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

April 26

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

April 12

Easter at a social distance

By Marsh Chapel

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Colossians 3:1-4

Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            o my God…(Devotions xxi)


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

April 5

The Tragic Sense of Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:1-11

Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 27:32-50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*New York Times, 3/10/05


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

March 22

The Vision of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-23

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

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

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

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

John 9

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

March 15

The Faith of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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John 4: 5-42

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Our worries today include immediate personal experience of hurt, say in betrayal; they include financial anxieties of the week; they include the shades of untruth now shadowing portions of society, culture, and, especially political leadership;  they include viral infection and protection for the elderly and the impaired; but we do remember also, amid all these global matters, the globe itself in which the worries abide.

It may help, this morning, in earshot of the Gospel, to listen for voices of faith, today women’s voices of faith.

With me, over time, you for instance have found the voice of Mary Pipher one such:  from Reviving Ophelia to Women Rowing North, and much in between across decades.  Last week she offered a reminder of the wonder in snow—think what we have missed in snow, for good and ill this winter.  Come Sunday, it may be a quiet way to reset our sense of faith, in listening to her hope of heaven:

All of my life I have loved snow.

When I was a girl in the 1950s, snow fell often in the long winters of western Nebraska. I remember one winter when, after the streets were plowed, mountains of snow 10 feet tall stood in the middle of the streets. As a young mother, my favorite days were snow days when our family could stay home and play board games. I would make soup and popcorn. I relished taking my children outside to do the things that I had done in the snow as a girl. I loved falling asleep with my family safe on a blizzardy night when the streets were impassable and a blanket of peace covered our town.

Now, snow has become a profoundly spiritual experience. When it snows, I sit by my window and watch it fall. I go deep into its purity and softness.

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.  Mary Pipher, NYT, 3/5/20


Perhaps the quintessential woman’s voice of faith in the New Testament is found in our Gospel today, John 4.  We have our troubles, for sure.  Here she is, ready to help us.

One lone woman at one old well is here to help us.

In a region well versed in religious difference and dispute, our Lord is pictured in John 4 cutting through religion. For Samaritan simply substitute ‘other’, religious other. If Nicodemus reminds us that we are free, and he does, the Samaritan woman reminds us that we are responsible, and we are. Freedom gives birth to responsibility. Jesus leaves the familiarity of Judah. He crosses, on this memory, multiple lines. He crosses the geographical line. He crosses the gender line. He crosses the racial line. He crosses the status line. He crosses the religious line. Our woman spells it out. You, a Jew: I, a Samaritan.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of life, not the Lord of religion. He calls us from religion to faith, out of false consciousness into a whole new way of being.

Spirit and truth, spirit and truth.

Our lone woman knows her Samaritan religion: Samaria, Jacob, ancestor, marriage (she knows marriage better than Elizabeth Taylor), holy mountain, Messiah. She is not a Jew and she is not a Christian, but you can substitute for her religious vocabulary any number of similarly developed religious tongues. She knows religion. Jesus offers her faith. Jesus offers her the religion of unreligion. The Lord offers us the religion of unreligion.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first will want to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us. Now, the Jesus of John 4 is a very different Jesus. He sees into others’ minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked one bright student, which is true?

Excellent question.

And here is an answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, forty years after Calvary; Matthew, fifty years after Calvary; Luke, fifty-five years after Calvary; and John sixty years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.


A third woman’s voice of faith, a close cousin to that of both Mary Pipher and that of the Samaritan woman, is the voice of our Lenten conversation partner, 2020, St. Teresa of Avila.  In the preparation for these sermons, one fine resource, on which we rely in these weeks, is that of Rowan Williams, when he still had time to write of such things: Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila, (London:  Continuum, 1991):

Says Rowan Williams

Teresa of Avila is one of the most accessible and attractive of all the great writers in the Christian mystical tradition; but her very human attractiveness and the fascination of her unusual experiences of vision and rapture tend to obscure two salient facts about her.  First, she was a woman reacting to a particularly difficult epoch in the history of the Spanish state and church; and second, she was an independent theological thinker. (ix)

Muses Rowan Williams:

23  Hence the importance of friendship:  simply to elevate virtue over honour can lead to a strongly individualistic ethic, marked by just as much paralyzing anxiety as the honour system.  Joining a religious community is a commitment to equality, and so to reciprocal pastoral care (nurture and criticism):  this is set out most fully in the first fifteen chapters of THE WAY OF PERFECTION.  It is thus also to expose oneself to the ordinary misunderstandings of common life; and to be able to live with these, not seeking constantly to defend and justify oneself, is the path to the highest virtue…it is incompatible with the religious life to want always to be right.

95 “(The soul) understands that it is required to preoccupy itself  with God, that it needs to focus on Him so it can escape all sorts of danger.  On the other hand, it finds it mustn’t overlook a single point of worldly etiquette, because that might provide occasions of sin to people who think their honor hinges on these niceties”.

Opines Rowan Williams:

101. Teresa is in the uncomfortable position of having to advise men who presumably know a lot more than she does.   The only way she can to it is to convince them of her weakness and their strength.  “His yoke is sweet, and it is important not to drag the soul, as they say, but to bring it along gently, so that it will make better progress.

  1. “It used to please me enormously to think of my soul as a garden, and imagine that the Lord was walking in it. I begged him to increase the fragrance of those little flowers of virtue that were, it seemed, just starting to bloom…I didn’t want anything for myself, and invited Him to cut whichever blossoms he wanted, because I already knew that the plants would be better for pruning”.

115. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) had called for a thorough reform of all the religious orders, and the man charged with whipping the Carmelites into shape was Prior General Giovanni Battista Rossi, known to Spaniards as Rubeo.


