

When you pause for prayer or worship on Sunday, you may be saying no. NO I WILL NOT. You may be not willing to have any change, let alone a change of heart. It is in that very condition that John Wesley went in the rain to Aldersgate Street, May 1738. NO I WILL NOT GO TO THE VINEYARD, not today, baby, not today.  No, I will not send another check, make another volunteer phone call, engage another disagreement, write another letter to the editor, another op-ed, another sermon, another apparently futile attempt to change the direction of things, another prayer, another something.  No, I will not try again to oppose vulgar, profane trash talk rising like a tide all around:  let someone else take it on.


You tune in to virtual worship, you listen for the regular rhythm of ritual, you receive again the confession of the church and…


 Organ meditation. Hymn. Holy Writ. Word spoken. Bach.

Said Scott Allen Jarrett: “Music can say things that words never can.”  

One of the winds beneath our wings comes from our music ministry. Yes, at Christmas and Easter, on Communion Sundays, for special University services like Matriculation and Baccalaureate and Martin Luther King Sunday and others, but also, and notably so for us, on our twice a term Bach Sundays. The word and music of these days keep us moving forward together.

Beauty is like that.

Dr. Jarrett, it is good to have you alongside this morning, to have your presence, faithfulness, voice, and talent offered to God and neighbor.  It cannot be easy to lay down the weekly rhythms of choral music, so heart central to your work and our life.  You have heard me quip before that what silence is the Quakers and Eucharist is the Catholics and Leviticus is the Bible Baptists, and the grim doctrine of predestination is the Presbyterians, and the Epistle to the Romans is to the Lutherans—singing, singing, singing is to us, as Methodists and as Marsh Chapel.  So, we are grateful for the archival gifts and treasures that you have crafted over long time.  Greet us and teach us this Lord’s Day…


Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

Thank you Dean Hill. On the radio the other day, a commentator asked listeners what they most looked forward to when the veil of pandemic is lifted. Among the respondents, a physician said she couldn’t wait to gather her amateur string quartet together once again. My heart smiled hearing this; perhaps yours does, too. Are we not all starved for Beauty, Dean Hill? Beyond revealing a crucial litmus of our values and the possibility of our strivings, the pursuit of Beauty so often models the best path forward and offers a way to make sense of it all — a reconciling Grace, if you will. We so sorely need this today. I can’t tell you how lonely it is to stand here in the Chancel of Marsh Chapel, flanked by Handel and Bach in the wood carvings to my right and left without the beloved members of our musical community alongside pursuing together the Beauty of which I speak. (pause) 

Our archives recall one such highlight when the Chapel Choir and Collegium last studied and performed Cantata 179, Bach’s arched lesson on Heuchelei — Hypocricy.  By all means, Go, Sow, Toil, Labor, get to your vineyard, but make certain that your pious airs are sung with a pure heart. For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. Listeners, I think you’d better get another cup of coffee. 

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Listening again to Matthew and the parable, we recall that, you know, sometimes, we come saying no, but leave saying yes.

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.  Our use of President Merlin’s epigram means city as the global city, and service as worship and work.   Our foci guiding this envisioned mission are voice, vocation, and volume.   This year we take our lead from the new, refreshed Boston University Plan, especially its own five-fold foci:  academics, research, globality, diversity, community.  With Bach, we take research into a different direction and dimension.

ResearchTwice a term the Director of Music, Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, engages our collegium, choir, community and listenership in a full morning of teaching about JS Bach, and enjoyment of a Bach Cantata in worship.  The Bach Experience (lecture, gathering, worship, and sermon (this dialogue between the Director and the Dean)), are novel and preeminent advancements in learning and performance, and our own offered sort of research.  They also will contribute to the Dean’s emerging work in Biblical Theology, an ongoing multi-year study. We commit to enhancement of this project.

What changes the heart?

What baptizes the person, the heart, the spirit?

The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, autumn 2020, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift. 

What pierces, transforms, moves the heart?

Beauty does.

It does.

It says, whispers, reminds:

There are a lot of things wrong. But there are a lot of things right. Somebody wrote this cantata—sheer beauty. Someone practiced and taught it—sheer beauty. Someone sang it and played it—sheer beauty. And here I am. I heard it. I heard it.

Music can say things that words never can.

Maybe number one son huffed no. Then…he saw moonlight on the sea of Galilee. Or…his wife was singing a lullaby as the children went to sleep. Or…he remembered a part of a Psalm. Or…he remembered the loving and lovely self-giving of a loved one—maybe that
of his father, now long dead. Or…a friend came by…or came through.

Then he thought…

Well, maybe, well, maybe

Maybe things are bad, but maybe they can get better, and maybe better is the only good there is.

Maybe that is what you will think, leaving today.

Beauty stands beside me

Beauty stands beside me

I hear, I hear, I hear

Maybe I will say yes after all, yes to a new challenge.

Maybe I will remember Camus’ doctor in The Plague: ‘decency consists of doing my job…the only way to fight the plague is with decency’.

Maybe Vaclev Havel’s proverb will seize me: ‘live within the truth’.

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

Maybe Jorge Luis Borges was right; ‘any life however long and complicated it may be actually consists of a single moment when a man knows forever more who he is’. (NYR 11/12/19)

Maybe this is that moment.  Maybe I will turn around, receive a change of heart, and say…Yes.

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

September 13

Liberal Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 18: 21-35

Click here to hear just the sermon

Please forgive the intrusive nature of this sermon.   For I want to begin by taking a walk with you into the attic of your soul.  Though we are friends, it is not my right to initiate such a visit.  Though we are pastors and parishioners, it is not our right to force such a trek back up through the mist of time.  You would need to make an invitation, yourself.  Even to suggest the climb, without any initiative on your part, is rude of me.  I apologize.

