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The Poetry and Piety of St. John of the Cross

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

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Luke 13:1-9

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           We interlace our interpretation of Holy Scripture, this Lent, with the poetry and piety, the mystical witness of John of the Cross.  Today, then, first Luke, then San Juan, second Isaiah, then San Juan.


Luke On Mercy


            We listen for the Gospel in St. Luke Our other gospels do not carry any of these teachings from Luke 13. Like most of the second half of the Gospel of Luke they are special to Luke.  They are notoriously hard to interpret, with edgy choices for the interpreter.  But given their specificity to Luke and their place within Luke, along with their absence elsewhere, we might be forgiven an inclination to give them a heartily Lukan rendering.  Luke celebrates history, theology, the poor, and the church.  Yes.  But Luke also celebrates love, pardon, mercy, love.  When he was yet a far way off, we read soon, the father saw him, saw his son, and raced headlong toward him, racing to put an ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and hug and embrace him, and ‘love on him’ as now I understand some people say, though the odd use of the preposition in between the verb and the pronoun seems odd.  The Galileans are not greater sinners than others, for all the political violence and then death sent their way by Pilate.  They are beloved children of God.  Those on whom the natural violence inherent in gravity and the cascading violence inherent in human architectural and other error, which led to their tragic deaths, by no means means they are greater sinners than others.  We may take from their tragedy for ourselves quite simply the wise admonition to straighten up and fly right, to prize our time now we have it, to seize the day.  And to what end?  To love, God and neighbor.  To love, God and neighbor.


            And there is still time.  Yes, there may well come a time when it is too late.  Other portions of Scripture make sure for sure we remember that.   It is later than we think.  But Luke has a different Gospel to announce:  there is still time, there is extra time, there is more time, there is time.  The kindly gardener, gently redirecting his boss, the owner of the vineyard, makes a call for mercy.   A little water, a little fertilizer, a little time—a little more of each—and who knows what may come out of the ground?  And if not, next year, well…You have the feeling don’t you that next year that same gardener will have another way to protect the vine.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Your inner life, your John of the Cross life, your wisdom and contemplation in life—a little water, a little nourishment, a little time, especially time, and who knows?  Mercy. It takes time.


Feminine Divinity


St. John evoked mercy.  Mercy, pardon, peace and love, discovered through the inner life, through inner struggle, is the gift of St John of the Cross and his sixteenth century mind, to our own time of bewilderment in century 21.  San Juan is best known, if at all, in popular imagination for the poetry and piety in the opening phrase of his greatest poem, ‘The Dark Night’, of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.  Listen again to three lines from this most beautiful and famous of poems: …en una noche oscura…en la noche dichosa…!o noche que guiaste…Dark night. Lucky night.  Guiding night.  Colin Thompson has aptly best summarized this poem, in his recent composite study of St. John of the Cross, based on years of work and multiple essays and articles: ‘in this ‘noche’ a woman cries out and…all activity ceases and all cares are abandoned’.  There is an abandon, a freedom here, that casts aside what is inherited, expected, and customary.


            For instance, we notice here the happy nonchalance about gender.  The seeker, presumably a voice for the saint himself, is nonetheless given voice as an adoring woman.  We notice here, as resplendently everywhere in San Juan de la Cruz, a direct and easy conflation or combination of the sensuous and the spiritual, erotic love and love divine.  Of course, the Bible, in particular the ‘Song of Songs’ has paved or led the way here from antiquity.  It is striking to assemble the chorus of female divines who in a broadly mystical tradition explored the back roads and trails of the inner life:  Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, St. Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtold of Magdeburg, and, of course, she from whom John learned and for whose Carmelites he labored, Santa Theresa de Avila. Together they sang: “God is incomprehensible to our intellect, but not to our love”.  Human language and thought will ever fall short (of God).  Here we notice the beautiful, the twilight ‘negative’ perspective of John of the Cross.  We notice here that the “dark night of San Juan is all-embracing:  it is the negation of the creaturely appetites at the start of the journey (ascetism, mortification), the route taken (faith), and the goal sought (the hiddenness of God)”.  That is, we here notice a movement from purgation to illumination to union, from purgation to illumination to union.  We notice here the rare, lily-like beauty of the poetry whose roots are deep in the caverns of Scripture, whose trunk is made up of the sung, country love ballads of Italy and especially of Castilla la Vieja, and whose branches touch and are touched by the personal, ‘dark’ experience of San Juan de la Cruz:  poet, priest, monk, theologian, confessor, leader, ascetic, Spaniard, Catholic—saint, lover of God and neighbor, a dead though living reminder of the possibility of the inner life:  en una noche oscura…amado con amada…amada en el amado transformada…sin otra luz y guia…sino la que en el Corazon ardia…en mi cuelo heria…todos mis sentidos suspendia…


Isaiah’s Hope


We listen for the good word, the God Word, today also in Isaiah.  One of Isaiah’s keenest modern interpreters was our preacher in Evanston, Illinois until his death in 1960, Ernest Fremont Tittle.  Back in the 1930’s Tittle organized a listing of 1000 preachers who, like him, were committed to the principles of Christian pacifism.  While his dream was submerged during the Second World War, nonetheless his hope lives on.  His work reminds us that citizenship is always subordinate to discipleship, that the first commandment against idolatry presides over all the other nine, that while the separation of church and state is a quintessentially American and necessarily Christian understanding.


            Tittle preached the Jesus of the prophets, of peace, of the new creation, the hope that Isaiah did foretell.  The special 8thcentury bce hope of Isaiah for Israel and her Davidic King, changes, is transformed, into a grand and lasting vision of the Christ of God, and the power of Christ to bring heaven to earth. Some of this changes happens in Isaiah itself, as part I gives way to Chapter 40 (II) in the exile, and the Isaiah of the exile is further decorated by the excitement of the last ten chapters, written during the restoration (III).  Isaiah 1,2,3. To be clear:  in Isaiah, a small, particular, national hope becomes a grand and universal vision of great hope, on earth as it is in heaven.  Divine hope is honed in the struggle of Isaiah’s own life, in the predicted demise of Israel, in the brutality of exile, in the sweetness of liberation, and, at last, by your faith, in the advent of Christ.  The ringing bells of hope, an eschatological bell choir of prophesy, make Isaiah so memorable.  Especially our passage today, Isaiah 55.  And Tittle’s Isaian hope for the future was based wholey upon his allegiance to Jesus Christ, the light shining in the dark:


                        Jesus, after 19 centuries, remains an object of wonder.  There is something wonderful in the very fact that he has escaped oblivion.  What chance, on any human reckoning, did he have to be remembered?  A Jew, living in a small and remote province of the Roman Empire;  an obscure Jew belonging to the peasant class; a man of whom the vast majority of his contemporaries never heard, and who moreover left no written record of anything that he had said or done or dreamed; a man rejected and repudiated by the leaders of his nation, and deserted at the last even by his disciples.  Out of obscurity he came; and when, an object of hatred and derision, he was put to death on a gallows, it might well have been supposed that into oblivion he would go. But upon the contrary, the name of Jesus, in Emerson’s phrase, is “not so much written as ploughed into the history of the world.”


Grace at Dusk


            For St. John of the Cross, in full depth, Jesus was an object of wonder.  We note the attention in SJDLC to the art of co-operating with grace, to the human search for God and God’s search for the human, to amanuensis—memory, to words that ‘find us out’, to witness even stammering witness, to the authority and oneness of Scripture.  We note that St. John’s prime concern is the inner life of the individual.  And that is as good a short definition of pastoral ministry as one can find.  It is based on eremetismo interior.  And it is based on the connection between sensory deprivation and imaginative stimulus:  out of his dark night there arose—poetry and piety.


            “In the same way God will appear dark to the human intelligence because it lacks the organs to comprehend him”.   The dark night is a night of purgation, yes, but also of faith.  Like the moth, like the owl, who see in the dusk not in the sunlight.  O for that night when I in him might live invisible and dim.  For St John, there clearly was a connection between sensory deprivation and imaginative stimulus.  Out of his dark night arose poetry.   In the poetry and piety of St John of the Cross, we may find, uncover or discover, the courage and capacity to see at twilight, in the dark, in the dusk.


            In the dusk.  What do we see at nightfall?  Do we see, for instance, to take one obvious and immediate example,  that a claim of national emergency might not be seen as merely an extension of corruption, mendacity, and scurrilous life.  Come twilight, cultural and social twilight, do we like moth and owl squint and see that it is quite possibly much more?  It is the harbinger, the promissory note of a move toward authoritarianism.  It may be the emergence, or ironically emergency, of an openness to authoritarian leadership, that against which the US Constitution was largely written, was largely composed.  We shall need our night vision, our dark night vision.


In the dusk.  What do we see at nightfall?  Our sight, dimmed in the dark, finally relies on, recoils to, the sight of moth and owl, the twilight sight along the path of spiritual negation, along the path of the dark night of the soul.  Fear not the dark.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Hope is a companion in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Love is present in the dark, in with and under all.  Or, to conclude, as San Juan wrote: 


On a night of darkness,

In love’s anxiety of longing kindled,

O blessed chance!

I left by none beheld.

My house in sleep and silence stilled.


In darkness and secure,

By the secret ladder disguised,

O blessed venture!

In darkness and concealed,

My house in sleep and silence stilled.


By dark of blessed night,

In secrecy for no one saw me

And I regarded nothing,

My only light and guide

The one that in my heart was burning.


This guided, led me on

More surely than the radiance of noon

To where there waited one

Who was to me well known,

And in a place where no one came in view.


O night, you were the guide!

O night more desirable than dawn!

O dark of night you joined

Beloved with beloved one,

Beloved one in Beloved now transformed!


Upon my flowering breast

Entirely kept for him and him alone,

There he stayed and slept

And I caressed him

In breezes from the fan of cedars blown.


Breezes on the battlements—

As I was spreading out his hair,

With his unhurried hand

He wound my neck

And all my senses left suspended there.


I stayed, myself forgotten,

My countenance against my love reclined;

All ceased, and self-forsaken

I let my care behind

Among the lilies, unremembered.



            May God grant usgospelas in Luke, poetryas in St. John,hopeas in Isaiah, and pietyas in St. John.  Lift up your hearts:  Fear not the dark.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Hope is a companion in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Love is present in the dark, in with and under all.


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

The Poetry of St. John of the Cross

Sunday, March 17th, 2019

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Luke 13:31-35

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At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my course.

Every day, and especially each Lord’s day, Jesus brings us out, and meets us, at the existential line between life and death.  The Gospel from St. Luke foreshadows the cross.  The triumphant trumpet joy of the Letter to the Philippians, including its promise of our commonwealth, our koinonia, ‘in heaven’, pauses sharply to recall the cross.  Psalm 27, perhaps your favorite, or one of them, faces squarely the host of enemies encamped against Love, a prefigurement of the cross.  The genesis of Genesis which is the genesis of the people of faith, come Abraham, far more than the genesis of the creation prior, its real genesis is in the promise spoken to Abraham, often all we have to go on anyway, a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope, which is ‘Fear Not’, in a cruciform world, ‘fear not’, walk by faith in the dark.

Tomorrow in the dark on Marsh Plaza we will gather under the leadership of our BU Muslim student society, for vigil in faith, in the teeth of slaugher in New Zealand, and in the lasting shadow of the technology it was meant utilize and capture, world wide.  7pm.  We weep with those who weep.

We rustle about the cabin for nourishment, day by week, this Lent, delving for teaching and learning into the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz.

Toward the end of his life, St. John of the Cross was assigned to Granada in the south of Spain.  He came to love the natural beauty of his new home.  Those who have travelled in Andalusia can appreciate how he might have been enthralled so.  Though he loved the natural beauty of the region, the Andalusian accent, and to some measure the temperament of the people he met displeased him.  He missed the Castilian accent and the Castilian bonhomie it may be.

John offered his teaching, counsel, and spiritual direction in the open, warm Andalusian air, on long walks in the country side.  Spain does fully offer the willing peregrinator, pilgrim, pedestrian many and most wonderful trails, scenes and vistas.  Its ancient paths and pueblos carry in their very material the memories of a marvelous, ancient civilization.   That antiquity can teach us.

Jan and I visited once the winter home of Chopin, on Mallorca, where he composed etudes in concert with the rhythms of the falling seasonal rains, there in the heart of the Mediterranean.   Above the house in which Chopin composed and reposed was an ancient monastery, built in the year 1000 and closed near the year 1400.  We marveled, partly for the shimmering beauty of the mountain views, but also and more so that the monastery had been closed more than 600 years, more than twice the time my beloved Methodism has even existed.   It had more years dead and closed than we have had alive and open.  The ancient memories of Spain’s paths and pueblos help us gain, or regain, perspective.  One such is our 2019 memory of San Juan de la Cruz.

In Granada, later in his life, St. John wrote a great deal, including the composition of his commentaries on his few but famous poems.  Soon, though, in connection with ongoing institutional, religious disputes, he was transferred again, this time back to Castilla la Vieja, to the city of Segovia.  There he endured the ongoing political disputes within the Carmelite order.  After the death of St. Theresa of Avila, fights began between the factions of leaders, Doria and Gracian.  St. John travelled widely, to the detriment we imagine of his health in his waning years.  His habit was to ride on donkey or horseback, reading from the Scripture, and singing from his favorite book of the Bible—perhaps it is yours, too—the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon.  One thinks from the corner of the imagination of Cervantes’ woeful knight errant, the one and the great, Don Quijote de la Mancha, the religious knight errant of a begone era, tilting at windmills and at the locura, the craziness of life itself.  La razon de la sin razon a mi razon me enflaquece…  St. John engaged his own travels in the year 1588, the year, all bright BU undergraduates will recall is that of the Spanish Armada, and its surprising defeat by the English, the dreaded English, along the cliffs of Dover.   When St. John died in 1591 (in December), his body, or most of it, was interred in Segovia, where there is to this day a notable and sizable shrine.

In these years, San Juan de la Cruz was an outspoken critic of clerical power, favoring short leadership term limits, favoring elected rather than appointed leaders, favoring outspoken communal discoursed and debate rather than smoke filled rooms, and most especially, favoring full recognition of the corruption that comes with power.  We can take some notes here, particularly those of us consigned with and to religious leadership.  You do not have to go far into the Q document record of Jesus’ teaching, found in Matthew and Luke, to come upon his description of religious leaders, those wearing robes and holding degrees, to be clear about it, as ‘whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’.  As harsh as that may be to our ears, try to hear it in the context of kosher commands, the context of the uncleanness of burial, the context of early Rabbinic Judaism.  As my friend Roy Smyres used to say of bishops, though he meant it fully for all ordained and all religious leaders, ‘They hear so often what a good job they are doing and what great people they are that after a while…they start to believe it’.  I try to keep his voice in earshot myself.  Roy traveled in mission across Africa as a young man in the 1920’s, and loved to recite from memory the poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’.

At the end of his life, St. John found himself in rugged travel, and in contest with religious leadership and religious corruption, the corruption that comes with power.  Hence, at the end of his life, he found himself under suspicion of undermining his superiors.  An inquisition was begun by the Inquisition, during which time, to protect him, John’s correspondence and many if not most of his writings were burned.  A woman, Ana de Penalosa, of Segovia, helped him and later developed the shrine in Segovia to his honor.  In 1974 in Segovia, six of us from Ohio Wesleyan studied for a year, under the tutelage of Don Felipe de Penalosa, he of ancient Spanish aristocracy, and most probably of the same family as Ana Penalosa.   On January 6, 1975, a lovely young woman from Cleveland joined our class for the remainder of the year, very petite, blonde and Scandinavian, and Don Felipe, most happily and faithfully married, at age 85 or so fell in love again.  He just marveled at Rebecca Heskamp, of OWU, now in Segovia, who arrived January 6, saying Es un don de los reyes (she is a gift of the Magi, a gift of the kings).   A little later in the winter he would introduce her as Rebecca,  de los Vikingos, ‘one of the Vikings’.  It is amazing how spoken speech can stay in the memory, over long time, is it not?  St. John died at midnight, December 14, 1591, saying, ‘Tonight I will sing matins in heaven”.  We remember last words.  Like those of Stonewall Jackson, Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.  Like those of John Wesley, The best of all is, God is with us.  Like those of Jesus, I thirst.  Father forgive them.  It is finished.  Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani.  And, like those of John of the Cross, Tonight I will sing matins in heaven.

Some few of John’s writings and poems escaped the protective burning.  We have only 2500 verses of poetry, few but exquisite they are.  His poems rely heavily on a refrain of often repeated words: secret, secret; hidden, hidden; forgotten, forgotten; in disguise, in disguise; silence, silence; emptiness, emptiness; night, night.  His poems honor the inner life, ‘whose continual impulse’ is love of God and through God love of man and creation, or as we would say today, of the human being and of nature.  Beginning in 1614 and continuing on through 1627, his remaining poetry and prose and his memory recalled by colleagues, including his remembered speech, were recalled by colleagues and collected en route to his beatification in 1675.  The poems fill only a total of ten pages.

Influences on his poetry are both sacred and secular.  This accords beautifully with the lesson from Romans read among us last Sunday by Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman: If you confess with your lips that Jesus in Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches on all who call upon him (Romans 10: 9-12).   No distinction between Jew and Greek.  No distinction between religious and unreligious.  No distinction between observant and unobservant.   No distinction, as in the poetry of St. John of the Cross, between sacred and secular.  God is all in all!  God sings ‘don’t fence me in!’

Influences on his poetry are both sacred and secular.  The sacred in particular include the Bible as a whole, and the Song of Songs, of Solomon, especially and in particular.  The secular, most intriguingly, include ordinary Spanish love songs, pastoral romantic poetry, the popular influence of Garcilaso de la Vega (who imported the 11 syllable poetic line from the Italian Renaissance), and his own audition, his own experience of these.  Physically cloistered, he was poetically a regular citizen!  In Garcilaso, we read of Renaissance poetry, The refined sense of beauty, the artificiality of the pastoral themes, the diffused and sublimated sensations, all of which were taken from the Italian (106).  As a young man, St. John of the Cross would have read Garcilaso de la Vega.

Of most importance was the Song of Songs, an anthology of Hebrew folk songs intended for use at marriage festivals and dating in its present state from the third century bce (108).  The drama here of human love becomes a form and format for expression of love divine.  Marriage itself is just this.  With most coming to marriage at or over the age of 30, the more usual practical matters in marriage preparation are of less importance than they were a generation ago, when marriage occurred in the early twenties.  There is less need for counsel regarding budgeting, regarding sexuality, regarding extended family matters, regarding religious rhythms and observances.  But on the other hand, somewhat older couples coming to marriage today are more prepared to, more ready to understand marriage, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ as it were.  By the mid thirties soon to be newly weds are more experientially prepared, than their cousins a generation ago, to understand human commitment, covenant, betrothal, intimacy and love as forms and formats and especially foretastes of divine commitment, covenant, betrothal, intimacy and love.    We say this in consideration of and counsel for those among us preparing others among us for marriage, an honorable estate, instituted of God and signifying unto us the mystical union which exists between Christ and his church, which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified by his presence in Cana of Galilee.   Note this:  it was a secular love song heard through the walls of this castle prison in Toledo that set John off into his writing of sacred poetry.

Yet, for all his talent, St. John really could not fully explain his own work, to his own satisfaction: it is not only that the poet cannot understand or explain his own experiences, he cannot understand or explain the poems that have come out of those experiences either (110).  In this, as in many other things, St. John foreshadows the poetry of Antonio Machado.

Longing. Anguish. Lightness. Exhilaration.  Travel.  Adventure.  Passion.  Tenderness.  Mountains.  Rivers.  And VERY FEW ADJECTIVES!  These are the themes one finds in the poetry of St. John of the Cross.  His genius, throughout, is the capacity of ‘condensing different elements of thought and feeling into a single phrase’.  It is—here is a new word for it—a kind of ontomontopoesia.

We note that the central image in the poetry, in the work, of the theology of St. John of the Cross is marriage, as in the Song of Songs, as in the Fourth Gospel, as in the poetry of William Blake.  We note that the abiding, attendant issues of church political intrigue, of popular country music ballads, of a confluence of spiritual, sensual love, again of marriage, of the dark nights soul nights, the soul’s pain in memory and hope.  We note the wise and lasting dialectics: to know and not to know; to descend and to ascend; to live and to die; to dwell in light and in darkness.  With St. John and with St. John we note the power of the paradox.

One of San Juan’s most important contributions to the history of Christian spirituality is to give a necessary and positive value to experiences of inner frustration and paralysis.  Like the dark nights themselves, they have to be faced, but rightly understood and used they become a means of growth (Thompson, 220).

They become ‘rays of darkness’.  They become rays of darkness, and the listener becomes one with the music, the reader becomes one with the poetry.

Here is a pointed personal question.  Have you worked to allow the dark nights of your life, the inner frustrations of your life, the times of paralysis in your life, to offer a mode, a condition for growth in faith? Here is a pointed personal question.  Have you worked to allow the dark nights of your life, the inner frustrations of your life, the times of paralysis in your life, to offer a mode, a condition for growth in faith?   If so, you may have or may well find some unexpected, unusual company, in the figure of One who experienced threat, One who wrestled with inner demons, his own and others’, One who brought spiritual medicine to bear on spiritual illness, and One who died on a cross:

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my course.

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


The Dark Night of the Soul and St. John of the Cross

Sunday, March 10th, 2019

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Luke 4: 1-13

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Five days ago here at Marsh Chapel about 1,000 students and others presented themselves for ashes, Ash Wednesday.  Our hard working Marsh Chaplains and team served 430 or so.  The Chapel also hosted three Catholic services and the weekly contemporary Theological School service, wherein ashes were given.  Hence, about 1,000.  In the last few years, Ash Wednesday has begun to catch up with Easter and Christmas in active young adult participation.


My middle name of late is ‘I don’t know’, which I don’t.  One of our chaplains preaches an Ash Wednesday sermon every year, ‘the ashes are not magic ashes’.  But they draw.  The touch draws.  The solemnity, too. The whisper of mortality at the fountain of youth.  The strange, numinous, yet public pause.  The flesh of it all.

There is perhaps another cause or reason.  Here, mid-winter, is an encounter with antiquity.  For two millennia women and men have been preparing for a holy Lent.  For two millennia women and men have stopped to remember, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  As our English chorister read it some years ago, Thou art DUST and to DUST though shalt return.  Is this not subliminally why, in part, we are here this morning, too?  For two millennia women and men have listened to readings from Holy Writ.  For two millennia women and men have received Jesus in cup and bread.  For two millennia, come Sunday, there have been choirs and preachers and prayers and candles and quiet.  The architecture of our gothic nave, with an origin nearly a millennium ago, speaks to us so.  Our long tall, yes traditioned, stained glass captures places and people from longer ago.  Our habits of liturgy, stand and sit, our habits of liturgy, sing and give, our habits of liturgy, bow and kneel, our habits of liturgy, our body language, give us a jarring encounter with antiquity.  For once, every seven days, we are not jailed and stuck in the shallow shallows of the twenty first century.  We are liberated to time travel, to get out and see the past, and perhaps, now and then, to hear something good and learn something new. 


It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent, we meet Jesus in the wilderness.  There He resists.  In the time honored tradition of a three part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human.  Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know.  They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice.  We come to church with some experience of temptation and resistance.  As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

In many communities, including our own, the sun rises this morning, this Lenten morning, on experience of loss and hurt.  This morning there are homes and families who have suddenly known unexpected loss.  This morning there are friends and groups of friends who have been faced with mortal danger.  At one breakfast table, a wife now sits alone, for the first time on a Sunday in 60 years.  At another breakfast table, a family gathers for the first time, in a long time, and missing a member.  It would help us to remember just how short our words do fall in trying to describe the depth of these moments.  Our words arrive only at the shoreline, at the margin of things.  Beyond this we practice prayer, a kind of sitting silent before God.

