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By Water and the Spirit

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

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Mark 1:4-11

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Good morning friends,

It is indeed a good morning, even if a particularly cold, sub-zero one here on the banks of the Charles River today. Streets are mostly cleared, the T is running on a normal schedule, and even if the sidewalks are more like tunnels and valleys through snowy mountain peaks, we are slowly returning to going about our normal business. The bombcyclone has passed, the Snow Days are over, and the city has returned to winter normalcy. For many of us in greater Boston, we observed a snow day (or two) this week, a brief moment of pause, an interruption in our normal rhythms, a time to observe, to take stock of where we are, to wonder, and to think. In the liturgical calendar, today is also something of a snow day. Yes, the wise ones have returned to their homes in the east. (Yesterday was Epiphany, that day in our calendar when we remember the adoration of the Christ-child by learned ones from afar, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) But as we move into a season of ordinary time, there is also a pause in the calendar (today) to remember Jesus’ baptism that provides us with the opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on our relationship with the divine.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily aunt takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their new baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s off-balance attempt to take the baby turns the squirming to a wail, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in an inflatable pool behind Marsh Chapel on a frosty Easter’s Eve?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head in the warmth of the church you grew up in?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps the words of commitment in baptism are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a partner renew her baptismal vows on the nearly always balmy banks of the Jordan just a few miles north of the Dead Sea.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to a community but also that community’s commitment of thoughtful support and nurturing care to you. You were submerged fully, in a swimming pool or a lake, and you confidently recited your own baptismal promises for yourself.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and they have different ways of doing baptism. Chances are (if you are listening to this sermon) that you will encounter or be joined to a handful or more of Christian communities in your life.  No matter what your experience or expectations about baptism, I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places of thoughtful support and nurturing care.  While the chapel is a community of support for a university community, we understand ourselves to be in relationship with the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment. We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey. And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and further cultivate their relationship with God, we are a community of support and love. If baptism is something you are interested in exploring, please speak with one of our staff after the service today or contact the chapel office by email at chapel@bu.edu or give us a call at 617-353-3560. The next regular opportunity for adult baptism will be at the Easter Vigil service.

In the liturgical calendar, much like the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan about to begin a season of ministry teaching and healing.

Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  Jesus did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  This joins us with Christians all over the world and welcomes us into God’s family; we are not only children of God but we are adopted into a global family of sisters and brothers in Christ. While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people. Baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.” God pursues us for relationship relentlessly, and God loves us unceasingly.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made an heir of the divine kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many, a college graduation may be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded. The Commencement ceremony might rush by in a blur – red robe, black hat, forgettable speeches, and then a 20 foot walk across a stage and a small piece of paper in hand. A small 20 foot walk doesn’t take very long, but it means something, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment.  Receiving a diploma in May but not starting the new job until August 1st might mean we don’t fully appreciate days of sleeping until 10:30 for class until we are up at 5:30 each day to beat the morning commuter rush to arrive on-time to the job we had longed for.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church; it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Most weeks, you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” On Sundays when communion is celebrated we are reminded: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete because it was the baptism of repentance of John.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away. Today is a moment in the life of the church in which we are invited to be reminded of God’s real presence with us.

In a moment this morning, we will observe an order of reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, you will be invited to renew the promises made at your baptism, touch the water, and remember that you are a beloved child of God in covenant relationship with God and the church. As you renew your baptismal vows today, I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew. Amen.

-The Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

Ruminations at Christmas

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

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Luke 2: 22-40

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The story of Christmas, the birthday of the Lord, begins with the nation of Israel, ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’, the longings and dreams of God’s chosen people for a clearer sense of His presence and a clearer vision of his purpose.  In the reign of King Herod, only 60 generations ago, a poor carpenter and his pregnant wife went to Bethlehem to pay the state tax.  Mary was close to her time, and so, rather than camp as usual with the other poor travelers, Joseph decided to get a room in an inn.  He was too late.  They camped in a cave that also was a covering for the innkeeper’s animals.  And that night a child was born, among cattle, yet visited by Kings, a child whose mature life would change the course of time and history. ‘Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people!’.  This story is very close to us. Bethlehem is not that far away.  The year 1 is not that long ago.  The conditions into which Jesus was born are not that different from the conditions into which poor babies today are born.  This story is close to us.   As Galatians teaches, ‘born of woman, born under the law’.

The message of the birthday story is a glorious one.  The message: a simple Hebrew word ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’, ‘God with us’, ‘Gott mit uns’.  ‘Dios con nosotros’.  ‘Dieu avec nous’.  “God with us’. ‘Emmanuel’.  It requires a lifetime, a full exposure to the patterns of grace, to know this truth.  We hear of it in the greatest words in Western literature and language:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness on them has light shined (Isaiah).  Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke).  In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them (Paul). The Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations (Isaiah, today). There is something shattering about this message, this mystery:  that the Lord God Creator, the first, the last, beyond all thought, would stoop so low as to become a poor peasant child.  But that is the simple, shocking, difficult message.  ‘God above, man below, holy is the name I know’.  ‘God with us’ is the message. Emmanuel.  With us, as in today’s Gospel, in others:  Simeon, Mary, Anna, others.

The meaning in the message of the Christmas story is that God is with us in our weakness, limitation, and smallness, in order that we might respond to Him, that we might become like Him…

God with us, miraculously, in weakness.  God touching us before and without our response.  This is the meaning of baptism.  In the light of God’s care, one can never be or become a means to an end, become commodified.   One baptized is an end in himself.  He has been blessed by God.  This is a saving act, being born again.  Martin Luther knew it when, locked in the Wittenberg Castle and tormented by demons cried out, ‘I am baptized!’

God with us, miraculously, in our limitation.  The most hateful aspects of life—we all know this—are its limitations:  illness, poverty, society (warfare), mind (ignorance), heart (we do what we would not do), relationship (we glide past each other), nature (winter weather), and the final limit, death itself.  God with us in suffering, with the victims of fire in the South Bronx, God with us even—especially—at the point of limitation (sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness).

