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Luther on God at Play

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

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Gen. 32:24-30

Matt. 11:12-19

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Luther on God at Play[1]

Does God play games? The fear that God might lies at the root of the anxieties of the modern world. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, sought certainty in the face of the possibility that God (the deus deceptor) might play tricks; and his opponents, solid Dutch Calvinist theologians, accused him of blasphemy for suggesting that such a thing was possible.[2] Albert Einstein famously objected to quantum mechanics by insisting that “God does not play at dice with the universe.” Enlightenment thinkers criticized the Christian God on moral grounds, insisting that God had to act according to our own, rationally discerned rules. The roots of this modern anxiety go far back into medieval and ancient philosophy and theology, which placed God at the transcendent apex of a crystalline hierarchy of being, or set God over the world as a sovereign legislator.

For Martin Luther, however, God is a God who plays games.

By now, on the second Sunday in November, 2017, two weeks after the October 31 anniversary of 1517, you are probably tired of hearing about Luther’s Ninety-Five theses and whether or not they were nailed on the Wittenberg church door.  This morning, I want to propose a different framework for considering Luther and his Reformation in this five hundredth anniversary year: God at play.

In the Gospel read this morning, Jesus says: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  . . . Yet wisdom is justified by her children.”[3]

For most of the centuries since Luther’s lifetime, until the liturgical reforms of the late twentieth century, this Gospel lesson was the one appointed to be read at commemorations of the Reformation. Luther understood this text to embody God’s call as a call to play: to join with God in God’s divine game.

Luther’s world was one (perhaps not unlike our own) in which games were coming into their own.  In a remark at table in 1537, Luther observed that

Games with cards and dice have become common, for our age has invented many games. Surely there has been a great change. In my youth, all games were prohibited; makers of cards and musicians at dances weren’t admitted to the sacraments, and people were required to make confession of their gaming, dancing, and jousting. Today these things are the vogue, and they are defended as exercises for the mind.[4]

Luther himself played chess with students,[5] and was familiar with the ancient European game of Mills known in English as Nine-Men’s-Morris. He compared the devil with a player who catches his opponents in a “double mill” in which no matter what the opponents do, the devil has them his trap.[6] Luther penned a satire on the pope and emperor based on the old German card game of Karnoffel.[7]

Yet this kind of game based on rules is not what Luther has in mind when he insists that God plays games.  Rather, these are the games that humans try to play with God—to subject God to the rules, as if we could catch God in our own “double mill” of metaphysical or ethical necessity. For Luther, this human impulse to play games with God by catching God in our own rules was exemplified by the scholastic theologians who “speculate and play games with God up in heaven: what He is, thinks, and does in Himself, and so on.”[8]

Among Luther’s own supporters, he discerned a distressingly similar effort to entrap God in the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli, who argued that God’s omnipotence in fact precludes His presence in the Sacrament, because for God to be bound to the elements would be a limitation of divine power.[9] For Zwingli, the God of human games is bound by necessity even in his omnipotence. God is spirit; He cannot be flesh. God is light; He cannot be obscure. But Luther’s God, playing not human games but the divine game, is radically free.

God’s game, for Luther, is not a rule-based game like chess or cards.  Rather, it has more in common with a sort of unstructured play, of pretending and playing in back-and forth alternation between the players.  Luther loves to describe God as wearing masks which simultaneously conceal and reveal God’s self: the masks of Creation itself, of the Word and the Sacraments—and Luther speaks of masks which God invites us to put on in the world: the masks of parenthood or political office, of responsibility for neighbors and for creation.  For Luther, the point is not to remove the masks or penetrate through them to God in unmasked majesty, but to join in God’s game.[10]

Luther can sometimes think of the public masquing of Carnival in describing this masked play, but he imagines God’s masks above all in terms of the games between parents and children: the kind of pretending and tricks for the sake of jest that give way to shared laughter and joy. We might think, for example, of a father who lumbers around pretending to be a hungry bear, to the combined sheer terror and equally sheer delight of his children, a game which begins with terrifying ursine growls but ends with bear hugs and laughter.

Indeed, when Luther describes God as “Father,” he is typically not invoking a perilous analogy of being between human masculinity and divine activity, as Aquinas and other realist theologians do, but describing a relationship typified by this kind of play. “God plays with us, and we are his dear children; he dandles us and chastises us.”[11]  God is a father who plays games.

What sets Luther’s understanding apart is not simply the idea of God’s play, but the kind of play. The great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the first editor of the Greek New Testament, when he finally took up his pen against Luther, compared God to a father who holds out an apple to a child in order to teach the child how to walk over and take it. The apple is a gift, but the child must learn to respond in order to get the prize. In a similar vein, Erasmus argued about the commandments. God would not command “thou shalt” to human beings who were utterly unable to comply.[12]

Luther has a more complex image of divine fatherhood and of God’s games: “How often,” Luther writes, “do parents have a game with their children by telling them to come to them, or to do this or that, simply for the sake of showing them how unable they are, and compelling them to call for the help of the parents’ hand!”[13]

Erasmus’ God plays games that are edifying and straightforward and cultivate independence (perhaps the sort of educational games that parents buy for their children that get played once or not at all)! Luther’s God plays games with terrifying reversals; their point is not to teach a lesson to be taken away from the game but to draw the players closer together.

What matters is not rules, or winning or losing, but the playing itself and the persons whom the game binds together.

God plays this game through preaching: preaching which does not simply inculcate a set of rules to keep to march up the ladder until we reach God on the final rung, but preaching which summons us now to mourn with the wailing of the Law, now to dance with the piping of the Gospel.

God plays this game through song, like Luther’s dramatic hymn which we sing this morning, “Dear Christians one and all, rejoice,” itself a proclamation of God’s play with the world.  When we sing together in church, we are not only singing to God, but calling out to one another. When I come to church on a given Sunday, I may or may not feel particularly penitent or joyful or even very strong in faith. If it were simply a matter of my own devotion and the state of my own heart I might or might not feel like singing at all. But Jesus tells us that you need the sound of my voice, and I need the sound of yours. God’s game continues through our singing, the call of the children calling to each other in the marketplace.

God plays this game through ordinary human words, spoken by one human creature to another, and makes them the power of God unto salvation [Rom. 1:16]. The Scriptures themselves, for Luther, are examples (as well as witnesses) of God’s play. Why do the Scriptures deal so much with inconsequential, practical matters like the marriages, households, and flocks of the patriarchs and matriarchs rather than with high, spiritual mysteries? It is because, Luther says, “the Holy Spirit, God the Creator, deigns to play, to jest, and to trifle with His saints in unimportant and inconsequential matters.”[14] Things which seem unimportant measured in themselves are nonetheless important within God’s game.

God plays this game through the ordinary water of Baptism which, joined with God’s Word, becomes a “gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” [Tit. 3:5].  God plays through the Supper, in which Jesus gives not what the senses perceive or philosophy can explain but what Jesus’ words declare: His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Zwingli, of course, sees all this as being “rather childish.”[15]  But for Luther, that is only being a spoilsport, the kind of peevish child who perhaps thinks himself too grown-up and refuses to join in the game. Luther writes, “these godless ones are not ready for God’s game—that is, for dealing with the Gospel—and they spoil it as much as they are able.”[16]

Here Luther stands also against old Pelagius, who described the mature Christian as so grown up that he no longer needs God (emancipatus a Deo) and with Augustine, for whom the Christian was always dependent on God’s grace like the child stilled at its mother’s breast (Ps. 131:2).[17] Spiritual growth for Luther is not increasing independence but an ever-deepening faith and reliance upon God, not independence. For Luther, the Christian never outgrows God’s play.

To say that God is a God who plays games is, after all, to say that faith is the fundamental relationship with God.  The God who does not play games does not need faith. If God is caught in human metaphysical or ethical schemes, then I can know what God must necessarily do toward me by analyzing my own status: if I am good, then God who is Good must be good toward me. If I am like God in my inner being then I am part or participant in God. But with the God who plays games, there can be only faith, trust like that of a child who is tossed in the air and can only trust that he will be caught in his father’s arms. The point of the game, again, is not victory for one side or the other through the application of rules, but the relationship of trust and love that is deepened between the players.

Above all, God plays this game through Jesus.  Jesus is the Wisdom of God, the wisdom who calls out in the marketplace, the wisdom who eternally delights to play with humanity.  Proverbs 8[:30-31 Vg] describes her: “I was with [God], arranging all things, and I took delight day by day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world, and my delight was to be with the children of men.”[18]

This is the Wisdom who comes into the world incarnate not as a solemn grown-up but as a child. For Luther, the incarnation of the Son of God thus embodies this eternal divine game: “we have an infant, this Child [Isa. 9:6]: the mother bears Him for us, nurses Him for us; He remains a Child for us for ever.  He does not display Himself to us in somber seriousness, not in some terrible majesty at which we would have to tremble, but he shows Himself to us as a little Child, and in his childhood he plays with us to all eternity.”[19] God’s play with His beloved people in Christ is perpetual and eternal.

Luther finds God at play throughout the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures. Jesus jests and plays with his disciples, in words and deeds, terrifying them as if he were a ghost when he comes to them over the sea before revealing himself and consoling them by calming the storm.[20] Jesus plays with the Syrophonecian woman when he denies her plea for help, but she joins in the game and compels Jesus through her faith.[21]  For a moment, God’s game may seem terrifying even to the saints—the game of the cat which means death to the mouse, as one of Luther’s German proverbs puts it.[22] Nevertheless, behind the mask or specter of anger, God is playing as a loving father with his children, and the saints come to perceive the sweetness of God’s game.

In Genesis, Luther finds the ultimate and climactic game of God with the patriarchs and matriarchs in Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord, grappling all night until finally the divine wrestler renders Jacob helpless by putting his hip out of joint.  Yet Jacob will not let go. Luther insists, “[this] wrestler is the Lord of glory, God Himself, or God’s Son, who was to become incarnate and who appeared and spoke to the fathers.” It is in playing, not simply in yielding but in wrestling with God, that Jacob comes to know God. “Jacob has no idea who it is who is wrestling with him; he does not know that it is God, because he later asks what His name is. But after he receives the blessing, he says: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face.’ Then new joy and life arise.”[23] It is this God who plays games who is able to become flesh, to reveal himself through playing, to gives himself as pledge.

When God plays his game with the saints, he does not simply set up a game for them to play (and lose) against terrible opponents—sin, death, and hell. Rather, God himself is in the game, in the Incarnation. God does not simply preside over the game in omnipotent transcendence. As we might say, quite literally, God has skin in the game. Therefore, as Luther says, “I do not have nor know any other God, neither in heaven nor on earth, but this One who is warmed at His mother’s breast, who hangs upon the cross.”[24]

To play God’s game is to play with God, the incarnate God. Wisdom, Jesus says, is justified by her children, the children who hear God’s call and join in God’s game.

Luther’s God plays games. In this five hundredth year of the Reformation, will we play along?

-Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown,

Associate Professor of Church History,

Boston University School of Theology


[1] See Christopher Boyd Brown, “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 81.1-2 (January/April 2017):153-170.   On the theme of God’s play in Luther’s theology, see Ulrich Asendorf, Lectura in Biblia: Luthers Genesisvorlesung (1535–1545) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998); John Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2008); S. J. Munson, “The Divine Game: Faith and the Reconciliation of Opposites in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis,” CTQ 76 (2012):89–115.

[2] Cf. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 117f.

[3] There is a textual variant between ἐργων [deeds] and τεκνων [children].

[4] Table Talk of January 1537, WA TR 3:377, no. 3526a; LW 54:221–222

[5] Johann Mathesius, in Georg Loesche, ed., Luthers Leben in Predigten, Bibliothek deutscher Schriftsteller aus Böhmen 9, 2nd ed. (Prague: J. G. Calve/Josef Koch, 1906) , pp. 430-31. For allusions to chess, see, e.g., Answer to the HyperChristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser (1521), LW 39:211 (WA 7:677); Notes on Ecclesiastes (1526), LW 15:40 (WA 20:47).

[6] E.g., Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:203 (WA 38:562).

[7] Eine Frage des ganzen heiligen Ordens der Kartenspieler vom Karnöffel (1537), WA 50:131-34.

[8] Sermons on the Seventeenth Chapter of St. John (1528/1530), LW 69:39 (WA 28:101).

[9] See Heiko Oberman, The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, translated by Andrew Colin Gow (London: T & T Clark, 2004), pp. 195-97.

[10] For discussion of the larva Dei in terms of God’s play, see Anthony J. Steinbronn, The Masks of God: the Significance of Larvae Dei in Luther’s Theology, STM thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, 1991.

[11] De Sacerdotum dignitate Sermo, 1517?, WA 4:656.

[12] Erasmus, Discussion of Free Will, translated by Peter Macardle, in CWE. 76.  See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale, 1980), p. 297.

[13] Bondage of the Will (1525), LW 33:120 (WA 18:673).

[14] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 5:353, translation altered (WA 43:672).

[15] The Marburg Colloquy and the Marburg Articles (1529), LW 38:21 (WA 30/3:118).

[16] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:133 (WA 38:521).

[17] See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 351-52.

[18] Cf. Lectures on Genesis (1535-45/1544-54), WA 42:184, 44:466 (LW 1:248, 7:225).

[19] Enarratio capitis noni Esaiae (1543-44/1546), WA 40/3:641.

[20] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:229–231 (WA 38:579-80).

[21] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:253-57 (WA 38:593-97).

[22] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 7:225 (WA 44:466).

[23] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 6:130 (WA 44:96-97).

[24] Lectures on Isaiah (1528/1530), WA 25:107 (cf. LW 16:55).

A Mighty Fortress

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

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1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Matthew 22: 34-46

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                           A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our shelter He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

The author of our first and famous hymn this morning, Martin Luther, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was a miner of some affluence, who wanted his son to become a lawyer, in part to help the growing family business. Martin disappointed his father, and became a monk, in part due to a frightening experience in a fierce thunderstorm in 1505. Terrified, he promised if he survived to enter the monastery. His love of the Scripture became the center of his teaching work, his ministerial vocation, and his spiritual existence. In the Bible he found what he did not find in the church of his time, in the religious practice of his time, and in his time. He found therein, truth. Once dwelling therein, Luther became a Scriptural genius, learning the biblical languages, lecturing on the Psalms, mastering especially the New Testament and particularly the letters of Paul. Were he to return from the dead and preach here at Marsh Chapel, he might well take as his theme, as last week, ‘What a Friend We Have in Paul’. Or, ‘Luther on Prayer’, as next week. Or, ‘Luther and Hymnody’, as with Dr. Christopher Brown the following week.

Luther’s disputations began well within the church of his day, and were at first understood by all as scholarly differences typical for religious contest. But, as Raymond Brown once told us, ‘all reformations go far beyond what the reformer did originally intend’. In 1517, on All Hallows Eve, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, attacking the practice of indulgences, and setting the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the church. In various tribunal settings, Luther, with a little help from his friends, affirmed the authority of Scripture, and attacked the authority of the Church. Over the next three years, his writing and teaching and publication and preaching, with the help of the newly developed printing press, quickly raised up a storm of controversy. In 1520 he published three magisterial treatises, and by 1521 he was excommunicated. He defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521 saying, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me’.

Over the next two decades, again with much support and assistance from others, out of his voice and writing emerged the Lutheran Church, the Protestant Reformation, and the concomitant splintering of the Christian church’s visible unity, which fracture has not been healed to this day. In 1525, he married a former nun, Katie Von Bora, and together they had six children. He died in 1846 in the very town in which he had been born.   He preached, taught, lived, trusted and extolled the gift of faith. In that way, oddly enough, he was like, akin to, Thomas Merton, whom we shall hear from in Lent.

So, James Finley, ‘Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.’

So, J Louis Martyn, “All religions are attempts to know God; none is the event of being known by God…God’s graceful election of us by his rectifying and non-religious invasion of the cosmos in Christ is the subject of the whole letter.” (Martyn, Galatians, 4:9).


                   Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.

                  Properly to remember Martin Luther, in the space of a 20-minute teaching sermon, here with emphasis on his thought, we shall need to be brutally concise. We focus here on one year alone, 1520, and three fundamental documents from that cornucopia year, which, to some measure, encompass the broad range of Luther’s theological perspective. Together these three ‘made the breach with Rome irreparable, and established the foundations of what would eventually become a new church’ (with thanks to Dr. Lyndal Roper, now and later, 133).

The first is the essay, To the Christian Nobility of the Church. We should remember that Luther’s reformation coincided with the emergence of the printing press. 4,000 copies of Nobility were sold as soon as they came off the press, August 1520. It was addressed in German to lay people, and argued that since the church itself had been unable to reform itself, it fell to the laity to do so. The reform promoted here is heavily weighted on financial reform. Luther charged the church with avarice, and charged the nobility with the task of addressing that avarice, something the nobles had every interest in doing. Luther attacked usury. He attacked complex financial manipulations. He attacked the control of much money by few people. ‘The genius of the tract was to combine the economic grievances about the Church’s financial affairs with the religious issue of the authority of Scripture’ (Roper, 149) (which Luther averred overrode spiritual law, the Church’s teaching authority, and the Councils called by Popes.). Luther set fire to the cult of saints, to religious orders, to masses in memory of the dead, to pilgrimages, and to monastic vows, including his own—all on the basis of economics and Scripture. Most striking, to our ears, is the full sympathy Luther has for priests and religious who have fallen in love and fallen into another’s arms. Putting them together and forbidding sex ‘like putting straw and fire together, and forbidding them to smoke or burn’ (Roper, 150). Only the nobility, only the lay princes, said Luther, had the power to do all this, and he charged them to do it. Sola Gratia!

The second is the treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This came out that year in October, after he had been threatened with excommunication. The title, in which is his whole argument, refers to the children of Israel (the real church) held captive in a foreign land, by an alien power, for a sordid purpose (the church of Rome). Herein Luther trimmed the list of sacraments from 7 to 2, protecting only baptism and eucharist, on the basis of Scripture. Herein Luther rejected an ‘Aristotelian’ understanding of the Mass—one of accidents and essence—but emphasizing and retaining a full, actual Presence in the Eucharist. He hold strongly and fully to the External Word, in the actual preaching of the Gospel, in actual presence in the Sacrament, and in the actual utterance of Absolution. All these three we regularly practice here, month by month. “The sacraments are not fulfilled when they are taking place, but when they are being believed” (Roper, 152). And faith, then is all. It is the belief that makes the sacrament, not vice versa. “Human beings could not make themselves perfect and win acceptance with God because of their good deeds—they had to accept their sinfulness and recognize that God in his justice accepts sinners. Thus they were at one and the same time sinners and saved” (Roper, 154). At the beginning of the service every Sunday, a prayer of confession and a word of absolution. Sola Fide!

The third tractate is The Freedom of the Christian. If you are thinking to read just one Lutheran essay, this is the one to choose this week. Written in November of 1520, this is a 30-point sermon. See how lucky you are to have to endure only 3 points a week! A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. So the writing begins, and in the same manner ends, and argues through and through. So beautiful, so dialectical, so paradoxical, so realistic, so Scriptural—so Lutheran! It is the inner person who finds faith. For every human act, thought, deed, presentiment is colored by sin, tainted with pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy—creatureliness.  The Bible teaches us about sin. The Bible teaches us about faith. It is the Bible, alone, that holds the full authority to do this. ‘Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ, as 1 Peter says’ (Roper, 145). Sola Scriptura!

For his trouble, Luther was excommunicated in December of 1520.

Luther’s teaching is often and rightly summarized thus: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura. 


                  And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we shall not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. 

                  Luther’s influence shapes our understandings of power, preaching and prophecy.

                  Power. Luther reminds us of the relativity of all human ideals. Luther distrusted concentrated power, as M Gellhorn put it this year, I mistrust power for myself and everyone else, especially power bestowed by race, creed or color. Luther trusted preaching, but not those ‘whose heads were clear enough but who never cleared their throats’ (NYR 10/17). Luther respected but mistrusted reason alone: do you want to know better or do you want to get better? (RAH). Luther agreed with some current psychology, that man can do what he wills but cannot will what he wills. Luther would not be surprised by current political leaders who chose political opportunity over moral judgment. Luther’s voice is heard in that of Paul Tillich, The protestant principle is the restatement of the prophetic principle as an attack against a self-absolutizing and, consequently, demonically distorted church (ST, I, 227). Power.

Preaching. As James Kay has written on preaching: “(The great Lutheran) Bultmann operates with an “I-Thou” model or analogy of revelation as entailing existential commitments. Specifically, he construes the presence of Christ to an individual as analogous to the encounter of a Lover and a Beloved when and where the former says to the latter, “I love you.” The statement, “I love you,” is arguably a promise and simultaneously an existential statement in that it does not simply convey information but a self-involving declaration. In saying, “I love you,” the speaker does not discourse about love but enacts love concretely. This word of love is the love of which it speaks….(His) description of the proclaimed kerygma as “personal address [Anrede], demand [Forderung], and promise [Verheissung]; it is the very act of divine grace.” …Words heard with commissive force “self involve” an agent or subject… “I love you,” also functions as a demand, insofar as it places the Addressee in a new situation, namely, of being the Beloved, which requires a response.” (Forthcoming Kay paper). Preaching.

Prophecy. Here is a business leader, Charles Willie, warning of emptiness: “Those who would master the institutions of our society –a company, a community, or any other collectivity—must decide here and now to give themselves over fully to that which they wish to fully control. By so doing they also will forfeit some of their freedom and flexibility. Is mastery worth the outcome of an imprisoned personality that is efficient, well-organized, but constrained and unspontaneous?”

Here is a scientist, Charles Darwin, of whom a new biography was published recently, naming him the greatest Englishman of his age: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…the loss…is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character.”

Here is a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warning about the dangers even in good motives: “the greatest evil comes not from selfishness but from self-lessness in the service of a great cause”.

Here is a Methodist bishop, Violet Fisher, warning us about our present peril: “I ask us to turn over to God for healing the anger and the fear and the desire for dominance that would lead us to harm another human being or to acquiesce in harm done to another”.

And here is a Chapel Dean: We see what we want to see. We minimize hatred and evil. We ignore the lessons of history, to our hurt. We love to be entertained. We neglect worship. We worship identity politics. We need humiliation for humility to be born. We learn only from experience. Doctors we humor, pain we obey.  



                  It may be, as even later Lutheran history and teaching has noted, that the adjective sola, ‘only’ should bear some scrutiny. Maybe not sola gratia, grace alone, but grace and love together, that can measure and resist, say, the anti-semitism that predates Christianity, that is found in the New Testament (John and even Paul in 1 Thessalonians), and that is tragically found throughout the works of Luther. Maybe not sola fide, faith alone, but faith and works, one being dead without the other as James, actually quite rightly put it. Maybe not sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, but Scripture as formed in tradition, as explicated in reason, and as interpreted in experience. So: gratia and agape, fide and semeia, Scriptura and aletheia.

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us! I mean it. Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship. Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

Let goods and kindred go

This mortal life also

The body they may kill

God’s truth abideth still

His kingdom is forever

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

What A Friend We Have in Paul

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

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I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

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         What a friend we have in Paul!


Whose mighty voice has rolled down through the ages bringing us the good news in all its stark simplicity:  Christ the Lord is Risen!


Raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the Tribe of Benjamin, as to the law a Pharisee, a defender of the traditions of the elders—and so a persecutor of the church.


Who rode to Damascus and on the way was blinded and there heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”


Who in that blinding encounter with the Risen Lord, gave himself up, pronounced a sort of death sentence over himself, and so died with Christ and walked henceforth in newness of life.


Who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and so lived moment by moment thinking, “Who knows what will happen next?”


Who cared for those first few Christians, and worried about them, and grew angry with them, for they so easily lost this vision:  that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, who knew what would happen next?


Who challenged the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.   He taught them about death.

Who challenged the Galatians: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”  He taught them about circumcision.

Who challenged the Philippians: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”.  He taught them about service.

Who challenged the Romans: “Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds.”  He taught them about the law.

Who challenged the Corinthians: “Be reconciled.  The form of this world is passing away”.  He taught them about culture.

Who challenged Philemon: “May your goodness not be by compulsion but of your own free will”.  He taught him about power.


Whose mighty voice speaks to us today, in these verses from 1 Thessalonians 1 (the oldest chapter in the New Testament, from 50ad) ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something, first, about what God has done.  Our faith springs not from ourselves but from God, the Giver of both life and faith.

Paul reminds us that “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7).  What else can we expect from a God who raises crucified Messiahs?  Who knows what will happen next?

The future is as open as we, in faith, will allow it to be.

                  We may recognize in Paul a form of thought that differs utterly from our own.  If Paul did retain some of his formative Jewish worldview, the part he closely retained here was his inherited apocalyptic eschatology.   The resurrection must be, he reasoned, the beginning of the end.  Hence, preaches Paul, the form of this world is passing away.

Paul’s worldview, his apocalyptic eschatology, is not our worldview.  Paul’s world, though, is very much ours too.  So, this morning, we shall need to imagine, to dream, and to interpret these verses in a new way, for a new time, as did Martin Luther, Elie Wiesel, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.  So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of humiliation.  And what a time it is, this decade of diminishment. Let us survey our humiliation and let us convey our hope.



                  In the Gospel of Matthew 22, Jesus meets us between Caesar and God.  He is ensnared, or nearly so, in a trap set between conservative Herodians and liberal Zealots.  In good rabbinic fashion, he responds to a question with a question.  Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, this little bitty coin, and render to God what is God’s, your very life.

We are not alone in history to have suffered civic or cultural humiliation. As Christian people, trying by day and week to walk by faith not by sight, in an era of daily outrage and regular civic humiliation, we know something of the difficulty here, and something more perhaps than we knew a year ago today.  Sometimes you just have to learn things the hard way.  The preacher is not free to read the Bible and not the newspaper, nor free to preach without reference to civil society, culture, and the social conditions of life which have pervasive, profound impact and influence on the baptized and unbaptized alike.

Let us hold and finger the coin of Caesar as we are touched by the finger of God.  Let us take stock.

This past summer, at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the pleasure of learning from, dining with, and speaking to Stella Rimington, the former head of British Intelligence, MI 5 (1992-1996).  She was the first woman to lead that agency.  A television drama was produced about her, starring Judi Dench.  She was bristling and candid regarding current global perils.  She proferred no immediate or ready recommendation for resolution to the dangers posed by North Korea.  She affirmed no optimism about the current US President.  She frankly, bluntly admitted the US and British intelligence failures that led to the tragedy of Iraq, the mistaken misinformation about weapons of mass destruction.  She suggested that Theresa May should ‘warm up a little’.  In particular, she worried extensively in rumination about the internet, about the technology controlling so much about us.  That is, she offered no encouragement, no bright forecast for the near term global future.  To conclude, she said, as you would expect, ‘that nonetheless the best we can do is to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

Well might we cherish that reminder.  For we have entered a decade, at least, of freighted difficulty from which there is no rapid escape, no ready, present remedy.  In local, personal, idiosyncratic and individual ways, we each and we all can but soldier on.  The fruit of the spirit, upomone, patience, longsuffering, will need to be our daily manna, our daily cloud, our night fire, our nourishment that is more than bread alone.  There is no quick fix for the regrettable condition upon us, enveloping us, now, with a full year of evident humiliation heaped upon culture, nation, and globe, and our shared need to consider the opportunity to recant, to say in prayer, what we meant by that is not—a year’s evidence now in—what it means. We are judged not by intentions but by consequences.  What it means is what it did–to others and to all.  By the numbers, now, here is one quantification, one calculation of the decadal humiliation that is our current condition, 11 lines parsimoniously cut from four full pages of similar lines:

7—Muslim Nations’ Immigrants Initially Banned in January

54–B$ increase in military spending in February (10%)

2000–legal US citizens seeking Canadian refugee status in Montreal, in March

59—Tomahawk missiles that killed 10 Syrians in April

1—the number of FBI directors fired in May

10,000—the number of transgender soldiers serving in June

40,000—the number of Boy Scouts in Jamboree ‘addressed’ in July

1—the number killed  (Heather Heyer) amid ‘good people on all sides’ in Charlottesville in August

50—the percent of proposed tax cuts accruing to the top 1% in September

11—the number of paper towel rolls tossed at poor Puerto Ricans in October

0—the number of Planned Parenthood centers open in Iowa today

24M—the number under threat to lose health care every day

You now need to keep your own list.  An honest calculation, by the numbers or in some other fashion most effective for you, is a requirement for faithful living today.  You owe it to your future to record, collate, compile, journalize, narrate and describe what you see, and what you hear.

It seems that we have temporarily sold our birthright as a country for a mess of white racist, ethnic nationalist pottage.  And there are no guarantees.  No guarantee that civility and custom once shredded can somehow be restored, somehow survive daily outrage and humiliation.  No guarantee that the one person uniquely so empowered will not push the nuclear button at 5am.  No guarantee that having as a nation chosen this shared humiliation we will come to seek and find recantation and forgiveness.  No guarantee that many, especially and tragically those most vulnerable (the young, the brown, the foreign, the different and the poor) will not just give up on institutions and slide into the mire of anarchy.  No guarantee.  No guarantee at all.



                  No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.   So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of humiliation.  Let us survey our humiliation but let us also convey our hope. Let us lift a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Two shades of hope abide.  “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage” (Augustine).  One realized.  One unrealized.  One of John and one of Mark.  One for today and one for tomorrow.  One from Bultmann, and one from Niebuhr.

Here is one shade of hope.

                  You can in faith ‘face the world free from the world’, with a righteous and realized indignation, tempered with full humility. Even a kind of anger, if tempered with humility. That daily form of hope is yours by decision, by choice, through a commitment to live by the faith of Christ.  This is your invitation:  a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

We may rely not on ourselves alone, but upon God who raises the dead.

We may face the world, free from the world.

 We may lean into the future, free of the burden of past worry.

We can live on tip toe.

          We can compose every day with brilliance as if it were our last, which, in a way, each one is.

The person of faith, who overhears the distress down deep in this world, so deep that others don’t hear it, does not rely on himself to sooth it.  He knows there is one Savior and he isn’t Him.

What a friend we have in Paul, who preaches Jesus Christ, and Him crucified!

Why does Paul teach this way?

Because Paul expects that “the form of this world is passing away”.   God has raised Jesus from the dead.  Who knows what will happen next?

For Paul, this meant a daily, excited, imminent expectation of the turn of the ages, a new heaven and earth, the end of time and the beginning of a new era.  For our sake, it is a blessing that Paul’s own timeline was a little fuzzy.  Otherwise we would not be here.  But the spiritual truth which lives in this passage, its existential reality, is the same.  Every day is our last.  Paul so reminds us, and so shakes us out of our stupor.  THIS is the day the Lord has made.  We shall rejoice and be glad in it!

In all of life, in the fullness of faith there lies this strange, new potential.  Potential.  Potential for something new.

We face the world, free from the world.

                  When things go south, let us live not in the form of this world (in despair and doubt and dread), but in the form of the coming world (hope and freedom and a sense of God’s awesome potential).

Bultmann: “Only Christ can give the kerygmatic character to everything which is ‘taught’ as Christian. Therefore, Christ is correctly preached not where something is said about him, but only where he himself becomes the proclaimer.”

The resurrection is, simply, the preaching of the gospel.  But preaching in a way that is heard. Bultmann helped us see the present hope in Paul, facing the world free from the world.

Here is a second shade of hope.

                  Niebuhr, the great Lutheran liberal, liberal (still a great tradition, affirmed from this pulpit, if not elsewhere, sore oppressed by both nationalism on the right and anarchy on the farther left), who helped us see the future hope in Paul.  Both shades of hope require a translation from apocalyptic expectation into insights for living today, both individual and collective, present and future, Bultmannian and Niebuhrian.  Niebuhr gradually left behind the optimistic and utopian tones of the social gospel.  He also gradually left behind the narrow and prideful tones of a strict socialism.  Gradually he found his way, as we will need to do again in this painful decade ahead, toward a faithful Christian realism.  He found a realistic way toward hope.  That is our work today as well.  We too need to beware ‘the sentimental optimism about the essential goodness of men without realizing how evil good men can be’.  We too need ‘a check not on policies but on pride, to guide men in a mood of dialectical humility’.  We too need to realize that ‘all justice rests on a balance of power’.

You can in love ‘love one another’ as Christ loves you, toward an unseen horizon, a far-off land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  You can hope against hope.

Let those who rejoice do so as if they were not rejoicing.  Let them rejoice not in the form of this world but in the form of the world to come.

We meet each day with courage. We touch and are touched in the presence of Divine Potential, the raw possibility of a new day. We live on tip toe.  We live each day as if it were our last, which it is.  We greet the hour and its struggle, from a certain distance, and over every loud booming statement there is a misty question mark.

You know, it is not always clear what is bad news, or good.  What can seem cause for the greatest rejoicing also can carry hurt, and vice-versa.  God’s time is not our time.  God’s purpose is not equivalent to any one of ours.  God’s justice is not the same as our own.  God’s freedom far surpasses yours and mine.  A crushing defeat can, in God’s time, and with patience, become the source, the medium of great victory.  I think of Franklin Roosevelt.  Where would our country be today, without his life’s strange mixture of rejoicing and suffering and struggle and perseverance?  Is it not odd that the one President who appeared to be the least vigorous, was in fact the most? ‘To lead you have to love, to save you have to serve’.

Let those who buy and sell, do so as if they had no goods.  Not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Augustine said it so well:  we use what we should love and we love what we should use.  We use people and love things, when we are meant to love people and use things.

Yes, use the things of this world and buy and sell.  Let us do so, though, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Not in grasping selfishness, not in anxious pursuit, not in such strangely intense attention.  Rather:  with aplomb, with a certain disregard, with an inner freedom.

About your car, your house, your wardrobe, your bank account, your things—ask this:  Do you own it or does it own you?  Do you own it or does it own you? 

What a friend we have in Paul!

Paul who in hope wrote to the Thessalonians so long ago:

We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 1: 1-10).

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

Words of Welcome

Sunday, October 15th, 2017


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Matthew 22: 1-14



At this time in the year, at Boston University, we see parents and students, coming and going, sending and being sent. It is a bone jarring moment. It is reality, the reality of time and eternity, change and love. Most of our words to parents and students are meant to convey our sincere commitment to excellence, our attention to detail, our trustworthiness, if you will, as an institution and as individuals. The message is sincere and true, important and timely. This is a good place, and your sons and daughters will be here among good people.

But another reality of ‘Parents Weekend’ is about feelings, feelings wrought by coming and going. We also should speak of and to them. We see parents with their children and overhear…feelings.

There is a feeling of gratitude, so thick you can see it in the air. We mean not only the word of thanks that one more teenager is leaving home, one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry, though that is there, too. We mean the feeling that comes with a gasp in the throat, ‘thank you’, the feeling of seeing, my goodness, 18 or more years have gone by, and here, look, look at that young woman, that young man, my son, my daughter. It is a feeling of thanksgiving, for life, for youth, for children, for family, for affection. Every now and then, you catch a smile on a dad’s face, a lightness in a mom’s eyes, and you know gratitude, a real feeling.

There is a feeling of loss, too. In fact, loss is next door neighbor to gratitude, funny as that is. We mean not only the loss you feel with the first tuition check sent, though that is truly a real feeling.  In the autumn, we see sometimes a parent turn away, with eyes brimming, a private moment that even as a pastor I feel unworthy to engage. As a parent, I know that feeling.

There is a feeling of hope as well. You cannot be around many hundred eighteen year olds and turn a cold heart to the future. That much energy brings its own promise and parents feel it. At matriculation last month we sat in front of 3500 young hearts, 7000 young eyes and ears and hands, 3500 souls. When they cheer together there is a tingle, a mixture of awe and fear and wonder, like the feeling of a ten-foot wave breaking right in front of you. ‘Bless you’ we say and pray, and so do our parents. There is a new day upon us and it brings a sense of promise.

Now our parents have other things to think about and bigger fish to fry than to connect their feeling (far more than sentiment or emotion by the way) with the birth of Boston University. Yet these three feelings of gratitude and loss and promise created this school in 1839. Oh, John Dempster and the other 19th century founders would have used other, more religious, more technically theological terms, but the feelings were exactly theirs too, as they served as midwives at the birth of Boston University. In place of gratitude, they would have spoken of grace, prevenient grace at that. In place of loss, they would have spoken of itinerancy, the spiritual journey that is the heart of life. In place of promise, they would have invoked the gospel word of freedom, in the name of the God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. But the feelings—that is, the realities—are the very same, and they bring us straightway into the Gospel this morning.

Three Words of Welcome


                  Do you hear a voice of invitation?

We seldom recognize what a powerful thing an invitation can be. We know the power of an invitation when we hungrily receive one heartily desired. Nothing in all the world ever happened between persons without invitations. Every sermon is in some way an invitation to decision for Christian discipleship.

The voice of invitation is an enticement, a coaxing, a luring, a courting. The board is spread, the meat and drink are prepared. All is well in the house. This open invitation is the mark of Christianity at its best.

You remember that St Matthew, the Evangelist, has a passion. It is invitation, evangelism. The point of the Gospel of Mathew the Evangelist is that he is an evangelist. This is his love. His first love. To seek the lost, gather the dispersed, church the unchurched. And it is a passionate love.

The fun of teaching knots is to show the tenderfoot the square knot. Everything else is derivative. The joy of coaching swimming is to help someone learn to float. All the rest is a corollary. The excitement of instruction in a language is the alphabet and the first declension and the initial vocabulary. All the rest is subordinate.

The capacity to offer a genuine invitation depends on the measure of verbal kindness, and so personal trust, within a community. Let me ask you to pause for a moment and think about the way we speak.

We are invited to feast with one another. We are invited somehow to communicate to one another that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

How many of us, by contrast, live lives that are visually beautiful but verbally vacuous? Maybe that is why Luke, in his telling of this parable, has the invitation go out to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. To begin to invite, let us begin by attending to the character of our conversation as a community.


But the master’s call, as Matthew’s darkening tale reveals, is not heeded. That is the invitation is “taken lightly”, or as Matthew puts it, “they made light of it, and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants and treated them shamefully.” As they had, we are meant to interpret, the prophets of old.

                  The divine calling does not stop, but we now hear a second dimension of it. Here the call is not so much an invitation as it is a warning. One of the most startling points in the study of the parables is to notice the difference between Luke’s account of the story in Luke 14, and today’s reading. Luke is happy. Matthew is angry. Here a man has become a king, those who refuse are not forgotten but violently killed, those who miss their chance are not worthy, and many are called but few are chosen. It is hard not overhear some bitter church experience here, perhaps related to the persecution under the Emperor Domitian in the last decade of the first century.

While we may chafe at Matthew’s intensity, we can readily appreciate this new voice, a voice of warning. Jesus exists for us at some points as a warning. A warning that there does come a time when it is too late. All the parables have this element in them. The mercy of God is eternal, never ending, all pervading. But the time to accept the invitation is passing; the time to accept is the eternal now. There comes a time when it is too late. When we are sensitive, we hear this same warning all around us.

There does come a time when it is too late. The parables shout this warning. We cannot play forever with life-threatening nuclear weapons. We cannot supply the world with arms and expect them never to be used. We cannot applaud forever a narrow nationalism ill-suited to a global village. There does come a time when it is too late. The parables gracefully warn us of that time. Those of us laden with much property, much knowledge, much position may have a harder time hearing this than otherwise we would.

(The sad story which Matthew alone knows about the poor bloke who has no wedding robe apparently is a warning, either moral or spiritual. If moral, it is a warning that grace is free but not cheap. If spiritual, it is a warning that those invited to a daily feast should appreciate and celebrate.)


                  The call to the banquet is an invitation and warning, but in the end, it is a summons. “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find”.

An open, general summons goes out. Even this morning.

A couple of weeks ago, during the communion, I recalled in one of our churches long ago the memory of an elderly man, thinking of the summons of a school bell. Every morning he would prepare to go off into the cold, at age 6. For the winter, he would cover himself from head to toe in layers of clothing. Then his mother would take a huge pancake from the griddle and put one in each mitten to keep his hands warm. The summons came. The bell rang. He dressed, prepared, and went.

For her, for me, for you, this summons is delivered: work is not meant to drive out love. No, nor are any other penultimate passions meant to take the place of God the God of love in our lives.

In Jesus Christ light came into a world of darkness. In him we are called—invited, warned, summoned—into the kingdom of heaven. This call is not an abstract, universal bellow. It is a whispering that touches and knocks at the door of every human heart. Jesus teaches of a pardoning God, who is quick to forgive. Jesus tells us of a gathering God, who gathers good and bad together. In him has the light shown in the darkness.

Exemplum Docet

Schweitzer: Invitation

                  Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer, for all the complications and contradictions in his life and our memory of it.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

As a scholar, he wrote: (Tom) “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (QHJ, 389).

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine. Like love, like falling in love, like the discovery of a soul mate, life partner, spouse, real friend, an invitation is as powerful as it is numinous. A real mystery.

Addams: Warning

         Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide.   But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So, Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: (Denise)“The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a former neighbor who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. He said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.” 

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Thurman: Summons

                  Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, in summons. As a summer student minister, Thurman received a late-night phone call.

(Nick) ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’ 

                  In one kaleidoscopic moment, I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’. ‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’…

                  In a barely audible voice (the man) said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

                  I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen. 

                  We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts. Hear the gospel in invitation, warning, and summons. Words of welcome, words of welcome, words of welcome 

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

And wait to watch the water clear I may

I shan’t be gone long. You come too.


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

Readers: Tom Batson, Denise-Nicole Stone, Nickholas Rodriguez

Ministry is Service

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

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Philippians 2:5-8

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Have this mind among you, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, takin the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.


For most of 2017 here at Marsh Chapel we have attentively followed St. Matthew, as the basis of our preaching, including through our national summer series. We are grateful for the Gospel of Matthew, including his remembrance of the parable of the watchtower, a teaching about watchfulness, about judgment, and about living on the ‘qui vive’. Today, we turn, though, away from the Gospel, and toward the Epistle, which we have happily been hearing these past several weeks, that of Paul to the Philippians, his most ringingly joyful letter.

Our lessons today are about service, about ministry. Ministry is service. The word means service. We are taught, here, in Philippians, to hunt for life, to find real life, to have the experience of really being alive, in ministry, in service. This morning our readings invite you to think a bit about service. ‘Taking the form of a servant…’

In the advent of Christ Jesus, anxiety is eclipsed by joy, fear is overcome in thanksgiving. All this happens in service.

At Marsh Chapel, we are expectantly awaiting the advent of another generation of twenty year olds and others who are captured by the mind of Christ and enchanted by the prospect of service in his name. But if this is so, we shall need to be direct and honest, with them and with ourselves, about what service involves.

It may be that this intention lies behind Paul’s magnificent letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing, in the mid- 50’s of the first century, from a prison cell. Think Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela. Paul notes the resistance that some have to his trip into the slammer. Not everyone finds Paul’s stay in the calaboose uplifting. Some do. Some see the gospel advanced through imprisonment. Some do not. Some see Paul being Paul, always spoiling for a fight, always on the edge of conflict, always polemical Paul. They preach Christ, but denigrate Paul, or denigrate Paul in the way they preach Christ.

Let us imagine what may also have been in the air, though we cannot prove it. Let us imagine that Paul decides not, at this point, to parry. Imagine that rather, he listens, hard, to this. He wants to understand: The Greek knows a thing by ‘overstanding it’ where we understand (by getting to the bottom of it) EPISTAMAI’. Paul wants to understand, to stand under, to go underground, to see the underpinnings.


To provide some exposition of Paul’s letter, let us look for a moment at our own experience.

Service requires the willingness to be immersed in community life. Community life means endless contention and intractable difference. In a family, church, town, city, university, country or community, real life means real life, including conflict. Anyone in public life and leadership, including clergy, but not only clergy, and not mainly clergy, knows the disappointment involved in service. Here is some good news. Look at disappointment. Look at it– with reverence for the meaning underlying it.

It takes a big dose of courage to swallow disappointment and to hunt around in disappointment for what may happen when people meet in a real, shared partnership based on real, shared struggle. And that swallowing, friends called to service, friends engaged in ministry, friends growing to leadership size, that swallowing is the beginning of wisdom. Here, conflict. But also–the opportunity, taken or missed, to enter another’s real life, real pain, real soul.

It is from the locations that people give you that you will have the chance to give people some healing. If they place you in a high pulpit, far off and up there, and 15 feet above contradiction, the ministry will have to begin there. It need not end there. If they place you in a rough parsonage with a leaky roof and a long, sad history, the ministry will have to begin there, but should not end there. If they place you at the family table, as guest and as host and as minister, you can start where they are, there, but you need not end there.

In 1982, one bitter cold February Saturday night, we were invited to dinner. Saturday night always carries a proleptic anxiety over Sunday morning, especially, as in the case of this clear winter night, on the Canadian border, when the morning’s sermon was not finished, was still in gestation, was still seven months at least from birth, with birth only hours away. The family dinner, it turned out, was an extended family dinner, three generations, hosted by grandma and grandpa. After dinner, the dozen of us retired to the family room of the big country house, when, over dessert, the purpose of the evening arrived. Or was revealed. Grandpa wanted grandson to be Christian, to believe, to be confirmed, and to attend church, and wanted the new preacher to effect this, to explain faith, to defend belief, to convert the heathen, then and there. It needs emphasis that these, all, were the ruddiest and handsomest and best of good people, none with more than a high school diploma. They had a location into which they had appointed a minister, their minister. If ministry was to start, it would have to start there, which it did, over a couple of hours. The minister answered what questions he could. He did not complain about the ambush, but he did identify it. Then he also asked his questions, of the family and for the family, questions of histories and systems and silences and, even, identified patients. By 11pm, the work was done, but not the sermon. It was a sneak attack, to be sure. But it was also an invitation to partnership. Leaving in a huff, in defiance, would have communicated boundaries but would not have been service. Answering questions but asking none, compliance, would have communicated sincerity but not authenticity, and would not have been service.

Exhausted and enervated, the minister and young family drove home through the crisp snow and black beautiful cold, cold night, the temperature 20 below zero And still no sermon finished for the next morning.

Leaders. Current leaders. Future leaders. Servant leaders: You cannot leave false nametags on your shirt or back, as inevitable as their placement is. They need removal. But you also cannot predict where real, responsive service or ministry will emerge. People only hear you when they are moving toward you. (repeat) They can best move toward you when you are located near them.

When you are invited to become chaplain of the fire department, accept. When you are asked to pray at the blue and gold banquet, accept. When you are encouraged to join the country club, accept. When you are invited to Saturday dinner, accept. When you are called to come to the barn for a talk, accept. When you are asked to visit the family burial ground, accept. When you are invited to speak at Christmas for the service club, go. When you are encouraged, not so subtly, to visit Aunt Tillie, make the visit. As a rule, accept every invitation. These are overtures, questions and hopes, addressed to you and to who knows who. Your response: ‘I am at your disposal, at your service’.


In respect of Paul, as our exegesis has shown, and as our exposition has outlined, we turn to apply Philippians to Christian life in America, 2017, awaiting a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope (repeat). The One Who took the form of a servant meets us today right in the teeth of the gale, in the heart of the storm.   He speaks to us the eternal word. Peace. He speaks to us the saving word. Have this mind among you–a timely word, a fit word, a word fitly spoken. We are a people drenched in sorrow, anger, worry, and exasperation. The boat is heaving from side to side, stem to stern, port to starboard.   Newtown, Santa Monica, Washington, West Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas…Las Vegas.

What shall we say, think and do? But, friends, you know your answer already, to this. (We all need more reminder than instruction.)

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

By pray I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil. But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging and empowerment. You can do this. You can engage and support others. If week by week you only regularly see family, co-workers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow. But in the pew you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments. Not your mom, not your boss, and not your golf partner. Others–who are other. Somehow as a people we think that we can muster the will to address issues on the grand scale, when our orbits of relationship are with people who are like us, are like ourselves. This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into the Calculus without mastering multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles. This next summer our preaching series considers Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’. But to stretch toward that Johannine, Roycean, and Kingly vision, we have to start by sitting for an hour near people who are other than we, in the presence of God.

By vote I do mean election-day ballots. One of our leaders here at BU, when asked what advice she might have for graduates of 2017 said, simply, ‘vote’. Yes, go to the polls. But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference. Personal engagement. One of our most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston died suddenly of cancer six years ago. How we miss her. One day we were walking together on the Esplanade. We were talking about gun violence. In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman. ‘They know me there. I have them on speed dial’. She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person. Well that may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money. She was a great person. We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.

By act I do mean doing something, within your sphere of influence. Several gathered here at Marsh Chapel for a compline service this past Monday evening. Others attended other events. You may have decided to attend a gathering for good sometime this week—a fund raiser for Puerto Rico, a walk for peace in our time, a committee meeting to address, in some measurable way, the horror of gun violence, with more than 200 mass killings in this country this year. Good for you. Tell them Dean Hill sent you. Let us find ways to act. Our Boston University President, Dr. Robert A. Brown, challenged us this week to ‘seek to understand the causes of grotesque acts of inhumanity that we might work toward making the world a better, safer place.’ There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of endless unsolvable contentions. 350 million guns there are across the land. Yes. Yes. I know. These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful. But you know, life is full of change, even surprising change. In her late 80’s my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door. It read: ‘Do one thing. There. You have done one thing.’ I have a voice, and I will use my voice. You do too.

Speak through the pulses of desire

Thy coolness and thy balm

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire

Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire

Thy still, small voice of calm.


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

Sharing in the Spirit

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

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Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

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                   Please be seated. Good morning! It is an honor to be sharing the Word with you from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again! Thank you to Dean Hill for this opportunity and to my colleagues here at Marsh Chapel for their support in organizing today’s worship service – especially our anthems from the choir for the day.

I want to invite you to take a moment to think about the best dinner you’ve ever attended. I don’t mean necessarily the meal that you ate – maybe that’s a part of it – but the best dinner experience you’ve had. I’m almost sure that this dining experience you’re remembering right now is with at least one other person…maybe a whole table full of people. How did you feel? What did you talk about? Maybe your dinner was a part of a celebration, for a birthday or an anniversary. Maybe it was at a family holiday gathering. Maybe it was with friends out at a restaurant. Maybe it was a home-cooked meal made by a family member. There is something about that dinner that sticks with you, a connection made, an emotion felt, an experience that cannot be forgotten.

Every Tuesday night in this building, something wonderful and amazing happens. Onions are chopped, sometimes with tears, dough is kneaded and shaped, chickpeas ground, tomatoes sliced, garlic sautéed. Simple ingredients are turned into a meal. And while all of this is happening, people gather. Some of us are in the kitchen, learning how to make whatever dish is on the menu that night. Some stand just inside or outside the doorway, carrying on conversation with those who are cooking, and others gather just down the hall conversing about the week so far or playing the occasional game of Jenga. We all come from different backgrounds – some of us from neighboring towns in Massachusetts, some from the South or the West, some from China, or Mexico, or India, or Nigeria. The places we know as “home” might differ, but in our interactions we create a new place of belonging for ourselves.

Global Dinner Club has grown in the last two years as an opportunity for hospitality and understanding across cultural differences as members of the Boston University community come together to share a meal and conversation. Most students, when they first come, ask the same question: “You do this every week? For free?” Yes, a home-cooked meal, prepared with care and attention by people who may or may not know each other all with the goal of sharing together. And sometimes those new people jump right in, offering to chop or slice, stir or roll, and sometimes they hold off for a week or two, observing what goes on before feeling confident and comfortable enough to fully participate. And that’s okay too – no one is ever told they must help or participate, but we hope they come around to it sooner or later.

Tuesday nights are wonderful and amazing because they are grounded in love. Every person who attends wants to be in community with others – even if they’ve had a hard day. Global Dinner Club serves as a release from coursework and other concerns, allowing space to only focus on cooking and enjoying food with each other for a few hours.

What is also amazing about Global Dinner Club is that it is antithetical to everything that the world wants me to believe about life in the United States at the current moment. It is people from all different backgrounds and varying ages coming together only with the agenda of eating and getting to know each other. Attendees find points of commonality – for instance, a favorite television show or a class taken – and from there the conversation grows. Or they find points of difference – for example, idioms that are commonplace in American English need further explanation to make sense for non-native English speakers. As an aside, this week I realized how Western the term “damsel in distress” is, and how hard it is to explain if you didn’t grow up with fairy tales about castles and knights and dragons. While there are barriers we have to overcome in understanding each other sometimes, and while there are many possible outside forces that prevent us from experiencing the joy of learning from others and growing in friendship, it is still possible. It gives me hope at a time when so much of our world seems to be in chaos. It reminds me that love is stronger than hate.

Consuming food for nourishment is a basic need for all human beings, but it becomes something so much more because it is shared. Eating together enables us to get to know one another. It is an intimate act. When I asked you to envision the best dinner you’d ever attended, I bet it brought back particular memories about whom you shared it with and the emotions you felt during that time. Sharing a meal unifies those gathered around a table through telling stories, revealing oneself enough to find common ground, and leaving behind quarrels or divisions to enjoy a meal together. We may, at one time or another, have sat at a table with someone who sees the world differently than us, but have been able to learn and grow from interacting with them over a meal. It is not the act of eating alone that brings us together, but the act of sharing in the experience of a meal – of conversation and eating, words and action – that enable us to grow into community.

In the lesson we heard this morning from Philippians, Paul urges the community of Christians in Philipi that they must be unified. That they mustn’t let in-fighting and quarreling divide them. They must act as servants to one another, acting in love toward one another. In order to “share in the Spirit” they must be willing to be open and humble as Christ-followers. Anticipating the needs of the other and looking toward the interests of the other before thinking of one’s self interests. Living in community with others is difficult, and Paul knows this, but he emphasizes that one of the ways that the community in Phillipi can come together is to let God be front and center in their minds as they go about interacting with one another, serving each other’s needs as God acts through them to do so.

A meal is a great place to put this into practice – not only are we able to meet the physical needs of others by providing the sustenance offered through food, but we are able to provide the emotional and spiritual support of others through listening and offering parts of our own journeys with them. Extending hospitality to others is a part of our Christian heritage, and a meal can be just that for those searching for it.

Sharing a meal is a sacred act. Today we will share in a meal together in Holy Communion. Other religious traditions also share sacred meals. Every Friday our Jewish friends celebrate Shabbat.  At the end of each fasting day during Ramadan, our Muslim brothers and sisters break their fast by sharing in iftar, and culminate their month-long fasting with an Eid al-Fitr dinner. In most worship practices within Hinduism, worshipers consume the prasad, the food which is first offered and then ultimately blessed by deities. Consuming food, especially together, is an important, sacred activity within many religious traditions other than our own.

Today, in a few moments, we will share in a particularly special and unifying meal in our worship service. The first Sunday of the month is always Communion Sunday here at Marsh Chapel. But today is an even more special day – today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. This first Sunday in October is celebrated throughout the Christian world as a time when we intentionally recognize how all Christians are connected to one another through sharing in the sacred meal of Holy Communion. Created in the early 20th century by the Presbyterian church, the importance and popularity of World Communion Sunday grew during World War II, when the world appeared to be tearing itself apart with conflicts on many fronts. Christian ecumenicism, bringing together many of the Mainline Protestant traditions and some of the orthodox traditions, helped people find points of connection rather than being defined by the theological traditions that separated their individual Christian denominations.  It resulted in the development of Christian-led reconciliation work in the face of on-going conflict that continues to this day through organizations like the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. Today, World Communion Sunday offers us a time to see how the Body of Christ extends across the globe in many shapes and forms as a unified whole. While communing with individuals who claim different denominational affinities, or none at all, is not out of the ordinary for us here at Marsh Chapel, today we affirm the call to come together as one in this sacred meal, open to all who wish to partake.

Our ritual of Holy Communion is not a full meal. At most, we usually get a bite of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. But it stands for a bigger meal with a greater meaning for us. In preparation for today’s sermon, I read Lutheran theologian and historian Martin Marty’s The Lord’s Supper. It is a small book and easy to read, designed for the everyday person – I highly suggest it if you’re looking to learn more about how and why we do the things we do during Communion. In it, Marty reminds the reader that we must keep in mind the greater context of what we are doing through the act of communion.  He states: “The Lord’s Supper is often called “Holy Communion,” a coming-together of bread with body, wine with blood, God with creatures, and believers with one another. To realize through Communion that one is a social human being who shares common miseries and joys is a benefit of this meal. It serves to lift a person beyond mere “me-ness.” While we may come to church services looking to find something that will resonate with us individually, usually through a sermon or the prayers, we must also be reminded that the purpose of worship, and specifically communion, is to bring us together as a “we.” Not just as a “we” of people in one place, but a “we” of connection with all others, including God and the creation. Communion brings us back in touch with the earth, to see the way God works through the world.

Just like a regular meal we might have on a daily basis, Communion also consists of words and actions. And in order to be communion, it must have both to. In the Small Catechism, the instruction booklet of faith for Lutherans, Martin Luther explains that communion is more than just eating and drinking. It is the combination of words shared and the action of eating and drinking that constitute the sacred act of grace and forgiveness which makes Holy Communion a sacrament rather than just another meal. In the words spoken by Jesus that we repeat during Holy Communion, and following his actions with the disciples, we are a part of the sacrament. Jesus said “Take and eat, this is my body, given for you.” “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” When we offer and receive, sharing these holy words, we are a part of the experience of the divine and are brought together as members of God’s holy family.

The meal we share in communion helps to feed our souls by offering us the grace of the divine and encouraging us to let that grace work through us in service of creating a more just and loving world. In coming together as a congregation, we open ourselves up to bear the burdens and serve the interests of others through sharing in the Spirit with one another. Our task is to continue extending the grace offered to us through our experience within Holy Communion by loving our neighbors and showing care for them. One way we may show care is offering a meal, or a place to rest to those who need it. Or we might gather supplies for those experiencing loss, like our community-minded service group MOVE is doing for people in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. If the intentions of our actions are grounded in faith, then we do much more than meet the physical needs of others. We also extend God’s love into the world.

We come together in worship to hear the Gospel, bear each other’s troubles, ask for forgiveness, receive God’s grace, and go out into the world living our lives being carried forward by the mind of Christ. Let us look for the ways in which we can all share in the Spirit with others, especially those who are marginalized or oppressed, creating a community of understanding and support, outside of this physical space and time. Let God work through us to bring forth justice and reconciliation in the world. Let us simply look up from our plates across the table to those sitting around us and share pieces of ourselves with others along with our meal. Amen.

-Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

The Bach Experience

Sunday, September 24th, 2017

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Matthew 20: 1-16

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Here at Marsh Chapel over the last decade we have endeavored to offer our listenership around the globe, and our congregation here in the flesh, a distinctive confluence of music and word, come Bach Sundays. By experiment and practice, we have tried to allow the preaching of the Gospel, God’s external word of grace in sermon, and the music of the church, the praise of God in voice and instrument, to dance together, to become a mutual enrichment, and a call to faith. Over time that has led us, Scott and me, to reform the service and sermon, upon these Sundays, into an antiphonal teaching, including a sermon in dialogue. To our current knowledge, what you hear, here, is sui generis, not like something or anything else, what we hope is a part of what across the oikoumene is distinctive, better and best about Marsh Chapel.

In preparation for the confessional humility of today’s cantata, we give ear to our Holy Scripture. In Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’ as Bultmann put it. The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity. Its point: behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same. As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice. To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay. To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive. To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs. To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.   The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers. When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath. When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.

Let us attend carefully for a moment to Matthew. In the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others. Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace. Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter. The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett on Bach  

Today’s cantata offers a similar version of the “Last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. You’ll recall with me that Jesus’s parable depicts the outwardly pious Pharisee praying ostentatiously, taking advantage of the presence of the tax collector to boost his own piety. By contrast the Tax Collector remained in the back of the temple, out of side, head bowed, beating his breast, in complete humility. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. So sit up straight this morning!

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Listen again to the words in St. Matthew, a portion of his gospel that is all his own, unshared by Mark, unshared by Q, unshared in the rest of scripture. Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power. The allegory is clear. God is obliged to nobody. Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late. In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago. (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.) Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same. Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning, there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’. ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.

We have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith. Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing. Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too). (If faith comes by hearing it will help if you are in earshot. You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letters: live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

I wonder about you? and me? Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week? Are we better people than we were last Sunday? Are we able to pray each day? Martin Luther, the 500th anniversary of whose reformation we remember this autumn, recommended morning prayer to include a recitation of the Ten Commandments, a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, morning by morning. Will the remembered humility of this parable in Matthew 20, and the powerful call to contrition today of this music, bring us to our knees, morning by morning? And, are we better, as a people, than we were last Sunday? Luther celebrated the external word—not just spirit and experience. The external word in preaching. The external word in sacrament. The external word in forgiveness (confession and absolution). Can we somehow find our way to church to hear and be fed and receive that external word?

Here too is John Calvin (for once) interpreting this parable: We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God. From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling. Finally, we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)


Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

 -Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music and

The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

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Exodus 14:19-31

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18: 21-35

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            After some significant internal struggle, come Senior year of college, I finally decided to go to seminary.

            That spring I visited Harvard, Boston University, Yale and Union. I stood outside the chapel here, and have a picture to prove it. Union in New York was easily the right place, for me. In part I went on the advice of a friend that ‘a year of seminary never hurt any one’. Once in for a penny, I was in for a pound, and really never looked back. Your calling is what you sense is your best response to God. And that can change. In fact, you need to practice the art of ‘editing your dreams’. They need writing, but they editing too.

What a world opened up in New York City at Union! How grateful I am. The urban world, the ecumenical world, the theological world, the biblical world, the world of the gospel and its preachment. It is an embarrassment to admit to you how little I knew about the Bible, for all my parsonage tenure, small Methodist college degree, summer camp leadership, and generational background. I knew nada. And into that mental wasteland vacuum swept Samuel Terrien, George Landes, Raymond Brown and Lou Martyn, four horsemen of the apocalypse, to furnish its empty mental apartment books shelves with, well, books. I fell in love with the Bible, with the Strange World of the Bible. There too were James Forbes, Cornell West, Chrisopher Morse, Linda Clark (who later came here), Horace Allen (who came here later), and many others. William Sloane Coffin came into the Riverside pulpit. Across the street was the Jewish Theological Seminary, whence Abraham Heschel had come in the autumn afteroons to walk around Grant’s Tomb with Reinhold Niebuhr, just a few years earlier. That image of interreligious, interfaith theological discourse inspires still.

It happened that Union was in the throes of a renaissance of sorts, and the President, Donald Shriver had somehow convinced Robert McAfee Brown, a longtime Union alumn, faculty member, and Union family member if you will, to leave his beloved California haunts and come back to New York, with his wife Sydney (a missionary’s daughter). Bob and Sydney met in the summer home of Reinhold Neihbuhr near Heath, MA—they were in that sense god-children of the Neihbuhrs and so of that tradition at Union. Brown stayed at Union only three years, but they were the very three I was there. He had been the Protestant Observer at Vatican II and taught a course we fought to gain entrance too, titled, the Ecumenical Revolution.   He knew about Heschel and Neibuhr walking in the autumn light on Riverside Drive very well because—he fell and love and got married under Neibuhr’s roof. Brown encouraged us to go and work in 1978 at the World Council of Churches, in Swizerland, in the Office of Urban Ministry, run by the one and only George Todd, Brown’s fellow Presbyterian. Due to health issues, we left Union and New York suddenly and precipitously in February of 1979. In that early winter of 1979 we retreated to a church in Ithaca, to heal and to begin the work of ministry, among the students at ‘godless Cornell’.

Before we left, perhaps a week or so before, Bob and Sydney Brown held a winter dinner party in their home, which was an apartment in McGiffert Hall, under the wing of Riverside Church along Claremont Avenue. It may have been, if memory serves, that the dinner guests were his seminar students and spouses or friends from the course on the Ecumencial Revolution. Many things for us were unsettled at the time, a time of existential fright and anxiety. The welcome, the warm welcome of that home, the dim awareness we had of who Brown was, who the Browns were, and their very humble circumstance, hospitality and kindness to 2.5 itinerant Methodists stands out after forty years. Robert McAfee Brown had a special reason for the dinner, because he had invited a special guest, colleague and friend of his, whom he had met at Stanford, but who was also now in New York, though he spent a part of each week in Boston. Our dinner guest had been invited to a University Professorship here at Boston University by then President John Silber, and, after some hesitation, as I understand it, he accepted. In a way, Brown’s firm, lasting friendship with Wiesel, at least it seemed to me, reflected the friendship of the earlier generation between Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel (who delivered Neibuhr’s funeral eulogy in Stockbridge MA, 1971, just 5 years before we arrived at Union). So it was that we came to know Elie Wiesel.

Robert McAfee Brown’s vision of the oikoumene included Elie Wiesel, his celebrated dinner guest that snowy evening in 1979. By precept and example, then, Brown taught us to consider thinking and living in the same way. The later edition of NIGHT comes with an introduction by RM Brown, after which Brown wrote his full book, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, which includes this passage: I have tried very hard, my friend, not to write this book. At every stage it seemed a tampering with things I had no right to touch. But because each exposure to your work moves me more deeply, I fell compelled to share of portion of what you have given me. To receive and not to share—that would be a denial of all I have learned from you. You have said that to be a Jew means to testify; such must also be the obligation of a Christian. And you have taught us all—Jews, Christians, and all humanity—that before testifying ourselves, we must liest to the testimony of others. I have tried to listen to your testimony. And now I feel obligated…to testify (p. vi.)

 There is a gracious power in hospitality, like that which Professor Wiesel showed us in the Browns’ residence, forty years ago. It lasts, the warmth and authenticity of it, they last. Said Unamuno: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost’. (Not the night of unknowing, but the frost of unloving—that is what kills). Speaking of night…


Through the eighties I pursued a PhD at McGill. As the dissertation was slowly writing itself—we shall sell no wine before its time!—I began teaching in various schools. Montreal had an excellent film library, free and substantive, which I would raid on occasion for the course taught in community colleges along the border, up north. One perennial was a reel to reel film of Professor Wiesel.

Later still, the dissertation simmering nicely on the back burner for most of a decade—do not take my example—in teaching at Lemoyne College, Syracuse, we read NIGHT, as so many have done over the years. The course prepared the way for it by use of another film—ancient technology—ON RITUAL, whose JTS lead figure was Professor Gillman, whose daughter Abigail is now our colleague her at BU. Gillman: ‘The central Jewish vision is that whole world made holy: all of life raised to its deepest and highest level’. The film follows the annual, weekly, and daily ritual life of woman named Carol, one of the first women to enter the rabbinate in Conservative Judaism, and so teaches about Sabbath, and then about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Booths, Hannukah, Purim and Passover. Ritual brings order to life.

Wiesel was the quintessential teacher. His books carried his voice out across the globe. Those who studied with him here regularly remember his remembrance of them. My Norwegian friend vividly remembers Professor Wiesel gradually getting him to come out his shell, by telling funny stories. Our students in the small Catholic School, where most were the first in their families to attend college, connected with him from afar. In particular, the students always read and could always fully engage Wiesel’s book. I taught it by showing the points at which the ten commandments were engaged or broken (pps 50, 59, 71, 73, 90, and others). I never had a chance to ask him whether that was a fair way to teach the book, and whether he had the Decalogue in view for its structure. We learned from Wiesel and his book by raising questions. What is the central theme of the book? What is its weakest point? How do you describe the ‘voice’ of the author? Which scene did you dislike most? What other writing does it recall? What would you ask the author if he were here today?

All of us are far more human than anything else, including and especially those who remind us best of our own best selves, like Professor Wiesel. There is I am sure a full set of observations in loving critique that can and should be raised, and will be in the sessions offered this morning and afternoon in his honor. I wonder, for instance, just how inclusive his perspective was with regard to gay people. I wonder about his relationship with non-Orthodox Judaism. Like every sermon, every life has its points of challenge. But I, for one, have been deeply and lastingly influenced by the life and work of this one who lectured to us here thrice each autumn over 40 years.

Franklin Littell, the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, was not in the habit of mincing words. One ongoing application for those of us who have been seized by the confession of the church, who have been loved by the faithfulness of Christ, is to look again, to look long, to look hard at the Holocaust. We have yet to understand what happened to Christianity in the dark abyss, the hellish, ghoulish fire of Auschwitz. Crucified, Judaism has risen from the dead. But what will become of Christianity? Will there arise a movement from religion to faith? Will there appear on the earth a religionless Christianity? Seventy years later, and the clock is ticking:

Nazism was in no sense a revolt against ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Neither was it ‘secularist’. Quite the contrary: in its central creed the party affirmed a devotion to ‘positives Christentum’. The Fuhrer and other party orators made constant reference to ‘divine providence’, ‘spiritual renewal’, ‘moment of decision’, ‘immortal destiny’…and the like. Many of the party hymns were simply new words written to popular gospel songs, with the same brass bands marching and evoking from crowds the same emotional response. The key question, and here the issue of ‘heresy’ arises, is why the millions of baptized and confirmed Christians had no sense that they were now responding to visions and programs antithetical to the biblical faith. (F Little. The Crucifixion of the Jews. 70)

            Yet it was not finally the acute academic work of Littell and others that brought a fuller witness to and understanding of the holocaust to the American conscience. That work was largely the influence of Wiesel. Just think back to the most horrific and jarring passage in NIGHT: 

“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

 The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live Liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

 “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

 At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”

 Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive… 

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ” (Night, 78)

             There is a fierce power in memory. Marcel Proust with his madeleine moment teaches us best: a single minute released from the chronological order of time has re-created in us the human being similarly released…situated outside the scope of time, what could one fear from the future…(these are) resurrections of the past (Proust, RTP, II, 992, 996).


            From your own losses, your own experience of loss, you will know perhaps the power of kindness in the hour of grief. Our manner of grief, the way we grieve, is about the most personal thing about us—more individual than our eye color, height, skin pigmentation, gait, or fingerprint. Our friends and loves ones give us ourselves, and when we lose them we lose whole body parts, full and veritable pieces of our own most selves. For some grief is light, for others heavy, for some tearfilled for others ‘not something we cry about’, for some long and for others short, for some traumatic and for others timely then gone. At least, we could be aware for others of others manner of grief, and respect what we can see and know and understand.

Our Gospel lesson today, neither taken from St. Mark nor from ‘Q’, but from the particular reservoir of Matthew’s own sources (it is not found elsewhere), stands out, up and alone, and hardly needs interpretation. Is there not a poignancy in this pericope, not unlike that known in grief, the recollection of a beloved teacher? The parable itself is as clear as a bell, and as plain as the nose on your face (or, plainer still, as the nose on mine). You have been loved, now love. Greatly have you been forgiven, so greatly now forgive. IBD, Matthew 18: 21-35: ‘Man can have no more important privilege that to mediate to others the forgiveness which he himself experiences.’

In the weeks following my Father’s death seven years ago, there came many expressions of condolence, all of which were deeply appreciated, personally meaningful, and part of the healing, or the healing in grieving, or the health in grieving. It is a sacrament of sorts, grief is, as one friend said. At that time, June 2010, one of our leading choristers and dear friends worked here at the University. She was and is at the heart of Marsh Chapel to this date, even though she and her husband and children live in France. Her French is impeccable. Here, at the University, she worked as an assistant to Professor Elie Wiesel. At the time of my dad’s death I received from her a note I cherish today, still:

Dean Hill –

Professor Wiesel asked me to send you the following message.



Dear friend,

My deepest condolences. In our tradition we say: may you be spared

further sorrow.

Elie Wiesel

            There is a poignant power in kindness. Abraham Heschel: “Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.”


 Remember the words of Psalm 139…

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


Peter Berger: A Rumor of Angels

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Alumni Memorial Service 

                     After my dad died seven years ago we began to go through his things, as families do. Desk, tools, books, guns, clothes. (Order, play, hope, justice, humor). We did not make much progress at first. After three years I noted: ‘We still have not made that much. His desk, somewhat more ordered, is laden drawer after drawer. The many tools, both inherited from earlier generations and purchased as needed over a life time, still lie here and there in the basement. A doll house, made for a granddaughter and then taken in for repairs years ago, and then left unattended, did migrate to the home of the great grand daughter. The guns—a relic of another time in the woods and deer hunting of northern New York—were carefully removed by two lawyer siblings. The papers and records now are in boxes with little titles—an improvement of sorts. His clothes still hang in the old closet’.

I was either assigned or self assigned or asked (or not) to begin to take care of the books, forty years worth of books in the lifetime library of a Methodist preacher whose preaching teacher at Boston University, Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, had admonished his pupils to read one book every day.   That is to say, there were more than a few books to look through.

I dawdled, lollygagged, procrastinated, avoided, and otherwise shirked my solemn duty. I asked all those I could to go through the library and take at least two books. The books are mostly signed and dated, and of course they have the personal underlining and notes which are typical for most of us. I appropriated a few: a set of Jacques Ellul, for a Lenten series two years ago; a few books from BU—Booth, Chalmers, Bowne; sermon collections from Weatherhead, Gomes, Tittle, Fosdick; others.   But I found my progress slow and slower. With each book, my willingness to skim and skip diminished. I found my intrigue at his notes increasing, and my attention to his underlining expanding. I dream on and off of a large oak door, heavy with metal locks and frame, unopened, chained shut: my dad on one side and I on the other. In the lasting grief I feel at the earthly loss of my dad, it has happened that his preacher’s library has become a kind of spiritual bridge, a mode of ongoing conversation between us.

There is range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience. Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

One day this summer, on one of my less than fruitful forays into the library, I came upon a book, the title of which is borrowed for this morning’s sermon (A Rumor of Angels: NY, Doubleday, 1969—portions quoted below found therein). Published in 1969, hardly more than 100 pages, accessible to clergy and lay alike, brisk and direct in style, sprinkled with salt and light in humor and aphorism, the book, it happens, was written by a Boston University colleague and friend of mine, the premier sociologist of religion of our time, Peter Berger. Professor Berger has graciously endured lunches and conversation, including some semi-successful jokes, with me over these last few years. I knew of this book, both its title and its general argument, which is that God is not dead, religion is not dead and religious experience is not entirely absent from this earthly vale of tears. But I had never read it. I stuffed the book in my bag.

It is hard to try to recreate the context, 1968, in which Berger was writing and thinking what hardly anyone else was thinking and writing. I will not try to do so. 1. But try to imagine, or remember, a time when Time magazine’s cover read, ‘Is God Dead?’, or 2. when the most potent religious word was ‘secular’, or 3. when administrative malfeasance led to a drug experiment on Good Friday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, or 4. when the most successful camp meeting was a mud soaked musical weekend in the Upstate New York village of Woodstock. Just when all hell was breaking loose, Berger wrote about heaven. Like debate participants try to do, he caused people to take a second look at something, or someone.

There is transcendence—he speaks of the ‘supernatural’—all about us. Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Alumni weekend. What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience? Berger’s summary still works. You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears…

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order. Some of you are hoarders, of sorts, and bring order by refusing to get rid of anything. Others are the very opposite, ‘when in doubt throw it out’.   You have a desire to see things set right, one way or another. What were those kids doing at Woodstock, in the mud, listening to Janis Joplin, fifty years ago? They were shouting to the heavens that things were not right, that something was out of order. Berger: A. This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality. This faith is experienced not only in the history of societies and civilizations, but in the life of each individual—indeed, child psychologists tell us there can be no maturation without the presence of this faith at the outset of the socialization process. B. Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience. Talk a bit about it, parents and children.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play. 1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun. 2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what. 3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4. Families were mesmerized this past summer, glued to gymnastics in England. 5. Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade? Berger: A.In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood…(Viewers of the recent film Moonrise Kingdom readily understand this). The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence. It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B.This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these. One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.” Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Third, we sense the (my word) supranatural, the transcendent, in the experience of hope. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Hope keeps us going when otherwise we would not. 1. You may have seen Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones dramatize this in the midst of their struggling marriage. The movie title: ‘Hope Springs’.   2. Parents hope their children will thrive in college. Students hope so too. So do professors and administrators and Deans of Chapels. We hope. There is something lasting, real, meaningful, costly and true about hope. 3. Where there is life there is hope. Better: where there is hope there is life. People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence. Berger: A. Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B. Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason…Faith takes into account the intentions within our natural experience of hope that point toward a supernatural fulfillment. I wonder if the generations sitting together in the pews this morning might, come Christmas, talk a bit about that most unreligious religious experience, a thing called hope, a place called hope, a time called hope, a feeling called hope?

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account. Berger uses, well, the word damnation. I am using slightly different language because I cannot make his argument as well with this word this morning. It is too loaded. But the heart of the intention is true and strong. We want people who get away with murder not ultimately to get away with murder. E Brunner, after WWII, was asked why he spoke about the devil: Said he: Two reasons. Jesus did. And I have seen him. When we think of mass murder, of horrific injustice, intentionally and painstakingly executed, we demand justice. There is something down deep in the human heart that just will not let things go. This is not about forgiveness. It is about retributive justice. Sometimes young people have a keener sense of this than their elders. Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions…A. There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…Not only are we constrained to condemn, and to condemn absolutely, but ,if we should be in a position to do so, we would feel constrained to take action on the basis of that certainty…B.Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell…No human punishment is enough in the case of deeds as monstrous as these…(this is) a moral order that transcends the human community and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human. When adults talk as adults, younger with older, there arise memories and understandings, dark in hue and deep in sentiment, that call out for an extraordinary, unearthly, transcendent justice. How shall we talk about these? Talk a bit, bit by bit, in the years to come, parents and children.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the supranatural or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice. 1. Here I will pause to tell an ostensibly humorous story. I was asked to pray at the start of a billion dollar campaign. My reply: ‘It would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure.’ 2. People ask about interreligious life on campus and I say: ‘The Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with’. 3. Phyllis Diller died this year. You remember her husband: Fang. You remember her mother in law: Moby Dick. You remember her sister in law: Captain Bligh. You remember her self deprecation (‘I once wore peek a boo blouse. One man peeked and then shouted ‘boo!’). You remember her cackling laughter. Humor, real humor, stops time still. ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh’, says the psalmist. Berger: There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe…A. The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…B.Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the might who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity. When you gather at Thanksgiving table, after the prayer and before the turkey, tell one funny story, or one joke, or one humorous memory. Talk a bit, talk a bit, talk a bit, parents and children.

Here is our theme: Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think. But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor? These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary. Talk a bit about it, parents and children. As Bonnie Raitt put it: let’s give them something to talk about!

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

A Season of Remembrance

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 18: 15-20

Click here to hear the sermon only


            It felt so good last week to come back, after a summer of travel and preaching, to be at home in our church home, to lean forward from our home pulpit, that of which we are the current, temporary stewards.  It is like when you go away for a week, and you come home.  You turn the key in the latch.  You pick up the mail.  You turn on the light.  You open the refrigerator to see if anything has arrived or departed (why do we do that?).  And we take in, you savor, that sense, scent, sensibility of being home.  It connects you again to who you are, reminds you of who you are.

Last Sunday a couple who had been married at Marsh Chapel fifty years to the day earlier attended worship here.  Our attentive usher team made sure, amid Matriculation madness, that the dean had a chance to greet the happy couple.  We asked them their secret of success.  He replied, ‘She is the secret’.  He did not miss a beat.  They came to remember who they were, who they are, who they want to be.  Fifty years goes by more quickly than you might think.  They had connections with Kingston Ontario, and Queens College there—a beautiful college town, a fine school, along the lakeshore.

Our summer travels took us, as it happens, to Kingston, Ontario in the last days of June—near Queens college, in that beautiful college town, along the lakeshore.   We went in something of reminiscence, since decades earlier it had been a regular family vacation destination.  Then only 2 hours away; only a couple of hundred US dollars for a few days; only a ride across the Thousand Islands Bridge, and, wa-la, another land, another country, a different currency, a slight difference in inflection.  In those years we had gone, summer and winter, to a hotel with a big pool, an indoor gym, hot tub and sauna:  a place where the kids could play and the parents could enjoy seeing them do so.  What one would or would not give to return, for an hour or a day, to that young adult  happiness, in a Canadian hostel!  In the hot tub, we found ourselves with two couples, one French and one English speaking.  We watched as they watched as their kids did exactly what our kids used to do, in the same spot, the same splash, the same laugh, the same joy.  We talked as travelers do.  They four were headed the next day to Ottawa to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the birth of the Dominion of Canada.  All six of us could remember the World’s Fair, MAN AND HIS WORLD, from the Montreal of 1967.  All of us had been there.  They spoke of their new leader, son of a former Premier, Justin Trudeau.  They spoke plainly, eloquently, proudly, lovingly, and personally.   The English wife said, ‘You know, it’s just that, I mean, it’s just that…He reminds us of who we are, at our best’.  As in that moment we did refrain, so here in the sermon we will refrain from making any comparative remarks, regarding current Canadian and US leadership, as to what each has reminded us about.  ‘He reminds us of who we are’.

Who reminds you of your own most self, your own best selves?  You could ponder that this week, and let us know next Sunday.  Whose memory, whose books, whose voice, whose example, whose life and the living of it re-clothes you in your rightful mind?


            With that question, we offer a word of invitation to you, an invitation to discipleship and through Marsh Chapel.  Welcome to the varied ministry of Marsh Chapel at Boston University!  We look forward to getting to know you, as you sign up to sing in a choir, as you volunteer to usher or greet, as you attend a fellowship or study group, and especially as you worship with us on Sunday at 11am!

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is to be ‘a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city’.  To that end Dr. Jarrett will invite you to vocal expressions of faith in the life of our music program.  To that end Ms. Chicka will invite you to global outreach in our work with International students.  To that end Br. Whitney will invite you to take part and take leadership in campus student ministry.  To that end Mr. Bouchard will solicit your support for work and works in hospitality.  To that end I will invite you to formal membership, to joining Marsh Chapel, on October 22:  mark the date!

This year, with our emphasis on ‘voice, vocation, and volume’ in our shared life, we are using as a focus for our work the word remembrance.   Our fall and spring term worship and community life are laden with moments of remembrance.  2017-2018 is a full season of remembrance.  On September 17, we remember Elie Wiesel.  On October 29 (and again in November) we remember Martin Luther.  In Lent 2018 we remember Thomas Merton.  Then in April 2018, in the week following Easter, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Come and join us throughout this year in a special season of remembrance!

Where I can be personally helpful to you, and where our staff, chaplains, and campus ministers can be a benefit and blessing to you, do not hesitate to call up on us.

John Wesley famously called for a means of grace to ‘spread scriptural holiness and reform the nation’. May grace expand and extend in meaning for us in the fall term, 2017!

A Season of Remembrance

            Elie Wiesel reminded and reminds us, at Boston University, of who we are.  From the very first day of the life of this University, the school has welcomed with open arms all people, regardless of gender, race, or religion.  Women, Blacks, Jews—all—matriculated with day one.  Today we would quickly add—all religions, all nationalities, all sexual identities, all varieties of physical abilities.  Wiesel’s lectures, attended by more than a thousand a night, thrice each fall, in a stroke set a moral compass for the year’s study.  Every era, though few quite as despicably as our own, tempts us, particularly public leadership, to sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  To sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  It is not only a leader taking us, say, toward authoritarianism who is to be resisted and rejected, but it is also and more so those who, without recantation, abet and abide with that leadership, those who are collaborators, who use the same language, who take the same partisan identity, who quietly allow the drip by drip accretion of unfettered power that leads to the great hurricane of later trouble.  It starts with a few drops.  Wiesel reminds us at BU of who we are.

Martin Luther reminded and reminds us, in Religious Life, of who we are.  Many are the difficulties to arranging a proper, nuanced recollection of Luther, Protestant Reformer, Biblical Genius, Person of Courage–and Virulent Anti-Semite.  Down and up, though, for ill and good, he reminds us that religion is indeed like the weather.  Sometimes sunshine, sometimes rain, never perfect, and in need of steady meteorological, that is to say, theological prediction and predilection.  To be a protestant is to apply the protestant principle, as did Luther, and to subject religion to utterly, fully religious critique. (It was Paul Tillich who best did articulate the protestant principle, that all authority, including and especially religious authority, is subject to critique when it makes what is relative, absolute).  The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  You see how sharply our moments of remembrance do diverge this year, from Wiesel to Luther and beyond.  SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, but SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  The Gospel in St. Matthew today, a rehearsal of an inherited Jewish tradition, with a remarkable and telling late use of the word ‘church’, ECCLESIA, certainly many decades after Jesus, itself places us in this ongoing reformation, from the first century on.  Luther reminds us in Religious Life of who we are.

We will trust to Thomas Merton to remind us, as he did in life, of the better angels of Christian nature.  His artistic spirit, his international range, his mysticism, his Catholicism, his brilliant writing along the climb up life’s SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, have much to commend them, for us just now.  This is an age in this country when a group of nine or so religious leaders in Nashville, who having studied the Bible surely know better, can stand together and dehumanize 10% of the world’s population, straight forwardly dehumanizing anyone not straight.  This is a season in which 81% of Evangelical Christians have supported the recent cultural affirmation of white nationalism, without so much as a fare thee well, and, to date, without recantation.  Here is the bottom line:  You shall love the God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The reason your dean ended up preaching\ speaking 18 times not 8 this summer is in part that there is a wide-open field out there for Christian preaching that is biblical, traditional, theological and practical—that is, in a word, liberal.  Who is to speak for the full, deep, wide, global body of Christianity—the Nashville 9 and the Evangelical 81? Or the deeper wisdom of scripture, tradition, reason and experience? The deeper wisdom of the church has not yet found full voice or hearing, over against the conservative cacophony.  It will.  But it will take a decade, and the capacity to endure humiliation for a decade.  A light touch, a little whimsy, and deep wisdom: Merton reminds us as global Christians of who we are.

Come April, we will turn toward Martin Luther King, Jr.  We will need to do so, to recognize and honor his sacrifice, the loss of his life in and for the cause of Right.  While most are not yet across the land, or even our community, focused on the season, this will make 50 years since King was murdered, April 4, 2018.  Whatever others may not or may do, Marsh Chapel, we have a song to sing, a bell to ring, a word to say, and a responsibility to meet.  The statue out front, the doves, the remembrance of King, does not give us the endless troubles that schools near and far are having with their own statues.  My brother is proud graduate of the law school at Washington and Lee, for instance.  But it does ask something of us, and specifically of you, Marsh Chapel. With every gift, there comes a task, in the economy of grace.  It asks of us a season of remembrance.  Our cultural amnesia leading toward fascism, our Christological amnesia leading toward exclusion, our collegiate amnesia leading toward silence finally stand under the shadow of the King statue.  King reminds us as the Marsh Chapel congregation, virtual and actual, past and future, tithing and non-tithing, you and me and all, of who we are.

A Word of Faith in a Pastoral Voice toward a Common Hope

We await a common hope, a hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We await a common hope, a hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We await a common hope, a hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We await a common hope, a hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We await a common hope, a hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We await a common hope, a hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We await a common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.


            Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’.  He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’.  He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name’.  He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.  He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us!  I mean it.  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

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