Our immediate community here along the Charles River today mourns unexpected losses.  Along with the scripture and the music, amid the hymns and prayers of our worship, there walks also among us today, by the mind’s farther roads, a recognition of loss.  There is some shock to loss.   There is a kind of fear that comes with loss.  There is, often later, an honest anger.  There is some numbness.  There is a real, and good, desire to do something helpful.  There are questions, numerous and important.  And there is the one haunting question, too, why?

We do not know why these things happen. We hurt, and grieve.  In the bones.  At the deeper levels, we just do not know, and for an academic community committed to knowing, and knowing more, and more, this means wandering in a serious wilderness.  Give us an equation to solve.  Show us a biography that needs writing.  Provide us with an experiment.  Happily we would organize a committee, or develop a proposal, or phone a list of donors.  But loss, unexpected and unfair, is tragic.  The tragic sense of life, el sentimiento trajico de la vida, takes us out into wilderness, where we learn, with Jesus, to resist.  Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come 11am, today again to walk in the wild, in the wilderness.

The Marsh Lenten Sermon Series

Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. John of the Cross.  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 Teresa of Avila, 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.  We turn this Lent to St. John of the Cross.  You may remember how much Merton loved St. John of the Cross, from last year.  If not, as we start, listen to Merton on Lent:


“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that 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 Ash Wednesday, 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 saccounts: 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 Ash Wednesday 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, and the just do not need a savior.”    Thomas Merton
San Juan de la Cruz

Let us then start our 2019 lenten Marsh Chapel tour of a part of antiquity.

St. John of the Cross was born in Old Castile,  Spain, in 1542, and is one of the great Catholic, great Christian, great religious mystics.  He came from a troubled, poor family of weavers, with perhaps some Jewish ancestry.  Out of desperate poverty, his single mother placed him in an orphanage.  He later studied in Salamanca, and was known there for long mid night prayers, endless silence, fasting, and self-mortification and solitude. In 1567 he was ordained priest, and went home by custom to celebrate his first mass in Medina, and there had his life reformed in an unexpected encounter with Theresa of Avila, who signed him up and signed him on to help her develop her reformed, descalced (that is, shoe-less), primitive rule new Carmelite order.

‘Carmel’ in Hebrew means garden, and the Scriptural reference of course is to 1 Kings and Elijah, on Mt. Carmel.  John adored the Bible.  Much of his young adulthood was consumed in spiritual direction and the hearing of confessions among the nuns (here nuns not nones), the religious committed to Santa Theresa de Avila, and to the endless ecclesiastical intrigues, contentions, and outright feuds involved in running, or starting, or reforming anything religious, including a religious order.  Such a mirror from the past has been spiritually helpful, this winter, as many of us face a winter of denominational discontents.  St. John was a man, like Zaccheus of old, of small stature, under 5 feet in height.

A most dramatic event in his younger adulthood came as a consequence of these administrative disputations, when he was arrested and then imprisoned in the Alcazar, the castle, in Toledo.  There he was rudely treated, nearly starved, and after nine months escaped, scaling down the walls of the castle just above the river Tagus.  It makes a dramatic narrative, and ends with his reception, his protection by and hiding out with the Carmelite nuns again.  Now St. John is known, today, if he is at all, today, by single phrase, ‘the dark night of the soul’, ‘the dark night of the soul’.  Unfair of course it is to anyone to remember them by one phrase.  Yet John of the Cross is so recalled.  He is our spelunking guide, our patrol leader through the caves of darkness, the hours, especially wee morning hours, of despair, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, which our Lord, sursum corda, endured, tamed and blessed, see Luke 4.  Think of John in the dark, nine months, in the Toledo castle.  Think of him in escape, on a moonless night.  Think of him, stumbling through the penumbruos streets, lurking in the vestibule of the nunnery for safety.  Then think of him translating that pedestrian dark night into the poetic dark night of the soul.

In his beatification in the 17th century, about 40 years after his death, it was remembered that he heard, in his prison despair, in Toledo, the voice of a young man singing a simple love song, Muerome de amores, Carillo.  ?Que Hare?—que te mueras, alaide.  ‘I am dying of love, dearest.  What shall I do?  Die’.  Of a sudden, somehow, in the heart of darkness, San Juan de la Cruz was transported into ecstacy, the song of love becoming the song of death, and life.  The simple voice of a love poem gave the heart of his mystical encounter, transported of course to the love of God.  This becomes his poetic, spiritual, prayerful, mystical pattern.

Is this not the Lenten gospel, for you?  Your wilderness, your wandering, your wasteland—see, hear—is the landscape of love, the landscape of longing for love, love personal, love human, love spiritual, love divine all loves excelling.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  ‘Whoever does not know hurt does not know good things either’. (San Juan de la Cruz).

This lent we shall see by the dark light, the dark night, the dark night of the soul.

While life’s dark maze I tread

And griefs around me spread

Be thou my guide

Bid darkness turn to day

Wipe sorrow’s tears away

Nor let me ever stray

From thee aside

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

Communion Meditation

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019

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Luke 9: 28-36

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The single striking word in our passage from the Holy Scripture, Luke 9, is ‘departure’.  To be sure, Luke has more broadly added to what he took from Mark 9, written 25 years earlier.   He adds that Jesus went up to pray, giving to the wild scene a liturgically human focus.  He adds that Moses and Elijah spoke together of him, perhaps out of earshot, or in muffled tones, another human touch in what is otherwise a resurrection scene.  Luke adds that Peter and others were sleepy, human beings they, for all the ‘glory’ of the Transfiguration.  He adds a word about their human fear.  He renames, changes, Jesus appellation from Beloved to Chosen, a slight demotion.   Luke particularly adds that they told no one about this, perhaps by way of late first century explanation as to why there were no memories of this.  In all the narrative is utterly human in that we have a tendency to ’mark the places and preserve the moments where we has encountered God’ (S Ringe, loc. cit.).

But ‘departure’, Jesus’ departure, is the striking gospel word in Luke today.  Whether the reference to the coming Jerusalem event, of which his late first century readers would be well aware, was to crucifixion, in Jerusalem, or to ascenscion, in Jerusalem, or to both, or less probably to something other, we are not told.  Luke’s story comes down the mountain faster than Mark’s or for that matter Matthew’s.  The cross is upheld in the chill of glory.   The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, announces freedom right in the teeth of disappointment, love right in the pain of dislocation, and, today, grace in the hour of departure.  Grace meets us in departure.  Whether personal or communal, departure opens the way to grace.

First: Personal Departure

You know this from experience when your loved ones die.  Today at 2pm we face the departure of a loved one, at 2pm, Dr. Horace Allen.  We gathered two weeks ago to celebrate the life and faith of my father in law, Jan’s dad, Robert E. Pennock, age 92, whose mind, heart, and soul we honored that day in love.   In light of the painful outcome of the Methodist conference in St. Louis this week, it may be particularly important to recall the best of Methodism by remembering him today.  As the Romans, and my Latin teacher mother would say, exemplum docet, the example teaches.

Bob carried many titles over the years, including Mr., Rev., Dr., Professor, Dean and others, but cherished most closely the titles of Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Husband, and Friend.  We who had known him so, with anguish and hope, gave him over to God.

Bob loved the Lord with his mind.   What an acute, imaginative mind he did possess.  Raised in Syracuse, a graduate of Nottingham High School where he was captain and quarterback of the football team, a further graduate—following service to his country in the navy, 1944—of Syracuse University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he then went to Iliff School of Theology and over time earned the equivalent of today’s Master of Divinity, and a PhD focused on the theology, actually the ontology, of Paul Tillich.  He said he saw an article in Life Magazine, ‘They are educating a new kind of preacher at Iliff’, and promptly chose to go off to Denver. He was a natural teacher and a life-long learner, curious, honest, and sharp.

One summer night, years ago, we were hiking back over the sand hill from lake Ontario to the cottage which he so loved, under a bejeweled canopy of stars in the clear night sky.  He stopped and looked long heavenward, saying, ‘So many questions, so many unanswered questions.’  His study of Tillich was thus no accident, for Tillich always began with the questions, bringing the tradition of faith to bear in faithful answers to existential questions.  Into his nineties, Bob was able to preach with head as well as heart.  His ministry, which included pastorates in Onega, Kansas, in Denver, Colorado, in Mexico NY, and in Oswego NY (there also the leadership of the Wesley Foundation He was the best NNY preacher of his generation.  His preaching combined intellectual height with emotional depth, and met the moment, Sunday by Sunday, including November 25, 1963, following JFK’s assassination, with a necessarily re-written sermon that began, ‘We are a nation drenched in sorrow’.  Earl Ledden, who was later Bob’s Bishop in Syracuse, would play the piano for singing when the ministers came together for conference, a humble, gracious man.  ‘That is ministry, to play the accompaniment to people’s lives’, Ledden would say.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind.

Bob also loved the Lord with his heart.  He was a positive, optimistic person, most naturally himself when setting sail, running with the wind.  During an earlier illness, this some many years ago but still a perilous malady, it was striking to hear him say, ‘I will be all right.  I will pray.  I believe in the power of prayer.  I believe in the power of prayer’.  At the heart of his heart were his children, and their children, and their children, too.  He could easily give way to tears when the moment arose and allowed, and was unafraid of emotion, public or otherwise.  Anger did not worry him, neither his own nor that of others, as those of us who occasionally disagreed with him can attest.  He would have agreed with my own dad, who, when such emotion overtook another would say, ‘That’s fine.  It’s worth the price of admission to see him (or her) so worked up.’  It was in his preaching that his heart, too, came through.  In 1980 he preached in the little Forest Home Chapel in Ithaca, and told a story about a boy who wanted his dad to play in the annual father and son baseball game.  But Dad was a terrible ball player, with coke bottle glasses, a big paunch, and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.  Still, Son persisted and so, in terror, Dad stood at the plate and easily made two quick strikes.  Then he heard a voice from right field calling out, ‘Come on Dad, you can hit it, I just know you can’.  And wouldn’t you know, by some miraculous somehow, Dad swung and hit a little Texas leaguer, a short single into center field. Standing proudly at first base, he heard that same voice from right field, ‘I knew it Dad.  I just knew you could’.  I can hear him telling that as if it were yesterday, rather than forty years ago.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.

Bob loved the Lord with his soul.  He was a Methodist of the veteran liberal variety, who combined, in John Wesley’s way, a deep personal faith with an active social involvement, a weekly Sunday worship hour with a weekday engagement of faith in culture, in society, and in politics.  The full humanity of gay people was affirmed.  The dangers of authoritarian, mendacious Presidential leadership was a given.  The care of the migrant, the poor, those in bitter need, was the first order of business on the Christian agenda, the lifted lamp beside the golden door.  “These are things we have to keep before us, always before us”, he would say, and did preach.   He lived the freedom of the Christian, and could, and did, acknowledge failure, defeat, and mistake, and pray, not with the Pharisee, but with the publican, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.  On his last day he could mouth a greeting by name and whisper ‘I love you too’.  Would that we all could be so alive when we die.  About eight years ago, on a Boston visit, we talked about death and burial.  He said he would be buried in Richland, far up in the Tug Hill plateau of Northern New York State, and then added, ‘That is so comforting to me, to think of being buried there, under those deep winter snows, lying at peace and quiet under those North Country drifts, under that bright white blanket.’     In that Methodist faith Bob was born and baptized, and in that Methodist faith he is now dead and soon buried.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul.

With mind, and with heart, and with soul, we shall love the Lord our God.

One perceives grace in the hour of personal departure.


Second: Communal Departure

Bob’s church, and mine, this last week endured a communal departure, a parting of ways.  In light of his life and minisltry, it may be particularly important today to face directly the collapse this week. Methodists of mind, heart and soulf today face fully the defeat of St. Louis and what Methodism has become.

