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Living Our Baptism

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

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Good morning! What a pleasure it is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with you on this first Sunday after the Epiphany! Now, I know that as we emerge from our holiday season and back into the reality of our everyday lives, the transition can be a rough one. Last Sunday, we heard the story of the Wise Men’s arrival at the manger, and Rev. Gaskell’s explanation of the subject of hospitality. However, there was also something else that happened on the “epiphany” that gave it its name. Namely, the wise men shared in a moment of joy when they reached the manger indicated by a star overhead. This was the wise men’s epiphany – the “aha” moment that helped them realize the presence of God in Jesus’ birth. In the church, the season of Epiphany contains scripture readings from the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry. In everyday use, an epiphany usually refers to that “aha” moment when we realize something, or make a connection, that we hadn’t before. Similarly, in the church, throughout these weeks following the wise men’s own “aha” moment, we continue to explore what Jesus’ ministry means to the world and what affect it has on our own understandings of what it means to be Christian.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and the ritual of baptism as a sacrament of our church. Our Gospel reading today places us in a scene of John the Baptist explaining that he is not the Messiah, and that his acts of baptism are insignificant in comparison with the Messiah’s baptism. Jesus then comes to be baptized along with others in the Jordan. There is no mention that John is the one who actually performs the baptism. In fact, in the verses left out of our gospel reading today, John is actually imprisoned by Herod. The baptism of the others and of Jesus are just said to have happened.  The focus in Jesus’ baptism is on God’s actions and words after the baptism. In Jesus’ baptism, we see a sign of God’s presence through the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and God naming Jesus as the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Talk about an “aha” moment – the voice of God speaking to those gathered and the figure of a dove descending from the sky must have been a sight to see! The act of submersion in the water and God’s declaration and presence makes Jesus’ baptism an act of significance. It affirms that Jesus is the one that John has been telling the people about. Jesus is the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Martin Luther wrote that “It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted…To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God himself.” Baptism reinforces the relationship that God shares with God’s people. It is an indication of the unconditional love and grace that God extends. However, we must understand that this external act only represents what is eternal in God. It is important for baptism, this ritual, to be performed in a physical way because it helps us understand through our senses what God offers to us in a relationship of faith. Luther, again, writes in the Large Catechism that the act of “[baptism] must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart.” Baptism helps us to further understand the grace of God in ways that we can touch, see, and hear.

I bet most of us did not have the same baptismal moment as Jesus. I bet many of us do not even remember our baptisms, as we may have been infants or small children at the time. I don’t remember the actual day of my baptism, some almost 36 years ago in my father’s church in Pennsylvania. Sure, I have tokens of remembrance from the day – in fact my mom just sent me some pictures of the baptismal candle they lit that day, a white taper candle with a silver “A” for Alpha near the top, and a blue triangle of wax with a white dove super-imposed on it. Having grown up in the church as a Pastor’s kid, I remember many infant baptisms. Beyond the act of the baptism itself, it served as a way for the congregation to welcome a new member into the community. In particular, what sticks out in my mind is the presentation of the newly baptized babies to the congregation. I can remember my father (my pastor) addressing the congregation by saying “I present to you, your new brother or sister in Christ…” and the child’s name. My dad would walk up and down the aisles of the church with the little ones in tow, so that the congregation members could see and greet their new family member in the body of Christ. While I can’t remember this from my own baptism, being reminded of what probably happened at my baptism through observing others gave me a sense of how I also belonged to the community. We also might have photos, a baptismal certificate, or even just stories of the day we were baptized that remind us it happened if we were too young to remember. Beyond that day, those who sponsored us, or our parents, made promises to remind us of our baptism and what it means to be entered into the community of Christians.

Baptism comes in many different shapes and forms depending on the traditions we come from. As I already mentioned, some churches believe in infant baptism; that small children should be baptized and welcomed into the Christian community based on their parents’ or other adult sponsors promises to guide and involve them in the Church. Others of us may have come from traditions that wait for children to be older or even adults before they are able to make the choice to be baptized. Some of us may have been completely immersed in water, while others just had a sprinkling of a trickle of water placed on our forehead. Our baptism may have taken place inside, at a font or in a baptistry, or outside, in a body of water like a river or a lake (or in the case of Marsh Chapel, in an inflatable children’s pool behind the building!).

Despite the many forms of Christianity that exist, we all share in the importance of baptism as an act which brings members into our communities. In an ecumenical setting, such as our interdenominational worship here at Marsh Chapel, baptism serves as a way of binding us together in our faith. The things that mattered most about all of our baptisms, despite how they were performed, was the presence of water and the words spoken, baptizing us in the name of the triune God. It is the combination of these – the water and the words – that make baptism an act which differs from regular washing.  As Luther writes in response to the question “what is baptism?” in the Large Catechism “it is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them.” It is out of the baptismal waters that we emerge as new people who belong to God.

We tend to think of baptism as a one-time event. In a way, it is. For most mainline Protestant denominations, only one baptism is acknowledged. Some traditions, like Methodism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism, recognize baptism as a sacrament, a means of God’s grace. The other sacrament that these traditions acknowledge is that of holy communion or the lord’s supper. These two acts remind us of the relationship and connection we have with God. However, the act of baptism only needs to occur once because we live into the relationship we name with God throughout our lives. We might be reminded of our baptism when we worship, or even reaffirm our baptism later in life, but the covenant established with God through our baptism only needs to happen once for it to extend through our whole lives. God’s grace knows no bounds. Even if we rebel and reject God, God continues to extend grace to each of us. Through faith we acknowledge this connection. Our baptism as an act need only occur once in a lifetime, but our lives are forever formed and informed by our baptism.

Baptism affords us the opportunity to be welcomed into the community of Christians who profess the same faith as us through this ritual act. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist give us tangible sign of God’s presence in the world that we can hold on to and cling to in our moments of doubt and from which our faith can grow. It causes us to come together as a community to learn and grow with one another in our individual callings as children of God and as a community of faith. We may ask, what happens if we are baptized but do not have faith in God? Our Baptism is not depended on how well we live in to our faith, the only thing that baptism is dependent upon is the Word of God. This means that if we falter, if we turn away from God, if we fail to live out our callings as Christians, God is still there for us and loves us. Human beings have no control over the extension of God’s grace to us. Our relationship with God through our baptism is eternal; the grace of God is unearned and freely given.

So what does our baptism mean for us beyond the act of baptism itself? How do we live out our baptism in our lives every day? Remember how I said that the definition of epiphany is often referred to as an “aha” moment? What if we looked at the start of this new calendar year as an “aha” moment for what our baptism means in our lives? If we took the time to really think about what it means to be in relationship with God and how we can express that in our daily lives? Do you think we may come across some “aha” moments then?

To be honest, I did not come up with connecting the “aha-ness” of epiphany with how we live out our baptism. In fact, my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America connected the act of baptism to this time of year in a quest to better understand the forms of discipleship we are called to undertake as Christians. They connect discipleship with the words used in the affirmation of baptism found in our worship liturgy. The following question is asked of those reaffirming their commitment through their baptism:

Do you intend to continue in the covenant made with you in holy baptism:

To live among God’s faithful people

To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper

To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed

To serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

And to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth?

Those reaffirming their baptism respond with “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”


Now, I may be biased (or more accurately, I am biased), but these statements of faith lay out ways in which we can hold ourselves responsible to the promises made in our covenant. To live, to hear, to proclaim, to serve, and to strive.

In thinking about the ways we live among God’s people, we may immediately turn to our worshipping community. Here at Marsh Chapel we are afforded with the opportunity to not only learn from members of our congregation in a shared denominational identity, but to learn from other members of our Christian community who may not come from our same tradition. Living among God’s people can also be understood as others we encounter who have come to help shape our faith or our understanding of God. We may recall a time when we felt inspired by another’s commitment to their faith, or encouragement in our own faith by a person or people within our faith community. Perhaps we find this connection through an invitation to participate in a worship service, or sing in the choir, or having a conversation after worship which leads to new ideas or new ways of thinking about the world. Living among God’s people continues to shape and form our lives in seeking out ways to deepen and enact our faith in the world.

We hear the word of God most often in a worship setting. Each week we listen as the readings and Gospel are read, and then interpreted for our lives by the preacher. We may be most acutely aware of our connection with the divine when we come together in worship, through hearing the scriptures, singing hymns, and praying together for the good of the whole world and our community. We also celebrate the Lord’s supper together as a community during worship. As I mentioned earlier, the sacrament of holy communion is another way we experience God’s grace with our senses – through hearing the Words of Institution, seeing the bread and the wine, touching and tasting it, we are reminded of God’s presence with us. Without this grounding connection, it may become easier for us to forget what our relationship with God really means to us. By worshipping with others we further the bonds of our community and come to understand the ways the scripture can shape our lives. We are fortified with the means of grace offered to us through communing with one another.

We also bring our faith outside of our worshipping community into the fullness of our lives. In proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, both in word and in deed, we demonstrate what it means to be a Christian. We might find this to be a harder facet of discipleship to take on because it requires us to be vulnerable in a larger society which may or may not share our values. It means saying things like, “As a Christian, I believe…” or “Jesus teaches us…” These may not be phrases we’re used to or comfortable with. But proclaiming our faith helps us to elucidate or explain who we are in relationship with God, which then deepens our faith. What does it mean to be a proclaimer of God’s faith in both word and deed for you? How can you share that information with others in a way that will inspire them to understand what your life of faith is like?

Being in service to others, as Jesus was in service to others, naturally evolves out of the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ because our actions in the world stem out of our faith in God. There are times, however, when this call to service creates problems for us. We are called to serve all others as Jesus exemplified for us. This means serving those who we may not agree with, those who we’d rather not acknowledge, those who are outside of our comfort zones. We must remember, though that serving others connects us with the divine through sharing God’s love explained through the gospel and shown in our actions. In service to others, we develop relationships that help strengthen our communities and create opportunities for learning and growing individually and as a community.

Finally, the last form of discipleship mentioned in the affirmation of baptism is to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This may feel like a tall order. What does it mean to strive for justice and peace, and how can we hope to accomplish such lofty goals at a personal or even communal level? A good place to begin is in recognizing the injustices which exist in the world around us and the parts we might play, either directly or indirectly, in perpetuating them. We should also name injustices when we see them occurring and look for ways that we can prevent them from continuing. Injustice can happen at any scale, from local to global, and can affect individual people, whole communities, and even the entire Earth. We hear a lot about injustice in the world today and we may feel helpless in trying to address what seem like unsolvable problems. However, through finding our grounding in God and in our community and faith, we can find the hope that overcomes fear and let it guide us in our care and concern for the world.

Live, hear, proclaim, serve, and strive. These are all parts of our faith, grounded in our baptism, which can guide us forward in living out what it means to be a Christian in the world. In discussing baptism in the Large Catechism, Luther writes “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time…If we want to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christian…” Luther reminds us that living our lives through our baptism cultivates our faith in God and recognizes the important relationship we share with God and the world. In this time after the epiphany, I invite you to share in examining what your baptism means to you and how you can more fully live it out. Ask God to help and guide you through this process. Perhaps you will surprise yourself with an “aha” moment.

–Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

The Hospitality of Strangers

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

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Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12.

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Happy New Year!  We’re six days in.  And apart from anything else going on, today, January 6, 2019, has much significance in the Christian calendar.  In some Christian traditions, it is Old Christmas, a Christmas Day from the Julian calendar that preceded our current Gregorian calendar.  In some traditions, it is Three Kings Day, when gifts are exchanged, either between family and friends, or by the three kings themselves to children, in commemoration of their visit to the baby Jesus.  And here, for us today, it is the Feast of the Epiphany,of the appearance, of the revelation, of the manifestation. Today, it is the manifestation of Christ, and today especially, to the Gentiles. That would be us.

Epiphany this year is a ten-week liturgical season.  The people who created the lectionary cycle have picked scriptures of majesty and drama for today, to start the season off.

Isaiah describes the restoration of Israel.  They are released from captivity in Babylon, and restored to right relationship with God.  They will see and be radiant, their hearts will thrill and rejoice, because they shine like a beacon in the dark with the glory of God.  They are a beacon that draws their own sons and daughters back from far away. The brightness of their light even draws nations and rulers to come to them.  They bring to Israel the abundance of the sea, the wealth of nations, multitudes of camels, gold and frankincense, all to praise the God of Israel and God’s glory that shines upon and through this restored people.

The Psalmist describes the just and righteous ruler who does the work of God for the people, who delivers the needy and the poor and those who have no helper, who saves their lives from oppression and violence.  Because of this, and because this ruler is also human and needs God’s help, the Psalmist calls down blessings on their reign: long life, effectiveness, peace, and the respect, tribute, and service of other rulers and nations as allies.

The author of Ephesians, writing as Paul, describes the revelation that had been given to him and the other apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This is the grace of his commission to the Gentiles, and in this letter, to the church at Ephesus.  His is the shock and understanding of the mystery of Christ, in which the formerly Gentile strangers have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus, through the gospel. It is this gospel of Christ that Paul proclaims to the Ephesians, in accordance with the eternal purposes of God in Christ Jesus, in whom all Christians, including the Ephesians, have access to God in boldness and confidence through their faith in Christ.

Matthew’s Gospel recounts the drama of the three exotic astrologers from the East, who come to Jerusalem to find the King of the Jews because they have seen the rising of his star. This is an unmistakable sign that an important ruler has been born.  Their arrival, at the current King Herod’s court, throws Herod, the court, and the entire city into fear and confusion. Herod consults with his advisors, who tell him that the true King of the Jews, the Messiah, is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then meets secretly with the Eastern strangers, and charges them to find the child and tell him, Herod, where the child is, because he wants to pledge homage to this new king.  So the three strangers follow the star to where the child and his mother are, and with joy they pay him homage and give rich gifts. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they take another way home.

These scriptures are full of pomp and circumstance, majesty and prophecy fulfilled, restoration and mystery and even intrigue, rich and shiny treasure – and let’s not forget those camels. Yet four verses stand out – no prophecy, no pomp, no explication.  Except for the rich and shiny gifts and the moving star, just a simple story: three strangers, a baby, and a mother. “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Three strangers, who after a long journey of faith rejoice in their journey’s end.  They recognize a child for who he is and who he will become. They welcome him with treasure, to recognize his importance to be sure, but also treasure that is easily hidden and carried, easily sold and bartered, for a young family soon to be on the run for their lives from that same Herod, who wanted to know where the child was, and maybe not to pay him homage.  The three wise ones are warned against him, after all – if they were not already suspicious with all the upset and secrecy at his court. So they take another road home to protect Jesus and his mother Mary, in a time and place where roads were hard to come by, and may just as well lead to other dangers as to joy. If their visit to the baby Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence to them as Gentiles, then in these four verses, beyond all the pomp and circumstance and shiny drama, it is strangers who show hospitality to the child, the manifestation of God.  They show the hospitality of recognition, welcome, provision for his needs, and protection.

We ourselves have just come through the holiday season, a time when many of us have either extended or received hospitality of various kinds:  usually welcome, shelter, and food, if not necessarily protection. The word “hospitality” comes from the Latin “hospes”, and means the generous and friendly welcome of guests and the offer of a pleasant or sustaining environment.  The Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, means “host”, “guest” or “stranger” – all three, the distinction depending on the situation.

That is interesting, because there is a great deal of talk in our air now about strangers, people from far away or who are different from us or who we don’t know, and who may be a danger to us just because they are strangers.  And there is a great deal of concern in our air now about whether or not we in our group – ethnicity, community, city, nation, church – should show hospitality to strangers. And if we should, how much and what kind of hospitality it should be.  There is even concern as to if it should be hospitality we show at all, in the sense of our engagement with strangers being one of welcome and friendliness, pleasantness, or sustenance.

So the Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, is interesting because if it means all three – host, guest, and stranger – it also suggests that these roles are interchangeable in the larger practice of hospitality, and that hospitality itself is a function of each role.

We usually assume that a host extends hospitality, and the guest or a stranger receive it.  But the word “hospes” suggests that hosts, guests, and even strangers, not only receive hospitality but also extend it.

If strangers in particular not only receive hospitality but also extend it, that expands the notion of hospitality considerably.

Now I am the last person to suggest that one should not be careful around strangers, and around hosts and guests for that matter.  All kinds of strangers came up and talked to my parents about pleasantries and directions, and my parents themselves talked with all kinds of strangers about pleasantries and directions.  Pleasantries and directions with whoever showed up. This has turned out to be part of my life too, and now apparently is part of our children’s lives as well. And, it has always been very clear through three generations that one does not get into cars or go off willy-nilly with people one does not know, especially if one is alone or if one’s hair at the back of the neck stands up.  Then it doesn’t matter at all if they are not from far away and look just like us. But while not every stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet, a generous, friendly, pleasant, even sustaining welcome, in attitude and perhaps conversation, couldn’t hurt the prospects for friendship, at the very least until we know there are actual grounds for suspicion.

Because it may be that it is the stranger next to us or in our midst that will be the one to extend hospitality to us, instead of the other way around.  Like the three wise men from far away did with the baby Jesus, they may recognize us for who we are as having the image of God within. They may welcome us with respect and may offer us treasures of friendship or knowledge, skill or humor.  They may even be a source of protection or help. The question is, can we recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers?

The writer of Ephesians reminds us that in one sense we already have.  Through our ancestors in the faith we have accepted the hospitality of strangers in the work of Paul.  He certainly started out as a stranger – a person of another faith and a Roman citizen who persecuted the members of the early church.  He then claimed a rather spectacular conversion experience on the Damascus road that made him not only a member of the Jesus movement but also an apostle.  As an apostle, he was sent to share the Gospel of Christ with Gentiles, who also were strangers, and sometime hostile, to the members of the Jesus movement.  And yet, as a stranger to everyone, his generous welcome and gifts for organization supported new Christians and churches in a number of multi-cultural locations in the Roman world.  Without the work of the stranger Paul, and the acceptance of his hospitable invitation by the early church and by subsequent generations, we would not be here this morning, or at least we would not be here in the same way.

We are also reminded, by the story of the three strangers who extended hospitality to the baby Jesus, that strangers often come to us because they are led to us by God.  While to accept the hospitality of strangers may not always entertain angels unaware, it may very well do. And if it is “just” a generous and pleasant experience, that is all to the good too.  Like many of you, I have had a number of instances of my acceptance of the hospitality of strangers in my life – all of them ended well, and in some cases – not always the most pleasant initially – I consider them a direct manifestation of God’s provision for my life.

All hospitality – a generous and friendly welcome and a pleasant and sustaining environment – has something of God in it.  And in some ways, God is a stranger to us too. God is different from us, never completely known, even as God is God-with-us in Jesus.  God sometimes seems far away, as we are separated from God by sin. God even sometimes seems dangerous, in the invitations to change, to accept the strange, to stretch our comfort zones.  And yet, the first Sunday of every month, and Wednesday evenings, and other times too, here at Marsh the table is set with the tasty sweetness of grain and grape. The invitations to transform are extended:  to be nourished; to love God and self and neighbor; to recognize each other as companions with God and with each other in the adventures of our lives; to have the image of God restored in us. The hospitality of God, the generous and loving welcome, the sustenance of God’s empowerment, nourishment and companionship, it never fails, it never ends.  God the stranger becomes the one in whom we live and move and have our being, in ourselves and with each other.

It is when we accept the hospitality of God that we can most recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers.  So on this feast day of Epiphany, of appearance, of revelation, of manifestation, who is the stranger whose hospitality we might accept?  Is it someone here, sharing grain and grape with us in communion? Is it someone at work or in class or on our block? Is it someone from far away, or who is different from us, or who we do not yet know?  Who may be trying to reach out to us in welcome, with gifts?

With this, as we consider the hospitality of strangers, there is also a question that turns it back to us.  Who might we be strangers to, who might be persons to whom, as strangers to them, we might offer a generous and friendly welcome or a pleasant and sustaining environment?  Who may think that we are from a place far removed from theirs, or think we are different from them, or that they do not and cannot know us? Who might accept our hospitality of strangers, as we have accepted the hospitality of strangers ourselves?  Like the baby Jesus and Mary, there are many people in the world, both near and far, who might accept, might even be desperate for, a generous and friendly welcome, recognition for who they really are, a pleasant and sustaining environment, or even protection and help, even from a stranger.  What guidance from God, in a star or a dream or deep compassion or an experience, might guide us to them?

A host is a host, and a guest is a guest, and a stranger is a stranger.  And, depending on the situation, a person might be any of these. And, in any given situation, a host is primarily a host, and a guest is primarily a guest, and a host is a little bit guest and a guest is a little bit host.  But a stranger can be both completely a stranger and a host, or both completely a stranger and a guest. Let us then be glad of the hospitality of strangers, that we can receive it and also provide it, in the great and unending hospitality of God.  Amen.

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation{victoria gaskell}

A Call to Faith

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

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1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Romans 12:9-13

Luke 2:41-52

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

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

What good news this is for educators near and far, and for grandparents and parents and teachers and all who labor and are heavy laden in the educational projects of our time!  As he blessed weddings in Cana and healers in Bethany, so now Jesus, by his presence and practice, blesses those who teach, who prepare the ground for a lifetime, a lifesaving call to faith.

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

E.J. Dionne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 12: 9

Might we hear in this a call to faith this morning?  Following the candles lit and lifted, following the sense of the numinous, the moments, fleeting moments of transcendence at Nativity, might there follow, for one or another, a straightforward call to faith, spoken and heard and heeded?

Here we may rely on our Epistle, speaking of teaching moments.  St. Paul leaves speculative, less practical theology and jarringly tells us how to live, in Romans 12.  He outlines a call to faith.  He describes what a life of faith might look like, for you, and for me.

You might not expect such from the author of the rest of the Epistle to the Romans, the one who traced our condition (our sin) from creation through conscience in Romans 1 and 2. Impractical theology there, though most treasured and precious.  You would not expect such from the Apostle who poured out the great watershed (our salvation) from Christ to Cross in Romans 3-5.  Impractical theology there, though pearls great in price, field hidden.  Nor would you expect the 13 lightning bolts of 12: 9 and following from the elliptical, emotional, tent-making, bachelor, spit-fire—what a friend we have in Paul!—who unveiled Spirit, Holy Spirit, in the freedom and grace, in Romans 6-8,  who wept and conjured and pleaded about his own extended religious family in Romans 9-11.  Impractical theology, there and there, though the high water mark of all his writing, a Spirit interceding for weakness, speaking of love and need.  Imagine your shock.  Not sin, not salvation, not Spirit, not synagogue, come Romans 12: 9.  Rather, some utterly practical, applicable theology.  Say, a Christmastide call to faith, especially for those who may have come by only at Christmas, just this Christmas.

Romans 12: 9ff,  the ‘Pauline 13’ may be your best threshold, liminal line, front door response to the question, ‘Can you help me get going on this?  What does it mean to hear a call to faith?’

What does it mean to hear a call to faith? It means to LET LOVE BE GENUINE.  All these, note well, are plural imperatives, communal commands.   The command in Genesis ‘be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth’ is not an individual demand.  Your family doesn’t need to do so alone, though Samuel and Susanna Wesley certainly did their best.  It is communal.  You all.  All you all.  In fact, given our ‘limitations’ (being kind here), there is no way for us individually to accomplish such commands.  Not all love is genuine.  Not all is from the heart, nor true, nor durable, nor real.  But it is our call, to be lovers in a post-agape world.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hate what is evil.  Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.  In sin, salvation, Spirit, and synagogue he has now confidence that—for our own time, we shall know the place of hatred and the outline of evil.  Implied here:  new occasions teach new duties.  Not all of life is good and clean.  Some is, some is not.  We are free, nay called, to hate evil.  You overhear Amos:  ‘I hate I despise your feasts’ (5:23).

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hold fast to what is good.  Hold fast to what is good! Notice again the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.   Of one odd Scriptural admonition, Krister Stendahl said, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God…for me.’  Time makes ancient good uncouth.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to love one another with mutual affection, brotherly affection, a bond that is fraternal, sororial, militant if not military, visceral and reciprocal.  Real affection is mutual.  Affection wherein one party has all the say and the other does all the work is not affectionate.  It is affectionless, affected, not effective.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to outdo one another in showing honor.  Creative generosity, happy hospitality, courage in counting others better, here is our way.  Forebear one another in love.  Light, salt, sheep:  people need to see you giving honor, taste the spice of your commendation and expect willingness to honor to be shorn, clean cut, readily recognizable.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means not to lag in zeal, to be ardent in spirit, and to serve the Lord.  These three dicta largely place before you the directive to get yourself out of bed, into some clean clothes, over to Marsh Chapel, and be seated in a pew, come Sunday.  A walk in the country or on the beach is good. Turning on the radio is good.  People have so many reasons not to go to church.  Some of them are quite good.  Others range from the pitiful to the hilarious.  Hear a call to faith, and come to worship!  Your sister, here, needs the encouraging support of your zealous presence.  Your brother, here, needs the example of your ardent spirit.  His service is perfect freedom, and this service is one hour.  People become so lackadaisical about worship:  and I am not only speaking of us academics (J).  In a lifetime, you have 4,000 Sundays, 1,000 haircuts, 60 income tax returns.  And 525,600 minutes ayear.  Zeal, spirit, service, Sunday:  prize your time now you have it!

To hear a call to faith, and to heed, is to ride the waves, in community, of shared hope and pain and prayer.  Hope carries us beyond pain through prayer.  Pain drives us hard back onto hope in prayer.  Prayer brings us up, out, forward, and through whether in hope or in pain.  When we have hope, we celebrate, as a community.  When we have pain, we endure, as a community.  Be constant, steady, regular, punctual, reliable, disciplined, in prayer.  This is an old saw, but a true one.  A man on Fifth Avenue asked,  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  The right response:  Practice, practice, practice.

A real call to faith? The Apostle reserves the two toughest communal challenges for last, one about money and one about time.  Time and money, money and time.  On money: You will take one tithing Christian for every 10 of the born again variety.  You will take one tithing Christian who remembers the ministry of the church in her will for every stadium full of political praying Christians.  You want to see less hat and more cattle.  A Christian vision along our southern border, say, will include a recollection of the Monroe Doctrine teaching us to care especially for our hemispheric neighbors, a recollection of the Marshall Plan, and what can be done to the benefit of all to reconstitute fragmented nations and communities, a recollection of the love poem of Emma Lazarus at our front door. Contribute to the needs, not the irresponsibility but the needs, of the holy community, near and far.  Our BU Business School and our BU School of Hospitality serve the same ends:  the nature of community.  Recent deans of both, we are proud to say, have been active here at Marsh Chapel, with exemplary faithfulness.  On time:  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Hospitality is how you spend your time (such an odd but choice phrase in American English).  Hospitality:  the making of the bed of friendship, the cooking of the meal of companionship, the pouring of the bath of empathy, the cleaning of the linens of suffering, the embrace of the journey through life:  welcome home, how was the trip?, let’s see your photographs.  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Practice.  Practice!  You will get better at both with time.


Here is your Christmas call to faith.  If this were a Methodist revival, we would line this out like a hymn for us to sing.  If this were a black church we would call you to response in call and response.  If this were Fenway Park we would start the wave or sing Sweet Caroline.  But this is Marsh Chapel, so we will just ask you, encouraging your memory, to remember together, entering 2019:  Romans 12: 9-13.

Let love be genuine

Hate what is evil

Hold fast to what is good

Love one another with mutual affection

Outdo one another in showing honor

Never lag in zeal

Be ardent in spirit

Serve the Lord

Rejoice in your hope

Be patient in tribulation

Be constant in prayer

Contribute to the needs of the saints

Practice hospitality

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

Simply Christmas

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

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Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Click here to listen to the meditations only


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch.  Children are the landlords for the kingdom of heaven.  Children show the manner of entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Children receive the touch of the kingdom of heaven.  The little place we chose has a long history of children and summer, of burgers and ice cream.  It sits nestled into a long, lovely valley, an actively agricultural valley of corn fields and dairy barns.  We were not quite alone in the small dining room, though that designation itself seems overwrought.  The room   simply provided space for a collection of tables and chairs.  An older woman sat, back to door, enjoying her luncheon hot dog and potatoes.  After lunch, as a reward for eating all of lunch, our granddaughter had an ice cream cone.  I want to try to interrupt all the twittering texting emailing rushing half listening cacophony of our current life with the dripping joy of one two year old an one small vanilla cone.  Our older friend peered over her hot dog and potatoes and with eyes bright pronounced a silent blessing.  Everything about an ice cream cone in the summer brims with what is good.  The cold clean taste.  The texture soft and grainy.  The drip drip of melted cream falling on lips, then chin, then tiny hand, then shirt, then floor.  The dive nose first down in for more.  Sheer happy joy, for the moment,  attends such a child on such a day with such a treat.  Simplicity.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them’

Some of the old, good things about life well before and well beyond college age can bring their refreshment, a powerful refreshment, into communities of twenty year olds.  I notice the way our students respond to children when, occasionally, there are little people on campus.  You can see the minds moving: this once was me; one day I will have children.  An education frees you from the confines of the early twenty first century by immersing you in Plato and Shakespeare and Galileo and the Russian Revolution.  In the same way, just a glimpse of the child and cone free you from the confines of life at twenty.

Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. I notice how much detail my granddaughter sees that I miss.  The dog in the water.  The bird behind the tree branch.  The rabbit peeking out from under the berry bush.  The sound of the water running into the culvert.  Perhaps it is this simplicity of direction observation, dulled over decades that causes us to misstep.

M Atwood:  ‘Children begin saying ‘That’s not fair’ long before they start figuring out money…Debt, who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid, is a subject much larger than money.  It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all our exchanges with our fellow human beings’. (NYT 10/08).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A childlike attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Last month of a Sunday afternoon we gathered for Holy Baptism here in the chancel.  Afterward, one of the guests asked who was in the Rose Window above.  “That is the Lord Jesus Christ”, we replied.  “But he looks like the Buddha” came the response.  With some pique, it could be added.  Well.  There is a simplicity here, shared it may be, between the two.  Our latest grandchild is now being raised by a Methodist father and a Buddhist mother, and will be baptized this winter.  So the question had traction.  Granted so many differences, simply put, there are similarities, as in our time granted so much diversity, there is unity yet.  And we are going to have to learn to share the spiritual care of the globe with some other religious traditions, now and then, are we not?

Like the Buddha, we need to come down from heaven, down from our very worthy, but limiting intelligences.  Like the Buddha, we need to celebrate any birth, with Siddhartha’s birth.  Like the Buddha we need to explore the world outside the palace, to explore other spaces and times.  Like the Buddha we need to find our own forms of Siddhartha’s famous renunciation.  Like the Buddha we can benefit from the simplicity enjoined in any and every ascetic practice.  Like the Buddha, we face the challenge of Mara’s temptations, of life’s temptations.  Like the Buddha, who preached his first sermon, we find our true voice by finding our earlier voice.  Like the Buddha, we seek peace, a kind of nirvana.  Such a simple peace allows us to move, to grow, to change.  “What’s won is done, the joy is in the doing”, wrote Shakespeare.

This is why experience matters.  As D Brooks wrote not long ago:   ‘How is prudence acquired?  Through experience.  The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what has not’.

Our age needs prudence: the capacity to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters.’ (anonymous).

Dr. Jean Twenge, of San Diego, in her new book, iGen, identifies markers of health to aid those struggling with depression and suicide, in *face to face interaction and conversation, in *reading printed material, and in *attending religious services (SKY citation).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

A church service like this one reminds you of your childhood.  Not your youthful past, your childhood.  You are a child of God.  Howard Thurman famously concluded his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, with just this thought.  To allow such kingdom sensibility to live, though, requires all the heavy thought and truth telling we can muster.

J Mang: ‘it is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church.  But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than the longing for unconditional comfort’.  The two cannot finally be disjoined.  Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey).

A GM executive, wrote:  ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’.

D Sorokin:  ‘The 21st century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers.  One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture’. Would you not love to master the simple art of efficacious compassion?

Proust wrote, ‘Beauty.  That beauty of which we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over stimulated by regret’.

Sometimes the simple voice of conscience will rise up and touch us:  ‘I felt like I was betraying myself, like this isn’t really what I like to do, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t the experience I want to be having.’

Simplicity can be paradoxical.  Tillich: ‘God does not exist.  He is being-itself, beyond essence and existence.  Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him’ (ST 1, 205). Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Here is the traveling experience, rendered with simplicity, of a Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish:

                  We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if traveling is the way of the clouds.  We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees.  And we said to our wives:  go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey.  To the hour of a country, to the meter of the impossible.  We travel in the carriages of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies.  We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon.  Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path on your shoulders.  Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee.  We have a country of words.  Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone.  We have a country of words.  Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel. (‘Victims of a Map’).

The Holy Scripture assumes a multi-generational perspective, no more so than in the narratives of Advent and Christmas.  Notice that Luke pictures a conversation in the womb, Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth.  Real change takes a long time, generations of time, when it comes at all.  Do you remember what you were confronted with 30 years ago, exactly a generation ago?  For some of us, almost to the hour, 30 years ago, it was the sudden announcement on a bitter snowy night, to a stunned basketball crowd in the Carrier Dome, that a plane with many of our own neighborhood students, our own Syracuse University students, and students from other regions including Boston, had crashed in Lockerbie Scotland.  The portent of that moment in 1988 eluded us, eluded all, but it was a harbinger of the struggles of the next thirty years, in one limited, little simple horror and tragedy, 182 dead.

‘They have been called upon to face up to mystery, actually the most terrible mystery of all, and facing mystery is something that everyone must do for himself.  In the face of such a disaster one must fall back on faith or find only bitter meaninglessness in the universe.  To my mind this is the greatest challenge faith offers—to believe that the hand of God has not been withdrawn from the world when such things happen’.  (Said of those who lost children in the 1958 Chicago fire, this could be said of us all.)

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child-like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One of my favorite Boston vignettes is set in the public Garden.  EB White liked to take his step-son skating on the Frog Pond, when they visited relatives in Beacon Hill.  Both step Father and Son loved Boston, and its charming garden.  One day they hiked down from their relatives apartment, took off their shoes, stuffed them under a bench, donned their skates and skated until the sun set.  This was in the depths of the depression.  When they returned to the bench, their shoes were gone.  ‘Someone needed them more than we did’ was all White would say.  Then the two hiked up Beacon Hill together.  Still in their skates.  That image of the great writer, enjoying the winter, loving the garden, enthralled with ice, kind to the needy, and hiking up Beacon Hill on the tips of his skates—that image stays with me.

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.

‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb’.

It was a Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, no stranger to Commonwealth Avenue, who wrote the simple lines of our familiar carol:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O Come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

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

The Mark of Being Alive

Sunday, December 16th, 2018

Click here to listen to the entire service

Zephaniah 3:14–20

Philippians 4:4–7

Click here to listen to the meditations only


‘Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive’ (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Where we are, our location, shapes who we are, our recollection.  Spaces, places, sounds, scents, tastes—these directly affect, impact who we are.  Location shapes recollection.

For some weeks, off and on, I had been struggling, without success, to remember a name.  I take it you will know the struggle.  Off and on, and who knows the switches for either or both, I would conjure the memory of a person whom I have not seen in a decade or so.  He was an impressive spirit.  A tall African American gentleman with a rich baritone voice, he would attend worship  here, now and then.  His daughter in those years was an undergraduate at BU and on occasion they would attend together.  He was a world-renowned vocalist, and taught voice here at the University.  For some reason, every so often this fall, he came to mind.  But not his name.  I would reach out in recollection, but fall short, and give up, on to other things.   He, my unnamed friend, was a generous, gracious soul, with his talents, his time, and his treasure.  He had founded a small school elsewhere to support recent immigrants.  What was his name?

Then last week, it happened, I found myself stopping in our College of Fine Arts, to bring a greeting to the new dean there and to drop off some extra post cards as invitations to our Lessons and Carols service.  Almost 1,000 of you attended the services, with tens of thousands more with us by radio and internet.  You may remember the experience of praise, hymnody, choral beauty, prayer.  It is the elementary mark of being alive.  I left the cards and loped down the long stair case.  At the turn, I remembered his name.  I hadn’t been trying to remember, but the name came, unbidden—bidden or unbidden, God is with us.  A rush of gladness captured me, in stairwell descent.  His name: Simon Estes.  The recollection of his name:  due to the location of that day, a return to the building where I had called on him in his office, now and then.  The physical power of the physical location gave me the recollection I did not and could not gain elsewhere.

To collect ourselves, we rely on recollection.  You may return to read St. Augustine on this one day.  Being in a particular space is the difference so often between hearing and not hearing, knowing and not knowing, remembering and not remembering, breathing and not breathing—life and death.

Zephaniah and Isaiah both call us to the recollection of praise, of singing, of prayer, the elementary mark of being alive.  Worship.  But here is the blunt, Advent, John the Baptist word: your recollection depends on your location.  To know the Presence you need to be present.  In church.  Somewhere.  All of the unspoken allusions to God, before whom in prayer, we remember ourselves, are conveyed in saving measure, in location.   Here we sing, preach, and pray in the same space, the same room, the same seats, the same sanctuary as did Howard Thurman.  Right here.  We admire him.  We aspire to learn with him.  We hope to acquire his faith, especially at Christmas, when the song of the angels is stilled.   Yet here is the John the Baptist challenge:

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without prayer

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without song

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without hymns

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meditation

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without candles

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without study

You can’t very close to Howard Thurman without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without gathering

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without community

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meaning

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without belonging

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without preaching

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without praise

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without worship

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION


Our gospel today goes deeper, still, from location on to language.  Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Not one of us can learn a language without labor, without attention and work.  Think of your Latin conjugations and declensions.  Think of your study of the periodic table, of the Kings and Queens of England, of theorems and formulae.  Worship, the elementary mark of being alive, has a language too, which bears practice, bears learning, bears knowing, bears discipline.

Later last week, a friend  and I were talking. For some inexplicable reason, I asked him to remember the theology he studied in the School of Theology.  He named a book from some years ago, by George Lindbeck, titled The Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck was a Yale teacher, and a good writer, too (not that those two are at odds, by the way).  Inspired so I vainly hunted for my own dog eared copy of years ago, hunting in the usual suspect places, four in number, to no avail, and retreating to get a library copy, then sitting in a different posture suddenly spied my own book on the third shelf after all.  Anyway.  Lindbeck produced a couple hundred pages of dense argument, easily summarized in this way.   Faith comes from knowing the grammar of faith, the syntax of faith, the spelling of the nouns and verbs of faith.  Coming to faith is like learning Japanese or Koine Greek.  In worship we learn a new language.  Yes, propositions, doctrine and dogma are present and important (Lindbeck complements the conservatives).  Yes, experience and expression are important (Lindbeck complements the liberals).  But the real nature of doctrine is embedded in the life long struggle to learn your real mother tongue, the language of praise, prayer, worship—the language of faith.  To do so, you have to speak it, to sing it, to utter it, to name it, to lift it.  Or, you won’t know it or have it.  So Lindbeck:

Just as an individual becomes human by learning a language, so he or she begins to become a new creature through hearing and interiorizing the language that speaks of Christ. (62) The grammar of religion, like that of language, cannot be explicated or learned by analysis of experience, but only by practice. (129).

 Language, the language of faith, is crucial.  We might though argue to Lindbeck as well, that his own emphasis benefits too from the others.  Learning a language is meant to prepare one to speak truth, and truth may come in proposition and especially in experience, and that truth may well require changes in inherited language, grammar, syntax and spelling.

Our Gospel prepares us for Jesus, to know Jesus, by knowing his people and his predecessor.  Luke has greatly expanded on what Mark earlier taught about John the Baptist.  Here the Baptist lines out the language of faith.  Be it readily remembered that real religion is never very far from justice (repeat).  What says John?  Turn your neighborly attention to equity, your legal tax work to fairness, your regimental armor to protection.  All of these lines are about justice, economic justice.  The Baptist could have been more economical himself, talking to neighbor and tax collector and soldier, simply by saying this:  tithe.   Such a John the Baptist word.  If everyone tithed we would need no charities, no taxes and no armies.   The language of faith would be the grammar, syntax and spelling of the common hope.  It is the language the world most needs and that which Jesus teaches, from alphabet to sonnet.

So here is the challenge, the very Advent, very John the Baptist, very timely challenge:

You can’t get very close to Jesus without prayer

You can’t get very close to Jesus without song

You can’t get very close to Jesus without hymns

You can’t get very close to Jesus without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meditation

You can’t get very close to Jesus without candles

You can’t get very close to Jesus without study

You can’t very close to Jesus without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Jesus without gathering

You can’t get very close to Jesus without community

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meaning

You can’t get very close to Jesus without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Jesus without preaching

You can’t get very close to Jesus without praise

You can’t get very close to Jesus without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Jesus without worship

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION


 Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

The gospel takes us deeper still, down from language and location into listening.  Right now, you may not be drawn to Howard Thurman.  Right now, you may not even be drawn to Jesus.  But you have no choice about knowing yourself.  And the sermon, we pray with care and omitting any surgical mistakes, cuts to the bone, to the heart, to the marrow.  Worship is about being alive—the elementary mark thereof—in the face of our death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.    And if you read the Bible, and if you worship in the church, if nothing else then the utter god-forsakenness, the deathliness of death is unmistakable.

Just a few days ago I was sitting in the beautiful relatively new atrium of our Business School (no longer Management, but Business, by the way).  I was waiting there, reading a newspaper.  After a while a young man put down his various devices, eyed my name tag, and sat down next to me.  We began to talk.  Conversation is a grace.  It is a grace.  Prize your conversation now you have it.  After a while—his name too was Robert—he admitted why he had sidled up to me: ‘I never see anyone reading a newspaper.  What is it like?  Why do you do that?’  Well, I gave the usual reasons: ‘I like the fuller length of the articles, I like to be surprised by turning a page onto something unexpected rather than cyber-guided.  I like the texture of the pages in hand.’  It was not a debate or a matter of convincing.  He was happily curious.  And I was glad to be a curiosity.  I invited him to Lessons and Carols.  Here he might find a pastoral guide to listen to him.  Here he might find a friend in the pew to listen to him.  Here he might find a kindred spirit to listen to him, someone who could befriend him even better than the newspaper covered dean who listened to him that day.

When Paul acclaims, so beautifully, “Rejoice….” he has taken us beyond location and language, into a deep listening, a listening of and for the soul.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It is a question whether in the end there is any real rejoicing that is not always and utterly ‘in the Lord’.  But what makes a lifetime of difference is whether there is someone there to listen when you sing, when you pray, when you worship.  To listen your soul into life.  In worship, you put yourself in earshot of relationship, in earshot of acquaintance, in earshot of friendship.  Yet here is the challenge:

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without prayer

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without song

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without hymns

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without spirituals

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meditation

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without candles

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without study

You can’t very close to YOURSELF without Scripture

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without gathering

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without community

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meaning

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus YOURSELF empowerment

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without preaching

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without praise

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without Psalms

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without worship

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will need to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.  So the Baptist preaches, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

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

Lessons & Carols

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols. Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below:

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Communion Meditation, Advent 1

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

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Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

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We welcome you into this season of preparation, Advent 2018.  What a rich array of worship, fellowship and service opportunities you have given to the community, here at Marsh Chapel, December 2018.  Thank you for all you do in music, hospitality, global outreach, and ministry! Bring a friend with you to worship sometime this month! This newsletter carries information about services and events.

Of particular note, Jan and I welcome you again to our annual Christmas Open House.  Please stop by and join us following Lessons and Carols in worship December 9, 2018. The Open House is held in the newly renovated ‘Castle’ a block from the Chapel, 225 Bay State Road, 12:00—2:00pm.

As the Christian year begins and the secular yearly calendar ends, I give great thanks for your ongoing generosity.  Over these years you have greatly enhanced our annual giving and support. Particularly our Ministry and Music Endowment, our Friends of Music initiative, our new Ministry grants, and especially your general, undesignated weekly giving have built this growth.  The pursuit of our mission, to be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city, with emphasis on voice, vocation, and volume, depends upon your ongoing generosity. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

In addition, sometimes people ask, come year end, is there anything in particular, or in addition to all of these possibilities, that you would encourage us to consider for giving in December.  And the answer is ‘yes’. I encourage you to consider support of whatever size and substance for the Endowment of the Deanship of Marsh Chapel (link here). I recognize that the $4.2M goal of this dream is lofty.  But for the long term future, for the future of all that we are currently doing, and will yet do, there is nothing more important. It may be that one person, a member or a listener or a friend or a colleague, will make a single gift of this endowment, or a planned gift for this endowment, in one fell swoop.  But there are other ways for us to get there, if my 5th grade arithmetic is still accurate:  4 gifts of $1M, 40 gifts of $100,000, 400 gifts of $10,000, or 4,000 gifts of $1,000.  Life is full of possibilities!

Daily Devotions

You will want to continue, as we enter the season of Advent and the transition into a new liturgical year, with regular daily devotions.  May they be Scriptural, as in Exodus 20 (the decalogue is here recited). May they be Creedal, as in the Apostles’ Creed (here recited). May they be Blessed, as in the Beatitudes (here recited).  May they be practical, as in the Pauline Thirteen (here recited). When we transition into a new beginning, we rely heavily on grace.

Once we had a guest minister who could not remember the Lord’s prayer.  He finally asked the congregation, ‘Folks, could you please help get me started?’  He did fine once he got started. Sometimes we need just a little help to begin, to get started.

How do you begin to live as a person of faith?  You come to ordered worship, Come Sunday. You read the Bible, in church and at home.  You pray, over meals and at the beginning of the day. You keep faith in work, in life, in marriage, in partnership, in thought and speech and deed.  You keep faith. You receive the Sacrament. You bow in silence. You give yourself in service to others. You discipline your use of time and money. You make a decision to tithe, to give away a certain percentage of your income each year.  You live rejoicing. You face down anxiety. You begin by making a beginning.

How do you begin to live as a person of faith?  You read NT Wright’s book, Simply Christian.  You read CS Lewis older, similar volume, Mere Christianity.  You read a collection of Marsh sermons, from Howard Thurman or Robert Cummings Neville, or the current dean.  You read a chapter a day, for two weeks, of the Gospel of Mark, which will get you right through the earliest Gospel.  And you come to church, to the hear the Holy Scripture read and rendered.

It helps to remember some things by heart.  At 18 Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the first student to integrate the University of Georgia.  She was taunted, threatened, stalked, and frightened. She went into her room, locked the door against the night, pulled the blinds, and decided not to go home.  She recited through the night the 23 Psalm. It helps to remember some things by heart

Scriptures of Transition and Beginnings

Today, Jeremiah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Luke all address us this morning in the matter of transitions, of beginnings.  That is the thing about faith. It takes a leap. So we speak of the ‘leap of faith’. Faith takes a leap.

For Jeremiah, that leap in transition toward a new beginning relies on the promise of God.  This is true of the entire Old Testament. God is the God of promise, the God of future, the God faith, the God of hope.  They are the promises of God that sustain the starts and changes and transitions and beginnings for the journey, for the itineracy, for the traveling people of faith.  Faith is a continuous exodus from established positions. Ask Abraham, or Deborah, or Miriam, or Moses, or Joshua, or Samuel, or Saul, or David, or any one of the sixteen prophets, including today Jeremiah.  He preached four decades worth of unheeded sermons and was buried in an unmarked grave, sixth centuries before the turn of the ages. Yet he could still lift a prophetic promise, in the name of God:  Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell secure…a branch will spring forth from David…The Lord is our righteousness.  We inherit and depend upon the wayfaring experience of Israel, upon the God who keeps God’s promises.  Jeremiah helps us to begin.

For David, or for whoever wrote our Psalm this morning, our start in faith, our beginning in faith begins with the prayer to know thy ways…teach me thy paths…lead me in thy truth.  There is a prayer of confession, more true as one ages, but true in all ages, remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions, according to thy steadfast love remember me.  The paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness. There is some work involved here, on our part, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.  Faith and the life of faith, like anything else, benefit from some actual attention, labor, work, discipline.  The Psalmist helps us to begin.

For Paul, the beginning of his collection of letters, his epistolary fame, is on display this morning.  I Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament, from the year 50. In that way it is the beginning of the Gospel, and fit especially for the first Sunday of Advent.  The whole of the letter is a celebration and an anticipation of the Coming of the Lord. Every chapter, five in all, contains this theme, the Coming of the Lord, including with emphasis our reading from chapter 3 today.  Our beginnings are enmeshed in His Advent. May…our Lord Jesus Christ direct our way…so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints. Thanksgiving, joy, faith, love—at the beginning of the faith of Christ, we find exuberant encouragement.  Paul helps us to begin.

For Luke (now you note we have turned from Mark to Luke, from 2018 to 2019) the traditional expectation of an apocalyptic end time, the beginning of end if you will, is here recorded.  Luke moves from eschatology to ethics, though, as our reading shows. Watch at all times…have strength…to stand before the Son of Man.  The prophecy here rendered, the prediction given, as it happened, did not occur, did not occur:  this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.   Yet Luke’s Gospel teaching, inaccurate in terms of time, is nonetheless timeless in terms of accuracy.  You begin by abstaining from evil. You begin by turning away from what brings harm, to yourself or others.  You begin by putting distance between yourself and drunkenness and dissipation. Frances Willard in our back window would have agreed.  Be prepared, at all times, in all places, in all ways, in all ages, be prepared. Begin by being prepared. Luke helps us to begin.

You know, faith takes a leap, a leap of faith.  And faith leads into a land of kindness and gentleness.   This weekend as a nation we remember our 41 President. We remember his ability to leap out of airplanes, past the age of 90.  And we remember his hope, stated in the 1989 inaugural, for a ‘kinder, gentler’ nation, country, land, people.

Celie Johnson

“I received an email that would change everything for me. Wheelock College as I knew it was going to close effective June 1, 2018, and that Wheelock would be merging with Boston University. As expected, I had a minor meltdown and LOTS of questions spinning in my head. I told my mom, essentially, ‘I did not sign up for this, I am not going to Boston University!’ I really considered transferring to Emmanuel College, which I had gotten into along with Wheelock. My mom eventually talked me out of it, even though I was hesitant still.

Sophomore year flew by, and it got to the point where there was a lot of tension at Wheelock because people wanted answers. This was another transition because I had to transition into getting ready to essentially start my college career all over again. I finished Sophomore year and went home determined to spend the summer preparing myself for the transition and the new school year.

I returned to Boston ready for the challenge of a bigger school, more people, and tougher classes. I was also determined to get involved in some way at BU. However, the most important thing for me was to find a church and a church family. Soon, I found my church and church family at Marsh Chapel, got the internship of my dreams, and rushed Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed fraternity focused on community service. Even though I knew that the transition would not be easy, I knew that the transition would be part of life, just as my mom told me growing up.

‘Transitions themselves are not the issue, but how well you respond to their challenges!’

This quote has been one of our family sayings for years. Our lives prepare us for the transitions the future brings. Sometimes when we’re going through the hardest transitions in our lives, such as when I had to let go of Wheelock and become part of a new community and part of something bigger than myself. I’ve always been told that how well you respond to change and transition says a lot, and I truly believe that’s the truth. However, I believe that my faith has really played a role just as much in how I handle transitions and change. I have my God to thank for how well this experience has gone so far for me, and I would be where I am without my faith. I believe that before the semester, and I believe that now.”

You are invited!  Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of  your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, come, draw near in faith, and take this sacrament to your comfort.  Especially those who intend to start out, to begin, to make a transition into a new life!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Bear Witness to the Truth

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

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Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

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When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities? When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?  Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.   The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Flashing Lights

From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018 we had only two days of real rain.  From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018, we also had only two days without grandchildren, of some number and assortment and age, with us.  They were not the two same days.  On the evening of August 4 we set out with our dear friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  An experience of warning soon ensued.  Now and then, the Gospel itself comes in a word of warning.

In 1959 our family moved to the little college town of Hamilton, NY, where we attended seven years of grammar school, where and when grammar was taught in grammar schools. The evening of August 4 we drove over Hamilton Hill, where our scout troop once hiked.  We passed Andy McGonnis’s Farm, he who in the sixth grade starred with me in a two voice drama, ‘Brainy and Brawny’, about a strong good person and a smart bad person.  The better title might have been Brawny and Scrawny.  Andy is still farming his family land fifty years later, down the road from where my friend Bill lived as a Colgate senior.  By the way, if you happen to enter the town from the north west, as we did that night, be sure to slow down after Andy’s barn, to the legal 30 MPH limit, even though the road seems a 55 MPH roadway.  Otherwise you will contribute unwillingly, ticketed for speeding, to the township budget, funded in part by this particular passage. We moved from Hamilton in 1966 but I have been there through the summers for part of every year since.  Or, I have been there ever since.

That night the twilight gleamed and we were celebrating.  I noted Andy’s farm and with body memory slowed to 30 MPH.  Our friends who have eleven grandchildren to our mere seven, were also, for the moment, grandchildless on the lake, and ready to party.  Coming down Hamilton Hill I remembered my fortieth birthday, on the evening of which I had driven down the hill to hear my old teacher Cornel West hold 1,000 Colgate students mesmerized as he spoke without notes, but with wise passion, for 90 minutes.  After the entry to town, from this odd angle, there is a crossing onto the main street that involves a tangled intersection with one yield and one stop sign within 20 feet of each other.  I navigated the intersection and headed into town when—you will recognize in viscera the moment—red lights swirled behind me atop a local police SUV.  We pulled over.  A portly policeman about my age came to us, and you can write the next lines yourselves. ‘May I see your license and registration please’.  ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ (Here, for the young, I simply note that one never says anything like yes to that query.  Your answer is ‘I truly have no idea occifer’)  “No I don’t.”  “You went right through the stop sign back there”.  (Again, for the young, I note, the response here is no response). ‘Are you aware of that’.  “Well, no, actually, I did not recognize that”. “Well, you did.”

Now.  I assume that he was right and I came to a rolling but not full stop at the aforementioned intersection.  Whether I did or not does not matter.  It is his view that matters.  A long pause ensued, during which he surveyed the audience, the driver, an aging white guy with a comb-over, as my son likes to describe me, and three other Caucasian passengers with white hair.   For once, I was delighted to be an aging white guy with a comb-over.  While the portly policeman pondered his next move, I fleetingly wondered what would have happened if I had been 28 years old, black, and with dread locks; or alone, female, and 25; or Hispanic, speaking limited English, with crying children in the back seat; or Japanese, with a newborn, and not fully sure of the ways of our people (like my daughter in law, a native of Kyoto, who had flown back to San Diego that afternoon).  Yes, this was one good time to be older, white, balding and accompanied by similar cue tips fore and aft.  “Well” said the officer “you did slow down coming into town, that was good;  but that intersection does have a yield and a stop sign; you blew through the stop. I am going to give you a warning.  Learn from it.  Have a nice evening going out to dinner.  But remember you have passengers with you and we have a town here that we want to keep safe.”With that he returned my license and registration and shook my hand. 

Hostile Environment

I come back to the warning in a minute.  As a 12 year old I left my hometown of Hamilton in 1966.  By 1986 Jan and I were in ministry with a struggling urban regional church in Syracuse, an hour north and west of Hamilton.  The church was growing, thanks to excellent lay leadership and willingness to engage the neighborhood with a new day care center, a renewed nursery school, two new scout troops, a new dance school, a new senior citizens’ program, a new student ministry, a new writers’ project, and an added second Sunday service.  People tolerated the preacher, largely because they liked his family.  One new couple, Pam and Josiah Young, a thirty year old African American couple, joined us perhaps in part because our congregation, like that at Marsh Chapel today, had become solidly racially integrated, say thirty percent people of color with 200 in worship on Sunday.  One night we had Pam and Josiah to dinner.  They later left our church, with some struggle and misgiving, because our bishop planted a black congregation in the same part of the city, and they felt that had to support him in that.  But for some years they helped lead the church, were tithing and faithful in worship, and were good happy people to have around.  She was a partner in a law firm downtown, and he taught, at, of all places, Colgate, in my hometown, in the Religion department.  Over dinner we listened to music Jan had chosen and Josiah appreciated.  We got better acquainted.  At one point, I expostulated on the bucolic joys of Hamilton where I learned to skate and play hockey, where I fished in the swan pond at will, where we stole freshman beanies off the heads of newcomers, where I pitched for the little league team, where I became a tender foot scout and camped in the woods in February, where Andy McGonnis and I became friends, and where we were enthralled by the Colgate funded fire works every year on July 4th.  Pam and Josiah listened graciously.  After the lengthy peroration, I asked: ‘Josiah, how do you like teaching at Colgate and being in Hamilton part of each week?’.  I will never forget his reply.  It was a warning.  “It is a hostile environment” he replied.   Of course, he did so with grace, and acknowledged my own experience, and was endlessly careful not unnecessarily to offend.  But he was honest, not just kind, but kind and honest. For a thirty year old black man with a beard and horn rimmed glasses, Hamilton coud be pretty hostile territory.  I knew that, sort of, but I knew it well when he said so.

As our portly officer retreated, Josiah came to mind.  What would have happened had he been the driver, not me?  Maybe the outcome would have been the same.   I know the policeman would have fully noticed my own Massachusetts license plate, and on a weekend when the Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight games at Fenway, things Boston were not popular there in the heart of New York.  But the officer forgave the Boston license, even though a ticket for an out of towner is low hanging fruit.  Maybe he would have been equally gracious with Josiah.   However, only 20 miles north from Hamilton, some years ago, our son, then with shoulder length hair and tank top, was pulled over before the policeman saw my wife, sitting next to her son (she had been slumped in the seat sleeping).  Surprised, the officer made some comment and moved on.  He had wanted to ticket a hippie, perhaps, but then mom reared her head.  He moved on. 

Words of Warning for You and Me

On August 4, I was given a needed, just and kindly warning.  Be careful when you go through that intersection again.  I took it to heart.  We had a fine summer dinner, and I drove home later at four miles an hour. Warnings matter, in the little and in the large.  They are gifts, often kindly shared, like the portly officer’s warning gift to me, like Josiah’s warning gift to me.  Be careful, says such a gift.  Stop when the sign says stop.  Stop. Look.  Look around you at what another person in the same little town, but with different aspect, might experience.  Look.  Listen. Listen for what the warnings may mean. Warnings are good things.

Jonathan Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.  How well can we honestly ever ‘see ourselves as others see us’?  All of us can learn from Haidt, to some measure.  He is warning us, like the portly officer warned me, and like the Colgate professor warned me, and now, like this sermon, we hope with love and humility, is trying to warn you.

There are at least two words of warning available to us, with the lights of John 18: 33 flashing, for a moment, this morning.  They are both for us all.  One though may be a bit more for those of us on the right, and the other a bit more for those of us on the left.  And as the Apostle would put it, ‘on this I have no word of the Lord but I give my own view’ (parallel, 1 Cor. 7: 12, 25).

For those more on the right:  You may be a 48-year-old mother living in southern New Hampshire, or a 60 year old plumber living in northern Connecticut.  A couple of years ago, and again a couple of weeks ago, driving into town, and passing Andy McGonnis’s farm, you slowed down to do your civic duty, and to enter the election season.  You obeyed the speed limit, you thought about your choice, and you acted, you chose, you, say, voted.  You came to a confusing intersection, and maybe, just maybe, you let a rolling stop substitute for a full stop.  Maybe what you thought you meant, was, you see in hindsight, not what it means.  For what it means is what it does, to others. So you see in the rear view mirror, you see in conversation with a portly officer dressed in a Sunday sermon,  a country thrust into a time of humiliation, mendacity, racial divides, diminution of women, fear of immigrants, neglect of the environment, support for the wealthy and disregard for the poor, a time of Charlottesville, Helsinki and children taken from their mothers’ arms.    So now, up comes a sermon, in uniform, and asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation’?  Well, we all have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.   Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

For those more on the left:  You may be a 50 year old college professor living in the Boston suburbs, or a 22 year old musician making ends meet in the east end.  It may be, this morning, there is warning in the morning for you:  slow down.  Slow down.  The laws are meant for us all.  We are a country of ‘laws and not of men’, as my college classmate Kiki Kliendienst’s dad, Richard Kleindienst, said in the spring of 1975, just before he went off to prison, one of the last convicted in the Watergate affair.  The laws, including traffic laws, the laws, including stop signs and yield signs, the laws, from sea to shining sea and from border to border, are for all of us.  You will not turn a 330 million person ship around in one fell swoop.  It will take a decade, or more, and that is if you really work at it.  And it will take a just regard for just law, liberty and justice for all.  So there are not short cuts, and up comes a sermon in uniform, and he asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ Well, we all make mistakes, and have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.  Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

 When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities?  When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God? Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.  The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”


–The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean 



The Bach Experience

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

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Mark 13: 1-8

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

The passage today from St Mark is sometimes called the ‘Little Apocalypse’. The reading is another place in the Gospel where and when we overhear the troubles of Mark’s community. They face persecution. In facing trouble, they wonder whether the end of time has come.

The Gospel writer records the Lord’s response that ‘the end is not yet’. The rest of this long chapter, which will include some apocalyptic language and imagery from the first century, continues to make the same point. The end is not here. There may be trouble, trauma, and persecution, but the end is not quite yet here. In end, at the end of Mark 13, we will be counseled that no one can see the future, and that we should therefore be watchful.

Herein, Mark 13, we are reminded of what we have heard from Mark through the past year, now brought to a sort of conclusion.  Jesus ‘expected the end of all things imminently, or at least within a generation of his own lifetime’ (J Marcus, 864).   Oddly, this chapter begins with a traditional listing of signs that will precede such an end.  Yet when we come to the end of Mark 13, the end of the end of the end of things, as it were, the opposite view is presented, that the end, like most if not all endings, will come without warning, suddenly, unexpectedly, and so on.  Further, the ongoing fear or pain of persecution in Mark’s community bubbles up in this chapter, beginning to end.  ‘Cognitive dissonance’, in our beloved Peter Berger’s phrase, oozes out of every nook and cranny.  As do the references to Daniel– take ‘Son of Man’ to stand for many.  Mark knew his Hebrew Scripture, or so it appears.  He also appears to have had some preaching competitors, whom he is quoting to discredit; when you hear of…That said, Mark is using standard eschatological language and imagery, right out of central apocalyptic casting, traditional, customary in his time, if utterly baffling and odd in ours.

At home, listening, ready it may be for the beauty today of the Bach, you may wonder what on earth or under the earth any of this matters, and fair enough.  Yet it mattered to the early Christians, big league.  It mattered to them that there was meaning in and beyond their suffering.  It mattered that the momentous changes of their time—religion destroyed in the fall of the temple, say—were endurable and surmountable.  It mattered that the good news of God’s love, in the end, by gospel teaching, prevails, over against all manner of other endings.  These things matter to us as well.  Further, Mark, as Paul, is unafraid to metaphorize using birth pangs, labor pain, to convey both the reality of hurt and the joy of impending new life.  These men wrote of what they did not know, but, truly, they told the truth.

Taken as whole, the New Testament books, while shot through with apocalyptic language and imagery, like that found in here Mark 13, expectations of the end of time current at the time the books were written, these books bring their own slant, their own perspective to inherited apocalyptic thought. Some adopt that thought. Some discard it. The Gospel of Mark adopts it. The Gospel of John discards it.

In its place, in the main, the New Testament books proclaim a way of living in thanksgiving, a way of living in love. In our day, and in our particular part of history, including these past several months with their own troubles and their own trauma, we may want to take a clear reminder with us of thanksgiving, of love. ‘Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’.

That is, in much of this, the Gospel lesson is not that different from the reading from Hebrews, where we are similarly encouraged to be gentle, thankful, loving, and watchful. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”. A remarkable, beautiful admonition.

In the end, coming to the end, when all is said and done: Plan for the worst.  Hope for the best.  Then do your most.  And leave all the rest.

Live with thanksgiving as the harvest draws near.  Harvest with love as thanksgiving draws near.  Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice, and give thanks for others, for people, for a bounty of people, for a thanksgiving of soulful people, as our friend Max Coots wrote:

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

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

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

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all these we give thanks.”

(Max Coots)

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.  Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen this morning to this morning’s wonderful cantata?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Thank you, Dean Hill. This morning’s cantata is a musical reflection on verse from the 19th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem with waves of palm branches and loud Hosannas, but already he observes the reaction of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and prophesies God’s anger that they have not recognized God’s grace. His despair boils over to anger in the following verse when he overturns the vendors tables in the Temple. Bach and his librettist have created in Cantata 46 a masterpiece in miniature that connects the modern day congregant to the people of Jerusalem who did not recognize the grace of God. We are reminded that our own sin gets in the way of our ability to love and accept God’s grace. As a consolation, we are reminding in the alto aria that even as Jesus punishes, he watches over his faithful as sheep and little chicks.

The cantata opens with a verse from Lamentations: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow, like unto my sorry; for the Lord hath afflicted me with great misery in the day of his wrath.” These verses depict Jesus’s anguish and prophesy of judgement from the Luke text. This opening movement is structured neatly in two halves: a low lament with weeping triads for the singers, followed by a gnarled fugue that depicts both our misery and God’s wrath. Bach thought so highly of this music that he used it to fashion the Qui Tollis of the B Minor Mass compiled a decade later.

The two arias that form the corpus of the cantata are for bass and alto, respectively, and both draw on images from nature to state their case. In the first aria, heralded by a trumpet, the bass sings of the brewing storm clouds that are the harbinger of God’s judgement. Listen for the lighting breaking through the clouds both in the marvelous melisma for the bass but also the virtuosic scales darting around the orchestra.

For the reminder of Jesus’s protection of the faithful, the threat of bad weather is momentarily quelled. Silent are the strings of the orchestra; silent too is the continuo group. Taking over a lonely walking bass of a continuo line are two oboes da caccia playing in unison, as two gentle recorders  ruminate on the theme. At the end of the end, Bach takes one more opportunity to remind us of gathering storms when we are reminded that when storms reward sinners, Jesus helps the faithful to dwell securely.

The final chorale reminds us of the language from the opening movement, but here it is Jesus’s passion that calms the storm.

This presentation of Cantata 46 concludes Marsh Chapel’s survey of cantatas written in the summer of 1723, weeks marked by astonishing displays of Bach’s theological and musical wonders. What a gift they must have been to Leipzig congregants as they are us to us today.   

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

         To conclude our sermon today, as is our tradition at Marsh Chapel in this season, we offer Howard Thurman’s magnificent Thanksgiving prayer.  We offer his prayer in devotion to God, in the moment.  We offer his prayer in gratitude to you, especially you who may be looking for a prayer for Thursday at dinner time:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

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


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

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

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

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


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

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

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

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


I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

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

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

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

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

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

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

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

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

Could inspire and God could command.

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


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

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

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

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

To reach for the highest;


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

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

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.


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

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

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

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

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

Hold Fast To What Is Good

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

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Romans 12: 9

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            Hold fast to what is good! (Romans 12: 9)

This is a verse we remember and revere.  To return to it, to a beloved, familiar passage evokes, most evoke, some sense of humility rooted in praise, some sense of understanding rooted in wonder, some sense of life rooted in an awareness of death, some sense of love rooted in need, some sense of longing rooted amid all the daily ennui, acedia, and loneliness of life.  Come Sunday, for all the guns fired mid-week and all the fires burning weekday and weekend, we reach up and reach out to hold onto the good.   So, come Sunday, we return to a familiar verse in a familiar space, a space like this one, Marsh Chapel, laden with the recollections of the good.  We listen for a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.


Four Chaplains 

            This November 11, 2018, one hundred years since the end of the first World War, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, ‘the war to end all wars’, we notice again that in our balcony here at Marsh Chapel you can find a stained glass window which remembers four veterans, chaplains in the Second World War.   On this Sunday Veteran’s Day, we remember them. As Daniel Marsh reminded us:   In the early days of WW II, the SS Dorchester laden to capacity with soldiers was struck by a torpedo.  On board were four chaplains. They were of different denominations and traditions, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.  Their ship was hit and began to sink.  In prayer, the four determined to take off their life jackets, and to give those four jackets to four young men who had none.  It is a bracing, warning sign and story for us.  Life is unpredictable.  You never quite know what may emerge.  Granted that most of us are not and will not be in the crisis faced by those four chaplains, nonetheless their courage, their courage unto death, their courage as veterans and as ministers, humbles us and inspires us too:  George L. Fox, a Methodist preacher; Clark Vandersall Poling, a Dutch Reformed preacher; John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi.  Fox was a graduate of Boston University. They were on deck together, praying, when the stricken ship made her final plunge. (D. Marsh, The Charm of the Chapel, 136).

            We are drawn again to recall such sacrifice, in a week when a Southern California policeman, Officer Ron Helus, with a wife and family and year from retirement, lost his life responding to rapacious, outrageous, needless, senseless gun violence.  If all 49 other states had the gun laws of our Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we would be in much better shape as a country.  It is tempting to let dismay and discouragement overwhelm. Yet we will want to bear in mind that, over time, matters in public health can change, and do, and, may it be so, regarding guns, over time, will.   Fifty years ago 40% of American adults smoked cigarettes.  Today that percentage is 14%.  Real change is real hard but it comes in real time when real people really work at it. Giving up is not an option.

            Hold fast to what is good!


Inner Strength

            This calendar year, in all our preaching, summer and fall, on hope, and looking back 50 years, we honored the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in January with Dr. Walter Fluker, on April with Rev. Cornell William Brooks and Governor Deval Patrick, in September with Dean Lawrence Carter.

            Yet we also in the spring term honored and remembered the birth of our own Inner Strength Gospel Choir, 45 years ago.  We gathered on the morning of April 28, to learn, to listen to speeches and memories, and then to hear the Inner Strength Gospel Choir sing, under the adroit leadership of Director Herbert S. Jones.  It was a profound moment, impressive in its recollection that the choir came together to hold fast to what is good, to provide mutual support in a time and in an environment that could be fully hostile. We are pleased and proud to have the Inner Strength Gospel choir singing with us today.  Through the year we are proud to have the choir representing Marsh Chapel and the University in various guest appearances and travels.  On April 28 we were captivated and enthralled to hear the choir sing, as their concluding anthem, ‘O Happy Day’.

            How do we find inner strength?  In the face of sin and death and the threats of meaninglessness, we do so in mutual support, in the joy of song, and  by holding on to the good.

            Hold fast to what is good!


Mark 12: 38-44 

            Our exemplars from Scripture this morning are heroines of the Bible, both women.  Ruth’s complex, multi-valent story, a series of sermons in itself, which as you remember began last week with the courage to leave the familiar, continues today in her grasp of security for the future. Naomi reminds her, and she reminds us that we need not fear to state our needs.  Say what you need, name what you need, so that, as Naomi says, it may be well with you.  Then in our Gospel, the famous widow of Mark 12 makes her appearance, as she does every third autumn, in our lectionary round of readings.  The ordinary perception of her, as a pillar of generous giving, which she is, misses the admonishment of those of us of means.  There is a poignant recollection here, in the comparison of one who gives much, we might read too much (everything she had, all she had to live on), in contrast to those who give little, we might read too little (out of their abundance).

            The widow’s voice is an alto, second level, voice.  Not that of Jesus—not soprano.  Not written only by Mark—not tenor.  Not absorbed in the history of interpretation—not bass (oddly, of all the early Christian writers, only one fully cites this passage—Commodianus, ANF IV, 221)

            She may have been included just here, simply by connection with the earlier teaching about disregard for widows.  These admonitions are like others from the gospels: woes for the cities of Galilee, woes for the rich, criticisms of the current generation, threats to this generation, threats to Jerusalem, woes to the daughters of Jerusalem, woes to those who say ‘lord, lord’, rejection of false disciples, warnings about the parousia, and others (RB, HST, 49). 

            The widow came to life in the experience of the early church—a true alto. This narrative probably originated in a sermon.  A sermon meant perhaps ‘to present the Master as a living contemporary, and to comfort and admonish the Church in her hope’ (RB, HST, 60)

            Later, Matthew has deleted the story of the widow–it is unclear why–while Luke keeps her, in keeping with his own emphases on generosity (think of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son).  Mark apparently puts her in, just here, because of the use of the word ‘widow’ in the sentence before.  Make no mistake about it: “at the sight of religion frozen into ritualism, at the sight of superficiality and love of self and the world—this message becomes a cry of woe and repentance”. (IBD, Mark, loc.cit)

            Hold fast to what is good!


Veteran Widows 

            In the widow’s more ordinary conscription to exemplify giving with generosity, one finds a harbinger of goodness waiting to be discovered again by another generation of women and men who will enter the ministry. There they will find her, salt and light, out in the life of ministry, endless in its labors but also precious in its gifts.  Her story in the Bible would not mean very much alone, if we had not also known her, in experience, in our own life and ministry. I call her out in her modern incarnations, this giving, generous widow.

            Here is Bernice Danks, whose husband ran the Cornell Veterinary School, she an Ithaca Nurse, later widow, and a teacher of nurses, whose favorite word was the word ‘routine’:  ‘I tell my students to protect what is routine.  We call the most important things the routine things because the most important things are the routine’.   Singing with joy in the choir, attending countless, endless meetings with a good humor, greeting the day with its losses and its gains with a steady, real smile, here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Here is Setta Moe, a North Country widow, living alone for years on a small pension, reading at dusk in the cold tundra twilight.   On her own, years earlier, she had gone from house to house to raise money for some beautiful stained glass in an otherwise modest church.  ‘I felt I could do something for the church.  We need more beauty here, more beautiful things around here, to keep us going’. Here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Here is Mickey Murray, a Syracuse widow, whose husband died at 40, She raised her three children alone.  Every Wednesday in those years she went to the church after work and cooked a full meal for her own kids and twenty or so others, then had them play, sing, read the Bible and do their homework together.  She had every reason to complain about the cards life dealt her. Instead she practiced a communal generosity, and made a difference in her city neighborhood.  Here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Here is Ruth Lippitt, a Rochester widow, who all her life gave voice to the longing for peace and justice she had learned as a graduate student in Chicago, under the influence of Ernest Freemont Tittle.  She gathered ten elderly friends for dinner in her home to meet the new minister, a year before she died, and, before the meal said bluntly, ‘tell him who you are, one by one, you have two minutes, and I will ring this bell if you go longer’.   Yes the ministry has its rigors.  But it also has its own sheer joys.  Here she is, an exemplar of goodness.

            Hold fast to what is good!



           Beloved!  Let us draw ourselves together and affirm our faith!

           Whence cometh our hope?

           From the Lord who made heaven and earth.  The Creator. The Ground of Being.  The God beyond God.  The invisible, unknowable, unutterable, unattainable.  The first, the last beyond all thought.  The Transcendent.

          What is the point of our living?

          The meaning of life is in the living of life-To worship God and glorify God forever. 

          How is this possible, in the face of silence, darkness, mystery, accident, pride, immaturity, tragedy and the threat of meaninglessness?

          By walking in the dark with our Transforming Friend, the Transcript in Time of who God is in eternity, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace, our beacon not our boundary, the presence of the absence of God,  Jesus Christ our Kyrios, our Lord..

          Given our failures, our gone-wrongness, our sin, what daily hope have we, as those who hope for what we do not see?

          Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  Where there is freedom, there is promise.  There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe. There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

          How do we follow the trail of the Spirit?

         By generous giving, by ordered Sunday worship, by honest faithfulness in relationships.

         And at Marsh Chapel, what is our envisioned mission?

        To be a heart for the heart of the city, and to provide a worship service in the service of the city.  We are making headway in the areas of voice, vocation, and volume. 

Hold fast to what is good!  Hold fast to what is good!  Hold fast to what is good!


-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill