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December 20

Echoes of Faith

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to hear the just the sermon

A Preface


If we listen with the ears of the heart, the sounds of Christmas may just envelop us, its echoes of faith may revive us.  And heal us.


A voice, Gabriel, fear not.

A cough, Joseph turning.

A shuffle, Shepherds moving.

A murmur, a shudder, a shake.

Cattle, lowing.

The crisp crackle of hard soil, snow and ice, under foot.

Distant laughter, ribald and rough, out from the inn.

And Mary.  Mary.  Her yawn, her sigh, her song, her cry.


If we listen with the ears of the heart, the whole creation sings in ecumenical chorus, and the sounds of Christmas heal us by enveloping us in a circle of love, whose circumference is without measure.


You know, our time, and world and culture are fixed on limits.  We lean more on what we can count, than on what we can count on.  (repeat). Christmas inquires about our sense of limits, and reverberates with echoes of faith, a robust cosmic faith.


Our lips may echo such faith, even if our habits muffle such faith. Health care, for all or for some?  Good education (with books, safety, discipline, respect), for all or for some?  Employment (most people just need a job and a home), for all or for some?  Civic protection for all or some?  Heavenly hope, for all or for some?  We do tend to live and move and have our being as if the very temporary distinctions we so prize had, somehow, a lasting life.


Here is a Christmas pronouncement of a broad peace, the prospect of love and peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Gandhi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa with the church Amor, Fe Y Vida. This is no religious quietism: cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, creative and hopeful!


A Tale of Two Tales


The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the older and more fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight of the first, the code with which to decipher the first.

Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  How we handle this story, later in the year, come Lent and Easter, is a perilous and serious responsibility, given the myth of redemptive violence in which so much of our national and global thinking is now enmeshed.  This morning, we do light a virtual candle, light a candle, for our siblings across this great land, 300,000, 300,000, taken by COVID, to a farther shore and a greater light. We wail for them, even as Rachel and others wailed long ago.  Yet this week, across the globe, the first vaccines appeared, including right here in the USA. In Canada, first responders were pictured receiving vaccination.  A country of 36 million, and a government that has already purchased 80 million vaccines.  Those receiving, and those watching, wept.  To remember the past year, and now the approaching vaccine, a latter-day miracle for sure, is to weep, with Rachel, at Christmas.

That is, the first story, the death story, the story of Jesus’ death, another season’s work, needs careful, careful handling.  Today I might briefly say again what we have said each year in Lent:  Remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person who defines the passion. Remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion. The resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.  Later in the year, come March and April, and who knows what life will be like by then?, we shall return to story one.  At Christmas, we listen for story two, the story of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus birth, and its echoes of faith.  I wonder:  are you ready, Christmas Sunday 2020, ready in a new way and ready for the first time or the first time in a long time, to hear the susurrations of faith?  Have you faith?  Where is your faith?  How is it with your faith?

Last Saturday in the later afternoon it rained heavily.  That meant the best walk home, from Chapel to residence, did lie through the long hallways of the College of Arts Sciences, where my mother worked as a secretary in 1951, putting her husband through seminary, when the building was spanking new.  From the chapel, the portico will keep you dry, and then take you into the building.  The building is regularly teeming with echoes, voices, greetings, laughter, discourse, lecture, music, all.  By that late hour, all was silent.  Not a person, not a peep, not a word, down the long, lovely hallway of the College of Arts and Sciences. Solitude of a COVID sort, CORONA cause, CORONA based.  Solitude.  And echoes and ghosts at every step.  A meeting here, years ago.  Two lectures there, years ago.  An Academy graduation speech, here, many years ago.  A memorial reception for a lost student, there, years ago.  And meetings, meetings, meetings.  Now: silence, los sonidos de la silencia, Solitude.  Here a photo of a colleague whose memorial we celebrated in 2017.  Here a reminder of a past curriculum.  And all about, nothing, nothing but quiet, with the rain falling fast outside.  In the atrium, a pause, amid the ghosts, and amid the silence.

And a quickened, sharp awareness, a COVID moment:  Solitude has its own beauty.  Solitude has beauty.  It is harsh beauty.  It is a dark beauty.  And it is a discomfiting beauty for those of us who thrive on presence, conversation, gathering, and human being, morning to night.  But a beauty still.  I wonder:  does your faith have space for such solitude, such harsh, dark, discomfiting beauty? Does mine?  When it gets quiet enough, there can be a hearing for the echoes of such faith.

So, we recall at Christmas, the birth story.  Who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Christmas in a troubled world, a world of pollution, pandemic, politics, prejudice and pain, is meant to remind us, all of us, that you do not need to leave the world in order to love God.  Alf Landon said, “I can be a liberal and not be a spendthrift”.  We might say, “I can be a Christian and not reject the world around”.  Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Lent.  And the Christmas echoes are the worker bees in this theological, spiritual hive.  Easter may announce the power of love, but Christmas names the presence of love.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What good news for us at the end of 2020!  We together need both passion and peace.  Such a passionate year we have had.  Theologically, globally, culturally, politically, ecclesiastically, we have exuded passion this year.  Now comes Christmas again to announce that there is more to Jesus than passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.


Creation and Redemption


With great effort, the ancient writers join the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.  The coming of the Savior does not limit the divine care to the story of redemption, but weaves the account of redemption into the fabric of creation.  There is more to the Gospel than the cross.  The ancient writers did sense this and say it with gusto:  angels to locate heavenly love on earth; shepherds to locate love on ordinary earth; kings to empower the sense of love on earth; a poor mother to locate physically the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Love, in the womb of earth, and remind us of the physique, the physicality of faith.  The location of love is earth, and its circumference is without limit.  God’s Christ is without limit.


God’s Christ.  The Christ.  Echoes of faith.


Ah, the Christ. There are many rooms in this mansion.  In the Hebrew Scripture, as translated into Greek long ago, Christ referred to Cyrus the King of Persia, who at last freed the Jews from their bondage in Babylon.  ‘The Christ of God’ later Isaiah calls King Cyrus. Echoes of faith.


Then Christ meant the messianic conqueror who would bring apocalyptic cataclysm, the end of things as we know it, the reconstitution of Israel, and the reign of God–the main wellspring of hope for those breathing and sweating in Jesus’ day, including Jesus.  Echoes of faith.


Christians then began to use the term to refer to Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, rode a donkey, recited the Psalms thinking David wrote them all, walked only in Palestine, never married, and was crucified for blasphemy or treason or both.  Echoes of faith.


A while later Christ, in Paul, becomes the instrument of God’s incursion into the world, to recreate the world, and is known in the cross and the resurrection. Echoes of faith.


Still later, when the Gospel writers pick up the story, Christ is the Risen Lord, preached by Paul, and narrated by unknown silent ghost writers who somehow put together the story of his earthly ministry, always spoken as a resurrection account, and always seen, if seen, in light of Easter, but interpreted through the faith of Christmas, and its echoes. Echoes of faith.


John takes another trail, in the telling of the Christ, because for John none of the above really matters at all, save that Christ reveals God–wherever and whenever there is way, truth or life, there is Christ.  Echoes of faith.


Still later, and drawing on all the above and more, the early Christian writers painstakingly and painfully tried to fit all this into neo-platonic thought, involving natures and persons, the human and the divine, the seen and the unseen, and described Christ in creeds, perhaps best and for sure first in the Apostles’ Creed–only Son, Lord.  Most of the options then have been laid out by 325ad or so, to be regularly and fitfully retried and rehearsed into our time.


John Calvin could write that we really can’t say, definitively, where Christ, as Lord, begins or ends.  Alpha, Omega…echoes. Leo Tolstoy wrote a Christmas Story about this once.  “Where Love is, Christ is”.   Story two.


The lovely decorated Christmas tree in your living room, with its natural grace adorned by symbolic beauty, is meant to connect the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.  The story of Jesus the Christ, and his love, is as wide and large and limitless as the refraction of light throughout all creation.


We felt it, a bit, last Sunday, in the virtual open house, our congregation gathered by zoom, with voices greeting us from California, Iowa, Indiana, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Virginia, and most all the New England States.


Once we visited in the home of a friend whose lovely tree sported a particularly wonderful ornamentation.  Oh, he had placed upon the boughs the more usual collection of angels, bulbs, lights, tinsel and all.  But here and there, slowly illuminating and slowly darkening, there were five lighthouses.  I had never seen a lighthouse as an ornament.  As we shared life and faith in the living room, the slowly illuminating and slowly darkening lighthouses, all five, caught my imagination.   With Wesley we affirm five means of grace, ever available, and savingly so, amid the branches and brambles of life.  These are saving, Christmas echoes of faith. Prayer:  as close as breath.  Sacraments:  in the closest church, weekday and Sunday, or maybe a love feast, at home, in pandemic.  Scripture:  take and read, read and remember, remember and recite.  Fasting:  we might say walking, exercise, attention to discipline and diet.  Christian conversation:  a word spoken and heard that just may be healing enough to be true, or true enough to bring healing.  Even in a sermon on the Sunday before Christmas.


An Invitation


At Christmas we can listen, and remember.  We are most human when we are lovers.  Are we lovers anymore?  Where love is, Christ is.


If we listen with the ears of faith, the whole creation sings in ecumenical chorus, and the sounds of Christmas heal us by enveloping us in a circle of love, whose circumference is without measure.


You may decide today to lead a Christian life.  To worship every Sunday.  To pray every morning.  To tithe every dollar.  To take up the way of peace, by loving and giving.  You may decide upon this path this morning.  Do.  An echo of faith may catch you up, with a susurration, a whisper:


The birth of Christ is for you.


His way of life is for you.


His manner of obedience is for you.


His church is open to you.


His happiness is for you.


His love is for you.


His death is for you.


His life is for you.


His discipline is for you.


If we listen with imaginative ears, the sounds of Christmas, and its echoes of faith, envelop us and heal us.


A voice, Gabriel, fear not.

A cough, Joseph turning.

A shuffle, Shepherds moving.

A murmur, a shudder, a shake.

Cattle, lowing.

The crisp crackle of hard soil, snow and ice, under foot.

Distant laughter, ribald and rough, out from the inn.

And Mary.  Her yawn, her sigh, her song, her cry.




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

December 6

The Dawn of Faith

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Mark 1: 1-18

Click here to hear just the sermon


We rested alone in the dormant, dormant quiet of Thanksgiving 2020, as so many did.  There were walks and talks.  There was time for reflection and reading, as well as distance learning about dearest loved ones, by way of the current, sometimes helpful, technologies.  A red, bright red, maple leaf floated our way.   Leaves were there for the kicking and kicking up.  We both resisted and bowed to the beckoning of disagreeable chores put off, now waiting and awaiting attention, with no earthly excuse for avoidance.  Something to clean, something else to toss, something further to give off, something even to cherish, and, perhaps…something to discover or recover.


In the evenings we nestled in to see some news, not that much is newscast any longer, and then, as moved, to return to stories and novels and films and sequels.  We had left off the Crown after two seasons, a good while ago, and made our way back into the next.  We had stood outside Buckingham Palace, with long hair in 1972, then recently wed in 1978, then with a church tour of Methodism and its ghosts 1995, and then, overjoyed, on holiday in 2017, en route to view John Wesley’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.  We worshiped there, seated that august and August Sunday above the stone marked for William Wilberforce.  Would you go back?  To London?  In a New York minute…Marsh Chapel, Gothic in design, exudes an English spirit—the garden in the poem of Sir George Sitwell, the corner stone atop two further stones from Oxford University (St. John’s College and Jesus College) and the inscription, Boston University’s pedigree is traced directly to Oxford University, England.(Cambridge is both on and meant for the other of the river.)  The University Arms, said Daniel Marsh, ‘connect Boston University both with the town of Boston, England, and also with the University of Oxford.’   And for good reason:  Mr. Wesley, an Oxford don, brought through fierce preaching a vigorous gospel, the reformation faith, to the English poor, in mine and in field and in city and on ship and in prison.  Our heritage is thus, personal, denominational, professional and religious.  So, we are inclined to watch the show.


At one point, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is accosted by his mother, an eccentric and brilliant nun, recently transposed to Buckingham Palace from a humble nunnery in Greece.  He interrupts her kneeling prayer, after years of disconnection.  She, mentally troubled, in story, cared for by Sigmund Freud, and he, a kind of orphan, left alone in the world.  In the heart of the talk she abruptly asks him a question.  And what about your faith?  And what about your faith?  Have you faith?  A question of which Mr. Wesley would have been, would be, proud.  What about your faith?  He honestly, suddenly answers:  dormant.  My faith is dormant.  She murmurs, she mourns, she gasps, she then says, That is not good.  Find yourself a faith.  Find yourself a faith.  At the end of the episode, you see them walking away, arm and arm, into an English country garden.


And you?  What about your faith?  It is a serious question, even, maybe even especially, in a dormant time.  Perhaps, sensing this, you have for a moment allowed the car radio to linger at religion, in worship, this morning.  Perhaps, sensing this, you have turned on or turned toward a few minutes of music, Scripture, prayer, and preachment.  A dormant Thanksgiving may have given you pause, or a pause, coming now into December.  Pause before illness.  Pause before randomness.  Pause before mortality.  Pause before God.  Faith, dormant faith, wakes up in that kind of pause.  A dormant pause brings, or can, the dawn of faith.  Pause to pray in the morning.  Pause to recite a psalm mid-day.  Pause to listen in care when another speaks.  Pause to write an encouraging word.  Pause to push your mind in study, not for what informs but for what transforms.  Pause to recover a joy in generosity.  Pause to make a plan to worship, come Sunday, just as now, well, you are doing.  Faith is dormant unless it wakes up in these moments of pause.


Of course.  What other realm of life or experience do we know that opens itself with no investment?  No investment in funds leads to no gain in growth.  No investment in exercise leads to no gain in health.  No investment in study leads to no gain in learning.  No investment in equality leads to no gain in justice.  No investment in difference leads to no gain in community.  No investment in friendship leads to no gain in friends.


Your faith, how is it with your faith?  If the answer is ‘dormant’, come this dormant Advent, you may want to invest yourself, say, in Scripture, say, in its serious study, say, or for what is shows in life, vital moments of awakening, life’s woke times.



That is, you cannot come to Christmas unless you cross the river Jordan…

Between you and the 12 days of grace in the feast of Christmas 2020 there runs an icy river, four weeks of Advent 2020, the journey in preparation…

You cannot get across alone, or without cost, or without preparation, or without getting wet…

You will need some investment here…

This beginning, Advent, is like all others—uncertain, difficult, scary, hard…

In these weeks there is set aside a time of preparation…

The voices of our ancestors, forebears, precursors in faith cry out in our covid 2020 wilderness experience…

In today’s readings, three distinct voices resound.  The voice of the prophet Isaiah. The voice of the John the Baptist.  And the voice of the St. Mark, the author of the earliest gospel and its beginning….

The voices come out of the great, distant past, cloaked in antiquity, hooded in mystery, shrouded in misty history, covered by the winds and dust of time.

Our Scripture is holy, is the word of God, because week by week, we read and listen, here, for the divine word.  Where else would we possibly want to be, come Sunday, than in earshot of that Word? We stand on the shoulders of the ancients, stretching back two and three thousand years, for whom also these words were holy.  They outlast us, these words of holy writ.  They uplift us.  They reshape us.  They return us to our rightful minds.  The authority of Scripture lies in a very pragmatic garden of practice:  we do this every week, all the 4,000 Sundays of our lives.  Scripture acquires authority out of its long-time traditional use.  Scripture exudes authority as the mind, our gift of reason, explores the caverns and caves, the stalactites and stalagmites, the dark recesses of venerable words.  Scripture pierces the heart with authority, in our own hearing, our own recitation, our own living, our own experience.  Tradition, reason, and experience crown Holy Scripture with–authority.

Listen, then, in love, to the voices of our ancestors, forebears, predecessors who also wrestled with the question of faith, the waking of faith at the dawn of faith.

Second Isaiah

The year is 540bce.

In the dark days of exile, the second prophet Isaiah recalled for his people the nature of faith.

How difficult it is to be away from home, to be alone, to be cut off from the people and places that mean most to you. You college junior you. All travelers know this, as do all human pilgrims.  Your lifeis a journey, a spiritual journey wrought in meaning, fraught with meaning, fought for meaning, taught by meaning.

The preparation for good news may even begin in the dark lost hurt of exile, like a birdsong before dawn. Dormancy…can be the dawn of faith.  The book of Isaiah stops at chapter 39, a hard stop.  The book of Isaiah begins again, heard today, in chapter 40.  Isaiah could hear the early singing of the birdsong of hope long before any of his contemporaries.  The people of Israel, through a series of tragic decisions, guided by a series of misguided leaders, found themselves enslaved to a foreign king. Our gospel of the Prince of Peace is born out of a strife-torn experience.  Our confidence in the God of Hope is born out of a record of nearly hopeless moments in the community of faith.

What makes faith possible in a time of exile?  What makes hope possible in the wasteland of a desert?  What makes faith possible in pandemic?

Faith comes from a mixture of memory and imagination and vision.  Faith, like its first cousin, hope, comes from trouble.  Over 45 years of ministry, when the question has arisen, “Where did your faith come from?’, ‘Whence, Faith?’, the answer invariable runs something like this: “well, a long time ago, I was in a deep kind of trouble, and, here is what happened…’ Faith comes out of trouble.  The dawn of faith is in the dormancy of trouble.  Faith, like cousin hope, is real faith when it is most what you need.  And faith comes in trouble, in times of trouble, in exile, in times of exile.  Ours this year, 2020 is such. An exile.  And some days we feel it to the marrow bone.

This is what a verseremembered does for us.  It frees us to hope for what is not yet seen.  A song like Isaiah 40, well sung, frees us from the tyranny of the present, the oppression of the right now, the slavery of the moment.  We get free to dream of another time or two.  Oddly, the best thing about the study of theology is that it frees us from the 21st century.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a newfound capacity to hope, to hope against hope, to hope for what yet cannot be seen, to hope and to hope and to hope.  The song and marrow bone of faith comes calling out just before sunlight, at dawn.

Isaiah overheard and foretold another voice, another prospect.  He sensed what was not yet visible.  Who hopes, anyway, for what he sees? So he cried out:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness

Prepare the way of the Lord

Make his paths straight

The Baptist

The year is 27 ce.

It is the year of the courage of the Baptist. It takes a peculiar spiritual strength in faith to find the grace to…step aside.   John the Baptist created a commotion with his call to confession of sin.  He called, and the people came.  They had a common mind, at least to the point of acknowledging their need.  Like Isaiah, he was, he is, one of our venerable ancestors, forebears, precursors.

John came out of tradition—the tradition of the prophets.  His role and work were not alien to the long history before him.   So, when he went out in his rough clothing, into a harsh desert, to speak unpleasant but true words of warning and judgment, he did so out of a common understanding that prophets might just come along every now and then.  They might call the city of Jerusalem to repent every now and then.  They might direct the people of Israel out to the river bank every now and then.  They might point to God every now and then.

John spoke directly to his people.  He challenged his generation to look hard at the way they had lived, and with a spiritual plumb line to measure themselves according to the law of God.  What one has no sin to confess?  What one has no fault to regret?  What one has no desire to be made clean? What one would not, given the chance, wash in the Jordan and start over?  Who has not tossed and turned at night, in the dark, awaiting the dawn?

Friends.  Politics lies downstream from culture, and culture downstream from religion, and religion downstream from…faith.  The dawn of faith is at the headwaters of all the rest, for all the cultural amnesia of such today.

The Baptist reminds us of the distance between our dreams and our deeds.

But the lasting word of the Baptist is not about his own work at all.  Like the church to this day, finally, he exists to point to Another, the thong of whose sandals none is worthy to loosen.

For all his accomplishment, at the pinnacle of human endeavor, right religion, John finds, in faith, at the right time, the grace to make space.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may involve a willingness, at the right time, to  make space for someone else, to step aside.  For you, one day, the gospel may evoke a willingness to step aside.  Or, one day, not so much the willingness, but the reluctant courage to do so.

John felt that nudge,and so he cried out:

After me comes he who is mightier than I

The thong of whose sandals

I am not worthy to stoop down and untie

John Mark

The year is 70ce.

With others, Mark could have found a more pleasant way to begin his gospel.  He might with Matthew have offered a long list of names of great saints and sinners past, and then told a story about wise men from the east.  Or he might with Luke have started with thrilling birth stories, retelling the birth of the Baptist and of Jesus, to Elizabeth and Mary, and then recounted the advent of the Son of God among humble shepherds, in a humble inn, in a humble town, on a humble night.   The Gospel of John even begins with the beginning of time and Jesus rounding the unformed cosmos as the divine word, logos.

As plain as the nose on your face, though, Mark starts simple and bare.  No frills, no varnish, no make-up, no extras.  Like Paul, Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, or young man Jesus, or the family of Jesus.  He begins with the river Jordan, and John, a man dressed in camel’s hair.

This gospel begins with a barren, bleak moment in the icy dark, along a cold river, faith dormant in exile.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ may well involve just such a cold, and foreboding start, a beginning that in that way is like all beginnings, from the infant cry at birth, to the coughing susurration at death, and every new venture in between:  a little quiet, a little cold, a little wild honey.  And hovering somewhere nearby…the divine possibility of a divine possibility.  So, Mark writes: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Let us pause to shrug off our dormancy.  Let us awake.  Together, let us begin the journey.


With Second Isaiah, in a time of exile, we will face down the loneliness we feel, and will explore a newfound capacity to hope.  In a period of discouragement, we will accept the courage and the capacity to wait, to wait without idols, to wait for the living and true God, whose messengers do come, in the fullness of time.

With John the Baptist, in a period of anxiety, an age of anxiety, when our own service has been rendered, and our own work is done, we will look for that saving willingness, the grace to make space, to make way for Another.

With John Mark, in an age of pestilence and dislocation, when change in work or health arrive, we will face the harsh difficulty of a cold, new beginning.  We will rely on faith, the faith of our ancestors, forebears, precursors, those who came before, who also knew the icy cold of the river Jordan.  We will name our precursors, honor them, remember them.  At a dinner table.  In the comfort of a family conversation.  In the discussion and dialogue of real national debate.  In divine worship, as the Scriptures are read and the Word is proclaimed.  And in the communal silence of eucharist, today a spiritual eucharist.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.


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

May 17

This I Believe

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Acts 1:15–17, 21–26

John 17:6–19

Click here to hear just the meditations

The test of the meditations will be posted shortly.

May 10

Way, Truth, Life

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 2:2–10

John 14:1-14

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          Wherever there is a way, there is Christ.  Wherever there is truth, there is Christ.  Wherever there is life, there is Christ.

          The Gospel today reveals three secrets to lasting health in life.  Here is the marrow of worship, wherein we care for the Body of Christ, to rediscover the things that make for peace.  This is the point of Mother’s Day, to reflect on the healthy habits of being, graciously given us by those who raised us, that have made us happy, and kept us healthy.  One day at a time. One day at a time. As my grandmother pasted on her kitchen door, in her late eighties, Today.  Do one thing.  There. You’ve done one thing.

          Now an opening confession, and a concern about your preacher today.  He is pretty rusty at preaching on Mothers’ Day.  For fourteen years past, here at Marsh Chapel, this was the Sunday our graduating seniors spoke (you will be pleased to hear four of them next Sunday, May 17).  For eleven years before that, in Rochester NY, the Mothers’ Day sermon was usually given by one of my three supremely talented female associates—with accumulated degrees from Boston University, from Colgate, from Yale, from University of Pennsylvania, from Colgate Rochester, and, exceptionally, preeminently from Ohio Wesleyan.  This was a practice based on the awareness that these three, pioneers from the first full wave, and at the top level, of women in ministry, also were all mothers of many years’ experience, and might actually know quite a bit more about it all than their boss. Which they did.  What gifts they brought to ministry!  (We shall continue to see, by the way, in similar fashion the gracious gifts, of gay clergy, now not just here and there, but in a great wave.)  Then, too, in Syracuse, the eleven years before that, the Sunday was devoted to a celebration of the United Methodist Women of that church, without whom no money would have been raised, no educational programs mounted, no mission investment done, nor hardly a fellowship dinner arranged.  The sermon came from the UMW President that day.  It usually began with an old story…

Like the one about the UMW group that was mistakenly sent to hell.  After a month the devil placed a long-distance phone call upstairs to heaven to ask that they be removed.  Why, asked Peter?  Because, said Beelzebub—they are thorn in my flesh.  They are organized.  They raise money.  They increase membership and now, the last straw, they have fundraiser to put in air conditioning.  I want them out of here.

          Or like the one about a friend who once received a gracious introduction with this humorous response: “I wish my parents were in the room to hear such a glowing, flattering introduction.  My father would have enjoyed it.  And my mother would have believed it!”

          Or like the one about the UMW leader who was asked, “Madam President, if I give lots of money to the church will it get me into heaven?”  Discarding all the theological responses to the contrary, she paused and replied, “Well, it’s worth a try!”

So, it has been 36 years, and the pastor today is a little rusty regarding Mothers’ Day preaching.  Bear with me, preach with me, and hear the Gospel; Way, Truth, Life.  Wherever there is a way, there is Christ.  Wherever there is truth, there is Christ.  Wherever there is life, there is Christ.  This is one of the deepest unities of the Scripture.  In the deep unities of Scripture, we lean again into the secrets of happy life.

          First, Way

           We learn from others.  Especially in the home.  What parents do is crucial.  Especially, we might say, during this virus, the example parents set will be the path children walk.  Parents, regardless of any or nor religious tradition, model dimensions of spirituality for their children.  Children watch and listen.  I think this Mothers’ Day 2020 of young mothers in New England.  Maybe you? Today, one half mom, one half professional, one half wife, one half home school administrator, one half neighbor.  And that’s not the half of it.

          One day I saw a young mother walking in a department store.  She had too little girls in tow to starboard, and her own elderly mother to port.  The girls pulled ahead, and grandma lagged behind, and between daughters and grandmother and promises to keep I thought I overheard this practical prayer from the mom in middle: “Lord get me through this day.”

          Phyllis Trible taught us long ago that reading the Bible involves your own perspective.  It matters what you bring with you into the reading room.  I imagine women, and men, on this Sunday, trying desperately to balance the generational claims of relationship.  And in some cases, to sift through hard memories, hurts, traumas left by another generation.  You are trying to raise another generation to be faithful, good boys and girls, women and men.  They know what they see.

          But we know others are hurting too, in harsher and different ways.  We keep things in perspective, and in prayer.  Think for a moment of the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, killed in the cross fire of race and class, the cross fire of culture and guns.  We hold things in perspective, and in prayer.

          Our Gospel lessons, like John 14, are primary sources for the time, occasion, community and condition in and for which they were first written.  They are secondary sources, at best, for what may have come before.  So, two weeks ago, Luke 24 showed us Luke, and his community, in joyful celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s ascent.  At his ascent they did assent, perhaps following decades of loss, displacement, and martyrdom.  Having lived through the long old-time religion winter of most of the first century, and all its rigors, they acclaimed a faith in a high, divine goodness, through it all.

This is the example that Jesus has shown us, in his life, and in the lives of his own.   More than we acknowledge, the examples of those around us sustain us in hidden, powerful ways.  Near Pittsburgh Frank Lloyd Wright built his famous home for the Kaufmann family, called “Falling Waters”.  It is built into the stone, on top of the flowing water, alongside the verdant forest, amid the wondrous rolling beauty of southern Pennsylvania.  It protrudes, suspended nearly in thin air, like our own lives so often seem to be.  The house is held up by cantilevers, like a diving board or a teeter totter.  The strength and saving grounding are hidden away in the rock, and out the house stretches.  I think that is like the hidden, silent strength that parents by example give to children.  We remember what we have seen, by example, through others.  This Mothers’ Day 2020 we think of suffrage and suffragettes 100 years ago:  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Staunton; of reforms and reformer, 100 years ago: Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman.

We learn from others.  Especially in the home.  What parents do is crucial.


          Second, Truth

          So too is what parents say.  As we are tightly quartered, now, parents at the office in the living room, and children at school in the dining room, we might want to measure what we say.  To think before we speak.

          For the gospel reveals another of the secrets to health, in what is said.  We learn from what is said to us by those whom we love.  Our minds cannot change unless our hearts are changed.  No argument will ever be as strong as ardent care.  What changes people comes from what is said by those they know who care.  One esteemed UTS professor could in the end never speak to me because he could never speak for me.  Especially, we might say, during this virus, the wisdom, the sayings, the forms of speech children hear from their parents will be more formative and more lasting than the pandemic itself.  A friend said to me, just recently, ‘I think of my grandmother telling me, ‘keep your wits about you, keep your wits about you.’

          At Sing Sing, almost100 years ago, another suffragette, the warden’s wife became one of those people.  She attended to the imprisoned.  When she found a blind prisoner, she learned Braille and taught him.  When she found a deaf prisoner, she learned sign language and taught him.  In that hardest of spaces, she spoke the language of love.  When she died and her coffin was pulled past the gates, the men stood in silence in her honor, and asked if the gate could be opened so that they might fill the chapel, promising to return.  The warden took them at their word, and to a man they kept the promise and returned.  We listen to those we trust.

          Our deeds are important.  So, Matthew Mark and Luke.  But so, and more so are our words.  So, we have a fourth gospel, John.  John best reminds us that what lasts is what we say.  What did Jesus say on the night he was glorified, John 14-17? John celebrates the secret in speech.  God-Christ-Spirit—all for John are known in the ‘glory’ that is the cross, the strange divine manner among us; the little preposition “in” holds the mystical magic every day—celebrate, dance, love, sing, live—God in Christ, Christ in God, we in him, they in us; a new commandment…new…new…something new…are we ready for something new?  Jesus has said something to us that is the very secret of lasting health.  What is it?

          He binds what he says to what he does.  Form and function come and go together.  So, Jesus is the Word, the Word of God for us.

          The Gospel continues to teach us something that is the very secret of lasting health and happiness.  At every step, Jesus is inviting you to deepen your capacity, to sharpen your acuity, to soften your heart.

          Third, Life

          Today we dimly realize, again, just how much Jesus has shared with us.  


I think of that young mother, balancing daughters and grandmother.  They stop at the counter, in Kaufmann’s, and she buys some perfumes and body lotions.  Later she wraps them and gives them as symbols of affection.  Especially, we might say, during this virus, the living, the sharing of life modeled by parents will in the long run have a sturdy, lasting effect on children.  It is not so much what we are going through, as how we are going through what we are going through, in spring 2020, that lasts.  It is not so much what we are going through, as how we are going through what we are going through, in spring 2020, that lasts.  