The death of my father in law preceded by a fortnight the death of his and my church.  The Rev. Mr. Mark Feldmier of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, put it this way:

Late Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church betrayed its most essential and enduring standard for Christian faith and practice: “do no harm.” The events and outcomes of the Special Session of the General Conference have done irreparable harm to the LGBTQ family, as well as to the majority of United Methodists who live in the US and represent a more centrist and generous orthodoxy. It is a sad day as we confront the dark reality of what has taken place.

As I am sure you know, delegates to General Conference voted to retain and reinforce policies prohibiting LGBTQ clergy and same-gender weddings. These policies, and the new consequences for violating them, are barbaric, shameful, and intolerable…The United Methodist Church, as we have known it, died on Tuesday, he concluded.

We gather, come Sunday, with regularity to receive the Lord in bread and cup, and to listen for His Word, a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.

In that spirit, here are some few, specific, pastoral comments about the conference, offered to the Marsh Chapel community present this morning, and to our global listenership around the world:

With many others, I supported the defeated One Church plan, which would have allowed freedom for local churches with regard to marriage, and for annual conferences with regard to ordination.

Marsh Chapel, with historical ties to Methodism but now an ecumenical University chapel, has and will continue to solemnize marriages for gay people, and has and will continue to employ and deploy gay clergy.  We had another such wedding submission for next year, which we will happily honor, on the day  conference ended. Our full embrace and affirmation of the LGBTQIA community will not change at all, except  that we will strive even further to energize our inclusive ministry here.   Marsh Chapel, as you are doing, do so more and more!

Today, the United Methodist Church is split.  About two thirds of the delegates from the United States supported the One Church plan, and thus supported openness to gay people in marriage and ordination, as determined in churches and conferences.  Opposition came heavily from abroad, especially Africa and the Philippines (NYTimes, 2/25/19) and also significantly from a fundamentalist minority in the USA.  As Dr. Stephen Cady, one of the leading young liberal voices in Methodism today, the senior minister of the largest UMC in the Northeast Jurisdiction, Asbury First UMC, Rochester NY put it: ‘Some in our denomination wish to maintain our current stance but others, like me, desperately wish to change it…Unfortunately our global nature, with roughly half of our denomination residing outside of the US, also means that it takes us longer to progress on social issues like these’.

Whether there will be an actual institutional split, and if so how so, I cannot yet say, but I would not fear it.

As to the fuller significance and effects of this I refer you to the Marsh Chapel sermon, 2/17, (  It may be that local churches will begin to look more carefully at what they support in global giving, especially general apportionment funds 1,4,and 7 (world service fund, episcopal fund, Africa University fund).

For those concerned and curious about the process of the conference, here are a few concluding unscientific postscripts:

*43% of votes were from overseas, 30% from Africa alone.

*a 25 vote shift would have changed the outcome; forty potential votes were not even cast (the total vote was 824 out of 864 delegates);

*the 2019 delegates were elected in 2015, but over time  another younger group is coming;

*some progressives may not have supported the One Church plan, preferring to hold out for the perfect rather than supporting an imperfect improvement—you might want to think about that another time;

*bluntly, this is painful, disappointing and disheartening, for all, but especially for those just emerging in life and leadership.  Several students from Marsh Chapel attended the conference in St. Louis, and I am proud of their vocal leadership and faithful embrace of the LGBTQIA community issues.

*United Methodist lay and clergy conference members will want to make a point of attending annual conference this year.  The annual conference, remember, is the basic body of our church. United Methodist elections of delegates to the April 2020 General Conference (only 14 months away) will be held this spring 2019, and it will be crucial, for instance, that some retired clergy who do not always attend conference (but have a vote) do choose to attend, and so hopefully help to move the balance of US votes closer to 100% for acceptance, affirmation, and inclusion.  We can expect no help, support or mercy neither from overseas nor from the fundamentalists.

50 years ago, Methodism was actively engaged in merger discussions with the Episcopal Church: it may be time for moderate Methodism to start there again.

*Last month we visited our oldest parishioner, C. Faith Richardson.  Faith, like Marsh Chapel is rooted in Methodist history, but her branches are the whole oikumene, historically Methodist, functionally ecumenical.  How does it feel to be 103?, I asked. About the same as it feels to be 101, she answered.  Then we discussed the conference in St. Louis.  Faith was the secretary of the 1984 conference, and retyped the Book of Discipline repeatedly on Smith Corona typewriter.  Haven’t they finished opening up the church to gay people yet?, she said.

Hear the broken Gospel: The leaven of grace is obscurely present, in departure, affirms St. Luke.  The leaven of grace is obscurely present, in communal departure, acclaims our St. Luke today.

As in humility we approach the Lord’s table, perhaps the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer may guide us:  “The question is how the reality in Christ—which has long embraced us and our world within itself—works here and now or, in other words, how life is to be lived in it. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God. As we travel further along this road, a large part of traditional Christian ethical thought stands like a Colossus obstructing our way.” (Ethics)

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



Sunday, February 24th, 2019

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Gen. 45:3-11, 15

Ps. 92:1-4, 12-15

1 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-50

Luke 6:27-38

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With deep gratitude, I thank the Rev’d Dr., Professor Dean Hill for the invitation to preach today. One of the best things I’ve ever done was to be instrumental in hiring him to improve the preaching when I finished my terms as dean here. Beth and I have been associated with Marsh Chapel since the fall of 1988 and we have seen many changes. Robert Thornburg was the dean in those early days, and his ministry focused on undergraduates, especially the athletes. He went to nearly athletic contest. He was succeeded by the Rev’d Hope Lucky who focused on undergraduate women evangelicals. I succeeded Hope in 2003 and focused on making Marsh Chapel’s pulpit a leading intellectual voice for Christianity in the nation. When Bob Hill came in 2006, he actually did make it a leading intellectual voice. Ray Bouchard came here with me and he now presides over what is most likely the most ambitious university chapel in the country. Scott Jarrett came with Hope Lucky and, with Justin Blackwell, has now made our music program second to none in New England. Many on our staff now, including Brother Larry Whitney LC+, were around as students during my time or, like Jay Reeg and Mark Gray   began coming during my tenure. What a great privilege it is for me to see so many more of you, so many new, since my days as dean! The changes have been wonderful!

To be sure, some things seem not to have changed. Some of you have been coming since the days of Bob Thornburg. Thornburg was himself the third Bob to be Dean of the Chapel, I’m the fourth, and Bob Hill is the fifth. The acoustics of this chapel remain great for music and wretched for the spoken word, despite many improvements in loudspeakers and microphones. There are five levels of floors in the building, making real elevators almost impossible. We are stuck with the outside lift that Thornburg installed. Still, even these seemingly unchanged things have changed at least by getting older. Some of you have knee joints that agree with me.

Let me call your attention to our three scriptures about for today, one about an incident in one of the world’s most dysfunctional families, one about Paul’s bizarre ideas about resurrection and immortality, and one about Luke’s strange portion of his Sermon on the Plain.

The Genesis reading is part of the story of Jacob, the part where his son Joseph reunites his family. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the first schlemiel in recorded history, to my knowledge. Isaac as a boy was almost killed by his father to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to God. As an old man, Isaac was tricked by his wife and Jacob into giving his blessing to the wrong son. Jacob as a young man was strong, if not particularly ethical, and did plot to secure his father’s blessing that belonged in Esau. Isaac sent Jacob to his Uncle Laban to get one of his daughters as a wife; the candidates were Jacob’s first cousins, if you keep track of biblical family practice. He fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and served Laban seven years to pay for her. But on the wedding night Laban substituted the veiled older daughter, Leah, for Rachel and so Jacob was married to Leah. Wanting Rachel instead, or as well, Jacob worked for Laban another seven years and finally married Rachel too. The two wives constantly fought. Leah bore Jacob the sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. With a concubine, Bilhah, Jacob had Dan and Naphtali. With another concubine, Jacob had Gad and Asher. Leah became fertile again and bore Jacob sons Issachar and Zebulun. Then, last, Rachel bore Jacob Joseph and Benjamin. You will note that the sons of Jacob were ancestors to the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s name won from his fight with the angel. With all those warring mothers, the sons of Jacob were hostile to one another, but especially to Joseph, the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. You remember how they were offended by Joseph’s coat of many colors and sold him to Midianites who took him to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph worked his way up from slavery to friendship with the Pharaoh who made him Prime Minister of the kingdom.

This is where our story today takes up. During a great famine, Jacob’s other sons except for Benjamin came to Egypt to beg for grain. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. He sent them back home with instructions to bring him Benjamin, which they did. And as you can see from our text, Joseph, after some trickery, reconciled himself with his brothers. They brought their father to Egypt where Jacob enjoyed the greatest hospitality and reunion with Joseph. The good times of Jacob’s family in Egypt lasted for generations until there is a pharaoh “that knew not Joseph.” The moral of the story is that, at least for a few generations, the enmity within Jacob’s family was overcome and they lived reconciled with one another and in the good graces of the Egyptians. What an extraordinary change! Everyone changed! In the time of famine the Egyptians became super-generous and the household of Jacob was happy.

A moral of this story for us is that the enmity between nations, between parties, between families can indeed be overcome. Appearances to the contrary, those of us who have been aggrieved because of race, nationality, religion, or anything else can change to have the spirit of forgiveness, and forgiveness can bring about peace and happiness. Remember Joseph said that his brothers ought not think of themselves as guilty for doing something horrible to him, but that God used this to put Joseph in the high position where he could help them. Joseph not only effected the vast change of reconciliation in his family, he changed his older brothers from guilty to being instruments of great good.

Of course, we don’t really know what happened in the Jacob story; even the part about Joseph being the prime minister of Israel does not have verification from any other source. We know only what the biblical sources say. The case with Paul’s discussion of immortality in 1 Corinthians is very different. We know a lot about the range of opinions about that topic in Paul’s day.

The basic Jewish view prior to the encounter with Greek thought was that death of the body and its decomposition meant the death of the person, with no separable soul that lasted long. Some people thought that the soul lasts a short time in Hades after death and then dissipates like smoke. In Jesus’s time, the Greek-influenced Pharisee party that Jesus followed believed in the resurrection of the dead, not the dissipation of the person. The old school Sadducees teased Jesus and the Pharisees about this; remember when they asked Jesus whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection who had married several brothers. Some people believed that only the fortunate would be resurrected by God and that the others would just die. The few who would be resurrected had to be given a new embodiment either immediately upon death or at a later Last Judgment. Others believed that the human soul is separable from the body and is itself naturally immortal. For these natural immortalists, some people found a new life in heaven, but if they didn’t merit heaven there had to be a hell for them to go to. Later Christians in medieval times elaborated the place for the next life to include limbo for unbaptized infants and purgatory for the purification of sinful souls that eventually would get to heaven; no one in Jesus’ time, however, would think about limbo and purgatory.

St. Paul accepted the natural cosmology of his day that said that the universe exists in layers with different physical properties for each layer or plane. On the plane of the earth, people had physical bodies that die and decay. The higher levels had incorruptible physical properties, like layers of angels, all the way up to God. Planes lower than the earth had tormented physical bodies where the demons were. Souls sometimes can traverse from one plane to another. Remember his hymn in Philippians where Christ lives at the top with God but then descends to Earth where he takes on a corruptible physical body as a slave. In Corinthians, Paul said that the afterlife consists in obtaining an incorruptible body and that Jesus assures that those who believe in him will be given an incorruptible body at the Last Judgment. Paul believed the Last Judgment would come within his lifetime, although some Christians had already died. The souls would exist bodiless from the time of death until that Last Judgment resurrection. Many Christians today believe this, but many other Christians also believe that people are raised with incorruptible bodies immediately after the death of their corruptible physical bodies. Either of those theories is a version of reincarnation that was almost universally assumed in South Asia and that came to Israel through Greece.