The Gospel, however, intrudes upon our very souls, whether the preacher has a right or not.  As kingfishers catch fire, and dragonflies draw flame, so truth—that liberal grace, that light in which we see light—advances upon us.  So we go ahead.  We walk together upstairs to the landing.  You kindly have turned on the hall light.  Thank you.  I wonder if this is a sign from you that you will welcome this joint venture?  We pull down on the chain that loosens the attic portal.  You know how that little door in the ceiling falls open, and slowly a flank of wooden stairs comes down, and down, and down, and touches our feet.  We are ready to climb up into the darkness.

Watch your step.  You have not been up into the cobwebs and the dust of memory, the mothballs and the coverlets of history, the grime and the darkness of the past.   It is a little slow going.   This is your attic, though.  You know it as well as you know your own past.  In fact, it is your past, box by box, and crate by crate.  I have no right to be here, and if you ask me, I will leave.  A man has a right to his own regrets.  A woman has a right to her own regrets.  They are not common property.  They are yours, these boxes and labels and shoes and hangers and records and amulets and souvenirs from the dusty past.   One of you is looking over at an old service uniform from the great war—brown and rumpled.  Another sees bobby sox and a political poster—I LIKE IKE.  She has stumbled past three old Beatles albums—greatest hits, Abbey Road, the White album.  I notice a Jim Croce tape.  I wonder if it still plays?  He thumbs through a pile of other newer albums.  She has a 2004 World Series Fenway ticket.  He has a ball marked deflate-gate.  Of course there are lots of photographs.  What kind of an attic would it be without boxes and records and photographs?

This is the attic of memory.  No, we won’t stop at the wardrobe

Today. The wardrobe is for another day, a day of hope and imagination.  Lions and witches come from wardrobes.  Today we are looking back, though.  We are going to stumble and claw our way over into the back corner.  There is not much light here.  It is a long time since anyone came back in, all this way.  Dust, cobwebs—it makes you sneeze.

Over in the corner there is a small, low box, carefully closed, and tied around with a little bailer’s twine.  This is yours.  No one else knows it is here, or if they do, they have forgotten or never understood or just don’t care.  But you know and remember and understand and care.  I really do not want to be here, and you probably don’t want to either.  I—for it is not my business.  You—because in black ink, now dusty, is penned across the top of the box a single, awful, hellish word—regret.  Regret is a short synonym for hell.   And up here in the attic of memory, off in the corner, sits this stupid box, which means nothing to anyone, except to you.  There it is—a single box labeled “regret”.

Open it.

Go ahead.  Try it.  If you want.  I think you have wanted to come up here, but just never had 20 minutes of quiet to do so.  Remember last summer when you thought about the box?  And remember that early morning dream?  That was a strange thing.  I want to encourage you to open it.  Hold it in both hands.  Untie the twine.  Loosen the top.  Turn it over, and let it all fall out.

Good.  That was a gutsy thing to do.  Good for you.

The reason the box was marked “regret” is that this is one thing you regret.  You have a regret.  That is part of being human.  Can you live with being human?  Can you live with being a little lower than the angels?  How do I know all this?  As my great aunt would say, “If you’re so smart how come you aren’t rich?”  A real good question.  I know because I have boxes in my attic too.  They too are covered with cobwebs.  I too make my visits, my attic climbs, very seldom.  And, yes, I know about regret.  Not just vicariously, either.  There is nothing quite as bitter.  If only…If only…If only…

I asked to come up here with you for a reason.  Up in the attic here, with that swinging bare light bulb and the Johnny Mathis record, and the 2018 election lawn sign,  and all this dust, we may feel God.

Look at the box again, and all its contents spread across the floor.  In the dark I cannot see the floor, but after 44 years and 10 pulpits I truly doubt if any of it would surprise me.  After reading the Bible and Shakespeare and a few decades worth of the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, there is not much that surprises.  But it is different for you.  This is your attic, your memory, your box, your regret.  It is YOURS.  In a way, this box is more yours than any of the others.

In this box are the articles of impeachment brought by life against us.  They are multiple and they are damning and unlike civil and criminal law, the laws of the soul do not give way to lawyerly cunning.  And there is no vote, no 2/3 majority needed.  And the impeachment may not have led to conviction, except in the heart.  Yours.

What is that you say?  Not you?  Never a cutting word?  Never a selfish deed?  Never an unhealthy habit?  Never a compulsive trend?  Never a myopic judgment?  Never a temptation accepted?  Never an ungenerous year? Never a vote you wish, truly wish, you had not made?  You meant one thing, it meant another.   Never a non-giving decade?   Not you?  Never a misspent dollar or day or dream?  You don’t go to enough funerals.

But the box doesn’t lie.  Nor does the conscience.  Nor does the memory.  Nor does life.

It simply spells “regret”.  That, I regret.

There is something that both can and must be said, as we pack up the regret box. Read about it sometime in Matthew 18: 21-35.  It is not a human thing to say, though we are the only saying beings around so we do the best we can.  It is a God word.  And only God speaks God words.

First, looking down at the dusty cardboard of past regret—something that if not removed can fester and infect and cripple—first there is this.  God forgives you.  It is, according to the Scripture, the divine promise and intention to forgive and to forgive.  It is the first and last and only unreplaceable word of faith.  Abraham felt it.  Miriam sang it with all her might.  Joseph practiced it.  Hosea proclaimed it.  Jesus taught us to pray for it.  And for 2000 years the church has tried to exemplify, embody this one word.  God forgives.  John Wesley asked his preachers one initial question.  “Do you know God to be a pardoning God?”  Now that, in the face of a box marked “regret”, that is good news.  In the face of the worst rejection and the most regrettable misjudgment on earth, God practices a powerful forgiveness.

You know in the midst of all the harshness of the religious right and the flightiness of the religious left, it can be hard to hear the central truth about God and about us.  God forgives.

God forgives before we are up in the attic at all.  God forgives when we realize what we have to regret.  God forgives as we carry the regret around.  God forgives when we hear and when we do not and it does not depend on our hearing.

Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  If so, you know God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Here are some Scriptures worth memorizing about God who forgives….

If you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Lord how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?  … I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

 But maybe that is not what keeps you awake, not what makes you linger today in the attic.  You may well believe and trust that God forgives.  But what about those you have regrettably hurt?