The voice of faith in the life of Teresa of Avila brings back to us the centrality of prayer, the necessity of contemplation.  After her death, several of her works were published, the primary ones being two historical texts, Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611),  Book of the Foundations (1610), and four spiritual ones, The Way of Perfection ((1583), The Interior Castle (1588), Spiritual Relations, Exclamations of the Soul to God (1588), and Conceptions on the Love of God (1588).  She left behind 31 poems and 458 letters.  The mystical, spiritual works are essays in contemplation, in depiction of the contemplative life as an approach to God.  You can hear in her titles, even, the emphases in the works:  way, wholeness, relationships, ecstasy, love….God.

Our current cultural condition, driven by a mercantile capitalism largely unfettered by other potent restraints, including religious restraints, makes little space for, makes little time for contemplation.  Yes, we have calls to wellness and stillness.  Yes, there are apps for brief daily meditations.  Yes, we dimly recognize that there probably is more to life than what is measured in contract, income, consumption, and schedule.  But for the regular woman or man, for you, for me, lengthy contemplation and the rigorous preparations for it, are present largely by their absence.  So, the sixteenth century Spanish mystics, with their poetic disciplines, are foreign, to the main, for us.  And so they have something wonderful, mysterious and deep to offer us.

A few of us spent the year together, as college juniors, in Segovia, Spain, not far from Avila, now more than forty years ago.  Francisco Franco was still in power, the Guardia Civil kept order except when surprised by Basque militants, the corrida de toros far exceeded futbol in popularity, the country was quietly preparing to emerge from fascismo, the waiters had seen and served Ernest Hemingway even if they had not read his book about their town—Por Quien Doblan Las Campanas, people still read the poets—from Calderon to Machado and back, and the evening paseo was the heart of the day for all, large and small, short and tall, rich and poor and all.  Y mientras otros…let me lie in the shade of a tree, singing.  The year abroad can be the best part of college, as it was for us, long ago.  There was, that is, a lived experience that was not allergic to contemplation.

A fourth, nearby woman’s voice of faith can be found right here, in the work of Marsh Chapel.  As Dr. Jessica Chicka has written, in the daily Marsh Lenten Devotions: Jesus reminds us that our physical need for water will always be a constant – we will become thirsty again. That thirst must continue to be quenched by access to clean water, a concern for the Samaritan woman, who must make long treks to the well to secure the water she needs for her daily living. She even mocks Jesus a bit, citing that he has no bucket to even fetch his own water. But she is able to assist him, because he asks for her help. In exchange Jesus offers her the Living Waters of the Spirit, seeing past her outsider status as a Samaritan woman but instead as a person deserving the good news found in the grace of God. She, then, in turn, shares this Living Water with her community, evangelizing the work of Jesus. Each is assisted by the other in sharing water both literal and metaphysical, enabling them to live.

I wonder, with these four voices in our ears, whether we might find the discipline, take the time, to wander a bit in the wilds of contemplation, the forests primeval of prayer?  This might just be the Lent in which to do so.

First, amid the changes, challenges and uncertainties of our current moment, please be mindful that I and our staff team here have you in prayer, and have a daily, watchful interest in noting ways to be of ongoing service and support.  We are with you, we are for you, and we carry a daily pastoral embrace of you:  you can easily find our contact information on the Marsh website (*link to Marsh website chaplains page). The verse from Philippians comes to mind, ‘in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving lift your needs to God’ (Phil 4:6).  In that same spirit, I might suggest that you, day by day, lift one particular person, from our community, or from your own personal community, in quiet prayer.  Our Lenten sermon series, relying on St. Theresa of Avila, as it happens, is centered on prayer.  We will have an added dimension in our prayer lives, just now, given the challenges of the day and hour.  We are praying for you.

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

March 8

The Life of Santa Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3:1-17

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Hear the Gospel: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.

Our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. Teresa of Avila.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In this decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018, turning last year 2019 to St. John of the Cross.  Now, Lent 2020, we listen in prayer for grace in the life, voice, heart, poetry and spirit of Santa Teresa of Avila.

Thomas Merton sets the beat and the course of travel, year by year: “(Lent) is for people who know what it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in (Lent), yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of (Lent) is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy…


Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience.  Spirit involves reason and experience.  A question for you, day by day as mortality approaches, is whether you can find the courage to trust your own experience and whether you can find the capacity to rely on your own reason.  Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available.  But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed.

John had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament:  Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet.  But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned.   In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord.  He sang: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.   One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them.  No parousia.  Paraclete. Spirit!

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’, emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant.  But when we get to John 3, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind and snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us.

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

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail.  The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of false but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul.  Trust your memory and when you cannot create a new memory.  The Pastoral Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure:  presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition.   We need memory.  We need structure.  Neither can hold a candle though to Spirit.  That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or anything else cannot ever fully offer, Paraclete SPIRIT provides.  By Spirit we hear the word God.  God reveals by Spirit.  God self-reveals by Spirit.  Here the stakes are very high.

Again, Raymond Brown:  This is the ultimate self-revelation of how the word of God gets translated as God.  To a community living in time and space, the Spirit of Jesus is proving the world wrong.  People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82).

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  Pause just a moment in prayer.

When you come to worship you place yourself in prayerful sight of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death…and beyond.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love, capital L.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  In prayer, at least now, at least here, at least here and now.

Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time.

St Teresa

Speaking of time, Saint Teresa of Avila was born March 28, 1515 and died at age 67 on October 4, 1582.   She was one of the greatest women in Christian history, and one of the greatest mystics and teachers in the Roman Catholic tradition.  It may be that her most lasting influence came with her call to Juan de Yepes, our Saint John of the Cross, to join her in the work of renewal within the Carmelite order.  She worked with the women; he with the men.  You will remember him from last year’s Lenten sermon series.  We hope!  That is, we listen today, especially and appropriately, to an international woman’s voice, and devote this month of March to her, her voice, even as we embedded our preaching and worship in the last month or so to hues, tones and voices like those of James Weldon Johnson, and of Elijah’s Sweet Chariot, and of Abraham Lincoln, and of remarkable organ postludes for the season, and most powerfully of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Teresa’s mother died in 1529.  Although her father opposed it, Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent in Avila, a lovely Castilian town in 1535.  She promptly fell ill, nearly dying, but recovered slowly.  On recovery she gave up daily prayer for the next 15 years.  Then she went through a religious awakening in 1555.  The nature of this awakening is not fully understood, but stands at the heart of her future life and work.  We shall want this Lent to think about awakening, or awakenings, about prayer as awakening, and particularly about that which impelled the mature ministry of Santa Teresa de Avila.

Her reform called on the Carmelites to return to their origins in austerity, simplicity, poverty and prayer.  Especially prayer…Their vocation, she repeated, was one of ‘reparation’ for the sins of the world.  They refused all regular support and refused endowment, depending only on daily and weekly alms, to emphasize the centrality of poverty in the life and work of the order.  Over the rest of her life she established 16 convents throughout Spain.

In 1575 a major dispute emerged in Seville, which again you may remember from last Lent, and the work of St.  John of the Cross.  We hope!  The argument pitted the Discalced (‘unhsod’) against the Calced (‘shod’), the no shoes versus the shoes.  As so often in life, she could foresee the emerging conflict; she could militate against it; she could work to avoid it; but she could not stop it. (repeat).  Don’t we know about that… In the aftermath of this religious conflict—and conflict is not foreign to any religion—she was ordered home to Castile in the north, and told to stop founding convents.  St.  John of the Cross too was disciplined, imprisoned, you may recall, in Toledo.

It took the king’s intervention to set St. Teresa back on the road.  King Philip II of Spain, who knew her, and held her in high esteem, solved the conflict by giving independence to the Unshod, the Discalced, the no shoe crew, with Teresa its head.  In 1580 she took up the work again, traveling hundreds of miles.  On the way from Avila to Burgos, she fell ill and died.

After her death, several of her works were published, the primary ones being two historical texts, The Life of  Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611), The Book of the Foundations (1610), and four spiritual ones, The Way of Perfection ((1583), The Interior Castle (1588), Spiritual Relations, Exclamations of the Soul to God (1588), and Conceptions on the Love of God (1588).  She left behind 31 poems and 458 letters.  The mystical, spiritual works are essays in contemplation, in prayer, in depiction of the contemplative life as an approach to God.  You can hear in her titles, even, the emphases in the works:  way, wholeness, relationships, ecstasy, love….God.

Application: Conversation

The incarnational mysticism of St. Teresa is, among so many other glorious things, just utterly…Spanish.

We sat on Las Ramblas a couple of summers ago. Barcelona Blue…I had forgotten…How blue the skyHow gentle the seaHow sweet the breezeHow happy the peopleHow young the cityHow luxurious the conversationHow smooth the coffeeHow clean the sandHow fine the trainsHow old the culture…

Barcelona looks today so very much smaller to me than it did in 1974.  The view from a hotel’s 26th floor, and the view from 40 plus years later, and the view from the other side of so many hurts, deaths, illnesses, betrayals, defeats, sins and worries, made it so, smaller, much smaller than 40 years ago.  And Jan saw La Sagrada Familia, for the first time, and said ‘what a mess, but what a beautiful mess’. (J)

Sitting on Las Ramblas, watching, literally, the whole world walk on by:  rich and poor, women in burqas by the dozens, a girl with colorful clothing, skinny 80 year old men who drink tankards of beer in minutes, couples of every stream and color and type, Germans known by their excellent English and Americans known by their mediocre English, people with selfie sticks, 20 year-olds holding hands, jovial African kids, an occasional Texan with cowboy boots and hat, Asians wearing cowboy hats, short and long haired Hispanic women, mothers and daughters, holding hands, white men in black with black women in white,  the steroid children’s strollers of a new age, gay men and women—the world at pause, together, in conversation, call it common prayer.  Call it conversational, Las Ramblas prayer.

The Spanish…talk.  They give the art, beauty, craft and joyful surprise of conversation the time it needs, the refreshments it needs, the spaces it needs, the vocabulary it needs, the cigar smoke it needs, the spirit it needs, the respect it needs.  This is why one loves Spain so much.  Walk and talk.  Walk as long as you can.  Talk as long as you can. August in Barcelona is to be alive.  The glory of God is a person in Barcelona in August.  Like Boston, Barcelona is a pedestrian city.  No houses, apartments.  No cars, trains.  No poor, taxes.  And conversation, conversation, conversation…

We are in conversation about prayer this Lent, alongside our conversation partner, St. Teresa of Avila.  Someone you know far better, from our own time, Mother Teresa, took her name and gave us the prayer with which we end, today:

              People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

            If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

            If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

           If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

            What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

            If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

            The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

         Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

         In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

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

March 1

Healing in Sacrament

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

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A text copy of the sermon is unavailable.

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

February 16

The Language of the Beloved Community

By Marsh Chapel

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-26

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Hear today the good news of the language of the beloved community, Matthew 5: 21-26, in exegesis, explanation, and application.