All of these opinions concern the afterlife as coming (or not) within time after the end of historical, temporal life. The authors of Ephesians and Colossians, whom scholars believe now to have been students of Paul, developed what scholars call a “realized eschatology.” This is the belief that it’s not the future but an eternal and present relation with God that counts. Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection with Christ and now already live rightly related to God. Therefore, those letters say, we should live with love and generosity now in this life, not worrying about any life to come. Eternity does not mean something that last forever, like two people and a ham (my wife told me to tell that joke). Eternity is rather the creative act that creates all moments as future, all as present, and all as past, all together, eternally together although temporally unfolding. Given what we know now about the dependence of the soul on the brain, body, health, and socialization, many of us now do not believe in life after death but rather in an eternal relation to God that we live out within the days of our temporal life. I myself believe that our day to day temporal life is but an abstract part of our real concrete life that is eternal within God’s eternal creative act. The realization of this eternal identity transforms our temporal lives in mind-blowing ways. My book, Eternity and Time’s Flow, explains my theory with lots of arguments and illustrations. Acceptance of any of these views of immortal or eternal life, however, causes huge changes in how we live day to day. We come to live before God, not just within the world of our interests.

I don’t know what you believe about these matters about which Paul wrote. All of them have biblical warrant, and they are all hard to believe. It is much easier to focus on Christianity as about how to live now, which is the position of the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke. In keeping with Dean Hill’s emphasis on comparative gospels, I urge you all to look up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that encompasses three long chapters, five through seven. Read that against Luke’s chapter six, beginning with verse 17, a terse rearrangement and reinterpretation of the earlier text Matthew and Luke have in common that neither Mark nor John has. Matthew was writing for a mainly Jewish audience of Christians and so emphasized how Jesus sharpened Jewish law and attacked hypocrisy regarding Jewish practice. Luke was writing for Greek Christians, pretty much ignored Jewish law, and interpreted Jesus’ saying simply as how to live before God.

For Luke, the Christian life is not so much about obeying God’s law in our heart as it is about being like God in what we do. Because God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, so we should love our enemies, be good to everyone including sinners, and lend without expecting to be repaid. For Luke, Christian life is not so much about being good citizens of God’s law-governed kingdom as it is about being “children of the most high.” Children succeed by taking on their parents’ work, and we should continue the work of God who loves everyone, even the sinners. The Greek Christians can understand that without knowing much about the Kingdom of Israel. So can we.

Is it not shocking to learn that we should become children of God and heirs to God’s work? What greater change can we be called to than to behave like the merciful creator who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked? The Bible of course had no conception of justice as the attempt to change social structures to eliminate poverty or prejudice. It even had nothing against the social institutions of slavery. Those insights did not arise until the modern era and we late-modern Christians can add them as part of what we need to do to be just in the world. Luke would remind us that God loves the billionaires and racists, and loved the slaveowners, no matter how bad they are in a calculus of good and evil. A condition of us loving the wicked is that we forgive them, as we must do to be like God. What a change in the way we ordinarily think about justice!

Our three texts today are about changes. Joseph finishes the Jacob story by reconciling his family and turning his older brothers’ guilt into God’s instrument for reconciliation. Paul’s  understanding of Christian salvation is exchanging our perishable bodies for imperishable bodies so that we can rise with Jesus to the plane of God and enjoy fellowship with the divine. The journey upward through different planes of reality might not be how you think of a right relation to God, but there is surely a change from living in ordinary history to living in a history that is part of the eternal creation. Luke’s understanding of true Christian life is not just to be good by worldly standards, nor even to be obedient to divine commands, but to become children of God acting like God in daily life. How different that is from the way we ordinarily live!

These three texts draw a distinction between the steady way things are and the constancy of change. Forget about the way things are. Pay attention to how they are changing. By the imitation of God, make the changes for the better that lie within your means. Look for ways to make changes that you otherwise would not notice. See that in making these changes you are part of God creating with love even for the ungrateful and wicked with whom we are intimately bound. Remember that we have two bodies, as Paul would say. Our historical body lives day to day with all the ambiguities of life, our successes and our failures. That historical body is only a part of our eternal body within which we are connected with all other things, including the past and future, within the eternal act of God’s creation. When we realize that today’s body is only a part of our eternal body, we can accept the fact that what we do today, obligated as it is to be just, cannot escape the love of God even if we do what we ought not. Who knows? Our best intentions today might be great evils that will be shown up in future generations. We can take comfort that even the worst of us are part of the eternity of God’s creative act. Today we must act. In eternity we just rest in the bliss of God creating. Change exists in eternity.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Dean of the Chapel, 2003-2006 




Happy in God

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

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1 Corinthians 15: 12-20

Luke 6: 17-26

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At age 85, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was asked the ‘chief end’ of being human, the meaning of life.  He responded: You are made to be happy in God.  Today his Methodist church is roiling in unhappiness, heading toward a special General Conference in St. Louis next week, to struggle, as has every such meeting since 1972, over the humanity of gay people.  Two modes of reflection beyond the procedural, administrative, governmental, disciplinary, and connectional ones that tend to dominate or predominate in these meetings deserves some sermonic attention. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

Theological Perspective

First, at theological perspective.

I am grateful for the open, broad minded traditions of our church, especially our theological traditions, the spiritual waters in which we have learned to swim, from prone float to butterfly, and especially the Wesley quadrilateral, that four verse hymn to Jesus as our beacon not our boundary.

As we prepare for this 2019 conference, we could perhaps give shared attention to our sources of authority across the United Methodist Church.  At our best, our love of Christ shapes our love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience.  We are lovers and knowers too.  Yet we are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine.  In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love.  We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of faux certainty.  It is tempting to substitute the security and protection of certainty for the freedom and grace of confidence.  But faith is about confidence not certainty.  If we had certainty we would not need faith.


Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its Psalmic depths.   Psalm 130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names.  Obededom comes to mind.  You love its proverbial wisdom.  ‘One sharpens another’ comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His embrace of children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as the medium of truth for the practice of faith.  Around our common tables in family, church and community we share this reliance and this love.  We all love the Bible.  I have been studying and teaching the Bible for four decades.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of perspectives present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture.  We may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s aspiration:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But. The Bible is errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of historical-critical study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to re-mythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, John 8, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples. Did you ever try to get the list just right?  Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and after that it is a free-for-all.  The various ‘twelve’ listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the synoptic Gospels.

Our discussion next week in St. Louis does not occur within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We are not Baptists nor are we Calvinists  We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  As an example, many synoptic passages present an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  Luke is writing 55 years after the ministry of Jesus.  What do you remember from 55 years ago? Nor were they written for that kind of certainty.  They were formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.  They are, as W. Brueggemann once put it, stylized memories.


You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  One central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.   Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

Our linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls before grace and freedom.  We roundly cajole our Roman Catholic brethren for requiring universal combination of the gifts of celibacy and ministry for ordination.  ‘You may love God or a woman but not both at the same time.’  But then we turn around and by the same logic require universal combination of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry for ordination.  ‘You may love God or your partner but not both at the same time’. It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out.  But it has no future.  Equality will triumph over exclusion, just as gospel ever trumps tradition. Gospel first, tradition second.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…


You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning. You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind. You love the reason in the same way that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course, reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs the fetters of virtue and piety.  More than anything else, learning must finally be rooted in loving.   Do we still hear the one thing requested in Psalm 27?  To inquire in the temple.  Inquiry!

The universe is 14 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a, is the, reasonable hypothesis, says F. Collins, father of the human genome project,  author of The Language of God, and, strikingly, a person of faith.  Yet 38% of Americans reject evolution (Gallup poll, May 22, 2017).

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  And their conjunction waits for us on the shore line of the new creation.


You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too. You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

But a simple or general appeal to the love of experience, in our time, is not appealing or loving.  It is not experience, but our very existence which lies, right now, under the shadow of global violence.  We are going to need to move our focus toward a balance of religious experience with existential engagement in our time, in our culture, in our world.  For example:  to have any future worthy of the name we shall need to foreswear preemptive violence.  How the stealthy entry of such an ethical perspective could enter our national civil discourse, 2002-2019, without voluminous debate and vehement challenge, is a measure of our longing for false certainties.  Our existence itself is on the line in discussions or lack of discussions about violent action that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and reckless.  One thinks of Lincoln saying of slavery, ‘those who support it might want to try it for themselves’.  Not one of us wants to be the victim of preemptive violence.  We may argue about the need for response, and even for the need of some kinds of anticipatory defense.  But preemption?  It will occlude existence itself.   Our future lies on the narrower path of responsive, communal, sacrificial, prudent behavior and requires of us, in Niebuhr’s phrase, ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’.

There are indeed theological temptations in an unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience.  Let us face them down.  Let us face them down together.  Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence.  The measure of ministry today, in the tradition of a responsible Christian openness, is found in our willingness to address errancy, equality, evolution and existence, in our rendering of the meaning of traditions.

So, first, a theological perspective.

 Pastoral Perspective

Then, second, a pastoral perspective.

I am grateful for the magnanimous, loving people whom we have known in the experience of pastoral ministry, who have embodied and awaited the new creation.

Jan and I went to London in late August 2017 to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.  We had not been there for several years.  Yet the memories and ghosts of earlier visits quickened quickly, once we had landed. We had taken a church group through London in 2000.  One parishioner,  then in her mid-eighties, along with her husband struggled to move her luggage along through customs, back then.  I could feel her alongside us in customs again this summer.  She sang in the choir; she led in the service ministry; she volunteered to answer the office phone.  In her early years she had ridden along with her mother to Methodist gatherings in New Jersey, to sort out the shape of the WSCS.  She remembered the mission work in China before it ended.  When asked about her service, her giving, her happy singing, and her faith she invariably said, ‘We just don’t want to leave anyone behind’.  That was her way of speaking about the divine inclusive incursion into the orb of the human condition, by the way of the guidance to leave no one behind.  She very much meant, by the way, to include gay people in the loving evangelism and stewardship of the church, in its own frail attempts to live into the new creation—‘we just don’t want to leave anyone behind’.

On our recent London excursion, once we were settled into a hotel near Westminster Abbey, other ghosts and memories emerged. Alongside, by the mind’s eye, sauntered long dead Ralph Ward, our one-time general superintendent, who took a group of us in 1972 to London and into the Abbey.  He made sure we saw the Methodist sites.  He arranged a dinner at Methodist Central Hall, recalling Leslie Weatherhead.  The superintending minister of Central Hall moved us, moved us to tears, even those of us only 17 at the time, speaking of the Second World War.  Central Hall, he reminded us, had hosted the birth of the United Nations.  This summer, Jan and I worshipped at Westminster Abbey, our feet resting on the memorial to William Wilberforce, and then went across the street to see the Hall again.  In 1977 or so, Ralph Ward, by then removed to New York City, hosted some of us who were by then seminarians in the same city, at a Friday evening gathering at Washington Square UMC, to support ministry with gay people.  He and his Manhattan DS, (if memory serves, the Rev. Bernie Kirkland), presided with grace and love: ‘this work is crucial to the future life of the church’, said Ward.    Some years later, after his retirement, Jan and I saw Ralph and Arlene in the narthex of Riverside Church, after worship which concluded that day with the singing of ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’. Finish then thy new creation…

We also sang that hymn at the funeral of Arlene Chapman in Watertown, N.Y, in 1989.  Her husband Bruce (BU undergraduate, Yale Divinity), along with my Dad, took me to my first major league baseball game at age 8 in Cooperstown, NY. (The last place teams, Al and NL, were conscripted to play once a year upstate, as punishment for their losing ways.  One of the teams was, of course, the Mets).  Driving home, I foolishly waved my new Mets hat at a passerby on Route 20.  The wind blew it away.  But Bruce turned the car around and we found the thing.  In 2011, at Annual Conference, Bruce spoke quietly and gently into the microphone, “In 1980 and 1984 I was a General Conference delegate.  I opposed the inclusion of gay people in orders and marriage.  Others did too.  How utterly wrong I was.  How foolishly wrong we were.”

Bruce still supports Boston University, with an annual gift to Marsh Chapel.  Tom Trotter was the first person to preach at Marsh Chapel, after it was finished in 1949. Today Tom’s grandson is an intern at the same chapel.  Both Bruce and Tom were at BU during the Thurman and King years.  As a pastor, Bruce could tell you what every pastor knows who has at least five years of good working experience:  virtually every extended family system in Methodism and beyond has, somewhere, at least one gay person in it.  I asked Bruce a year ago what he would teach seminarians about ministry, after his own 60 years of experience:  ‘Stay close to your people’, he said.