This can be particularly hard for those who have grown up around especially hardened parents and other adults.   If you have not heard an encouraging word much growing up, it can be hard later in life to believe that those other humans around you can practice a liberal grace, that they can be gracious.

They can be.

As a matter of fact, most of the time they are.  More than most of the time.  People forgive, more than you know and more than you may think you deserve.  It really delights me.  People have a profound capacity to forgive and forget.  It is God given, and it is real and it is good.

I think of the waiting father and the prodigal son.

I think of Paul forgiving Peter’s two-faced behavior.

I think of Augustine’s mother forgiving his selfishness.

I think of Erasmus forgiving the wayward Popes.

I think of Grant and Lee at Appomattox.

I think of Abraham Lincoln walking through Richmond.

I think of the Marshall Plan and rebuilding of Germany and Japan in the 1940’s.

I think of women and men, night after day, for millenia.

You may have to ask sometime for forgiveness.  You probably should.  Say, “I’m sorry”.  Like the ancient TV character ‘The Fonz’, who could never utter the word, “I was wrong..”  But my experience is that most people most of the time when confronted with a heartfelt, sincere apology from a person of integrity will simply, directly and kindly say, “Don’t worry about it.  I forgive you.”  It is one of the greatest things about other people.  You may have to give it a little time.  You may have to pray about it.  You may have to trust a little. You may have to try more than once.  But—other people will forgive you.

But that may not be what holds you here in the attic.  As a matter of fact, I bet that the box is still up here, wrapped in twine and covered with dirt and marked regret, for another reason.  It’s one thing for God to forgive you.  It’s one thing to accept another’s kindness.  But in the end, that still leaves you a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and a few french fries short of a happy meal.  God has forgiven you!  Your neighbor has forgiven you!  Now comes the hard part.

You have to forgive yourself.  You have to let yourself off the hook.  You have to find a way to admit to yourself that you are not 101% perfect.  You have to, well, accept your own acceptance.  And that can be a lot easier said than done.  Because we have a way of holding onto what poisons us.  Why is that?  We have a way of clinging to that which poisons us. We have a way of just wrapping ourselves in a miserable kind of self-conceited self-condemnation.  Up in the attic.

Sunday is a good time to dump your guilt.  God doesn’t want it. No neighbor finally has much use for it.  So why is it still in the box?   What good is it?  Get rid of it.  When it doubt, throw it out.

God forgives you.  So does your neighbor.  Forgive yourself.

Matter of fact, while we are here, up in the attic—let’s just take that box out of here.  I’ll hold the ladder for you while you are coming down.  You can carry it, with a little homiletical help.  If we hurry we can get out on the curb before noon.  The heavenly garbage truck always comes by this part of your mental world Sunday at noon.  There, it’s out on the curb, and soon it will be gone for good.  Sang

William Blake:

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

 And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

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

September 6

Liberal Breeze

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 18: 15-20

Click here to hear just the sermon

Keep a clean wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a warm wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a liberal wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a summer wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Matthew 18: 15-20 involves communication, especially in the practice of forgiveness in community, with precise advisements, directions, and instructions.  Presence is important.  Listening is important.  Voice is important.  Collegiality is important.  Second tries are important.  There is no mention of technology, neither that of the first nor that of the twenty first centuries.  Forgiveness is personal, human, spirited, and real.  It requires human not sub-human communication.   And, as we shall see next week, forgiveness includes forgiving yourself.  We can note, to our possible discomfort, the Scriptural root and basis for the religious practice, following unsuccessful mediation, of shunning.  One antique but Scriptural answer is in the practice of shunning.  Another sermon for another day…

In verse 15, Matthew begins to give advice about how to live in community.   Community involves difference, but also can involve hurt.  Communication makes community.  Matthew’s Jesus teaches us to speak to each other in our presence and not of each other in our absence—to each other in our presence not of each other in our absence.

Some time ago I received a triangulating e-mail.  It came from the leader of an organization I dislike, seeking support for a person I do like.  I loathe one and love the other.  The triangulation in the communication forced me either to support an organization I do not like or to disappoint a person I do like.  What do you do in such a situation?  The kinder approach from the organization would have been a visit, or a phone call, in which sensibilities could be explored.  But now we have the e-document, email:  eternal, irretrievable, international, indelible.  And hence the tangled triangle.  It would take 3 hours or more to unbind and loosen this knot.  You know, there was a time when people had to come and see you before they so complicated your life.  I think on inquiry, that Matthew 18: 15 teaches me how to respond.  I should not send a steaming reply, tempting as that would be.  I should not reply from a distance at all.  I should go and see my interlocutor.  I should make a visit to the author of such an e-mail and find a way through the horns of the dilemma, the Scylla of support for an organization I dislike and the Caribdis of hurt to a person I do like.  A cartoon this week pictures a man saying to his friend, “I used to call people, then I got into e-mailing, then texting, and now I just ignore everyone”. Get things moving, get the community walking together!

 In verse 16, Matthew quotes from Deuteronomy 19.  That is, he goes back to the basics, back to the starting point, the Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament, back to kindergarten, if you will, as many are going this week.  Read again Robert Fulghum’s, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kingergarten. Get things moveing in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 17, Matthew provides a further suggestion, to use if the earlier ones fail.  Tell the whole church, his Jesus says.  We are clearly hearing overtones of what was needed in Matthew’s community, toward the end of the first century.  Jesus may well have taught in such fashion, though the use of a Greek word like ‘ecclesia’—twice here—probably indicates this is later material placed on Jesus’ lips.  But the import remains—gather the community for deliberation.  Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 18, Matthew strongly affirms the lasting power of such church considerations, even saying, similar to our reading two weeks ago, in the phrase, ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’,  that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, what is forgiven on earth is forgiven in heaven. Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 19, two or three, when truly together, suffice to form a judgement.   Our English words ‘symphony’ and ‘pragmatic’ are rooted in the Greek here for agreement and matter. Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 20, to conclude, the gospel further celebrates the precious joy of common life in the present, in the here and now, and it only takes a few, ‘wherever two or three ARE gathered in my name, there I AM as well.’ Get things moving in the community—get people walking together.  As our friend and colleague Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore wrote this week:

Breathe in the Spirit of Life
Breathe out your best selves
Breathe in the newness of the year
Breathe out your deepest hopes
Breathe in possibility
Breathe out acts of compassion and justice.

          Yes, a liberal breeze is blowing all about us.

The farm stand up the road from us summer by summer offers vegetables and fruit, as the summer season evolves.  Beans, peas, berries to begin, and corn, tomatoes, squash to follow.  They make their own maple syrup candies from the spring syrup.  It is a family operation, careful in cleanliness, in presentation, in pricing, and in conversation.  For all the pandemic changes, the pandemonium of policing troubles, the pugilism of the presidential contest—of about equal balance by the way in our county—our farm stand is an oasis of unchanging grace, natural abundance, civil discourse, and, especially, delicious foodstuffs.

A woman waited on me, with mask and distance and hand sanitizer, bringing out blueberries and two dozen ears of corn, half butter and sugar, half yellow, all melt in your mouth yummy good.  They now take a credit card, but when asked if they preferred cash said, ‘thank you for asking; no, now with this special (something, a metal clip or other) either one is fine’.  Carefully mowed lawn, decidedly smart packaging, good pricing though not cheap, signage at a quarter mile radius, NSEW, and happy eye contact welcome at the counter:  natural grace, at least 50 years in service, a still summer point in the soon to come autumn turning world.  And a liberal, summer breeze blowing across the lawn.

Yet. However. Nevertheless.  Sin embargo…

The stand is at the southeast corner of the intersection of routes 26 and 12B.  In June of 1966, as we were preparing to move from Hamilton all the long way north, all 16 miles north, to Oneida, an itineracy at the time grave and global to the 11 year old psyche, a woman was nearly killed at the crossing.  In a brand new car, dressed for celebration, she was driving south to her own high school reunion, had the green light and right of way, and was hit by a drunk driver, the car obliterated.  My father was still the minister in town, and I can remember the horror of the incident, and his visits to the little, then new, town hospital through her recovery.  Just a few years ago, by happenstance, I came to know her family and enoy their friendship. Natural grace, but a stone’s throw from high way carnage, in drunk driving.  And why the drunken driving? We could speculate abut the young man in the truck.  A life of milking early and late every single day perhaps, , 12 hour days, perhaps,  low income, limited possibilities perhaps, the forgotten folks left to tend the sheep while the shepherds went off to the city temple, perhaps? Lurking there, beyond my younger capacity really to see, was the vast historical conspiracy of these United States against the full humanity of poor white people, in the fields and harrows of cultural life.  White children make up the largest racial group of poor children in America (4.2 million): (“among America’s poor children, 4.2 million are white, 4 million are Latino, 3.6 million are African American, 400,000 are Asian, and 200,000 are American Indian”:  NCCP, 475 Riverside Drive, NYC, NY).   Natural grace, but a stone’s throw from class discrimination, in income, housing, education, health care, and respect.

On the northwest corner of the same intersection, nestled against the shoreline of Leland Pond, there was and still is a mile by half mile quadrangle of vegetable farming, owned by others.  In autumn each year there would arrive for about three weeks, a traveling company of African American pickers, whose children would come to our school for those weeks.  They started in northern Maine earlier in the year and just followed the advancing harvest south, leaving our little town for the next stop in Pennsylvania, and then following the Susquehanna river further down into Maryland.  I can see the families walking row by row, gathering the cabbage and other vegetables.  The film Cider House Rules decades later gave a bit of further insight.  Lurking there, beyond my younger capacity really to see, was the vast historical conspiracy of these United States against the full humanity of black folks, a conspiracy still deeply rooted in the fields and harrows of cultural life. Black children make up the highest percentage rate by race in poverty (33% of black children) (In the 10 most populated states, rates of child poverty among black children range from 29% in California and Florida to 47% in Ohio. NCCP, 475 Riverside Dr, NYC, NY)  Natural grace, but a stone’s throw from systemic racism, in employment, housing, education, health care, and policing.

How on earth did the rightful longings and lost dreams of poor white people on the southeast corner of that intersection get opposed to the rightful longings and lost dreams of the poor black people on the northwest corner of that intersection?  Excellent work, Wormwood, you devil you.  You make your Uncle Screwtape so proud.

 Take heart, dear souls, take heart:  A liberal breeze is blowing all about us.  There is a new day coming.

This cleansing summer wind blows away the spurious, silly, hate-filled attempts of national leaders to set at odds the urban and the rural, the manufacturing and the agricultural, the city and the country, the heart land and the coast.  What ridiculous falsehood.  Childhood piano lessons I took were given by a farm wife who then returned to the barn.   Sermons early on in ministry were endured by men who had been milking at 4am and were glad for a nap at 11:20am come Sunday.  Our best parishioners then and later knew the back-breaking labor of haying, and took on our teenage sons for such a week’s summer work.  One September evening we left a magnificent meal in the farm kitchen, to help with and see the birth of a calf in the barn next door, then to return for dessert.  In August one parishioner rode her horse to church in those years.  The idea, the flagrant false idea, that these saints are marks to be conned into belief by pseudo leaders who have not a whisker of belief themselves is absurd.  The idea that these good people are sitting ducks to be convinced to hate on the basis of race, to control on the basis of gender, to reject on the basis of ethnicity, nation, income, education or accent—the thematic thrust of some recent political discourse–is as appalling as are its spokespeople.  The dairy farmers we knew would have been inclined to take care of them, refine their education shall we say, perhaps out behind the barn, in no uncertain terms.  Of all my homiletical regrets and failings this one stands out in this season: as one who has lived half his life in great city streets and the other half in great country meadows, I have somehow failed to make clear our lived experience that, when it comes to good faithful people urban and rural, there is so little lasting difference.  It is a hoax.  It is a hoax!  And yet, somehow I and others who know better have not been able, yet, to make that case, and make it stick.   Rural people are not sexist rubes, racist dunces, greedy materialists, or fundamentalist flakes.  Urban people are not permissive snow-flakes, flighty nincompoops, unrealistic and clumsy airheads, any less interested in law and order and prosecution for wanton property destruction, or celebrants of Willie Horton.  You are being conned, America, you are being conned.  Take care to think through with care just who benefits from such false, adroitly engineered division.  Again: shades of Wormwood and his affectionate uncle.  The best good people, in the city and in the country, can know each other in spirit in a heart-beat.  They would know each other in a New York minute, and enjoy each other until the cows come home.  They would know each other in a New York minute, and enjoy each other until the cows come home. (I pause to break the fourth wall and to point out to budding preachers the structure and phrasing of the sentence, New York…cows…see?  Say what you say by the way you say it.)  Such saints would, can and will happily greet each other,on this side or on the farther home side of glory, with A METHODIST HANDSHAKE.  In heaven.   And for all of us, it’s later than we think, and Heaven-New Creation-Glory is closer than we ever fully project or expect.

Around us is blowing a gentle, summer wind, a lasting liberal breeze.  While creation groans, and while love suffers long and is kind, we shall need a little of the third person of the ancient trinity along the way.  A liberal breeze, a liberal breeze.

By the way, the asperity with which the Holy Scripture summarizes creation is only matched by the asperity which the creeds of the Church summarize creation.  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Period.  ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’. Period.  Scripture and creed say what reason and experience know:  we have the brute fact of the brute creation.  Period.  The rest of the Holy Scripture, all 65.9 other books, and the rest of the creed, the long second paragraph and the shorter third, go on from there.  The love of God comes accompanied by faith and hope.  Creation is the occasion of love but does not occasion love, does not occasion faith in love, and does not occasion a hope for a loving future.  God is Love is profoundly about the second person of the Trinity, the Christ of God, not about the first person of the Trinity, and the creation of God.  Creation alone will never get us to heaven.  In pandemic, it will take the Second Person of the Trinity to get us free from the fallen creation of the First, guided hourly by the RUAH, the PNEUMA, the spirit, the wind, the liberal breeze of life.

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

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

Keep a clean breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a warm breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a liberal breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a summer breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God


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

August 30

Liberal Heart

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 16:21-28

Click here to hear just the sermon

Change can happen.  Real change, for the good, in real time, can come.  There is in the human heart, sometimes dormant but always present, the capacity to turn around, to repent, to move again forward, to change.  Change can come.  Jesus Christ and Him Crucified is at the mysterious heart of All, of Life, and of Change.  Jesus the Son of God, the Word of God, the Lamb of God, the Presence of God, can bring change.  To you.  Simon Peter found his life immeasurably altered by a word or two, fitly spoken.  He found a liberal heart. You can too.  He found a liberal heart.  We can too.  He found his own heart opened, and forever remade, by the liberality, grace, freedom, generosity and love of God.  We can too.  Peter following this change still struggled to appreciate and bring apperception to the Person of Jesus, the Presence of Jesus, the Power of Jesus.  But the change was permanent.  He was given a liberal heart, a heart of wonder, a heart of vulnerability, a heart of self-abandon.  God is calling you to open your heart today to that kind of change, that scope of change, that force of change. Change can happen.  Real change, for the good, in real time, can come.  There is in the human heart, sometimes dormant but always present, the capacity to turn around, to repent, to move again forward, to change.  Change can come.  Let us pray.


Gracious God, Holy and Just
Thou who art loves us into love and frees us into freedom

In the mystery of thy presence we pause at the beginning

 The beginning of a new season, of a new year, of a new adventure

 Thankful for the wise leadership of our University, and for the chance to learn and study together this autumn

 Now at Matriculation 2020 we offer our common prayer

 We pray for safety, health, and wellness for all

We pray to become good stewards of, protectors of, the safety, health and wellness of others, to be our sister’s keeper, our brother’s keeper

 We pray for the disciplines of courage, and of responsibility, and of compassion that together we shall need, and that together we may find

 We remember in prayer those who got us here, who raised us, taught us, loved us and supported us, and who yearn to see us through

 Bless Boston University this year we pray, bless those who study and those who teach, those who lead and those who support, bless each and every one of us we pray

 With a joy in learning, a regard for virtue, and an inclination to piety—a joy in human knowing, a regard for human doing, and an inclination to  human being

 Grant us thy peace, grant us thy peace, grant us thy peace.  AMEN. 

Our Holy Scripture takes flight first this Lord’s Day with Moses’ fear.  The prospect and the present potential for change bring a quaking in the boots, a quaking in the heart, a quaking in the very soul.  You are right to worry and wonder a little bit about a Matriculation Sunday sermon, and whether it might bruise or cut a little bit.  Alma Mater carries the sense of birth, of child birth.  The mysterium tremendum, all about us, the HOLY HOLY HOLY.  And Moses, God love him, first, fears.  For the Divine Presence brings change.  Real change is real hard, but it comes in real time when real people really work at it:   I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.  I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  But there is no theological exam here, nor any doctrinal requirement.  There is just the chance for change.  It is a very broad brush, a big canvass, a wide and wild painting, big enough for cameo appearances by fearful humans, including Moses, and you, and me.

Our Holy Scripture sails and soars second this Lord’s Day with Paul’s wisdom.  These verses you need to memorize. Romans 12: 9ff.  They are neither heavily theological nor pointedly doctrinal.  They are existential.  They include. They involve many, and various, and different and all.   The church survived and grew for 150 years before it had a Bible, from 30ad to 170ad, at least a Bible of the sort we have today.  It had the Law, Prophets and Writings, but no Gospels shared, no Letters agreed upon, no Apocalypses acclaimed.  The Holy Scripture proved itself Holy, over time, in context, with debate, out of friction.  The Godfather of the New Testament was a gnostic heretic named Marcion, in opposition to whose Bible of Luke and some Letters of Paul the Church instead accepted in addition the Hebrew Scripture, in addition the other Gospels, in addition the other Letters, and even an Apocalypse or two.  Scripture came to life in and through life.  So, you would not blithely disparage it.  It comes with blisters and sores and cuts.  Paul finds change in these 13 very simple, transparent advisements, let love be genuine…practice hospitality. 

Our Holy Scripture lands at Peter’s feet, in the call to change, to a change of heart.  What will it profit if one gains the whole world yet loses one’s soul?  Somewhere between world and soul, Peter discovered a liberal heart.  What Jesus said in 30ad is written down at last by Matthew in 85ad. There was a long line of listening, hearing, sharing, speaking, long before the writing. In part we know this because the two saying here are at odds, one offering to hearing and faith the paradox of saving and losing life: you only have, only possess, only truly hold what you have the power, grace, freedom and courage to give away. If you do not have it, you cannot give it. If you give it, truly, you then show you have owned it.   The sayings were written down together in Matthew 16 because they shared a tag word—life. What can you give in exchange for your life? (Here the message is careful: hold on, flee false forfeit, prize life now you have it). Whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses is life will find it. (Here the message is caring: splash around with generosity, give with no thought of return, take up the cross, follow). The two teachings are there to balance each other. Which one for which day on which way will you say? It’s up to you. Over time, you will need them both.  Just this week, in the tragedies of Kenosha Wisconsin, Jacob Blake’s mother was doing the same, balancing justice and order, the caring and the careful:  On Tuesday, Mr. Blake’s mother, Julia Jackson, had told reporters that she opposed the sort of destruction that had been left by protests spurred by her son’s shooting.  Ms. Jackson told reporters that she had been praying for the country to heal.“I’ve noticed a lot of damage,” she said. “It doesn’t reflect my son or my family.” (NYT, 8/26/20).  So, Listen. Tune your ear to God.   Life is short.   This high peak passage, Peter’s Confession, rightly evokes the deep heart of faith, of gospel, of Scripture, of change.  It is the keystone, the lynch pin, the center in some measure of the Gospel we preach, we teach, we depend upon in life, in death and in life beyond death. What will it profit if one gains the whole world yet loses one’s soul?


             In September of 1976, forty-four years ago, like many of our young colleagues on arrival this week for Matriculation, I had found my way to another great city—New York, along another great river—the Hudson, to the center of another great urban university—Columbia.  A sermon that week in James Chapel at Union Seminary was brought uptown from the minister near Greenwich Village at Washington Square.  It has stayed with me, because it was true to life, and true to change in life, and especially true to Moses and Paul and Matthew today.  He commended wonder, vulnerability and self-mockery.   Change of a healthy spiritual sort is not primarily theological or doctrinal, though it might become so.  It is existential.  It is life coming alive.  It is a heart become a liberal heart.  Call it a liberal art heart.

A liberal heart radiates wonder.   Borden Parker Bowne:  Philosophy begins in wonder.  G.K. Chesterton: the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder.  Charles Wesley:  changed from glory into glory, ‘til in heaven we take our place, ‘til we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.  Between Matriculation and Commencement there is chance for a change of heart, a chance for the emergence of a liberal heart, a heart open to wonder, charged with wonder, delighting in wonder.  What we will lead us in part away from anxiety, depression, ennui, acedia, loneliness and despond is in part this sense of wonder.   Some ongoing connection with the natural world, a regular walk along the emerald necklace, say, may aid you here.  Some chance to see the ocean, close at hand, on a regular basis, may help you here.  Some occasional visits to the BU rooftop telescope may help you here.  The joy of reading, the thrill of music, the mystery of friendship, all may bring a new rebirth of wonder.  Even in a fallow, covid time:  we watched one 11 year-old neighbor read 35 books this summer.

A liberal heart owns vulnerability.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  We are utterly vulnerable creatures, from birth to the beyond.  If nothing else, our current pandemic has indelibly placed such vulnerability before us.  The question is whether we will own it.  Whether we will wash and wash the hands, whether we will attain, maintain and retain social distance, whether we will take up and take on the hourly masking that will protect others vulnerability, and our own.  Our physical vulnerability may also, just may bring a Petrine change to our proclivity to pretend invulnerability.   Somehow Peter came to see life from a different angle, not from the vantage point of power but from the perspective of love.  How?  Who can say?  But in some measure it may well have been a readiness, a willingness to admit his vulnerability, even as he curses his Master’s.  We have a shared vulnerability that should shock us into commitments to communal protections.  We will need shared, common behaviors, educational and health investments, global and national planning and spending to get prepared for the next virus, as have not at all been for this one.  That will take the liberal heart to admit vulnerability.

A liberal heart has a measure of self-abandon, of self-awareness, even of self-mockery.  Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly, like the angels.  Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly, like the angels.  The church has loved Peter for so long because he is so human, so prone to mistake, and yet with such a courage to admit error.  Most students will make a mistake or two in their college years.  No one recommends it. All work against it.  And yet.  We learn, to measure we learn most, from our mistakes.  When they come, if they do, take some time to learn from them.  And then get up, dust yourself off, and be able to live with a little lightness, a little self-mockery.

 Change can happen.  Real change, for the good, in real time, can come.  There is in the human heart, sometimes dormant but always present, the capacity to turn around, to repent, to move again forward, to change.  Change can come.  Jesus Christ and Him Crucified is at the mysterious heart of All, of Life, and of Change.  Jesus the Son of God, the Word of God, the Lamb of God, the Presence of God, can bring change.  To you.  Simon Peter found his life immeasurably altered by a word or two, fitly spoken.  He found a liberal heart. You can too.  He found a liberal heart.  We can too.  He found his own heart opened, and forever remade, by the liberality, grace, freedom, generosity and love of God.  We can too.  Peter following this change still struggled to appreciate and bring apperception to the Person of Jesus, the Presence of Jesus, the Power of Jesus.  But the change was permanent.  He was given a liberal heart, a heart of wonder, a heart of vulnerability, a heart of self-abandon.  God is calling you to open your heart today to that kind of change, that scope of change, that force of change. Change can happen.  Real change, for the good, in real time, can come.  There is in the human heart, sometimes dormant but always present, the capacity to turn around, to repent, to move again forward, to change.  Change can come.  Let us pray.


 Gracious God Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou our dwelling place in all generations

Rest upon us in the silence of this moment we pray

Dry the tears of those moved to emotion in an hour of separation

Illumine the skyline of opportunity that lies behind the rain clouds of worry

Carry young hearts open to friendship into seas of friendship

Help us hear for our time the voice of the Prophet

‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly’?

Help us we earnestly pray to prefer justice to judgment

Help us we earnestly pray to love the merciful more than the material

Help us we earnestly pray to walk humbly not haughtily

May the degrees we earn turn by degrees the wheel of life from judgment to justice

May the courses we choose inspire in choices later a keenness of mind matched by a fullness of heart

May the learning we gain afford us the gain of humility, the honest desire to give credit where credit is due, and not to tip the scale

May the friendships we make in their turn make us less inclined to judgment and more enamored of justice

May the regrets we acquire then incline us to mercy, as we have felt mercy, and not to material measurements alone

May the adventures we bravely pursue give us the wisdom to know our condition, mortal, frail, prone to harm others, frail, mortal

May all our acquisition of knowledge chase us toward justice, toward mercy, and toward humility

And the wisdom to welcome, later, perhaps much later, the recognition that

The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery  that surrounds it

The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it


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

August 23

Liberal Church

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 16:13-20

Click here to hear just the sermon

A healthy institution of any sort, particularly of any religious sort and certainly of any Christian sort, is a community that is learning together.  As Albert Camus said, the healthy society is a circle in which all are seated and each reminds the other: ‘You are not God.  I am not God.  You are not God. I am not God.’  You are the recipients, the inheritors of that liberal tradition, the legacy of the liberal church.  As such, we are learning together, every single day, every Lord’s Day, every one day.

We are learning together.

Moses teaches us.

We learn together from these glorious narratives, offered us week by week in this year, from Genesis—think of Joseph last week—and today from Exodus.  The uncanny, the unexpected, the spirited entrance into life, by and through human imagination and courage, of grace, of freedom, of love.  And Pharaoh’s daughter took a little prophet out of the bulrushes, Moses by name.  There come times when a new Pharaoh arrives, one ‘who did not know Joseph’.  There come times when the odds are set up against the real and true and good.  There come times when it is hard to name a fully good thing from any day or week.  There come times when both nature and history appear to conspire together, against grace.  And then along comes a recollection of the self-giving courage of a mother, setting her basket into the rippling waters of bulrushes along the Nile.  Loving by letting go.  There are some eyes with tears right around here this week, some parents turning away and giving children to the unforeseen future.  No matter the age or stage, it takes courage, it takes the uncanny, the unexpected, the spirited entrance into life, by and through human imagination and courage, of grace, of freedom, of love.  The community of faith knows change, knows itinerancy, knows loss that becomes gain and gain that becomes loss.  That is the legacy of the liberal church.

Moses teaches us.

Paul teaches us.

Here is a sweet memory to share, now more than twenty years old, but it is clear as a bright August morning, even so.  For how happy we were one Saturday in Rochester to hear an excellent sermon on today’s epistle, Romans 12 from our former pulpit, given at a divinity school graduation by the Rev. Mr. Peter Gomes, Harvard Chaplain.  Do you remember The Good Book, his 1996 essay on the interpretation of Scripture?  Really, his hymn of love for the Scripture.  We were really proud to have him in our Rochester pulpit, and to hear his message.

If memory serves, it included some standard homiletical devices—a foundational text (Romans 12:2), a theme (endings are beginnings), repetition, litanies, epigrams, some old and new humor, making use of natural “oppositions” that come to the mind of the hearer and then addressing them, a little poetry (TS Eliot—“Little Gidding”), a quotation or two, and an exhortation to the congregation to be transformed “by the renewing of the mind”.  Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of the mind.

What most appealed was the design of the message.  Following an extended introduction, and preceding a simple conclusion, the preacher offered three memorable points.  Hah!  In the living church, much national debate and new homiletical theory to the contrary notwithstanding, there is—and especially there was on that Saturday—still room for a good three-point sermon, even one that concluded with a poem.  From Aristotle to about 1970, this design had endured, and reports of its death in the last decades have been, in Twain’s term, “exaggerated”.   Three points and a poem still work.

Gomes challenged the graduates, the students, and by reflection the church and by extension all Christians, not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewal of the mind.  How?

          First, by noticing the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

          Second, by practicing meekness, whose opposite is not strength, but pride.

          Third, by protecting space and time for relaxation, prayer, reading.

Now, it would be nice to have the note page on which was summarized the message.  Somehow, though, between the past and present, the paper disappeared.   No matter—his design preserved the message for me—wisdom, meekness, relaxation.  Let us try to remember and, in Justice Holmes good phrase, try to give it the benefit of five great words: “I applied it to myself.”  Care to join me?  That is your legacy in the liberal church.

Paul teaches us.

Matthew teaches us.

We are disciples.  The word means student.  Disciple means student.  Salve Discipuli.  Salve Magistra.   Discipleship means studentship.  The model of faithfulness recommended, particular in Matthew, and especially in Matthew 16, is the model of the student.  Perhaps if we simply said ‘studentship’ rather than ‘discipleship’, we would do better.  Perhaps we should and could see the courageous arrival of the class of 2024 as exhibit a, exemplum docet.

Living right means learning together—in voice, in thought, in conflict, in Scripture.  Learning together.

It is this driving preachment that causes Matthew to eviscerate Mark here.   Matthew in 85ad has taken a passage from Mark in 70ad and turned it upside down.   It is not so much the detail, by the way, of the manner in which Matthew and Luke revise Mark, chapter by chapter, which is important.  What matters is that they happily re-gospelled the gospel for their own day, to a fair thee well.

No?  No?  Oh Yes. Yes, indeed.  Yes.

Mark in the passage calls Peter ‘Satan’.  Matthew calls him Rock.  Mark has no mention of any church of any kind.  Matthew uses the word, the greed word for church, ecclessia—not likely something Jesus would have said, and gives Peter keys to the kingdom.  Mark has Jesus tell the disciples—the students—to keep it all secret.  Matthew rejects that secrecy, except for the title, messiah, and says, ‘preach it’.  Why?  Why does Matthew eviscerate, confound, gut, overturn his legacy, this inherited passage from Mark?  Answer:  he and his community are learning together.  From voices.  From thoughts.  From conflicts.  And Matthew sternly tells his people:  to become fully human you will need institutional grounding, support, protection, and sustenance:  family, neighborhood, school, church, university, country, globe.  And let me be clear about the church, he adds:  the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Just more thing, as we are learning together in voice, thought, conflict and scripture.   Like Peter Falk used to say, in his character as Colombo, the absent-minded professor-like detective, turning as he left,  ‘Just one more thing…’

Who do you say He is?  In your life. Notice the passage crashes away from the general and the philosophical—what do others say (general) about the son of man (philosophical).  Some say (general), the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the Prophets (philosophical).  Notice the move to the specific and the personal.  Who do you say I am?  Meaning for you today:  how are you going to live?  A life of studentship, or not?  Said Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And you?    Remember this.  Peter is the one who most needed forgiveness, and full pardon he did receive.  There is forgiveness in life (repeat). And the church is the place where people like Peter, like you and me, who need forgiveness, find themselves forgiven.   That is your legacy in the liberal church,

Matthew teaches us.

Moses, Paul, Matthew—they teach us how to live in the liberality of the gospel, wherein we worship God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  The passages become Holy Scripture, in that they make us more whole, more ourselves, more our own healthy, safe, well, best selves, holy because whole.   Scripture teaches us.  And, so does experience, sometimes both together.


Our long-time friend and virtual, radio congregant, Dr. Kris Kahle, in New Haven, Connecticut, often sends along something of interest, a passage from Camus, say, maybe from THE PLAGUE, or a paragraph from Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which he has been reading alongside his COVID 19 medical practice.  He and family are part of our extended family, an example of so many, far and near, who are with us in spirit, together in spirit, come Sunday. Perhaps you are one such. Grateful we are, thankful we are for Dr. Kahle and others, who share with us at Marsh Chapel, the freedom and love of the church, who share with us at Marsh Chapel, the fellowship, koinonia, commonwealth, partnership of the Gospel.  What began in the bulrushes of the Nile, and then was taught to the Romans by the Apostle to the Gentiles, and then, and now, today, in the Holy Gospel is acclaimed—this is the good news of ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Earlier in the summer Dr. Kahle took a moment apart from his medical teaching and practice to send me the video of John Lewis’s funeral, or rather, one of the eulogies therein.  We otherwise might have missed it, given the backwoods lack of technological connection—a summer blessing in the main—with which we live or don’t live, in the woods of upstate New York, come summer.  We trail technologically behind the Little House on the Prairie for some of the summer.  So, we would have missed it.  He sent it.  What a gift.

What made President Obama’s eulogy for Congressman Lewis so powerful?  It was a grand, high moment, a soaring eagle moment in American rhetoric.  Was it the reminder of what gracious eloquence can mean in leadership and life?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the painful but real measure of civil society, of what ground we have lost, much ground, much real and rhetorical and religious ground we have lost in these past few years?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the sense of the cost of progress, the willingness to work toward ‘a more perfect union’, recognizing, with sober honesty, the myriad imperfections that beset us?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the generous sense of common hope, that which can sustain the least and the last and the lost, as well as the rest of us?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the personal honor, in cadence and story and honesty and heart?  Yes, but no only that.  Was it the humanity—recalling Bill Clinton lifting his hand and pointing to the casket of Coretta Scott King in 2006, and stepping off his prepared text to shout, ‘for all these kind fancy words, don’t you forget, there’s a woman in that box.’  Yes, but not only that.  What was it, at depth, that made Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis such a tremendous gift to me from Dr. Kahle?  Let’s cogitate a minute on that while the sermon meanders and unwinds toward its conclusion this summer morning.

What was it that made President Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis so trenchant and true?  Scripture, Holy Scripture, The Church’s Book, The Book on and of the Church.  In the main, along with other ingredients mentioned, the power in his personal ability, rightly to choose and use timely verses of Scripture, the Holy Scripture taught and learned in the learning community of the liberal church.  The setting—Ebenezer Baptist—spoke the same truth, in the languages of architecture, history, pulpit, choir and people.   Yes, the church is both a representation and a distortion of the divine (Tillich).  But if for some reason the church were to disappear overnight, in a cultural tsunami, it would come back.  Even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  Somehow, we would find a table, and somehow a chair or two, and somehow some bread and wine, and somehow a Bible and an hour or so, and we would start again, as, in a way, we do every Sunday, which is especially and vividly apparent to us now in this pandemic.  We start over.  We would start with Holy Scripture.  It is this Holy Scripture in the Holy Church that rose up like a lion in the Obama eulogy for Lewis, the right verse in the right time in the right way.  James! ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”  That is the courage of the Book of James. Corinthians!  (SECOND Corinthians, let us be clear), We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.   Acts!  “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18).

It was the right handling of the word of truth that brought power and love, freedom and grace to life.  And it still does.  He concluded in eulogy, summarizing his three points, James, Corinthians and Acts:  And that’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.


August 2

Good Trouble

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22–31

Romans 9:1–5

Click here to hear just the sermon


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

John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

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

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

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

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

The Hebrew Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Testament

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

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

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

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

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

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

July 19

Elusive Presence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Genesis 28:10-19

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30

Click here to hear just the sermon


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

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

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

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

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

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

June 28

A Reading Life

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 10: 40-42

Click here to hear just the sermon

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange World of the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 10

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

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

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

Hold that thought.

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

Which part of this ministry draws you?

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

Reading Today

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

There is nothing innate about our racial hierarchy.

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

The heartbeat of racism is denial.

Racism creates a group differentiated vulnerability, and premature death.

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

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

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

People are rediscovering their own power.

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

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

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

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

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