First, Exegesis

Matthew is a teacher.  His own gospel is a didactic one.  He is teaching about the Person of Christ, and the Proclamation of Christ (as here in chapter 5) and then the Passion of Christ. Matthew is organized around at least five narratives and lectures.  Including a long lecture from a mountain.  Affirming the jot and tittle of the law.  Honoring disciples and discipline.  Matthew sees the world and its human inhabitants, as a school room filled with students.  He is a teacher, we are his students, and he wants us to learn.

In our passage today, Matthew’s verses ‘forbid not only the overt crime, but the disposition behind it’ (IB, op. cit.).  Killing is a result of anger.  Insult is a result of anger.  Denigration is a result of anger.  It is the soul, what is down deep, the heart, what is at the core and center of being, that is truly at stake, day by day, our Gospel teaches us.  Be careful.  Be careful.  Be very careful that you do not take the pose of what you oppose, that you do not conform to what you criticize, that you do not come to resemble what you resist.  It is almost inevitable, to some degree.  The person you resist, you come to resemble.  The organization you resist, you come to resemble.  The point of view you resist, you come to resemble.  When you wrestle with an angel you may take on an angelic blessing.  But when you grapple with a demon, you may become demonically mis-shapen.

Memorize the Beatitudes for they are the spiritual charter of the kingdom.  Remember that Matthew has two interests, the good news of Jesus and the church of Jesus, and neither is ever very far out of his field of vision.  These verses, Matthew 5 and following, carry to us, without much need for interpretation, ‘warnings against an overinvolvement in worldly goods.’  Teresa of Avila will also teach us so, and more so, come Lent.  After all, these crucial teachings are given directly to the disciples themselves, and only indirectly to others, near and far, early and late.

Now you are well aware, Marsh Chapel, you blessed and astute hermeneuts, that at least three options are available to you as you think about how to think about how to think about the teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s—Matthew’s—Sermon on the Mount.   First, you may take these sentences straight, and expect that the Gospel expects us to live them out, fully, through and through. You Methodist perfectionist you! Second, you make take these sentences on the curve, and expect that they, being largely impossible to fulfill, are meant to remind us of our abject need for grace.  You Lutheran Protestant you!  Third, you may take these sentences as ‘interim ethic’, meant in full only for those who were expecting to see the end of time in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and now superannuated by later Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.  You Catholic historian you!  With some meager attention to the first two, as you know, I think the third is most true.  Already, a few verses after our passage, in the teaching on divorce, which in Mark and Luke is a pure prohibition—No–we have the opening of qualifications, even in the interim.  There are more reasons for divorce than unchastity, for sure.  Abuse, for starters.  Divorce is never a good thing but it is sometimes the best thing.  Or, as Krister Stendahl said of some such passages, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God FOR ME’.

So, exegesis.

Second, Explanation

Some time ago, we hosted a June wedding, here in Marsh Chapel.  The bride, from San Antonio Texas, and the groom, from San Diego, had met here at Boston University, just months before graduation.  Each needed just a couple of extra credits to graduate in May.  So, independently, not yet ever having met, they scoured the course offerings, and, creatively, both settled on a course in ice skating.  Neither had every laced up skates, ice being harder to find in San Diego and San Antonio, than, say, Boston.  They appeared at the rink, found their skates, laced them, and hobbled onto the rink.  And there, quickly, they fell into each others arms.  Literally.

After the gracious, reverent wedding, one of her relatives, a stocky, barrel chested Texan, confronted the minister, asking:  What is he doing in here?  I mean him.  You know.  Our 16th President, Mr. Lincoln.  Why is he in here?  Well, this involved some ancient history of Daniel Marsh, and his choices of two windows to go along with the inherited others along the nave, one for Francis Willard, a prohibitionist—a gay, feminist, suffragette, protector of women and children—and the other for Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the union.  Our Texas cousin, as it turned out, a really kind and gracious soul, was not dyspeptic to greet Honest Abe, here, just curious.

The separation of church and state has never meant anything like the separation of a Christian from her politics.  The opposite.  Francis Willard and Abraham Lincoln are with us every Sunday, listening to the choir, enduring the sermon, observing the congregation, right here, to remind us so.  That is, Willard and Lincoln bar the door, here, from those who would enter, or stay, on the supposition that one can practice faith apart from the gnawing claims of justice.  It is true:  justice is a part of the gospel, not the heart of the gospel.  The heart is love, agape.  But is also true that real religion is never very far from justice.  For those who might wish for one or the other—well, Lincoln and Willard might want a word with you. No. Religion, Christianity, Protestantism, Methodism, Marsh Chapel, all affirm a rooted synergy of deep personal faith and active social engagement.  Worship, its order and beauty and rhythm and depth and all, concluding with the majestic organ postlude, can and should nourish us, bathe us, and steady us—but can never protect us from our daily round:  we will head out again tomorrow to see what we can resurrect from the rubble of the republic Ben Franklin gave us, ‘if you can keep it’, said he.

Here in Matthew, it is not just action that gets you into trouble.  It is attitude as well.  It is anger, when expressed to a faithful sibling—that brings judgment.  It is insult, when poured onto a sister or brother—that brings arraignment.  It is derogatory rhetoric, when inflicted on one’s fellow—that brings hell fire.  You go from accuser to judge to guard to prison, accuser to judge to guard to prison.  The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s most creative contribution to our Holy Bible, will go on to attack adultery, and lust, and divorce, and perjury, and swearing—adultery, lust, divorce, perjury and swearing—this is not a Presidential Curriculum Vitae, it is just Matthew being Matthew—but before any of that comes, quietly, a gospel word about language, about the beloved community and its language, and about the roots of anger and insult and derogation.

Why?  Because, according to the Scriptures, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to the Wesleys, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to Thurman and King, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to what we most truly want today in our heart of hearts, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because—you were in church last Sunday, right?—the Sermon on the Mount is written out as addressed to YOU PLURAL.  These are words for community, in community, to community, by community, addressed to an addressable community.  They are the language of the beloved community.  We should take an open space here at BU, and devote it to the beloved community, our heritage:  Yes, in our time; Yes, with Thurman and King; Yes, with the founding and leadership of BU;  Yes, with the preaching and singing Wesley brothers;  Yes, across the long expanse of history and religion; Yes, in the Holy Scripture, including Matthew, but most deeply within the Gospel of John.  Maybe we could put this in the room where the Howard Thurman Center once was?

Andrew Bacevich, in his newest book, The Age of Illusions, starts with compunction.  We suffer from too much hubris and too little hope.  Our hubris as a people.  And our lack as a people of a common hope.  Too much pride to little prospect.  As Benjamin Friedman wrote some years ago, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, times of plenty, like 2020 we might add, are meant not for hubris but for hope, they are times when the resources are around to take the world and make it young again.

So, explanation.

Third, Application

Now of a certain age, some of us can look back on three impeachment moments, in a lifetime.   All of them were accompanied by voices out of Matthew 5, sermon on the mount voices, voices trained in the language of the beloved community.

In 1974, some of us listened to a former Attorney General of the United States, who spoke, at Gray Chapel Ohio Wesleyan University, for more than an hour without notes.  Both his daughter and his son, fine people by the way, were students at that small college at the time, and were sitting proudly in the front row.  Richard Nixon was in the throes of impending impeachment. It was a bitter time. His former Attorney General, a loyal and staunch conservative, was speaking to us.  His theme is as crystalline today as it was almost fifty years ago:  This is a country of law and not of men. For 70 minutes, with real feeling and keen mind, he traced that theme into our memories.  This is a country of law, not of men.  After the Watergate burglary, he had been asked to pass over the regular rules of policing, to protect his president.  He did not.  An Arizona native, a Harvard law graduate, an Attorney General, a proud Republican, he would not forsake principle.  As a consequence, in part, his party’s President fell to the fear of impeachment.  This is Richard Kleindienst, who was later convicted, not regarding Watergate, but regarding an ITT business deal, but whose sentence and fine were annulled, accepting for himself his theme that evening:  a country of laws and not of individuals only.  Nixon retaliated by removing him on the same day as he did Ehrlichman and Haldeman.  There is a living tradition, on the right, in this country, a deep and true and thin tradition, of speaking justly against injustice.  We on the left should honor that in memory.  (By the way, about 5 years ago I was trying remember our graduation speaker two years later, Ohio Wesleyan 1976, about which moment I had exactly no memory:  seniors among us, be prepared for May.  Bring a notebook.  So I explored on the interweb and found out that our speaker was a lawyer whose name was–Robert Bork.  My, my.)

In 1998, some of us had called publicly for Mr. Clinton to resign from office, facing impeachment, on the basis of decency, and morality and honor.  He did not.  (Think by the way of what would have been different had he done so:  Gore running as an incumbent.  No 2000 defeat by 600 votes from dangling chads in Broward County.  No Vice President Cheney.  No vehement war mongering after 9/11.  No alchemistic concoction of imaginary weapons of mass destruction.  No George Bush.  No shadow for Hillary to run under.  But no.  It was a bitter time.  That Labor Day, if memory serves, a centrist Orthodox Jew, and US Senator, came home from a family weekend, and prepared a speech which he delivered the next day in the Senate, demanding accountability from his own party’s President. After much reflection, my feelings of disappointment and anger have not dissipated, except now these feelings have gone beyond my personal dismay to a larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and, ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations. The implications for our country are so serious that I feel a responsibility to my constituents in Connecticut, as well as to my conscience, to voice my concerns forthrightly and publicly. And I can think of no more appropriate place to do that than on this great Senate floor.

It was a courageous, thankless, painful and much needed correction.  So many had passed by the long-term consequences of that earlier Presidential misuse of office, with, in retrospect, baleful reasons.  But Joe Lieberman spoke, and wrote, not in anger or in insult or in diatribe, but with earnest, sincere, care.  His righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now again in 2020, those within the party in power have been put before the long mirror of the Sermon on the Mount, to see how they would reflect, and be reflected in history.  It is a bitter time.  Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to perdition and many there be who go therein.  But narrow is the gate, and straight is the way, that leads to life, and few there be who find it.  That narrowness has everything to do with God, with Scripture, with Faith, with Conscience, and with Courage.  In real time.  What an Episcopalian did in 1974, and what an Orthodox Jew did in 1998, a Mormon did in 2020.  Maybe they all, out of their inherited religious traditions, drew on the memory of being outsiders, of being poor, of being powerless.  There is Kleindienst, I can see him sweating and speaking and his kids both proud and crying, 1974.  There is Lieberman, I can feel the terse intensity of his prose, virtually alone among his fellow Democrats, willing to call abuse, abuse, in 1998.  And now comes a former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, standing alone in the well of the Senate, emotional, dog tired, red eyed, and firm.  Knowing there will be costs and consequences.  Saying things about conscience. Saying things about faith. Saying things about God. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.” There is still a lot of good in this country, for all the losses of these years.  For those of us who are liberal, we owe it to ourselves, and to the honest truth, to record and recall that conservatives of character remain.  I have seen it with my own now dimming eyes.  I have heard it with my own now failing ears.  I have kept it in my own now flagging memory.  Kleindienst, Lieberman, Romney.  An Episcopalian.  An Orthodox Jew.  A Mormon. Hm.  Quite a trio.  Three who knew the grammar, syntax and spelling—the language–fit for the Beloved Community. Three who knew the grammar, syntax and spelling—the language–fit for the Beloved Community.