Jan and I have had the honor to serve in ten churches, one district, one University pulpit, and several general church efforts, including several promising ones in preparation for the 2019 General Conference.  Every congregation we have served has had gay women and men in it, or in the extended families therein.  That any of these good people have stayed at all in connection with our connection given our exclusion of them is truly a wonder.  I love my church and am staying with it.  Born and baptized a Methodist, I will so die and be buried.  I am not giving over the church I love to a mode of exclusion contrary to the heart of the church in which I was raised, and have lived and served.  But we should be mightily circumspect about what bigotry against gay people has already done–to us.  I pass over the innumerable women and men who have left ours for ordination in other denominations.  I pass over the hurt to evangelism and stewardship that comes with ribald exclusionary doctrine.  I pass over the diminishment of membership, particularly in the congregations of the US north and extended north, due to young adults, especially millennials, who sense the homophobia in our sanctuaries and find another place.  Here is what I mean:  this is a spiritual issue, not one of numbers, a theological issue, not one of members, a biblical issue, not one of bodily strength, a homiletical issue, not one of disciplinary interpretation.  This cuts to and cuts into our soul.  Gay people are people, but we preach otherwise.  God loves gay people, but we teach otherwise.  In Christ ‘there is no male and female’, but we argue otherwise.  Such spiritual, theological, biblical and homiletical malignancy and mendacity is crippling us.

Nevertheless, a lifetime in pastoral ministry has provided Jan and me with many snapshots of grace touching the lives of gay people, that grace being the beachhead of God’s incursion into life:  here is a young man, age 19, in the rough, poor rural upstate NY border country, realizing his identity, struggling with his family, his church, and himself, and talking slowly to a novice minister, in the snow of February, 1982;  here is that same pastor, a bit older, attending a community dinner in his city neighborhood, seated with 8 women—no, he suddenly realizes, seated with 4 bright, happy, earnest, loving couples, September 1991;  here is the minister calling on a recently retired school teacher, and her partner, long time and long suffering servants of God and neighbor and members of a United Methodist church, listening as they are crying and crying out in bitterness over the ignorance and exclusion they have known in a large, purportedly accepting city, 2004;  here is a minister of the gospel, new to University deanship, employing and deploying an openly gay campus minister to serve across a large campus, one with a liberal history and spirit, that nonetheless had never hired such a person for such a position, 2008. And here he is in September of 2017 offering prayers, at the BU School of Public Health for those who ministered to and those who died of AIDS thirty years earlier (often without willing pastoral care from their churches). To repeat: any competent pastor who has done the minimum two dozen or so weekly visits over at least five years knows full well that almost every family system, near or far, has within it gay women and men.  This issue is not somehow out there, long ago, far away, foreign, peripheral or minimal.  Unresolved, the issue will hobble the ministry of the church, across the globe. The preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, starts with God’s love.  A preliminary incision to curtail the divine love, and thus the church’s mission, by excluding, dehumanizing, and imprisoning gay people in a pseudo-biblical jail constitutes the articulation of another gospel, not that there is any other gospel. Then, second, a pastoral perspective.

At age 85, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was asked the ‘chief end’ of being human, the meaning of life.  He responded: You are made to be happy in God.  Today his Methodist church is roiling in unhappiness, heading toward a special General Conference in St. Louis next week, to struggle, as has every such meeting since 1972, over the humanity of gay people.  Two modes of reflection beyond the procedural, administrative, governmental, disciplinary, and connectional ones that tend to dominate or predominate in these meetings deserves some sermonic attention. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

May the spirit of the living God fall afresh on us!

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





The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

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Luke 18: 31-43

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Bach’s music surrounds our Gospel from Luke 18.  Here Luke has returned both the content and to the outline of Mark’s Gospel, which, as we saw last week, predated Luke by 15 years or so.  From this point forward, more or less, Luke will stick to Mark’s course, or outline, for the Gospel through the triumphal entry and through the week of challenge, and through the passion of the cross, on to resurrection, the theme of the music today.

If you will, pause a bit, speaking of grief, to see how Luke changes, supplements, reduces and applies what he has inherited to his own time—another decade than Mark’s, another community than Mark’s, another setting than Mark’s, another pastoral moment than Mark’s.  What good news that in the Bible itself there is such freedom, fungibility, flexibility and creativity! The presence in absence of Jesus Christ, risen, whose Spirit dwells with the church, did not in any way appease in full the haunting grief of his death, his ignominy, his sacrificial, tragic death.  Faith is born in grief. Faith is awakened in grief. Faith is quickened in grief. Faith is made in grief.

Luke omits the blind man’s name, given in Mark as ‘Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus’.  He may have done so because this is a phrase from the department of redundancy department, that is, the Bar means son, so Son of Timaeus Son of Timaeus is repeated repetition.  Luke wants an orderly account, befitting his love of history.

Luke then adds the new fact or stylized memory or pure imaginary addition that a ‘multitude’ was passing by, a great throng.  He may have done so because he wanted to emphasize the power and glory of Jesus’ ministry, and to brighten and expand the response to Him during his earthly preaching, teaching, and, here as elsewhere, healing.  Further, rather than simply choosing to ‘call’ the blind man forward, here the Gospel has Jesus ‘command’ him forward. No mere suggestion is made for this audition, but a commandment to come. Luke wants a certain kind of Christ, befitting his love of theology.

Luke leaves no doubt as to whose power and influence have made this miraculous healing possible.  In Mark, we hear simply that faith has made the man well, ‘your faith has made you well’. In Luke, ‘Receive your sight!’, and then the same statement connecting faith and salvation.  One’s wellness, one’s salvation—here we can draw a direct line to Bach and Luther—is by faith, by faith alone, by grace, by grace alone. Luke wants no shadow between the passion of Christ and the compassion of Christ.

Luke here, as well, makes space for the expansion of the church.  ‘And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God’. What is a private moment in Mark becomes a public display in Luke.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Dr. Jarrett, as you have lovingly and compassionately done for us now over many years, can you help us approach the audition of today’s cantata, with appreciation of both history and theology, a passion for compassion, and a regard for the church, through the ages?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

As much as the Gospel lesson from Luke 18, our point of departure this Bach Sunday is Paul Eber’s 1582 hymn ‘Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ or ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God.’ Bach’s librettist draws literally and poetically on eight of Eber’s stanzas, connecting Luke 18 to Luther: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, said the blind man; Jesus in response, “Your faith has saved you;” and so Luther teaches, “Sola Fides, Sola Fides!” We have now just sung two stanzas of Eber’s hymn, whose melody, texts and message, imbue Cantata 127 not just in name, but bar by bar, word by word.

For the interior of the Cantata, Bach calls on a tenor to set the predicament in a recitative describing how in our own failings, our depths of grief, our final hour, it is our faith, just as the Blind Man, that draws us to Christ’s Passion and the assurance of his redeeming grace. The soprano and bass take up the cause at this point in two of the most astounding arias in all the cantatas. In echo with a heart-rending oboe obbligato, the soprano brings us without fear to our final: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. In the background, the plaintive oboe and soprano lines weave together supported by two recorders and continuo marking an unrelenting and unwavering pulse, the inevitable tick of time. In the middle of the aria, the soprano seems to engage with the tick of clock: Call me soon, O funeral bells, I am unafraid of dying, For my Jesus shall wake me again! As the soprano sings the word for funeral bells — Sterbeglokken — the sprockets and gears of the clock seem to come to life in five measures of upper string pizzicato.

The bass draws us one level closer to life in eternity, with invocation of the last trumpet and the harrowing day of judgment. As the earth’s foundation are shattered and sunk in ruin, Jesus will be our advocate and redeemer: Believers shall survive forever; they shall not be judged, and shall not taste eternal Death; Cling to Jesus for your salvation.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.  It may be, for you, this Lord’s Day, that his appearance, in word and music, takes the form of honest grief, honesty about grief, good grief.

Out of all manner and mixture of feelings, grief, usually unnamed and unspoken, can bring us to worship.  We do not come usually or specifically to church to grieve, unless, perhaps in attendance at funeral or memorial services.  We do not say, slipping into the pew, today I am here to grieve, in grief, grieving. Grief is bigger, miles higher and longer than that, beyond depiction, beyond description.  Yet alongside us, walking alongside us, come Sunday, it may be, paces grief, our grief.

Grief is a sacrament.  It has a mysterious cast and quality to it, something well afar from our own control, like the grace given us in the Gospel, in that way.  Nor is it enough for the preacher to utter the word ‘grief’ for us to greet grief ourselves, of a Sunday morning, on personal terms. Here is where memory may come in.  The memory of a partially remembered verse, or homily, weeks later, may trigger something that then allows you to say to yourself, Well my goodness, that is what this is, this mid-winter something alongside me:  it is my grief. You don’t have to count Citizen Kane your favorite or only favorite film to recognize the cavernous, celestial, capacious range of grief.  Grief takes years.

One of the reasons that over more than a decade here at Marsh Chapel we have tried to preach with notes as well as letters, with music as well as words, on Bach Sundays, is just around this corner.  The music may release from the semi or sub conscious that which has blocked healing, blinded salvation. Resurrection music may bring remembrance that itself is a mode of resurrection. Robert Hass says the movement of grief has something in it of the desert’s bareness and of its distances.

Listen to his sly poem, variations on a passage in edward abbey

A dune begins with an obstacle—a stone, a shrub, a log,
anything heavy enough to resist being moved by wind.

This obstacle forms a wind shadow on its leeward side,
making eddies in the currents, now fast, now slow, of the air,

exactly as a rock in a stream causes an eddy in the water.
Within the eddy the wind moves with less force and less velocity

than the airstreams on either side, creating what geologists call
the surface of discontinuity. And it is here that the wind

tends to drop part of its load of sand. The sand particles,
which hop or bounce along the earth before the wind,

begin to accumulate, creating a greater eddy in the air currents
and capturing still more sand.

It’s thus a dune is formed.

Viewed in cross section, sand dunes display a characteristic profile.
On the windward side the angle of ascent is low and gradual—

twenty to twenty-five degrees from the horizontal. On the leeward side
the slope is much steeper, usually about thirty-four degrees—

the angle of repose of sand and most other loose materials.
The steep side of the dune is called the slip face
because of the slides
that occur as sand is driven up the windward side
and deposited on or just over the crest.
The weight of the crest
eventually becomes greater than can be supported by the sand beneath,
so the extra sand slumps down the slip face
and the whole dune
advances in the direction of the prevailing wind, until some obstacle
like a mountain intervenes.

This movement, this grand slow march
across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scouring
movement of glaciers,          

and an internal one in the movement of grief
which has something in it of the desert’s bareness
and of its distances. (repeat)

Here is our affirmation:

It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place


It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place

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

A Lukan Meditation

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

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Luke 4:21-30

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We come to the Lord’s Table today, of glad heart and open mind, ready to receive Christ Jesus, even as He receives us, by grace, in grace, through grace.   Walking the sawdust trail toward the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we pause, as have others for two millennia, to listen for a good word, a God word, God’s word, read in Holy Scripture and interpreted in the community, for the community, with the community.

Upon this Lord’s Day, Jesus meets us, today, in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next several months.   This year, 2019, with a preparation in Advent in 2018, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.  We have shifted our perspective, our angle of vision from the first Gospel, Mark, to the third Gospel, Luke.

In Spain’s wonderful museum, The Prado, now turning 200 years old, you can stand mesmerized by the paintings of El Greco.  One in particular, secured in the pages of St. Luke, carries our gaze into the moment of Jesus’ birth, in this Gospel. Not here before all time, with God, as in John.  Not here, with the wise and powerful, the Magi, as in Matthew. But here, among the poor. Here, among the Shepherds. So El Greco’s majestic painting of the shepherds in awe and wonder, with their long hands and long beards and long faces and long, light reflecting countenances.  God born among the poor.

Overture to Luke

What meets you in St. Luke this year?

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era.  Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us.  We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find?  Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, the depiction of Jesus rejection by his own home town.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service. Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward.  We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say, and how does he say it?

This will take us the year and more to unravel.  We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one narrative at a time.  Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. In fact Luke has his one schemata for sacred history, in three parts: Israel, Jesus, Church: the time of Israel, concluding with John the Baptist; the time of Jesus, concluding with the Ascension; the time of the church, concluding with the parousia, the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven, at the end of time.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.  Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Hold most closely the compassion in Luke.  At every turn, there is a return to the least, the last, the lost; those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life.

Notice, record, the way Luke puts it, beginning, middle and end:   He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?…Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old…When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind…You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just…Said Zacchaeus, ‘behold Lord the half of my goods I give to the poor’…They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…

Luke’s Hebrew Scripture Inheritance

In all this, and more, Luke draws on the well-springs of inheritance from the Older Testament, the Hebrew Scripture.

Let us read together the books of the Law, like Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt….For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat.”

The Hebrew Scripture, our Older Testament, was largely composed in the dark days of a later slavery, the bondage of Babylon.  In that moment of memory, the community of faith recalled keenly their earliest history of God’s love and power, the God who brought them up out of the land of slavery to the land of milk and honey.   We know what it means to be poor, to be oppressed, to be outcast, to be downtrodden. Once we were ourselves. THEREFORE, there will be justice in our land for the poor. You and you all may need to search your extended family histories and memories for what happened to your people in the Great Depression.   We learned something, or were reminded of something, then, as were the Israelites dragged again in chains to Babylon. Luke writes in earshot of Babylon.

Let us read together the books of the Prophets, the very heart of the Old Testament.  In all of religious literature, in all human history, there is nothing quite as sobering, as piercingly and stingingly direct, with regard to justice, as these 16 voices, four the louder and twelve the lesser.   Malachi teaches tithing. Isaiah affirms holiness. Hosea preaches love. Micah shouts, ‘do justice, love mercy, walk humbly’. Together the prophets consistently rail against human greed, human selfishness, human covetousness, human apathy.  The harvest here for our theme is so plentiful it is difficult to select an exemplar, there are so many.

Perhaps Amos will do best. In the eighth century BCE, a shepherd boy from Tekoa went down to the gates of the big city, Jerusalem, and cried out against it.  He pilloried the shallow religion of his day. He assaulted the reliance, the naïve overreliance of his government on weapons of war, he bitterly chastised the amoral, post moral practices of human sexuality of his day.  But he saved his real anger for justice. The Bible trumpets justice, economic justice, justice for the poor, and for all! If all we had were the poetry of that shepherd boy from Tekoa, Amos would be sufficient:

“I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes—they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7).  “Hear this you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘bring that we may drink’, the Lord God has sworn by his holiness that behold the days are coming upon you, when they will take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:1-3).  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 21-24). Remember Martin Luther King reciting these verses, down in the sweltering little jail house of Birmingham Alabama.

Let us read together the books of wisdom, especially, as we do each Sunday, the book of the Psalms. Let us read together the books of Wisdom.  Love is for the wise, and justice is the skeleton of love.

“When the just are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan…The just man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge…If a King judges the poor with equity his throne will be established forever” (Proverbs 29)

‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise’, says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs’ (Psalm 11: 5).    “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge’ (Psalm 14:6).

In an odd way, the most sobering judgment about justice is offered by Ecclesiastes, who speaks least directly to the theme.  But his philosophy is clear.  I look at all the toil of the sons of men, and I see—vanity.  That for which you strive will not last, that for which you suffer will not endure.  “What has a man for all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest’ (Ecc 2;23).  As an Indian proverb puts it:  ‘In his lifetime the goose lords it over the mushroom.   But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter’.   I have officiated at 800 or so funerals or memorials, in 40 years of ministry.  Each a reminder:  Justice lasts, not acquisition.

Luke Later

Our New Testament came together a century or so after the writing of Luke.   Luke had an afterglow role in this, too. The books of the NT were written between the year 50ad (1 Thessalonians) and the year 160ad (2 Peter).   But they were not put together until (at earliest record) the year 175, as recorded in the Canon Muratori. And their collection, their canonization, happened in a curious way.  Marcion, the most popular preacher in Rome in 150, the son of an eastern ship builder, was a Christian Gnostic who put together the first proto-New Testament. As a Gnostic, he believed that the God of creation was not God of redemption, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; he separated the God of creation from the God of redemption.  To solidify his position, he put together a canon, of sorts, heavily weighted with redemption, which included the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Notice all that is missing from that shorter Bible—no OT, neither Law or Prophets or Writings; no other Gospels, Matthew or Mark or John; no other letters, Peter or John or Jude. It would have made teaching the Bible much simpler!  And he chose Luke, it might be said, for Luke’s passion for compassion, his regard for redemption. Well, the emerging church came along and said no, and excommunicated Marcion, and reconnected creation and redemption, and added Law, Prophets and Writings, Matthew, Mark and John, the Letters of Peter, John and Jude (and let’s not forget the Revelation) to make of the Bible not a short collection of 10 books, but 66 books in two testaments.  That makes teaching the Bible less simple! You see, the Bible has a story, too. The Gospel of Luke was playing in the pre-season games, but also made it to the Super Bowl (couldn’t resist)!

Luke in Communion at Marsh Chapel

Boston University was born in 1839, and incorporated in 1869, by Methodist ministers, John Dempster and William Fairfield Warren.  It was led,from 1926 until 1951, by its fourth President, also a Methodist preacher, Daniel Marsh. (Marsh’s daughter was with us for worship at Christmas, a month ago, our own dear Nancy Hartman).  Marsh and his wife are interred right here, right below the pulpit, right behind the communion rail at which we gather in a moment. From birth, our school has been in service of the working poor, people of color, former slaves, women, those of other and varied religious traditions. Of all the Gospels, it is St. Luke that best guides us, here at Marsh Chapel, and prepares us, here at Marsh Chapel, to realign ourselves with our own founding principles, to re-clothe us in our own rightful mind.  Luke will faithfully guide us this year, as we strive to live as a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

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

Hope is the Negation of Negation

Sunday, January 27th, 2019

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Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a 

Luke 4:14-21

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We are living through a negative time.

Before dawn, aroused by a dream, you awake, it may be.   In the mind clutter of the dream you stand in community listening for a holy word, it may be.  Or you walk mesmerized by the beauty of a beach or a mountain vista, it may be. Or, otherwise, you sense the tug of a common good, a common desire, it may be.  In the mind clutter of the dream, too, you may wait to hear something, it may be.  Before dawn, in the moonlight.  Drowsiness returns, and you return to the arms of Morpheus, God of sleep.  But the time to rise comes along soon enough, and you take stock again, and you realize what time it is, again.

We are living through a negative time. 

For some, the negation is a chosen, intentional negation of inherited forms of public speech, of national discourse, of governmental responsibility, of encroaching overweening statism, of political correctness, of international order and regular borders—a time to pluck up, a time to pluck up what is planted.   Or so one supposes.

For others, many others, the negation is a consequence of all this and more, and amounts to a frightening, even terrifying daily rending of the garment of national life, of the rending of the garment of civil society, of the rending of the garment of compassionate care for the young, the poor, the sick and the old, of the steady destruction of treaties, alliances and agreements welling up from a steady disdain for treaties, alliances and agreements, a rending of the garments of courtesies developed over longtime to shelter ourselves from our worst selves,  the standard (if sometimes honored in the breach) shared, common rejection of misogyny, racism, sexism, xenophobia, greed, pride, sloth, and falsehood. And in their place another kind of clothing,  a laughing joy in and willingness to slaughter the truth by fulsome mendacity in the small and in the large.

Whether with some you celebrate such, or whether with many you abhor it, now over the last few years, it is clear, we are living through a time of negation.

You arise in the morning, in a wonderment, a dark wonder.  Will someone be given the nuclear car-keys with which to incinerate another land? Will the government return again to potential ‘fire and fury’ against a foreign people?  Will the lax tax on the rich bankrupt government protections of the poor?  Will the clearly emerging authoritarianism become patent and fulsome on the strength of a manufactured crisis at a border, or far away, or most possibly in cyber gear?

You brush your teeth, pour your coffee, turn on the news, and, amid a wonderment, a dark wonder, you do wonder:  Did I ever think I would live to see the day that my beloved country to which I have pledged allegiance since kindergarten, for which I acquired a selective service card, to which I have paid taxes now grudgingly now willingly over many decades, on whose account I have voted every years since the years of the silent majority and that Methodist minister’s son from North Dakota, land where my father has died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, be held hostage, like a 13 year old girl in Wisconsin, like her the whole country bound, gagged, hidden under the single bed and held hostage to the megalomania of an imperial, increasingly authoritarian, government, to a complicit citizenry which cannot yet fully reckon, neither to reject nor recant the 2016 tragedy, to a Senate whose every murmur now carries the middle name Faust, for its deal with the devil in aid of paternalistic judges and capitalism gone wild, and a willful blindness to the roaring, rising tide of exclusion, falsehood, selfishness, incivility, unkindness and greed. 

Each morning brings a darker wonder and you wonder how this can ever have anything other than the bleakest outcome.  We are living through a negative time.  In our time, we are hostages to negativity, living through a most perilously negative time, with no exit readily or easily in sight. Some of us may realize that we will be dead, even long dead, before the blood is fully spilled and washed, before the dawn comes, before a return to the country’s rightful mind.  We are living through a time of negation.

For a post-Christian culture and society, the next question, then, is not what it is right now and right here in Christian worship, the question of the possibility of preaching, not what it is right now and right here in the spirit of Christian community, not what it is in this venerable pulpit and other siblings to it across the land.  As a whole, as a culture, we are no longer rooted in or grounded by hope, if we ever fully were, no longer grounded by the promise of the Gospel, if we ever were, so, for society as a whole, the basic question of this moment, the preaching moment, is not, for the culture, a big or even serious question at all.   The symbols of faith have grown cold in a culture, in a land that is God-forsaken, or, better put, simply, forsaken.  So, our problem, or mine in this moment, the prospect of preaching, the problem of the possibility of preaching, the problem of how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, the problem of how  to preach a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope, the problem of hope itself, in its realest, truest form, faith working through love– is not that of our culture.  The radio program ‘wait wait don’t tell me’ is not waiting for the telling of a true hope. It is not perseverating about whether there can or will be any preaching worthy of the name in our time, let alone who on earth will deign to try to do it, Sunday by Sunday.  No, only the bitter biblical herb of ‘hope deferred that maketh the heart sick’ has any natural or easy purchase in our non-religious age.  Yes, we are living through a negative time.

In our time, hope, if it has any hope in it, is itself—negation.  A cheery, light, pseudo inner life, a false gaiety, a ‘que sera, sera’, is not hope.  It is false hope.  Some listening today will find the depiction of negation offered this morning as too negative.  You may be people my age and older.   Some though listening today will find the depiction of negation as not negative enough. You may be people my children’s age, now some 35% of whom identify, or non-identify, as ‘nones’ those of no religion at all, but one whose watch much of the mess of these years will have to be cleaned up.  No. Hope that is seen is not hope. That is in the Bible.  Who hopes for what he sees?  That too is in the Bible.  We hope for what we do not see (the key for once is in the adverb, NOT). That is in the Bible too.  In our time, hope, if it has any hope in it, is itself pure negation. 


And in that negation, it may be, is the lone location just now for preaching.  Hope is the negation—of negation.  Hope is the negation—of negation.

Hope is the negation of prideful over-confidence in our national or personal histories.  One lasting good in a negative time is that it leaves little space for high horses ridden and deadly assumptions hugged.  Authoritarianism can evolve, right here, just now, all the glories of the freedom trail notwithstanding (repeat). 

So D Bonhoeffer: Godwould have us know that we must live as (men and women) who manage our lives without (God).  The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us.  Before God and with God we live without God. 

