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

January 23

Insurrection or Resurrection?

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4: 14-21

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Hear the gospel.  Our gift and task as people of faith is to live out the resurrection in this hour of insurrection.  Resurrection amid insurrection.


Our gospel this year is that of St. Luke, about more which other Sundays. Today Jesus meets us, for once, in the pulpit. He has chosen his text from Isaiah. He has read and spoken.

Jesus reads and interprets, in the stylized memory of Luke 4. He meets us in the garb of interpretation. Interpretation is a very delicate art. Communication is a delicate art. Interpretation is communication squared.

A vote tally is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what the tally meant. The announcement of the new evening programming is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what the change says, portends, about, say, generational communication. The body count is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what we are to make of horrendous loss.

Jesus reads from the beauty of later Isaiah. Then he interprets the meaning, meaning, now, the reading is fulfilled.

No other gospel records this reading from Isaiah, nor the remarkable interpretation which follows.. Mark does not record it in his writing from 70ce, nor Matthew from 85ce, nor John from 90ce. Only Luke includes Isaiah 61, only Luke has Jesus in the synagogue pulpit, only Luke devises the account of the scroll and its attendant, only Luke announces fulfillment in a dramatic conclusion. That is communication. Interpretation begins when we ask, ‘why’?

By so doing, Luke announces Jesus as bearer of the word, a resurrection word. There is a word, a passage and its meaning.

Luke has expanded and redesigned an account of Jesus’ hometown preaching, also recorded in Matthew 13 and Mark 6. You will find those two passages largely unlike what we heard a moment ago. Luke places Jesus, as apocalyptic preacher, announcing the advent of the kingdom, right in the beginning of the gospel. Moreover, this preachment is about the jubilee year, a prophetic hope that once in a lifetime, once every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, all indentured servants freed, and all land returned to its ancient owners. ‘Once in a lifetime the entire economy would be given a fresh start’ (Ringe, 69). We have no historical evidence that the Jubilee ever occurred, but we have Isaiah 61 to show the presence of such an imaginative hope.

Edward Schillebeex, a Roman Catholic Vatican II theologian from Holland, died about ten years ago. His ninety years were spent in interpretation. He was criticized for focusing the meaning of resurrection on what it means in people’s lives. He came from that school of thought that emphasized the preaching of the gospel as the experience of resurrection. Hearing in faith of the resurrection, and believing in obedient living, is the resurrection of the faith of Christ. Well, he and his form of Roman Catholic theological interpretation, are no longer the norm, in our sister church, if they ever were. But his insight lives on, raised, if you will, from the dead.

‘Truth happens’, as William James taught. Truth is spoken and heard. When in the course of human events, when in the ordinary run of one’s few earthly days, one hears and heeds a renewing truth, a good word, there is resurrection. Such a moment is not less than Easter morning, and is not a substitute for Easter morning, and is not apart from Easter morning. It is saving truth, grounded and rooted in the cross of Christ, heard and lived.  May we discover faith in God and faith in ourselves

A religious community that will honor, as Jesus is remembered here to have honored, the word, will live.

A traveling elder, in the tradition of our second hymn, is sent to preach. She is sent to preach the gospel of the resurrection. Renewal by word. We have many pulpits and an older pattern, which we may want to dust off, of sending the traveling preachers pulpit to pulpit. By the fourth time you preach a sermon, it can be pretty good. We are better off with one good sermon preached four times, than with four not so good, once each. Traditional liturgy is renewal in thought. Traveling elders are renewal in word.

Would that all God’s people were preachers and prophets! Or, as we did sing, ‘O for a thousand tongues…’

Word brings renewal to culture, religion, denomination, ministry and life.  Word brings resurrection.  That, there, here, now is good news, a resurrection word, resurrection amid insurrection.


But there are particular weeks and months when we most need to hear and re-hear the gospel. There are some weeks and months when good news seems hard to come by.  November 1963.  August 1968.  December 1988. September 2001.  April 2013.  November 2016.  January 2021. Yet these serial reminders of dark days, weeks and months past are meant, as you rightly surmise, to recall that we did make it through them, and we will get through this, too.  We did make it through them, and we will get through this, too. Not unscathed, and hopefully not unchanged, but together, we will make it through.  Some weeks, like that of January 6, one year ago.

At some preconscious level, somewhere down in the declivities of the country’s psyche, we had a sense that this was coming.  We did not want to admit it.  We hoped against hope to be wrong in that premonition.  We hoped to whistle past the graveyard for another few days.  Yet we remembered, dimly, our upbringing, ‘don’t play with fire if you don’t want to get burned’.

I pray for my own people, my own congregation, our University, our listenership, you and your loved ones, near or far or very far away.  It must be admitted, that there are some weeks when good news seems pretty hard to come by.  This is one.  A week in a month that includes the affrontery, the remembered predatory mendacity of a year and fortnight ago, January 6, 2021.

Today, following Jesus’ example in Luke 4, we announce the gospel in interpretation of and accord with the Scriptures. Scripture gives us the chance for the long view.  Scripture gives us a deep grounding, with heaven a little higher and earth a little wider. Thank goodness we have the Holy Scripture to which to turn, from which to  learn, with which to listen, pray and prepare.

Resurrection Amid Insurrection

Listen.  The Gospel of Luke was written for listening.  It emerged over long time, with the earliest Christians reciting and recalling their Lord, his love, and their shared shaping by that love, in faith, beginning in baptism.  They listened, morning and evening, Sunday by Sunday, and over time, in direct response to weeks both empty and full, they began to write down for future generations what they had heard.  Today we have such a lesson, the hearing of a voice.  Today we start again into an unknown future.  For all our failure, for all manner of sin and death and meaninglessness, for all that is wrong, and there is much, especially just now, there is a voice, ringing out and calling to us.  Especially in weeks when good news is scarce.  And in our time, into dimensions of common ground that may cause us work and make us uncertain, we will want to learn to listen, and listen again. Voices from this past week reverberate.  On MKL Sunday, after worship, and following our memorial service for Ed Mann, echoes of voices from this weekend in years past came along to encourage.  Dale Andrews, Walter Fluker, Peter Paris, Gil Caldwell, Liz Douglass, Lawrence Carter, Jennifer Quigley, Karen Coleman, Christopher Edwards, Cornell William Brooks, Deval Patrick. Particularly in these years on MLK Sunday, a resurrection word has been spoken and heard, here, for which we are grateful, lastingly so.  Then, through this week, the reverberations resounded.  Tuesday, Cornell William Brooks engaged an 11 day hunger strike this last week, he who spoke here on April 4, 2018.  Resurrection voice.  Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick implored us, we need an unrest of the heart, not unrest in the streets, but in the heart, unrest of the heart, he who spoke here on April 8, 2018.  Resurrection voice. Senator Rafael Warnock, student of Lawrence Carter who also preached here in 2018, spoke bluntly:  Some people don’t want some people to vote. Resurrection voice. Listen.  Listen.  Listen.

Pray.  What a tremendous spiritual gift is our Psalter.  Remember Samuel Terrien teaching us: :  Here are 700 years of psalms, 1000-400bce.  For the psalmists, Yahweh’s presence was not only made manifest in Zion.  It reached men and women over the entire earth.  The sense of Yahweh’s presence survived the annihilation of the temple and the fall of the state 587bc.  Elusive but real, it feared no geographical uprooting and no historical disruption.  Having faced the void in history and in their personal lives, they knew the absence of God even within the temple.  The inwardness of their spirituality, bred by the temple, rendered the temple superfluous. (279)  In other words, they knew how to live through and out through godless weeks.  Our psalm today, Psalm 19, ancient and redolent with glory, recalls for us how to pray.  From your youth you have known.  Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.  The ACTS forms of prayer.  Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray.

Prepare.  The whole of Scripture begins with the divine preparation, in creation, and in speech.  ‘Let there be…’  And what might that be, let there be?  Light.  Watch for the rays of light in the dark.  Watch for the rays of light in the darkWeeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning, he was reminded.  Yes, but that’s the thing about the morning, he responded, it begins in the full dark, it begins at dawn, before daybreak.  Light.  Watch for the coming rays of light.  Nor does light shine only in the heart, but also, even moreso, in the heart of the community.  Individuals need to prepare, but so do communities.  That’s the thing about the morning.  It begins in the dark, in preparation, awaiting the word… LET THERE BE LIGHT.  So, friend, you have the task and gift to face the time we are in.  To choose a way to support leadership you affirm, check by  check.  To influence the health of culture, meeting by meeting.  To live your franchise, vote by vote.  Give, go, vote. Prepare.  Prepare.  Prepare.

Now is the time.  In the halcyon, bucolic spring of high school senior year, a few years ago, Mrs. Bartels confronted your preacher.  Mr. Hill, you are failing my typing class.  You will get an F.  (But, why an F, I asked?)  Because she said it is the lowest grade I have on offer.  If I had a lower one I would give you that.  You do not want an F on your final grade sheet.  I see you talking to that talented pianist who accompanies the choir.  She got a typing A three years ago.  Maybe she could help you.

In fact, that talented pianist and typist did, and I came through with a C-, a gentleman’s C-.  But this sermonic spoonful of sugar is told to help the fateful medicine go down.  For Mrs. Bartels began each class, if memory serves, having us type the following sentence:  Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.  Now is the time for all good folk to come to the aid of their country.  Now.  Not later, now.  Without a functioning democracy we will never be able to address climate change, face race, outrun pandemic, keep peace on the globe, work for a just, participatory and sustainable culture, or live with hope.  So now is the time.  Send a check, attend a meeting, go and vote, especially younger folks, hear that last: vote, vote, vote.  It’s later than you think.

People of God.  Listen!  Pray!  Prepare!  And hear again the gospel, that of resurrection not of insurrection.

We conclude with a poem from the Lone Star State, and our theopoetical radio congregant, Milton Jordan.

Coda:  Creating Community

after Howard Thurman *

When the song of the marchers is silent

and annual memory of the Dream reshelved,

When Senators turn back to obstruction

and justice hard won is reversed,

When despair seems to cloud every vision

then the work of the people begins.

To call forth our shared hopes

and reclaim shattered trust

To bind up the broken

let the prisoner be free

To leave no neighbor hungry

nor any people at war,

To recreate community

and join all creation in song.

  • Following Thurman’s poem

“When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled. ”

This Week is a now and then poem from Milton Jordan on an item in the news.

Hear the gospel.  Our gift and task as people of faith is to live out the resurrection in this hour of insurrection.  Resurrection amid insurrection.

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

January 16

A Famine of the Word?

By Marsh Chapel

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Amos 8: 7-12

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One shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (2 Kings 1:8, Matt. 4:4).  You shall not live by bread alone.

Not by bread, alone, but by the word…

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

A long time ago, now, an Irishman wrote his first best seller. Frank McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, his coming of age novel, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself.  He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth.  His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words… how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.

Not by bread alone…

The ancients knew this.  An education is in part the freedom to travel beyond the confines of the 21st century.  Our Holy Scripture, read Sunday by Sunday at Marsh Chapel, is a part of that liberation, that freedom, that freeing of the mind.  The books of the prophets, from Hosea to Malachi, and from Isaiah to Daniel, are part of the spiritual road map, the religious diet for the long journey of, toward, in, by and through faith.  Amos fiercely predicts that all manner of calamity will befall his 8th century BC countrymen.  He saves the most horrific for last.  There will come a time, he forecasts, given human wayward habits, given that so many so often are willing to live a lie (this is sin, living a lie), even A BIG LIE, when there will be…no word.  After which, as Jesus so often said, it is too late. There does come a time sometimes in time when it is too late. Famine was the great scourge of antiquity, feared as today we fear nuclear holocaust.  Said Amos, famine is terrible, but…there is something worse.  A holocaust of the word, a famine of the word.  When there is no word, no truth, no communication, no consort, no connection.

Are we living in such a time?  Today?  Has a famine of the word befallen us?  A fit question for the memory of Martin Luther King, is it not?

A Time of Famine Today?

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?   A few hours spent exploring the cyber space might make you think so.  And yet, it must be added, there are treasures too there too.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  The great hopes with which television writing began, in the 1950’s, has given way to waste, a beautifully bedazzling wasteland.  And yet, there are exceptions, children of Rod Serling we might say, still found in the magic box.  You enter a new dimension, not of sight or of sound, but of mind and imagination.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  Look out at the internet, a sprawling universe of chat, governed by e-mail, and its second cousins.  E-mail:  immediate, global, indelible, irretrievable, reactive.  One medium of choice today.  And yet there are exceptions.  A carefully composed, thoughtful e-letter, kind and honest, personal and self-disclosive, sent over the waves after attentive editing.  A joyful e-note from Europe or Texas or Canada.  Or Dublin.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  I found cleaning out my wallet the other day that my public library card was still there. The human being, to be human, needs space and time for being.  Otherwise, we become human doings, not human beings.  For this reason, God made deep winter.  For this reason, of the making of books there is no end.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  Listen to our political and cultural discourse.  Twenty years ago, nearly, we were led to war on the argument that prudence dictated immediate action.  So, we could act preemptively–though this was not our custom, unilaterally—though this was not our desire, imperially—though this was not our heritage, unforeseeably–though this was not our preference.  A Christian country could be led to prosecute a post-Christian war, in 2003.  This, because of the fear of weapons of mass destruction.  But…where were they?  People know about mistakes, and thus about contrition, compunction, apology, learning. But correction takes compunction. He now of blessed memory, Bishop Desmond Tutu, could teach us about truth and about reconciliation. But truth needs saying, doesn’t it?  Or are we beyond telling the truth?

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  Someone should right a diary of our daily talk, like Victor Klemperer did in Germany from 1933—1945.  What would such a diary record?  What is the character of our daily conversation, to the extent we have time for it?  How well do we listen?  How carefully do we remember?  How insightfully do we respond?  How lovingly do we visit?  Do we visit?

Has a famine of the word, that prospect in Holy Writ, in ancient Scripture, in the dusty book of the prophet, has it come upon us? Think back one year and one week.

There are some weeks when good news seems hard to come by, and (that) week (was) one such. 

Coming into (that) week already we faced challenges aplenty.  A climate reeling out of control.  A pandemic claiming (at that time) 350,000 lives.  A political culture, a culture cooked politics, for politics is ever downstream from culture, putting people at daggers drawn.  A community of communities seeing, in full, for the first full time it may be, the ravages and damages of racial bias, hatred, and prejudice.  And pain, the pain of every day.  And then, January 6, 2021. Insurrection with presidential incitement.

For the rest of history, for the rest of our lives, we shall have to live with, and attempt by faith to live down, both to live with and to live down, such utter calumny, such tragic, needless, heedless yet revelatory disaster.  It (was) an apocalyptic—a revelatory—moment, hundreds wrecking the capitol…One said, ‘this is like 9/11, except we did this to ourselves’.

(RAH, 1/7/21, (slightly amended)).  More on this another week.

Listening for A Prophetic Word Today

Amos spoke 800 years before the birth of Christ.  He mourned the bitter loss of an only son, before that phrase would trigger theological reflection, as it does for us.  He foretold a darkness at noon before that phrase titled an account of Stalin’s purge.  He spoke of songs becoming laments before the poetry of Robert Pinsky subsequent to 9/11.  Amos like John the Baptist comes before Jesus the Christ.  Amos’s prophecy about a famine of the word may fit most or some of our current experience.  I wager it fits more than we care readily to admit.  But this is not the last word.

We trust our life and future to Jesus Christ (repeat).  It is his word, finally, that carries us, and his role as Prophet that means most for us.  In him, the voice of the prophet continues, even in a word famine, to speak to us.

The other cold day I noticed the temperature.  –2 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here is a strange reality.  There are great gulfs crossed between gas to liquid and liquid to solid.  But those gulfs are numerically unheralded.  They are not know by great numbers like 100 degrees or 0 degrees.  No, they are found out on the arithmetical periphery, in forgotten minor numbers like 32 and 212.  Celsius is so much more orderly.  But Fahrenheit is like prophecy.  You find the word spoken in forgotten places (repeat).  With Amos, in a little hamlet of Tekoa.  With Jesus, up on the lakeshore.  With Wesley, in coal mines.  With King, in the black church.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  This is what Amos did, however unsuccessfully, for his people, smitten by a word famine.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  Reinhold Niebuhr did so over a long life-time of restrained, earnest engagement with life. This paragraph of Niebuhr’s abides in memory: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.  Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.” (Sifton 349)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  So said Abraham Heschel, as he and Niebuhr, then older men, walked their dogs together on Riverside Drive.  Heschel preached Niebuhr’s funeral. Wouldn’t you have loved to overhear their banter? Listen to Heschel’s voice: “The demand in biblical religion is to be alert, and to be open to what is happening…Awe enables us to sense in the small things the beginnings of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple.”

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  The generations deep hurt of people of color in these United States finally found fullest voice in the well tempered homiletics of Martin Luther King.  In Christ, the divine voice has taken full throated residence in the heart of hurt.  A voice to be heard needs loving connection with an addressable community.  The prophet does not stand above or apart from his people.  He abides, dwells, tabernacles among them. Among us.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  During WW II Paul Tillich took the NYC subway downtown once a week to speak over Radio Free Europe, to speak to his German relatives.  Listen to Tillich’s radio voice:  Listen to his radio voice regarding the National Socialists: “They know all about tragedy, for their creed educates for tragic heroism, it educates for death, but this is all Nazism knows, whereas democracy, socialism, Christianity all have something that stands beyond tragedy, a hope for the human race.” (Sifton 265).

Honoring Prophetic Speech

Up then and let us wait for the Word, waiting without idols, waiting without substitutes.  And as we wait, let us honor the prophetic speech of Amos, of Jesus, of Wesley, and, especially today, of King.  And let us act so in particular.

Let us prize the days in winter, the gifts of winter snow days, to read, to read ourselves, to read to our grandchildren, to invest in the joy and the spiritual grace of reflection that comes from reading.  A literate person today is not one who can read, but one who does read.

Let us protect and preserve the possibility of a divine Word, heard as spoken, by listening with intense presence and presence of mind, come Sunday, and responding both in affirmation and in critique.  People have such remarkable, and shabby reasons not to worship.  Not you, not we.  Listen…for the word of God.

Let us then speak ourselves, as we have spirit.  At least in prayer.  By visiting with one another (and that more than a broadcast e-mail).  By writing down our views:  in a journal, for a letter, as a letter to the editor.  Numbers 11:29: “Would that all God’s people were prophets”.

Our job is not to remember and recite, but to live and speak!

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “The great stumbling block is the white moderate more devoted to order than justice”.

Our job is to be alert to the weighty matters of justice and mercy and love—of jobs and money and life.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”. Our job is to find that something.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.             Our job is to re-build that nation, even, in the deep shadow of January 6.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “let freedom ring” Our job is to make it ring, in our time, in the face of the fears of this time.

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “I just want to do God’s will…we as a people will get to the promised land”. Our job is to get walking.

For one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

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

January 2

Divine Presence

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1: 1-18

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The text for this sermon is not available.

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

December 26


By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2: 41-52

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 The only Scriptural account we have of Jesus’ growth and boyhood is located in today’s reading.  Only here does the Gospel allow us a glimpse of Jesus growing up.  In this one picture of our Lord’s maturation, we find him engaging the great teachers of his time.  After three days they found him the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Later ages, and later writings, did not resist the urge to imagine Jesus in his boyhood, clever, magical, boy deity, able to make birds from stones and animals from the very dirt at his feet.  But the Holy Gospel of St. Luke, for which and in which we stand, refrains from wilder speculation.  Only here, just for a moment, does the writer relent and, in the reading meant for the Sunday after Christmas, show us the young Jesus, the young man Jesus, Jesus as a young man, which in some measure he would be for the whole of his earthly life.  He who was to call disciples, now himself, just this once, is a disciple too.  He whose life is the heart of faith, the call to faith, a daily call to faith, for this Christmas moment, is himself so called.  And what is Jesus doing, in faith, for faith, toward faith this morning?  Why, he is reading.

What good news this is for educators near and far, and for grandparents and parents and teachers and all who labor and are heavy laden in the educational projects of our time, always rigorous, and now COVID covered and far more so!  As he blessed weddings in Cana and healers in Bethany, so now Jesus, by his presence and practice, blesses those who teach, who prepare the ground for a lifetime, a lifesaving call to faith, and those of us fortunate to have received their teaching, and so to have been seized by the confession of the church, the confession of faith.

Jesus is our Lord and Savior, born in a manger.   Come Christmas, He is our transforming friend.  We have gathered, after already much church this week, to pray and listen for grace, because of Jesus, our transforming friend.  We bear witness, today, that Jesus has transformed our life, made us happier and better people than otherwise we would have been without him.  How we hope that people, others, especially young people, will experience his power and love, in their own way and time!

For Christmas 2021 for us may bring a time to take another look at our walk in faith.  Our gracious Advent daily devotions guided us in this direction, day by day.  All fall we have noted that faith comes, to most of us, one step at a time.  Yes, there are some for whom a blinding light on the Road to Damascus, a blinding light on the road of life, carries us to faith.  But most of us come along more gradually, one step and then another.  One such step, in faith, is to find a way to read, to read, to read what nourishes faith by nourishing the soul. the rhythm of reading that fits your own-most self.  This morning, it may be, is a time for that step, to make a resolution to read in 2022.  For the elusive presence of the divine lies at the marrow of the Christmas gospel, embedded in the strange stories of the season.

A few years ago, a friend down south sent me a copy of an article by E.J Dionne (WAPO, 12/23/18).  I keep it in my drawer, and re-read it at this time of year.  It rightly celebrates those who come to church come Christmas, perhaps only then, or only then and at Easter.  Perhaps you have come or are listening during Christmas, hoping for—what?, waiting for—what?, ready, it may be to hear a call to faith.  Dionne wrote about the difficulties in organized religion, particularly Christianity, today:  a decline in religious observance, the rise of the ‘nones’ (now a quarter of the population in the US, and 40% of those under 30), about unwelcoming attitudes and practices regarding the LGBTQIA portion of the population, about clergy sexual abuse, about the ‘complicated and compromised structures of churches and denominations’, but went further:

Christmas remains wondrous, but it arrives at a difficult moment for Christianity in the United States…Regular worshipers can be disdainful of the Chreasters. But these twice-a-year visitors deserve our attention and, I would argue, our respect. Their semiannual presence is also testimony to the enduring hunger for the experience of the sacred…

Yes. Just so.  Testimony to the enduring hunger for the experience of the sacred.  You feel it in the bones on Christmas Eve, the sanctuary dark, with candles lifted, and Silent Night sung.  Yes.  Just so.

Dionne then went on to name and cite three people whose work and teaching, as it happens,  I have personally known, with whom I have taught and studied, and who have meant a great deal to me and others.  Reading matters.  Theology matters.  Dionne’s capacity to call up these three wise persons, for our inspiration, also matters.

One is Gabriel Vahanian:  (Dionne) What the theologian Gabriel Vahanian observed decades ago…explains the larger context: “Christianity has long since ceased to be coextensive with our culture,” he wrote, and “our age is post-Christian both theologically and culturally.” I remember Vahanian granting me an interview in his Syracuse University Hall of Languages third floor office, one winter day long ago, and his comment, in a beautiful French accent, Ze will of man, it is more inscrutable zan ze vill of God!