God with us, miraculously, in the smallness of our lives, the pettiness, to be negative, and the delightful detail, to be positive, of our few days on earth.  God taking on our smallness to give us a model of how to live.  We all need models, like the French architect of the Statue of Liberty, who modeled that on his own mother.  If we are to grow in the knowledge of God we benefit from a model, a model on our own level, of our own scale.

God with us, miraculously, in our response to Him.  This is the church, the Body of Christ, God with us in our response to God.  Where does change occur?  In the church.  At best, the church embodies ultimate reasons for real change.

The hope in the meaning of the message of the story of Christmas is the oreal hope for this world, that we will live together in the spirit of Christ, as Longfellow sang at Christmas: ‘till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to Men’. This is the hope in our gospel in our fellowship, in our preaching, in our life together, now.

Included in our gospel as pronounced today are the sick, the broken of body.  The rail at which we gather is their rail, too.  The hymns and prayers are theirs, too.  The spirit of love is present to the broken of body.  In this political season, we may be subtly encouraged to forget the broken.  In the rush to build and develop our church, or our nation, we may be encouraged to leave the weak behind.  But for whom is this preachment, if not for the sick?  For whom is the life of the church, if not for the sick?  For whom has Christ died, if not for the sick?  For whom has Christ died, if not for you in your brokenness?  You have time to visit one sick person this week.  The sick are included, centrally, in our Christmas gospel.

Included in our fellowship are the poor, those still left outside the party.  This rail is their rail.  Hymns and prayers are meant for them.  The spirit of love struggles in our institutions to take from the rich and give to the poor.  Right now we are set to take from the poor to give to the rich.  Yes, the poor ye have always with you.  Yes, the poor share responsibility for their condition (one dime on a dollar at best).  Yes the poor—with us all—stumble in the sin of sloth. They are able to give us, we lucky enough to have so much more, nothing.  But love becomes mercenary if it depends on the advantage each wants to gain.  The poor depend on the free service of our wills, and so, strangely, and powerfully, can help us love.  For whom is this preachment,  if not for the poor?  You can remember the poor this week.  The poor are included in our fellowship at Christmas.

Included in our preaching come Christmas are the brokenhearted, who have lost an irreplaceable person or dream.  The rail, hymns and prayers—and another day, the supper of the Lord—are comfort to the heartsick, to the poor in spirit. When we are heartbroken, heartsick, when we are poor in spirit, we lean on God.  Faith is most faith when it is all you have left.  We need God, heartsick, because, just now, we have a gaping hole, a crying need, a sorrow.  In the desert, we learn to appreciate water.  In the tundra, we learn to appreciate warmth.  In isolation and loneliness, we appreciate a kind word.  You can speak kindly to someone today and tomorrow.  You can.  Think how good tomorrow might be if you will brighten it with care, with kindness.  The brokenhearted are included in our preaching here.

Here is hope at Christmas, and with powerful specificity, hope for the sick, the poor, and the brokenhearted.  We give thanks for the story, the message, the meaning, and the hope of Christmas, the birth of the Lord.

My father died seven years ago.  One of his set of gifts to me was his genuine, authentic unsentimental experience and endurance of poverty, of illness, and of sorrow.  Those of us who have not known lack, poverty, loss, or need much in our own lives, keenly need to remember, in 2018, what life outside in the cold is like.  We may need to delve into memories that are generation or two or more old, when we, our people, you, your people, knew what it meant to be poor.  Much of our civil strife right know is enforced by this amnesia, this lack of memory of hurt.  This month I came across a story my dad had told, for me and my congregation, on Christmas Eve, 1995, the day on which his sister died.

Christmas 1938 came a few days before December 25.  Not only did my mother and uncle, with whom we lived, have to work on Christmas day, but my sister and I were to travel by train to Norwood, NY, to spend Christmas with my Grandfather Hill, another Aunt, and my Dad, separated from my mother for years.  So on the evening before we were to go the adults in our family arranged to have a full fledged Christmas morning, in the evening!

After a holiday supper, my sister and I were allowed into the living room where our stockings were filled, presents were wrapped and under the tree, and carols were playing on the Victrola.

That Christmas was very special because we knew my mother did not want us to be so far away on this very special day, but she recognized that our father and his father and our Aunt needed to have the sound of our young voices on Christmas morning.

She arranged fantastic gifts:  a Shirley Temple doll for my sister and a pair of hickory skis for me.  I still have them.  How she found the money in the depths of the depression for those fantastic gifts I’ll never know.  How she could have let us go I’ll never know.  But that was my mom.

In retrospect through this experience she taught Jean and me the meaning of giving and sacrifice, love and hope, joy in faith.  It changed our view of Christmas.

My sister died this morning full of grace and now has answers that some of us will continue to search for!

Christ came into the world filled with grace and truth to show how God wants us to live from birth to death and beyond death and until we can demonstrate that we have learned these lessons we will be living by faith, through these difficult penultimate days—but we know God is with us!

(Irving Hill, Erwin UMC, Syracuse, 12/24/95)

How shall we resolve then to hear this gospel of love, to acquaint ourselves with it and adjust ourselves to it, and then, with gladness to live it, as 2018 opens out before us?  Upon what actual, special interests and explorations shall we, shall you, shall I, bring our faith, lived in the glorious shadow of the faithfulness of God in Christ, this year?

Shall we attend to one or another of the issues of personal health which may have impeded our glad living, in the past?

Shall we give ourselves in extra measure to the growth of some dear institution, dear to us, now, for many years?

Shall we go ahead and go out and write a book, or write another book, under the apprehension that everyone has at least one good book in them?

Shall we bear down, and buckle down, and make a plan to make a plan to invest ourselves in the betterment of our culture, our society, our civilization, by joining up, attending to, giving for a just, participatory, and sustainable common hope, in our time?

Shall we learn another language, koine greek, or esperanoto, or Japanese, in order to see in detail another way to see in detail the detail of every day?

Shall we return in reading and thought to an abandoned farm, barns and fences all a-kilter, that of biblical theology, biblical theology, as a way of understanding not just sincerity and authenticity, but irony as well in the spiritual background and moral accompaniment of our time?

Health, growth, book, betterment, language, theology—et toi, and you, and me, and all?  What ruminations have you this Christmastide, this New Year’s Eve?

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Christmas Nuptials

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

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Luke 1:26-38

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Away in a manger no crib for a bed

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head

The stars in the bright sky Looked down where he lay

The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay

 Be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay

Close by me forever, and love me I pray

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care

And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

People imagine proposals and weddings at Christmas. Often the images are of cities, bright lights, jewelry, red dresses and handsome ties and mink coats.

But Samuel tells of a shepherd king. Mary sings of low estate. Luke recalls an exurban story, in one sense, a story like this one.

In the winter of 1982 we were stationed an hour and a half south west of Montreal. We lived in a large, ungainly, and drafty country parsonage. You knew it was a parsonage because on the front of the house there was a sign, to the left of the porch door, which read: Methodist Parsonage.   Just so you know. Whether the sign was meant to apologize for the down at the heal condition of the house, or was meant as a point of clarification about ownership, or was, as it certainly proved to be, meant as a guide for hoboes in need of sandwiches, as they drifted through that little town, know one ever said. But it was more than adequate, more than reasonably adequate for two young parents, and two little children, and one child on the way.

The parsonage was big enough, with two living rooms and an ample dining room, to accommodate some 75 people at one time. We had learned this, and this number, because on the previous Maundy Thursday, the heat in the church had failed, at 10 below zero. So, the service of Holy Communion that evening was convened in the parsonage, with hymns played on the baby grand piano, and people scattered from couch to kitchen to pantry to stairs to window sills. One elderly gentleman sat with the minister’s wife accompanist, right on the piano bench. I think he felt honored. Most later agreed that it was not only the coziest but easily the most memorable communion service they could recall.

Sometime well after the snow had begun to cover the farms and valleys of Burke NY, sometime after November 1, that is, the minister had a phone call from a neighboring farmer. The man asked whether the preacher would conduct a wedding for a non-member. Certainly he would and had and the farmer knew this as well as the preacher so the question in the air or over the phone line was the unspoken question: what are we talking about?

Well, North Franklin County is not a place of endless talk. There is in fact little said, week by week, and month by month, in the north country. Most would agree there that this is the way things should be, allowing as how most things said don’t need saying at all, and those that do need saying need better saying than they mostly get. I personally knew a beautiful young couple, prosperous potato farmers with two children, for three years, and never once heard the husband say a single word. Further, when there is talking it mostly the women talking. The preacher is also allowed and expected to talk, there being I guess some uncertainty about how to categorize the status of the clergy. But even so, the briefer the better, if you please, pastor.

In any event, after a long while of hemming and hawing and not saying, the minister wrangled out of the farmer that the farmer’s hired man wanted to get married. Actually: he needed to get married. He wanted to get married, but he also was in a situation where he needed to get married, too. This took the not usually talkative farmer a long while to explain because he did not directly explain what he was trying to explain. Phrases like ‘unexpected circumstance’ and ‘things moving pretty fast’ and ‘sometimes these things happen’ and ‘they are really good young folks’ were clearly spoken but their actually footing on planet earth was hard, or not possible, to ascertain. Finally the preacher said simply, ‘send them up, I am glad to talk to them’. This led to a meeting in the church office, on a day when the oil furnace was working, and some lumbering, awkward planning for a service to solemnize their marriage.

The couple lived on the farm where the husband worked. They lived in a single wide trailer, which is a trailer exactly half as big as a double wide trailer. Hay bales stuffed around the edges and thankfully covered with much snow for half the year mostly kept the pipes from freezing. Housing was provided for the hired man, just like for the minister, but the trailer was a whole lot smaller and a whole lot more dangerous than the parsonage (at least in most physical ways). Milking at 4am and 4pm, every day, and work, all day, in between, every day. You could rent the movie Frozen River and then know quite a lot about this neck of the woods.

After some talk with his wife that night, the minister suggested that the couple be married on Christmas Eve day, at noon, in the parsonage. It would be a small wedding, and, as his wife thoughtfully suggested, they could put the children down for nap, early, and then use the piano, have some refreshments, and make something happy and pretty.

Christmas Eve day came, with a gust of bitter wind, a snow shower, and then a bleak barely visible sun at midday. A little late, the bride and groom appeared. But their friends, who would sign for them (New York, the Empire State, being one which requires witnesses other than the clergy) had somehow not appeared. The three year-old daughter could be heard crawling and listening from the top of the stairs. The wind blew and the snow fell. Finally, to make the matter potentially legal, a neighbor lady was invited to come and join the service. She and the minister’s wife later signed the license. The minister performed the ceremony. Two carols were sung, Away in a Manger and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The three year old would appear, and disappear, as the service progressed, and appeared for good when the cookies were served. Other than the words of the wedding themselves, I do not recall that anything else was said. I refer you to the remarks made some moments ago about the paucity of speech along the great frozen St Lawrence river. But no words really were needed. The farm wife, young and pregnant, was simply dressed in a light dress. Her smile, her gleaming eyes, her red cheeks and smile, her evident enjoyment of the home and homely setting were a full epic poem of happy gratitude. And her husband, scrubbed and crammed head long into a tight black suit and wayward tie, was as dignified, reverent, true and terrified as any groom at any time in the 900 or so weddings the minister has thus far done. “Do you?” “I do”. The three year old’s face looked down from the stairs. “Do you?” “I do.” The piano played softly, a little meditation, Love Came Down at Christmas.

One loving neighbor, a jubilant three year old, a fairly green preacher, and his creatively generous wife, were present to attest to a wedding, a union of hearts and souls, on a cold winter day, in a forgotten patch of rough land, now some thirty five years ago. I can see that piano, taste the cookies, hear the carols, feel the hands, sense the candles as if it were an hour ago, and in some ways it was, just an hour ago.

There are a lot of fine and treasured forms of theological learning which one can and must acquire in the six brief semesters of divinity school. Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Wesley and Calvin, Barth and Tillich, Amoun of Nitria, the documentary hypothesis, the second aorist, filioque and the teleological suspension of the ethical. All of these and all that stands in between one can and must receive, while there is the time and freedom to meet and know them.

The practice of ministry, the privilege of the practice of ministry, however, is learned on the piano bench, over cookies, in the smaller living room, at $9,000 a year, in a drafty old manse, with a toddler spying, and a tiny but ever so majestic event—declaration of love, ‘til death us do part. There is a temptation, when one is in school, to think reality begins and ends with the library or the internet or the reputation of a beloved teacher. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, reasoned like a child, thought like a child. When I moved into the parsonage, I had to give up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly. It is a big world, full of need and waiting for love.

When the boots were donned, and the gloves and coats put on, the bride, in the hour of her wedding, kissed the child and hugged the pianist. To the minister she gave her hand, and with that Methodist handshake gave the gift of meaning, lasting meaning, in the work and struggle of ministry, wherein one works and struggles to find and keep the grace to put oneself at the disposal of others. On the last day of Advent, in the year of our Lord 1982, at least one preacher was given the privilege of seeing the privilege of life in ministry. It was a sort of Advent Carol. An Advent Carol, lingering like lasting beauty always does, in the eternity of memory. What a privilege to live and be in ministry. There is nothing like it, not in all creation. What a privilege. Amos Wilder saw and said so, in his poem of a similar event:

Brother and sister in this world’s poor family,

Jack and Jill out of this gypsy camp of earth,

Here is where the injustice is greatest

And you feel it obscurely,

And you have a right to storm within yourselves

And seek sanctuary in one another’s shabbiness.

 

This boy and this girl with all their abandonment and futility,

Folly and dereliction,

Whirled from ignominy to ignominy,

Condemned to all the wretched chores of the community-

O tribute of forlorn humanity! Come for his benediction whom they have

blasphemed,

And somehow sense that they touch- what?

God, the Higher, all that they have missed:

Innocence and mercy and compassion…

 

But the Son of Man of the wedding feast haunts such occasions

and understands you.

He can turn water into wine and such shame and loss into gain

In some world, some time;

 

I heard the organ roll behind the snowfall

and saw in it the confetti of the heavenly bride chamber,

Glimpsed the sons of the bride chamber rejoicing

In that City which is full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof,

Before the Father whose face the angels of

little children do always behold.

That 1982 North Country Christmas Eve, the door closed, and the minister and his wife smiled and hugged each other, and sent the daughter back up to nap.

Then a knock came again at the door. There stood the groom, gloves off. He had something he had forgotten. He had something he wanted to give. Not to say, but to do. Not to speak, but to act. Not to describe, but to give. I refer you to the demography of verbal silence along the frozen St Lawrence offered some moments ago. He held out his hand, with bills rumpled and folded there in. He looked down, and then quickly up at the pastor. He gave four dollars. He was truly proud to give it. And I was truly proud to receive it. I only wish I had had the sense to put the bills away as a physical reminder of the day, that day of blessed, real Christmas Nuptials.

At every turn, as we come to Christmas, we are reminded that faith is born in trouble, like that little bit of faithfulness was born on Christmas Eve so far away and so many years ago. We are reminded of the lowly entrance our Lord makes into life. That night, at age three, our daughter sang in church, for the first but not the last time:

Away in a manger no crib for a bed

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head

The stars in the bright sky Looked down where he lay

The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay

 Be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay

Close by me forever, and love me I pray

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care

And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

He Is the Way

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

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John 1: 6-8, 19-28

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Auden

He is the Way

Follow him through the land of unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures 

He is the Truth

Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety

You will come to a great city that has expected

Your return for years. 

He is the Life

Love him in the world of the flesh

And at your marriage all its occasions shall

Dance for joy.

         Advent accosts us with the command to remember and to hope, with promise in memory and in hope.

 Remembrance

The Gospel of John gives us a form of remembrance, in the figure of John the Baptist, who came to bear witness to the light. The Baptist is present to remind us, in Advent, of the circumstances which did occasion the birth of the Son of Man. He recalls for us the long history of the law, prophets and writings, our bequest from Judaism. He recalls for us the contest and conflict which emerged, Law and Grace, Moses and Jesus. He recalls for us the struggles, the sheer bone jarring challenges, both in the ministry of Jesus and in the ministry of the church. He places us unmistakably in a particular place, at a certain time, within a specific tradition, and alongside a unique moment. Like no other. This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. Je me souviens. I remember. I follow myself. I remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memory

With mother and grandmother, aunt and others, all teachers, there was an impatience with forgetfulness, in our growing up years. A good and loving impatience, but an impatience nonetheless. In the windswept, hot Las Vegas summer car port, after the castle of sand had fallen, at age 4, there came a maternal voice, dimly in memory from age four, ‘Remember, a wise man built his house upon the rock…’ Come age 9 and the multiplication tables, across the still covered dining room table, and before the dishwashing, ‘Remember, 7 times 7 is 49, 9 times 7 is 63. Then, a few years later, say age 12, on hearing strange words like itinerancy, bishop, new church, move, district, another house, also, a very loving word, “Remember, it will be fine, we will be together, we will help each other, there are good people everywhere”. Of course, by junior high school, say 14, the time came for Latin declensions, conjugations, aphorisms. “Remember, Agricola, agricolae…Remember hic, haec hoc…Remember, porto, portare, portavi, portatum…Remember, Veni, vidi, Vici…” Until this year, that maternal voice could carry full memory across decades, and disciplines, and declensions and decisions.

Now, without memory, she has only one full form of consciousness. She knows, and articulates, only, that she does not know. “Let’s see…I’m not sure…What am I supposed to be doing?…Jane will know…” What once was a precious cornucopia, waterfall, avalanche, fortress, and endless bank account of memory, now has gone, disappeared, evaporated, melted. She knows that she does not know, at least that she knows. Is that better than knowing nothing at all? Here is where we as honest Christians, as existential apophatic theologians, can also rest.

 When it comes to God, what we know is the sheer cliff of one thing. We know that we do not know. God is hidden. God is mystery. God is the great deep, the dark ground of being, the cloud of unknowing. God is transcendent. And our spiritual reflection, biblical interpretation, philosophical theology, and homiletical cadence do best, just here, when we can, in utter even desperate but honest ignorance be truly apophatic. Like my mother, what we know is, only, that we do not know. Dionysius the Areopagite (thanks to Cyril Richardson, who died one week before the end of term): “That divine Darkness is the unapproachable light in which God dwells. Into this Darkness, rendered invisible by its own excessive brilliance and unapproachable by the intensity of its transcendent flood of light, come to be all those who are worthy to know and to see God.”

Coffin

We can in part to this Marsh pulpit, now our twelfth Christmas here, in part out of memory, a remembrance of what William Sloane Coffin had brought us in the pulpit of Riverside Church, along a similar river, alongside a similar University, along by a similar School of Theology, along with similar citizens and scholars, teachers and students, religious and un-religious. Coffin:

Faith is being grasped by the power of love.

God provides minimum protection and maximum support. Guilt is the last stronghold of pride.

The rational mind is no match for the irrational will.

There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

Romero said not ‘pobres’ but ‘apobprecidos’.

Pastoral concern for the rich must match prophetic concern for the poor.  

I’m not OK and you’re not OK—but that’s OK!

They say religion is a crutch: what makes you think you don’t limp?

The religious norm is love.

Faith gives the strength to confront unpleasant truth. Faith puts you on the road and hope keeps you on the road. 

A Humorous Interlude

Boy

John teaches memory. Isaiah teaches hope. To give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit…

Our friend Beth Neville tells this story of being pushed out of despair, and back into life:

“I never learned the young boy’s name but after our encounter I decided to call him, BOY. He was an attractive, open-faced kid about 10 years old, the same age as my grandson. So our ages were separated by about 70 years.

Sitting in the corridor at drab rehabilitation facility, struggling to recover from hip surgery, my spirits were low. At the end of the long corridor a large window opened out onto a beautiful view of fall colors, russets and tawny gold colors of fall Oaks against the autumn blue sky, it resembled a Gothic cathedral’s stained glass. But inside the rehab center, the color was gray. Old people in faded gowns sat in wheelchairs, some spending hours in a curled up state. The walls, bed covers, and people’s faces all faded to the same ashen grey, creating a miasma of age and sadness. Five days earlier, my worn out hip had been replaced by a piece of metal and the constant pain and discomfort was wearing at me. Before the surgery I began using metaphor of a Marathon to get me through the trauma. I was on a marathon and, every physical or emotional set back was a curve or a long stretch. But right now in the gray rehab I was on Heart Break Hill and I was beginning to loose site of the goal. After all I was almost 80 and had lived a full life, why bother to go on? I’d rather die than endure more pain. Old age was surrounding me, why not just stop here and drop out of the race? What more in life could I do to be useful? I wanted to quit.

Up the corridor came a boy and his father and they sat down next to me to enjoy the golden fall view. The boy never said his name but he had an inquisitive look . BOY’s opening question to me was a stunner, “Well, what’s your era, 1940’s?” Me laughing, “That’s close, I was born in 1937. Are you visiting your Grandmother?” BOY: “Yes. Well, what do you do?” Me: “I teach art.” BOY: “How do you do that?” Bemused, I explained an art lesson using the glowing trees outdoors as a painting example.” BOY: “Well, what else do you do?” Me: “I teach art history.” Boy, “Well, why did people start making art?” Now this was getting to be an interesting, a real challenge, Me,” People began making art because they were worried about having babies and keeping their families going, so they made female fertility figures. They chipped stone pebbles to make a pregnant woman, and maybe then they would have more babies. And people liked to decorate themselves with shells and beads.” He liked that answer. BOY, “Well, tell me about fire?” and we were on to the invention of fire, and carrying water in buckets, and cooking over fires. Boy, “Well, what about Mesopotamia!” Whoaa, this conversation is really getting interesting! Me: “I studied Mesopotamia in graduate school,” and we talked of the use of clay tablets for writing and irrigation” and off we went. BOY,” Well, what about cunnieform?” By now I’d stopped being surprised, and I dissected the use of writing with clay tablets versus Egyptian papyrus. BOY: “Well, why was Mathematics invented?” We discussed masthematics in keeping track of the seasons and crop yields. He wasn’t showing off, just interested. At one point I said, “I don’t know how yeast was invented, it is so important for making bread,” and BOY said, “Well, Yes! just one of ‘Histories’ Mysteries’ my teacher says.” Yes, I laughed, I’ll remember that line. His Dad put down his cell phone and said, “O.K. son, let’s go visit Grandma,” off they went.                  

BOY will never know it, but he had pushed me up and over Heartbreak Hill,! I felt I could still contribute something to life. It was time for me to get back to overcoming pain and start the exercises. Where did BOY come from that beautiful afternoon? I don’t believe in extra-terrestrial beings from either Mars or Heaven. But BOY did have an angelic look about him and he had pushed me out of despair, back to life and blessed me.

Birmingham

         Sometimes hope takes time. Less than a month after MLK’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, four girls were killed in Birmingham by a bomb set at the 16th Street Baptist Church there. There is much that we do not fully remember about those years, that era, the civil rights struggle, and, especially, those who suffered, and how they suffered, in that time. Over the next three decades, three KKK leaders and members were brought to trial, and convicted of the crime. In that way, it was case like that of the Scottsboro Boys, which my namesake, Allan Knight Chalmers, Homiletics Professor at BUSTH, tracked for several decades, earlier in the century.   The names of the girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.

         In 1977, as the principal bomber, Robert Chambliss, was put on trial, a young second year law student skipped classes to sit in the courtroom. Twenty years after that, the young lawyer worked to convict two of Chambliss’s accomplices. Decades passed before the convictions were decided early in this century. You may be aware that the young lawyer who skipped his classes in school to attend classes in life, and who later brought a measure of justice to others, was just recently elected to the Senate in Alabama. Doug Jones. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

Hoping

We harbor a common, shared hope:

That our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

That our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

That our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

That our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

That our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

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

That our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long holiday table, this week, and share the roast beef, and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

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

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

That women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.

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

Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart.

Auden

 He is the Way

Follow him through the land of unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures 

He is the Truth

Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety

You will come to a great city that has expected

Your return for years.

He is the Life

Love him in the world of the flesh

And at your marriage all its occasions shall

Dance for joy.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

 

Lessons & Carols

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

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

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The Adventure of Faith

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

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Prophetic Vision…

The adventure of faith is a shared adventure of a common faith.

We today enter Advent, a season of preparation, in which we celebrate, and share the adventure of faith.  A shared adventure, a common faith.

A prophetic vista…

The world can work.

Isaiah 64 shows us a post-exilic communal conflict. 587bce. Now 510 or so bce.

They returned from exile with the Bible.  Exile can be uncannily, eerily, unexpectedly fruitful.  Keep that in mind for a decade or so.

Visionaries and realists, dreamers and doubters.  Realists.  Visionaries.  Zadokites.  Levites.  Justice. Temple.

Visionaries:  like those in 2 Isaiah, Levitical priesthood, those ‘left behind’ in Judah.  Utopian vision.

Realists:  Zadokite priests who control temple now.  They want to repair the roof and boiler.  Restoration, for them, means restoration of the temple.

Hope in this bitter conflict gets unhinged from history. Visionaries and realists separate, as prophecy applies less to daily politics, hope takes flight from history.  This is the Dawn of Apocalyptic.

See Paul Hanson’s old work from across the river.

We know this kind of trouble.  Not just from the ferocious inter and intra party conflicts in 2016.

See Mark Lille, The Once and Future Liberal.  Academic liberal failures: forms of identity politics that are broadly off-putting; nearly complete absence from actual political activity.

 

A communal connection…

1 Cor:  53/ethical pastoral/work with nascent congregation/first urban Christians.

Every heart has secret sorrows.

My November Guest.

Royal Couple:  is he kind?

R Scroggs, Paul for a New Day.

There is no substitute for gathering in the same space (house of cards).

Our endless celebration of the petty narcissism of small religious differences.   Post-modern politics of differences.

Shared adventure.  Common faith.

Ease of anonymity to power of connection.

Humanity and technology:  Hillary and E-mail; Donald and Twitter; German Right and Facebook (350,000); North Korea and Cyber Theft.  Two hands clapping out a sorrowful beat.  One of the forces normalizing hatred on a global scale.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

And what would Paul say to the famous, many religious, gentlemen, who are accused of harassment and abuse?  Where is the influence of the Christian Gentleman today?

Lillian Ross (b Syracuse 1918): the act of a pro is to make it look easy.  Fred Astair didn’t groan when he danced to let you know how hard it is.

Many helpings of faith, first helping.

 

Apocalyptic Admonition…

A ‘little apocalypse’

Mark 13:  its history/70ad/cataclysm like that of 3 Isaiah/never rebuilt

New religions, Judaism and Torah, Christianity and Church.

We are not the first generation in faith to face cataclysm, in this looming decade of humiliations.

In which there arises the temptation to substitute political opportunism for moral judgment.

The cataclysm of:

Distortion of Truth and Falsehood

Mocking of Nuclear Opponents

Hideous Anti-Muslim, meaning anti-religious, videocasts

Mistreatment of women with impunity

Disdain for diplomacy

Indirect discourse of racism (sometimes not even indirect)

Daily Presidential\Journalistic game of go-fetch

Watch.  From eschatology to ethics, here.   You know neither the day nor the hour.  You watch.  You keep your chin up.  You keep your head high.  You keep faith in relationship, in worship, in stewardship (your body, your time, your money).  Beware a growing accommodation of totalitarianism.

Three plural imperatives (shared, common)

Nightime arrival.  Why?  Danger of eschatological slumber.  Don’t be caught napping at the Parousia.  Eyes open, eyes open.

On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover

A fisherman mends a glimmering net

Happy porpoises jump in the sea

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be

The voice of the violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night

On the day the world ends

-Cselaw Milosz

 

Coda

Sawdust Trail Altar Call

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent

We believe in God

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

And All the Angels With Him

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

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People of common faith trust in today’s Gospel, that as the least are treated, so treated is Christ the King.  How by faith one sees so, with the eyes of the heart, is a matter of pure mystery, of glad wonder—you could call it an angel song and sign. And all the angels with him…

Some years ago, we had the privilege in ministry—and ministry is privilege in full—to know such a person of faith, a native of Michigan.  Those years ago one would not have thought or needed to say so, but in our divided, conflictual era of abiding humiliation, which will in all probability endure a decade in length, we would today rightly add that our friend was all red.  Red to his toes, not an ounce of blue (with one exception) in his perspective, when it came to government or politics or taxes.  He had grown up in a small Michigan town.  It happens that so very long ago, one of his earlier pastors was later to become one of the now deceased former Deans of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.  In that town, he learned to love math and music, and on graduating from college had a hard choice—music or math.  He chose the latter, and on retirement had become the CFO of a major US corporation.  The only blue he celebrated was related to a certain big Michigan football team of his liking.  And he had his wisdom sayings, like, what is good for the Michi-goose is good for the Michigander. 

In those years, we had launched a mission in Honduras.  (The missioners have preached from this pulpit in past years). By some quirk our friend, more naturally inclined to music and finance work, had found himself on the missions committee.  It was proposed that the church send a work team the next winter.  My pastoral colleague with some astonishment announced at staff the next Tuesday that our friend was the first to volunteer.  In the soup kitchen ministry that year a group of parishioners and clients had together been reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. He had been reading it.  In and with that winter trip into the slums of Tegucigalpa, our dear friend’s faithful witness acquired a missional dimension.  In his full life, all red and blue aside to the contrary notwithstanding, and now in his choice within retirement to travel and work alongside the least, there was a true reliance on the truth of today’s Gospel.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  In a full and broad sense, down under the skin and right alongside the heart, and the eyes of the heart, we share a conviction, and a confidence, that the measure of faith is measured in the treatment of the least, the last, the lost.  Real religion is never very far from the justice that Ezekiel did prophesy would nourish, would feed, the scattered flock.  In Sunday worship, faithfully and without fail week by week, and in steady personal faithfulness within friendships, partnerships, and marriages, and in the disciplined determination to tithe—purposefully to give away each month a substantial portion of what we earn, up to a tenth—we follow the trail of faithfulness set before us by Ezekiel, by Ephesians, by the Psalmist, and preeminently by St. Matthew.  You hear our volunteer, communal, non-audition Thurman choir in faithful chorus this morning, for instance.  You will come to know over time, in the community of Marsh Chapel, the multiple creative and missional engagements of our people.  In research.  In medicine.  In public health.  In personal mission.  In advocacy for the enslaved.  In disaster response.  In personal giving.  But mainly, in worship, faithfulness, and tithing.

Come Sunday, the ancient witnesses to faith found in our Holy Scriptures, are meant to recall for us that we are not the first people to face unprecedented, novel difficulties and challenges.

We may differ to some measure, red and blue, about just how to lean forward into Matthew 25.  But the foundational truth of the Gospel here, in normal season and in normal outlook, is not in doubt.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  We have ample cause to meditate upon such an evangelical, dominical command, in a season in which our nation is fractured by flagrant inequality between rich children and poor children, measured directly and easily in the distribution, or lack thereof, of education and health care.   The least among us, children, those who are hungry by the hour, who thirst by the half hour, who are naked unless clothed by others, who are imprisoned in slightness and weakness, who are the very stranger in our midst, generation to generation, mark out the edge of the least of the least.

How does such an apperception of faith, finally, settle upon the mind and heart?  How, that autumn evening long ago, in yet another church committee meeting which like the peace of God may have passed all understanding and endured forever, did our Michigander friend become seized by a full measure of grace?  Whence faith, change, heart, grace, compassion?  It is the work of the ministry, and the special work of the pulpit, to preach Christ the King—to teach, delight and persuade—so that across the rainbow spectrum of cultural and political thought, women and men may have faith in God.  How does this happen, when it happens, as it happens, if it happens at all?

Our Gospel today gives us a clue, a hint, a glimpse.  And all the angels with him…The Son of Man will arrive with some help.  We may quickly leave behind a literal idea of angels.  But the reality they represent, the uncanny sense of presence, the inexplicable moment of revelation, the seeing by the heart, by the eyes of the heart—these angelic signs can become, for you, this season, the nearness of Christ the King, and so, by grace, your footpath to faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  What do you hear this Lord’s Day?  This is your invitation to a life of faith.  Do you receive, open and read, ready to respond?  Or do you re-post, marking it off, return to sender?

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

There is transcendence all about us.  Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Sunday.  What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience?

This year we bade farewell to our esteemed colleague and beloved friend Professor Peter Berger.  Are you looking for angels?  His summary still works, A Rumor of Angels.  You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears.  For this Lord’s Day, Christ the King Sunday, we recall his five suggestive allusions to the transcendent, the angels coming with the Son of Man.  Listen to them this day.  Give them the credit they deserve.  They are the angelic nudges, drawing you to faith.

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order.  Berger:  Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’.  Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play.  Berger: In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.

Third, we sense the ‘supranatural’, the transcendent, in the experience of hope.  Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Where there is life there is hope.  Better:  where there is hope there is life.  People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence.  Berger: Human existence is always oriented toward the future.  Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B.  Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas.  While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason.

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account.  It is this angel, in particular, and in full who sits down beside us in Matthew 25. As you have done it to the least of these… Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged… There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…to a moral order that transcends the human community.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the ‘supranatural’ or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice.  Berger:  There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe… The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the mighty who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity.

Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think.  But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor?  These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary.  And all the angels with him…

Sleepers awake!  Hear the Good News.  There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive!  There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life.  You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you.  It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole.  Begin.  You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self.  It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do.  Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works.  Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work?  Do so.  But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being.  Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment.  You are being sold a bill of goods, here.  Be watchful.  It takes time to self-interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’.  Begin.  You do not have forever to experience Presence.  It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made.  It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach.  Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul,  not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s.  Begin.  And begin with the least: As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25)

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

The Bach Experience

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Preface

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

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

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

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

Come and join us!  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!  Come, especially today, amid the beauties of Bach and the rituals of Thanksgiving, to remember your humanity, fragility, mortality…eternity.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Bach today, and the Scripture every day, sing out to us:  God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.

Longing

 The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow. The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  So, Shelley.

El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality. El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.  So, Unamuno.

Our cantata today sings of heaven.  The cantata sings out for what lasts, matters, counts.

Lao Tze wrote:  The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it. The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.

At the heart of the human being there is a longing for God, for heaven, for eternity.

Pause for a minute.  Sometimes that longing has an overture in other forms of emptiness, of lack, of longing.

One autumn, following a brief pastoral conversation, you could see lingering on the leaf pocked porch step, a woman at young middle age.  For a variety of reasons, common enough, in her whole life she had really no real friends, until by grace in the years before, and by grace in the church of Christ, she had found a friend, made a friend, become a friend, been befriended by another woman her own age, with children of the same ages, husbands of the same baleful tempers, parents of the same haunting failings.  She had a friend.  If you have friend, one is a great number in a lifetime, then you know.  But in June her friend moved a long way away.   Come November, there was that ache, that emptiness, that longing, that ‘shape of the void within’.  To date, no other friend has come along to fill that void.

And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?  If only I had finished my degree.  If only I had fallen in love.  If only I had really discerned a calling.  If only I had kept that other job.  If only I had more loving parents.  If only I could put words to the pre-dawn presentiments of what I think is faith.  If only someone would notice that I can be a good pal.  If only I could shake off this daily anxiety.  If only someone would publish my book.  If only I could get the grace to forgive what he or she did to me.  If only my parents would see my beloved as I see him.  If I only I could wake once with a smile.  If only he would see me as I really am.  And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?

The more proximate longings can prefigure the ultimate longing, in its own full way unspeakable but not for that reason any less real.

The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Pastoral experience in the main shows that most of us most of the time do not fear death, but we do fear.  What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams. What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams.  Maybe something like that is behind Matthew’s rendering of the inherited parable today, his anger, his burning mean-spirited dyspepsia.  Said a faithful Anglican a few weeks ago: ‘How much longer do we hear from Matthew and the dark side?’ Not long, not long.  Yet Matthew’s recognition of the human failures in the human condition we do recognize in our own years of humiliation. The longing, that heaven shaped soul emptiness, that desire—anhelo—abides.  How does Bach sing this today?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Singing

In this year’s Bach Experience, we have been focusing on cantatas Bach composed in his first weeks in Leipzig as cantor at St. Thomas. His task was to provide a musical explication of the day’s lessons alongside the sermon. These cantatas, comprising solo arias, recitatives, choruses, and chorales, with librettos using both scripture and free poetic texts, typically last about 20 – 30 minutes. In this context, it was Bach’s task to work through the theological ideas at hand. Each cantata is masterpiece in miniature, and we continue to marvel at the astonishing invention, creativity, and complexity revealed note by note.

Cantata 95, ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’, takes up one of the most difficult but ubiquitous themes of Bach’s day: how to reconcile and countenance our mortality. Our program annotator writes: Consider that pre-Enlightenment Germany saw death and devastation in the Thirty Years’ War unknown to Europe since the fourteenth century, and that Bach himself was orphaned at age ten and lost his first wife and ten of his twenty children. Death was all around; the promise of immediate salvation cultivated a cultural longing for it and served as a powerful call to faith.”

Serving to teach, remind, and also comfort, Bach drew on four different familiar hymns or chorales that serve as the foundation for this seven-movement cantata. These tunes and texts serve as a beacon to the believer — a tuneful and memorable transmission of theology: Christ, He is my Life, To die is my gain; To it do I surrender myself, With joy I go yonder. / With peace and joy I go there according to the Will of God. Death has become my sleep. / I would bid you farewell, You evil, false world. In heaven it is good to dwell. / Since Christ is arisen from the dead, I will not remain in the grave; Your last Word is my ascension, Death’s dear You can drive away. For where You are, there do I come, That I may always live and be with You; Therefore I depart with joy.

These chorales establish the orthodoxy around which the believer can begin to reconcile his own personal response and call. Musically, the four chorale setting also offer a composition guide to the possibilities of setting chorale tunes. The first is set as an orchestral chorale fantasia with each phrase of the chorale set off by exuberant motives from the oboes and strings in G major. The second, heard as the concluding section of the first movement, casts the chorus in counterpoint with the oboes and and horn set over a more rhythmic, walking bass line. The soprano soloist takes up the third chorale, in a little aria that becomes a sweet devotional song with two oboes d’amore in unison encouraging her song. The cantata concludes with a four part setting of the fourth chorale in an expected way, with the notable additional of a fifth voice as descant in the fist violin part.

The most remarkable music of the cantata is reserved for the tenor soloist, who, through his clarity of faith, teaches Bach’s congregants a possibility of their personal attitudes toward mortality. His music in the central aria is sung almost in spite of the music of the instruments, which seem to proceed on their own clock. The aural image here is one of funeral bells, or a glockenspiel in a bell tower. The strings play entirely pizzicato, or plucked, throughout, and the organ remains silent. You can imagine this sound as the inner workings of the clock played in precise and regular patterns and rhythms. On two, the two oboes play their melody in parallels. The missing third note of their chords is obscured in the pizzicatos of the first violin part. And, to my ear, this further contributes to the ‘mechanized’ sound of this music – a Leichenglock or funeral bells. The tenor joins up musically with the instruments every time he sings the words “blessed hour”, singing the third or missing note in the oboe pattern. There are so many choices here from the composer revealing a musical reality the likes of which only a Johann Sebastian Bach could imagine.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Praying

Some of you have been reading again the Confessions of St. Augustine, in Sarah Ruden’s new translation.  Like the music of Bach, the music of his poetic prose, his prosaic poetry, lasts and matters and counts.  Augustine lifts our eyes from earth to heaven, from the visible to the invisible, from the daily to the divine.  Bach does the same.  Augustine in powerful particularity, teaches us again to pray.  In a word, for him, prayer is thanksgiving.  All right, in four words, prayer is grace, courtesy, respect, and gratitude.  Prayer is not a spiritual hockey puck, hit by slap-shot toward the masked goalie God.  Prayer is being thankful, giving thanks, bespeaking gratitude.  Howard Thurman knew this so well.  As the student choir Morehouse College sang, to honor Thurman’s birthday, in prayer, we give thanks.  So, each year, at Marsh Chapel, on this Sunday, so close to his birthdate, on this Sunday, so close to our nation’s holiday, on this Sunday, so set apart to honor the grateful, we offer Thurman’s Thanksgiving prayer.  You may, by the way, take it from the website to your own Thanksgiving table, should you want need or like. Count it our annual public service!

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

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

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

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

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

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

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

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

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

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

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

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

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

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

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

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

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

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

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

Could inspire and God could command.

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

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

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

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

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

To reach for the highest;

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

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

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

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

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

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

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music 

Luther on God at Play

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

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Gen. 32:24-30

Matt. 11:12-19

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Luther on God at Play[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, Associate Professor of Church History, Boston University School of Theology


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mighty Fortress

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

Click here to listen to the full service

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Matthew 22: 34-46

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Influence 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Prophecy.

Coda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let goods and kindred go

This mortal life also

The body they may kill

God’s truth abideth still

His kingdom is forever

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.