Hope is the negation of our lazy, slothful spirituality—what a strange, odd, unbiblical word.  Hope is the negation of our lazy, slothful unwillingness to be politically involved—to go to meetings, to go to meetings, to go to meetings—on the left, and our refusal, now that the evidence is in, to recant what for whatever reason we chose to do three years ago—on the right, that negation comes to gruesome light, even in a twilight hope. 

Hope is the negation of our falsehood, our capacity somehow to look past or forgive or minimize the lying, the mendacity, the screaming falsehood of our naively authoritarian leadership.  Hope is the negation of the dark wonder, that which makes things clear, or clearer, at dawn.  In the light of hope.

Let us boil this down to daily life, if we may. It is almost inevitable, you human being you, that in the age of negativity, in the maelstrom of unlimited negative informational bombardment, and of wind swept rain soaking every daily pore, it is inevitable that you will now and then be depressed.  You will be.  That you now and then will be worried.  You will be. That you now and then will be haunted by bad memories and dark dreams.  You will be.  You cannot avoid it.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive yourself.  There. That feels good or at least better. Hope walks by faith not by sight.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand, to embrace hope that negates what it cannot eliminate.  What you can do is this.  Listen to the gospel, which is the negation of negation by hope, the negation of acedia by hope, the negation of depression and worry and anxiety by hope.  Not the elimination.  No.  The negation. Hope will give you a breakfast ounce of courage.  Hope will give you a noonday morsel of anger.  Hope will give you a twilight flicker of faith.  Because hope stands as the very negation of negation.  It is not something, hope, that you or I can concoct or control or conjure.  Hope stands in the pulpit, say, and speaks to us, say, and does so without fear or favor, without quiver or conceit, say, and utters a word of faith (take heart) in a pastoral voice (I am with you) toward a common hope (you are a child of God).

Hope, a sense that things are wrong and can be right-wised, is what gives us the angry courage, the courageous anger, to rise up, to resist out a tradition of principled resistance dating back to Amos of Tekoa, in the 8thcentury bce, to struggle, to lose, to be defeated, and to get up again.  Hope is the raising of the dead.

Jurgen Moltmann:  To recognize the event of the resurrection of Christ is therefore to have a hopeful and expectant knowledge of this event.  It means recognizing in this even the latency of that eternal life which in the praise of God arises from the negation of the negative, from the raising of the one who was crucified and the exaltation of the one who was forsaken.  It means assenting to the tendency towards resurrection of the dead in this event of the raising of the  one.  It means following the intention of God by entering into the dialectic of suffering and dying in expectation of eternal life and resurrection (211).  Thus the Spirit is the power to suffer in participation in the mission and the love of Jesus Christ, and is, in this suffering, the passion for what is possible, for what is coming and promised in the future of life, of freedom and of resurrection (212).  In all our acts we are sowing in hope (213).

 Before dawn, aroused by a dream, you awake, it may be.   In the mind clutter of the dream you stand in community listening for a holy word, it may be.  This is the gospel of Nehemiah, that there is a Holy Scripture, strange yet audible. Or you walk mesmerized by the beauty of a beach or a mountain vista, it may be.  This is the gospel of the Psalmist, in the most beautiful of all 150 psalms, all nature sings and round us rings, the glory of the creation.  Or, otherwise, you sense the tug of a common good, a common desire, it may be.  This is the gospel of the Epistle, Spirit known for what it does for the common good. In the mind clutter of the dream, too, you may wait to hear something, it may be. This is, here in Luke, Jesus, preaching, at home but not welcomed, preaching the divine favor for the poor not just the poor in spirit, for the oppressed not just the figuratively oppressed, for the captive not just the philosophically captive.  Before dawn, in the moonlight. 

Hope negates what it cannot eliminate.  Hope is the negation of negation.  Said Paul, Behold I tell you a mystery.  Said John, Where I am you may be also.  Said Paul, The trumpet shall sound.  Said John, You know the way where I am going. Said Paul, the dead, the dead, shall be raised.  Said John, I am the way, the truth, the life.  Said Paul, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.

He opened the book and found the place where it was written

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

 Because he has anointed me to PREACH good news to the poor

 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovering of sight to the blind

 To set at liberty those who are oppressed

 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord

And he closed  the book… and said to them, TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

God Can’t Forget You

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

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Isaiah 62:1-5

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

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Let us pray:

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Holy Men, Holy Women, page 161)

Growing up in Detroit I always relished the stories of the accomplishments of my parents and their friends.  It took a lot of perseverance in the face of racism and discrimination for them to get to the table yet alone have a seat at the table.  

I remember one story in particular of the late Wade H. McCree Jr. distinguished judge, Solicitor General, and professor.  Quoting from his obituary from the New York Times:

Judge McCree was appointed by President Kennedy as a judge on the First District Court in Detroit in 1961.  Five years later, President Johnson promoted him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which served Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.  As a judge, he won wide praise in legal circles for intelligence and judgement.  And as Solicitor General, he enjoyed great good will from the Supreme Court justices who respected his character and legal achievements.

The story I heard growing up was: Judge McCree grew up in Boston, graduated from Harvard’s Law School, was offered and accepted at a prestigious law firm in Boston where when the partners found out he was African American immediately rescinded the offer.

When I was writing this sermon I called his son, my childhood friend and lawyer Wade III for clarification.  The corrected story goes like this:

Judge McCree did indeed grow up in Boston and attended the prestigious Boston Latin School.  He is the only African American to have his name inscribed on the famous frieze of the school which also include the names of Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did indeed attend and graduate from Harvard’s Law School after taking a leave to serve in World War II.  So here is where the story changes.  Judge McCree was recruited by the prestigious law firm Miller Canfield, not in Boston, but in Detroit. Judge McCree arrives for his first day on the job and is asked to wait in the lobby. Time passes and no one is coming out to welcome him on his first day on the job.  He finds out later that phone calls were being made to Harvard’s law school to verify that he was a graduate and not an African American man pretending to be a lawyer.  The managing partner finally comes out to say that the firm’s white clientele would be comfortable with an African American lawyer. Judge McCree would then find immediate employment at the African American Law Firm of Harold E. Bledsoe and Hobart Taylor.  I wonder what he must have been thinking as he sat in the lobby of Miller Canfield law firm. What was the first sign that he had that the situation may not go as expected? What was plan B?  When did he know that his life’s work would be one to champion for social and economic justice from the judicial bench no less.

Daily we all observe signs to one extent or another and most of us have attended a wedding or two in our lives.  What makes these seemingly ordinary experiences, extraordinary in the life of Jesus.

Here we are on this second Sunday after the Epiphany as we read John’s gospel about Jesus’ first sign at the Wedding in Cana and the signs of God’s grace.

This passage has something important to tell us.  First it tells us who Jesus is.  Second it gives us information about God’s grace.  Third it shows us what God has in store for us.  

For the community that the writer of John was addressing we must understand two key points.  As Dean Hill points out in his book “The Courageous Gospel” the “Jesus Movement” was quote moving away from Judaism end quote”.  Dean Hill further points out the despair and disappointment in the delay of Christ’s return. What is a community of believers supposed to believe?  What is a community believers charged with doing?  How do they and we continue to live as loving and caring people of faith? What are the signs?

Signs are very important.  They give us information.  They give us a sense of direction.

I remember when I first moved to Boston.  I had been in the city of Boston proper many times for work, conferences and the annual trek with Decatur Street friends from Brooklyn to visit the original Filene’s Basement.  I was always able to navigate Boston by the T and perhaps a short walk.  When I moved to Cambridge to attend graduate school I felt confident that my navigation of Boston and surrounding areas would not be difficult.  After all I learned my way around all five boroughs of New York City, I learned my way around the greater Los Angeles area. I can hear you chuckling now.  I have never gotten so lost in my entire life. No one tells you that I-95 turns into 128.  It was counter intuitive when I was working in Randolph which is south but you have to head north toward Boston instead of going south to Canton. And if that wasn’t bad enough, nothing in my driver’s education training prepared me for navigating a traffic circle.  To this day I still cannot grasp the unwritten rules of exiting the Massachusetts Turnpike at the Alston/Brighton tolls.

In this passage, Jesus and his followers, including his mother, are attending a wedding. The wine for the wedding is running out the steward is concerned. The steward is like the caterer at today’s wedding. He would make sure there was plenty of food and refreshments on the tables as provided by the wedding party. If the food or drink got low it was the wedding party’s responsibility to procure more or basically end the party. Somehow, Mary found out about the predicament. She wants Jesus to fix the problem. Evidently, Jesus’ identity is no secret to her. Jesus’ response clues us in on Jesus’ identity. Jesus is looking ahead to what he is to do. His hour has not come.

The word hour in John’s Gospel always points to fulfillment of the end times. Jesus is the One who has come to fulfill the Word of God, to usher in the Reign of God. At the right time, the right hour, Jesus will bring in the fulfillment of the Reign of God. In just a few short verses we find out Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. We haven’t even seen the sign yet.

While Jesus’ response to Mary is a harsh rebuke but, he does what she says.  The servants fill six stone jars with water. These are large jars and we are talking about a lot of water. After they fill the jars the servants draw out the contents and instead of water it is wine. The wine is excellent. The steward is surprised by the quality of the wine. He knows nothing about Jesus’ intervention. He believes the groom has pulled a fast one. At a wedding the best wine was always served first. Then after everyone had plenty, the wine of lesser quality was served. The quality of the wine now presented to the steward is better than the wine he served at first.

It is important for us to understand the “sign” that the wine is making in this narrative.  To paraphrase the New Testament scholar Allan Dwight Callahan:

In Judean apocalyptic literature, wine is a symbol of the coming messianic age of peace and righteousness. Enoch 10:19 looks forward to the vine yielding wine in abundance, and in 2 Baruch 29:5 each vine shall have one thousand branches and each branch one thousand clusters.  The abundant wine suddenly flowing at the wedding in Cana is a sign has come.

The amount of water turned into wine is a sign for us of the abundance of God’s grace. If we stop to figure it out Jesus turned 120 to 180 gallons of water into wine. I don’t believe the wedding party was that large but God’s grace is abundant. God’s desire is for us to receive that grace. The guests received the wine even though they had no idea where it originated. We receive God’s grace daily. We open our eyes to a new day that is God’s grace. We see people we love and for whom we care. That is God’s grace. We have food to eat and a comfortable place to sleep. That is God’s grace. We know what Christ did for us on the cross and that we have a place in God’s Reign. That is God’s grace.

Not only do we see the abundance of God’s grace, we see the quality of God’s grace. We see what God has in store for us. The wine is excellent. It is the best wine. God intends the best for us. God’s desire is for us to receive the excellence of his grace and respond to the best of our ability. We receive God’s excellent grace freely. It is up to us to respond. First, we receive it and then we share it. We share the love God has given us one to another. We share the richness of what he has given us one to another. We take care of one another and support one another. We share the story of Jesus to others. We have just defined stewardship. Good stewardship is in response to recognizing God’s grace for us. Let me say that once more, Good stewardship is in response to recognizing God’s grace for us.

We can take the time on this snowy weekend to honor not only the life and legacy of Dr. King by meditating on ways that our lives have been influenced by the people who have champions of social and economic justice in our lives.  Who led and lead ordinary lives that impacted us in extraordinary ways.

As a child Judge McCree and his late wife Dores were known to me as friends of my parents.  The McCree Family along with the Bell’s, the Bledsoe-Ford’s, the Reid’s, the Holloway’s, the Hylton’s, the Lowery’s and other families who were part of a Detroit who broke racial and societal barriers during the time of Dr. King

These individuals also need to be raised up in celebration this weekend.  These men and women laid the foundation that opened the doors for their children and others.  They made sure that we were not excluded from the table. It is my duty as it is our collective duty to make sure that no one is ever excluded from the table.

On this weekend where we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. King let us recall the part of his acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

This first sign to us is of God’s incredible grace through Jesus. Do we see the sign for what it is? Are we willing to accept the sign and follow Jesus? Are we willing to trust that God only wants the best for us? We have the choice. We can accept God’s grace or we can turn away. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman