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Sweet Chariot

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

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John 2:13-22

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In (or near) the year 850 bc, Elijah, the prophet, stood against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  He alone stood against 450.  The enemy prophets called on Baal to bring fire.  Baal did not.  But Yahweh did, at Elijah’s imprecation.  Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing.  Or he is inside.  Or he is on a journey.  Or he is asleep—he needs to wake up.  Maybe he does not hear well.  Try again.  Elijah also announced the end of a great drought.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 820, Elijah went up a high mountain, not unlike that on which Jesus stood some weeks ago in Mark, and listened for God.  He heard God.  Not in fire, or smoke, or whirlwind, or techno wizardry, or techno frenzy.  For God was not there.  But in a still small voice.  In silence, the silence before hearing and speech. In conscience.  In mind and will. The Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire—a still, small voice.   On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 800bc Elijah, the troubler of Israel, saw King Ahab, through his wife, Jezebel, take the garden of a poor man, Naboth, and kill Naboth in the process.  I will give you a better vineyard for it.   But Naboth did not want another, but his own.  And Ahab sulked, vexed and sullen, and lay down on his bed, and turned his face, and would eat no food.  But Naboth held onto his vineyard.  But Jezebel said, ‘Do you govern Israel?  Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful.  I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.  But Naboth resisted her, too.  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.  And Jezebel said, go and take Naboth’s vineyard, for he is dead.  But Elijah confronted the king.  Have you killed and taken?  Then I tell you—In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.  Elijah, the troubler of Israel.  It is one thing to desire another’s property, and another to take it by force.  Elijah held a mirror before the country that wanted such a king, and the influence of such a queen.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 30ad, Elijah’s spirit awakened Peter, who went up a high mountain, with Jesus, to see Him changed.  Elijah brought reason and morality to the religion Moses founded.  Lent is meant to remind us of the priority of worship.  Find a way to get to worship.  Worship brings the insight of personal need, lifted in prayer.  Worship brings the insight of another’s hurt, lifted in communal, singing, four part harmonic hymns.  Worship brings the insight of clarity, a word fitly spoken, lifted in the sermon.  Worship brings the insight of choosing, the choice of faith, not thrill but will, lifted in the invitations, to devotion, discipline, dedication.  Worship brings the insight of loyalty, of heart, lifted every Sunday in the offering of gifts and tithes.  Elijah brought hope, prophetic hope, into the tradition and minds of his people.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1735, the spirit of Elijah rested on the New England community of North Hampton, and the ministry of a Puritan divine, Jonathan Edwards, our Calvinist interlocutor this Lent.  Edwards saw the divine light shining in the human soul.  Edwards saw that the material universe exists in God’s mind.  Edwards saw faith in the willingness of saints to be damned for the glory of God.  Edwards saw religious affections, inclinations, dispositions, all gifts of God in faith, the love of God that kindles joy, hope, trust, peace and ‘a sense of the heart’.  Edwards saw the centrality of the experience of faith: a person may know that honey is sweet, but no one can know what sweet means until they taste the honey.  Edwards saw that ‘God delights properly in the devotions, graces, and good works of his saints.’  Jonathan Elijah Edwards, our New England precursor, walked along the Connecticut River, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1865, in our nation’s capital, the spirit of Elijah touched the tongue of Abraham Lincoln.  Months and days before Lincoln died, Lincoln cried out, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in.  Real cost, real costs, occasion our very freedom to gather in community for worship this morning.   The same spirit, of 850bc, that presence, that quickened consciousness, that affection, that devotion, that inclination were present with Lincoln, and are with us today.  You have the brute fact of the brute creation.  You have too the spirit.

In the year 1951, the spirit of Elijah rested in the mind of Ray Bradbury.  He wrote a book, Fahrenheit 451 (this is the temperature at which paper burns), an eschatological prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading, the end of memory.  The novel ends along a river.  Montag finds himself with hoboes around a campfire, along the river bank.  He is surprised to find that fire, the mode of book destruction he has resisted, can ‘give as well as take, warm and well as burn’.   He waits in the shadows.  The men around the fire summon him out of the dark, and take him in.  He learns that each one of them has committed some book to memory.  One is living Plato’s Republic.  One is the work of Thomas Hardy.  One has memorized several of the plays of Shakespeare.  Byron, Machiavelli, Tom Paine, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—all these are carried in the minds of hoboes, walking libraries, the remaining memory of the art of the race.  “What have you to offer?” they ask Montag.  “Parts of Ecclesiastes and of the Revelation to St. John”, he replies.  In 2015, an age that has eschewed reading for scanning, books for blogs, google for memory, and earning for knowing, Elijah Bradbury’s word resonates.  On the way out from the river Jordan.

In the year 1959, down in the southern third of Alabama, the spirit of Elijah rested on the mind of Harper Lee.  She wrote a book, a great book, a book great because it changed people’s minds and hearts.  Like Augustine’s Confessions.  Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Like The Diary of Anne Frank.  Like Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Like what Tom Hanks tried to do with Philadelphia.  The prophet’s magic mantel, which divides the river Jordan, pierces the heart.   Lee’s pastor, our friend, Thomas Lane Butts, spoke of her to me some years ago.  All on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1965, in early March, the spirit of Elijah walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  John Lewis was there, ‘not angry, but full of righteous indignation’, as he said.  Through the history, offices and gifts of Boston University we sat next to him over dinner three years ago.  He wanted to be a preacher, growing up: I would come home and preach to the chickens, he remembered. If nothing else, perhaps 50 years hence we could remember that real change is real hard but comes in real time when people really work at it, on the ground, in personal conversation, then in small groups, with gifted leadership.  Down on the way from the River Jordan.

In the winter of the year 2015, Elijah, the spirit of Elijah brooded over the face of New England snow fields.  The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   But also.  The sore memory muscles wrestling with the horror and mayhem—needless and cruel—of  Marathon 2013.  The blizzard of feeling and thought inevitably brought by a current courtroom trial to the surface.  The rush of anger alongside the search for the better angels of one’s nature.  You may not daily recognize Elijah.  But he is present.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.  (People have such odd reasons for avoiding worship.)  On the way forward from the river Jordan.  Elijah: elusive spirit, mysterious ghost, the divine present absence, personified.

On March 8 of 2015, the spirit of prophet Elijah hovered in the nave of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.   The chapel has given, to you and others, over many decades—beauty, grace, preachment, music, recollection.  Some here have found God, and some here have been found by God.  Marsh—a gift.  And so you have responded.  By listening on the radio—good.  By joining us one Sunday—good.  By giving to and through this ministry—good.  By inviting someone to listen, too.  By inviting someone to come with you.  Good.  By dreaming of an even more permanent place, and even stronger witness, and even more vibrant voice at Marsh.  One of you may choose to endow the deanship of this chapel.  Good.  Elijah awaits us.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 20??, I apologize, I have mislaid the exact date, the prophet Elijah will be on my doorstep, and knocking on your door.  Perhaps at midnight.  Maybe at noon day.  Possibly at dawn.  Or in the wee hours of the morning.   The eschatological prophet, the prophet of the last things, the one invited by Peter to a booth with Jesus, Elijah, the prophet of God, will make a pastoral visit.  In the last hour of my life, and yours.  There will be the river Jordan.  There will be a mantel slapped on the water.  There will be a parting of the ways.  There will be a step forward.  There will be a chariot, a sweet chariot, a swinging sweet chariot, a firey, swinging, sweet chariot.  There will be a presence.  Could it be that the weeks of cascade, the days of Nevada, the snow and snow and snow of our 2015 New England winter of discontent should carry an evocation, a query, a reminder, a call, premonition, a measuring, a warning, a promise?  Most of what we spend our time on, and our money, doesn’t matter at all.  It is the spirit that giveth life.

In the year to come, sometime, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit will usher us toward only the book of Harper Lee, a surprise and an adventure.  In this newly discovered book, I understand, Scout is grown up, and Atticus Finch is old, and the setting is not the depression but the early civil rights movement.  We know whence Scout emerged.  Maybe we will re-read Mockingbird.  One of my predecessors in Rochester was a southerner, Andrew Turnipseeed, a friend of Dr King’s.  At Turnipseed’s funeral TL Butts preached:

“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene.  Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man.  She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people.  The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered.  It is over.  Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door.  Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?”  She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle.  Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes:  “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.”  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard.

Here is one way to live.  Elijah’s way.  The spirit way.  The way of confidence born of obedience.  The way of the journey of faith, the obedience of faith.  In this way, we live with the trust to see things through.  To cross over.  To cross the river.  To trust our past.  To  trust our experience.  To trust the spirit.  To trust our Elisha’s, our friends and successors.  To trust that in some way spiritually similar to Elijah at Jordan, a sweet chariot awaits.

A chariot of promise.  A chariot of freedom.  A chariot of hope.  A chariot of deliverance.  A chariot of salvation.  A chariot of heaven.  A chariot to carry us home.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

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Mark 8:31-38

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‘Because it is Hard’

Rigor.  The Marsh Spirit is a rigorous one.

A visitor today to the cradle of liberty, the home of the bean and the cod, coming by air will walk underneath a bright portico at Logan Airport, adorned with the countenance of a familiar President, whose term of office was tragically foreshortened.   He is pictured pointing out a rocket on the launch pad.   You cannot help but pause. John F Kennedy.  Boston Airport.  A new frontier.  A profile in courage.  (To boldly go where no one has gone before, a phrase we recall this weekend especially.) An entrance into a new place.  A New England place.  Like the Gospel itself, a new space, a newness of life. The familiar Presidential Boston voice simply says:  ‘We do not choose to go to the moon because it is easy to do so.  We choose to go to the moon because it is hard.’ (It recalls OWHolmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference…)

The Marsh Spirit, your way of being, visible and virtual both, embraces challenge, with rigor.

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue, wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture.  Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Rigor is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life, and Secularity.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture, in this winter of our discontent.

We salute, by the way, in this most rigorous winter, those among us who have with most rigor endured the winter.  The UPS woman climbing a snowdrift.  The janitor plowing at 4am.  The childcare worker arriving early and leaving late.  The man brewing coffee after 3 hours on the T.  All have been inundated by the same amount of snow, but not all have struggled the same amount with the snow.

But in earshot of the Gospel, a question looms.

What if the real ice of 2015, the actual storm and snow of this winter of 2015, the existential blizzard of this season where not meteorological but theological, not weather but whether or not, not snow and ice but thinking twice, not nature but grace?

What if the snow is the easy part?  What if the real storm falling upon us is nihilism, nihilism sweetened by hedonism?  What if our challenge is not meteorological but theological, not natural but cultural, not material but existential, not physical but spiritual?

Scripture: Paul and Mark

In the midwinter of 1979 Jan at sixth months pregnant became very ill with an ovarian cyst.  The physician in NYC told me that he was not sure either—child or mother—would survive, but the surgery was not optional.  Both survived, and we moved suddenly away from school to church, to find our way into ministry and life.

That spring, commuting to finish courses, I met my teacher Lou Martyn in the Union Seminary Quadrangle.  He handed me a book as gift, one of John Knox’s books on the early church (Knox of 20century not of the sixteenth).  I cherish the gift now forty years old, which became a kind of sign for the future, then altogether unforeseen.

I returned this week to Knox on Romans.  To hear what he did hear, here. Like my later teacher NT Wright, Knox took on the hard passages, including this one from Romans.

I marvel at the beauty and mystery of this section of Romans 4, on which Rev. Fleming Rutledge preaches so bravely here last spring:  ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (resurrection first, then creation).  Hoping against hope.  (such an odd phrase)

I marvel at the phrase, ‘hope against hope’.  I marvel at its assertion of a hopeless hope, of hope with no prospect, no rationale, no ready support.

I marvel that faith is faith, your faith is your faith, when it is what you are left with, all you are left with, like two young people awaiting surgery, or like an older poet awaiting death.

I marvel that faith is reckoned as righteousness, that what stands up in hope against hope is the faith of Abraham.  Abraham before circumcision, Abraham the father of multitudes not just the religious, Abraham the father then of believers everywhere.  No one can keep the whole law.  Every life includes failure, error, mistake, and misjudgment.  All of us stand in need of grace, pardon, forgiveness.

I marvel at the ordering here of resurrection first and creation second, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Do you notice?  For Paul here resurrection comes first, then creation, not in a temporal but in an existential sense. Resurrection is the grounding of creation, the grounding of the ground of being.  When Paul writes of God, he writes first of the God who raises the dead, and only second of the God who creates.  I marvel at this.  Even if Paul has somewhat altered the original meaning of Genesis (Knox: This story of Abraham suits the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews, with his somewhat different idea of faith, better perhaps than the purpose of Paul).  The father of faith relies on humble trust in God’s mercy and power, as distinguished from reliance on good works. Hope against hope.  To continue to have hope though it seems baseless.

And with this welcoming word, Paul can sing and soar in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that.  We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Mark sounds similar:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the for sake of the gospel, will save it.

You recognize that this is the voice of an early preacher, whose words Mark has placed in retrospect upon the lips of Jesus.   We see Jesus looking back through the cross, as did Mark.  We hear Jesus through the din of the passion, as did Mark.  We know Jesus through the rigor of trying to follow after him, even if we are long way behind, as did Mark.

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 if our cultural storm is as much a challenge as our natural one has been?  What if the real snowstorm is this:  our cultural languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise (repeat)?  What if the real ice and wind are in an invisible nihilism, not just the nihilism of academic and student life, but a blowing ice wind of nada…a sense that nothing matters, a sense that nothing counts, a sense that nothing lasts, a sense that nothing is real, a sense that no one is for real (repeat)?  At its worst, academic and student life can become a nihilism, a nihilism sweetened, if that is the word, by hedonism.  But students and teachers come from homes and families, like everybody else, and their culture, this culture, is only a dim reflection of a larger one, a subset within subsets.

The Marsh pulpit brings into duet mind and heart, the academic and the religious, the university and the church, knowledge and piety.   We are not alone in this, or at least, not quite alone just yet.  So, come Lent, each year we lift up a conversation partner for our preaching, one out of a different tradition from our own, one out of the Calvinist tradition, so embedded in New England.   So in other years, Marilynn Robinson, Jacques Ellul, Atonement Doctrine, Karl Barth, Himself (John Calvin), and this year Jonathan Edwards.

The Calvinist emphasis on divine freedom and divine predestination and divine creation and divine scripture are different emphases than those within Methodism on human freedom and human will and human history and human interpretation of scripture, by tradition and reason and experience.  But we learn most from our adversaries, our conflicts and our mistakes.  So, come Lent, we wrestle with others, like Edwards.

Edwards is remembered, for instance, for a fine sentence, a rigorous one at that: Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.  Yet his hourly eschatology, Johannine in shape (‘the hour is coming and now is’), like the favorite phrase of our dear and recently departed professor and colleague David Carr, ‘our present future’, has a much deeper root in the mind of Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest native theologian.  It is rooted in his glorious understanding of grace, and the proper response to grace, his glorious vision of beauty, and the proper life in response to beauty.

Today we will simply remember his painful denouement in ministry.  He preached for thirty years from his grandfather Stoddard’s strong Northampton pulpit, and lit the fires of the great awakening there.  But he departed from his grandfather’s decision about holy communion, and that cost him his pulpit.  Edwards began to require a confession of faith, an examination for church affirmation of faith and membership, and thus access to the Lord’s table.  For this decision, His congregation and the larger church threw him out.  He spent the last years of his life in ministry to a few farmers and many native American in Stockbridge MA—not the big church you see on the main street there, by the way, but a little chapel in west Stockbridge.   He was an outcast at the end, perhaps the greatest theological mind in our history.   In his last year he agreed to take on the Presidency of a small college in New Jersey, Princeton by name, and straightway died in his first month of smallpox.

Is Holy Communion, to paraphrase Pope Francis, to be understood as a reward for the perfect or medicine for the weak?

One of the statutes—this may sound odd to you—of one brand of practical theology so called today, is that for theology truly to be theology it must be utterly divorced from the life of the church.   As we begin, with Edwards, we note that his work arose exclusively within the experience of pastoral life, the demands of weekly preaching, and the rigor, the rigor of ministry on what was then the western front.

Rigor, he knew.


Friends, look about you.  Look around.  Listen.  All around you hear voices calling you to new life, rigorous life.  See and hear what is even more blessed than hours of video games, even more enjoyable than another tour of Facebook, even more beautiful than surfing the interweb (☺) even more serious than cyber-culture.


Many of you heard such a voice in the choir’s heroic singing last evening of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’.  I pity any who did not hear the singular power and powerful beauty of the music.  Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice unto him with righteousness.

Tower of Learning

Or just look around you for a moment.  It is cast in stone, in the architecture of Marsh Chapel, so like the Pittsburgh buildings, Heinz Chapel and the Tower of Learning, completed ten years before the beginning of plans for Marsh Chapel in Boston.  Daniel Marsh was from Pittsburgh.  We learn by imitation.  He was imitating what he saw and remembered. Pitt Tower of Learning:  They shall find wisdom here and faith – in steel and stone – in character and thought – they shall find beauty – adventure – and moments of high victory.


Or consider this week’s Boston University production of WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school.   Some years ago she wrote one play.   It was a success.  She was asked to write more, but she demurred.  ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade.  I have all I want to do with these young minds here.  One play is enough’.

Hers is about death and life, a sort of commentary on Romans, and on Romans 4.   The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program.  At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course.  Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care.  ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say.  ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.  Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma?  It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point.  For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Boston University’s Judy Braha gave a sterling, rigorous performance of Vivian Bearing at death, here on Tremont Street in Boston this past week:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest academic men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death.

Bob Dylan

Or think of Christopher Ricks of Boston University, after years of labor, who now has  published 960 pages of Bob Dylan’s poetry, the lyrics to his decades of songs.   I wonder how long it took?  You might want to read it in the Library since it weighs 13.5 pounds, is 13 inches square and three inches thick (NYRB 2/19/15).

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody ever thinks too much

About desolation row

Sometimes we have to hear something more than once.   I noticed for the first time this winter how the triads of the fruit of the spirit, in Galatians 5: 22, fall out in rhythmic cadence, one and two and three beat, step, syllable:  1. Love, Joy, Peace.  2. Patience, Kindness, Goodness.  3. Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control.

Rigor.  Yours is a rigorous spirit, Marsh Chapel.

Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Hope in the Wilderness

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

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Mark 1:9-15

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A Prayer for Boston from the Reverend James Martin, Jesuit priest, author, and editor: Almighty God, who made the green grass on the Fenway, the blue waters of Dorchester Bay and the tan sands on the Cape, we have a simple prayer: Enough with the snow already. Whatever mysterious point you’re making about endurance, or patience or your own awesome power, we get it: we’ve endured, we’re plenty patient and we get that you can do the snow thing. And we know that you know the old joke (since you know everything) about how if the Pilgrims landed in Florida first this part of the country would never have been settled, ha ha, but we love it here. We love the spring, especially on Boston Common. We love the Fall, especially in the suburbs. And we love the summer, especially on Cape Cod, on Cape Anne and on the South Shore. We love all those beautiful parts of your world. But we’ve had it with the snow. I mean, have you looked out my window? So we’d like to ask you to stop sending us the snow. And, just to be clear, when we say snow we also mean freezing rain, sleet, black ice, any kind of flurries and that new creation of yours thundersnow, We promise we’ll be good during Lent, we’ll be kind to one another, and won’t ask for another thing, at least until the Red Sox start to play. Amen.

You and I may have offered some variation of that prayer to God in the last month, especially last week when the weather prohibited us from meeting here in person.  Last Sunday I worshipped from my home office, on the second floor of my house that overlooks the street.  Wind wailing, snow blowing, I wrapped my blanket a little more tightly around me as I heard the steam heat rattling through the radiator, in sync with the wind whipping the windows in front of me.  Across the street a neighbor opened her window and slowly stretched out a broom to knock down heavy and thick icicles from the gutters, fearful of the prolonged strain on the house’s structure.  Perhaps for many of you, the roads to 735 Commonwealth Avenue were impassable, the routine journey to worship in the presence of a known community too risky to attempt.  Perhaps you too, sat, listened, and worshipped from your armchair, the melodic voices of the choir competing with the shrill wind and thundering snow plows.  Perhaps you also found comfort in the familiar voices, hymns, and word despite the white wilderness engulfing you.

In Boston this winter we have endured our own kind of wilderness.  Pummeled with storm after storm, snow rising to unbelievable heights, commuting whether by foot, car, bike or public transit nearly impossible, Bostonians somehow manage to continue onward day after day, week after week.  Two weeks ago on a Monday morning, my partner and I headed to the driveway yet again to shovel.  I started to pile the snow on the already higher than me snow piles on either side of the driveway, and I suddenly stopped, exacerbated and said, “This isn’t going to work.  There’s just no more room.”  Finally I decided to take the snow, one shovel load at a time, and carry it across the street to a smaller snowbank.  It took us double the time, but slow and steady was the only way to go at this point.  Here in Boston, we’ve needed to be a little more creative, a little more patient, a little more flexible, and a little more forgiving in order to brave these long winter days and nights.  We chip, chip, chip away at the icy block at the end of the driveway strongly built by the snow plow because we know we will make it out of the white wilderness soon.  Our hope rests in the promise of new life, warmth, sunshine, and green grass.  Our hope rests in the promise of spring.  You and I in Boston are insiders to this journey, and through a shared wilderness to find a common hope, we as Bostonians make the long trek together.

As outsiders in Mark’s gospel today, we see from beyond the moment at hand.  We are provided a glimpse into a very personal account of Jesus’ baptism – a voice from heaven projecting, the Spirit descending, and Jesus emerging.  Mother, son, and Spirit – the Trinity comes together for one snapshot moment breaking through the daily life on the river banks of the Jordan as if the world stood still for one quiet, perfect moment.  Jesus saw the heavens torn open; Jesus felt the Spirit fall down upon him; and Jesus heard his mother’s voice from above.  Nowhere does Mark say others witnessed Jesus’ personal encounters with the spirit and God.  Instead, Jesus’ baptismal experience was uniquely his own, and whatever happened in the brief moment between Jesus and the Spirit following his baptism, we don’t know except to simply say, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Mark’s wilderness is described in one short sentence in which an almost comical scene is set up.  Jesus is with Satan, the wild beasts, and angels.  It’s as if the red horned devil is sitting on his left shoulder and the white haloed angel on his right, both tugging at the human desires and impulses tucked deeply within the heart.  The devil whispers maliciously in Jesus’ ear, “ Nothing you can do will make a difference; you have a good life with a good family, so why would you risk that security and stability; nobody will listen to you; be comfortable and let someone else take this on.”  The angel letting out a long sigh simply repeats the familiar words to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Comical images aside, something resonates deeply within us when we think of being God’s beloved with whom she is well pleased.  These words echo the Genesis account of being created in God’s own image and the psalmist’s poetic prayer, who knew himself to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.  Each of us yearns for God’s love, desires to feel valued, and desperately seeks hope, the hope only found in God.

As outsiders, we don’t know the rainy wilderness through which the prophet Noah journeyed to dry land.  Like Jesus, he spent forty days away from the familiar. In a wilderness of water and rain, claustrophobia and confusion, darkness and despair Noah chose to put his trust in God despite the ridicule from those who scoffed at his building a gigantic arc. Noah clung to hope and endured the wilderness that eventually ended with a new promise of peace from God symbolized by the vibrant rainbow that stretched from generation to generation for all of humankind, all animals, and all plant life over the entire earth.  The covenant initiated by God in Genesis reached far and wide to the re-establishment of that same covenant through Jesus Christ from wilderness to wilderness, from Genesis to Gospel, from Noah to Jesus, from prophet to good news incarnate, faithful to constant, hopeful to hope filled, and pioneer to leader.

Sarah Kate Ellis, a modern day pioneer and President of GLAAD with two A’s, a queer rights organization, recently asked, “Where are the hearts and minds of Americans?”  Her question stemmed from the recent marriage equality victories in opposition to the increasing hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk, especially by prominent political and religious figures.  Ellis’ hope is that marriage is looked at as “the benchmark and not just the finish line,” since laws, while good and necessary, don’t change attitudes or biases.  After several polls geared toward answering her question about Americans’ hearts and minds, the responses were troubling.  About a third of respondents said they would feel unsettled if their child’s physician or teacher identified as LGB or T, and they would also feel uncomfortable seeing same sex couples holding hands.  Almost half said they would be uncomfortable bringing a child to a same sex wedding.   Even more disheartening, a public Religion Research Institute survey from a little over a year ago found that over half of respondents claimed sex between two men or two women is morally wrong.  Understandably polls are an imperfect science for data collection, but looking beyond the flaws, it’s evident the hearts and minds of many Americans aren’t in sync with their queer sisters and brothers.

With more and more states declaring the unconstitutionality of banning lesbians and gays from marriage equality, it is no surprise a strong and harsh backlash is upon us.  Alabama recently rejoiced in the most recent triumph of justice in which the Supreme Court chose not to block a ruling by a federal judge who recently declared the Alabama’s marriage restrictions as unconstitutional.  Sadly, not all those in Alabama joined in the celebration.  In angry defiance, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the State Supreme Court chose to defy federal law by commanding authorities to block the marriages, determined to resist marriage equality for all of Alabama’s citizens and encourage discrimination.  His actions have caused confusion and chaos for authorities and those seeking marriage, essentially dividing the state between those in favor and those against.  In response, Nicholas Kristoff in his New York Times opinion column recently asked “Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, God screwed up?”

How vast is the wilderness, how long, how wide, how deep that causes us to wonder if God screwed up, made a mistake, or regrets a part of her creation.  Even though you and I may know that we are God’s beloved, let us not forget the deeply personal journeys of many, where the glimmer of hope is too often dimmed by the heavy burdens of oppression and discrimination, by injustice and hate, by ex-communication and abandonment. Communal or personal the wildernesses seem unending and blinding, weary individuals pushing onward with silent cries of “help” meant for any who might listen or be willing to hear.  

Asking for help is a needed practice.  It’s too often portrayed as giving in or showing weakness.  In a society where we are taught to be strong and independent, help isn’t a word that comes naturally to us.  Yet, everyone needs help sometimes, like a woman who emailed me last week.  In one of her classes, a quiz was given in order to discover what implicit biases each person might have.  Pleased, she didn’t discover too much bias towards several groups of people, but results relating to one group in particular concerned her.  The bias she held towards LGBT folk worried her since she firmly believes in being full of Christ’s love and expressing that love to all people equally.  In an attempt to confront her biases and learn more about a community in which she hasn’t been immersed or knows very little, she reached out to me for help.  Her heartfelt honesty in writing and pushing the send button for this email combined with her self-reflective humility brought about a renewed and needed hope deep inside of me.  If one person could swiftly attempt to change biases in order to love more truly as God loves, who’s to say we all can’t take the time and energy for probing self-reflection as well.

Lent is meant to be a time for self-reflection and humility.  With Ash Wednesday behind us, our Lenten journey has begun, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, fight temptation, listen for God’s quiet voice, remember we are beloved, and seek hope.  We, too, fight temptations like Jesus – the red devil pulling at our human desires and the white angel tugging at the Spirit’s convictions placed on our hearts.  Lent is no different than any other season in this regard – temptations always abound, wildernesses come and go, and the snow falls every winter.  Yet Lent is unique in that it offers space carved out specifically for repentance, humility, and hope.   Lent is a time in which folks take on a practice or give up a bad habit in order to be more reflective, penitent, forgiving, and mindful of Jesus’ journey to the cross for our sake. In the still quiet place what will you find?  In the hushed silence to what is God calling you to do?

Looking back to Sarah Kate Ellis, the pioneer who is concerned with the hearts and minds of Americans, we recognize the hope she seeks, anticipates, and offers.  Though discouraging poll results, hurtful words thrown back and forth between religious leaders, hateful votes and bills approved by politicians, and continual violence, Ellis, encouraged by the progress the country has made, has a vision for what more good awaits.  What is her solution to changing the poll results and reaching hearts and minds other than waiting, through the passing of time? She wants to see more from the people who are wholly comfortable with gays to be more open about it, and in her words, to be more “evangelical” about it. Share the good news with others; be more open about the truth; and be the hope that marginalized communities so desperately need. It is interesting and noteworthy that Ellis uses the term “evangelical” – a word with Christian roots, that is associated with zeal and passion in proclaiming the good news of the gospel and the hope that’s found there.

In true evangelical fashion Jesus emerged from the wilderness, proclaiming good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Mark’s gospel offers no transition from the wilderness to the proclamation showing an urgency to Jesus’ ministry.  From quiet solitude to boisterous community, Jesus hit the ground running.  Triumphantly he fled the wilderness, escaping the temptations and loneliness to live out the hope he knew to be true inside of himself.  From personal to public Jesus took what he experienced at his baptism to enter the wilderness with humility and vulnerability and finally emerged to proclaim good news, offer renewed hope, and challenge the broken and destructive cycles around him.

While we can’t enter Jesus’ own personal wilderness, this Lenten season is a time to reflect on what wildernesses are around us through which we are wandering as insiders, those wildernesses that to us are deeply personal.  We are reminded of our mortality, sinfulness, and humanity as we hear once again that we are dust and will return to dust.  Symbolizing repentance on Ash Wednesday, the ashes stay with us through the day on our foreheads, a public display of the personal conviction.  These ashes stay with us the forty days of Lent – not visibly for all to see, but instead they are marked on our hearts.  The Lenten journey is only what we make of it if embraced as a time of self reflection, humility, and penitence.  The choice is ours whether to set aside quiet solitude during these next forty days.  In the still quiet place what will you find?  When the heart is opened to God, to what will you be called to do?

The temptation for all of us is to ignore the call to serve, to stand, to speak out, to challenge, to step out of our boundaries, and to help those in need.  The temptation is to believe God screwed up.  The temptation is to leave others stranded in the wilderness especially those with which we are outsiders, not offering a hand or the time to better understand another’s struggles.  The temptation is to keep our biases tucked away without working to let them go.  The temptation is to not ask for help or hear the cries from others.  The temptation is to lose hope or deny others hope.  The temptation is to believe the lies that we are not beloved or to tell those lies to others with whom God is so very well pleased.  The temptation is to temper the gospel, squash the good news, and put out the fires of the evangelical pioneers.

The wilderness is a place where we can take stock of our hearts and minds, choosing either to seek hope or despair.  Whether to find solace in indifference or determination.  Deciding to be a little more creative for the good of all people or only a few.  Allowing ourselves to be flexible in our thinking or rigid in our narrow beliefs.  Asking for help, offering help, or denying help.  Are you the one lending a hand, or a shovel, or a snowblower for the neighbor in need this winter?  Are you reaching out and using your voice for those marginalized, those wandering in the desert?  The wilderness has different meanings for different people yet we are all seeking the same hope in God fulfilled by Christ.

When faced with a choice, Jesus chose to accept the calling from God to offer his life to others and God in the service of those around him.  May we be mindful of his journey to the cross this Lenten season and may we seek hope in the wilderness.  As God’s beloved may we proclaim the hope of Christ through the wilderness.  May our prayer be this Lenten season, to align our hearts and minds to that of God’s loving will in the service of others.  Amen.

-Reverend Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate for LGBTQ & UCC Ministry

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High Peaks

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 9:2-9

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Whence Saving Insight?

When and how does a moment of insight come?  What are the steps up along the mountain trails, the high peaks of life that give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter has just heard our Lord’s ageless command:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.”  Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs.  He sees what cannot be seen.  And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a gun-totting nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick’s verse, “rich in things and poor in soul”?

Today’s Gospel offers us a mountain view, clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness.  It’s five step program was inspired by Josiah Royce’s little Boston book of 1912, The Sources of Religious Insight.

In earshot of insight on the mountain of transfiguration…Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…and take, Come Sunday, a divergent road.  Insight is born in worship.

Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need.  Careful, step carefully here.  Here you recognize your mortality.  “It is a great life, but few of us get out alive.”  We truly do not know the hurts and needs others face.  Every heart has secret sorrows.  Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know.  Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread.  Here—step lightly—you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow.  One called this “the feeling of absolute dependence”.  Here we are confessional.  We say, “Hello.  My name is John Smith and I am an alchoholic.”  We say, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”  We say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.

The first time I was left alone with our first child, to give her mother a night out.  She had been the most pleasant of children, happy and bright, sleeping through the night.  She hardly cried.  But that hot August night, at the very moment the door closed and the car drove off, she began to wail.  Not to whimper or weep, but to wail and shriek and scream.  Five, twenty five, fifty minutes.  I was really shaken, terrified, angry and frustrated,  at my wit’s end, and probably at the edge of some irrational behavior.  Over the din of the howling daughter, I heard the doorbell.  In came our church’s lay leader, Bernice Danks, a veteran nurse and teacher of nurses at Cornell who wordlessly took the child and somehow the howling ceased.  “Oh, I like to make a few house visits a week.  It’s a little routine of mine…You know I tell my nursing students that we call the things that are most important, ‘routine’…and I came by the parsonage and for some reason I decided to stop.  I hope you don’t mind the intrusion…What a pleasant baby she is!”

Maybe in this winter of our snowy discontent, we who are more ambulatory, as we skitter through the snow, will realize how my friend Tim in a wheelchair confronts the drifts, and especially the iced, choked, formidable street corners.  Insight comes through an experience of personal need.

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, “will you visit from house to house?”  Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality.  We recognize personal need with every Sunday, at an Marsh Chapel with gusto, in confession and kyrie, cry for forgiveness.

Insight Over the River of Others’ Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another’s hurt.  Here, we’ll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other’s burdens like canoes carried in tandem.  A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another’s plight, and feel it in your heart.  Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others’ hurt.  It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others.   Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives.  Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, “so that’s what is like to be you…”

The social gospel tradition, theological and political,(Douglass, Anthony, Gladden, Rauschenbusch and others) may be criticized as a “johnny one note” presentation.  But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is one to pick.  Jesus means freedom.  Real religion is never very far from justice.  To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Men, listen to the women about whom you care, as they describe being pulled over on the highway in a winter night.  With red lights flashing…sirens wailing…car door thudding…a tall male figure in uniform and wide brimmed hat…a revolver in the belt… “May I see your license please?”…Men, listen to women.

Majority, listen to the minority describe the feeling of being stopped on the front porch step, at night, after a long day of menial work, and questioned, with Ferguson and Staten Island and other scenes in memory. Do you remember the New York tragedy of some years ago?  With the lights flashing and the uniforms and hats and, when you reach for your wallet some one yells.”Gun!”.  41 bullets later a tragedy—unintended to be sure—has occurred.  Not a gun but a wallet.  Such a tragedy for all.  But maybe such tragedy can begin to help all to gain insight, to begin to feel what others feel.  Majority, listen to minorities.

Insight comes through the life long common song that recognizes another’s hurt.

In February of the year 2015, perhaps, Elijah, a chair left open for him guarding a shoveled parking spot in south Boston, the spirit of Elijah that is, broods over the face of New England snow fields.   The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   You may not daily see Elijah.  But his spirit is present, in the stamina, perseverance and goodness of a good, prayerful, New England people.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, in four part harmony, to recognize that we are all in this together, especially on a Snow Day.

Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason.  “Come let us reason together” says the Psalmist.  God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to think through our use of freedom.  While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement—at home, at work, in church, in the community.  We say, “try to be reasonable”.  And reason often prevails.  If you ever doubt the power of reason to bring insight, remember the words of the Psalmist, and the voices of great minds through the ages.  Josiah Royce’s Sources of Religious Insight, is itself a gem of such reasoned discourse.  Come let us reason together…

Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you.  Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly.  Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices.  The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required.  The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

It takes something like this capacity to reason together to develop a healthy marriage.  On this snowbound weekend two beautiful couples, one yesterday and one this afternoon, take their vows right here in the nave of the chapel.  One couple met in the undergraduate BU class of 2006.  The other are post-docs, one from England and one from France.  (Welcome to Boston!) For better, for worse…To love and to cherish.  Well, to find a way to reason together.

Our BU assistant vice president of the Office of Marketing and Communications and executive editor of BU Today, Art Jahnke, kindly asked about the service and sermon this morning.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word (we hope) fitly spoken, as in, right now.

Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will.  Look before you leap.  We are here ever closer to the mountaintop.  Real insight comes in a moment of decision.  Some say we learn to choose.  But our experience is that we learn by choosing.  Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the “logotherapy” around this one conviction:  we grow by deciding.  Choose.  You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run.  Choose.  Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed.  Choose.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only.  First, faith is a decision.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.”

As Kierkegaard put it, “either\or”… Either God or not.  Decide.  Either you see God in Christ or not.  Decide.  Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not.  Decide.  Either every day is a chance for love or not.  Decide.  Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not.  Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You share with me a desire to honor those who have chosen to help us today.  Our choir and musicians, somehow present and accounted for.  Our support staff, Tim who shoveled out the plaza, and David who cleaned and warmed the sanctuary, and both who have come to worship! The dedicated choices over decades by Boston University, to support this broadcast, and WBUR to carry this broadcast, and our engineer Eddie to manage the broadcast, and our ushers in the back, our readers in the front, and all manner of friends in between.  Thank you.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation—to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit.  There.  Take a breath.  Up here, the air is rarified.  Up here, you may have a moment of clarity.  For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry.  Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience.  On the contrary!  Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will.  Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice.  Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose.Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty.  Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres

And real loyalty is magnanimous.  Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty.  At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own.  Maybe especially then.  US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee.  It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition.  We were once known for this kind of chivalry, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty.  I overheard this kind of chivalry from a local football player this week, a burly formerly bearded lineman, who said, “They played better than we did.”

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference.  Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements.  Loyalty has a magnanimous depth that honors others’ divergent loyalties.

One of the strangest turns in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 15.  After Paul has reached the very summit of our faith, and sings of the resurrection in such heavenly tones, then, immediately, he turns to—do you remember?—the collection!  A matter of loyalty.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

High Peaks

Several years ago, we worshipped in the tiniest church in our area.  A little Adirondack chapel, at the end of the trail, high up in the northern mountains.  Beyond Owl’s Head, and Chasm Falls and Wolf Pond, there is the summit of Mountainview, with its chapel and pump organ and wooden pews and simple pulpit, and humble service, still though a service like this one or any — a chance for saving insight as we recognize personal need, others’ hurts, the power of reason, the importance of will, the force of loyalty—in the prayer of confession, the music of community, the preaching of the Word, the invitation to decision, and the loyal offering of gifts.

This Lent:  Let insight abound on the curvaceous slopes of personal need!  Let insight abound on the majestic mountains of social holiness!  Let insight abound on the prodigious cliffs of reason and will!  Let insight abound on the purple mountain summit of loyalty—from every mountainview, let insight abound!  So that, to paraphrase the spiritual, we might sing, insight at last, insight at last, thank God Almighty, we have saving insight at last!

Somehow we were deluded to think that worship is optional.  Many things are optional.  For those, however, who desire to see life as human and keep life human, worship is essential, essential, essential to insight, essential to the insight that keeps life human.  How can we be human without seeing our own frailty, without knowing another’s pain, without learning to reason together, without the courage to decide, without the love of loyalty?  So let us improve in Lent.

Let us worship God together.  As you are doing, do so more and more.

Let us make it our earnest desire to worship God each Lord’s Day.

Let us make preparation for our ordered worship in daily prayer and reading.

Let us sing lustily, as Wesley taught, and pray with energy, and listen with care.

Let us do as OW Holmes regularly did with every sermon, ill or well though the sermon was:  “I applied it to myself”.

Let us shake off our timidity and seize every opportunity to include others, friend and neighbor and relative in worship.

Let us savor the memory of Sunday all week long—humming familiar verses, reciting familiar phrases, chewing on various themes.

Let us expect and experience of love, of presence, of God.

Let us enter silence with grace and song with freedom.

Let us prepare to worship, Lent 2015.

To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God

To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God

To Open the Heart to the Love of God

To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God

Words at the Kyrie Eleison

Confession in Snow:  2/15/15

Our Kyrie Eleison, and prayer of confession, are meant to open us to transformed, changed perspectives, to greet this as a day of new beginnings, to help us to think in a different way.  For example:  what if the Bible had been written in snowy New England rather than in the sunny Near East?


And God separated the snow banks from the snow banks, those from under the firmament, from those over the firmament, and God called the firmament heaven.  And there was evening and morning, a second day.

And Abraham took his huskies to drink by the frozen lake, and there met Rebecca, who came to break the ice and draw water.  And he said, “Pray, put down your pick ax and let me drink from the icy flow”.

And Pharaoh’s daughter saw a sled come by downhill, in which there was wrapped in a snowsuit, a little boy, named Moses.  Pharaoh’s daughter took him home, and warmed him by the fire.

After the children of Israel had skated across the frozen Blue Sea,  and Pharaoh’s army was in close pursuit, the Lord God sent a heat wave that melted the ice and Pharaoh, and his chariots and his army plunged down into the briny deep.

By the icicles of Babylon we sat down and wept as our tormentors said to us, sing to us one of the songs of Zion.

Save me O God!  For the avalanche has cascaded upon me…I have fallen into deep drifts and the snow sweeps over me.

Many snow drifts cannot bury love, neither can blizzards smother it.

Let Justice roll down like an avalanche, and righteousness as an unending blizzard.

I baptize you with snow, but One is coming who will baptize you with fire

Except a man be born of snow and the spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

God sends his snow upon the just and the unjust alike

The wise man built his house upon the rock.  The snow fell, and the blizzard came and the lake effect wind blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it was built upon the rock.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

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Mark 1: 29-39

Psalm 147: 1-11

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Reverend Hill

There come wintery episodes in the course of a snow battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become frozen, snowed in.

You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.

Over the years I have grown frustrated by my own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.  When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something so bone marrow close to my own life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith.  And he also I think was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language.  Anyway, you by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that I am lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…I can make my way…I can find a handhold or foothold…I can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here we want to underscore Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Dr Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Jarrett

BWV 1 was written for Sunday, March 1725. By it’s date, it concludes Bach’s Second Yearly Cycle (Jahrgang) of cantatas written for liturgical purposes in Leipzig. Following the pattern of many from that second cycle, the piece is named for and draws inspiration from a great chorale tune, in this instance, one by Philip Nicolai ‘Wie schön leuchtet’ — we Methodist sing this chorale as #247 ‘O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright’. The tune is featured prominently in long high notes in the soprano throughout the first movement in one of Bach’s most opulent Chorale Fantasias. The final chorale is the same tune as well.

Liturgically and theologically, March 25, 1725 presented Bach and the clergy with a rarity: the movable feast, Palm Sunday, coincided with a fixed feast, the Annunciation of Mary. Officially, BWV 1 is listed as for the Annunciation of Mary, though there is good ‘King’ language through the piece. In general, the cantata’s text and music celebrate Christ’s coming both as King entering Jerusalem, and with ‘eastern opulence’ of the anticipated birth of the King. Pairs of violins, English horns, and French horn contribute to this opulence and richness of texture in a cantata so highly regarded that the first publishers of Bach’s collected works listed this as BWV 1 in the initial volume of the Bach-Gesellschaft.

It is unbridled in joy and praise, heard in hearty dance rhythms befitting the celebration of the coming and the entrance of the King….

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Reverend Hill

Given the wintery snares, cold air illness, icy night terrors, and snow bound disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of our lessons, particularly our psalm, one of the great trusting hymns of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning.  Beauty can heal.

Our psalmist, our singer is a person of simple faith.  We could make many complaints about this hymn and its singer.  He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world.  He has a way of implying that trust, or belief, are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses, and we know to be untrue.  He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside.  He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future.  He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be.  As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of psalm 147 fails.  He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith.  He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet… for those who have walked past a February graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world at war, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song:  “the Lord heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.

Our writer is not a philosopher.  He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker.  He has one interest:  getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home.  So he does not worry about the small stuff.  In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is a bit desperate.  His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump.  You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed.  Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk?  You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith?  Our writer is at that point, the point of decision.  Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need.  Fear not’  The Lord is not interested in ‘the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner’. Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, every one be convinced in his own mind.

I remember a Day Care center where I used to see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of daycare toddlers.   This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger.  When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith.  Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find along the way.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

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


Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

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Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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One:  Black History Month

First.  Those listening from afar might want to know that Old Man Winter visited Boston this week.   Those of you in Paris, Buenos Aires, San Diego, Tokyo, Beijing, London, Charlotte, Buffalo, and Miami who have connected with the Marsh Spirit in liturgy, music and homily, and support us from afar, might want to know that we have had a blizzard here.  On Tuesday, in the thick of it, I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, grateful for the hard work of BU staff who kept roads and sidewalks and the Marsh Plaza clear.  I saw, but then thought I was mistaken, that our new coffee shop across from CAS appeared to be open.  It was!  Then I knew the truth of the wisdom saying that essential and emergency services in Boston include the police, the hospitals, the fire department—and Dunkin Donuts (☺).

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue,  wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan, even secular spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture, but Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Secularity  is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life.  And today, the Secular.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture.

It is in the ordinary, the extraordinary ordinary of early February, in the ordinary of Capernaum, the ordinary of the synagogue, the ordinary of teaching and learning—that of a sudden, it can be, there is amazement, and healing, and trust.  What is this—the Markan secret unfolds.  Capernaum—at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee—of the gentiles, those coming to faith.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure–Challenge and change—a costly discipleship.  Fame spreading now, but a fickle crowd and a fickle fate await—the crucified Christ. A maniac healed—apocalpytic encounter.  (Remember the 5 fingers of the Markan gospel).

Voices come in many tones.  Sandy F Ray.  Gardner Taylor.  James Forbes.  Edgar Evans Crawford.  Howard Thurman.  Sojourner Truth.  Harriet Tubman.  And some closer to us in time and space, some closer to home.  Nikki Giovanni gave us creation in January.  February is Black History Month.

Some deep winters ago later, Jan and I drove with a few others down to the Eastern shore of Maryland.  We went there to attend the funeral services for our friend, and Bishop, Violet Fisher’s father, William Henry Fisher, who at age 87 had died early on a Sunday morning, after he had gone over to his church to turn up the heat and ready the sanctuary for worship.  It was important for our congregation to be represented in bodily support of our Bishop, whom we love.  But it was more important, for Jan and for me, to be with a friend, at the time of leave-taking.  After all, all the other departures of life, with their laughter and tears and valedictions, foreshadow the final departure.  So the benediction closing our weekly hour of worship.

We traveled easily following our map and directions.   Because I had a sense that we could do even better than the given directions, I took some alternate routes on the Peninsula.  In fact, these alterations, mid-course corrections, did not make the trip down any shorter.  We were not altogether lost.  Certainly not disoriented enough to actually stop and ask directions.  Nothing of that sort.  Just an hour or two of further sightseeing.  Anyway, since we had already gone out of our way on the way down, I just followed the directions home.  Jan slept, and as the sun set, it fully dawned on me just how much our dear friend had left behind to be in ministry with us. Not all the stories of Black History Month are played out on a global stage The scene from Mark is an idealized one.  Yet, over time, the Voice still calls to command, and, over time, people of faith summon the courage to leave, to change, to turn.  To leave the south for the north.  To leave home for others.  To leave family for ministry.  To leave dad for the joy of service.  To leave the energetic black church for the earnest white church.  To leave the lengthy eclectic worship for formal, liturgical order.  To leave familiar foods and sounds and rhythms and sights for a colder clime.  To leave, to leave.  “Immediately they left their nets”.  How lightly we weigh others’ sacrifice.  It takes courage, a gift of faith, to turn and move, and itinerate.   It is isn’t only the globally known people who make a difference.  My colleague Phil Amerson reminded me this week of the line in Middlemarch:  Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great.  It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”  In ministry we remember to honor the hidden lives and remember the unvisited graves.

Two:  Presidents’ Day

Second.  Paul exhorts his feisty Corinthians to watch for what causes another to stumble.  ‘If it causes my brother to stumble, I shall not do it.’  He makes an even broader claim.  The point of life is not to know but to be known.   One is known by God in love, and that is the point, not to know but to be known.   We know a lot.  But when it comes to life, to the big things of life, to sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness, we have to go on faith not on sight, and if we think we know we do not know.   Our recollection of the guiding Presidents in deep winter Lincoln and Washington, who had to step out with faith, brings a dim reflection of the truth in holy, ancient writ.  Washington freezing at Valley Forge.  1777. Lincoln shot in the Ford theater. 1865.  One God from whom and one Lord through whom.  We are trying, every trying, to keep a sense of cultural humility, in and through the strains of history.  February is the month of the Presidents, as well as Black History Month.  These two may be distinguished without being set in opposition.  We honor those who served and so built our country.

As the 1991 Gulf War began, we were meeting on Sunday nights, moving from apartment to apartment, with a group of graduate students.  I remember very little about this fellowship, from more than 20 years ago, other than its convivial spirit, its population by forestry students—know as ‘stumpies’—and it production over time of several marriages.  It also produced the single most unusual love “poem” I have heard, which came in the aftermath of a summons to leave.  Keith met Amy in this group.  They were both stumpies and both competitive lumberjacks and both very bright and very attractive young people.  One night Keith was extolling the glories of ‘his girl’, to a few of us—her beauty, diligence, kindness, spirit.  She came from a large family farm near Cooperstown and he from a similar farm in Medina.  Keith offered his love poem, reminding us that they had met in the lumberjacking competition.  With eyes glazed over, voice low and loving, with heart pouding, to all the rest he added:  “and she is also a great lumberjack…and man can she chop!”

I had their wedding in Hartwick Seminary some years later.  I think of the two of them as two of the finest young people that the Empire State has produced.  Like the early church, I remember almost nothing of detail, expect the word, “chop”.  A pungent saying, like, “fishers of men”.  In those winter months of 1991, Keith bade farewell to us, as a member of the Air Reserve.  He was summoned and he summoned the courage to serve. I honor even revere his courage to turn, to change, to leeave.  You and I know that many others today, some from our own extended family, have also summoned that kind of courage.   In ministry, we recognize the crucial importance of face to face groups.

Three:  Groundhog Day

Third.  The Book of Deuteronomy, the second law, or the second rehearsal of the law contains very little that  has not already been written in the other Books of Moses.  Hence ‘deutero’.  At the heart of our reading there is embedded a firm conviction of the possibility of speaking and hearing.  Something can be said, and something can be heard.  We carry some seasoned doubt in our time about this.  There is after all so much said and so much to hear.  We are awash in endless, cacophonous information.  But here, as in the gospel of Mark, the ancient writer rings a bell, sings a song, tells a tale with confidence in the possibility and power of real speaking and realm hearing.  The reading ends with what we might rephrase as a clear warning not to go against your own conscience.  You trust the prophet whose words come true.  And your voice, day by day, can bring an intervening, prophetic word (Numbers 11: 29)  In ministry, we live to serve the living Word.

That afternoon of blizzard snow this week several waves of memory swept in.  We were raised in 200 inches of snow a year.  The day’s cascade and nevada brought alive the clear memory of the full liberty snow brought us, in those far off years and humble villages.   Snow brought a physical liberation to 11 year olds and others.   The freedom to hike and walk unencumbered and alone, in a cold wonderland.  The freedom, sled in hand, to go over to Library Hill, then up and down and up and down until the street lights came on.  The freedom to skate on the Swan Pond or elsewhere, to play hockey there, to glide and cut and shoot.  The freedom to build forts, tunnels, caves, hideouts in the mammoth drifts.  The freedom of play, fully alive on a Snow Day (someone should write a book about it), and partly available every winter day.  In 1966 we had something like 2 weeks off from school, in the blizzard of that year.   No one wanted to hunt you down in the bitter cold of January, so you were free, free to do what you wanted until you were frozen solid.   Then home to sit on top of the heat register and thaw out.  Groundhog Day is the best holiday of the year, and comes in the month of February.

That year spring did come, at long last, as it does most years.  Enjoy the winter.  Spring has its own rigors.  One May afternoon, with some early summer warmth and a garden about to go in, with school winding down and summer opening up, my Mother had me sit on the back stoop of our parsonage.   Spring brings change, following the freedoms of winter.

Now Bobby I want to tell you something.  Your sisters don’t know yet.  We have lived here in this house since before you really remember, and it has been a good place.  Most places are good, and most people are good, too, once they come to trust you.  That’s one thing you learn in life.  Most people are good people.

I paid as close attention as I could, given my desire to get over to the lot and play baseball.  It all seemed a little odd.

Anyway, son, I need to tell you something.   This will not sound like a good thing but it is a good thing, and believe me when I tell you it will be fine.  We are going to move.  We are going to leave this house in June.  We are moving to another town.

Now I was listening.  And now I heard words I did not fully understand.  Move.  New house.  Bishop.  Itinerant system.  Annual Conference.  And also I found I could not see very clearly.  Something was in my eyes.  My eyes were getting blurry and wet and red and I could not see too well.

But Bobby it will go fine.  I promise.  You will find new friends.  You will have a new school.  You will have your own room.  You will see.  When school starts in the fall, you will be excited to go to a big, new school.  And it will all go well.  I will be there.  Your dad and I will make sure it goes fine.  I promise.  I will need your help with your sisters and little brother.  I know you will help, won’t you?

And so it was.  The word came true, as Holy Scripture says the word of a real prophet does.  It all worked out fine.  Why some have trouble hearing the divine voice in soprano or alto tones I have never understood.  The prophet spoke and it came to pass.

We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  We are in God’s hands.  So it behooves us to share one another’s sorrows.  We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.

We believe in God:

who has created and is creating,

who has come in the true person Jesus,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others

by the Spirit.


We trust in God.


God calls us to be the Church

The Body of Christ:

to celebrate Christ’s presence,

to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.


In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Courage to Turn

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

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Mark 1:14-20

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A.    The Church Forms the Story

Do you feel like you are loosing your grip on the pigskin of life?  Do you sense that you are loosening your grasp on the football of existence?  Do you wonder if the air has gone out of you?  That you are a couple of spiritual pounds of air pressure short of divine regulation?  In a word, if I may, do you experience a little late January…deflation?  Aiming at conflation and avoiding inflation with others across the nation do you experience deflation?  Do questions keep hounding you, even after you have repeated:  ‘I don’t know.  I have told you everything I know.  No. Nope.  No Sir.  No.’ (No, no, never, never…) Are you lower than a wet, deflated, muddy, cold football in the bowels of Gillette Stadium? :-)

Well then, tune in for 20 minutes, turn on for 2100 words and hear the good news in 7 verses!  Turn to something ancient, good, holy and true:  Mark 1: 14-20.

The passage from Mark read a moment ago looks back forty years.

Mark is writing in the year 70 or so.  Jesus ministry in Galilee begins in the year 30 or so.  What is remembered across four decades?  (What do you remember about January 1975? What do you remember from forty years past?)

Very little.  Nothing about the time of year in which Peter and Andrew found the courage to turn, to leave their nets.  Nothing about the precise setting in which they chose to turn and follow.  Nothing about the manner of their discourse  with the Master.  Nothing about the reactions of families.  Nothing about the effect on the fishing business.  Nothing about what caused, in this idealized recollection, such a sudden change.  No, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, as at its middle and at its end, we hunt in vain for clear memory of Jesus.  The Gospels allude to the history of Jesus but they are not written to tell the history of events forty years past.  And, in fact, they do not.  A reading of the Gospel that tries primarily to upend the Gospels for such an alien agenda, misses the meaning of their message.

Because.  The scene before us today is an idealized memory, the memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  The story told today comes out of, is, as the wise men say, formed by, the church forty years later, shaped and formed by the church of the year 70, for reasons quite other than interest in history or biography or hagiography.  The Gospel has bigger fish to fry than the Tiberian fish of April 30ad in the nets of Aramaic speaking laborers.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the crucified.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure in faith—the church formed our text out of its own early experience.

The Gospel is not about Jesus, it is about you.

Today’s passage was formed in the life of the early church.  Somewhere in the lost past, all of the detail now worn away like the memory you do not have of what you were doing, eating, wearing, saying, fearing, praying in January of 1975, somewhere in the lost past something happened over time to bind Simon and Andrew to Jesus.  The church needed to remember this, and so, in this idealized, skeletal, and didactic way, the church did so.   What is remembered, with accuracy or without, is recalled to meet a pressing need in the fragile life of a suffering church (repeat).  If we miss this formative effect of the church on this material—the material mattered to a church struggling with the grim and glorious matter of life and death—then we miss the point.  Then the sacred Scripture becomes even for the church what it becomes in other settings—parlor game fodder, material for debate over beer and skittles.  But for us, here, the Scripture is the very Word of God.

Something frightening and powerful is at work here.

What crying need does the church experience, in the years near 70ad that occasions the forming of this scarecrow text?  Why would the church want, at the very outset of the Gospel, to remember the hurt of leaving, and its requirement of the courage to turn?  Think about the hurt of leaving.  It hurts to leave.

Life in faith means difficulty.  It hurts to leave the womb.  It hurts to have those first teeth leave their gums for the daylight of dinner and dentistry. (My friend the dean of Dentistry and I introduced ourselves one evening on an elevator, to which our fellow traveler replied—“Great.  Here I am riding along with the two things I hate most, dentistry and religion!”) It hurts to watch your daughter get on the bus and leave for kindergarten. It hurts to see your son take the family car and leave for the evening with a young woman you do not know well or fully trust.  We have been around college towns all our lives: it hurts to leave your parents and go in the dorm, to carry the sweaty boxes up the stairs, to fiddle with room arrangements.  Here at BU on Labor Day, it gets to the point that I can not look at the same repeated scene: a dad and mom, hugging their boy goodbye, and leaving town.  It was a holy, frightening, powerful scene.  Like our Bible reading today. Now that we have physically left home and in are in college, say, we may need to turn, to turn our minds and hearts and souls toward the challenge of this new situation, really to turn, to leave home in spirit as well as body.  The fall term freshman year you physically leave home.  But now the snow is falling. The spring term freshman year you spiritually leave home.  You begin to fashion another part of your identity.  What an adventure!

The Bible is not about some oddball potpourrie of cluttered historical facts regarding fishing rights near Capernaum in the first century.  The Bible has bigger fish to fry.  Even regarding fish the Bible has bigger fish to fry, as Gershwin said of Jonah, which is the outreach edge, the evangelism and ecumenical high water mark of the Prophetic tradition, the inclusion even of the Ninevites:”

It ain’t necessarily so

He made his home in that fish’s abdomen—

It ain’t necessarily so

Today’s story is about turning.  The gospel gives the courage to turn.

 Somehow, in the life of the early church, leaving became an issue for attention.   How could it not?  Look at all the leave-taking in the formative early period.  Jesus leaves life.  Peter leaves Galilee.  Andrew leaves home.  Paul leaves Judaism.  The church leaves Palestine.  Every time they turned around, someone was leaving nets.  Someone was turning.  Someone was turning up, turning around, turning out, turning down, turning.  To everything there is a season—turn, turn, turn.

The church remembered or crafted this scene out a dire need to teach disciples that discipleship bears a certain cost, and a certain cast: now and then one is invited to summon the courage to turn.  The life of faith is an adventure, but an arduous one.   Faith, the gift of grace, when accepted and lived will ineluctably lead to risk.  Risk is a part of what we mean by faith. 

 B.    Mark Tells the Story

Returning to Mark for a teaching moment.  We have followed Luke in 2013 and Matthew in 2014.  Now the lectionary guides us through Mark.  Notice, as you have in other settings five personal interests, five finger prints, present in this first chapter, but carried through the length of the Gospel, which you will hear this year:

1.     A Secret

Mark’s messianic secret is a reminder to us that following the Christ means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the unforeseen future, the ready and easy for the unknown.  His is not a cozy Christ.  His Christ is One who calls upon us to summon the courage to leave. (1:24, 1:34, 3:12, 1:43, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26, 8:30, 9:9, 7:24, 9: 30, 10:48 [total 12, at least])

 2.     Galilee of the Gentiles

The interest in evangelism, out of which the Gospel is written, is imprinted upon us in this very early passage.  When you hear Galilee, think un-churched, think, outsider, think the nations, think the unreligious.  With Paul, Mark asserts that Christ had died for the ungodly.

 3.     The Cost of Discipleship

Mark reminds us that transformation begins with the courage to leave.  The moment of letting go and leaving is both awesome and agonizing.  Ask Abraham, Sarah, Moses; ask Amos, Micah or Jeremiah; ask Peter, Andrew or James; ask Paul, Silas or Barnabas.

4.     Jesus Christ, Crucified

The suffering that Jesus endured was to be a watchword and warning for the first Christians.  Mark teaches in this passage that at the very outset of the journey there is the experience of loss and bereavement that comes with leaving, changing, with turning

5.     Apocalyptic Right Side Up

In sayings like this (‘I will make you fishers of men’)—in the calling of disciples, there is a harbinger of what is to come.  Mark tries to put the Christian hope right side up, (perhaps correcting for his community, the reading today from 1 Cor. 7, a time grown short and a form passing away), culminating in the warning of Mark 13 that of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father only.

Here is the Gospel hand reaching for you in 2015—holding a secret, loving the Gentiles, counting the cost, preaching the cross, right-wising apocalyptic.

C.  We Are Invited to Live the Story

It is not just the church that formed this passage that knew about turning.  It is not just the Evangelist who tells the story of departure that knew about turning.  We too know about turning.  Leaving nets, neighbors, niceties.           It takes a courage to turn.  Students live and know this.

From 40 years ago I recall a courageous Spanish student, Guzman Garcia Arribas, who turned away from Francisco Franco and turned toward a freer life.  From 30 years ago I recall a graduate Syracuse Forestry student, Keith Parr, who turned from studies to service with his Air National Guard in the Gulf War.  From 20 years ago I recall an architecture student, Barry Jordan, who turned and traveled with us in mission to Honduras.  From 10 years ago I recall a BU undergraduate, David Romanik, who left the nets of historical study to turn to ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Last week we remembered the struggles of Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, who found the courage to turn enshrined in the best of our traditions:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents go awry

And lose the name of action

The courage to turn is the courage to lay hold, to register, to sign up, to rent to buy, to take on real weight.

To lay hold of faith, you may just have to turn.  You may have to leave the nets, or leave the nest.  To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past.  To lay hold of life we may need to summon the courage to leave.  To leave the inherited for the invisible.  To leave the general for the particular.  To leave existential drift for personal decision.  To leave the individual for the communal.  To leave renting for ownership.  To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough.  It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!)  To leave engagement for marriage.  (Where is Engagement Ohio?  Half way between Datin’ and Marryin’) To leave intimacy for pregnancy.. And that takes the courage to turn.

Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk.  As D. Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

And A. Schweitzer:  “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 words: “Follow thou 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.”

And E. Kasemann said, “Faith means a continuous exodus from established positions.”

In the exquisite recent film, The Theory of Everything, there comes a moment to turn.  Said his first wife, as she turned away from him, to Steven Hawking:  I have loved you…

It takes courage to turn–to morning prayer, to daily study, to weekly worship, to monthly giving, to yearly faithfulness.  It takes a kind of courage to turn, to get up from a dormitory bed on Sunday morning, and file past all the sleeping sleepers, and get ready, and walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and find a seat in the back of the chapel, and bow for prayer.

A courage to turn, to turn away, to turn again, to turn out, to turn up.   To take another turn:  in a relationship, in a church membership, in a roommate relationship, in an abusive relationship.  Have we the courage to turn

As a society, when shall ever find the courage to turn away from gun violence?  Again this week, in Boston, we have ample reason to ask, and ample reason to seek the courage to turn, to turn away, to turn a corner, to turn round right.   People know this.  85% of Americans agree that back ground checks should be used for purchases at gun shows.  And:  81% of gun owners agree.  When will we ever learn?  When will we ever learn?  As a people we await the courage to turn.

Today’s Gospel comes from a church that held onto a memory of departure, from the evangelist who reflected on departure, and from a recognition in our own experience that includes the courage to depart, to leave, to turn.

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

Til by turning, turning, we come round right

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

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The Embodiment of Goodness

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

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John 1:43-51

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Many of you will remember the stories about Jesus calling his twelve disciples to follow him. As reported in this morning’s gospel reading, Philip was so impressed with meeting Jesus and being asked to join his movement that he did what any one of us would have done. In a very excited manner, he passed the word onto another namely Nathaniel saying,  “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”   

Nathaniel was not immediately impressed but responded skeptically saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a prejudiced question because the answer is implied in the question. Philip seemingly ignored the question and simply responded by saying, “Come and see,” clearly implying that after meeting Jesus he would change his mind. And, accordingly, that is what happened. Soon after meeting Jesus, Nathaniel confessed that he was the son of God; the King of Israel. Meeting the man himself had purged him of all his prejudices.

Now, we can rightly assume that many asked a similar question when they first heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. who came out of the racially segregated ghetto in Atlanta known as “Sweet Auburn.” Can anything good come out of Sweet Auburn? Or more generally, can anything good come out of America’s black ghettoes? The most convincing response is, “Come and see.”

I first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1959  in Athens, Ohio at the founding meeting of the National Christian Student Federation of North America. He was then only thirty years old and already known internationally for his successful leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That conference became a launching pad for students as they entered the decade-long struggles for moral transformation in the churches, universities, and the military industrial complex symbolized by the War in Vietnam. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Needless to say, I was happy to be part of that generation where most of us seemed to view ourselves as agents of social change.

Many asked the question then “can anything good come out of a coalition of Christian and secular students allied with the civil rights struggles of black Americans, guided by the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., the spiritual music of ancestral African slaves, and the theme song of uncertain origins,  “We Shall Overcome.” The only answer then and now was, “come and see.”

Clearly, the good in history is always ambiguous. What is good for some is not good for all. The legal, social, and political progress of the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, was good for the growth of the black middle class but not good for those millions of blacks who were left behind to stagnate in the isolated cauldrons of the nation’s inner cities. There they are identified collectively as social pariahs. They comprise disproportionate numbers of the homeless and  jobless, drug addicts and dealers, armed criminal gangs who kill and abuse one another as a way of life. Many rightly view our inner cities as war zones where no one trusts anyone and very limited resources are made available to heal the social and psychological pathologies that flourish in that environment.

Tragically, both the residents and the law enforcement officers view each other as irreconcilable enemies. That mutual disrespect has led to widespread killings of unarmed blacks by the police which in turn has given rise to a new social protest movement inspired by such tragic symbols of defeat such as “Hands up; don’t shoot;” “I can’t breathe;” and such  novel practices as  “die-ins.”   The names and images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner  Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley have become the embodied symbols of this movement’s protest against the police,. Yet, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s twitter lists 76 unarmed blacks who were killed in police custody between 1999 and 2014. That list includes nine black women. Hopefully, such names as Sharisse Francis of NY, Shantel Davis of Brooklyn, Aiyana Jones of Detroit, Tarika Wilson of Lima, Ohio, Miriam Carey of Washington, D.C. and more will gain public visibility alongside their brothers.

Let me hasten to say that numerous moral issues attend these cases of alleged police violence that cry out for public redress. Needless to say, perhaps, much needs to be done to transform an assumed war zone into a civil space of mutual respect and trust between police and citizens. In my judgment, that can only be done by eradicating poverty in our inner cities and cleansing those urban spaces of stigma. Ending poverty  was one of the unmet goals Martin Luther King, Jr. set for his first March on Washington in 1963 as well as the second March on Washington that he was planning at the time of his assassination.

Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, blacks had viewed racial discrimination and segregation as a moral, social, legal, economic, political, and spiritual problem that required a comprehensive approach for its solution. Thus, the combined force of his moral insight, academic knowledge, theological wisdom and rhetorical skill combined to convince many that the depth and breadth of the problem constituted a malignancy that would surely destroy the nation itself if it were left unchecked.

The residue of that same problem remains deeply embedded in this nation’s fabric and wholly confirmed by the experiences of all African Americans regardless of our wealth, power or social standing. We all know that we are perceived as actual or potential threats to white America’s psychological ethos that forces it into a permanent posture of self-defense.

Now, truly good actions need to be interpreted so as to reveal their moral, political and spiritual significance. That is what Dr. King did so well and why his words have become such an enduring global treasure. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Our present situation longs for a similar interpreter. Those who claim that we have no need for such are grossly mistaken.

Clearly, the cause of our present problems is the same as those Dr. King confronted. Alas, effective cures have not been found for every malignancy whether  biological or social.

Clearly, all who shun the spiritual dimension of the struggle for racial justice fail to understand the depth of the problem we face.  It is a problem deeply rooted in our nation’s spirit: one that laws alone cannot solve; that days of service alone cannot correct; that protests alone cannot cure; that education alone cannot heal; that incarceration alone cannot repair; that jobs alone cannot restore; that wars on drugs alone cannot eradicate.

As with every spiritual problem the answer lies in bringing the human spirit into conformity with the spirit of God who alone is able to usher in a new world order; one shaped by the universal principles of love and justice the embodiment of which constitutes what is truly good. Those who have seen its embodiment must do what Philip told Nathaniel to do: “Come and see.”  Such a prophet is greatly needed in our day. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied that goodness fifty years ago. Let us pray for the coming of a new embodiment of that much needed goodness in our day.

- The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Paris, Walter G. Muelder Visiting Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology

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The Moment Between Chaos and Creation

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

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Mark 1:4-11

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In the Beginning….this is a phrase we hear so often when we read the scriptures. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. It seems especially appropriate to uplift the very beginning of our canonized scripture-Genesis 1:1, at the beginning of a New Year. We are a society of resolution, of movement, of goal-setting. At the beginning of each new year we resolve to lose weight, watch less TV, be more productive, and take on various tasks and endeavors that are often forgotten by the early snows of February. This year, I was so over-zealous that I wrote in my journal 12 different resolutions I wanted to accomplish, and then divvied them up and assigned them separate months-like 12 little Lenten projects throughout my year. This urge to be productive, planned, and off and running this time of year runs deep in our bones. In many ways the rush of things, the ebb and flow of the tides of our lives are inescapable and unending. Even in the cyclical endlessness of life, we still have this deep yearning for beginnings.  We find the need to begin each year anew-but our beginnings are often hurried, rushed, hustling-and bustling us to newer things, better selves.

So it is important for us to consider what happened in THE BEGINNING? Genesis 1 reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters.”The translation of this passage, historically and due to the elegant language of the King James Version has often been understood as “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and earth”-giving the impression that God created something out of nothing, a common latin phrase for this creatio ex nihilo. This would mean that there was nothing before God first created the heavens and the earth.  But many Hebrew and old testament scholars see the Hebrew as perhaps being more grammatically accurate to say ‘God began creating the heavens and the earth’,  in this reading of the text the passage would hold the notion of God creating out of chaos-the latin term for which is ordo ab chao. This translation would imply that the universe already existed, and God creates purpose, order, and light within it. Creation, then, is in fact, a re-ordering of an already chaotic universe. It is this ordo ab chao reading that I want us to spend some time with today.

In Genesis, this universe is a formless void, a watery deep swirling and teeming with disorder, chaos, with no purpose and no life. The earth is wild, it is unknown, it is a dark and watery abyss. And yet, there is this moment in between ‘the beginning’ and God saying ‘Let there be light’. There is a quiet moment between the chaos of that world below and the creation yet to come. In that space, in those moments the wind, which in Hebrew is the same word for the spirit, ruah, is hovering, brooding just above the earth, sweeping across the water. I love this image- like a hen protecting her eggs, the holy spirit, broods, clutches, hovers above the abyss. The divine spirit encompasses a chaotic earth, waiting for that moment of birth, that moment of beautiful creation. IN our world today, when we experience chaos we crave creation-we feel rushed and urged to manage, order, begin again, start anew, dissolve and resolve and move forward from the chaos in our lives with immediacy. But in the same way there is a breath between 11:59 on New Years Eve and 12:00 a.m. on New years day, there is a space in between.  There is this one beautiful moment between chaos and creation where the spirit of God is so near to us, hovering over us, urging us to give into the beauty ahead of us.

Every year, we observe merrily as Christ is born in a manger on a chilly night amidst the hay bales and the donkeys (and if you have ever seen the film Love Actually-you know there were at least a couple of lobsters present at the birth of Jesus), we follow the star with the Magi and bestow gifts and grace upon our gentle Jesus. And suddenly, out of nowhere, liturgically it is Christ’s baptism Sunday. Last week, the Magi were bringing frankincense, myrrh, gold on a young toddler, and this week we see a fully grown, adult, Jesus going into the wilderness to seek out John the Baptist and begin his ministry. Before Jesus’ extraordinary life and teachings can begin, we find this separate moment that is neither here nor there, neither childhood, nor grown Rabbi-but a space in between. A quiet moment at the river, A chance for renewal, a baptism. John the Baptist is emanating the prophet Elijah by wearing camel’s hair and baptizing people in the wilderness. This image of wilderness is supposed to remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the exodus. Wandering, lost, and barely surviving in desert heat, the wilderness for us is an image of chaos.

And yet Jesus seeks out John in that dry wilderness, in that chaos, to be baptized by him. In the Jewish tradition at this time, baptism was a source of renewal into the covenant of Israel-a repentance of sins so that one could be washed clean to join once again the people of God.  Also at this time, the Jewish tradition of baptism was widely self-service. People would go to the water and baptize themselves, by dipping their head under water, or sprinkling themselves with water from head to foot. They simply needed to be baptized in the presence of a prophet, like John the Baptist.  But when Jesus approaches, he asks John to baptize him, the physicality and vulnerability of this gesture cannot be overstated. In the space between the chaos of the wilderness and the creation of Jesus’ life as Rabbi-as minister, in that quiet moment, in that space-Jesus is held in the arms of his fellow human and washed clean. In that in-between moment, the same God that calls forth life from the primordial deep and dark waters in Genesis 1, calls Jesus to new birth out of to the waters of baptism.

Sometimes, creating that space between chaos and creation is not always easy for us, sometimes we need someone to help us center down. We fill our lives up with meaningful work, deep relationships, and required daily tasks and often, even at the beginning of a New Year, don’t give ourselves a chance to reflect, to really linger in reflect. Howard Thurman, who was once Dean of this Chapel and preached from this pulpit for many years, was a mystic man of faith, a compassionate mentor to many, and a slow searching man. I read earlier this week a story in Dr. Walter Fluker’s book “Ethical Leadership” about Howard Thurman and his relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman writes in his autobiography that he often had gentle premonitions, deep soul-callings, to engage with people who were in a time of trouble. When he  was 29 years old, just a young, fervent, and fiery preacher talking about justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing. Thurman felt a deep spiritual need to go to him, to visit with King in the hospital.  During his visit Howard Thurman urged Martin Luther King to take even more rest than the doctor’s prescribed,  he urged him to take 4 more weeks to be exact to reassess his purpose, try to understand his cause, to rest his body spirit and mind, and to find healing.  King did heed his advice, and unique to the rest of his life, adopted a brief time of quietitude, meditation, and stillness. He delivered no speeches, went to no meetings, and did not take up agenda items for the civil rights movement at that time.  After the time had passed, he was re-invigorated towards the cause of the civil rights movement with clear and determined understanding of his purpose and mission within the organization. And the rest as we know, is history. The moment between chaos and creation offered Dr. King a chance to find his own renewal, his own sense of presence in the Spirit.

When one of my students found out that I was preaching a couple of weeks ago they asked , “you are going to use Rilke again, aren’t you?” (I couldn’t tell if she was exacerbated or excited-but I mostly was thrilled she remembered one thing from my previous sermons), so as I have finished up my year-long journey with Rilke as a spiritual guide, I will include him again. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the human nature to rush and press on despite the need for stillness, despite the need for a space in between, Rilke wrote-

We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.

I find that our world is plagued with moments of voidless dark, watery abyss, dry wilderness. In the face of an ever-present cultural racism, mass incarceration, Ebola, The recent attacks on a newspaper in Paris, France, and the numerous other tragedies on our screens, in our newspapers, and on our hearts,  -how could we deny the deep and foreboding presence of chaos in our world? Rilke reminds us that we need these moments between chaos and creation, where the Spirit hovers over us, waiting to be pulled in, touched,  embraced, and intertwined with our spirits. When we forget to create this sacred space and time, we can get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the chaos or overwhelmed by creation. I remember when I first read in the news about the tragic and terrible school shooting in Peshawar Pakistan, where just a few weeks ago, over 140 school children were murdered in an act of terrorism. I saw this picture in a news article of a pair of empty shoes laying on a bloodstained school auditorium floor and I became completely overwhelmed with grief in the chaos of that terrible act. I cried, and thought of all the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and of the parent who must have helped to tie those shoes in the morning. I truly felt that I was grieving, and at a loss for our world. I saw the darkness and the voids of abyss and felt overwhelmed.

When I got into my office the next day I had a phone call from a thoughtful and courageous Boston University student, who was from Pakistan and she wanted to organize a vigil, a time for prayer, silence, and presence amidst such atrocity. The student said that in the face of not knowing at all how to cope with this, a vigil seemed ‘just the right thing to do right now.’ So the next night, in the middle of exam week, I gathered with over 50 students-most of which were from Pakistan or had family from Pakistan-and we created that in-between space. A space between the chaos of violence and the creation of hope-it was simple, it was quiet, it was a lit candle, and a tearful prayer, and a lesson on peace from the Q’uran.  I felt so full of the spirit in those moments, so close the brooding bosom of God. I am so grateful to those student leaders who called together for this moment of vigil prayer. I knew that the time for creation would come-the time when I would want to find hope and purpose and ways to help create a sustainable solution for the terror that often plagues our world and our children, but just then-that cold December night just before Christmas-I needed to abandon the chaos, and delay the creation, to exist in the in-between moment of stillness, peace, quiet, solidarity, and prayer to be reminded of how close the Spirit is to us, and how much we can rest in the Divine when we are in need.

This moment in between chaos and creation is not a passive moment, or meant to be seen as a privileged moment of removing yourself from the situation and ignoring the reality of a broken and bleeding world. Rilke’s poem says “only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” The word tarry is not a passive word – but an active verb. It is synonymous with the word Sojourn-to live temporarily. These in-between moments are not places we can stay, but still places where we should actively live. Furthermore, this is not an easy action – holding yourself in this temporary stillness is sometimes more difficult than jumping from chaos to make order.  In this action between the moment of chaos and creation we have the opportunity to be opened up in transformative ways. To tarry in the in-between is not doing nothing, it is doing something. Let the noise subside and in the silence and the stillness be ready for the sound of God, be ready to be found, be ready to be made new, re-created in the truest way. Only from the silence a word is spoken, only from the stillness, is a movement created.

-The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

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Matthew 2:1-12

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 ‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Matthew 2: 12)

A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the Christmas story.   The strange world of the Bible causes us to look twice, to think twice.   Our dreams themselves become dreams, dreams squared, ‘y los suenos suenos son’, come Christmas.   For a few moments in worship, or a day in reverie, or a week in travel, for a time at the end of the year, and at the start of the year, you may be brought once again into the mystery, the uncanny actuality of our living, our being.  We are showered with a dream, a dream like mist.

Then it is not a stretch at all for us to hear of the wise men going home by another way, warned, as the Bible says, ‘in a dream’.  They are dim, shadow figures from the distant past, or from a stylized memory from an ancient past.  In a dream.  Warned in a dream, guided in a dream, carried forward in a dream.

A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the ancient tales at Christmas.   We are moved, if we are moved, not just by intellectual argument, but by intuitive insight.  We are moved, if we are moved, in the dream like mist of this dreamy season, not by reasoned argument alone or in the main, but by instinctual grasp, a grasp of the way in which we ourselves are grasped, even grabbed, by the Gospel.  And so, it may be, come Epiphany Sunday, that we too will bring forth personal devotion, our communal celebration, our remembered sense of justice—gold, frankincense and myrrh.

A Way Forward

Before the Christ Child we present our gold of personal devotion.  You may have an inkling of a new way in a new year.   If so, a few initial preparations are in order.  The life of faith upon which journey you are entering proceeds best in company.  There are very few free lance Christians.  You will want to worship come Sunday.  You can start of course by listening to this or another broadcast, week by week.  Hearing the lessons and the music, attending to the prayers and sermon, finding over time the way into the language, grammar and syntax of the Gospel through the weekly practice of prayer and listening, of beauty and holiness, in the company of other fellow travelers.  Worship on Sunday.  You will want to find a small group in which you may learn others’ names, and find yourself called by name.   One might be simply the small group who come before worship to sit quietly in the sanctuary in prayer.  Over time others will see and know you, and you them.  Or in an adult study group, or a traditional bible study, or a mission oriented group or something special for internationals or Methodists or Lutherans or gay people.  You could start by having coffee with a group of others following worship, downstairs.  Gather in a group.  You will want to try out the generosity of faith by giving.    Of course you can use the collection plate, please do.  But there are other ways to give that may be more fit for you.  You may read about a project or mission that calls out to you.  Give some support.  You may be invited to volunteer in a service ministry.  Give some time.  You may find yourself attracted to a nearby library or soup kitchen or day care center or tutoring program.  Give some effort.  Practice generosity.  Worship, gather, give.  Worship, gather, give.  Worship, gather, give.  Start again each Sunday.  The dreams at the heart of Christmas do help you find your way home, though in a different manner, perhaps, than the manner in which you have been living.   The life of faith upon which journey you enter now proceeds best in the company of others.  Worship, gather, give.

The Christmas Gift

Before the Christ Child we present our frankincense of communal Christmas celebration.Our spirit at Marsh Chapel is quickened by the gift of Christmas.  This school year, each first Sunday of the month, we have worked at interpreting the local spirit around us here at Marsh Chapel.  They are meant, in the long run, to be read as one catena, one lengthened sermon, knit together in sacrament and song.  There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Incarnation, life, is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience.  And so,  Life.

For reasons missional, theological and spiritual it is timely for us to receive the gift of Christmas.  You as a congregation in these years have labored so.  You have opened the Chapel for Christmas Eve, even though the University is closed.  That is good.  You have added a second Christmas Eve noon service.  That is good.  You have presented your Lessons and Carols twice.  That is good.  You have offered a blue Christmas service, various festive and festival open houses, and even a daily electronic Advent devotional.  All this is so good.  You are working to make the Marsh spirit as lively at Christmas as it is already at Easter.

One reason is missional.  This is the one time of year, in a post religious culture, in which people who otherwise may have no particular religious perspective may be open to the journey of faith.  Singing a carol.  Lighting a candle.  You who already know the psalms, and have your favorite, remember the parables and identify your best one, recite the Lord’s prayer and sing the hymns of faith:  remember that others have yet to receive the first course, the first helping, the first meal of faith.  Christmas opens the door like no other season, and our doors should be fully open too.

A second reason is theological.  We need to balance Easter with Christmas.  We need to balance redemption with creation.  We need to balance resurrection with incarnation.  For our own spirit at Marsh Chapel to be whole, we need as full a nativity as we have a holy week.  Most congregations struggle in the opposite direction.   You need both stories, both wings to fly.

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

Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  How we handle this story, later in the year, come Lent and Easter, is a perilous and serious responsibility.

The first story, the death story, the story of Jesus’ death, another season’s work, needs careful, careful handling. 

Later in the year we shall return to story one.  But at Christmas, we listen for story two, the story of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus.

Who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

Without the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus’ life—his teaching, his healing, his preaching, his ministry—Christianity based only on Paul and John would have become a kind of Gnosticism, as John Ashton long ago noted (UFG, 238)

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Christmas in a violent world is meant to remind us, all of us, that you do not need to leave the world in order to love God. Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had were Lent, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil and Easter monring.  And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive.

There is a further, a spiritual reason for us to fully honor Christmas, Christmastide, Epiphany and the gift of Christmas.  Christmas carries a patent universality, a birth story that readily enters the hearts and minds of people from many religious backgrounds and from no particular religious perspective.  The author of Ephesians writes that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known’.  Christmas is our handshake with the rest of the religions of the globe, and in our time, such a greeting and embrace is a daily need.  Birth narratives are familiar to Christians, but also to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and many others, including those who stand aside from all religious traditions.

With great effort, the ancient writers joined the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.  The coming of the Savior does not limit the divine care to the story of redemption, but weaves the account of redemption into the fabric of creation.  There is more to the Gospel than the cross.  The ancient writers sense this and say it with gusto:  angels to locate Jesus on earth; shepherds to locate Jesus among the poor; kings, so on Epiphany Sunday today, to honor and empower Jesus on earth; a poor mother to locate physically the birth of Jesus in the womb of earth, and outside, and in a manger, and among the poor.

Easter may announce power but Christmas names place.  Jesus died the way he did on earth because he lived the way he did on earth.  Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did.  That is, it is not only the power of Christ, but the presence of Christ, too, which you affirm.  Not just his death, but his life, too.

The lovely decorated Christmas tree in your living room, with its natural grace adorned by symbolic beauty, is meant to connect the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.

In the Flesh

Before the Christ Child we present our shared, historic, remembered affirmation of liberty and justice—for all.  Ours is a flickering remembrance of what Isaiah did foretell, ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’.  Our region and country lost a powerful voice this week, speaking of life and incarnation and redemption in creation.  In closing I mention him, to honor his formative influence on me and others.  When I wonder about the cost of honest speech, I remember his annual veto of the death penalty in New York State.  When I question the value of self-criticism and self-doubt, I think of his true- to- self, unapologetic brooding.  When I rue the hurt of lost votes and lost programs I think of his stamina.  When I wonder what epitaph to which I should aspire, I think of his chosen phrase, ‘he tried’ and his favorite title, ‘participant’.  Other than my dad’s voice, his is one or the one I will most miss.  Mario Cuomo died New Year’s Day.

About 20 years ago, when the Carousel Mall in Syracuse NY was still new, a religious temple built, and now being rebuilt, for the gods of getting and spending and laying waste of powers, 400 people gathered in the Mall’s top floor room, to enjoy breakfast, the view, and the featured speaker, then Governor Mario Cuomo. I was given a ticket and invited to go, and when you are in the ministry, you go when and where you are invited.

He began with light banter, wondering how in the midst of state recession the local developers had found the capital to build, and teasing them about ‘looking into it’.  He was in good humor, though he had hardly a supporter in the room.  And he was humorous, glad to be present, and glad to speak. He told about meeting President Reagan for the first time.  As he crossed the room to be introduced the jolly President said, ‘You have no need to introduce this man.  I would know him anywhere.  A great American, leader, and a great Italian American.  I am proud to greet Lee Iacocca at any time’.  He told about his parents coming through Ellis Island, penniless and speaking no English (he added that his mother even then hoped her son would become governor of the state!  Ane he remembered Emma Lazarus…)  He spoke knowingly about the needs of central New York, but also had to spend time acknowledging the shortcomings that soon would bring his defeat.  He began at 8:20 and I did not look at my watch until 9:15.  I believe it is the most powerful public oration I have personally heard, and it was delivered without a single note.  As George Eliot might have said:  “ingenious, pithy and delivered without book”.  Just in terms of rhetoric, it was sheer, delightful excellence.

He has been on my mind this weekend, and his voice has been reverberating again, as many mourn his death.

He concluded that morning by talking, as he had in 1984, about Two Cities, one set on a hill, and one set far below.  Two Countries, one rich and one poor.  Two Nations, one for the many well to do, and one for all the others—the poor, the frail, the elderly, the disinherited, the minority.  Two Realities, as different as night and day. His words sound very contemporary:

In many ways we are a shining city on a hill…

But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory.  But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate…

In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair in the faces that (we) don’t see, in the places that (we) don’t visit in (our) shining city…

It was a striking kind of sermon to deliver, at the height of economic wellbeing in that part of the state, a sort of Robin Hood homily for the Sheriffs of Nottingham in the Carousel Mall.  It was a Christmas sermon, even though it occurred later in the year.  I doubt that more than a handful of those present ever did vote for him.  And in fact, he was defeated and out of office a year or so later.  Yet his prophetic, principled, out of fashion and favor voice kept before us, before us all, those whom we are sometimes inclined to neglect or forget. There are things that we just have to keep steadily before us, not forget, not avoid, and not neglect.   Who will help us to do this now?  I wonder whose voice will take the place of his?


            Gold. Incense.  Myrrh.  Devotion. Celebration.  Remembrance. A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the ancient tales at Christmas.   We are moved, if we are moved, not just by intellectual argument but by intuitive insight.  We are moved, if we are moved, in the dream like mist of this dreamy season, not by reasoned argument alone or in the main, but by instinctual grasp, a grasp of the way in which we ourselves are grasped, even grabbed by the Gospel.

‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Matthew 2: 12)

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

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