Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

March 25

Think Globally, Act Locally

By Marsh Chapel

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Click here to hear the sermon only.
John 12: 20-33


Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Today, John gives us the marrow of GMHopkins’ hope:

Thou mastering me

God giver of breath and bread;

World’s strand, sway of the sea;

Lord of living and dead;

Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,

And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.


We turn to the poetry of experience and Scripture and tradition and reason to help us.  For five Sundays, concluding today, we have journeyed together, from activity to awareness, from motion to mindfulness, from sensation to reflection.  In particular we are trying faithfully to gain some ground, some purchase, in the interplay of technology and faith, of culture and Christ.

Over six years, in Lent, from this pulpit and nave, together we have tried to engage the best thought of those whose own expression of faith may differ from ours:  those who affirm a Scripture Alone (sola Scriptura) understanding of authority, though we do not here; those who lean more toward Paul and less toward the Gospels, though we do not here; those who privilege the death tradition of Jesus over the life tradition, the cross over the cradle (fit considerations for Lent in any case), though we do not here.  In 2007, then, we grappled with John Calvin in Lent; in 2008 with St. Paul; in 2009 with Derision and Decision; in 2010 with Atonement; in 2011 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and this year with Jacques Ellul, who coined the phrase, think globally act locally.

1. Experience

First, we look again to our own experience, trusting our experience.

This week a radio listener sent me a cartoon.  God is sitting on a cloud, holding a computer and talking to an angel.  God says, ‘I just answered a prayer and mistakenly hit ‘reply all’.

Park your car.  Save your money.  Do not ‘reply all’.  So you will have good influence on the environment, the economy and the culture.

In our own experience, we are testing the spirit of truth, trying to move from fingertips to mindfulness, from sensation to reflection in the heart of the digital age.

Midway from sensation to reflection, we test ourselves by practice this coming week:

  1. On Monday, aver: wherever you are, be there.
  2. On Tuesday: before you check your face book, face your checkbook.
  3. On Wednesday, decide: orders need borders:  respond to voice in one day, email etc in three days, writing in one week.
  4. On Thursday, choose: make a Lenten exception: answer your non emergency email all on Wednesday each week.
  5. On Friday, raise the bar: respond to facebook and twitter with text, to text with email, to email with voice, to voice with letter, to letter with visit.
  6. On Saturday, remember:  electronic communication  is international, irretrievable, immutable, eternal, so whatever you write make sure are happy to have it appear on the front page of the Boston Globe or chiseled on your tombstone.
  7. Come Sunday, of course:  attend or listen to Marsh Chapel.

We have come into a time when, across wide stretches of common life, it is thought that sending an electronic communication alone constitutes doing something lasting or fruitful.   Yet no one is born or dies on screen, literally or spiritually.  No one connects with someone, in a heart sense, on screen.  No one sees through the window of the soul on screen, nor feels a touch of physical love on screen, nor senses the breath and closeness of being human on screen.  Most significantly, no one speaks by email.  There is no speech nor are there words, their voice is not heard. Language, your mother tongue, takes years to acquire, even at an elementary level.  The use of language, your mother tongue, in the company of others, takes even longer to learn.  You cannot learn in front of a screen how to hear.  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, as the Scripture affirms.  How do you watch the mind and tongue play forward and backward with a thought aborning when there is no tongue to hear, no head to see, as the shifting and sifting occur?  How do you learn the habits of deep listening, when all you do is scan?  How do you experience the delight of unexpected humor, the force of interruption, the concentration of heart to heart with an unforeseen agreement?  Honor your father and mother (tongue) that thy days may be long upon the earth.

2.  Scripture

Second with reverence we listen to the Holy Scriptures.

Our gospel is from John 12. In John, Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana.  Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus.  Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well.  Jesus heals a broken spirit.  Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves.  Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind.  Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life.  He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness.  He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism.  He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt.  He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia.  He brings the church out of the closet of hunger.  He brings the dead to life.

Here the Gospel affirms Jesus’ coming crucifixion as his glorification, one of the most important and repeated emphases in the fourth gospel.  The seed falls, dies, is buried, and wondrously comes forth with fruit.  In our community, here at Boston University, not a day goes by that I do not rub shoulders with this Gospel.  Those who teach the younger do so in a generative mode.  They are willing to let a seed fall, be planted and die—a lecture given but perhaps not appreciated; a suggestion made but not heeded; a great hope proferred but not embraced.  To teach is to die, hour by hour, in the hope that a long time from now—decades from now—the seed will bear fruit.  That takes faith.  That takes a cruciform self understanding.  So you who learn and teach may hear John today.

But why are we hearing John today?  Because we used the lectionary, a shared schedule of readings, used by most Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.

For five reasons we continue to use the lectionary here.

First, both the ecumenical consensus and the United Methodist history of Marsh Chapel encourage us to do so.  Particularly this choice and golden gift to present and future church unity is a treasure to be protected.

Second, the readings provide a basis for coherent development of an hour long service—20 minutes of sermon, 20 minutes of music, 20 minutes of liturgy—on a common basis.

Third, Marsh Chapel provided some of the influence and early work on the lectionary itself, which history and labor we want to honor.

Fourth, we preach to some 50,000 radio listeners per week, many of whom have already attended their own church—or are about to do—wherein the same lessons are read;  this gives us a vital connection to our virtual congregation.

Fifth, it keeps thematic preachers like this one speaking to you today, from only riding his or her favorite themes and texts, say Grace and Love, and avoiding less attractive themes, say Hell and High Water. We intend to continue to utilize the common lectionary here.

There are nonetheless serious problems with lectionary use.  Let us name five of these, too.

First, and speaking as non-lectionary preacher, the small bits of scripture make difficult larger preaching lenses—a sermon on the book of Jonah, for example, or a great theological topic like Redemption, or, as we are doing again this lent, a series of sermons on a major theme—our Faith and Technology theme say—which encompass more than four fragments of scripture.

Second, the lectionary greatly aids those who already know their Bible, but confuses those who do not.  If you know that Genesis is the first book in the Bible, is part of the Pentateuch or Books of Moses, is the origin of thought on creation and covenant, and precedes all the other 65 Biblical books, you have a way of hearing a snippet from Genesis 17 in a way that makes sense.  But if you have no idea about Genesis, the passage is opaque.  First you have to have arithmetic—the six portions of Scripture (OT:  Law, Prophets, Writings; NT: Gospels, Letters, Apocalypses), the names of the books, the flow of the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation—before you can do algebra (compare Numbers to John, Psalm 107 to Psalm 100, and so on).  The lectionary cannot teach you the Bible.  For that you need to study one book at a time (so, our study of Mark with Rev. Yoon following worship here), or study the whole Bible in a year (so, the still excellent UMC DISCIPLE Bible Study) or read the Bible, a passage a day, from cover to cover.  You need to add and subtract before you take on quadratic equations.

Third, there is more than one lectionary.  Yes, the churches’ selection of readings and seasons is one, and we could say primary.  But there are others.  Every local congregation has its annual ‘lectionary’—from annual meeting to stewardship Sunday to children’s day.  For us here this includes monthly luncheon, fellowship in September, on Parents’ Weekend, at Christmas, in Hymn Sing (this Sunday!), at Easter Breakfast, and on Patriots Day (in addition to various subgroup gatherings for Adult Classes, for Men, for Women, for Students, for Families with Children, and people shall we say ‘at mid life’) and Bach Sunday.  Also, every congregation has a denominational lectionary, provided by the prevailing judicatory (so for Methodists that includes annual conference, student Sunday, one great hour of sharing, and Aldersgate Sunday).  At Marsh Chapel, our judicatory is Boston University, so we observe Matriculation, Parents’ and Alumni Weekends, Lessons and Carols, Martin Luther King Sunday, This I Believe, Baccalaureate, and Commencement.  Yet there is still another lectionary—not Liturgical Calendar nor Local Calendar nor Denominational Calendar, but national calendar.  Like it or not, the fourth of July has symbolic and liturgical meaning, as to some degree do Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Ground Hog Day.  Think of last year: ‘9/11’ needed attention. Consequently, the Scriptural lectionary is in creative tension with these other three.

Fourth, it is usually difficult fully to interpret three or four lessons in one 22 minute sermon. So, some are either lightly or under interpreted.  This can leave people puzzled, leaving church tangled up with a dark psalm, or an apocalyptic prediction, or a gender unfriendly proverb, or the pronunciation of Methusela.  If you do not teach people, for instance, that the Gospel of John includes an ancient form of anti-semitism abhorrent to real Christianity, (so well recounted in last evening’s program for the brilliant St John Passion) they can leave church, or the hearing of the sermon, mistaken about the gospel.  One great failure of our pulpits in our time is the failure of our preachers regularly and creatively to root our sermons in the known history, the understood sociology, and the particular theology of each passage.  But to do so takes sermonic time (and much more time in sermonic development).

Fifth, and last, as my old Navy chaplain assistant minister used to say: How can somebody in Nashville know what passage my congregation most needs to hear this week?  The lectionary makes lazy preachers, who do not regularly sift and scour the whole Scripture. One size does not necessarily fit all.

3. Tradition

Third, we turn to our tradition.  Our Lenten interlocutor this year, similar in choice to those over the five previous years, has been Jacques Ellul, whose writing on technology and theology foreshadowed a generation ago some of our own current experience.  By ‘thinking globally’ in this over used phrase which has become his grave marker, Ellul meant that we should think sub specie aeternitatis, think eternally if you will.  Hence the importance for him of Scripture and of his favorite interpreter, Karl Barth.  By ‘acting locally’ Ellul meant for us to live as salt, light and sheep, as those who practice Christianity;  it captures our sense of hope. Faith offers:  1. Transcendence 2. Promise 3. New Creation (present now).  Here is the last and briefest of the Lenten litanies offered to evoke Ellul’s thought.  Hear it as you would a psalm or an aria, listen with the ear as well as the mind:

In our time intelligence is set free from dogmas but has become a slave to means.

‘In my own life, I confronted the demands of Marx and the demands of the Bible and put them together.’ Marx spoke to the economic situation.  Yes.  But he did not have all the answers to the greater matters—life, death, love.

I set up a Parallel (camping) university, and focused my volunteer work on  1. Delinquent youth  2. Environment.

A person needs to become someone who can use the technologies and at the same time not be used by, assimilated by, or subordinated to them…prepare to live in technology and at the same time against technology…develop a critical awareness of the modern  world’ 83

‘The Christian is one who brings as much free play as possible into the parts of society …that are linked to one another’ 110

Two strong teachers from my own past embody this same dialetic:  Lloyd Easton at Ohio Wesleyan, a BU PhD and fifth generation personalist philosopher, and expert on the writings of the young Marx on society and culture (so his book of that title); and Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, a great student of both Calvin and Barth, who taught them in a place and time when they were all but forgotten in the hey day of Cone, Guttierez, Harrison, Koyama, and liberation theology in general

4. Reason

Fourth, we set our reflective reason to work.

On a personal level, something triggered for me one night last week, in the grace of table fellowship.  That is, the emergence in a welcoming home, over a nice meal, in a meaningful setting, of a combination of fellowship, education, and service, in a natural, organic way (not to say without preparation, planning and work) is an apocalypse of what the grace to which the church bears witness is all about, I think.  There was something real and really afoot, and for that I was really thankful.  In every dimension this radiant table fellowship militated against impersonal communication.  It is the communion, the companionship for which we hunger.

Let us be mindful.  Let us reason together.

Hit and run electronic communication produces a mindset that tends to emphasize the short run.  (Mayor Bloomberg in NYC said as much this week). Aerial bombardment forms of electronic communication tend to draw the mind to the very present.  Click and stick rejoinders, used repeatedly through the day, from screen to screen, voiceless and voluminous, can produce a mind, or absence of mind, that then can influence ranges of behavior beyond the technical.  That is, our forms of electronic interaction can have a coarsening effect on our culture.  Such communication, as silent as deadly, can enfeeble our relations, make us unprepared and ill practiced in the art and so in the voice of acquaintance, friendship, and love.

We are so sensationally habituated to distanced, cold, hard, electronic, visual, voiceless intercourse, that our human and even most intimately human intercourse—ourselves ostensibly at our warmest and best—becomes itself distanced, cold, hard, electronic, visual, and voiceless.  Where is the voice of the Song of Solomon in our residences and dwellings?  Or the voices of Juliet and Romeo? You may not want to hear this or trust it unless I send it by email.  But it is still the case.  Our technology is swamping and drowning our theology.  And it is the youngest, most nubile, those moving from nubility to nobility, and so most innocently vulnerable among us who are most harmed.

We at Marsh Chapel have both an avuncular and a pastoral role to play in teaching and helping, by how we live and by what we say and by how we say, and what we live for.

As we at Marsh Chapel attempt to model dimensions of health and safety, across our community and campus, and particularly in a time fraught with difficulty in the areas of sexuality and violence, let us persevere in three discreet directions.  Ellul would identify them as salt, light and sheep.  First, let us keep the feast, and be present on Sunday to witness to faith, and to be nourished together by the salt that brings savor.  Your bodily presence in worship helps others.  Second, let us walk in the light, come to the light, and walk in the light, by listening for God’s word, for good, and naming and claiming the good.  Third, let us make of this sacred space a safe place, sacred space—safe place, as those who have a Shepherd who knows and loves his sheep.


Experience, Scripture, Tradition, Reason. You have taken a road less traveled, a path from sensation to reflection.  May the mindfulness of Lent prepare you for the mystery of Easter.  We turn to the poets to help us.  John Henry Newman:

“Let us preach You without preaching;

not by words but by our example;

by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do,

the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to You.” (J H Newman)

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

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

March 18

Coming to the Light

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
John 3: 14-21


My grandmother’s way of expressing faith took an interrogatory form. She asked of herself, and others: Are you walking in the light?

My favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know’.  It is small but it flies on mighty wings.  It expands our lives to include spaces within us, as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny earth hangs suspended…(Wislowa Simborka)

We are on a Lenten journey together, from sensation to reflection.   We want to be and become mindful, mindful of who we are, who are meant to become, what we are doing.  We want to match our eager activity with an equally vibrant awareness.  We hear the words of Scripture, so let us also come to the light and inwardly digest them.  We respect the tradition behind us, including our Lenten conversation partner Jacques Ellul, so let us learn there the things in whose light we see light.  We reason together, here and now, so let us reflect on the here and now, on ourselves in community, as we walk in the light.  We have experience, sometimes surprising experience, of moments of light, and we shall name one here today.


The third chapter of the Gospel of John places the Incarnation of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, at the heart of the Gospel.  God loves the world—not just the church, not just the disciples, not just the religious, not just religion.  God loves the world.  The Bible tells us so.

The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two spiritual issues, the two existential battles in your salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism.  How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek?  The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia.  Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.  Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ.  Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.  John led the way.  John is the most courageous Gospel.

Let us move slightly, right now, from sensation to reflection.  How does it happen that we hear from John today?

We hear from John today because of the lectionary.  The lectionary is a shared selection of Biblical readings, used by most Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and mainstream churches.  For each Sunday one Old Testament lesson, one Psalm, one New Testament Epistle, and one Gospel reading are chosen, and used, as regularly we do here at Marsh Chapel. Next week we shall reflect further on the lectionary.

We pause here on the trail from sensation to reflection in order to reflect on our own sensible experience—including in worship, here and now, in the hearing of the Scripture.


From Scripture we move to tradition. This Lent we are in conversation, at the intersection of Christ and culture, and particularly of faith and technology. One voice from a generation or more ago may help us:  that of Jacques Ellul.

Jacques Ellul was born in 1912 in Bordeaux and spent most of his life there. He was a professor of law and history at the University of Bordeaux, and lay theologian in the French Reformed Church.  During WWII he was active member of the French Resistance and later became mayor of his home town. He authored three dozen books on law, culture, technology, theology, faith, prayer, the Bible and history.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he opposed the Nazis.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he held firmly to a high and rugged Christology.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he decried the willingness of more liberal theologians in Germany and elsewhere to knuckle under first to the Kaiser and then to the Fuhrer.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he saw in his own experience the dire need for a Christ against Culture, as well as a Christ transforming Culture.

Ellul, though far less well known than Barth and Bonhoeffer, nonetheless well suits our annual Lenten attention to theological voices and perspectives more conservative than our own here.  Ellul identified Karl Marx and Karl Barth as two lifelong conversation partners, and the importance inherited from both of a dialectical or spiraling hermeneutical manner of thinking and speakings.

That is, you can learn a great deal from those with whom you disagree—sometimes more from them than from your fellow travelers.  When it comes to opponents, as Yogi Berra said, ‘you can observe a lot just by watching’.

Ellul predicted the cultural impact of emerging technology.  He bears some re-reading in our time.  Most of what he predicted early on (1964 in English Translation) in his The Technological Society, has become the shared air we breathe.  Listen as we did last week to a second Ellul litany of sorts, in more autobiographical tones, a compilation and exemplification of this thought, placed here in the form of a psalm or an aria, and to be heard in the manner in which we hear those
The man of the present day does not believe in his own experiences, judgment or thought.

Our age is distinguished by a Lack of awareness, and by Enslavement of the intelligence to technical methods.

We need to Rediscover the meaning of the neighbor, of the ‘Event’ and of the Holy: The intervention of God in human history in Jesus Christ.

In youth I was  poor, and our home had no music, but…

‘I learned what unemployment is with no assistance, with no hope whatsoever, with no help from anywhere.  I learned what it is to be sick with no government medical care and no money to pay the doctor or the druggist.  I remember my father spending his days looking for work.  Given his abilities, I felt that was an absolutely stupefying, incredible injustice that a man like him was unemployed.’ 5.

Dialectics includes contraries, does not exclude them.  A new historical situation emerges, integrating the two preceding factors with one another…both have vanished giving birth to a radically new situation.

The goal is to live the human freedom within the freedom of God. Logically the two cannot be reconciled, but dialectically, one can live with them.

Our own growth here at Marsh Chapel has affinities with these lines from Ellul.
Our emerging ecclesiology at Marsh Chapel blends a Tillichian rapport with culture with a strong view of the Word, the Sacraments and means of Grace, and the Sabbath.  We protect Sunday and its emblematic, exemplary, epitomizing gifts, but within a fuller six days of grace—service, education, and fellowship—embedded in the culture at large, and particularly the University culture.

Our emerging pneumatology at Marsh Chapel blends a regard for the movement of Spirit in art, music, science, theater, poetry, and all the lasting gifts of civilization, with a strong and protective sense of the church:  the church challenging the failures of culture, applauding the heights of culture, entering the heart of culture, enjoying the graces of culture.

Our emerging pastoral theology at Marsh Chapel blends a high regard for the myriad gifts and services available, near and far, for those in need, with a limited but irreducible affirmation of the sacramental rites and sacerdotal duties shared in the community and lead by the clergy.

Our emerging ethics of technology at Marsh Chapel blends a full use of all the means of production available to us (we are nearly completely paperless, with the exception of the printed Sunday bulletin and the printed semester termbook, both of which could be replaced in the future, though we are not currently planning to do so), with a profound recognition, more reflection than sensation, more awareness than activity, more mind than fingers, of the need to harness these tools to the benefit, not the belittlement, of the human being.


Let us apply our Lenten theme to ourselves here in the intersection of actual and virtual congregations that is Marsh Chapel.  While we do not stop usually to x-ray the body of our divinity here, we are nudged to do so today.  Marsh Chapel is both like and unlike other churches within the Great Church of Jesus Christ around the globe.  In the same way that you and I are both unlike and like each other (unlike say in gender, race, ethnicity, age, shoe size and bank balance; like say in mortality, fragility, longing, need, sin, salvation, service), so Marsh is both like and unlike other communities of faith.

We are most similar on Sunday.  John Wesley identified the true church as the place where the Word of God is rightly preached, the Sacraments are duly administered, and service is rendered to the neighbor.  Our life here strives to reach his definition.  So a 60 minute of worship.  So means of grace in Adult Study before worship, in Bible Study and fellowship after worship.  We hope that the thanksgiving, confession, affirmation and dedication of our worship service exemplify, define, epitomize, perfect and guide our living for the next six and one half days.  In addition, these gifts are extended around the globe and across New England by internet and radio.  While this series of sermons seeks to challenge us to be mindful about the intersection of faith and technology, there is hardly a place or community more actively, regularly committed to their mutual enhancement than Marsh Chapel.  Hence, we who are so invested in the newer forms of technology—radio yes, but also podcast, Facebook, texting, twitter, and all—have the most responsibility to see such use become as faithful to Christ as possible.

We are most dissimilar during the week.  Let me be specific.  We fear the danger of sitting on a whale fishing for minnows.  The whale is Boston University, and we are riding its torso.

Take teaching, didache, a crucial matter in most congregations.  Yes, I could as I have done elsewhere offer three Monday nights of instruction on a theme, say Judaism in the modern world, following a light dinner.  Or, I could offer a light dinner three Monday nights in November, and then take you to hear Elie Wiesel on Judaism in the modern world, some 100 yards away, and for free.  The first is fishing for minnows, the second is riding the whale.

Or take service, diakonia, a crucial matter in the life of faith.  I could organize a schedule of service days for our students and encourage attendance.  Or, as we have just finished doing, we could send our students for seven days of community service through the Office of Community Service, which by the way grew out of the Chapel, during the tenure of Dean Thornburg 25 years ago.  Our own—minnow; the Universities—whale.

Or, take fellowship, koinonia, a crucial matter in church life.  We could sequester ourselves—Monday night men, Tuesday women, Wednesday children, Thursday couples—or we can grab the whale by the ears and sail, taking men to a basketball game, women to the Sloan House, children to a Palm Sunday event.   We can immerse ourselves in the life of the full community, so that the boundaries between church and society, faith and culture, Christ and community are ever more blurred and fluid.  The other night ten of us were at a University dinner.  All had some connection, from active to peripheral, with Marsh Chapel.  Afterword one creative soul lead us to some further, not fully Methodist, refreshment.  There were people in that circle who never in a month of Sundays would have engaged fellowship with a church group on a Saturday night.  But in that organic and genuine invitation, even the least ‘churched’ fellow had true koinonia, true shared fellowship, with some of the most faithful people in Boston.  Didache, diakonia, koinonia—these crucial inherited forms you are renewing, week by week.  The Marsh Chapel experiment in church renewal is happening on your watch.  It is quite distinctive.  If you are not watching you may miss it.

Will this relatively or somewhat unique model of church growth work?  We are seeing strong evidence that it can and will—in worship attendance, in annual giving and tithing, in deepening relationship, in experiences of vocation, in  recognition of the chapel’s voice.  There are dangers and challenges.  This model inevitably takes a long time—it is covert, it is shaped by a University calendar, it is very free.   You do not have to come to an Administrative Council meeting for three hours on Tuesday, by the end of which, in exhaustion, you will vote for anything just to get home.   You do not have to raise funds by a rummage sale, or argue about the pastor’s health insurance, or vote on a budget.  But you do have to ride the whale.  And that means seizing the moment to learn, to serve and to love.  After the postlude today, take a minute in or near your pew to greet someone and speak a word.  You may learn something.  You may serve some cause.  You may help someone.  For someone else that three minute conversation may be their most personal and healing of the week.

This Monday night, in a dinner that included learning, service and fellowhip, I saw, I mean I saw what the model of renewal at work in Marsh Chapel today can be.  But it will take a heap of time.

Experience (Frank Deford, NPR)

The light of Scripture, of Tradition, of Reason illumines also our own experience.  We know it when we see it.  When reflection outpaces sensation, when thoughtful mindfulness embraces action, we know in experience about coming to the light, whether in church or in culture.  College athletics are a crucial part of higher education.  One can learn, grow, improve on the court as well as in the class.

An apocalypse of grace can arise outside of church, right in the heart of the culture.  Athletics, college athletics, instituted as important part of college experience on the basis of the Roman proverb, ‘mens sana in corpore sano’, can provide the setting.  Maybe you heard Frank Deford’s story last week:

When last we left the NCAA, it was February madness, colleges were jumping conferences, suing each other, coaches were claiming rivals had cheated in recruiting — the usual nobility of college sports.

And then, in the midst of all this, the men’s basketball team at Washington College of Chestertown, Md., journeyed to Pennsylvania to play Gettysburg College in a Division III Centennial Conference game.

It was senior night, and the loudest cheers went to Cory Weissman, No. 3, 5 feet 11 inches, a team captain — especially when he walked out onto the court as one of Gettysburg’s starting five.

Yes, he was a captain, but it was, you see, the first start of his college career. Cory had played a few minutes on the varsity as a freshman, never even scoring. But then, after that season, although he was only 18 years old, he suffered a major stroke. He was unable to walk for two weeks. His whole left side was paralyzed. He lost his memory, had seizures.

But by strenuously devoting himself to his rehabilitation, Cory slowly began to improve. He was able to return to college, and by this year, he could walk without a limp and even participated in the pregame layup drills.

So for senior night, against Washington, his coach, George Petrie, made the decision to start Cory. Yes, he would play only a token few seconds, but it meant a great deal to Cory and to Gettysburg. All the more touching, the Washington players stood and cheered him.

That was supposed to be the end of it, but with Gettysburg ahead by a large margin and less than a minute left in the game, Coach Petrie sent Cory back in.

Nobody could understand, though, what happened next, why the Washington coach, Rob Nugent, bothered to call time out. The fans didn’t know what he told his players there in the huddle: that as quickly as they could, foul No. 3. And one of them did. And with 17 seconds left, Cory Weissman strode to the free-throw line. He had two shots.

Suddenly, the crowd understood what Coach Nugent had sought to do. There was not a sound in the gym. Cory took the ball and shot. It drifted to the left, missing disastrously. The crowd stirred. The referee gave Cory the ball back. He eyed the rim. He dipped and shot. The ball left his hand and flew true. Swish. All net.

The crowd cried as much as it cheered.

The assistant vice president for athletics at Gettysburg, David Wright, wrote to Washington College: “Your coach, Rob Nugent, along with his … staff and student-athletes, displayed a measure of compassion that I have never witnessed in over 30 years of involvement in intercollegiate athletics.”

Cory Weissman had made a point.

Washington College had made an even larger one.


My favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know’.  It is small but it flies on mighty wings.  It expands our lives to include spaces within us, as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny earth hangs suspended…(Wislowa Simborka)

We are on a Lenten journey together, from sensation to reflection.   We want to be and become mindful, mindful of who we are, who are meant to become, what we are doing.  We want to match our eager activity with an equally vibrant awareness, rooted in Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

My grandmother’s way of expressing faith took an interrogatory form. She asked of herself, and others: Are you walking in the light?

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

March 11

Christ and the Presence of the Kingdom

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
John 2: 13-22


‘The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.’ (Ps 19:1)

Together we are on a Lenten journey. We are moving from sensation to reflection, from the depths of a technological culture to the heights of a reflective faith. We in Marsh Chapel today are on this journey. We listening from afar are on this journey. We around the globe in later audition are on this journey, all together. We are climbing, hiking, marching together. We are moving from activity to awareness. We are on the way from sensation to reflection.


“Let us preach You without preaching;
not by words but by our example;
by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to You.” (J H Newman)

In CC, 7/1/08: ‘One of the main goals of most religions is to open up self-absorbed individuals and connect them with a broader community and with the source and goal of all reality’. (M Volf)

In particular, this Lent, we are trying to announce the Good News of the Gospel, the gift and grace of faith, in a way that creatively redeems the technological culture of our time. We are moving from cyber sensation to careful reflection, from fingertip activity to spiritual awareness. We want to be aware of who we are and what we are doing. On this journey we may run into trouble, now and then.

One day you encounter e-trouble.  My son knows I think the world gets better one conversation at a time, and worse one email at a time.  He clerks for a federal judge.  One morning my son called me with this story.  “I knew you would enjoy it Dad”, he said.  “It involves trouble and email”.  Well, apparently in the judicial employment system, when one falls ill and runs out of sick days, others can take from their account and give to the need.  A worker received days from about twenty others, healed, and went back to work.  The colleague who organized the sick day bank support assayed to write a thank you note, which she did.  It was a very simple note, graciously thanking the donors, reporting on the healing, and wishing all well.  This would have been no problem.  Except that in mailing the thank you note, she hit the wrong key, and sent to the wrong list, not a list of twenty donors, but a general list of 200,000 judicial employees. Here is a trouble, a day’s own trouble, organically designed for the tweeter, list serve, email, website 21st century.  Oops.  Yet even this would also have been no problem.  Except that a lawyer in Arizona took umbrage at the e-incursion, and said so in a curtly written note:  ‘not my issue, not my problem, you invaded my space, thanks but no thanks, plus I really do not agree with this whole socialist sick day swapping anyway.’

Which would have been alright, too.  Except that she hit ‘reply all’, and, in the next hour, said my son, he had 100 emails in his box.  Yes, Sick Day Bank! No Arizona! Yes Thank You Note! No To Rude Response! Yes to Liberty, No to Obama (I have no idea how he got in there)…Until one kindly attorney from the St Lawrence River area shouted out:  “STOP.  This is what makes people suspicious of lawyers in general and federal workers in particular.  We have better things to do with our time.”  This also would have been no problem.  Except.  Except that before he signed off he wrote:  “PS, while I have your attention, I want you to know that I am an amateur chef, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all MY FAVORITE RECIPE FOR COOKING SALMON”.  Yes, he hit reply all.  And on the day went:  Salmon Yes! Salmon No! Amateur Chef Yes! Email recipe, NO!…

Remember the way the Bible begins. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. And… God… (what?)…God…said…Speech creates, redeems and sustains. God speaks in Genesis 1and creates a world. God promises in Genesis 17 and creates a people. God commands in Exodus 20 and defines a Decalogue. God authorizes through the judges and admonishes through the prophets and teaches through the writers and prophecies through the seers. To Elijah, we recalled last week, he speaks in a still, small voice. God…speaks…God’s word. In the parables of Jesus. In the sermon on the mount. In the thunder outside Paul’s Antioch.In the child’s voice in Augustine’s garden. In the silence of the dark night of St. John of the Cross. In the lectures of Luther, the sermons of Calvin, the hymns of Wesley, the shouts of the Baptists, the wails of the Pentecostals, the prayers of the Anglicans, and the quiet of the Quakers. Day to day pours forth speech. All the way to this moment, this morning, this sermon.

You know, you do not know where this sermon will end. After an early sermon my Dad commented, critically, ‘well it had two of the essential ingredients of a good sermon—a beginning and an ending’. Where this ends, and how, you do not know. You hope I do. Me too, though we leave a measure to the Holy Spirit. You do not even know IF this sermon will end! (It will.)

There is a sonorous mystery to speech, all speech, to words, to voice. Voice can frighten. S Terkel interviewed a 20 year old who abhorred the telephone, because, said he, ‘I just don’t know how to end a conversation.’ That is the way with speech. You cannot scroll ahead to the end, or read the last chapter first, or speed through the sub headings. You don’t know how it will turn out. You do not know how or if the sermon will end.

I wonder what the mystified congregation in Duke Chapel, May 1975, thought when they heard William Stringfellow say the following?

Technocracy cannot tolerate human creativity because that cannot be quantified, programmed and forecast; so it must be suppressed, destroyed or displaced. As often as not, it is substitution which happens, and then the nomenclature of the art is misappropriated and applied to the anti-art, so as, after a generation or two, to even deprive human memory of the art. Meanwhile, it barely requires a footnote, a ridiculous parody of this whole process is technocratic totalitarianism by which the disciplines are corrupted and dehumanized as rendered in the realm of sports, both in the university and in society generally, especially in the political use assigned to commercialized sports to supply distraction or vicarious involvement to habituate persons as spectators to fill up the time, or otherwise to nurture public passivity and enforce ignorance. (William Stringfellow, May 1975, Duke Chapel (Willimon, 163))


This year we will scale a far greater promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination. More personally, this Gospel helps those who struggle with dislocation and disappointment. The Bride in Cana experienced dislocation, and so have you. The Bride of Christ experiences disappointment, and so have you.

John features Jesus in mortal combat over all of these. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.

The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues, the two existential battles in your salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.

Two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own.

How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become?

What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the profound despair of nuclear twilight and break free into a loving global future? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second.

Tradition: Jacques Ellul

Here is an Ellul Litany:

Christian: salt, light, sheep
It is impossible for us to make the world less sinful, and impossible for us to accept it as it is
Ethic: temporary and apologetic
Every moment of man’s life is not historic but apocalyptic
A Bomb: fact that had to be accepted
Present time judged in virtue of a meta historical fact, the incursion of this event into the present
Lordship is objective; hope subjective
‘A thing is only good or bad in its own time, according to its situation in the light of the Kingdom fo God, according to its conformity to the work of God for the coming of the Kingdom, an according to its possible us for the glory of God
Become aware, first
Live don’t act

‘Thus man who used to be the end of this whole humanist system of means, man, who is still proclaimed as an ‘end’ in political speeches, ha s in reality himself become the ‘means’ of the very means which ought to serve him: as for instance in economics of the state. In order that economics should be in a good condition, man submits to t he demands of an economic mechanism, becomes a total producer, and puts all his powers at the disposal of production. He becomes an obedient consumer, and with his eyes shut he swallows everything that economics puts into his mouth. Thus, fully persuaded that we are procuring the happiness of man, we are turning him into an instrument of these modern gods, which are our means. 51
Technical means become more important than the search for truth.

1. Man is no longer to any extent the master of his means
2. Technics extends to all spheres of life
3. Ends proposed are useless
For the Christian what actually matters in practice is to be not to act
Real action is simply the testimony of a profound life
Life is not efficient
Thus what we need is to rediscover all that the fullness of personal life means for a man standing on his own feet in the midst of the world, who rediscovers his neighbor because he himself has been found by God. 78
The man of the present day does not believe in his own experiences, judgment or thought.
There is no discussion with the radio or the press (or email)
Technics: precision, rapidity, certainty, continuity, universality—which are all characteristics of efficiency
The intelligence of modern man is no longer nourished at the source of contemplation, of awareness of reality and is more and more absorbed by the instrument which it has created, an instrument whose principal aim is the control of the material world
Intelligence is set free from dogmas and is a slave to means
Lack of awareness. Enslavement of the intelligence to technical methods.
Rediscover the meaning of the neighbor, of the ‘Event’ and of the Holy.
The intervention of God in human history in Jesus Christ.
What the church ought to do is to try to place all people in an economic, intellectual—yes also in a psychological and physical –situation, which is such that they can actually hear this gospel—that they can be sufficiently responsible to say yes or no, that they can be sufficiently alive for these words to have some meaning for them.


Who was Ellul?:

Youth: poor, no music. ‘I learned what unemployment is with no assistance, with no hope whatsoever, with no help from anywhere. I learned what it is to be sick with no government medical care and no money to pay the doctor or the druggist. I remember my father spending his days looking for work. Given his abilities, I felt that was an absolutely stupefying, incredible injustice that a man like him was unemployed.’ 5.
Dialectics: includes contraries, does not exclude them. A new historical situation emerges, integrating the two preceding factors with one another…both have vanished giving birth to a radically new situation.
The goal is to live the human freedom within the freedom of God. Logically the two cannot be reconciled, but dialectically, one can live with them.
Marx: economic situation. Yes. But not all the answers—life, death, love.
‘In my own life, I confronted the demands of Marx and the demands of the Bible and put them together.’
Then, Barth: ‘once I began reading Barth, I stopped being a Calvinist…obviously I could no longer be a Calvinist once I understood the dialectical movement of Barth’s thinking…Calvin constantly offers answers, solutions, or a construction, while Barth launches you on an adventure…
Parallel (camping) university. 1. Delinquent youth 2. Environment

In reasoned measure, by the reason, he reminds us of our capacity to neglect.

We succumb to willful neglect of vast stretches of reality. We are complicit in willful ignorance of broad swaths of actual human experience. ‘Nothing human is foreign to us’ may be our hope but it is not our reality. Yet a sober Sunday morning moment of contrition is quite enough to show us our willful neglect of vast stretches of reality.

We willfully neglect the amount of time each of us will be dead. In fact we live as if we are ‘temporarily immortal’. Yet regarding flesh and bone we shall each of us be dead an extremely long time, a vast long length of time when compared to the three score and ten years of our living. Our life is limited, but our death is limitless. We live though as if the opposite were the case. Given such a willful neglect of this one stretch of reality, it may not then be surprising to note how much more we also find ways to ignore.

100,000 Iraqis have died since 2003, as a consequence of our actions then, full of mixed motives. 4 million Iraqis are today refugees, many of them children, as a consequence of our actions then, full of mixed motives. We have spent $1 trillion dollars on this macabre misadventure. A trillion is a million millions or a thousand billions or a billion thousands. A trillion dollars is real money. And we wonder why our economy is sagging, shrinking, weakening?

There are 20 million other than legal alien residents of our country today. That number begins to approach 10% of the US population. But other than remembering that three of them twice mulched Governor Romney’s lawn, we are blithely ignorant of them, unless we have need or a run in.


Together we are on a Lenten journey. We are moving from sensation to reflection, from the depths of a technological culture to the heights of a reflective faith. We in Marsh Chapel today are on this journey. We listening from afar are on this journey. We around the globe in later audition are on this journey, all together. We are climbing, hiking, marching together. We are moving from activity to awareness. We are on the way from sensation to reflection.

In particular, this Lent, we are trying to announce the Good News of the Gospel, the gift and grace of faith, in a way that creatively redeems the technological culture of our time. We are moving from cyber sensation to careful reflection, from fingertip activity to spiritual awareness. We want to be aware of who we are and what we are doing. On this journey we may run into trouble, now and then.

The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.’ (Ps 19:1)

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

March 4

Justifying Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 8: 31-38


H Thurman:  the ocean and the night

Journey from sensation to reflection

Seven days a week discipline, faith and technology

Justifying grace:  in trouble, at connection, by humility, as abandon

Scripture and Struggle

Mark 70ad

Disciples ‘behind’

Moderate Critics (Weeden), Critical Moderates (Marcus)

Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?

Thou with a scornful wonder

Cruciform character of divine love

A little rain, Ecc. 9:11

Church always both a representation and distortion of divine

Starkness of cross

Sterness of cross

A friend in need

Faith finds us in trouble

Grace in trouble is justifying grace

Tradition and Connection

To this place, our part of the parade

Hello again, Hello

Faith and technology, faith and culture

Absorb and Utilize

10 BU presidents

Alexander Graham Bell

Connection! And with new media too

Crackling connection

Grace in a moment of connection is justifying grace

Reason and Humility

Others faith, and my own?

Old teacher who speaks to but not for and so not to

From independence to dependence (life, friendship, faith, love, hope, heaven)

Margaret Fuller’s 4 questions

God be merciful to me, a sinner

V Havel, 2 quotes

Intelligence unleavened by kindness is dangerous

Dangerous piercing, tattooed by compunction

I Kant:  Critique of Pure Reason

M. Robinson, E Kohak

Grace in a sense of humility is justifying grace

Experience and Abandon

Oceanside, Pelican

Waves, Surf, Tide, Surfer, Swimmer, in and out, in and out

That undulating, grounding, supportive grace

Dad, Malibu, walking, nourished by the waves, in and out, in and out

Teaching beginners:  square knot, English idioms, Greek alphabet, swimming

Prone Float:  Justifying Grace

Altar Call:  first time, or in a long time, or on the long journey

The beginning of faith is learning to float, trust, depend, believe


Summary: trouble, connection, humility, abandon

New Beginnings

Invitation to justifying grace, to Eucharist

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent

H Thurman:  the ocean and the night

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

February 26

Sources of Authority

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 1: 9-15
Genesis 9: 8-17


In the autumn each year I have the true pleasure to teach a course on the Gospel of John.  For five years my teaching assistant, a priest and poet, has helped our students to prepare their research papers.  She meets early in the term with each of the twelve or so disciples.  She uses my school of theology office to do so, over a fortnight or so.  We share a key that for those weeks I leave in the Marsh Chapel office, so that the one needing the key, now she now I, may take and use it.  The system works well, or, well, works when it works.  That is, do you know how many times I traipse to my third floor school office, and do what I normally do, fish for the key ring, and pull out the—wait a minute, oh no, oh yes, the key is in the other building.  Over to Marsh I go.  The body and its habits, in collusion with the unconscious and its rhythms, takes me where I habitually go, to do what I ritually do.  Do you know how many times it has taken to become aware of what I need to do to enter the study in the school?  Too many.   We are creatures of habit, guided along by our suppositions and assumptions.  Lent arrives to wake us up, to make us aware.  Lent arrives to challenge us to move from sensation to reflection, from activity to awareness.

Jesus meets us today in the long experience of the wilderness.  The wilderness where reflection quickens.  The wilderness where discipline begins.  The wilderness where the great questions—freedom, immorality, God, all—may touch us.  The wilderness where there is quiet, space, silence.  I invite you this Lent to journey with me, one beggar among others, to travel from sensation to reflection.

We begin this morning, taking stock of our sources (or media?) of authority, upon which we shall base our coming Lenten teaching.  In the Gospel, Jesus hears Scripture, Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.  That is Psalm 2: 7.  You are meant to recognize the divine voice echoed here from Holy Scripture.  In the Gospel, Jesus honors tradition—baptized by John in the Jordan.  In the Gospel, Jesus is driven by the spirit, the breath of God, the spirit of truth, reason and reasoned.  In the Gospel, Jesus struggles, and suffers, he experiences depth and height, as do we:  tempted, endangered, in need of angelic support.  These are the sources of authority on which the gospel is proclaimed—scripture, tradition, reason, experience.

Your move today from sensation to reflection involves a recognition of sources for authority.

That is, your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience.  You are lovers and knowers too.  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 certainty.  It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence for the security and protection of certainty.  But faith is about confidence not certainty.  If we had certainty we would not need faith.

1. Scripture and Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its psalmic depths.  #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names.  Obededom comes to mind.  You love 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 holding 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 a medium of truth for the practice of faith. Today in worship, we share this reliance and this love.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel.  A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings and for the reading of scripture.  On the other side of the globe, way down in Sydney, Australia, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture.  Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by their love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too.  In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

We want to be aware, though, to move from mere sensation, the stumbling around and rattling of mistaken keys, to reflection, to an awareness, a sturdy, honest awareness of truth.

So we acknowledge that the Bible is errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of 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 remythologize 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.  So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, 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.  The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We love the Scripture as the primary but not sole source of authority in faith. We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  Do you hear that?  It begs to be heard.  Today’s passage from Mark 1 is an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Jordan river.  It looks back forty years.  What do you remember from January of 1972?  Nor was it written for that kind of certainty.  It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class this winter I would buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

We grasp for certainty, but confidence grasps us.

2.Tradition and Equality

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.  The 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.

An ecumenical summary of this trend toward equality was remembered for us this week: The needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich.  The freedom of the dominated has priority over the liberty of the powerful. The participation of the marginalized has priority over the structures of exclusion.

Boston University has long and strong history of expanding the circle of equality to include the poor, laborers, immigrants, former slaves, women, and, in our time, with work still to be done, gay people, those otherwise abled, the interreligious community, and the citizenship of the globe.

It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out.  But it has no future.  Equality will triumph over exclusion.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a Lenten study in suburban Washington DC I would have the group read S Turkel, Alone Together, for some perspective on the way traditions change.

3. Reason and Evolution

You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning.  You love the life of the mind.  You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same 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 virtue and piety.  More than anything else, learning to last must finally be rooted in loving.  Our voice here at Marsh Chapel is meant to call the University community, Sunday by Sunday, like a minaret or shofar or village steeple, from sensation to reflection.  Our voice here is meant reasonably to recall for young people that people are to be loved not used.

We are meant to use our minds to explore the world, our selves within it, and the promise of the God who created it.  We shall need to reason together.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 reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

If I were the chaplain of a small private school in New England I might have my fellowship group read this winter C. Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He can teach us to reason together.

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.  Falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.

4.Experience and Existence

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.  Isaiah, in looking forward, can sing of the joy of harvest.  We know joy.  Joy seizes us.  Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things.  You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

Give yourself some room to move this Lent from sensation to reflection.

We need to examine our experience, and particularly this Lent, our experience with technology.  Ellul: ‘Technology has two consequences which strike me as the most profound in our time.  I call them the suppression of the subject and the suppression of meaning…The suppression of the subject is transforming traditional human relations, which require the voice, which require seeing, or which require a physical relationship between one human being and the next.  The  result is the distant relationship…the suppression of meaning:  the ends of existence gradually seem to be effaced by the predominance of means…the meaning of existence of ‘why I  am alive’ is suppressed as technology so vastly develops its power…

We want to move from techo sensation to techno reflection.  How?

  1. On Monday, aver: wherever you are, be there.
  2. On Tuesday: before you check your face book, face your checkbook.
  3. On Wednesday, decide: orders need borders:  respond to voice in one day, email etc in three days, writing in one week.
  4. On Thursday, choose: make a Lenten exception: answer your non emergency email all on Wednesday each week.
  5. On Friday, raise the bar: respond to facebook and twitter with email, to email with voice, to voice with letter, to letter with visit.
  6. On Saturday, remember:  email is international, irretrievable, immutable, eternal, so whatever you write make sure are happy to have it appear on the front page of the Boston Globe or chiseled on your tombstone.
  7. Come Sunday, of course:  attend or listen to Marsh Chapel.

If I were reading with a group this month I might read Ellul’s Presence of the Kingdom.

There are indeed theological temptations in the unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience.  As we come soon to Lent 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 preaching today in the tradition of a responsible Christian liberalism is found in our willingness to reflect on our sources of authority, our love of STRE, and to reflect therein on errancy, equality, evolution and existence.

So we shall join the long parade of those who for generations have faithfully tried to rise above sensation and live in a mode of reflection.  Noah gives us a reminder of the promise of divine care.  You well remember this first biblical covenant, that of Noah, set and sealed in the rainbow.  The covenant with Noah brings promise.  The covenants with Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah do the same.  They make way in us for the new covenant, the new testament, the fulfilling of time promised in today’s Gospel.  I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be sign of covenant between me and the earth.

Wednesday I walked west on Commonwealth Avenue.  A friend came alongside and we enjoyed a several block conversation.  A sermon is like the kind of stepping alongside for conversation.  Then he turned at a corner to head for his office, and we parted and departed.  But two blocks later, he came alongside me again, saying, You know, I have turned at that corner so often to go to my office, that I completely forgot that my office is no longer where it was.  It is up ahead here on the left.  My habits, body and unconscious took me one way, but I should have been going with you. Yes.  We benefit, come Lent, from the journey away from sensation and out toward reflection—kindled in authoritative intervention by Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  Yes, your divergence reminds me of the experience I had this autumn with my school office key, shared with my teaching assistant, a series of moments when sensation would have benefitted from a little reflection…

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

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

February 19

Transfixed with Bach

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9: 2-9

Rev. Quigley: This morning, we join the apostles; as they ascend the mountain, we climb the steps of Marsh Chapel’s gothic nave. We join Peter, James, and John; as they take some time apart with Jesus, we turn up the dial in our car radio, or pour a second cup of coffee in the quiet of our kitchen. We follow their gaze up the mountainside as they wonder what they will see; our eyes, or our mind’s eyes, are drawn up and up through the sanctuary, from sacred places to sacred faces, and finally to the great openness of the vaulted ceiling above. This is Transfiguration Sunday.

There is an anticipation, an excitement, a buzzing about a vibrant church on a Sunday morning: chatter from small study groups, the rustling of robes as choristers dress, the caffeine-rich scent of coffee brewing, the rhythmic sounds of worship leaders saying a brief prayer before service begins. You will find all this and more at 735 Commonwealth Avenue any week, but a few Sundays of the year this atmosphere has even more heightened energy, on holy days such as Christmas and Easter, of course, but also for the few Sundays annually in which the rich sounds of a Bach cantata anchor our service of worship and praise.

Elisha, too, is full of energy, and anxiety this morning. Along his last walk with his mentor, standing as signposts of the spectacle to come, companies of prophets like a Greek chorus foretell of a vision of an ascension. Like Elisha, we have our own company of prophets with us today, who with their voices and instruments will summon us to keep watch, and to perk up our ears, to hear the message that Bach can bring to us today.

1 Corinthians 12 says that each of us is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; some are given the gift of tongues, and others the gift of interpretation of tongues. Now, music is its own language, so as is our custom, we have our Director of Music,

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, with us this morning to interpret for us what we are about to hear.

Dr. Jarrett, what signposts will we hear this morning?

Dr. Jarrett: Thank you, Rev. Quigley. Today’s cantata is one of Bach’s great musical triumphs, first performed in October of 1725 for Reformation Sunday. The opening movement depicts the triumph of the new way – Luther’s way, that is – in a most exuberant, muscular – even militant – display of counterpoint and brilliance. The opening orchestral material, extending for an astonishing 45 measures before the chorus entrance, introduces all the thematic material of the movement, including a broad march and a strictly treated three-voice fugue. The cantata features some of the most difficult horn parts in Bach’s entire output, depicting the glory of the battle won. Perhaps the most surprising element of the opening movement is the unrelenting presence of the timpani in a most extraordinary part. The timpani’s rambunctious pounding calls to mind Luther’s bold and precocious nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door.

The second movement, sung today by Gerrod Pagenkopf, proves Bach’s ability to set a similar text in a completely different fashion. The meter of the music with the oboe obbligato present us with a relaxed, elegant pastoral image of God as protector. For the third movement, Bach seems to have recognized that we haven’t yet heard one of Luther’s great hymns. But he delivers a tour de force like no other. The horns and timpani return with their triumphant music from the first movement as the choir and orchestra sing that most famous hymn, ‘Not thank we all our God.’

After the chorale, the cantata takes the anticipated introspective turn for how we continue to fight the battle each day in our contemporary lives. Like the disciples with Jesus on the mountain top, the baritone praises God for the revelation of truth through Word and Incarnation. The recitative concludes with a prayer for hope of salvation from those who do not yet know God. The duet introduces the only elements of doubt in the entire cantata. Here the soprano and bass lines, sung by Kira Winter and Thomas Middleton, cling to each other amid the threat of the darting unison violin line. Only once do they lose each other as the text depicts the harsh raging of the enemy. The cantata ends with a standard four-part chorale setting, but with the two horns and timpani crowning the movement.

Though a Reformation cantata, we find resonance with today’s liturgy and texts. We hear the steadfastness of the apostles at Jesus’ side on the mount in the staunchness and assurance of the opening movement. The presence of the fugal material reminds us of the law of Moses and Elijah. And the presence of the fugue with the broader homophonic music reveals the fulfillment of the prophesy and Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah. We detect Elisha side by side with Elijah in the soprano and bass duet. As we recall the Reformation story, and revisit in the mind’s eye a burgeoning movement toward religious freedoms, we sing again ‘Now thank we all our God.’ Our convictions are transformed, transfigured, and renewed in the grace and redemption of God’s love and might.

Rev. Quigley: Transfiguration is not quite like the class taught at Hogwarts by Professor McGonagall; it is not about turning a cat into a teacup with the flick of a wand. Transfiguration in our gospel reveals the divine within the human, the extraordinary within the ordinary. As in our cantata, we see the different modes of Christ, both the triumphant and the pastoral. This is not unlike our gospel today. The author of Mark, more so than his fellow gospel-writers, portrays for us a down and dirty Jesus. This Jesus has a tendency to spit when healing, he has a strange affinity for dirt, he touches lepers, he curses out fig trees, and he falls asleep in the back of boats. But today, Mark reminds us that Jesus is also the Christ, by foretelling the glory and power of the resurrection.

I think that many of our most powerful spiritual experiences are little transfigurations. We hear a familiar, beloved hymn tune sung in a full-chorused and orchestrated cantata. It reminds us of singing in our home churches, and the new, bright assurance of faith washes over us more powerfully than it first did decades ago. After three, fifteen, fifty years of marriage, we look across the table at our spouse, and the light catches them just right. They are not as beautiful as the wedding day, they are more beautiful, because we have caught a tiny glimpse of the divine spark of our Creator in them. A single conversation at work or at school, and we finally see that we can make an impact; all the callouses (on our hands or on our minds) can change people’s lives, and perhaps for the first time, we discover the intersection of our passion and the world’s need in our sense of vocation.

So this morning, we sit transfixed, receiving Bach’s inspired gift even as he sits beside us, contemplating the same divine majesty. We will have to come down the mountain soon enough, and then we will have to go back into the rhythms of our lives. But something will be different, and even though we know words will fail us, we know something will have to change. Something will have to be shared with others. Mark knows this; Mark’s gospel is known for what biblical scholars call the “messianic secret.” Jesus does something spectacular, and then he demands it be kept secret until after the resurrection. The purpose of the messianic secret in the gospel is much debated, but I find a little Markan humor in it, that the news about Jesus is too good not to share, and time and again people cannot keep the secret.

The irony of life’s transfigurative moments is that no words will properly describe them, but they are so powerful they demand to be shared with others. So this morning, we sit, with the disciples, and with Elisha, and with Bach, unsure of what we will experience and even less sure what we will do afterward. But we sit, transfixed, and know that we are about to experience something of the divine, of the extraordinary revealed within the ordinariness of our lives.


~The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

February 12

The Better Angels of our Nature

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1: 40-45

What are the better angels of our nature? One is conscience, and another is compassion. ‘Conceived in liberty’—that is conscience. ‘Dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal’—that is compassion. Are you ready to brush these two angel wings? They have been brought to us with a price.

This week, suddenly, we realize again how much we owe to those who won our freedom, both temporal and spiritual, both civic and religious. Discussion of liberty and equality arises, February 2012! Yet so much of it proceeds with almost no sense of memory, and thereby little to no depth. Perhaps just for a moment this morning we might reflect on freedom. Our Gospel declares, ‘He went out and began to talk freely’. We are people who talk freely about freedom, temporal and spiritual. Maybe today, February 12, we might remember some of the great words about conscience and compassion, liberty and equality, which we inherit. For in fact our discourse about freedom has long involved the interplay of temporal conscience and spiritual compassion, of civic liberty and religious freedom. We are heirs both of temporal and of spiritual freedom. Abraham Lincoln from his western window perch in this nave can help to remind us.

A. Temporal Freedom Means…

Freedom from the Tyranny of Kings

We think of Washington’s army, shivering along the Hudson River, in the first cold winter of Independence, 1776. Thomas Paine:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”

Freedom from the Bondage of Slavery

So, Lincoln. We think first of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, hopeful as he began his presidency. We think second of Lincoln in 1865, exhausted and soon to die, riddled with worry, conflict, risk, chance, decision and death for four years. Out of affliction came a great hope. Abraham Lincoln, his hopeful first inaugural and his chastened second:

First, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Second, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in…to do all that may achieve a just and a lasting peace for us and for all the nations.”

Freedom from the Threat of Dictatorship

We think of Franklin Roosevelt, bound to his wheelchair, yet out of that bondage finding the rhetoric and courage to lead his people from fear to faith. Nothing to fear but fear itself. A day that will live in infamy. A world founded on four freedoms. Arsenal of democracy…FDR:

In 1941: “We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees…

In 1945: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far away. We have learned that we must live as men, and not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community”

Freedom from the Despotism of Ideology

We think of John Kennedy, wearing the anxiety of the cold war, and meeting that cold with warm words, warmly worded. A profile in courage. JFK, 1961:

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world…Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Freedom from tyranny, slavery, dictatorship, ideology: for temporal freedom we are thankful.

B. Spiritual Freedom Means…

But I must ask you: if the value of our temporal freedom is now so clearly and even starkly visible, how much more, then, is the higher value of our spiritual freedom even more clearly and more starkly visible? If the ringing rhetoric of our national heritage can so move us, today, how much more are we transformed by the freedom we have received in Jesus Christ? For it is this freedom, wrought by Almighty God, upon which we depend for our salvation, for eternal life, for forgiveness, for heaven, and for heavenly peace on earth. This is God’s own work, enacted in the life, death and destiny of Christ, whom we both follow and adore. As God’s act for us, for us men and women, and for our salvation, a divine and new RE birth of freedom it is not susceptible, finally, to assault of any kind. It is the delight and desire of God to cleanse.

So today: here is the Healing of a Leper. Jesus, moved with pity, stretched, touched, said: I will.  Be clean.  One writes, “Our passage then foreshadows both Jesus’ eschatological freedom… (Marcus, loc cit, 211)

Freedom from the Tyranny of Religion

We think of Paul of Tarsus, a.d. 50,who was seized by this same freedom, and who could fly free from the fetters of his inherited religion. Religion, untamed, can do so much harm. The life, death and destiny of Jesus set Paul free, to love and to serve. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.”

Freedom from the Bondage of the Flesh

We think of Augustine of Hippo, a.d. 400, who wrestled, grappled with the desires of the flesh for much of his life. A man of great learning, he nonetheless found himself unable to put away temptations that he was powerless to resist. Then, once in a garden, he heard a voice, like of a child, saying, “take and read”. He picked up a copy of the letters of Paul that he had been reading, and he saw these words: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” From that moment he found peace of mind.

Freedom from the Threat of Judgment

We think of John Wesley, who though he had as much or more formal religion than any of his contemporaries, was made to wait until middle age before he exchanged the form of religion for its power. Wesley on Aldersgate Street: “About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”(5/24/1738) Take this sacrament to your comfort, as an altar call to freedom from the threat of judgment.

Freedom from the Despotism of Defeat

We think of one pastor, a.d. 1939, bringing a proposal for a new church to his doubtful Board of Trustees, and doing so amid depression and war. He dedicated his idea to the glory of God and the service of women and men. On the front page, as I have learned thanks to a friend’s research, he placed this quotation, an inscription he had found on a country church in England: “In the year 1643, when all things sacred were either demolished or profaned, this Church was built by one whose singular praise is to have done the best things in the worst times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.” If you preach in a post modern, post Judea Christian era, take heart here. If you preach in a minimally religious region, take heart here. If you preach where faithfulness somehow has become disconnected from Sunday worship, take heart here. If you preach where the shallow in worship has overcome the high and true and deep, take heart here: your singular praise is to have done the best of things in the worst of times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.

Freedom from the Fear of the Future

We think of Ernest Freemont Tittle, Evanston Illinois, a.d. 1960, the month of his own death, who more than most in his generation fifty years ago, saw the contours of the future. Tittle: We of this generation are confronted with the revelation of divine purpose given in a human interrelatedness and interdependence that justifies the term “one world”. We find ourselves in a situation where no one nation can prosper unless all prosper, no one people can dwell secure unless security is assured to all. This situation was brought about through human agents, through the activities of scientists, inventors, traders, imperialists; but it is not a result of human planning. Not even the most ardent imperialist will claim that empire was devised as a means of drawing the world together, nor will anyone claim that science or invention or international trade was carried on with a view to bringing about the interdependence of nations and peoples. The situation in which we now find ourselves, so far from being a result that we human creatures purposed and planned, has to a large extent been brought about despite our purposes, which for the most part were selfish and shortsighted enough. It has come to pass through the providence of God, who, through science and technology, through improved means of transportation and communication, through the extension of trade and credit, has brought it to pass that we have got to act with due consideration for the rest of mankind if we ourselves are to prosper and dwell secure. Something beyond us, a superhuman purpose and power, is working in history, bringing about the increasing interdependence of men and nations, so that our sheer survival becomes ever more contingent upon the establishment of justice and fair play in all our relations to one another.”

Freedom from religion, flesh, judgment, defeat, fear: for spiritual freedom we are deeply thankful.

Lincoln strangely knew them both.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. In his honor we close with a recitation of his most famous statement, the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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

February 5

Prevenient Grace

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1: 29-39


The phrase, ‘prevenient grace’, a favorite of John Wesley’s, identifies God’s grace as active prior to our awareness, prior to our acceptance, prior to our engagement, prior to our knowledge, prior to our own conscious response.  This grace comes to us, comes toward us.

We think of ourselves as marching forward, into the future.  And well we might, and well we should.  But grace is the future coming toward us, marching into us, toward us.  It is incursive, it is incarnate.  It is invasive.  It is coming toward us.

The cosmic apocalyptic theological perspective which shapes our Gospel of Mark is not our own.  Beelzebub—not a family name.  Children of light and of darkness—not the way we define the world.  The end time, the last days, the day of the Lord—not our primary religious or personal lexicon.  Satan—not a ready or readily understood figure.  The cosmic apocalyptic theological perspective which shapes St. Mark does not shape us.

But one part of it does, or should.  Time is coming toward us.  The future is settling in on us.  It is not we who march forward into time so much as it is time marching toward, into, through and past us.  There it goes…

Healing on the Sabbath, for an individual, out among a whole city, and in the pastures of prayer.  Coming right at us, like a..

What similes, metaphors, analogies come to mind today, about the future descending upon us?  Like a…

Like a linebacker vaulting into the pocket, or a punt descending out of the sky, or a kickoff falling earthward, or a return team moving to tackle, or an hour of contest approaching. ()

The future is coming toward us.  That part of cosmic apocalyptic we can readily receive, if we will pivot just a bit.

Prevenient carries a sense of coming before, of preparing, of guiding.  Prevenient grace finds us when we are not expecting to be found, or to find.   Prevenient grace enters the home, through the front door.  This grace attends to the needs of the identified patient in the family.  Then prevenient grace flings open the door to the home and gathers the whole community, to heal the sick and cast out demons.  An early grace reaches us and reminds us that who we are is connected to where we are.

And what comes toward us?  Grace, in seven servings: baptism, a name in a church; confirmation, a faith in a tradition; eucharist, a morsel in a community; ordination, a calling in a context; marriage, a partnership in a pattern; forgiveness, a pardon in a gathering; unction, an eternal hope in an historical experience.  What comes toward us?  Prevenient grace.

Prevenient Grace:  Personal

Said John Calvin:  Now the evangelists seem to have narrated this miracle with some emphasis, not for being in itself more distinguished than the others, or more deserving to be remembered, but because in it Christ gave a homely and closer example of his grace to his disciples…The healing of one woman gave him the opportunity for many miracles (Commentary, loc.cit.)

Our gospel ends in prayer.  But the two healings of the narrative buttress each other.  The first, the healing of Peter’s mother, comes to an individual.  The second, attested in odd combinations of words—all, many, all, many, the whole—distributes the healing to the community.  Jesus is moving toward his hearers, and toward us, now to the individual, now to the culture at large.  His preparation is showing the way to personal and social holiness.  They go together.  Holiness of heart depends on holiness of life.  Where we are affects who we are.  As Ortega memorably put it, “Yo soy you y mis circunstancias”—I am myself and my circumstances.

There is a spirit of health loose in the universe, a spirit of healing, touching persons and pervading communities.  We do well to attend to the eruptions of health, in our place and time.

Peter was married.  I’m just sayin… You acquire a mother in law in a time honored fashion.  Did you notice that Simon has a mother in law?  That must mean… Simon is no longer out on the beach with Andrew, free and easy, as he was just two Sundays ago.  He has a home, he has a family, he has an extended family.  Behind every great religious leader is a surprised mother in law.  That is, Simon was married.  Peter was married.  I am not camping out on this verse.  I don’t plan to stay here for the whole sermon and build a campfire and dwell forever on the domestic details of Peter, the rock on whom the church was built.  I’m just saying…

Never doubt that a few people, a teacher and two sets of brothers for example, can change things.

How we live makes a difference to others.  In particular, this Lent, we shall meditate on how we cyberlive.  Every half hour we are making choices in our means and mode of discourse, to enhance toward human being our way of being, or to degrade our way of being from human being.  Technology is not neutral.  It is a complex of choices.  And yes, we choose, but we do not choose our choices.

Notice some of the detail in this holy, inspired, inspiring passage.  Matthew leaves out the prayer scene, in his use of Mark, and Luke retains it.  Why?  Simon’s mother in law is singled out, without others from the family named.  Why?  The demons again know Jesus and again are silenced.  A  bigger, Why?  The crowd comes to healing at sundown.  To respect the Sabbath?  But Jesus has already healed on the Sabbath (see last week), and again with Simon’s mother in law. So, Why? How alike are healings and exorcisms?  And the word for city is really town\city, komepolis: ‘not just a select few, but the whole city’ is gathered for healing.  There is a broad human longing well represented here. It is our longing, too.  Jesus ‘comes forward/out’ in order to preach. Jesus and his opponents are engaged in battle over disputed territory.  Mark is the book of secret epiphanies.

We remember best what is most personal.  So, still, 20 centuries later, the most important aspect of pastoral ministry, the sermon aside, is every week the 25 visits one makes to listen to the faithful:  at work, in town, at home, in hospital, on the phone, on the screen, all.  Your job is threefold:  visit the people, visit the people, visit the people.

How I miss Peter Gomes.  I miss his voice, his presence, his grace.  But you remember his admonition about ministry.  You ask me the secret of my success in ministry at Harvard over forty years?  I give it to you in a single word: ubiquity.  I am everywhere.  I go everywhere.  I attend everything.  I enter every building and dorm.  I walk through every yard and hill and valley and molehill.  I go where I am invited.  I go where I am not invited.  I go where I am expected.  I go where I am not expected. Surprise!  It’s me.  You ask my secret?   I give it to you in a word: ubiquity.  I am ubiquitous.

Would you practice, enjoy and master ministry?  Remember that word.

Prevenient Grace:  Social

Said John Wesley:  And the whole city was gathered together at the door. O what a fair prospect was here!  Who could then have imagined that all these blossoms would die away without fruit?…Rising a great while before day…So did he labor for us both day and night…From this time they forsook their employ and constantly attended him.  Happy they who follow Christ at the first call. (Notes, loc. cit.)

Every now and then, upon a quiet morning or evening, we have an awareness that a lot more is going on, in and among and around us than we often recognize.
One leader from our area encouraged his colleagues: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die”
We need such a social imagination:  a common faith with Dewey, a common ground with Thurman, a common hope with Hill, a commonwealth in the Bay State.  We need such a robust social imagination, a social holiness to yoke with a personal holiness.  Proust:  ‘How could I be expected to believe in a common origin uniting two names which had entered my consciousness, one through the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other by the golden gate of imagination?” (RTP, 676)
Our personal healing relies on our social healing.  The employment of one worker requires the health of the company, and beyond that the health of the community.  Listen to this leading voice from 1988: ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute…structures that repel top talent…we evaded relentless focus on quality’ (a GM executive)

The poor now receive some comment in our hearing, across our land.  This is to our benefit, though our lack of memory and the capacity to imagine what poverty feels like weakens our effort.  We need to recall our parents and grandparents accounts of potato soup during the depression.  We need to remember the reports on homeless children, living today in cars in central Florida.  We need to take to heart the account of the daughter of university professors now living as a single mother in Chicago and saying, ‘I have fallen out of the middle class’.  We need to think about the couple in western Maine without heating oil, depending on the electric stove and an income of $1,200 a month (NYT, 2/4/12)

Blessed St. Chrysostom could teach us about the poor: ours for them should be a just, useful, and suitable intercession…the rich need the poor:  the poor are necessary for the spiritual well being of the rich…your brother is more truly God’s temple than any church building…show a natural compassion…it will make you more humane for your own salvation…enjoy luxury in moderation, then give the rest away…some are sent out to be dependent upon the hospitality of others;  theirs is the ministry of the mendicant…the sign of the mendicant church calls forth generosity…serve the poor under all conditions and circumstances…the poor are the bearers of God’s spirit in a way that the rich are not…all goodness in the world is a reflection of God’s grace…

We might remember Border Parker Bowne:  ‘I am determined to protect the independence and variety of experience’.

And Martin Luther King:  Love: that force which all the great religions have known…somebody must have religion enough to cut hate off…redemptive good will toward all humankind…a love centric view is what we need (MLK)

As a nation we don’t learn from the past and we don’t plan for the future:  we are persons in community!  The person and who she is depends and the community and what it is.  We need to remember: Human dignity requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited (S Nieman).  For our most diffucult work and for most perilous projects (Niehdl?) we most need:  moral governance, transparency, self-critique, regard for the poor, and continuous leadership and group discussions.


Let us pray (a prayer from Vatican II):
We stand before you Holy Spirit
Conscious of our weakness and sinfulness
But aware that we gather in your name

Come to us, remain with us,
And enlighten our hearts.

Give us light and strength
To know your will,
Make it our own,
And to live it in our lives.

Guide us by your wisdom,
Support us by your power
For you are God.

You desire justice for all:
Enable us to uphold the rights of others;
Do not allow us to be misled by ignorance
Or corrupted by fear or favor.

Unite us to yourself in the bond of love
And keep us faithful to all that is true.

As we gather in your name
May we temper justice with love
So that all our decisions
May be pleasing to you
And be worthy of the reward
Promised to good and faithful servants.

You live and reign with the Father and the Son,
One God, forever and ever.

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

January 29

Authentic Authority

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 1: 21-28

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority, in our own experience.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.


First, notice the lingering power of tradition.  Not traditionalism, but the forms of inherited tradition.  The dominical voice of authentic authority whistles through the willow branches of tradition.

Jesus speaks.

When does he speak?  On the Sabbath. Where does he speak?  In the synagogue.

How does he speak?  As a teacher.

All three of these aspects of his speaking are named for us, though we might have inferred two of the three from just the mention of one, or another.  They go together—holy time, holy space, holy words.  The gospel means to emphasize by repetition.

There is, at the outset, a regard, a lingering respect for what has been, for what one inherits.  For tradition, though not traditionalism.  The Sabbath is the occasion.  The synagogue is the setting.  The role of teacher frames the message.

A time of rest and refreshment, Sabbath, here receives Jesus’ blessing, at least in the manner of his recognition and participation.   Sunday can be a time of Sabbath rest.  A time for sleep, for recovery, for reading, for gathering.   We are a sleep deprived people, somnambulant in a sleep deprived culture.  So a traditional occasion, a time for retreat and renewal can feed us, if we let it.  There are none so weary as those who will not sleep.

Following my sermons, some arise inspired and some awake refreshed.  Both are good outcomes.

Likewise, synagogue, a coming together, is a traditional form.  It means, a gathering together.  Blessed are the hosts, for they shall be called the cooks of God.   When you have had a hand in gathering together a gathering together, you have brushed close to something good, something godly.

The other Sunday, a cold one, I made the mistake of walking to worship without a hat.  Brr!  I put my hands over my ears.  I hurried on to come here, eager to see who would be with us in church, eager to hear a response from the listening congregation, eager to be nourished by the ministers of music, eager to be gathered into a warm, inviting, loving, embracing community.  When it is cold enough, you can really appreciate a heated church home.  When it is relationally cold enough, you can really appreciate a gathering together.  When someone finds a church family to love and a church home to enjoy—when the gathering together holds—there is a holy moment.

So, too, the role of the teacher.  A familiar role, a familiar social location.  It is not in some exotic form that Jesus greets his hearers today.  The form is familiar, the teacher.  We may sometimes look too far, too wide for what we most want and need, when nearby, familiarly so, our health awaits.

Sabbath, synagogue, rabbi.  Tradition.  Here Jesus is more than willing to don the raiment of inheritance, to be harnessed by the yoke of tradition.  Jeremiah recommended the old paths.  Matthew prized every jot and tittel.  We hunger for those voices that will help us translate the tradition into insights for effective living.

Some memories of college years, here, will be connected to the particular sound of our choir.  Some recollections of exams passed or nearly passed, will be held in earshot of a meal or a trip or a talk, here.  Some remembrances of things past, even of hard moments of loss or regret or disappointment, will have about them a shaft of light through stained glass, an echo of truth through scripture read, an admission of prayer needed and offered.

Our gospel today, which announces Jesus’ voice of authentic authority, notices the lingering power of tradition.

It is in the midst of this house, this lineage, this inheritance that Jesus speaks, not absent it.

His hearers are astonished.  He is not confused in their hearing with their hearing of the scribes, his usual opponents in the flow of this gospel.  They know a different voice when they hear it.  A voice of authority, authentic authority.

But we are not told what exactly made the voice authoritative.

Like last week, in the calling of the disciples, the two sets of brothers.  We are told nothing, there, about what made them move, what caused their decision, what set them free.  And this week, in the authorization of teaching, we are told nothing about what made the sermon so good.  Only that it was.

Over time, we all finally decide what constitutes authentic authority, what such authority sounds like.

Sometime a bit of old tradition can sound and seem like a new teaching.  Our neighbor at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, teaches students about an old fashioned tradition called ‘dating’.  She gives them a script.  She advises:  women should ask men too; ask in person not by twitter; if you ask, you should pay; enjoy talking for an hour; make it alchohol free; you cannot pass her course without going on a date.  “If we can retrieve from the old dating script a set of low level expectations…that would be great…The script can ultimately give you more freedom. (CC, 1/25/12, 29)

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  First, tradition.


Second, notice, and how can you help it, the centrality of confrontation.  Here there is an unclean spirit loose, loose amid the holy time and place and role.

Authentic authority calls out his nemesis.  We are straightway here in the realm of apocalyptic, cosmic apocalyptic, battle.

Last week we hosted a memorial service here in Marsh Chapel as now we do three times or so a month.  With some of our BU family we grieved, remembered, accepted and affirmed.  As is not uncommon in some religious traditions, though perhaps not common for many of us here today, as the service began we heard a long, low wail.  The crie de couer continued, ramped up in volume, split out in thunderous cacophony, then trailed off again, only, again to ramp up in volume, split out in thunderous cacophony, and trail off again.  I can remember the first burial, now nearly thirty years ago, in which such wailing occurred in my hearing.  It was startling, as, for many, here, it was last week.  But it was true and real.  That is, now and then, people still ‘cry with a loud voice’, sometimes, in church.

Our worldview is not cosmic apocalyptic confrontation.  We do not see a convulsive as one demon, of an unclean sort, challenging another Jesus demon of an authoritative sort.  We are late modern people, women and men who do not cry out in public, unless we are at a sporting event, drinking heavily, or about to call the police into a domestic dispute.  Maybe, in compensation, that is why sports and drinking and all become so central to us.

Authentic authority involves confrontation, not just pleasant courtesies of disagreement, but  genuine squaring off.  To your roommate you finally say: ‘One of us is wrong and I think it is you.’  To your boss you finally say:  ‘Look, do you want to do my work or will you let me do it?’  To your political economy (known by the way for good reason as ‘capitalism’ not ‘laborism’, because capital rules labor in capitalism) you finally say:  ‘One way or another my son needs a job.’  To your good friend, gently, you say: ‘I am sorry you feel that way.  Goodbye’.  To your spouse you say:  ‘You can have me or him but not both at the same time’.  To your warring world you finally shout:  ‘My son is not your cannon fodder’.

One thing I truly admired about my dad was how he easy he was around confrontation.  A man would stand up and shout and carry on a church meeting, walk out of worship the next Sunday, or send a blistering hand written hate note to the pastor, and my dad would shrug and smile and say, ‘I like to see him get worked up.  It is worth the price of admission just to see him so angry.’  Less naturally and more slowly, I too have learned to honor and receive anger.  Mark would understand.

Here Mark is starting his gospel, with a confrontation.  The verb here rendered ‘be silent’ (so polite) means ‘to muzzle’.  Be muzzled.  Shut your trap. (so J Marcus, loc. Cit.).  Matthew begins his public gospel with the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke begins his public gospel with the sermon in Nazareth.  John begins his public gospel with the wedding in Cana (again, Marcus).  But Mark?  He begins with demons and confrontation.

When we get angry we get in touch with something deep inside, something not necessarily at all related to what we think we are angry about.  We are not so very far from the ‘unclean spirit’ of Mark 1.  We are complicated creatures.

You see and hear this again in the current play, ‘Freud’s Last Session’, an imagined conversation between Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist, and C. S. Lewis, the great apologist.  Bombs are falling on London.  Freud is suffering with mouth cancer.  Lewis is struggling with his young man’s sexuality. And through it all—the question of God.  Freud and Lewis confront each other. They lock horns for 90 minutes of verbal combat.  Each memorizes and delivers the equivalent of two Sunday sermons.  They square off and argue.  Good.

Lewis:  ‘in pleasure God whispers, in pain God shouts’.  Freud:  ‘just why are you living with your best friend’s mother?’  Lewis:  ‘I got on my cycle an atheist, and got off a believer, all one day’.  Freud:  ‘you might want to see somebody about that’.  Lewis: ‘faith is most reasonable thing on earth’.  Freud: ‘yes, such a good God—bombs, death, disease, pain’.  Lewis: ‘I will pray for you’.  Freud:  ‘you do that’.

Yet at the very end, though Freud has turned the radio off to mute the music in carries for much of the play, and of course Lewis, in good Freudian fashion, has asked why the good Dr. cannot listen to the music, and has given his spirited and spiritual analysis, at the end and alone, dying and in pain, the great psychoanalyst slowly turns up the music, and Mozart rings out.

There is no resolution—how could there be in 90 minutes?  But there is confrontation that exudes an authentic authority.

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  Second, confrontation.  It takes the exorcising power, the authentic authority, finally, of love, to move us.


Third, response.  Notice the response.  The emphasis falls on an acknowledgement of authority, authentic authority.  ‘With authority…a new teaching…he commands…even the demons obey…his fame spread throughout the north country’.   It works.  Whatever he said, whatever he taught, it helped somebody.  We wish we knew what it was!

Yet, there is a quieter wisdom in the silence of Scripture here.  If we knew, we would be tempted just to repeat rather than to rehearse.  We need to have the tradition, in the moment of confrontation, translated into insights for effective living which, in response, we can use.  That is authentic authority in the full.  If we knew that he used the 100th Psalm, we would repeat it every Sunday.  If we knew he preached on Jeremiah, we would invariably do so.  If we knew he taught specific proverbs, we would ignore the rest.  No, there is freedom in the silence of the gospel, here, a freedom to live and love with authentic authority.  To respond.

Freud finally turned on the music.

And you?

I am a Christian because the best people, leading the best lives, in my experience, have been so.  I respond to the freedom and love I see in other people of faith, now 65 generations after the exorcism in Capernaum, and the response all across Galilee.  In other lives I have seen glimpses of what I could be and do, if I would only straighten up and fly right.  Some of those lives are in this room.  Some are in memory.  Some are out there waiting to be introduced.  Don’t kid yourself.  Especially, especially in a University setting, people are taking your measure.  Good.  Your example counts, matters, lasts, works.

Tradition and confrontation evoke a response.  The unclean spirit leaves.  The congregation murmurs.  The report goes forth.

Let me turn it around.  When you fail somehow, and we all you do, sometime, you know the negative influence of your own response.  Give yourself some credit then, on the up side of the ledger.  Dean Jones gave me a book.  Professor Jones listened with care.  That TA gave me the benefit of the doubt.  I will always be grateful for what Chaplain Jones did for me.  Let me say to those of us thirty years old and more:  eyes are watching, ears are listening, minds are considering what path to take.  Your example makes a difference in their response, right here, right now, right at Marsh Chapel.  We are forever teaching and learning, learning and teaching.

Someone taught you.  A High School band director?  A Latin teacher in college (Agricola, agricolae…)?  A chemistry professor who lingered with you in the lab?  Who?

Nellie responded to her Latin teacher.  Bob responded to his science teacher.  Jan responded to her history teacher.  Jen responded to her family matriarch.  Larry responded to his theology professor.  As Carlyle Marney put it:  “Who told you who you was?”

Somehow, with four growing children and a preacher’s meager salary, my parents managed to give us all piano lessons.  My teacher was a farm wife, thirty years younger than her husband.  The distance from the barn to the house, from the manger to the piano, was very short, in both geographic and olfactory senses.  I feel the warmth of that space and that tutelage today, even though those precious parsonage dollars were almost entirely wasted on me, to my regret.  I can’t play a scale, after at least 5 years of lessons.  I can though appreciate the difficulty of what others do.  And there was something more, somewhere between Lewis and Freud, in those afternoon lessons, which usually began with an honest question:  “Did you practice?” and a less than honest response:  “Some”.

You know, looking back that was one of the few places and times, week by week, when I was in the sole presence of a non-parental adult: honest, trustworthy, kind, caring.  Now where the farm was there is an auto dealer and a pizza parlor.  But the hay, the barn, the milking, the home, the warmth, the music, the teaching, the—may I call it friendship?, live on.  In her forties she died of cancer, three fine children, one great marriage, several years of crops and evenings and mornings of milking, and some less than stellar piano students later.  At her funeral the minister preached this sermon:  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  That itself is thirty years ago, but I remember it in full.  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  You are too.  And so are you.  And so are you.

The music is playing all around us, all through us, in our triumph and in our tragedy.  We just need to respond.  To lean over, and turn the dial, and set the music free.

Five winters ago a young woman in graduate school stopped to talk after worship.  She said, ‘That sermon was about me.’  She started coming every week.  She found her ministry here.  She took on a major responsibility, and then a big job.  A whole lot of you all who are here in this sanctuary this morning are here because of her outreach, her welcome, her embrace.  She heard, and she responded. Then she met another graduate student, another Texan, on the T of all places. A romance on the T.  They started to like each other. That had all that Texas stuff in common after all. Pretty soon they were in love.  Not long later they were engaged.  And then they got married.  And then moved by the United States Army to some place in Oklahoma. Elizabeth and Brian both responded and evoked response. You can too, starting today.  This is your moment.  You are a song that God is singing.

Oh, I wish they hadn’t moved.  Of course I miss them. But that doesn’t worry me.  I wish they were closer.  But that doesn’t make me anxious. I wish they were in the pew this morning.  But they aren’t and I am not concerned.  Because I know those two fine young people will let their music resound wherever they are.  And those in any chorus with them will be the richer for their presence.  Authentic authority is found in real response.

The Gospel According to St. Mark starts off with a voice of authentic authority.  When you are searching for a sense of reliable, authentic authority, then hunt around a healthy bit of lost tradition, and for a courageous and cleansing moment of confrontation and  for a real and personal, public response.

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

January 22

At First Light

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 1: 14-20

At first light, we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Galilee.  He who is the First Light sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending.  This stylized memory from the mind of Mark kindles our own memory and hope, too.

That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue.  The excitement of beginning.  The promise of another start.  The crisp, cold opening of the year in January.  Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.  He makes two invitations.

The First Invitation

He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness.  Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched.  There is little too nothing of history here, but what there is says so much!  There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets.  One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate.  These boys are on their own.  They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working stiffs.  Young, young men.  Simon already has a nick-name.  A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun.  Peter, the Rock.  Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float?  On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, ogle the Palestinianas a little, take time to take life as it comes.  Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows.  They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life.  For they have left home.  One envies their youth and freedom.  They have taken to the little inland sea of Galilee, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh.  You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire.  You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that first light feeling.  Those pure moments of rapturous illumination.

Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand.  First light.

Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel.  Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said.  But they were there, in tie and dress.  They were there, in public and in church.  They murmured, and they murmured piously.  And how did that feel Dad?  First light.

Your day of matrimony.  Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter.  Do you? Do you?  I do. They do.  And what was once a simpler world now has further complexity and creative power.  A new creation.  First light.

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose.  That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.

We get too far away from dawn, if we are not careful.  Faith is trust. A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea…

I am told (by Dr Rod Wilmoth) of a boy who goes to a winter vacation with his parents in Florida.  They set him loose on the swimming pool.  Before diving, he goes around the cement shoreline, a latter day Jesus on a latter day lake, asking one and another the same question:

Are you a Christian?

Oh, no, I don’t go to church…

Are you a Christian…

Well, I do go on Christmas and at Easter.  I was there last month.  But you know I don’t read the Bible, or anything like that…

Are you a Christian?

You know, I used to be, but I kind of got away from it.  So many other things…

Are you a Christian?

(An older man at last brings the reply he is looking for):

Why yes, I was baptized in my youth, and later made a moment of confirmation.  I go to church every Sunday.  I can’t stand to miss it.  Yes, I tithe, I give away 10% of what I have each year, not all to the church, but mostly to the church, because that is the seed bed for future wonder, morality and generosity.  I keep faith with my family and friends.  I am a Christian.  But why are you asking?

Well sir I want to go swimming, and have two quarters here in my shorts, and I wanted someone I could trust to hold them while I swim.

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the first light, dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.

Peter and Andrew are casting, casting nets.  They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, and no angst.  They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers.  They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all evangelism is imperfect.  But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.  To miss the first light is to miss the fun of faith!

Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light

is always on, that roommate, who sleeps until 5pm on Sunday.  Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good.

The Second Invitation

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  They are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out.  It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”.  Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino.  Yes, they will follow!  But Jesus is about to make a second invitation.  Not to the defiant, but to the compliant.  Not to the independent, but to the dependent.  Not to the strong, but to the weak.  Not to the secular, but to the religious.

Down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat.  A different story, a different set of brothers altogether.  James and John.  Known as the sons of Zebedee.  Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name.  But these two are known by their father’s name.  They haven’t left home.  They have not yet acquired that second identity.  Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat.  All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show.  All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach.  The late night parties.  The bonfires.  The singing.  The swimming.  And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee.  They are covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and coppertone.  And, more to the point, they are trapped under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have emerged.  Every day, in the back of the boat.  And what are they doing?  Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain.  Are they casting?  No.  Are they fishing yet?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode. That worst side of churchgoing mode.  Mending.  At first light!  Of course nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service!  The fun is in the fishing!  The joy is in the casting.  And there they sit, sober souls, looking for a bad time if a bad time can be had, mending.

Here we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter, midway between passion and nativity.  This is a crucial moment, for the ministry of Marsh Chapel, and our saving balance. The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.  Today, Epiphany 3, we need to seize and be seized by the life story of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Here he is.  Jesus’ life is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Ghandi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa with our friend Lynn Baker. This is no quietism, like that which so suddenly has taken over some Protestant American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Calvinist and Anabaptist communions:  cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful!  Hope has two beautiful daughters, Augustine reminded us:  anger and courage.

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first.   Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  But who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.  You need them both, Marsh Chapel, you need them both, New England, you need them both, America.  It takes two wings to fly.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Epiphany is the time to tell it, and tell it out loud.  The life story, Christmas on, is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas and Epiphany are meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had were Holy Week.  And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive.  Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What lovely news for us!  Such a passionate year we have had.  Now comes this season again, and the story of Jesus at first light again, to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.  There is more to Jesus than his death.  There is the matter of his life as well.

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers.  It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they.  I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat.  Perhaps his heart went out to James and John.  So he stops, and he asks.  And he stops this morning to ask you, especially if you are quiet in the back of the boat, still cringing under the booming stentorian parental voice, more paternalistic than paternal.  You know, you can hide out pretty well in church, if you decide to.  Church can be an excellent hide out from life, from love, from God.  But here he is, at first light, inviting you:  follow me.

Here is the great thing about an invitation.  All you can do is ask.  Do ask.  Ye have not because ye ask not.  And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live.  So many people live half asleep.  They don’t live life, life lives them.  Like these two knitting in the back of the boat.  Half asleep.  Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines!  And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them.  Watch.  It is a first light moment.  First one, then the other, stands and moves.  Under the shadow of that harsh paternalistic presence, under the sound of that sour maternalistic imperative of home.  They rise.  And they move toward First Light.  They are about to grow up. They are about to grow up.  Wonderful!  And what do they leave behind?  You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out.  They leave behind the boat…and their father.  We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves, when we shake off dependence.

Will this world grow up?  That is what the United Nations and the World Council of Churches and the United Methodist Church and so many people of good will have been striving and hoping for.  Will we find a way to live together, all six billion of us, and to drink from the same cup?

This text, strangely like the Gospel of John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light.  Not color, now.  Light.  Color is great, and good.  But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet.  It is light that we will need into the 21st century.  Not color, light. We finally all are meant to drink from the same cup.

I was told  (by the Rev. Don Harp) of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy.  He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk.  After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted.  No, he said, why?

Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, so if you don’t mind we’d like it back.

One cup.  Light, not color. We forget it at our worldly peril.  If we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another.  We have more in common, as tragedy and triumph remind us, all around the globe, than we do in difference.  Give us light, not darkness, Wesley not Calvin, not just passion, but peace too, not just death but life too, not just Lent but Epiphany too.  You are not meant to live forever in Lent (as Dean Snyder once reminded us).  Advent and Lent prepare you.  But you are meant to live in light, in life, in forgiveness and acceptance and transcendence and—dare we say it?—love.  Are we lovers anymore?

The challenge of the 21st century is found not at the color line, but at first light.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt.  All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name.  (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren.  All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.  All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.  All six billion.

Would you like to have come alive, to have some fun, this week?  Look around for dawn breaking, and kick up some sand.  Jesus calls to you, at first light.

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