One is Peter Berger, whom some of you knew here at BU:  (Dionne)The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger offers a clue in “A Rumor of Angels,” his 1969 book about the persistence of faith in the face of rapid secularization…the stubborn refusal of human beings to give up on the transcendent. I picture Berger at lunch here on Commonwealth Avenue, chastising the Lutheran church he very much loved, and warming to tell a truly funny joke.  And I remember his memorial service, in our neighborhood, 2017.

One is N.T. Wright, for whom I was a teaching assistant at McGill over three years: (Dionne)The biblical scholar and former Anglican bishop N.T. Wright sees “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships and the delight in beauty” as human aspirations beyond the material that can be heard as “echoes of a voice” pointing toward God (from Wright’s book, Simply Christian).  I picture Wright both curious and frowning as I guest lectured on the Gnostics; inviting me to dinner in his Montreal home, with four beautiful growing children; his desk stuffed in tiny closet under the hallway stairs.  A few summers ago we lunched across the river at Harvard.  He chuckled and thanked me for a sermon title from decades ago, What a Friend We Have in Paul. ()

Jesus had his teachers, at least according to Luke.  And we have our own. Vahanian, Berger and Wright, in very different theological voices, would approve Dionne’s reliance on them.  You might like to read them!  My friend (Mr. Art Jester), in sending the article, brought these teachers back to me, and so gave me back a part of myself.  And that is what friends do, they give us back ourselves.  And finally, then, Dionne himself, who preceded us in our room the week before we were speaking at Chautauqua Institution, four summers ago:

(People) show up twice a year because some part of them is in rebellion against a society defined solely by self-interest and calculation, by the visible, the measurable and the tangible. They have an intimation that the world is made up, in the words of the Nicene Creed, of both the “seen and unseen.”…Christmas sketches “a picture of a cosmos capable of love.” (Joseph Bottom).

A picture of a cosmos capable of love!

Are we lovers anymore? Christmas comes along with a question:  Are we lovers anymore, or are we resigned to a post-agapic, post-agape, ‘post-love’ world and life?  (From my point of view the Christmas longing is not only for transcendence, but also and more so for love.) And in the question there is a call.  Are we lovers anymore?  Are we?

In 2006, our first autumn in Boston, I received a telephone call from a woman I did not know.  She had been prompted to call me by my teacher, Dr. Christopher Morse, he who was a part of that pantheon of powerful professors at Union Theological Seminary 50 years ago:  Raymond Brown, J Louis Martyn, Robert McAfee Brown, Donald Shriver, Cyril Richardson, James Forbes, James Washington, James Cone, Beverly Harrison, Kosuke Koyama, all.  The caller was Sara Terrien now of blessed memory:  Christopher tells me there is a Union man at Marsh Chapel and I should call him up and welcome him.  Is that you?  Sara’s husband, Samuel Terrien, retired from teaching Hebrew Bible three months before I arrived at Union, and he had died some years before her call.  I never met him, or studied with him, to my great loss.  But through his books, he has taught me, especially his great work, Elusive Presence.  He has taught me over the valley of the shadow,  come to shape, guide and form my own faith, my own theology, my own liberal biblical theology.  To you I commend him, and his work, and his book, even as I cherish Sara’s personal, pastoral, kind telephone call of many years ago.  Terrien wrote:

Presence….does not alter nature, but changes history…through the character and lives of women and men….The elusive presence of…a walking not a sitting God, a God nomadic, hidden, elusive and free…a God of tent not temple, of ear not eye, of name not glory…a God who creates and calls out a spiritual interiority, a commission by command…Hebrew not Judaic, a God of time not space, of grace not place…whose faith allows one to translate love for God into actual behavior in society…whose prophets demythologize space for the sake of time…a religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true…’vere tu es Deus absconditus’. (Elusive Presence, in passim).

Read something great this year, 2022, something that feeds your soul, that pushes off and faces down pandemic, something that surprises you, as in our friend and South Texas poet minister, Milton Jordan’s playful December poem, of this week, A South Texas Christmas:

At first glance this late December day

the weather line on my device seems

normal enough. Twenty-six is chilly

but not unheard of; until I realize

my device, just to be contrary,

has converted to Celsius

(used with author’s permission)

Before we let technology have all the power alone, maybe we could spend some time reading.  Read.  It is one step in faith.  As Robert Bly, now himself of blessed memory put it, I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character, and events of one’s own life. (NYT, obituary 12/21).

In the early 1970’s, a decade that seems eerily and tragically similar in its outworking to our own, some came into ministry out of parsonages, some out of college chaplaincies, some out of summer camping experiences, and some of us out of all three.  In late August one year a group of high schoolers set up a panel, a kind of truth and justice panel if you will, of six elderly clergy, to ask about faith.  How do we find our way to faith, the younger asked the older?  One crisp response stands out, among the others:  Read.  You are going to need to apply yourself, learn, read, grow in what you know so that you may thrive in what makes you come alive.

The minister did not mention Augustine of Hippo.  But he might have.  He who found faith by reading alone in a garden.  you may take a seat for a moment in Marsh Chapel, under the window of St. Augustine, just here, who amid tears, misery and lamentation reclaimed his own soul by reading:

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”]…

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Confessions, 29)

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

December 19

Another Look

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 1:3945

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It may be time to take another look at prayer.

Christmas 2021 for us may bring a time to take another look at our devotional life, our worship life, another look, at prayer.  Our Advent daily devotions have guided us in this direction, day by day.  All fall we have noted that faith comes, to most of us, one step at a time.  Yes, there are some for whom a blinding light on the Road to Damascus, a blinding light on the road of life, carries us to faith.  But most of us come along more gradually, one step and then another.  One such step in faith is to find the rhythm of prayer, of devotion, that fits your own-most self.  This morning, it may be, is a time for that step, to take another look at prayer, at mystery, at the numinous, at worship.  The elusive presence of the divine lies at the marrow of the Christmas gospel, embedded in the strange stories of the season.

Our Gospel this morning is a case in point.  Luke acquaints us with two births, John and Jesus, two mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  Multiple generations are engaged in audible utterance, at the dawn of a new age.  I heard the sound…the child leaped.

The Holy Scripture read in worship itself may call you this morning to another look at prayer.  A familiar introit has called us to prayer.  There are hymns, hymns sung, and you hear them. You recognize again a kyrie, a sung sorrow, crucial to being human today.  Mercy, have mercy.  Some courageous soul has led a psalm.  Anthem, hymn, reading, prayer.  And a story so well known that it is unknown.  A story of birth.   Let there be no separation between what is said and what is heard.  Let the snow filter fully down this morning, snow upon snow.  Let the message of the day be yours and ours.

For Jesus’ birth is like all births, in that physical sense utterly predictable.  Yet ask yourself where in life you have felt closer to miracle than at the moment of birth.  An ordinary extraordinary.  For the telling of Christmas, from the very first, was about more than one birth, more than one kind of birth.  The gospel writer is trying to say what cannot readily or easily be said, to connect the sense of the extraordinary with the experience of the ordinary.  There were many births in first century Palestine.  To this one birth there came attached a second birth.  Yes, that of John alongside that of Jesus, but more so his birth, somehow, alongside our own.

Charles Wesley caught the marrow of the message in a phrase: “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth”.  For the Wesleys both, it was the incarnation of Christ, his birth and life and word made flesh, which rooted and grounded their reverence.  The English carols we most love, both those Charles wrote, and those that influenced him and were influenced by him, bring their disciplined obedience to a fever pitch.

Our Scripture lessons today bring harmonic support to the intersection of the ordinary with the extraordinary, which intersection is the mailing address of prayer.  Micah, Mary, Hebrews, Elizabeth–whether in prophecy or in song or in address, the voices of today’s Scriptures also lift up the strange paradox of earthly heaven and heavenly earth.

What does the Scripture mean by the birth of the Christ, and what especially does this mean for us, for our second birth, as the hymn has it?

Are we able to enter again into our mother’s womb, either in figure or in truth?  But no.  This is the question Nicodemus raised, to no avail.  We cannot return to an earlier condition, nor to an earlier conception of an earlier condition.  Heraclitus was so right so long ago:  no one ever steps into the same river twice.  The second birth clearly is not a physical or conceptual retreat, or return, or recapitulation.  It is a step forward, another look, another step, in faith.

Are we to assume a second naivete, at the heart of the Wesleyan second birth?  Paul Ricouer, and others using other terms, have recalled to us the mature, midlife importance of such a second birth.

The Scripture in other quarters clearly connects the meaning of the birth with the meaning of the name of the newborn, ‘one who will save his people from their sins’.  Paul may speak of the Christ as the Lord of a new creation.  Mark may affirm the Christ as hidden and crucified.  John may herald the Christ at his coming as one with God, revealing God.  Matthew early and late acclaims the atonement wrought in Christ, the healing from past error, the steady saving removal to higher ground.  This is a great hope, the hope of freedom, deliverance from what has hurt in the past.  Today, Luke heralds two births, the Baptist and the Christ, John and Jesus.  Two. When saving liberation occurs, there is a kind of second birth, a new lease on life, a new life.  This second birth is the one that carries you forward, one step, to take another look at prayer.

Something somehow has brought you to prayer this Sunday morning.  Here you are, present or listening or both.  Maybe you have been at this intersection before, and are ready to take another look.

Nudges come from many directions. You may have heard the Methodist minister from western Kentucky, Joey Reed, last week, standing in the rubble of his Mayfield Kentucky church, in the basement of which he and his wife had survived the tornado.  “I realized it might be my last few moments of my life on this earth and I was very glad to be with my wife,” he said. “I know her prayer and mine was that we’d be spared. I was afraid for my children, what would happen to them and how they would respond to this.”  And then he began talking about helping others, regathering the congregation, holding on to the precious memories of that building, and, with grateful tears, looking forward to solemnizing the marriage of this daughter.  That is, in the midst of trauma, he called on the grammar of faith, he called on the language of worship, he called on the cadences of prayer.

Or, it may be, the beautiful music of our organ and organist draw you, week by week.  Through the late afternoons of pandemic, with office the quiet, the organ playing in the nave above brought us another look at prayer.  A powerful listening look at prayer.  The organ preaches its own sermon, lifts its own prayer, week by week, as a friend’s reminder of Thomas Troeger’s poem recently recalled:

With pipes of tin and wood make known
the truth each star displays:
creation is a field that’s sown
with seeds of thanks and praise.
Articulate with measured sound
the song that fills all solid matter sings.

With pipes of tin and wood restart
the fire the prophets knew
and fan the flame within the heart
to do what God would do.
Pull out the stops that train the ear–
the flute and reed to listen and more subtly hear
God’s call through human need.

With pipes of tin and wood repeat
the music danced and played to welcome home
and warmly greet the prodigal who strayed.
Let healing harmonies release
the hurt the heart compiles
that God through music may increase
the grace that reconciles.

With pipes disclose the song the world has blurred,
the hymn of life and love that flows
from God’s renewing word.
Then boldly open wide the swell
and with a trumpet call
announce the news we thirst to tell:
That Christ is Lord of all.

 Here is a Christmas word.  You are still listening, if you are listening.  I am still preaching, for a few more minutes.  And we are together, amid the daily, hourly difficult pandemic worries to one side, and a sense of the Extraordinary on the other.  For all the sorrow, there is still, on your part, and on mine, and on others’, a listening ear, a willingness to tune in, a hard to articulate longing, a reaching toward…Another.  Another look.  What is that listening?  What is that willingness?  What is that longing?

One form of the second birth is here.  One form.  A second religious birth, a second connection, a second opening.  You would not listen if there were not some meager eagerness to wake up to…Another.  Generosity, compassion, forgiveness—these are the hallmarks and doorways into that second birth.  You have the heart to give something to others, generously to give something without expecting any personal return.  You have the spirit to be present with someone whose own spirit is sore, spiritually to walk with a fellow human being.  You have the soul to forgive a past fault, whether it was thirty days or thirty years ago, mercifully to move on, and say so, and mean it.  Your generosity, your compassion, your forgiveness—at least your longing for and leaning toward and listening to them—these are the natal cries of a prayer.  Another look.  At prayer. You may be ready to pray, or to pray again.

Last Sunday we prepared for worship, readers and choristers and clergy, looking greatly forward to the chance to pray, and to sing, and to sing the glorious carols of Christmas.  We expected a modest gathering, a partial percentage of our regular seasonal attendance.  And then, we processed in to the nave of the Chapel, and, my goodness, the church was full, or nearly so. It took the breath away.  It was another look, given by those ready maybe to take another look, another look at religion, at singing, at sacrament, at Scripture, at sermon, at worship.  Another look at prayer. The worship of Almighty God is not a matter of indifference.  Said that strong gathered throng last Sunday:  the worship of Almighty God is not a matter of indifference.

Take another look.  Take another look at prayer, at a kind of prayer that suits you, fits you, is meant for you.

In the new year, you may be given a gift of another look, a new start on a genuine religious life.  Howard Thurman would not be surprised:

When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner

To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among brothers and sisters
To make music in the heart.

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

December 12

Marsh Chapel’s Forty-Eighth Annual Service of Christmas Lessons and Carols

By Marsh Chapel

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols.
Marsh Chapel’s Forty-Eighth Annual Service of Christmas Lessons and Carols, was celebrated Friday, December 10 at 6:00 p.m and again on Sunday, December 12 at 11:00 a.m. Friday’s service was video live streamed, click here to view the recording of the Friday evening service. Click here to listen to a recording of the full Sunday morning Lessons and Carols service.
The liturgy for one of BU’s most popular annual events is inspired by the century-old iconic Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. Music was be provided by the Marsh Chapel Choir and the Majestic Brass Quintet.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

December 10

Marsh Chapel’s Forty-Eighth Annual Service of Christmas Lessons and Carols

By Marsh Chapel

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols.

Marsh Chapel’s Forty-Eighth Annual Service of Christmas Lessons and Carols, was celebrated Friday, December 10 at 6:00 p.m and again on Sunday, December 12 at 11:00 a.m. The Friday service was video live streamed for those who could not attend in-person. The liturgy for one of BU’s most popular annual events is inspired by the century-old iconic Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. Music was be provided by the Marsh Chapel Choir and the Majestic Brass Quintet.  Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below: Click here to view the live stream of the full service.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

December 5

Memory and View

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 3: 1-6

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Past and Future

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Our beloved Aunt Jane, now of blessed memory, lived with a gladness of heart, with a spiritual gladness, with a heart strangely warmed, as a child of God, a woman happy in God.  A singing Methodist with a warm Methodist handshake, she taught math, and helped her fifth graders to learn to sing:  row row row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.  Life is but a dream.

Come Advent, we ponder dreams, as did John the Baptist, wet and cold in the murky Jordan.  Do you record your dreams?  One advantage of a college education, four years of freedom, subsidized freedom, to study and read and learn and change, the college advantage, is now and then, at least in part, to escape the 21st century.  Yours is the chance by thought and lection and dream, to get out of December 2021, and dwell elsewhere, for a time.  Others too spoke of dreams.

Take Shakespeare.  Here is Prospero, in the Tempest, singing for all time, and all times, and our time:  We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’  Rounded with a sleep. Rounded with a sleep.  The line came to mind at the gravesite last Saturday.  She, a positive, optimistic, possibilist, would smile to hear it:  We are such stuff as dreams are made on. You…you are such stuff as dreams are made on.

Shakespeare, for dreams and for poetry about dreams has a partner in his Spanish contemporary, Calderon de la Barca, would died at 81 in 1681.  Of dreams—your stuff, you on whom dreams are made– “¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí. ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión, una sombra, una ficción, y el mayor bien es pequeño; que toda la vida es sueño, y los sueños, sueños son”…y los suenos suenos son…even dreams themselves are themselves dreams.

You are such stuff as dreams are made on.

In hours and days when we rue and mourn the senseless and needless slaughter of innocents in public school corridors, ‘such stuff’ can be hard to hear, difficult to remember, a long way off, far and far away.  Such tragedy.  This is a tragedy embedded in a second amendment, originally meant to provide poor farmers defense against enemies foreign and domestic, become nationwide by the willful celebration of guns, of gun rights, and of gun violence, a portal to the loss of children, now with parents in utter grief and teachers in utter sadness, and a nation drenched in sorrow, teachers, by the way, quite like our dear Aunt Jane of blessed memory.

You are not meant to die by gunshot, or be assaulted, or en masse be misled, or be tethered to technology. You are the stuff on which dreams are made.  You are.  We are.  So let us live so, and choose so, and vote so, and treat others so.  Let us learn from the apostle, that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight (how in our time we need this!) to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.

That Thanksgiving vacation week, six of eight grandchildren, for the moment safe and secure, played in front of the fireplace in our modest cabin in the woods.  The oldest had been there, right there, 5 weeks after birth, and the others much the same.  The small room’s windows look out over the full length of the lake, facing northwest.  They played.  With authority their grandmother asked, What do you most love about this place?  There was long silence, somewhat an embarrassed one.  Then, quietly, the 13 year old said, The memories, I love most the memories here. And then another long quiet, a big chill of quiet.  Then, quietly, the 11 year old said, The view, I love most the view.

Memory and view.  Hopefully good memories and beautiful views.  These we receive from others.  Powerfully, come Advent, we receive them again from the church.  The church, so avoided, mocked, forgotten and underfunded today, the church gives you memory and view.  The memory of others who have lived dream lives, and an open view of the future, open to an open future.  Be open, said Tillich.   Cold to the bone, awaiting the Messiah in the water, John the Baptist embodies the memories of all the glories of Israel and the view of the gift and promise of heaven.  Of course, here in bread and cup, we chew on the memories and drink deeply of the hope of heaven.  Do you know God to be a pardoning God, intoned Wesley.  Do you?

In Conversation

There is a saving power, a saving grace in our Advent interest in conversation.  It costs nothing to listen, except time and risk.  And it costs nothing to speak, except time and risk.  Listen for what is not said or not clearly said.  Could you say that in another way?  What I hear you to have said is just this.  Do you really mean that, or do you mean half or double that?  It sounds to me like you are wandering around Robin Hood’s barn, and that makes me wonder why you are wandering like that.  When you say that, who do you have in mind?  Why do I have the feeling that you have a feeling about this?  Let’s talk about this again some day. There is a healing power, a healing grace in conversation.  Most people can in time solve their own problems, if they just have someone to talk to about them, who will really listen to them.  Maybe you will be that someone for someone else this week?  Prepare ye, though, be prepared

For in conversation, you are part bull fighter, part heavy weight boxer, part private detective, part spy.  At stake, for all, is lasting health, personal salvation, individual growth, spiritual integrity, and the chance, the fleeting chance to experience being alive before we die.  The cape ripples and the saber rattles.  The prize fighter dodges, weaves, ducks, swings, retreats, advances.  The PI looks through the back window, checks the mail in the mail box, notices the water still dripping from the faucet, puts two and two together.  The one disguised behind enemy lines smiles, demurs, nods, remembers, and then will try to bring home a truth, the truth in hand, without getting caught.  But these arts are learned, practiced, sharpened, conveyed, by one and another…in conversation, come Advent, Advent conversation.

Lukan Baptist

So, the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair, with a diet of locusts and honey (though Luke omits to dress and feed him as Mark so does), John the Baptist is the precursor to Jesus.  You cannot get to Christmas without Advent.  You cannot come to Bethlehem except by way of the Jordan.  You cannot celebrate grace without hearing first the prophetic voice (though it is also good to be reminded that the prophetic is a part of the gospel but not the heart of the gospel (repeat)).  Every year, right now, the Baptist, out in the dark cold miserable mud-soaked Jordan River, stops us.  He stops you.  He says the one prayerful word of the precursor, the prophetic word: ‘Prepare’.  Then he calls the whole people to prayer:  to repentance for pervasive sin; to acceptance of pardon as the way out of evil and hurt; to assurance of grace.

Prayer is what comes before the rest, like Sunday morning is meant to come before the rest (of the week).  Are you getting off on the right foot week by week?

John the Baptist would want to know.  Look carefully at what Luke says about him.  See the Lukan Baptist, different from John the Baptist in Mark.   Mark, 20 years before, begins his gospel with the Baptist.  The gospel opens, ‘the voice of one…’  Not Luke.  Luke wants John put in particular context, 20 years later.

(We want to hear the gospel in the gospels.  Luke says something different from what he borrowed out of Mark.  That should give us confidence, as we preach, to take the gospel in hand, and apply it to our own condition, our own time, as, well, the first gospel writers all did.)

So, Luke has a history that precedes the precursor.  This history, an orderly one, tells of the conjoint mysterious births of John and Jesus.  This history, an orderly one, gives singing voice to Zechariah (whose psalm we used today) and Mary (two weeks hence).  This history, an orderly one, acknowledges the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.  This history, an orderly one, honors Joseph, and paints like El Greco shepherds in the firelight of the ‘smoking cradle’ (Barth).  This history, an orderly one, makes a little space for the childhood of Jesus, in woe and weal both, circumcision, presentation, growth in wisdom, and temple teaching.  Then, only, does Luke allow the Baptist to appear.  But even here, it is the orderly history that prevails: 15 years, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, unpronounceable regions, eminently forgettable tetrarchs and priesthoods (‘a six-fold synchronism’, as Bultmann wryly remarks (HST, 362)).   Luke is making sure Jesus has his feet firmly planted in history, both of secular Empire and sacred Temple and an orderly history at that.   So, for us, our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.


An idea arrives.  Whence an idea?  Whence a thought? One interest in ministry is ‘conversation’.  Two books by our MIT neighbor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, have guided some of our thought in the past.  Her voice is a crucial one, regarding students, in this conversation about conversation.   Our work on conversation benefits from good ideas, like hers.  Musing, an idea, maybe a good idea, has arrived, as the green sea fields of young corn roll by.

Where did that idea, that imaginative possibility come from?  Whence such an idea?  How does a new prospect—here, the possibility of books read–come to life?  The moment of insight, of new thought, the arrival of an idea comes on its own without our choice really, without a well-manicured airport, runway or landing strip.  Whence an idea?  What is going on when we think?  Or when we think we are thinking?  Or when we think about our thinking?  Whence an idea?

There is no full answer, at least this morning.  Today, perhaps, we simply want to pause before the mystery, one of life’s great mysteries, the birth of an idea, in this case quite a modest one, but an idea nonetheless.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength—and mind.  And you love your neighbor as yourself.  Whence an idea?

Here is an idea, more daydream than dream. As we head into a winter better than last years’s but not probably as good as next year’s or as good as we had hoped, maybe some memory and some view will help us. Pardon this more pastoral word. A winter advisory if you will. Carry the memory of what you learned in endurance and creativity last year. And carry the wide angle view behind pandemic, the promise one day of post pandemic play, a hope fir next year. Memory and view. We need the two.

The gift of memory.  The gift of view.  Life is but a dream.  Rounded with a sleep.  Suenos suenos son.  So, another’s imagination, another’s Advent season, winter epoch imagination, north of Boston, a hundred years ago.  Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 We await in the season of promise and expectation, of memory and view,  the coming of a new day, in which all flesh shall see the salvation of God. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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

November 28

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the service

Due to technical difficulties a full recording of this service is unavailable.

Luke 21:25–36

Click here to hear just the sermon

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

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

A conversation starts, somehow.  A conversation travels, somewhere.  A conversation ends, sometime.  After months of screen, of zoom, of facetime, of text, of email, of distance, of attention to spaces, electronic spaces to which nuance, humor, personality, humanity, and connection so often go to die, we have this autumn been returned to the land of conversation.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  There is a robust magic in conversation, whereby John Wesley named conversation a means of grace, alongside prayer, Scripture, sacraments, and fasting.  Conversation.  One step in and toward faith begins with a regard for conversation.

In our current Marsh Chapel ministry, on Bach Sundays, we engage a conversation.  We model that conversation in two voice dialogue, Director and Dean.  The conversation engages past with future, Scripture with music, wisdom with beauty, and Bach with experience.  Our COVID time has muted conversation, to some degree, but has not squelched it, at least not yet.

In conversation, there abides, or lurks, the lasting possibility of heart to heart communication, heart by heart communion.  That potential seizes you, not the other way around.   You are longways, say, into a talk with an old dear friend, and of a sudden, you realize, you intuit, just how much that friendship means, a friendship planted and grown in conversation.  You are gathered before dinner, and the children, coaxed, begin to sing the songs of memory, of history, of Zion, of nation, of upgrowing.  The folksongs, the hymns, the partner songs, the spirituals, the camp fire rounds, multiple rounds, give off an invisible glow, a kind of verbal hearth.  Or, there is a moment of difference. Some things, like some malignancies, you can never cure but you can manage.  They are manageable but not curable.  They can be managed, managed to ground, even though, unseen, the malignancy remains.  In conversation, in the magic of conversation, such hard and dark and difficult truth can surface.  You realize afterward, that one loved one, in one seemingly innocuous conversation, was trying to say something, something like, I am worried about this medical procedure…  But the clues and hues and dues and schmooze are sometimes too indirect, too subtle, and you miss the marrow and meaning of the talk, only to recall it, only to get it, later, much later, too late.  You are in a meeting, and all of sudden the temperature shifts, and sunlight and warmth become cave darks, stalactites and stalagmites.  And the conversation flickers, withers, and dies.  Something is in there.  It would be utterly invisible and inaudible by zoom.  But in conversation, in presence, with embodied silence, and incarnate body language, you see and hear.   She is really hurting.  He is really angry.  I am in over my head.  They want something they can never have. Somehow, conversation.

Dr. Jarrett, what does the music and beauty of Bach bring us in conversation this morning?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:

There is a healing power, a healing grace in conversation.

I have a friend and colleague, a musicologist and viola da gamba player, whose research focuses on what he calls “Polyphonic Intimacy”. The notion that western music, with it’s subjects and counter-subjects, point with counter-point, strands of consonance and dissonance woven together, trace their roots in mirroring human conversation. Imagine one monk chanting the Te Deum. His neighbor in the cell next door, a plucky fellow he, decides it’d be fun to sing along with his pious brother, but does so in what we’d call today harmony. A musical conversation is born. A point and counter-point. Harmony. A musical conversation. Better yet, a musical congruence, where I shape my conversation to yours. Or perhaps the kind of conversation where a couple can complete each other’s sentences, or allow the conversation points to gather one on the other. There are unlimited possibilities. But the idea that music, making music, making music with others in community, can mirror societal discourse, modeling a path for our disparate voices to find commonality, unity, perhaps even fostering social cohesion.

Could it be that music has such healing power, a healing grace in music’s conversation?

Soprano and Alto. Tenor with Bass. The “I and Thou” reflected each day in the Imago Dei. And this Advent Sunday, the Christian Soul with Christ as Bridegroom, that long awaited restoration of Thou in me, Thou in you — conversation as dialectic. Music amplifies, augments, colludes, and collides with that conversation in powerful, yes even healing ways.

Soar joyfully, ye voices, aloft to the sublime stars. Love draws nigh. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Love and Faith prepare a place for you in my heart. Come, dwell within.

Listen today for two virtuoso Oboes d’amore in musical conversation with one another (No 6), or in No 2, doubling, and thereby musically affirming, their soprano and alto conversations partners. Each aria, singer with solo instrumentalist, modeling a musical conversation, whose features, parameters, and sights are given to us by Bach. A space to make sense of it all, a thoughtful interplay revealing a path to reconciliation and renewal, affirming Thou in me, Thou in you.

There is a healing power in and through music, and, yes, a healing grace revealed in music’s conversation.

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

Pastoral ministry, cut to the chase, is the dangerous and difficult pursuit  of an faithful 20-minute sermon a week, alongside 25 genuine conversations a week.    I and Thou.  There yet remain some circles of ministerial wisdom shared in conversation about…conversation.  Think of Seward Hiltner at Princeton, of Homer Jernigan at BU, of Henri Nowen at Yale, of Ann Belford Ulanov at Columbia and Union.  They are not with us any longer, and not with us to remind us that the most the important things in ministry are the one-on-one things. Pastoral ministry is preaching.  Pastoral ministry is conversation.  Sit down and listen, listen, listen…until… until the cows come home.

With some exception, for the minister, every hour spent on a machine, every hour spent with zoom, with text, with email, with computer, is an hour spent apart from conversation, and so apart from life itself.  Here is a warning word for the minister. Walk with a friend.  Sit for intercessory prayer.  Call somebody on the phone.  Set a lunch date.  Offer a coffee.  Take with happiness the unannounced visitor to your office.  Steer the conversation, when you can, away from doing and out onto the broad meadow of being, out toward memory and view, on out to where heaven and earth pass away.  Keep a journal.  Write a sermon.  Craft a poem.  Design and experiment.  All of us are so challenged, so called, for ministry emerges from baptism first, from ordination second.  All the baptized have entered ministry.

My grandmother grew up on a dairy farm near Cooperstown, NY.  She graduated from Smith College in 1914.  She taught school and married later in life, raising three daughters.  She spent her later life in a modest Syracuse home, surrounded by piles of books, mounds of newspapers, and letters written or to be written and received, often long ago.  She and her college roommate wrote each other once a week from graduation until death.  She seemingly feared no conversation, and celebrated all conversation, no matter how middling or shallow or tiresome.  Famously, she was thrilled, overjoyed, to have the Jehovah Witnesses come into her Methodist living room, on their mission.  She loved to talk with them about the intricacies of Leviticus.  She always wanted them to stay longer than they could stand to stay.  They left worn out, bedraggled, dog tired, and exhausted.  She just smiled and put a roast in the oven. They had been engaged in real conversation.

To listen is to love.  To listen is to take one step in faith.  People do not always know what they think and feel until they say it, until they say it to someone they know is listening, and really cares.  This is not psychiatry, not psychotherapy, not formal counseling, nor any other of the—very wonderful, soulfully salvific, and endlessly helpful—forms of care.  This is conversation, a means of grace.  As a person of faith, it is yours, to receive and to give.

A conversation starts, somehow.  A conversation travels, somewhere.  A conversation ends, sometime.  Today is our first day, our first Sunday, in a year of conversation, with St. Luke:  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

November 21

A Thanksgiving Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 18: 33-37

Click here to hear just the sermon

Faith often emerges in single steps.   One step, one at a time.  One step in faith for you and me comes in becoming more thankful, grateful, in putting on the thanksgiving clothes and donning the thanksgiving shoes of a spiritual gladness, a spiritual gladness welling up from a physical wellness.  A thanksgiving prayer in nature, in friendship, in service, and in spirit.

Thanks for Nature

Let us be thankful for the good gifts in nature.  Our lessons from ancient Scripture surround us with such a thanksgiving.  They attribute directly to the Lord, in a way we might not in our time, both the weal and woe of natural cycles.  Yet this spirit of thanksgiving could not be more evident, in the Psalms, say, gratitude for the good that is given, in pasture and tree and vineyard.  Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.   Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.   In a prayer recently, we heard the petition that we might serve God ‘with a quiet mind’.  A quiet and peaceable life itself naturally requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  Quietly, with quiet minds, we may step toward gratitude for what is given in nature. The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’. Friday night our Inner Strength Gospel choir, gave a compelling witness, in the heart of months and years of turmoil, to thanksgiving, grateful praise.

Thanks for Friends

Let us be thankful for friendship as was our friend Max Coots, a country preacher of the first water, a rural minister in the Unitarian tradition:

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are;

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

Thanks for Service

Let us be thankful for service, for those who have served the common good.  The common good, the shared good, the good in which all are included. Some of the deeper sources of our current American malaise, our current cultural anguish, lie in areas seldom if ever broached at length in essays, op eds, articles, broadcasts, monographs and sermons.  One wonders why not.  Perhaps the needed reflective quiet, even after 18 months of COVID quiet, eludes us.  Or maybe by contrast the enforced isolation of COVID has kept us from idle moments, side trips, family visits, and looks at how the other half lives or doesn’t.  It also may be that today’s preacher has missed something, or has not read what should have been read, or what would make the case that in fact some of this has been addressed.  You tell me.  Rally goers on the one hand and residents of academe on the other do seem to share ranges of inattention to what is underneath, what lies down in the declivities of our mutual maelstrom.  You rarely hear about these things, as they portend or protrude or shape, generate and cause a 51-49 country.  Here is one for today, connected to service.

Looking back, most of our early years in ministry, in the 80’s, involved home visits where the photos of the wedding day showed a groom in uniform.  A lot of weddings took place for a certain age cohort just after December 7, 1941, or in the years following.  There was haste in the arrangements, small gatherings in and after church, a few days of honeymoon, and then the long goodbye, for some, tragically, a permanent goodbye.  Decades later, in the living room or den, when the minister came to call for whatever reason or no earthly reason, there were brief stories about the wedding, vows and ring, cake and family.  The photos were not meant as frontispiece for the rest of life in the next half century—return, house, work, children, illness, loss, the troubles that are the only real impetus to Christian faith, faith coming as it does almost entirely out of trouble—nor were there endless stories.  In fact, to remember, the men involved said hardly anything about their service, the war, or anything related. ‘Life is how you take it’ was the spirit in the room, under the mantel, with the faded photos of white gowns and service uniforms.

Two decades prior or so to those pastoral visits, 25 a week in a healthy pastoral pattern, these women and men had spiritual cousins who had raised us, formed us, in the 60’s.  Hiking in the winter with the scouts.  Traveling on youth trips or youth service trips.  Volunteering to counsel at summer camp, with leaky cabin roofs, mediocre food, off key campfire singing, and the measures of homesickness and combativeness that come with camp.  They corrected us when we threw snowballs that hit innocent bystanders.  They raised questions and eyebrows when the days of bellbottoms and tie-died shirts came along.  They did not order, they just asked.  They wanted good things for their children and grandchildren and a world of justice and peace.  Because they had come of age, many of them, when that hope for that world was on the line.  It is in this sense that Tom Brokaw wrote a much-read book, The Greatest Generation.  My wife’s Uncle Bill, died in late December 1943, a recent hockey player and graduate of Northfield Mount Hermon, in the jungles of New Britain, just east of Australia. 300,000 American soldiers died in WW II.  He came to mind a few days ago, November 11, in this Chapel sanctuary, as we honored our veterans.  This was a generation that saw in their lived experience what Fascism could mean.  They saw up close, marching through France, or in the Pacific jungle, or moving north in Italy, just what Fascism, with its reliance on mendacity and violence, whether in ‘the big lie’ or on January 6, could do to them and to their comrades.  Some by grace came home.  And they came home sober about Fascism.  They didn’t need to talk about it, or pronounce about it, or swagger about it.  They had put their bodies on the line, and became, some of them, true heroes.  As JFK said when asked how he became such a hero, ‘It was easy, they sunk my boat’.  Can you hear the resolute humility, the chastened spirit, the wry humor in that little phrase?  Without as much fanfare, those who raised us, and then were our first parishioners and lay leaders and congregants, also had that resolute humility, chastened spirit and wry humor, a hard-won love of country, and a willingness to serve for the common good.

One unremarked reason that our politics and culture have gone so far afield, so far astray, it may be, is here.  That quiet presence, the strong sturdy example of The Greatest Generation, in board meetings and church councils and political gatherings and family systems and college faculties and business chambers of commerce, is now dead and gone.  Their reticent silence is itself now silent.  They who looked fascism in the eye have not been around to look others in the eye when authoritarian mendacity and violence have become, tragically, modes of political engagement.  They aren’t in the room, silently to frown, quietly to shake the head, gently to ask a question, and be heard with honor.  You knew these people and you know they would have had no use for the kind of short-sighted, wrong-headed disrespect for government, for due process, for legitimate democracy, that has descended upon us.  One reason for our trouble, our travail, it may be, is that the Greatest Generation is no longer with us to remind, to correct, to balance us, not just in the great speeches of the day, but also and more so in civil society, in civil society now become largely uncivil, and much, much weakened.  In Moose Lodges, and Baptist Churches, and County Fair committees, and Pine Wood derby rankings and Memorial Day ceremonies. And at Thanksgiving, offering a prayer at the Thanksgiving table.

In one of our churches, there were eight adult Sunday School classes, arranged over time by age, with membership in each one of up to 200 a piece.  The two strongest were made up of the GI generation, on the one hand, and the Silent Generation, on the other.   Those who had actually been in uniform, seen combat, suffered hurt, and looked fascism in the eye, on the one hand, and those who had heard about it, had grown up with some second-hand memory, but themselves had not been there.  It needs no saying that both groups were truly wonderful people, great people, interestingly though, the GI generation more liberal and Silent generation more conservative.  One man from the older group, by then nearly 80, took me aside in our first autumn, to say:  Well, you are going to be my pastor, so I need to tell you how I got to faith.  I was 23 years old in a field in France, and I had to run across open land with guns trained on me.  I said to God, ‘If I live, I will serve you the rest of my life.  Please let me live.  And He did. And I did.’   He was like most of his generation whose funerals we had in the years prior and the years after.  They are dead now, most all of them, 99%, or in the shadows of our life, in nursing homes or at home, or alone.  One of the biggest, unspoken reasons for our cultural and political mayhem is their absence.  But I have seen not a single word written about it, and I have not heard a single word spoken about it.   We need to conjure their voice, to honor their service by remembering their hard-won wisdom, and saying in their absence what they would have said in their presence. We need to conjure their voice, to honor their service by remembering their hard-won wisdom, and saying in their absence what they would have said in their presence.

Thanks for Spirit

Let us be thankful for the spirit of truth.  John 18 puts Pilate in the spotlight, he who asks ‘what is truth’, in a way that others along the way in Gospel have done already:  Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, Thomas, and, in a way every one of us too.  The sharp, daunting witness of our Gospel today challenges us with two assertions, two affirmations. They are part promise and hope, and part haunting and daunting warning. The first is that there is such a thing as truth, which, over time, comes out.  The second is that for those seized by the confession of the church, for you, that very truth is known, elusively and dimly, but nonetheless known, in Jesus Christ, Christ the King, whose spirit and truth, we are promised, will have the final word.  Truth.  Truth through Christ. As David Brooks wrote so eloquently a day ago, (we) are judged by history, not the distraction and exhaustion of the moment…Did (we) address the core problem of the moment? (NYT, 11/19/21) One step, a truthful step in faith if you will, a move toward faith this morning, is the truth and goodness in gratitude, a spiritual gladness, a spiritual thanksgiving. So let us be grateful this Thanksgiving, as was Howard Thurman, who in so many things was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago.  Here is his famous poem:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.


I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

Faith comes in single steps.   One step, one at a time.  One step for you and me comes in becoming more thankful, grateful, in putting on the thanksgiving clothes and donning the thanksgiving shoes of a spiritual gladness, a spiritual gladness welling up from a physical wellness.  A spiritual gladness in nature, in friendship, in service, and in spirit.

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