          We need to learn in the north from our southern cousins.  They have shown us how to take care of Mother Church. At least this.  We need to learn again to attend to the Body of Christ.  They care to apply the body lotions of hospitality and generosity to the Body of Christ.  They attend to the Body, like a mother tending her children and parents.  They attend to the Body, the church, the Body of Christ, like a young mother fretting for toddlers and the aged.  It is not just the Mind of Christ that we seek.  It is not only the Spirit of Christ that we need.  It is not solely the Truth of Christ that we desire.  We need years of body lotions, applied to the church, the Body of Christ, in the north. As Hal Luccock always said, in gentle reference to different religious cultures and worship attendance patterns, When I preached in the south the sermon hymn was always, ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing’. When I preached in the north, the Gospel Lesson was always, ‘Wherever two or three are gathered…’. 

          Oddly, or divinely, were we to invest ourselves fully in the house not made with hands, our more minor differences would gradually dissolve.  We need to apply some ointment, some healing salve, some body lotions to the Body of Christ.

          I remember visiting a young woman who had been raised by her grandmother. In the last months of her grandmother’s life, the young woman would visit, and I was privileged to watch their consort together.  She would stand by the bedside and comb her grandmother’s hair, and straighten her glasses, and rub her arms and hands with lotion.  It was a wordless rebaptism that meant more than all the Psalms of David and all the Parables of Jesus and all the paragraphs of the Book of Discipline.

          As Gene Outka of Yale put it: ‘God loves us before any merit on our part.  Love is spontaneous and unmotivated, indifferent to value, creative, and initiates fellowship…God’s love should (prevail) when we estimate our neighbors’ value.  We should not allow our dislike of particular harms others inflict on us, or our condemnation of particular evil deeds, however understandable or justified, to take normative precedence over God’s love for every person.  Such love should rather carry final authority for us, and evoke in us a corresponding love.’

This too is the secret of lasting health which Jesus has shared.

          The secret shown:  Love one another. Way.

          The secret spoken: Love one another.  Truth.

          The secret shared:  Love one another. Life.


          Now, if memory serves, and remember your preacher today is rusty, a Mothers’ Day sermon concludes with a memory.  So, in the late spring of 1966, my mom invited me to have a talk on the back stoop of our parsonage, the only home then I had ever really known.  Now I had never been invited to back porch conversation.  In those days, gently, she ambled about the little town of Hamilton NY, a bucolic place, of ice skating, sleds, swimming lessons, autumn, the Baptist Church bells hour by hour and loud and deep, early in the morning, late at night.  After breakfast, one day that spring, gently, she sat with me on the back steps.  The words hardly landed, caught as I was in the Eastertide reverie of boyhood. Making plans for the next ball game. From where we sat, I could spot two windows through which I had flown, launched, catapulted two baseball.  Eric, whose dad was the Colgate librarian, was also involved. 2 Sons break, 2 fathers repair, the world turns.  I could see a half finished go cart, no wheels.  I could look at the neighbors’ garden, which I had also tilled for fun–such is youth.  Across the street lived the feared Russian professor, next door to the feared TKE fraternity, alongside a feared empty, and quite possibly haunted, house.  I could see the evidence of unreflective, free life, naive, unaware, redolent with happiness, responsive.  All this was about to change, for good or forever.  Gently she spoke, but again I could not quite hear or believe or intuit. “We are moving in June.  Next month we will leave Hamilton.  You will have your twelfth birthday in another town”.  It was clear that I did not comprehend.  “Bobby, we are going to move in June.” Then a torrent of words I did not understand, and to some measure still do not, came forth.  Itinerancy, appointment, Methodism, conference, apportionment, Bishop.  I also was not seeing her clearly, because somehow my eyes were all watered, producing a difficulty to see.  Probably due to pollen in the spring air, don’t you think?  We had not needed privacy, before, in which to speak.  Somehow, I should have known that a back-porch talk meant dark news.  And so early in the morning, early, too early to gather the friends, our fight and argue gang, and attempt to puzzle through the meaning of such disaster.  But the talk was not done.  Way, Truth, Life. She, my then young, lovely, gentle, mom, in example, and in speech, and in generosity, had something more to say.  ‘You know, I know this makes you very sad.  But this will the best thing that ever happened to you.  You will make new friends.  You will see.  You will have a new house, bigger and better.  You will see.  You can come back in the summer by bus for the Colgate chemistry program.  You will see.  Your sisters will be with you.  (Here she may have gotten a little off script).  You will see.  And there is something more.  Your dad and I and your siblings need you to help us to do this.  We are going to do this together.  You are the oldest.  And you can do it.  I just know you can, and I know you will.  You are going to love it.  I guarantee it.  And, of course, she was right. 

          Wherever there is a way, there is Christ.  Wherever there is truth, there is Christ.  Wherever there is life, there is Christ.

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

March 29

The Heart of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Romans 8:6-11

john 11:17-44

Click here to hear just the sermon


            Someone asked last week, after our virtual worship service, about the meaning of the word ‘fallow’. “I had to look it up”, he said. “What does it mean?” A grandmother’s long-ago High School graduation gift, Webster’s Dictionary, answers: Fallow. Land plowed but not seeded for one or more growing seasons to kill weeds, or make the soil richer…The plowing of land to be left idle thus…left uncultivated or unplanted…untrained, inactive (esp. of the mind)…To leave land unplanted after plowing…to ‘lie fallow’, remain uncultivated, unused, unproductive…for at time. For a time, our time is a fallow time. You need not fear the fallow. You need not fear a fallow time. Come Sunday, a handful of worship leaders alone in an empty chapel, and an invisible but vibrant virtual congregation praying and singing along, we are honest about the fallow, our fallow time. Nevertheless, as Karl Barth would say, we are here to hallow the fallow. You are listening to hallow the fallow. You need not fear the fallow. You are offered strength to hallow the fallow.


            For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager three-week interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God, to hallow the fallow. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11. In 90ad, some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things–who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence.
You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Christian yearning for a faith amendable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back. Even—especially—in a virulent epoch.

            Remember, what carries Jesus to the cross, in the Gospel of John, is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Not the cleansing of the temple, but the resurrection to life of Lazarus, in the Johannine narrative, brings the advent of the cross. Jesus is crucified because he claims divinity, and embodies divinity, in this Gospel. This makes a bit of sense of the placement of this reading just before Holy Week, rather than just after. ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ does not capture the gravity and eternity of the moment, but it does give the average hearer a point of orientation to John 11. John Ashton wrote fiercely of this Gospel: Conscious as they were of the\ continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not (only) with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity (199) The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins). For the two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today. The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre-eminently embedded in John, is a form of dislocation—our shared condition March 2020, dislocation–the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

            The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end. These two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. March, Lent 2020: how shall we live in faith? How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the ennui in distance, necessary and preventive? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second. Both mean choice. Both bring us to the summit of freedom. Once every three years, interrupting Matthew, we hear the great passages—Nicodemus, the Samaritans, the Blind Man, Lazarus. Hear the Gospel, John 11: We have the freedom to choose and to move:

1. From fear to love.

2. From spiritual blindness to spiritual sight.

3. From life to spirit.
4. From isolation to community.
5. From home to health.
6. From rainbow to firmament.
7. From control to freedom.

8. From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality.
9. From nationalism to patriotism.
10.From denominationalism to ecumenism.

11.From death to life.

            In an Atlantic article this week, honest to the bone about our peril today, and rightly rejecting all thought that churches will be ‘full by Easter’ and other mendacities, Ed Yong nonetheless affirms: One could also envisage a future in which America learns a different lesson. A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causes people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen (Z) kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change. In 2030, SARS-CoV-3 emerges from nowhere, and is brought to heel within a month. MAY IT BE SO.


            Our Lenten Sermon Series, concluding today, has engaged in conversation with St. Teresa of Avila. From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. In this decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition. With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008). In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year. Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome? For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list. We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018, turning last year 2019 to St. John of the Cross. Now, Lent 2020, we have listened in prayer for grace in the life, voice, heart, poetry and spirit of Santa Teresa of Avila. The heart of our Lenten theological conversation partner, 2020, Saint Teresa of Avila, her mode of prayerful, joyful living is found in… Recollection: collecting the mind’s facilities and faculties so as to be consciously present, to and with God. Discovery: The discovery of the self in and through ‘conversation’ with Christ is a discovery of the kinship with God bestowed by grace; and this is a discovery of an ever-expanding space of human growth in love and understanding…the turn inward to find God in the soul…the soul is like an infant at the breast…God’s will is that we become agents of love… Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving after communion is the center of spirituality Humility: ‘ I was humble enough to conceive of the humble Jesus Christ as my God’…For STOA not forgiveness but becoming a forgiving person is what matters…‘There are days on which one word alone distresses me’ (SO TRUE) Compassion: Not to judge one’s neighbor is one of the chief points of monastic virtue, in the eyes of the 4 th and 5 th century desert fathers of Egypt. Learning: STOA assumes the role of the teacher of Scripture, at a time and in a place when this was unheard of…she is an imaginative reader of Scripture and by her example shows the right of women to undertake this…hers is a fully incarnational pattern of spirituality Struggle: She was given to melancholy, and was a chronic depressive…left to itself, melancholy breeds madness…She further struggled, ‘having responsibility for a large number of volatile and often disturbed souls in the new communities of the reform Candor: ‘The point of real self-knowledge is to become free of the self…to turn attention to God in prayer…God’s will is the life of practical charity in community…obscure unease (Matt 19) is a saving grace…depression, illness, misunderstanding—these also keep alive a proper uneasiness…herein one finds strength for a longer journey…and for the disjunction of effort and grace… …pensamiento vs. endendimiento… Listening: God summons us into the castle…’like a good shepherd with a whistle so gentle that even the sheep themselves almost fail to hear it’ (beautiful). Simplicity: her instruction about prayer: use few, simple words…the pain of present circumstances, the moral and spiritual horror of the world…the compulsive self-destructiveness of people…and, THE BUTTERFLY… Prayer is home- coming…’There is a pervasive awareness of something begun, something promised, and the wait for it to come to fruition is agony. Love: Her prayer vocabulary includes: gift, beyond, locutions, ecstacy, visions, keeping Jesus before our eyes, to the height of ‘spiritual marriage’…the soul (deep), the spirit (high)…the point, ‘the birth always of good works’, and the soul’s forgetfulness…especially, ‘her well-loved fusion of the supposedly distinct vocations of Mary and Martha, established as the highest stage of spiritual growth… Rowan Williams, whose book, TERESA, has in part guided us this month, concludes for us: ‘In Teresa, mysticism is demystified. Like SJDLC, she emphasizes not moments, but ‘stages in the movement Godwards…decay and recomposition of available models of religious meaning…a hunger for illusory soliditiy…mystics (more than others) need a religious tradition Upanishad: monist; Gita: personal…STOA internalizes a wide range of Christian themes, myths, images… Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, SJDLC …these provide ‘points of orientation, touchstones of integrity…and then broad comprehension…


            To conclude, this week we received many prayerful notes. One read:

            Good Morning Bob,
I pray you and the entire chapel staff are well and keeping safe. I just wanted to drop-in virtually to say hello and let you know that I have listened to the services by podcast but am missing community worship. I look forward to the day that we will worship together again. Thank you for your presence and your prayers, I appreciate you. Blessings to you and your lovely wife.
To which, this response:

Dear (Friend)
            Thank you for this prayerful note, loving and honest. I share your sense of loss. It is a fallow time. It will be a lasting reminder of how precious every Sunday together is for us. But it will be a while still before we can return. So we will hold each other close in prayer, and do kindnesses, as you have done in writing.

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

May 22


By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Dean Hill’s introduction of Dr. Zewail and Dr. Zewail’s address
Click here to watch the video of Dr. Zewail’s address

Boston University’s 2011 Baccalaureate speaker was Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Ahmed Zewail. Later in the day, Dr. Zewail was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree at BU’s 138th Commencement. For more information about Dr. Zewail, please read BU Today’s article.

There will be no sermon text posted for this Baccalaureate address.

May 8

Journeying On

By Marsh Chapel

Allow me this morning to publicly express my gratitude to Dean Hill for giving me my very own preaching series. Yes, indeed, you have arrived at Marsh Chapel, whether in person, or by radio waves or by internet signals, for the first offering in Br. Larry’s 2011 secular holiday preaching series. We begin today, Mother’s Day, and will pick up again at the end of May with Memorial Day. The series concludes on July 4, Independence Day. I consider it the highest honor to have been invited to participate in the life of Marsh Chapel in this way, although I would encourage you to note that Dean Hill reserved for himself that pinnacle of secular holidays. Yes, the very one you are remembering just now from back in February, Groundhog Day. I can only pray that some day I will attain to such a stature in preaching as to aspire to be invited on so noble an occasion. Speaking of prayer.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray.

Holy and Gracious God, we gather this morning of Mother’s Day and we celebrate the mothers here with us and the mothers, for some of us, who dwell far away. Keep our hearts and minds, this day and all days, in the mothering presence of your most Holy Spirit, that the thoughts of minds and the meditations of our hearts might be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Surely you have had the experience of being a passenger in a car traversing the streets of Boston. You are riding along on your way to an afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. You know where you are going. Your driver knows where she is going. You sit smiling as you gaze out the windows. Then, your driver takes a turn. “Hmmm…” you think, “this must be a shortcut. I should pay attention for the next time when I am the one driving.” Another turn. “Really. Interesting. I never would have thought to go this way,” your minds voice utters. A third turn. Now it is impossible for you to contain your words any longer. “Um, where are you going?” “Well,” your companion replies, “I am going to the MFA. Where did you think I was going?” “Yes, I thought we were going to the MFA, too, but the MFA is over there,” you reply, pointing back through the rear windshield. “Yes, dear,” says your companion, soothingly. “But this is Boston. Sometimes it is necessary to circumnavigate the entire city just to get next door.”

Amen? Amen.

“Where are you going?” There are actually two questions bound up in this one verbal ejaculation, but let us begin by taking the question at face value. It is certainly a legitimate question to ask as we consider the journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There is another question that we might wish to ask along with Cleopas of his companion, namely, who are you? That line of questioning, however, at least at this stage, is not terribly likely to arrive at positive results. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that our “Where are you going?” question will lead to positive results, either given that there is no clear evidence of a village called Emmaus two stadia, which is about fifty miles, from Jerusalem. This is to say that we do not know precisely where Cleopas and his friend were going, but the question remains relevant for us.

“Where are you going?” This question may be a constant, and perhaps somewhat grating, refrain for many of our graduating students here at Boston University. Family, faculty, friends, chaplains: all want to know where our graduates will be going next. Bound up in the question are clearly many other questions. “Do you have a job?” “Are you going to graduate school in the fall?” “Are you staying in Boston or moving back home or somewhere else entirely?” There are broader implications of the question as well, not merely about the immediate future but about the long term. “Do you have a plan?” “Are you career minded?” “What are you going to be, now that you are grown up?” And the questions have implications beyond merely the trajectory of career and work. “Are you going to get married?” “Are you going to have children?” “Are you going to be able to put your life together in such a way that you will both be fulfilled and able to pay the rent?”

“Where are you going?” In a time of global economic and political uncertainty, it can be especially challenging to even acknowledge the question. “Do you have a job?” “No, but not for lack of trying.” “Are you going to graduate school?” “Well, yes, but only because I cannot find a job, and by the way, I have no idea how I am going to pay for it, either now, or in the long term.” “Are you going to stay in Boston or move home?” “Well, I would like to stay in Boston, but Boston is expensive, and although I really do not want to be the graduate who spends the next two to three years living in my parents basement, I really do not see that I have any better options at this point.” Sorry, dear friends, but here at Marsh Chapel we do not preach a prosperity gospel but a Gospel of responsible Christian liberalism, which is to say that we abide in a realistic spirit with great hope for the possibilities of the future. It is in the spirit of realism that we must confess that the prospects are not what we might have hoped when we began four years ago. And it is in hope that we journey on.

It is a funny thing, returning for a moment to our pair of companions seeking to find their way to the MFA, that the question posed by the passenger to the driver, “Where are you going?” is not really a question as to the destination, but as to the route. This is to say that passenger and driver are both clear on where it is they intend to go. They are both aiming toward the MFA. It is just that the real route of the driver does not quite align with the ideal route of the passenger. Indeed, the real question the passenger is asking when verbalizing, “Where are you going?” is, “How are you going to get there?” This too is a question we may wish to bring to Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus. After all, it is a neat trick not only to arrive but merely to set out toward a village of which there is no evidence of existence. How do you get to somewhere that isn’t?

It is my great hope that there is a primacy of the “How are you going to get there?” question in the “Where are you going?” inquisition that our graduates are racked upon by family, friends, faculty, and yes, chaplains. Indeed, of the two, it is the more profound. “Where are you going?” is simply to inquire of a single point, and the final point in the series, at that. “How are you going to get there?” inquires as to all of the infinitesimal points in between here and wherever it is you may be going. Furthermore, it is not so much a quantitative question about the points themselves, but a qualitative and relational question directed more toward the person for whom those points will be constitutive of their life. This is to say that the “How are you going to get there?” question is really a question of “Who are you, and how will you be in the world?” It is not a question of doing but of being, not that the two are ever more than theoretically distinguishable. It is a question of what sort of
person you are and what manner of being you will endeavor to live into.

“How are you going to get there?” The reason that I hope that this question is the primary question implied in the “Where are you going?” inquisition is that this is the question that a university education should prepare you to answer, even if it does not prepare you to answer the “Where are you going?” question on its face. If nothing else, I pray that our graduates have uncovered something about themselves in their experience at Boston University, whether in the classroom, in the dorms, on the athletic fields and courts, in the dining halls, while studying abroad, while participating in community service, or just walking up and down Bay State Road. This is to say what Howard Thurman said much more eloquently: “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who come alive.” In the final analysis it is a sense of concrete, embodied purpose, which only comes by moving through the spiritual process of self-discovery and actualization that empowers those who change the world. To transform others, be ye first transformed, and journey on.

Now that we have winched tight the inquisitor’s rack on Cleopas and his companion, perhaps we should stop for a moment and ponder the fact that the two questions that spring immediate to mind for us, “Where are you going?” and “How are you going to get there?” are actually not the question that Jesus poses. Jesus does not ask where these two disciples are going. It would have made sense if he had. After all, we hear throughout the Gospels of how the disciples are constantly misunderstanding what they are to do, where they are to go, and most importantly, why they are to do what they have been given to do. It would make sense that Jesus would be concerned that these disciples have once again wandered off, and as the good shepherd, that he would seek to bring them back to the fold.

Instead of asking, “Where are you going?” Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Jesus is interested neither in the destination nor in the route but in the relationships built along the journey. If Jesus had been in the car making its way through the streets of Boston toward the MFA, or at least intending to be moving toward the MFA, the driver and passenger would not have been riding along silently such that the first audible sound is the inquisitor’s whip, “Where are you going?” Had Jesus been in the car, he would have wanted to know why the pair was going to the MFA. “Well, there is a new Art of the America’s wing that has just opened, and we have heard so much about it.” “Is American art important to you?” “Yes, we are particularly captivated by the expansive landscapes of the Hudson River School.” “What captivates you so?” “Well, I think it has to do with the way the artists work with light, so that parts of the painting are illuminated while others fall into shadow. In so many ways it is more real than the actual view of which the painting is purportedly a record could ever express.” “Is not this the point of art?” “Yes, seeing the world in an artistic lens tells us more about who we are than we could ever otherwise come to know.”

Of course, the conversation with the disciples fails to actualize the potential for such a conversation. After all, these are the same dumb disciples who have been misunderstanding Jesus and his purpose and ministry since the get go. They are entirely bound up in trying to reconcile themselves to the crucifixion, and now also to the reports that Jesus is resurrected. And so Jesus must turn to admonishment. “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Once again, Jesus is left trying to bring the disciples up to speed. It is clear that the disciples have a ways yet to go as they journey on.

Speaking of journeying on, it seems that this is just what Jesus is intent to do, and what Jesus would have done had the disciples not intervened to invite him to Emmaus with them for dinner. Now, it is important to remember that these two disciples did not yet recognize that this was Jesus. Is this not often our experience as well, that we fail to recognize Christ in our midst. Often as not, Christ comes to us in the figure of others, the very same family, friends, faculty, and the occasional chaplain who winch us tight on the inquisitor’s rack. St. Francis said, “You may be the only vision of Jesus Christ someone will ever see.” A dear friend of mine said it even more boldly: “You may be the only Jesus Christ the world will ever see.” It is indeed a great responsibility.

It is significant that, even though they did not recognize Jesus, the disciples invited him into their home for dinner. The saying goes that you should always extend hospitality to strangers because you never know when you might play host to angels. Well, apparently you may also end up playing host to Christ. Jesus becomes known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread. Of course, the disciples later recognize that they had in fact felt the presence of Jesus as they journeyed together along the road, in the familiar sense in which Jesus had always made their hearts burn. Perhaps, not realizing that the feeling signaled the presence of Jesus, they even took an antacid. That is what you do for heartburn, isn’t it? Anyway, they had not recognized him, which is to say, the familiar sense of hearts aflame had not risen to the level of conscious awareness, but now they were aware of the connection between what they felt on the road and what they had felt as they accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry.

This is to say that as you journey on, I would encourage you to extend and receive hospitality. In the end it is neither the goal nor even the path that is truly important. It does not really matter whether or not you ever make it to the MFA. What matters is the relationships you cultivate along the way. This is the good news of Jesus Christ for us today: resurrection and salvation by relationship. I leave you today with the prayer of my order, of the Lindisfarne Community: that we may be as Christ to those we meet, and that we might find Christ within them.
And in all things, make your mother proud. Amen.

~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

May 1

Spring in London

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only
John 20:19-31

1. Love Divine

Love Divine all loves excelling
Joy of heaven to earth come down
Fix in us thy humble dwelling
All thy faithful mercies crown
Jesus thou art all compassion
Pure unbounded love thou art
Visit us with thy salvation
Enter every trembling heart

2. Deeds That Speak

We hear today the ringing conclusion of the Gospel of John, the courageous Fourth Gospel, the gospel of love divine.

Notice the unique appearance of Thomas, so unlike anything else in any other gospel. Notice the power and irony that he who mistakes the gospel of believing for the truth of seeing, nonetheless announces the full gospel’s full truth: My Lord and my God! Notice the gospel writer who forever reminds us that signs and wonders are deeds that speak (Bultmann, TFG, 698). Notice the ardent proclamation of a personal faith that is not a conviction that is present once and for all but must perpetually make sure of itself anew, and therefore must continually hear the word anew (ibid, 699)…The recounted events have become symbolic pictures for the fellowship which the Lord, who has ascended to the Father, holds with his own (696). Seeing is not believing: believing is seeing. Touching Thomas tells the truth.

3. All Weddings Are Royal

Deeds that speak include weddings, royal and common.

The spring London fog lifted Friday and the spring London rain waited and we enjoyed a royal wedding, 2 Billion of us. The hymns, prayers, liturgy, vows, and spirit of the service are closely similar to the dozens of weddings we will solemnize here at Marsh Chapel this year. As the minister said, all weddings are royal and every bride and groom is a king and queen. For a moment the fog of three questionable wars, a warming environment, a cooling economy, and 400 tornado taken in the south lifted and the rain of anxiety waited and there was a dress, a ring, a carriage, a kiss, a party and a convertible. 60 million Britons had a holiday, and you got up early to watch. Why did we watch?

I hope we heard the sermon. A good word about a generous God who evokes generosity in us. A good word about a new century in which the discoveries of the past century we will need to control and manage: the emphasis on science in the 20th century may be giving way to an emphasis on religion in the 21st, a shift from discovery to community, from creation to redemption. A good word which quoted a personal prayer. A good word about seeds of devotion growing into eternal life, of which the Gospel of John eternally speaks. I hope we applied the sermon to ourselves, along with the beautifully read verses from Romans 12.

But I doubt that is why we watched. In fact, only one observer to my ear so far, among the 2 billion, has come closer to the deeper reason for our attention. Those of us listening to Bonhoeffer this spring will not be surprised.

4. Freedland

“The power of the young Elizabeth’s brief scenes in the King’s Speech is not solely chronological. It is not only that she was around a long time ago; it is that she was around then, during what Churchill predicted would be known thereafter as Britain’s finest hour. She is the last living connection to an episode—the island race standing up to Hitler—that has become the foundation story, almost the creation myth, of modern Britain…Britain alone, Churchill, 1940, the Blitz—this is the tale of unalloyed heroism that the country likes to tell and retell itself. And as long as Elizabeth sits on the throne, Britons remain tied to those events directly” Jonathan Freedlander, New York Review of Books, 4/28/2011, 30.

5. Their Finest Hour

We used to remember that. It is the courage in history of a real love of freedom, that has preserved our way of life, and that has us speaking English today, and not German. Wesley said he knew how to prize “the liberty of an Englishman”. That fierce, pugnacious, relentless, John Bull, bulldog, dog with a bone love of freedom. At the right moment, one momentous Spring in London, 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler. With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With the whole German airforce poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him Churchill clung to a love of freedom. Read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940. He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War. In the end, America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.” Churchill’s mother grew up south of Syracuse in Pompey. One wonders if some of his paternal love of freedom came from the winds of the Allegheny plateau. Authority is about love of freedom.

6. Hell’s Destruction

When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid mine anxious fears subside
Death of death and hell’s destruction
Land me safe on Canaan’s Side
Strong Deliverer, Strong Deliverer
Be Thou Still My Strength and Shield
Be Thou Still My Strength and Shield

7. Aldersgate Street

The freedom and love in today’s Scripture lesson provide an alternative. Authenticity, finally, is at the heart of any godly authority.

We once remembered that. It is the experience of freeing love, that ignited our church. At midlife, one enchanting night in the English Spring of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good. He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage. There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime. As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it. Authority is about freeing love. If you missed Easter Vigil, you missed a part of this story.

8. Resurrection Changes Us

“So let us listen to the stories of Jesus and his miraculous birth, his calling of disciples and teachings of friendship, his sharp knocks at hypocrisy and love of childlike innocence, his proclamation that the last will be first and the first last, his miracles of healing and his struggles with fickle crowds, his interpretations of history and parables of the Kingdom, his gospel of love and demands for justice, his institution of sacraments and founding of a beloved community, his bitter betrayal and corrupt trial, his bloody suffering and desolate crucifixion, his harrowing of Hell and glorious resurrection, his blessing of our maturity and gift of the Spirit, his ascension into Heaven and mythic transformation into the atonement for all sins, into the Cosmic Christ, into the Second Person of the Trinity, into the divine founder of the Christian movement, into an ever-loving friend personally available to each of us, into a reality that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All of these things are part of the deep truth that works in us when we celebrate them. Better yet, let’s sing them, because music moves the soul faster than words alone. What changes with resurrection? We do. What is that change? A closer connection with God. What is that connection? An entry into the divine life whose wildness is embraced with Easter joy. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” You bet!! “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” Amen.” (Robert Cummings Neville, April 23, 2011)

9. Moral Lessons

Just how shall we live changed lives? I have studied, preached, taught and interpreted the fourth Gospel for 33 years, but I never tire of wonder and amazement at what John does not say. He says nothing to us about how we are to live. There is not a single ethical sentence in the gospel—not a proverb, not a moral, not a parable, not a wisdom saying, not a command, not one, no not one. For John trusts—John believes—that once the heart has changed, once our own devotion, decision and discussion are strangely warmed, then we will figure out the rest for ourselves. We shall to build Jerusalem, and then we shall do so.

Let us make a start today. Let us take communion with the promise to live the communion. Let us keep faith with our partners and spouses. Let us tithe, give away 10% of what we earn—at least 10%. Let us worship—an hour a week of careful liturgy, prepared preaching, vibrant music, real fellowship. You can do this. You can. I know you can. We should get ourselves into our own Westminster Abbeys more than once every thirty years.

10. Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning Gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

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

April 24

In the Garden

By Marsh Chapel


In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

Mary supposes she sees the gardener. Mary points to resurrection, in the garden, which is utterly personal and calls out our devotion, decision and discussion.

In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

When we think garden we think Eden and Gethsemane, creation and crucifixion, birth and death.

My dentist, a raconteur of the first water, told me a story. (I have little chance to respond to his stories, given the instrumentation filling my jaw. It is one of the few times a preacher, who makes his living by the sweat of his jaw, is necessarily silent .) The story is about a man visiting a troubled part of the world. He finds a native and asks him what he sees. ‘Tell me in a word, how are things?’

‘Ah, in a word, good’. In a word, things are good.

Unsatisfied the traveler asks again. ‘OK, could you expand a bit. ‘Tell me, maybe in two words this time, how are things?’

‘Ah, in two words, not good’.

In a word, things are good. In two words, things are not good. Eden and Gethsemane, good and not good. Which brings us to the garden and gardener of John 20:15, and to Mary of the utterly personal resurrection.

1. Devotion

Mary announces: “I do not know (where they have laid him)” she says.

Mary has waited in the garden.

Such a lush image, such a powerful setting, a garden. In one word we have evoked Eden and points east, creation and fall, good and not good. Garden. In a word we have evoked Gethsemane and Empty Tomb, cross and resurrection, death and life. In the garden. We treasure our gardens: one of the loveliest common spaces anywhere is our Boston Public Garden; and of course we hope our Celtics will find victory in one garden or another. In the garden. There Mary has been waiting and weeping.

‘They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Other than the cry of Psalm 22, Jesus’ last word in the other gospels, there is hardly a more pathetic, sorrowful sentence in the Bible, or in history. The cross uncovers the marrow of our hurt, burrowing more deeply into our very loss and death, grief and guilt, than we ever could on our own. For us men and for our salvation: the resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. In the garden.

Earlier with the frantic run of the mysterious beloved disciple, and later with the ample doubt of the doubting Thomas, the gospel has fixed before us a discreet interaction. The same happens here. Mary and Gardener meet. Mary mistakes what she sees. She at first thinks she sees. She thinks she sees a gardener.

Mary sees the gardener, what one would expect in a garden. Such a lush image, such a powerful figure. The world of work, evoked here. The world of struggle, evoked here. The world of birth and decay, living and dying, evoked here. In the garden, a gardener.

In the Fourth Gospel resurrection is emotional, relational, and verbal: utterly personal. In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal, like devotion and decision and discussion. In the garden, resurrection includes tears. In the garden, resurrection ask for choices. In the garden, resurrection evokes speech. Why are you weeping? Emotion. Whom do you seek? Relation. I have seen the Lord. Word. In the Fourth Gospel resurrection is emotional, relational, and verbal: utterly personal.

In the garden, resurrection, so utterly personal, is meant to change the heart. “A sermon begins with a lump in the throat.”

Our families moved regularly in the adventurous rhythms of the itinerant Methodist ministry. I came home from college once to a reasonable assemblage of old belongings removed to a new space, including a box of prized baseball cards by then 10 years old. I looked through the camping gear, the scouting badges, the photos and high school letters. I took a quick look through the cards. There was Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, just where I expected them.

Later my mother said:

‘Your little brother wanted some of your old cards. I told him I knew you wouldn’t mind. He traded some of them with his new friends. They seemed pleased. I knew you wouldn’t mind’.

With some anxiety I inquired: ‘oh, which ones did he trade?’

‘Oh, I don’t remember. One was something like Roy Rodgers’

‘You mean Rodger…Maris?’

“Yes! Good for you! What a great memory you have. College has been good for you!’

“Yeah. Right.”

“Oh, and another one, something like one of the Walt Disney characters. You know Minnie or Mickey”

“You mean Mickey…Mantle?”

“Yes! Good for you! What a great memory you have for names. College has been good for you”.

“Yeah. Right”

The last boy, Mickey Mantle, led a desperate life, unlike the one suggested by his smiling countenance on the card I once owned. He chased Roger Maris all the way to the edge of a record number of home runs in a year. But he also chased drink and women. My friend George Mitrovich recently reminded me though of his devotional experience, late in life. I thought about him again, watching the Red Sox over in our shared mystery garden of Fenway Park last Saturday. Speaking of gardens. I remembered the conclusion of his life.

Toward the end of his life he fell ill. After a full life and a great career, his hard living and drinking and carousing caught up with him. But something remarkable happened, at the end. After a life of success, pressure, stress, performance, a driven life, after a driven life with some predictable habitual consequences, the last boy found himself quiet, open and empty. Some Texan friends visited him, and over time, won the trust that allows one to pray with others. And they prayed with him and for him. Somehow, in those moments of simple devotion, the last boy saw more than the gardener. I only will quote his way of putting it because it so gospel and so true: “In their prayers, somehow, I saw that I did not need to perform in order to be loved.”

That is grace, prevenient grace. That is the gospel, the love of God. That is resurrection, in the garden, utterly personal.

Faith is a gift meant for reception. It comes when we have some openness. When I go to Fenway, to our neighborhood garden, a garden of history and mystery, I enjoy a reminder of the distance from performance to love, from garden to glory, from gardener to teacher, from anxiety to wisdom, from death to life.

Such a recognition, like the recognition of the Lord in gardener apparel, can happen in very ordinary ways, even in a crowded Easter service, with communion on the way, and the sermon rounding first base. Just now, for instance.

Such a lush image, garden! The garden of Eden, our image of creation. The garden of Gethesemane, our image of crucifixion. The garden of the empty tomb, our image of salvation.

2. Decision

The Gospel of John is throughout a call to decision. ‘This things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing you may have life in his name”. All manner of other dualisms—heaven, earth; light, dark; life, death, present, future—take a back seat in John to the dualism of decision, the decision in faith, for faith, with faith. Easter may roll around just in time each year to put first things first, to let the main thing be the main thing.

We have the capacity to deceive ourselves about what matters most. In the academic world we pretend that if we can write it down we need not live it through. We perceive accordingly. In academic settings we can sometimes presume that if we write it down we do not have to live it through. Not so, not so. The percentage of stellar academics—students, faculty and staff—who age, who stumble, who die is remarkable similar to the percentage of plumbers, farmers and custodians who age, stumble and die (☺).

A long time ago we were asked, in a psychology class, to identify cards as they were lifted. 2 of hearts, Jack of clubs, 8 of spades. Or so we thought. But the 8 was an 8 of hearts, only the heart was black, so we all saw in spades. We ‘saw’ within a legitimate range of what legitimately we expected to see. Hearts and diamonds are red. Clubs and spades are black. A red spade or a black diamond we do not expect to see, and so we do not see them. We saw the gardener, not the Lord.

Our moral and spiritual linguistic universe, in 2011, is something like this. We see cards in four suits, when in the garden—whether Eden or Gethsemane or Easter—the imaginative categories are different. It can require an apocalypse for us to see.

The Gospel of John, in the whole course of this 20th chapter, has a lesson for us about resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.’ (Jn 20: 29). For John, all that is necessary has been accomplished since 1: 14, ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’. God has loved the world in his Son. Crucifixion adds nothing essential to this saving incarnation, for John. Resurrection adds nothing essential to this ancillary crucifixion, and so nothing to Incarnation, for John. All four separate (if not in fact different) endings to the Gospel, as found here in chapter 20, folkloric as Hansel and Gretel (the race won by the beloved disciple to the empty tomb, Mary and the gardener, the disciples cowering behind closed doors, touching (or doubting) Thomas), themselves are additional—even superfluous—to a needless resurrection, a needless crucifixion and a sublime, saving Incarnation. The Gospel of John is all over in the first chapter.

So. Why is all this here?

Because they are part of the story, and John has chosen to write a Gospel, not a psalm, not a sermon, not a letter, not an apocalypse (though this comes closest). So he tells the stories—tomb, garden, closed room, touching hands—and, it may be, believes them. But they are not the point. The point is in a way the opposite. Seeing is not believing for John. Believing is seeing for John.

These things are written that you may believe…

After an evening program one spring, in the verdant garden of a campground retreat, an older man and I walked at dusk. Here is a Christian gentleman: steady in worship, regular in tithing, committed in faithfulness, devoted to faith and able to discuss this gift with others. In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal. He said:

‘Now that you are my pastor, I guess I better tell you why I am the way I am. In 1944 I was hiding in a garden, along a fence like this one we are walking along, near a field like this one by us. All about me unfriendly fire was raining down, a kind of horrible death rain I had never known in 19 years growing up on a Nebraska farm. To survive I had to pass through the garden and then run, without cover, through a clearing, fully exposed. So, I ran through the garden. Before I crossed, I knelt and said a prayer: ‘If I survive this my life is yours’. I survived. So, my family and I make our decisions in the light of that decision in a garden in France a long time ago. We try to be attentive to small things. We try to put our faith first. We try to be salt and light that others can see’.

Utterly personal. Justifying faith, call it health or salvation or happiness or grace, is not so much about the freedom of the will as it is about the freeing of the will (this Augustine not just Hill). One kneels in a garden. One prays: ‘let his cup pass from me…as thou wilt’.


John teaches us about a sanctifying grace, known in the daily discussions, the daily voices which remind us of the resurrection radiance, the real presence, in Word and Sacrament.

In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal. Sometimes it takes the death of a close friend, or mentor, to remind us. The ancient refers to this in the petition about those whom we love but no longer see. No wonder Gov. Patrick eulogized Rev Prof Gomes by saying ‘he was the freest person I ever knew’.

There is a difference between seeing things as they are and dreaming of things that never were. 43 years ago this month on the tarmac runway in Indianapolis, Robert F Kennedy said something because he saw something. He was able to recall Aeschylus because he had placed his eye on a resurrection horizon. He was able to counsel courage and patience because he placed his gaze on a resurrection horizon. He was able to mention his brother’s death, without wincing, because he placed his gaze on a resurrection horizon. He was able to meet the gaze of a rightly angry hour by lifting his gaze, lifting his chin, lifting the sight lines of a crushed people in a frightful hour. There was a transfiguring transcendence in his manner of discussion.

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! 2 Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. 3 Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. 5 Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it. 7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Resurrection is verbal, vocal.

As many of you know, my Dad died this year, and nearly died in September of 2008. We had two extra years with him. In November of 2008, as he recuperated, I saw him one morning learning to walk all over again, with my mother ever present and loving alongside. It was a miraculous sight, as was the rest of his healing. He told us in those days about a vision or dream he had had, in the coma. I share it with you to close, not as evidence of eternity, for resurrection neither needs nor admits of evidence from us, but rather as evidence of a lo
nging for eternity, and so a comfort and an encouragement. He said that in the hours near death he saw a kind of light, shining through what he described as a lattice work. “Behind and around me I could hear voices”, he said.


In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

We are in no position, ever, to say what God can and cannot do. If God is the God of the ordinary, then God is the God of the extraordinary, too, of the plain and the mysterious, of the known and the unknown.

As Huston Smith (no stranger to Marsh Chapel) reminds us: ‘we are in good hands and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens’.

John has chosen to write a Gospel, not a psalm, not a sermon, not a letter, not an apocalypse (though this comes closest). So he tells the stories—tomb, garden, closed room, touching hands—and, it may be, believes them. But they are not the point. The point is in a way the opposite. Seeing is not believing for John. Believing is seeing for John.

Utterly personal, in emotion of devotion, in the relationship of decision, in the voices of discussion: so resurrection, in the garden.

The point is prevenient grace: “I learned that I did not need to perform in order to be loved”. The point is saving grace: “I will make this vow: if I survive, my life is yours”. The point is sanctifying grace: “he was the freest person I have ever known”.

Why can’t we let a story be a story? These things are written not that you may see, but that you may believe.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven
 and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only
 Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
 He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
 was crucified, died, and
 was buried. He descended to the dead.
 On the third day he rose again.
 He ascended into heaven,
 and is seated at the right hand
 of the Father.
 He will come again to judge
 the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church,
 the communion of saints,
 the forgiveness of sins,
 the resurrection of the body,
 and the life everlasting.

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

April 23

What Changes with Resurrection?

By Marsh Chapel

Exodus 14: 10-31
Matthew 28: 1-10

The Easter Vigil is a peculiar service, marking as it does the transition from the desolation of Holy Saturday to the joy of Easter. Given that the Jewish day begins at sundown we are already into Easter Day, although still holding vigil for the resurrection to happen. What is peculiar about the service is that it is part of the repetitive liturgical year: we pretend to be waiting but we know the outcome already because we have held the vigil for years. We the Church have held it for centuries. Since we’ve been over this before, it is time to ask what difference resurrection makes. What changes with resurrection, that we pretend to wait for it each year? As if it hadn’t happened?

A standard answer is that the resurrection was an historical event that happened almost two thousand years ago and that our Easter Vigil is only a service of remembrance, not a vigil at all. But then, what changed with that one and only historical resurrection, assuming for the moment that’s what happened? Filled with belief in Jesus’ resurrection, his followers assembled a community of people convinced that Jesus was inaugurating a new divine Kingdom, about to appear, that would culminate in their own resurrection, perhaps the resurrection of everyone. The Kingdom did not appear, of course, and the result was that instead of the Kingdom we got the Church. Now the Church is not bad, at least not very bad. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters believe the Church is a foretaste of the end-of-time resurrection of all of us to feast with Christ in Heaven. But as for what happened after Jesus’ time until now, the whole history is compatible with Jesus’ resurrection changing nothing, just as it is compatible with the claim that Jesus was not raised at all, that his body was stolen away by his disciples who made up the story of his resurrection appearances, which is what most people in the world think about that story.

So we need to look again at what resurrection means. This is the Holy Saturday part of my sermon where all otherwise presupposed certainties are thrown into question. Literally, resurrection means coming to life again after having been dead. The Bible has many resurrection stories. Both Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead, as did Jesus, the most notable of whom was his friend Lazarus. Matthew said that when Jesus died, many tombs were opened and people rose from the dead; after Jesus’ resurrection, that is, after the Sabbath, these newly resurrected individuals came into the city where many people saw them. Matthew did not say what these resurrected people did when they went about the city, but surely they must have been looking for lawyers to reverse the probating of their estates. Imagine the consternation that would have been caused by a large group of newly resurrected people whose goods had been passed on to their heirs who now needed to get their lives in order again! That we don’t hear about this consternation suggests a bit of myth-making in Matthew’s account. But the point is that resurrection in these cases only means returning to and continuing the lives that had been lived before. Resurrection itself had little religious significance beyond signifying the power or mysterium tremendum in the persons or occasions that caused the resurrection.

The literal meaning of resurrection is not religiously interesting. So those of you who worry about whether you should believe in a literal resurrection that you find hard to believe can stop worrying. Even if resurrection is literally true, that is not religiously interesting. What did Jesus do after the resurrection? Taking the resurrection appearances at face value, he made sudden appearances and disappearances, talked with his disciples, and cooked, all of which he had done in ordinary life. The astonishing transformation of the disciples and growth of the Christian community came from a deeper meaning of resurrection, not a literal one.

What then could the deeper meaning be? Is resurrection a metaphor for something else that is like resurrection? In these late modern times we know how much the mind and its expression in soul are so closely linked with the biology of the brain that bodily death is hard to square with reanimation. So preachers often say that resurrection is a metaphor for something like it, such as renewal of nature in the spring, starting over without being bound to the past, signs of vitality, fresh starts, hope for the Red Sox. Resurrection is a powerful metaphor for things such as these. The metaphor of resurrection gives zing to things like renewal; but renewal and the vernal equinox are sad come-downs from the dramatic power of resurrection in the life of Jesus. What should we think about metaphors in religion?

Step back, if you will, from the loaded metaphor of resurrection in the Easter Vigil and think about the 23rd Psalm. The King James translation is one of the cornerstones of English-speaking culture and its words resonate in our souls with a thousand associations. Say with me, if you know it:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Psalm literally says that God is a shepherd and that the singer, that is, we, are sheep. Now surely, no one past the age of ten ever has believed that literally. This would be idolatrous in reference to God and overly humiliating in reference to us—sheep are stupider than the dimmest human. A literal interpretation is nonsense.

The age-old tradition of interpretation is metaphorical. Like a shepherd who cares for his sheep, God supplies what we need, life in pleasant places, peace, tonics for the soul, a righteous life, no evil even in death, comfort, gloating repasts in the face of enemies, anointing oils, overflowing cups, a life attended by goodness and mercy lived in the constant presence of God. Each of these divine beneficences is itself a metaphor for thousands of other benefits from the benevolent God. The 23rd Psalm is such a classic because everyone understands this metaphoric meaning and is in love with the vision it sings.

But it is false! Life is full of trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death. To think God is like a provident shepherd is just perverse in the face of life’s realities. Sure, life has many good things, including occasional triumphs and the comforts of the overflowing cup—but all these things pass, and many people get none of them. The ancient Israelites knew this as well as anyone. The Psalm traditionally has been attributed to King David, who was anything but a docile follower of the divine shepherd. Remember how he lusted after a married woman, impregnated her, and had her husband killed. Then to punish David, God killed their newborn baby, according to the text. That text of David’s grief and resignation was read at the funeral of our daughter who died at four months. Life is trouble, not green pastures and still waters, save on rare vacations. And everyone knows this.

How then do we understand the extraordinary moving power of the 23rd Psalm when it is literally
nonsense and metaphorically false? Both literal and metaphorical intentions are claims that God and life are like what the Psalm says, in different but related senses of like. The deeper meaning of the Psalm, which everyone gets, does not have to do with likeness at all. It has to do with becoming connected. If we shape our souls with the images of the Psalm, even though it is literally nonsense and metaphorically false, we become connected with God and our own lives so as to be transformed into gratitude and peace that passes understanding, a truth far more profound than satisfaction with the good things of life. In fact, it is because life is filled trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death, that we move beyond the historical to the depth dimension of our relation with God. Because we know that the life of a happy sheep is a lie (remember why shepherds keep sheep), we come to realize that the genuine comforts of God are not like that. But letting the 23rd Psalm work in us to shape our soul causes us to connect with God beyond that superficial metaphor, and to take overwhelming comfort in the Abyss out of which the maelstrom of life arises. The depth meaning of the Psalm is not in its likeness to anything: it is not an icon. The depth meaning is in its transformative pointing and connection: it is an index, like a pointing finger whose direction we follow until we connect with something otherwise inaccessible. That transformative depth meaning has worked for centuries with astonishing indexical power regardless of people’s literal or metaphorical thoughts in the matter.

Come back to the resurrection of Jesus as we work our way out of Holy Saturday into Easter Sunday. The depth meaning of Easter resurrection lies neither in the literal meaning of coming back to life nor in the metaphorical meaning of springtime renewal and fresh starts. So whatever you believe about these iconic or “likeness” meanings of Jesus’ resurrection does not matter much for religious purposes because the depth meaning of resurrection does not lie there. Rather it lies in what the fulsome celebration of the resurrection stories does to transform our souls so as to connect us with God the Creator in deep ways. With those deep connections that grow from the Easter stories we can embrace the goodness of creation even when we are not so good, the wholeness of creation even when we are not so whole, the loveliness of the world even when we are halting lovers, and the meaning of life even when our own achievements are middling. Most of all we can embrace with gratitude and profound love the gratuitous and shocking creation of this wild world filled with troubles, ecstasies, desolations, satisfactions, and death because those stories of Jesus, when lived with, raise us up into that glorious creation. Those resurrection stories are not what the world and God are like. They are pointers causing us to be raised into life’s most profound ecstatic connection with the Abyss whence we come. This is the Easter triumph: not a life in which everything is new and fine but a life that transforms all the metaphoric content of crucifixion and death into the joyous glory of God’s creation itself.

The transformative work of the Easter celebration does not happen all at once. Perhaps it takes a lifetime–Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Day every year. The resurrection stories of Jesus cannot be separated from all his other stories, his teachings, his historical roles, the birth narratives, and all the mythologizings of the Church that changed a rural Galilean into the Second Person of the Trinity. All these stories interweave, not as literally or metaphorically true but as indicatively true, causally true, transformatively true. So do not worry about either literal or metaphorical truth, however interesting those questions might be on their own. Do not worry about the credibility of the virgin birth, or the sagacity of the Wise Men, or the reliability of the accounts of the Transfiguration, or what really happened when people thought they saw Jesus alive after Good Friday. They are not religiously important in the long run. Worry rather about how to make those stories about Jesus and his resurrection transformative elements in our souls. Enjoy them all. Delight in the crowds of newly raised people swarming into Jerusalem after the thunderous breaking open of their tombs! Perhaps none of these stories is true as a likeness or icon of what happened. But all of them have been true for at least some people in transforming them into New Beings, as Paul put it, lovers of God: and they can be true for us.

Most Christians believe those stories with naïve innocence and are transformed by them. But it is not the likeness kind of truth that is important, however much they might believe it is. Rather it is the causal consequence of dwelling in those stories that is spiritually and theologically important. Some people these days find the stories incredible if construed to interpret reality as being like what those stories say. Sadly, such people often go on to conclude that the stories therefore simply are not true, which is a mistake. The depth meaning and truth of the stories is not in their iconic likeness to anything but in their indicative transformative powers that bring us into connection with the source of all things, with gratitude, joy, and peace that passes understanding. This is how it has always worked, even when people believed that salvation comes because the stories are literally or metaphorically true. That was naïve of them even when they actually were transformed. We need not be naïve like that. What would be naïve of us would be to think we can do without the stories and their celebrations in our souls. To proclaim the resurrection is not to assert it but to lead in the celebration of it.

So let us listen to the stories of Jesus and his miraculous birth, his calling of disciples and teachings of friendship, his sharp knocks at hypocrisy and love of childlike innocence, his proclamation that the last will be first and the first last, his miracles of healing and his struggles with fickle crowds, his interpretations of history and parables of the Kingdom, his gospel of love and demands for justice, his institution of sacraments and founding of a beloved community, his bitter betrayal and corrupt trial, his bloody suffering and desolate crucifixion, his harrowing of Hell and glorious resurrection, his blessing of our maturity and gift of the Spirit, his ascension into Heaven and mythic transformation into the atonement for all sins, into the Cosmic Christ, into the Second Person of the Trinity, into the divine founder of the Christian movement, into an ever-loving friend personally available to each of us, into a reality that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All of these things are part of the deep truth that works in us when we celebrate them. Better yet, let’s sing them, because music moves the soul faster than words alone. What changes with resurrection? We do. What is that change? A closer connection with God. What is that connection? An entry into the divine life whose wildness is embraced with Easter joy. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” You bet!! “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” Amen.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville,
Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011