So, application.


A Beloved Community, devoted to healing climate change

A Beloved Community, devoted to nuclear peace

A Beloved Community, devoted to the language of grace

A Beloved Community, devoted to equality

A Beloved Community, where those with much have not too much, and those with little have not too little

A Beloved Community, devoted to learning, virtue and piety

A Beloved Community, honoring women, protecting children, embracing the elderly

A Beloved Community not of this world only, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven

To get there, we will need the voice and faith of James Weldon Johnson:  God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast blest us thus far along the way.  Thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray.  Lest our feet stray from the places O God where we met thee.  Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee.  Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand. True to our God, true to our native land.

Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts!

Hear the Gospel of the Language of the Beloved Community!

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

February 9

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

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Reverend Hill


In the reading and hearing of the day’s Scripture we are given a word

of encouragement and a look to the future.

We can appreciate both the word and the look, surrounded as we are

every day with the unexpected consequences of sin, the unexpected news of

illness and death, and the unexpected threats that come from feelings of loss and



Together we are followers of Jesus. We may follow from a long way

off, but we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Together we work to

develop disciples, in the heart of the city and in the service of the city. And being

a disciple is a matter of the heart. Coming to Jesus may not be a matter of a

moment or a day. It may not be caused by lightening or earthquake. It may not

be from a command that is as plain as the nose on your face. But it is always a

matter of the heart.


Now St Matthew has imagined for his church and for the church of all

time a great scene. Followed by many, both disciples and future disciples, Jesus

ascends a mountain. Like John Brown ensconced in the Adirondacks, like Moses

up on Mt. Nebo, like the Jewish heroes at Masada, Jesus takes to the high peak,

and as is the custom, he sits to teach. His words are as fresh and pure this

morning as they have been for nearly 2000 years.


He offers us a word of encouragement and a look to the future.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.


The most striking feature of this utterance is that it is spoken to and

for a community. The you is plural—you all. Or as it is said of the plural of you all

in the south—all you all. This is a word for the church, the body of Christ. For

you—for all you all. You can be salt—but not on your own. You can be light—but

not by yourself. You can be a disciple of Christ—but not free-lance. There are no

free-lance Christians. Jesus encourages the community of disciples. And his

images that follow are common: a city, a house, all people. That which banishes

the darkness of fear and loneliness is light. That which redeems the rotten

blandness of selfishness is salt. Light and salt are found in community. The most

striking feature of this teaching is that it is spoken to and for–a community.

The second most striking feature of this utterance is its breadth and

depth. You—all you all—are salt and light of—what? Your mind? One family? A

school or church or two? No. You are the salt of the EARTH and the light of the

WORLD. Let your light shine before ALL HUMANS! A community that is salt and

light is deep and wide. Our church is at the heart of Boston and heard around the

world. After all, this is a mountain top word. It is meant for the whole

community. This is a word of encouragement and a look to the future, for a

church at the heart of the community. When we plan and dream at Marsh we try

to think world-wide and a half century deep.


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, 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, salt and light.


Dr. Jarrett, what should we listen for in our cantata this Lord’s day?


Dr. Jarrett


Well, just as you’ve predicted for us Dean hill, today’s cantata as with our

scripture lessons offers a word of encouragement and a look to the future. As we

have in past surveys, we are studying and performing the works Bach wrote for a

specific occasion – liturgical or temporal. This year surveys four cantatas Bach

wrote for New Year’s Day. Cantata 16 – Herr Gott, dich loben wir, follows a now

familiar path in both libretto and design. Bach’s librettist features from the outset

an excerpt of the famous Te Deum hymn, known to have been sung at the start of

the new year. In the opening movement, you’ll hear four lines from the Te Deum

set like a chorale tune in long notes in the soprano part. The lower three parts

have a much more active part that proceeds without instrumental breaks or

interludes. All the vocal parts are doubled by a member of the orchestra, except

the first violins have an entirely independent part adding a fifth voice to the

otherwise four part texture.


The opening of the cantatas is of interest to me: it’s as if Bach begins in the third

or fourth measure of the piece In material we would characterize as episodic. It’s

as if a melody has already been played and we enter immediately into motivic

development. Or, were it not for the episodic material, we might expect this to be

a delicate aria accompanied by continue only.

Similarly the opening movement comes to a close somewhat suddenly without

closing ritornello and on a half-cadence –a sense of a grand pause. A secco

recitative ensues sung by the Bass, drawing us from the ancient hymn, sung

throughout the centuries, to the present moment with none other than a word of

encouragement and a look to the future: “What have you not done, O god, since

time began for our Salvation? And how much does thy breast still perceive of thy

love and faith? And should we not sing in fervent love? Therefore, a new song

sing out!”


The old modal hymn that ambled along in the first movement, erupts into a joyful

chorus in C major with full chorus in full acclamation: “God’s goodness and faith is

renewed each morning.” A word of encouragement, a look to the future.

With the conclusion of this extended, tri-partite opening, we take inward turn.

The alto steps forward to offer a prayer for God’s blessing in the new year, as he

enjoins us to place our trust and faith in Christ Jesus. This is the first mention of

Jesus in the cantata, and it parallels and invites the inward turn toward soul-

searching and personal reflection. In such proximity to Jesus’s name day and

presentation in the temple, the theological image of Jesus living in the hearts of

all believers is close at hand: “Beloved Jesus, thou alone shall be my Soul’s wealth.

We shall, therefore, before other riches enthrone Thee in our faithful Heart.”

Though this shift inward toward Jesus might seem late in the canata – the next to

last movement – at seven minutes, this rumination balances the opening

movements taken together. The aria itself is score for tenor, continuo, and either

violetta or oboe da caccia. Though the music is written in 3-4 time, Bach confuses

the meter and placement of the downbeat often enough, that the longer line. The

Cantata concludes with a four part chorale setting Bach had used two days before

to conclude Cantata 28.


So how do we account for this? Here we skate toward the thinner ice of

speculation and conjecture,


Reverend Hill


But worship alone, even when shot through with glorious music as

today, is not enough, alone, for salt and light. For love there need to be places

to love one another. Every Sunday morning here we host ten or so smaller

groups. Here is a morning study group. Here is a circle of student interns. Here is

the Marsh choir. Here is the Thurman choir. Here is Take Note—take note! Here

is the intercessory prayer assembly, quiet before worship. Here is a children’s

room. Here is a luncheon or coffee following worship. Here is a Bible Study

following worship. Here is a mission group, Abolitionist Chapel. Here is a group

heading out to visit shut-ins and nursing home. For salt not to lose its savor, and

for light not to grow dim, there need to be places and spaces for nourishment.

This takes commitment. It takes investment. You cannot have that

kind of fellowship or friendship in a six-week seminar. It takes a lifetime of prayer

and study and searching the Scriptures.


Now I know we have many of our own questions about the Bible, and

they are good ones. Did David write the Psalms? Was Jesus born in December?

Does Paul condemn slavery in Philemon? And so on. Good for us. But today

somewhat beside the point. Growth in Christ comes not from our questions about

the Bible, but from the Bible’s questions about us.


*Have you reckoned with the shortness of life? Psalm 90

*Have you lead a life worthy of God? Ephesians 4

*Have you earnestly sought the higher gifts? 1 Cor 12

*Have you reckoned with the real force of evil and

the strength of the final enemy? 1 Cor 15

*Do you tithe? Do you share your faith? Mal 2

*How does your generation’s character compare to others? Matt 28


In antiquity it was Diognetus who loved the passage about salt and

light. Around 130 ad he wrote of the people of salt and light. He is speaking of

you, you all, all you all:


They display to us their wonderful and paradoxical way of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but merely as sojourners.

Every foreign land is to them their native country.

And yet their land of birth is a land of strangers.

They marry and beget children, but they do not destroy their


They have a common table, but not a common bed.

They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.

They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven

When reviled, they bless.

When insulted, they show honor.

When punished, they rejoice.

What the soul is to the body, they are to the world.

What salt is to earth and light is to world are you to this county, this

region. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.


Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts!

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

February 2

Two Turtledoves

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Malachi 3:1-4

Hebrews 2:14-18

Luke 2:22-40

Click here to hear just the sermon

Prelude:  Pauline 13

February 2, 2020.  Candlemas.  Ground Hog Day.  A religious feast.  A secular holiday.  The consolation of Israel.  The redemption of Jerusalem.  For once, we turn our meditation, at communion, both outward and inward, both toward the shadow’s length on to spring, and to the liturgy’s turn from Christmas, and the blessing of the candles of 2020. Sometimes it is not the great mysteries, but the small ones—a candle, a shadow—that touch us and heal us.  The little things.  Like two turtle doves, a candle on Candlemas, a shadow on Ground Hog Day.  Light a candle.  Watch the shadow.

One: Candlemas

‘525,600 minutes’…Midway into the old musical, RENT, the story a young woman appears at the door of her neighbor.  Both are poor, lost, penniless and lonely.  Like all of us, we long to connect with others, with our own truest selves, and with God.  She knocks on the door, looking for a match with which to light her candle, for just a little warmth, just a little light. Unamuno on warmth: not the night that kills but the frost.   And she sings, “Will somebody light my candle?” “Will somebody light my candle?” There is struggle in the air, and romance too.  And what is wrong with that?  Here is a young man wondering about profession, marriage, meaning.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is young mother, raising children alone.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is a man, or woman, alone now for the first time, this winter.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is a grandfather listening for news of his grandson in military service, far away.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is a preacher wondering how on earth to preach the gospel with Australia burning, China coughing, Washington exploding, Methodism imploding, “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here you are, on the brink of faith, just about ready to accept your own acceptance, to connect with your own connectedness, to survive your own survival, to live in the peace of God.  “Will Somebody light your candle?”  Our friend Dr. Reid Cooper of Brown said last Sunday, ‘faith is the positive response to the question, ‘does life have meaning?’’  True enough, at least to start.

Watch our Sacristan, Come Sunday, just before the service, while some have gathered for quiet intercessory prayer, quietly lighting our candles, here on the altar.

The Scripture for Candlemas illumines us:

*The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple

*Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested

*Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of Glory may come in

*Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him; to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Jesus is our childhood’s pattern.  Day by day like us he grew.

Simeon and Anna are older people, who have some insight, even prophetic insight, into what is to come.  Luke has apparently confused the rites of presentation and purification.   Consolation; the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes.  The consolation is the redemption of Israel, different phrases meaning the same thing. A light for revelation to the unreligious, and for glory to the religious.  The old prophet sees, as promised, and Messiah has come “for all peoples”.

The feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas, is the conclusion of Christmas, and affords the blessing of candles, and the blessing of throats. One of the oldest feasts of the church, dating to the early fourth century, it conjured sermons by Methodius of Patara (died 312), Cyril of Jerusalem (died 360), Gregory the Theologian (died 389), Amphilochius of Iconium (died 394), Gregory of Nyssa (died 400), and John Chrysostom (died 407).  So the church’s liturgy joins with Scripture in teaching and testimony:

*Dear people of God, forty days ago we celebrated the joyful feast of the incarnation of Jesus. Today we recall the day on which he was presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of Moses. Led by the Spirit, Simeon and Anna came to the temple, recognized the child as the Christ, and proclaimed him with joy. United by the same Spirit, we now enter the house of God, where we shall recognize Christ in the breaking of bread.

*O eternal God, who have created all things; on this day you fulfilled the petitions of the just Simeon: we humbly ask you to bless and sanctify these candles for our use. Graciously hear our prayers and be merciful to us, whom you have redeemed by your Son, who is the light of the world, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

*O God most powerful and most kind…for Whose sake the glorious Martyr and Bishop, St. Blaise, joyfully gained the palm of martyrdom…Thou Who didst give to him, amongst other gifts, the prerogative of curing by Thy power every ailment of men’s throats…

At our prayer station following communion, we can at least recognize the need for health particularly at this time around the globe.

Come Candlemas, light a candle.  It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  This is not Confucius, Shakespeare, Proverbs or Ben Franklin.  It is a line from a sermon, 1907.

“The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:  ‘But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.’” (Internet: QI)

Light a candle.

Aeschylus:  In our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our despair and against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.

Two: Ground Hog Day

I have this response to those of you who will not abate the ongoing contention related to my claim that Ground Hog Day is the best of all holidays:

In the ministry you offer to God and neighbor all weekends, most evenings and most holidays, and then work 9-5, Monday to Friday.  All this takes a chunk out of the year.  Holidays, in particular, carry, shall we say, some stress.  Christmas, for an example.  There are expectations.  Special services.  People.  Doings.

Behold the blessing of February 2!  An utterly ordinary day, and a holiday to boot!  No expectations.  No special services.  No people.  No Doings.  Just the blessing of a single, average, wintry, bereft of expectation day.  Ground Hog Day.  It doesn’t get better than Ground Hog Day.  A quiet, ordinary, no frills day.

But…What is ordinary about any day, anyway?

Every one of them is a gem.

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go

Friday’s child is loving and giving

Saturday’s child works hard for a living

But the child that is born on the Sabbath Day

Is happy, witty, bright and gay!

Every day is a chance to do a good turn.  Do one daily.  BE: Trustworthy Loyal Helpful Friendly Courteous Kind Obedient Cheerful Thrifty Brave Clean Reverent.

We have reminders, don’t we, of ordinary daily wisdom, quotidian quips

Some are cultural:

A stitch in time saves nine…An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…Look before you leap…eternity in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower

Some are familial:

(To complaining): You would complain if you were to be hung with a new rope…(To time waste): Never try to teach a pig to sing.  It wastes your time.  And it annoys the pig…(Too constant questions):Are you a journalist or are you writing a book?…(To inquisitive children): Where were you before you were born?  Down in Canada boiling soap.

Some are national:

Give me your tired, your poor  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore  Send these, the tempest tossed, to me  I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

In truth, there are no ordinary days, no insignificant holidays.

Emily Webb stands as our fiercest sentinel to the landscape of this, truth, the Gospel on Ground Hog Day, out of the imagination of Thornton Wilder, brother to the great New Testament scholar, Amos Wilder, both New Englanders.

You will remember that she and George were graduated from High School in Grover’s Corners.  On the basis of a frank talking to over a soda, in which Emily criticizes George for being less than fully humble, George decides not to leave home, not to go to college, but to start working an uncle’s farm right away, and to marry Emily, the girl next door.  You remember their wedding. “A man looks pretty small at a wedding, all those good women standing shoulder to shoulder, making sure the knot is tied in a mighty public way.”   You remember that Emily, after just a few years of profoundly happy marriage and life, tragically dies in childbirth.  You remember that George finds no way to manage the extreme grief of his loss.  Simple Yankee English.  Simple reckoning about love, life, death and meaning.

Maybe you also remember, in the playwright’s imagination, Emily from the communion of saints looking out on her young husband and wanting to go back. Others warn her away from the plan: “All I can say Emily, is, don’t…it isn’t wise…(If you must do it) Choose an unimportant day.  Choose the least important day of your life.  It will be important enough.”

She chooses February 11, 1899, her 12th birthday.  She arrives at dawn.  She sees Main Street, the drugstore, the livery stable, and breathes the brightness of a crisp winter morning.  Simple.  She looks into her own house.  Her mother is making breakfast, her father returning from a speech given at Hamilton College.  Neighbors pass in the snow.  Simple.  She sees how young and pretty her mother looks—can’t quite believe it.  It is 10 below zero.  There is fussing to find a blue hair ribbon: “it’s on the dresser—if it were a snake it would bite you”.  Simple.  Papa enters to give a hug and a kiss and a birthday gift.  And others from mother and the boy next door. Simple.  “Just for a moment now we’re all together.  Mama, just for a moment now we’re all together.  Just for a moment we’re happy.  Let’s look at one another.”

Simple.  This is the gospel of Ground Hog Day, the best holiday of the year, the holiday of the extraordinary ordinary, of the uncommonly common, of the sunlit winter, of the eternal now.  Simple.  Grover’s Corners.  “Papa. Mama.  Clocks ticking.  Sunflowers.  Food. Coffee.  New ironed dresses.  Hot baths.  Sleeping.  Waking up. Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Watch the shadow.

In truth, there are no ordinary days, no insignificant holidays.

Said BU Philosopher Erazim Kohak:  “A life wholly absorbed in need and its satisfaction, be it on the level of conspicuous consumption or of marginal survival, falls short of realizing the innermost human possibility of cherishing beauty, knowing truth, doing the good, worshiping the holy”.

Postlude:  Beatitudes

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