Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Exemplum Docet

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

John 20:19-31

Click here to listen to the sermon only

There is no text for this sermon.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Easter Morning

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 24:1-12

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Opening: Canadian Creed

Our Gospel provides a particular kind of memory, a powerful kind of prayer, and a persistent kind of love as hallmarks of Easter morning.  Do they mark your life?  Do memory (‘Remember how he told you…and they remembered his words’), prayer (‘They bowed their faces to the ground’) and love (‘They went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared) clothe life for you?

Easter morning is resurrection in memory, in prayer, and in love.  Luke the historian cherished memory.  Luke the healer cherished prayer.  Luke the evangelist cherished love.   What empty space, what unoccupied tomb, abides in your life for these three, and the greatest of these—love?

On Easter morning the women with courage walked tomb-ward to work through their worst experience.  The set forth to do the work of facing grief with grace, failure with faith, hurt with hope, and death with dignity.  And thee?  Is that work begun, continued, or completed?  Easter brings you life, uplift, a lift for living, even into the teeth of death, so you may face, face down, and live down death.

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.

God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. (J Bennett).

Easter morning means to uplift you—listen, hear, trust—from death to life.  Seek ‘the Living One’, He who is more alive than all life, whose life is the marrow of being alive.  Why do you seek the Living One (ton zonta)—a title perhaps, a Person, for sure, an announcement of Christ, crucified and risen.  All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding…

‘The marks of the new age are present hidden in the old age.  At the juncture of the ages the marks of the resurrection are hidden and revealed in the cross of the disciple’s daily death, and only there…this is what the turn of the ages means, that life is manifested in death’ (JL Martyn, of blessed memory, in 1967, Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages).  

We need not over-preach at Easter.  We still walk by faith not by sight.  We still see in a mirror, dimly.  We still have this treasure in earthen vessels.  We still hope for what we do not see.  The resurrection follows, but not replace the cross.

Today Luke announces resurrection in his own manner.  Luke honors the women at the tomb, following Mark, but he replaces Salome with Johanna, and names Mary the mother of James.  Luke’s women are composed, calm. Mark remembers the women in fear and trembling, rushing away with horror and terror and great anxiety, and speaking to no one.   In Luke, they actually remembered angelic words: on return, they calmly told the eleven ‘all’:  the prediction of the Galilean—betrayal, suffering to death, and on the third day arisen; the additional angel, the more dazzling attire, and the preference for Jerusalem not Galilee.  Luke is different from Mark, and Paul is different from both.

Paul? Paul gives no indication that he is familiar with the doctrine of the empty tomb.  There is not the remotest reference to it in any of his letters, and his conviction that the resurrection body is not the body of this flesh but a spiritual body waiting for the soul of man in heaven makes it improbable that he would have found it congenial (Gilmour, IB, loc. cit.)

Easter comes with the morning, every morning.   So walk with the women, walk with me too, let us walk together through the Gospel in sermon.  And if you get done with the sermon before the sermon gets done, if you are finished with it before I am, have no fear, do not worry.  Just wait a bit, and I will catch up with you!

Marathon 2013

We do not know what a day will bring.  True this is of every day, but truer of some days than others.  Focus for a moment on the ‘gravest’ of days you have known.  Someday I would like to hear of it.

For some who are seniors or juniors today, Patriots’ Day 2013 was such a day, nearly 3 years ago.  We learned first hand in this neighborhood about the visitation of death, tragically known again in Brussels and around the globe this week.  Spelled D…E…A…T…H. Not your imaginary friend, but an equally omni-present invisible enemy…

That Monday began with brunch and celebration, and ended with terror, and needless slaughter and (humanly speaking) unforgivable horror.  Our staff opened the chapel later for the throngs walking, T-less, by.  Water, refreshment, prayer, counsel, they gave.  One runner came very cold and was shrouded with a clergy gown, all we had to offer, a shepherd’s outfit.  What a week.  Tuesday brought us to the plaza, come evening, in vigil, to honor and reflect.  Wednesday, in this chapel, and also at other hours in other settings, gathered us for ordered worship, prayer, music, liturgy, Eucharist and sermon.  Thursday we heard President Obama, on a familiar theme, ‘running the race set before us’.  Friday at home we watched televised news.  Saturday we listened for the musical succor of Handel’s beautiful Messiah, right here.  The Monday next we gathered again for a memorial service, for our deceased BU student, Lu Lingzi. 

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  

You remember death.  Your neighbor.   Your hourly companion.  You spell his or her name D…E…A…T…H. Easter morning is about intimations of life, the Living One outlasting death.  Paul:  As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  Behold: a glimmer of light in the dark, a rumor of life in death, an angel reclining in the tomb.

Clem: Memory

Memory gives us life.  Remember how he told you…

If there has been ever an age that more needed better memory than ours, I know not what it would have been.  Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.  The past is not dead;  it is not even past.

During that week journalists from around the globe contacted us, and others, across the university.  Many, perhaps most, called or wrote from Asia.  Some needed commentary for radio news or other newscasts.  The main newspapers across the country also sent reporters.

On Wednesday, the office took a call from the Philadelphia Enquirer.  Could someone meet their man and his photographer at the steps of the chapel, to help convey something of the nightly vigils, services and informal prayers of the week.  We picked a mid-afternoon hour.   In the April sunlight the interview began.  Suddenly the photographer dropped his camera and shouted:  Bob.  Bob.  Bob.  His name is Clem Murray, a high school classmate and friend.  He and his girlfriend Mimi Sinopoli were the ‘class couple’ because they were the most beautiful couple, a truly stunning two some.  I had seen neither for forty years.  I had heard that they married in college.  Somehow, he recognized enough of my former self, hidden behind the current condition of my condition, and recognized my name.  He let go of the camera for a hug.  We finished the interview and photo.  I turned then as they were going to ask, ‘So how is Mimi?’  You only know the really awkward moments too late.  They come up after you, like alligators out of the Florida swamp.  Clem said nothing.  He didn’t need to.  I could see what he was holding back in his face and eyes.   He just shook his head and shook.  “Two years ago she died of cancer”.   In the midst of life we are in death, every moment.   All I could see of her was a white graduation gown, a little cap and tassle.   Three decades of marriage, three children, all things bright and beautiful, and then a malignancy unto death.  Clem waved goodbye.  A kairos, not a chronos moment…

We held, together, a memory of life, that made life, that gave life, that made alive.  In the very presence of death.  It was a resurrection memory.  A living memory takes you out of the present and into a living past.  It was a resurrection memory.  And perhaps the most powerful personal conversation I have known.

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

Memory gives us life.   

Ceremonial Bow: Prayer

Prayer gives us life.  They bowed their faces…

A week after the Marathon, you may remember, we memorialized our student Lu Lingzi.  This service was held, as had been the memorial for President John Silber the autumn before, in the George Sherman Union.  Two thousand attended, with an unknown number around the globe watching and listening by cyber cast.   The service proceeded, word and music, after careful attention and planning by musicians and clergy.  We heard the Gospel of Mark and the Analects of Confucius.  We listened to instrumental and choral music.  We grieved, remembered, accepted, and affirmed, together.  The family, eighteen or so, and dressed in black, sat in the front row.  As the service ended, from the next row, I could see and hear a susurration along the family pew.  They then were meant to move to the gathering and greeting room, but no one stood.  Further conversation moved up and down the row, in a language I could not of course understand.  I feared:  have we forgotten a eulogy, or left out a reading, or skipped over an anthem?  No.  It was something else.  After a moment, the family, dressed in black stood as one, moved as one, turned as one, and faced the congregation and the world.  A long quiet ensued.  Then, as one, they bowed at the waist, and held the bow.  To honor the gathering, to honor the moment, to honor the life, to honor Life, they bowed, in silence.  It is the most powerful liturgical moment I have ever known.  It was a resurrection prayer.  And it is perhaps the most powerful liturgical moment I have seen.

‘Many are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’ (A Heschel).  We should repeat this three times a day.

Prayer gives us life.

Hold On: Love

Love gives us life.  They went to the tomb…

The next Sunday, April 28, turned out to be a nice, warm early spring day.  As the sun came up, we looked forward to a day of rest and worship, a chance for a return to normal.

About 1 hour before the Sunday service, Br. Larry came in to the office to say, ‘We have another one’.  It took me some moment to understand and internalize the fact of another death.  She had died tragically in a fire, caught in an upper room.  Her mother would be coming up from NYC on the bus later that evening.  The police would have informed her of her daughter’s death.  Our Dean of Students, Kenn Elmore, and his associate, John Battaglino and I planned to meet the bus.  That evening we awaited a delayed Greyhound, talking a bit about the week past.  We pondered how best to greet the grieving mom.  It was decided I would meet the bus, and greet her as she came down the steps, to offer our heart felt condolences, and start the trek over to the hotel.  The noise of the terminal, the lateness of the hour, the long weeks of terror and loss, and the approximate presence of death itself settled on us, and gave us that quiet of the soul that sometimes overtakes us.

In the bus rolled.  The mother came down the steps carrying a beautifully decorated box, holding it with both hands.

“I want to greet you for the University and express our deepest sympathy and heart felt concern” I said.  

She replied, “Where is my daughter?  What hospital is she in?  Please take me to her, so I can see her and talk with her.  I want to go and see her.  Where is she?  How is she doing?  I brought a rice cake.  See.  In the box.  It is her favorite.  Rice cake.  I know it will make her feel better.”

Honestly, at every phrase I tried to say, with honesty and kindness, that her daughter had in fact died the night before, caught in an awful fire.  Apparently she did not understand the police, or they did not speak clearly, or someone else in the family took the call.  I tried everything.   But she could not understand, or could not hear, until, at last, she looked up and hard and asked, ‘You mean…she…is dead?’  Yes.

There is a phrase in the Christmas gospel about Rachel weeping for her children.  That Bus Terminal echoed with the chilling, haunting, painful cries of a mother who rightly could not and would not be consoled, as Rachel could not.  The reverberation of her sobbing across that urban nighttime cacophony I can hear still.  Nothing I said helped.  Nothing I did helped.  Nothing I could offer her could she receive.  We sat on a bench, the wailing stronger still, the cake and box on the floor, the gathered friends lost in grief.   Then she stiffened, her arm in mine becoming taut and cold.  Perhaps she was going into shock.  Everything I tried—counsel, prayer, listening, scripture, all—was of no avail.

Then from her other side Dean Elmore simply surrounded, enfolded her.  He put all of his body and arms all around her, as she wailed and stiffened.  He held her.  He rocked her.  He embraced her.  And little by little, sob by sob, she began to relax.  And little by little, breath by breath, she began to loosen up.  And little by little, held tight, she came through it.  Her lament lessened, her limbs loosened. Out up from the tomb she came.   A physical unspoken compassion brought her through, from death to life.  It was a resurrection love, compassion, embrace, grace, freedom, care, acceptance, mercy, pardon, peace, inclusion.  It was a resurrection love.  And it is perhaps the most powerful very public, pastoral ministry I have witnessed.

Unamuno:  warmth, warmth, warmth;  we are dying of cold not of darkness; it is not the night that kills, it is the frost.

Six years, at the time of our dad’s death, Elie Wiesel sent a note.  It was love physical, compassionate and personal, and as with all resurrection love it made a difference.  It concluded: we have a saying in our tradition, ‘may you be spared another further hardship’.

Love gives us life.

Memory. Prayer. Love.

‘The marks of the new age are present hidden in the old age.  At the juncture of the ages the marks of the resurrection are hidden and revealed in the cross of the disciple’s daily death, and only there…this is what the turn of the ages means, that life is manifested in death’ (JL Martyn, Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages).  

Easter morning is memory, prayer and love, creation, redemption, sanctification, Father, Son, Spirit, life in death.  And life in death holds out a promise of something grander still, life after death.

Closing:  Apostles Creed

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Calvin for Lent

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

John 12:1-8

Click here to listen to the sermon only


By an imaginative grace in the mind of a Presbyterian minister, we were invited to spend part of a seminary year in Geneva, Switzerland, underneath the shadow the great mountains, the Alps, of that region.  The minister was the Rev. George Todd, a founder two decades earlier of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, a still exemplary incarnation of community engagement against poverty, against racism, against bigotry, against xenophobia, against sexism, against the notion that the ‘poor you have always with you’.  Apparently, given the rhetoric and revelations of this political season in the United States, we still have a great deal of work to do.  Would somebody please shut the windows of heaven, that the saints need not hear our current discourse, language lastingly insulting to Mexicans, to Muslims, to women, by coarse extension to others who are other, and with the capacity for lasting hurt, especially in the ears of our children.  Shut the windows of heaven. George and Kathy Todd, with others, raised a generation of ministers and missioners, now the subject of a fine, new study, in a dissertation just completed here at Boston University, by a friend of Marsh Chapel, Ada Focer.

George corralled us, and a few others, to work for him at the World Council of Churches, whence he had recently gone, to provide, as he growled, ‘heat, light, and running water’.  Jan, you can still overhear, in those months, accompanied by piano the World Council mid-week worship service, with Emilio Castro or Philip Potter preaching. To think back upon George Todd’s influence, now decades past, is to scale up a great high peak, and to look out upon the vast beauty and need of a human race, longing, in such odd ways, for the presence of Christ. As we complete this decade’s reflection at Marsh Chapel, in dialogue with Calvin for Lent, George and others like him stand up and stand out as signs of hope for the future.

One summer Saturday that year we left Geneva, John Calvin’s city, and we drove an old car, a ‘deux chevaux’, a ‘two horse’, to find our way into the mountains.  After a while we transferred to a train, going higher still, and then later from Zermatt to Gornergratt, along old railroad lines.  As the sun came to a noonday brilliance, a cable car took us thence to the top of a great mountain, snow in July, and the powerful height, the pristine beauty of the creation, a hint of the power and majesty of Calvin’s view of the Creator.  Calvin is seen best from the pinnacle of the Matterhorn.  For this theological height, for this reverence for the divine freedom, for this austere, awesome vista, in his work, we are lastingly thankful, notwithstanding all and many profound disagreements along the railway up and forward.


John Calvin’s theology has traditionally, perhaps over-simply, but at a first approximation accurately, been summarized by the so-called TULIP formula:  Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints.  A sober if not an entirely cheery, happy creed.

Yet, in the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, at a first order of approximation, the opposite is expressed.  In the Gospel, Jesus loves people.  These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been totally depraved.  In the Gospel, as today, Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are.  Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in.  These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected.  In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, and addresses all with the invitation, as today, to repent. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been limited to the very narrow, tiny minority of the pre-destined elect.  In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love.  They must not have been powerless.  Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross.  Speaking of the cross, here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage.  Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one, our work of memory in Lent.

In this decade, come Lent, we have pondered and wondered about Calvin, and conjured something like this:  A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon another TULIP:   T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something lasting  of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence.    

A Biblical Chorus Line

Hear again the gospel in John 12.  The main trouble a preacher faces, with regularity, is how to understand, and so interpret, a passage from 2,000 years ago.  Every gospel passage, like this one from John 12, is like a hymn, or an anthem.  There is soprano line (the lead, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth).  There is an alto line (the most important voice, that just below the surface of the text, the voice of the early church, in its preaching of the gospel, its remembering, hearing and speaking.  For the early church Jesus meant freedom, and his cross and resurrection meant one thing—the preaching of good news, that we may face the world free from the world).  There is the tenor line (what we read from the pulpit, the gospel writer, in this case John).  And there is the baritone, basso profundo (the way the line reverberates throughout the rest of scripture, and down through nineteen hundred years of experience to us today, as John gives way to 1 John, and 1 John to Irenaeus, and Irenaeus to Calvin, Calvin to Wesley, and Wesley to March 13, 2016.)

Calvin on John 12

Calvin’s reading of John 12 emphasizes the overarching divine freedom, and a determinism at work in human affairs.  He writes:

It is surprising that Christ should have chosen as treasurer a man whom He knew to be a thief.  For what was it but giving him a rope to hang himself with.  Mortal man’s only reply can be that the judgments of God are a profound abyss.

Here is the inheritance of determinism, along with the view of Scripture addressed two weeks ago, the second lastingly great trouble for us, coming out of Calvinism.  Calvin:

God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation…We ought to contemplate providence not as curious and fickle persons are wont to do but as a ground of confidence and excitement to prayer.

So let us take stock of our Gospel today.  It includes one of the most infamous lines in Scripture, ‘the poor you have always with you’.   John here is making a Christological point, another sermon for another day, but in much regular memory of the Bible, especially when colored by a kind of Calvinism, the verse has not been a way of recognizing the overwhelmingly gracious presence of Christ, overshadowing all other concerns, but rather a tragic support to careless disregard for those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadow of life.  Be careful about your theological inheritance.   

K Tanner, in recent essay:  More specifically, a religiously inspired psychological sanction for hard work in the pursuit of profit reaches its height, Weber thinks, among religious people of a Calvinist stripe who believe in double predestination—that God predestines from all eternity some to salvation and some to damnation—and where the only effective way, it’s also believed, of stilling anxiety about whether one is to be saved or damned is the outwardly disciplined character of one’s everyday behavior without regard for material enjoyment. If one is graced by God, among the elect, one’s actions in ordinary pursuits will be of this character: coolly self-disciplined, restrained, non-hedonistic. And in that way amenable to capitalism’s requirements.”

The poor always with us?  Nonsense.  On a daily basis, we have as many poor among us as we choose to have poor among us.  There is no divine determinism about how many 12 year olds across this land, let alone those younger, are stripped of layers of human dignity, and saddled with the lastingly crippling effects of childhood poverty.  The poor we have are the number we choose to have, as a society.  The number of children and others without full education, effective health care, protective communal services that we have is a direct consequence, not of some pre-ordained, divinely determined formula, but of human choice, of human freedom.  It is a result of our choices in election and selection.  It is a result of our choices, in tithing and generosity.  It is a result of just how many poor we want to have with us, or how many we can somehow justify having with us.  There need not be any.  There need not be any.   It is a matter of human not divine freedom.  Diane Ravitch (NYRB 3/16):  As a society we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty and violence every day of their lives.

Presence For Lent

Jesus Christ may enter your life, at this point, along this night road crowded with terror.  This house is filled with the fragrance of perfume  covering him by grace. So utterly gracious is He that you may not notice without at least a homiletical whisper of introduction.   To the question of the poor, He makes no philosophical response.  To Plato he leaves the Thought that, really, suffering is illusory, unreal.  To Aeschylus  he leaves the proposition that suffering produces wisdom.  To Boethius he leaves the idea that suffering is instructive, since we need truth more than we need comfort.  To Freud he leaves the deep insight that all life, all creativity springs forth from some birth-pangs of suffering.  He makes no philosophical response.  His response is personal, and divine.

Rather, he prepares for his crucifixion, his burial, and his lasting resurrection presence.  Jesus meets us inside our suffering.  He meets us when we ask to withstand even when we cannot understand. He is with us.  Search the Scripture.  We find Jesus in the longsuffering of our people.

In the Old Testament teaching about the utter patience—passion–of divine love—in Jacob who worked for 7 years for Leah and another 7 for Rachel, throughout the exodus (Exodus 34), in the heart of the wilderness (Numbers 14), in psalms of lament (Psalm 86), in prophetic pain (Jeremiah 15).  Can’t you hear Jeremiah crying out:  “O Lord, thou knowest:  remember me and visit me and take vengeance upon my persecutors.  In thy patience, take me not away, now that for thy sake I bear reproach.”? Here he comes, prefigured in Job.  In Hosea, patient with adultery.  In Isaiah, awaiting resurrection. In John the Baptist, patient before death. In Paul, and Peter, and John of Patmos.

Sometimes, when we miss Jesus amid all our activity, we may find him again, or rather be found again by him, entering the poverty and hurt of his people…standing with the ill, ministering with the aging, incarnate to the lonely, showering himself on the pains of this life, present as the charismatic fullness of real life.  Jesus Christ empowers us to withstand suffering, even when, honestly, we have no way to understand it.  Here is Jesus Christ, publicly portrayed for you as crucified, who, unlike any merely religious representation of God, who, come Lent, invades the depth, the troubled dark night of life, to claim that darkness is as light for Him and for his own.

One Day

One day, in the fullness of time, compassion will reign.

One day there will emerge a people fully filled with a passion for compassion.

One day, as the Old Testament says, in the heart of difficulty with Job we will “sing songs in the night”.  And, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings as eagles.  They shall run and not be weary.  They shall walk and not faint.”

One day, as the New Testament says, the “long-suffering” grace of God will prevail.  Suffering will produce patience, and patience endurance, and endurance hope, and hope shall not disappoint us, because of the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

One day…and why not start here, and why not begin now?…there will be a real community setting a patient, passionate, compassionate beat, a cadence of quiet endurance.

One day, in the fullness of time, His presence will reign.

O Day of God draw nigh

In beauty and in power

Come with thy timeless judgments now

To match our present hour.

Bring to our troubled minds

Uncertain and afraid

The quiet of a steadfast faith

Calm of a call obeyed.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Sacrament as Prayer

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Came to himself….


J Wesley, 5 means of grace

Bible, reading and memory, examples

Luke:  what is absent (religion), spiritual not religious, greek and gnostic, Delphic oracle

Bible full of variety, not a single theme (eg Gospels)

Diversity preceded unity in earliest Christianity

Marrow of Gospel; grace, freedom, pardon, acceptance, mercy, reconciliation, peace, acceptance, inclusion, embrace…love

2 Cor

1 John 4: 7


Meaning, diet and exercise

Wesley, T\F, horseback, 5am preaching

We, spirit, soul, body

Spiritual Yoga: integration, stillness community
Ministry on campus:  worship, relationship, safety

Lent has its point here—though we are not meant to live in Lent, we live in Easter, and Sundays remind us so in Lent


Public and private, all year this year at Marsh

Senses, Language, Practice, Architecture, Sacrament of Prayer

Moment, quiet, meditation, walk, pause, own-most self

Have no anxiety about anything…Phil 4

In this nave, week by week—nothing

Well being vs work\ production vs self\immediacy vs imagination


Mystery, definition, two, five rites, sign, grace, simplest elements, entry\journey, belonging\meaning, beginning\sustaining, prevenient\sanctifying

Thanksgiving (eucharist), remembrance, presence

Ever need to take a spiritual shower? (Remember baptism)

Cleanse, from misuse of public forms of rhetoric, meant to allow difference, courtesy maintains a way to disagree, sermon prayer speech address debate, when gears stripped, better angels, ask not, then the path opens from a civil society to social incivility, be careful what you find entertaining, or where, where entertainment ever TRUMPS engagement

Grief as a sacrament


Luke 15 is a conversation, barely engaged

The week at Marsh

Circles of 6-12 people

Sherry Turkel 2 books

What is an education—periodic table or finding one’s voice?

Soul and World Soul, Word and Word of God,

Thurman to recite 139

Sacrament as Prayer:  mark the means of grace:  Scripture, fasting, prayer, sacrament, Christian conversation

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Calvin for Lent

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 13:1-9

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Lift up your hearts:  Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time.  Learn sympathy.  Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.

Calvin Again

This Lent we again, one last time, engage as our theological conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant. For example, Genesis 1 is a more Anglican or Methodist chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Presbyterian or Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  The English tradition emphasizes human freedom, and the French divine freedom.  (Both traditions are with us today, even embodied, as it happens, in our current Presidential campaigns, wherein still there is at least one Presbyterian and at least one Methodist (☺)). With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged in Lent in other years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  

    2016 marks the tenth and last Lent in which from this pulpit we engage the Calvinist tradition.  Over the next decade, beginning Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?

Calvin Interpreting Luke (1)

Let us listen, now, to John Calvin interpreting today’s Gospel, Luke 13: 1-9.   In brief, we might judge, his interpretation, utterly typical of his work on the whole, is both right and wrong, both true and false.  First true, second false.

First, Calvin rightly and directly applies the passage to our self-concern, wherein we tend to be more self-centered than centered selves.

Calvin: “The chief value of this passage springs from the fact that we suffer from the almost inborn disease of over-strict and severe critics of others while approving of our own sins…Whoever is not shaken by God’s hand sleeps soundly in his sins as if God were favorable and propitious to him…(Commentaries, loc. cit.)

Calvin judges, rightly, that we do not easily sympathize with others’ hurt.  We sleep.  We sleep in our sins, unless somehow roused.  This gradual awakening to random hurt is at the very heart of young adulthood, and at the very heart of a college education.

Speaking of education:  You hear Elie Wiesel, in the death camps, saying that God is swinging on a rope in the face of the hung child.  You hear Arthur Ashe, dying of Aids, saying that the experience of racism is far worse than his mortal illness.  You hear Werner Klemperer bear witness to the slowly tightening noose around his Jewish neck in the Germany of the 1930’s. You hear Frank McCourt tell about licking greasy newspaper to survive childhood in Ireland.  You hear Agate Nasal tell of unspeakable horrors inflicted on defenseless women on the eastern front in the 1940’s.   You hear Tim O’ Brien remembering ‘The Things They Carried”.  And these all bear witness to hurt in history—with another list needed for hurricane and earthquake and tornado and plague, nature’s own force against innocent life.   You are becoming educated.

Speaking of emerging adulthood:  All of us learn in these years. In junior high school you often look in admiration at those just older.  Being with you takes us, daily, back to those fairer days.   One remembers…

When the senior youth gathered in the church or parsonage, we just younger watched and listened.  Our retired assistant pastor (he died suddenly at a church dinner a few years later) had a red haired son, Tommy.  He was a favorite for all—happy, a prankster, kind.  The next fall the group gathered at Christmas, the spring graduates now home from college for the first time, and enjoying the firelight, the tree, the chocolates, and the mistletoe.  That Christmas Tommy stood out for his red hair, but also for his green uniform.  Bright red hair, sharp green private’s Army uniform.  Red and Green.  He was headed to Vietnam.  He came to mind last week, getting the sermon ready, in a quiet moment of reading Tim O’Brien’s memoir, The Things They Carried.  A few years later, the war now over, some of us came home from our first year of college, too.  The pastor said, he teaching meager sympathy in a violent world, ‘You might want to go over to the V.A. in Syracuse sometime this break.  Tom Mallabar is there.  He lost his legs, you know, in the war.’  We did not know.  We did go.  The pastor knew how easy it is, Calvin was right, absent an act of sympathy, absent a readiness to stop, to look, to listen, to look past the tragedy of lasting hurt.  We sleep, unless roused. How human it is to look past hurt, someone else’s anyway.   Some of in the years of emerging adulthood, includes waking up to others’ hurt.  You are becoming adults.

And a Lukan word from Ernest Tittle: Perhaps we, too, would do well to reject the way of military force and violence, placing reliance instead on efforts to combat hunger, misery and despair, to lift from anxious peoples the burden and threat of armaments, to abolish racial and religious discrimination, bring industry under the law of service, and assure to all (people) everywhere the opportunity of a good life (39)…(E.F. Tittle)

Calvin Interpreting Luke (2)

Second, however, Calvin misinterprets by a wide margin the fuller meaning of the Gospel today.  His penchant for judgment occludes his vision of grace.  On a regular basis.

Rendering not the stories now but the parable of the fig tree: “The sum of it is that many are tolerated for a time who deserve destruction…They do not realize their sin unless they are forced…”

But listen to the parable, Brother Calvin!  Here in Luke, not judgment, but grace is affirmed, not death but life, not authority or force, but growth and change.  In Luke 13, the question of ‘Why?’ is set aside in favor of the challenge to repent.  Governmental terrorism, in the hands of Pilate, and natural accident, in the case of a Tower in Siloam, are simply admitted to be what they are—utterly random in impact.  

In the parable, the gardener points away from past performance and points toward future potential.  Time.  Time is given.  A time of reprieve, a time of reckoning, a time of recollection, a time of restoration.  Time heals.  There is impending judgment, but there is time for change.  This is Luke’s own material.  This is Luke’s own toddler, budding attempt to deal with what John, alone, in full adult fashion, addressed, the church’s abject disappointment that the expected return of Jesus, on the clouds of heaven, ‘before this generation passes away’ (Luke 21:32) has not happened.  The first century is ending and Jesus has not returned.  In the main, Luke simply continues to hold out hope, soon and very soon, of the traditional expectation.  Not here in the parable of the fig tree.  Here he finds, channeling his inner Fourth Gospel Spirit, the possibility that more time may be a good thing.  We would all say so, 20 centuries later, since more time has become our time!  The Greeks taught us that life is long.  Give it just a little more time.  Here Calvin, wrongly, misses Luke’s point and power, as much as earlier he caught both.  Too much TULIP and not enough fig tree.  Especially, and perilously:  too authoritarian and too inflexible, and too inerrant, a view of the Holy Scripture.  Scripture alone, not Scripture in tradition by reason with experience.  No, says Luke, change, over time, can come and can become lasting goodness.  

Friday last week we sat in the southern California sunshine, the daily environment of our son and daughter in law, paradise, San Diego.   Imagine our surprise as we opened the New York Times, the paper of record, that morning, in the blue-sky light breeze warm water SO CAL sun.  One of two letters to the editor was written from the pews of Marsh Chapel.  Written out of your community, sent to the great city of New York, printed, and passed on to the needs of the world around, including those of us reading 3,000 miles away, on Pacific Beach.

Our friend, Advisory Board member, retired BU Academy Headmaster, Mr. James Berkman addressed the country, in four paragraphs, regarding the life, death and legacy of Antonin Scalia, and the matter of interpretation. The letter complimented recent Times reporting on Scalia.  The letter affirmed the ‘inarguably brilliant’ aspects of the judge’s work, and its pervasive influence.  The letter recalled a question raised by the author to Judge Scalia, in Cleveland, years ago, and the creative ‘dissent’ the judge offered in response: ‘he sidestepped to deliver a powerful answer on a facet he cared more about’.   Yet, the letter, in true honorable fashion, also recognized the limitations and dangers of ‘originalism’:  ‘if we were to follow (Scalia’s) philosophy, where would women and blacks be today:  still treated as second class citizens and slaves of our founding fathers?’

Interpretation of an ancient text, whether the US Constitution, or the Holy Scripture, does indeed require acute appreciation for what the venerable text originally meant. Without that mooring, we are adrift, forever at sea with our own proclivities alone to guide us.  But truth was meant to set sail and not merely to lie still in the harbor!  The bark needs both anchor and sail, both mooring and wind.  Interpretation, that is, also, and more so, requires of us the courage to exact from the text, not only what it meant, but also, now, what it means.  Our teacher Father Raymond Brown, said often, and taught repeatedly, that the full meaning of a text is not always best given in its mere wooden repetition.  In fact, the conservative Roman Catholic Father Brown taught otherwise:  what most resembles faithfulness to the ancient tradition may look very much like change, growth, something new, today.

In life and in interpretation things take time.  Time.  Let the fig tree have another year.  Time.  Let me nourish the tree with water and nutrients.  Time.  Give this scrawny plant some time, and see what happens.  As the letter to the editor said, ‘it is appropriate to weigh the balance of legacy’.  One of the real, lasting dangers and perils left to us by a certain perspective in the Calvinist tradition, still strong and at large today across parts of this great land, is the shadow of Biblicism, even of Bibliolatry, the mistaken preference for the text over the very Lord to whom the text bears witness.  And the Lord is the Spirit.  And where the Spirit is, there is freedom.  Over forty years of ministry now, and over forty years of the privilege of teaching the Bible, which I love with all my heart, which I love with my very life and time and work, the terrible, stinging memory stands out, of ways the Bible has maimed children, women, men, families, others, when wrongly rendered.  Calvin and Luther may have needed all the weight and power of the Bible, without its aporia, nuance, variety and depth, to break from Rome.  Sadly, some of that weight, without time without water or nutrient, and without proper, educated, informed, disciplined interpretation, falls like a millstone upon the weak.  A case in point, of course, is current Methodist use of the Scripture to support bigotry against gay people.  When one brings to mind all the children in all the churches in all the pews in all the years, who know at age 8 that they are gay, and what they have heard from men in black robes, ministers respected and revered even by their parents, it causes one to tremble.  On one hand, asked how well I know the Bible, I can respond, ‘The real truth is not how well I know the Bible, but how well the Bible knows me’.  I love the Bible.  On the other hand, when the weight of holy writ, and the power of tradition, by bad–originalist?–interpretation—six verses from Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians as opposed to whole New Testament, the whole Pauline corpus, and the whole letter to the Galatians, see the whole of its chapter 3—falls like a millstone on the necks of children in the minority, and that with the blessing of many who should and do know better, but say nothing, and many of them educated at Africa University, and riding Methodist dollars into prosperity on that continent, then I do not love the Bible.  Calvin bears some responsibility here—though of course, not alone.  One of the two great failings we inherit from Calvinism we see just here:  The Bible become a millstone around the neck.  (The second we shall address March 13.)


Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time.  Learn sympathy.  Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.

Bring sympathy and patience to bear.  Can you do that this week? Where in your life will a little sympathy and a little patience bear a lot of fruit? Paul Scherer, a fine Calvinist, wrote in a much more sympathetic and patient era:  “I know the things that happen:  the loss and the loneliness and the pain…But there is a mark on it now:  as if Someone who knew that way himself, because he had traveled it, had gone on before and left his sign; and all of it begins to make a little sense at last—gathered up, laughter and tears, into the life of God, with His arms around it!”

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Heavenly Citizenship

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 9:28-36

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Good morning! I am always humbled at the opportunity to stand in this pulpit, where so many past and present great preachers stand, and I am always grateful to Dean Hill for extending the invitation to be with you again this morning.

The lectionary is a lovely discipline, but it also can be pretty terrifying, especially when your limited preaching schedule is determined by those far above your pay grade. J

The regular rhythms of ordered worship, including regular lectionary preaching, can have as much of the wild movement of the spirit in them as any other form of worship and preaching. Case in point: I recently had an extended conversation with the Dean about my in-progress dissertation on Philippians, and a large part of the conversation focused on the question, “will it preach?” I ask this question because I am concerned with ethics just as much as history; that is, I would like to do history ethically but I am also concerned about the ethical implications of our shared Christian histories. I am concerned with communities long gone just as much as those living and moving and having their being today; that is, I take the communion of the saints both in heaven and on earth seriously. Our fraught, fragile, humanity is entangled in its own histories, and the past is no more dead than the present is alive; that is, the gospel is both good and news because it is and has been told, retold, studied, shared, spoken, preached, taught, written, shared, translated, and lived not in a vacuum, but by real people.

So I felt a sense of the spirit, or at least of Deanly intervention, when I found my annual preaching assignment falling on this Second Sunday of Lent, where our epistle lesson is from Philippians. And lo and behold, it’s a text I have studiously avoided dealing with in my dissertation! So here I am, dealing with it this morning, in sermonic form.

Knowing that, my sisters and brothers, I ask for your indulgence to let me lay aside, for today, Luke’s lament for Jerusalem, to gloss over the courageous question of the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”, and to let me focus instead on Philippians. And, perhaps worse, I’m not even going to deal with our whole reading today, but instead focus on a single clause, “our citizenship is in heaven.” [This by the way, is how people write whole dissertations about a single, four-chapter letter.]

So I invite you to meditate with me this morning upon “A Heavenly Citizenship”

The best way I can get at what it means to have citizenship in heaven is to think about the koinōnia of the gospel, the commonwealth of the gospel, which is, I think, the central theme of this letter. In other letters to other communities, Paul calls them ekklēsiai, assemblies, churches, but here, in Philippians, in a letter full of love, imitation, friendship, and calls to like-mindedness, Paul claims that he and this beloved community are in a koinōnia in the gospel.

Koinōnia is far too frequently translated as fellowship today, a term which calls to mind at once our beloved coffee hour and some sort of men’s glee club meeting, but our community is not only our coffee hours and our hymn singing. My best way to describe a koinōnia is as a joint venture. Paul and the Philippians, and you and I and the whole of the community of faith, we are in a joint venture in the gospel together.

This might make you a little squeamish because it sounds a little business-y, doesn’t it? And, actually, it is really an economic sort of term. In antiquity, people used this term, koinōnia, venture, in all sorts of business transactions. From land-leases, to marriage contracts, to joint investments in flax-seeds businesses, this terms springs up again and again in ancient papyri and epigraphy, little scraps of ancient paper and scratchings in stone. When there is a sharing of both risk and reward, there you have a koinōnia. And that, beloved, is what I think Paul means by modelling the community of faith as a koinōnia, a venture. For together we take on the risk and reward of the gospel.

If this were my dissertation (it’s not), I’d share with you some ancient inscriptions to help illustrate my point, but I’ll spare you here. I think I can explain this with a more contemporary example.

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate student, I stole a BU mattress. Technically, I didn’t actually steal a mattress, but the university thought I did, and I ended up paying exactly 1/3 the cost of a bright-blue, fire-retardant, twin X-long mattress, $90, which to the university is basically the same thing as acknowledging that I stole a mattress.

How the heck did this all happen? My freshman year, I won, or thought I won, the housing lottery. Instead of a crowded, stinky large dormitory, with its shared bathrooms and cinderblock walls, I was placed in a triple in a brownstone on Bay State Road. I was destined for wall sconces, a non-working fireplace, wood paneling, and other features that suggested a classier college experience. Imagine my and my roommates’ surprise, when, moving in, we found ourselves in what can only be described as one of the smallest triples on campus. Two of us slept a mere 2 feet apart from one another perpendicular to the wall, and the third had to set up her mattress against the wall apart from us. To squeeze between the space left in the middle of the room, you had to turn sideways and shimmy, or you’d bang your legs against the metal bedframes. Somehow, we also squeezed three dressers, and three desks into this oddly shaped room. The windows looked out, not over Bay State Road, but the alley, including the delivery entrance for Sargent, where they deliver the cadavers for the Human Gross Anatomy Lab. The rest of the building had spacious doubles and triples, but we, we were clearly in the worst room in the place.

The three of us made do for the year, but when room selection time rolled around, we began to eye the room across the hall. None of us really wanted to be in a triple again, but we weren’t confident we could get a lottery number high enough to snag a double or single. So, we entered a pact to move together as a triple, and we managed to get the room across the hall. The following year, we would be moving into a giant triple, facing the trees of bay state road. We had room to bring in a futon in addition to the BU furniture, and there would still be room to move about. There were 11 windows, We would have a large walk-in closet, and each of us would have a large corner of the room. With proper dresser positioning, we could each even have some modicum of privacy.

Except, that summer, we each received notice that one of the mattresses from the tiny triple was missing upon final inspection of the rooms. Before our accounts could be settled, before we could move in, before we could reach the promised land across the hallway, each one of us would need to pay for 1/3 of the mattress, that is unless one of us fessed up to taking the mattress. At first, vague accusations and mistrust flew. Who had checked out last, anyway? (We couldn’t remember.) Was one of us lying? After all, how well did we know one another anyway? Perhaps it was the impossibly chic roommate from Paris who had landed a hostessing job through charm and charisma. She was always staying out late for fascinating parties, poetry readings, gallery openings; maybe she took it for a lark or an art project. Or perhaps it was the roommate who had just gotten her first college boyfriend a few weeks ago. He had been hanging around quite a bit lately, and college students do things with mattresses all the time. Or maybe it was the quiet one who didn’t spend as much time with the other two. Who knew what she was thinking? None of this, of course, got us anywhere, because none of us had actually done anything with the mattress in question. Somehow, through bureaucratic red tape or facilities error, or other great mystery, we were all on the hook for this single, solitary mattress.

So, to reach the promised land across the green carpet and the original hardwood, we all eventually ponied up $90.

Beloved, my roommates and I were in a koinōnia; we shared together the risk, the hardship, and the reward, and we all shared in the joint cost of that mattress.

So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is chock full of financial language, including this central theme of a koinōnia in the gospel. This koinōnia, this venture, is not only how we relate to one another, but it is part of a much larger divine economy. Unlike my college roommate story, our koinonia is under God’s supervision; thus Paul writes in Philippians 1:6 “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Our gospel venture is not worked out in a vacuum, but in the confidence of faith we know that God has begun a good work in us and is able to bring it to completion. In a divine economy, God’s oikonomia, God’s house-rules, our relationship to one another is a joint venture, but this joint venture has God as its ultimate investor and site supervisor.

And now, to return to what it means to consider “A heavenly citizenship.”

Too often, when we read this passage, we imagine heavenly citizenship as endorsing an outlook that is solely otherworldly. Our heavenly citizenship is used to comfort us in suffering, our heavenly citizenships overlooks our human frailty in this life in hopes of the world to come. This is not necessarily bad theology, and it might sometimes be good pastoral care, but it is not a complete picture of our heavenly citizenship. Or heavenly citizenship is used to wash our hands of the troubles and challenges of this world. We invoke a kind of quietism because the world is just too messed up, too mired in sin to have any hope. Our denomination takes 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on LGBTQ inclusion. Our American political rhetoric has descended to a nadir of demagoguery, fear-mongering, and division. Our personal, student, and national debt seems too overwhelmingly large to ever possibly address, so we just keep putting off payments. Too often we throw our hands up, or wash our hands of these matters, despairing of this world, looking to our heavenly citizenship, to a long moral arc of the universe without any willingness to ask whether we or the universe need to be bending just a little, right now, to participate and move toward that long moral arc.

Too often we think of our heavenly citizenship as our passport. As Christians, we’ve got this little blue book which we can show upon arrival on the far shores of the stormy Jordan. No trouble with our border crossing, no wall to cross, we’re bound for the promised land, because we have our heavenly citizenship.

But passports aren’t the only part of citizenship. Citizenship comes with a participation in the bigger system, in the divine economy, and with that comes some obligations. Citizenship is not only about the benefits you get out of it, and that’s as true today as it was when Paul exhorted these Christ-communities in Philippi that they and we have a citizenship that is in heaven. Rome wasn’t exactly known as a tax-free haven, and the empire had significant judicial, financial, and bureaucratic systems that affected citizens and non-citizens alike. Paul couldn’t have conceived of any form of citizenship that didn’t also have participatory obligations attached to it, so I’m surprised when Christians think of heavenly citizenship as simply a “get out of hell free card.”

Perhaps as Protestants this makes us nervous because it sounds a little too much like works righteousness, but I don’t think that an expansive view of our participation in the broader divine economy in anyway contradicts a reliance upon God’s grace for salvation. As citizens of heaven we are in a koinōnia in the gospel under God’s supervision, and it is only by the grace of God that we are participants in this joint venture. This is how Paul can write that despite his current imprisonment, he and we can be confident that we are all shareholders in God’s grace. (Phil 1:7) We didn’t and we can’t earn those shares, they are a gift freely given, but our larger participation as a result of that grace demands our use of those gifts in full participation of our venture in the gospel.

I realize these are deep, and perhaps swirling, theological waters that might be crashing over your head, and probably mine, too, right now, so I’ll offer another more contemporary example.

The other day I came home from a productive meeting with my advisor after a short day of teaching to find Soren sitting on the couch, surrounded by a 6-foot radius of piles of paper. He had begun filling out our taxes. Soren has always done our taxes, but this year they are extra complicated, because we purchased a home in Portland last year and have been renting it on AirBnb. Asking him how it was going, he gave me the kind of look that communicates that I didn’t even have to ask. He told me that because of our AirBnb rental and because we are married, we are declaring ourselves a “qualified joint venture,” which means for tax purposes we would split all of the cost deductions and all of the profits equally. “That’s awesome!” I said, “Do you know what this means? In the eyes of the federal government, we’re in a koinōnia!” Soren was less thrilled, because he still has to do our taxes, but he did share my enthusiasm for a brief moment.

Beloved, our heavenly citizenship means that we participate with one another in God’s economy, and that participation is not without risk, reward, and obligation. Perhaps a theological orientation that is more wholistic, less self-oriented, and, I think, makes more sense, is to ask not what your heavenly citizenship can do for you, but what you can do for your heavenly citizenship.

And I think meditating on that sort of question is an excellent practice for Lent. Do not ask what heaven can do for you, but what you can do for heaven. I think this letter, this line of communication back and forth, binding together Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus and the saints at Philippi, offers a roadmap, an examination of conscience, a way into prayer for you this Lent as you consider your heavenly citizenship. As much as we tend towards the heroization of Paul, he’s a part of a larger community, entangled with one another, bound together in the spirit. We’re a big community here at Marsh Chapel. We’re bound to one another across the vast expanses of time and distance, and we are together entangled in these moments of ordered worship that overcome these distances.

So, as a Lenten practice, I invite you to imagine Paul and Timothy writing, perhaps Epaphroditus carrying and reading aloud, and these named and unnamed saints listening to these words:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full discernment to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Do you pray with joy, and thank God for those whom your remember in prayer? Are you confident that God is at work in you and that God will bring that work to completion? Do you hold one another in your hearts? Do you share in God’s grace with one another? Are you confident in your share in that grace no matter what your current circumstances? Do you long for better connection with those around you? Do you pray for others? Do you pray for their love to overflow more and more? Do you pray for them to have knowledge and full discernment? Do you help one another produce a harvest of righteousness for the glory and praise of God?

If, as the hymn says, I am bound for the promised land, where do my possessions lie? Where do I invest my wealth, my time, my energy, my life, and my very self? Do I invest myself in that which is most lasting, most true? Do I invest myself in other people, in their growth in faith and faithfulness?

And if I am bound for the promised land, whom do I invite to go with me? For, beloved, we are together in a koinōnia in the gospel.

We are, together, citizens of heaven.


–The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Practice of Prayer

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 4:1-13

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Acquire, this Lent, a practice of prayer.  One of your own, some way to pray.  Make of this Lent a time for the practice of prayer.

A long, long time ago, in a land far away, and there within a small village school, 16 kindergarten students were guided into the merits of learning, the rhythms of education.   Kristen George Kollevol.  Craig Risley.  Merilyn Loop.  Herbie Jones.  Robert Hill.  Jill Hance.  You could walk home for lunch, if you were in town, which many were not, coming from the farms nearby.  The day’s highlight was nap-time, a most precious practice, as those of you know who have lived on the Iberian Peninsula.  A respite. (At 10 below zero you trudge to church.  You find yourself in a warm sanctuary, under a familiar altar, wrapped in a comforting liturgy, alongside loved ones.  The Scripture is read.  The sermon begins.  And in the warmth, let us say, in the sheltered embrace of a particular grace, you find yourself drifting, sliding like a sled downhill, deep in the arms of Morpheus, the God of sleep.  Following the sermon some arise inspired and others awake refreshed.)  Those 16 5 year olds found nap the zenith, nadir, apex, pinnacle and crown of the day.  This is in the last year of the Presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower.  This is ten years nearly before the first woman is admitted to Colgate University, the beloved college on the town’s far hill.  This is in a land far away, a long time ago.

February that winter brought its gifts, and every winter brings its gifts.  The peace of Groundhog Day.  The justice of Lincoln’s Birthday.  The joy of Valentine’s Day.  And a cherry pie for George Washington, the father of our country.  One other day that month, the 16 5 year olds were assembled on the street corner with Mr. Hess, to practice crossing Broad Street.  Mr. Hess was large man with a round face, ‘duchy’ face our great aunts from Cooperstown would have said.  He was a farmer who fell in a grain elevator, and was hurt badly.  He became the elementary school traffic guard.  There was hardly any traffic, then or now, on Broad Street, but he justly performed his duties.  One by one he marched the class across Broad Street, with the three cornered admonition:  stop, look, listen.  Come February, rehearse again, learn again, and practice again.  We have our guide, as well, not Mr. Hess, but a physician, if legend serves, from long ago and far away, the most compassionate of the evangelists, and also the most inclined toward prayer.  Luke.  Luke who teaches by precept and example that we are meant to develop a prayerful meditation, a prayerful observation, a prayerful audition.  Catch his tenor tone today.

The Lukan Difference

Luke brings a different look.  Luke is our tenor guide this year.  He asks us, at virtually every turn, to find our way into a practice of prayer.

So, today in the shadow of our Lord’s temptation, we are invited to a prayerful resistance to the blandishments of wealth, power and fame.  Perhaps you are not ready to resist blandishments.  Maybe though, say at age 19, or at age 79, we may be ready, for different reasons, to observe the limitations, the fairly severe limitations, truth to tell, of wealth, power and fame.  If nothing else, a worship service, on a sleepy University Campus, in the frozen month of February, as all year, is meant to ring this bell, sing this song, tell this tale, recall in prayer that we are utterly mortal and lastingly fragile.

One shall not live by bread alone.  You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.  You shall not tempt the Lord your God.

You have noticed that here, again, Luke has amplified the story of Jesus he inherited from Mark.  Mark has only a couple of lines about wilderness, temptation, wild beasts, Satan and Angels.  But Matthew and Luke have both added in another story within the story, a spiritual temptation to accompany the physical deprivation.  Jesus cites here Deuteronomy 6 and 8.  Jesus models spiritual dimensions of spiritual temptation and struggle.  Not bread, alone.  Not power, alone.  Not glory, alone.  Not the blandishments of wealth, power, and fame.  But the struggles, the spiritual struggles, the tragedy that lines its way through life.  The tragedy that so impersonally and unfathomably upends life.

For example.  You could this Lent re-read Arthur Ashe’s autobiography, Days of Grace, as you have this month the poems of Robert Hayden and the story of Jackie Robinson.

A Religious Turn

Lent offers you a religious turn.

S. Eliot: “It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions…that men and women come nearest to being real.  If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an elite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous.”  After Strange Gods.

We turn this Lent to prayer.  To religion and not merely theology.  To religion and not merely administration.  To religion and not merely music.  To religion and not merely ethics.  We return this Lent to prayer.  To prayer, not merely theology.  To prayer not merely administration.  To prayer not merely music.  To prayer not merely ethics.  We turn or return this Lent to prayer.  A good thing:  it’s later than you think…

Our attention can be quickened, in all this, by focused concern for hurt, for others hurt.  Syria, today, comes to mind.  4 million immigrants.  6 million re-located.  Tens of thousands killed.  Today, along the Turkish border, children, old people, women, the sick, all.  Without presuming to possess a solution, we nonetheless have every prayerful reason to lament the hurt, and to do so publicly, in worship.

Lent offers you a religious turn.

Ernest Fremont Tittle: The only way really to get Christianity across to the people is to act out in daily life the faith and compassion of Christ (40)…Luke in particular emphasizes the inner life of Jesus, his habit of prayer, his experience of the presence and power of the Spirit of God.

Lent offers you a religious turn.  Said Wesley, Preach it until you believe it.   We could add, Practice it until you accept it.  Sometimes the bending of the knee forges the turning of the heart.

Kate Bowler, Duke theologian, diagnosed with 4 stage cancer at 35, practiced prayer, to stop, look and listen, when she wrote, movingly, graciously, and personally, this week:  The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate and prone to error.  As a Christian I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die.  As a scholar I can say that our society is steeped in a culture of facile reasoning…I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole.  I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: “Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard” (repeat).  (NYTimes, 12/14/16)

Lent offers you a religious turn, a return to the practice of prayer.

A Lenten Practice of Prayer

You have grown to practice prayer—a quiet hour a day, a Sabbath day a week, a week of reflection a quarter, and a quiet quarter a year:  7am, Friday, Thanksgiving\Christmas\Spring Break, and summer.

You have come to pause before meals, to offer, if no other, the John Wesley table blessings, prayers before meals.

You have pressed ahead to commit treasures to memory:  Psalm 46, the Commandments and Beatitudes, selections from Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and John, the Apostles’ Creed, a modern (say the Canadian) affirmation.

Yours is a prayerful life, lived in the aspiration and expectation to become ‘whole’, made ‘holy’, perfected, if you will, through this life which is a valley of struggle, exercise, exacting and perfecting practice.


This Lent 2016, you might add a Marsh Chapel self-guided 7 stop prayer journey:

  • Begin in front of the chapel and consider learning, virtue and piety, embedded in the BU shield.
  • Ascend to the balcony, find there a copy of THE CHARM OF THE CHAPEL and read the account of the Four Chaplains.
  • Now walk downstairs and sit in the nave beneath the Abraham Lincoln Window and pray to live ‘with malice toward none.’
  • When ready, walk to the rail, kneel beneath the pulpit and before the interred ashes of President and Mrs. Marsh, a moment in gratitude for all who have come before us.
  • Then, take a seat behind the pulpit, there open the red Bible and read Luke chapter 15.
  • Next, descend to the Chapel’s ground floor, enter the Marsh Room, take down, at random, a book from the shelves, open to a random page, and read.
  • Last, in the Robinson Chapel, kneel before the altar, read a page or prayer from CHARLES RIVER: ESSAYS AND MEDITATIONS FOR DAILY READING.


Add your name, if you like with help from the office staff, to the list of those fellow pilgrims who have made the Marsh Lenten Self-Guided 7 Stop Prayer Journey.  Those so doing receive a small gift.

Man shall not live by bread alone.  You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.  You shall not tempt the Lord your God.

Acquire, this Lent, a practice of prayer.  One of your own, some way to pray.  Make of this Lent a time for the practice of prayer.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Click here to heard the full service

Luke 9: 28-36

Click here to hear sermon only

Lukan Mountain

Our apprehension of Bach’s cantatas this year highlights resurrection. The day of transfiguration is perfect for such an acclamation. It may be that Mark, first, and then Luke, following Mark some two decades later, entwined this marvelous and mysterious moment into the life of Jesus, when it had originally been an experience of his resurrection following Easter. It may have been replaced, or placed ahead, to argue that what the primitive Christians found in their own experience, and acclaimed in their own preaching, and felt in their own hearts had, here it is suggested, been known even in his lifetime, if only to a few, if only in the rarest settings, if only up on a mountain. ‘Many interpreters hold that the narrative was originally an account of an appearance of the Risen Christ to Peter James and John that has been moved forward and made an incident in the life of Jesus” (IBD loc cit.) Belief in Jesus’ Messiahship, it may be, grew out of belief in his resurrection. Whether pre or post Easter, then, the Transfiguration is either a premonition of resurrection or a recollection of resurrection, and both finely fit our music today. Resurrection is the preaching of the gospel of love, spoken and heard. The Gospel is the word and possibility of love in unloving, unlovely, love-deprived world. Resurrection is the experience of love divine, all loves excelling.

“We want to mark the places and preserve the moments where we have encountered God’ (Ringe, loc cit). On the mountain, on the mountain, on the mountain…

You are following Luke well this year. Notice how roundly he changes Mark, here, too. Notice Luke’s Additions: the admonition to pray; the use of the term exodus (departure); the allusion to coming death and ascension; Peter is heavy with sleep; Jesus called not rabbi but master; not my Beloved but my Chosen (not beloved); the reminder and explanation that the disciples kept silence (as in Mark’s messianic secret—an admission in a way that the story only emerged after the resurrection.)

The other alternative is Matthew, who copies Mark nearly word for word. No, Luke has gone his own way, and given us the Lukan view of Transfiguration, later than that of Mark, different from that of Mark, fuller than that of Mark. What do Luke’s additions amount to?

What others have seen and heard is meant to inspire us to see and hear, in prayer. Luke regularly and steadily supplements the narrative with additional moments of prayer. The most activist of the gospels is also the most passive, the most prayerful. Likewise, the whole ethos of exodus is emphasized in Luke. Yes, life is a journey. Yes, the journey of faith includes risk, distress, and pain. Yes, the sojourn in the wilderness is a cost of leaving the fleshpots of any Egypt, just as winter is the cost for summer. Then, Peter awakes (the KJV has it better). He wakes up to the Resurrected, who, for Luke is not merely teacher (rabbi) but master (Lord), a metamorphosis from Mark to Luke that is similar in shape to the internal metamorphosis in John alone. He is the Chosen, emphasizing purpose, intention, mission, and election—emphasizing the church. It is a rare titular depiction of Jesus—Chosen. Chosen from many? Chosen for reason? Chosen as a celebration of divine will? In favor of viewing this story as originally a remembered experience after the resurrection which has been transplanted into the life of Jesus to show that the experience of the church really did have historical antecedents is the explanation that know one really knew about this because the disciples kept the secret. Luke is settting things right for the long haul. Prayer to nourish for the long haul. Journey as a metaphor for struggle over the long haul. Lordship, a higher and hierarchical Savior, to strengthen weakened knees and souls for the long haul. The presence of the divine will, soon for Luke to emerge in the body of the Church, to guide all for the long haul. Luke advises us to be ‘in it for the long haul’ whatever ‘it’ is. Luke gives Divine confirmation of Jesus’ Messiahship. It places into the history of Jesus what the later church believed, believes, knew, and preached. See: even during his life a few people knew and saw what we know and see.

One wonders, Scott, how best to hear resurrection in today’s music?


When I read the stories of Jesus, I am constantly struck not by Jesus’s actions but by how the people around him react: I remember Simon when I think of Jesus in the temple; I remember Peter when I think of Jesus in Gethsemane; I weep with the beloved disciple and marvel with the Centurion when Jesus is on the cross; my own inner-Thomas is revealed when I hear of Jesus in Emmaus. And here, too, it’s not that Jesus enjoys a nice visit with Moses and Elijah while on a mountain hike, but rather that Peter misses the point, requiring the Lord to set him straight in a cloud. And then my mind wanders to the notion of God speaking through the fog of Cloud. Should I listen for God more on cloudy days??

Well, now I’m just like Peter on the mountain top, wandering and missing the point, and in my own sermon!

As Dean Hill mentioned in his opening, our series this year survey’s Bach’s musical sermons celebrating the Resurrection Story. Today’s Cantata, No 31 “Heaven laughs, Earth rejoices’ was written early in Bach’s career during his period in Weimar. He takes full advantage of Weimar’s instrumental possibilities and the literary gifts of resident poet Salomo Franck.

The structure of the Cantata may be understood in three distinct sections: The Resurrection Story retold by Chorus and Bass; The Charge to the Believer heralded by the Tenor; and finally, the Believer’s Affirmation of the Charge. And just as in the Biblical stories, we move quickly from Jesus’s resurrection to our own foibles and possibilities in relation to Jesus. The central images to watch and listen for are that of Vine and Branches; Tree of Life with limbs and branches; Christ as head, we as limbs; the cross as ladder to heaven; and, of course, the grave of sin. Typical of the theology and imagery of the time, our life on earth is depicted as the grave, a chamber of the sin of Adam’s inheritance. We eagerly await the final hour in which we shed the mortal coil of sin, and, through resurrection by the spirit, reach life everlasting, arms outstretched to the risen Savior at the gate of Heaven.

Musically speaking, brilliance is everywhere on display in our cantata today. Festival scoring for trumpets and drums, joyous opening sinfonia paired with a thrilling opening five part chorus, three diverse arias proving the composer’s gifts and skills, and a sublime and delicate final chorale with heavenly descant.

Once again, Bach brings us to a mountain top, his own Castle of Heaven. Bach’s music offers a glimpse of that moment when we, too, will be transformed, joining heaven’s angels in the radiant, joyous glow of Christ Jesus.


                        The Shekinah, the cloud, the presence, on the mountain, shadows us today.   We want to bear that mystery in our present, in our person, do we not? Tittle: ‘as he faced the possibility of suffering and death his mind reverted to the great figures of Israel’s past…let us place ourselves under the influence of Christ and even we sill be transfigured…something of his glory will shine in our hearts and appear in our faces and show forth in our lives’.

The Shekinah, the cloud, the presence, on the mountain, shadows us today.   Sometimes, later in life, we realize what was going on, earlier in life. So, Robert Hayden, African American poet, in the line of Hughes, Baldwin, Ellison, and all, writes and remembers and rejoices. Here is a poem written by Hayden, remembering his youth and his father:

Sundays too my father got up early

And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

Then with cracked hands that ached

From labor in the weekday weather made

Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

And slowly I would rise and dress

Fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

Who had driven out the cold

And polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

(By Robert Hayden)

The Shekinah, the cloud, the presence, on the mountain, shadows us today.   The necessary freedom, and the disciplined grace, of Luke’s gospel firmly accosts us with the daily need, the daily task, the daily prospect, the daily adventure, the daily promise, the daily existential, lonely, windswept mountain top liberty of faith in the resurrection. Back at home, it may be, for those present this morning, or there at home, it may be, for those listening today there is transfiguration awaiting, a resurrection beckoning, a faith and gospel lying in hiding, ready for action. Write that letter. Sign that check. Make that call. Read that verse. Forget that hurt. Watch. Fight. Pray. Live rejoicing every day.

He comes to us as one unknown,

a breath unseen, unheard;

as though within a heart of stone,

or shriveled seed in darkness sown,

a pulse of being stirred.

He comes when souls in silence lie

and thoughts of day depart,

half-seen upon the inward eye,

a falling star across the sky

of night within the heart.

He comes to us in sound of seas,

the ocean’s fume and foam;

yet small and still upon the breeze,

a wind that stirs the tops of trees,

a voice to call us home.

He comes in love as once he came

by flesh and blood and birth;

to bear within our mortal frame

a life, a death, a saving name

for every child of earth. 

He comes in truth when faith is grown;

believed, obeyed, adored:

the Christ in all the scriptures shown,

as yet unseen, but not unknown,

our Savior, and our Lord.


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

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 4:21-30

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Again, the strange world of the Bible beckons us.  St. Luke, you see, stands every day, every Sunday, before us, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel.  Here is Jesus in all his Dominical Authority.  Here too is Luke.  The Scripture—mighty, ancient, holy—calls to us, today out of Gospel According to Luke.

One day you awake, early, and are able to recall the contours of dream.  Strange.  One day, walking, your mind and memory are visited by a feeling gone fore years.  One day, frightful this, news comes of a loved one’s death.  One day you come to worship to worship.  Behold the numinous, the uncanny, the mysterious, the strange, here, now, the strange world of the Bible.

Today–Luke. (He is east of, stage left of Jesus.  Matthew and Mark are west of, to the stage right of Jesus.  Luke and John are to the stage left of Jesus.  And you can hear that truth in more than one way (☺)).

Those at the dawn of life…in the twilight of life…in the shadows of life…You too were strangers in the land of Egypt…as you have done it to the littlest of these you have done it also to me…

Our Holy Scripture today places us, at first, in a thicket of problems and questions:

The Scripture is fulfilled in its hearing.  A   prophet is not honored at home.  Elijah and Elisha go to Sidon and Syria.  The crowd is outraged and poises to attack.  Jesus eases on down the road.

What is going on here, in this strange world of the Bible, which beckons to us to leave behind our mercantile mediocrity?

The Scripture is fulfilled, not in a perfectly just world, in a perfected justice, like that, frankly acclaimed in Isaiah, but in the Reader and the Voice.  Isaiah’s literal prophecy was not fulfilled, and to date has yet been fulfilled.   Another fulfillment Jesus acclaims:

The resurrection is the preaching of the gospel.  The gospel is more than justice.  Now real religion, for sure, is never very far from justice.  But justice, alone, the prophetic, alone, is not the gospel, some of the last fifty years of quasi-theological education to the contrary not with-standing.  The gospel is bigger, truer, deeper–and more personal than that.  Heaven does not touch earth only or fully with the passage of  a perfect national health care bill, as good as that would be. The life, death and destiny of Jesus Christ are not summarized in a global tax on capital, as laudable as that might be.  Your ticket through the pearly gates is not the resuscitation of American socialism, as healthy as that might be.  No. The prophetic is a part but not the heart of the gospel.  The prophetic tradition is a just part but not the full heart of the gospel.  We can be happy to be known as ‘the school of the prophets’.  Would that we were known too as ‘the school of the preachers’.

That is, Elijah and Elisha here are remembered for a very particular reason, one at odds with justice.  They have gone outside of Israel, outside of the community of faith, outside of the expected audience, and outside of their own prophetic tradition.  With Israel hungry in famine, the chosen people awaiting rain water, Elijah comforts them not, not at all, but goes instead to a foreign land, that of Tyre and Sidon, to alone woman, a lone widow, a lone gentile.  With Israel halt and lame and leprous, in need of healing and health care, Elisha comforts them not, and goes away into a foreign land and heals a Syrian, a lone gentile.  Jesus’ sermon at home, where, as with every prophet, he faces a tough home crowd, explodes the minor, limited appeal of justice…to universalize, to preach, the gospel.  The gospel is not justice…but love.  No wonder the crowd is so angry.  The gospel moves away from the interior to the exterior, from the expected to the unexpected, from the just to the loving, from the familiar…to the strange.

In our passage, Luke has given us the whole of his mysterious gospel in miniature.  He has given us a prototypical text:  Isaiah, 61, with its theme of deliverance to those who are hurting.  He has given us, next, a reminder that God works in God’s own ways, as he did in the days of Elijah and Elisha, when those outside of the faith community were helped first.  He has given us a warning, through the threat of the crowd to throw Jesus to death, of what awaits Him at the end of the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  He has further given us a fragrant scent of promise, as Jesus escapes, the same sense we are given at Easter—death cannot hold him, even death cannot hold him, not even death can hold him.  He is the Lily of the Valley…

God is at work, at work in the world, at work in the world to make and keep human life human, often to the consternation and surprise of God’s very own people.  (If you go into the ministry, don’t go in needing to be liked.  You may like to be liked without needing to be liked.  If you need to be liked you will not be able to say what needs saying, when people don’t like it, to do what needs doing, when people don’t like it, to preach what needs preaching, when people don’t like it. Strive to be, in the words of a one time presidential candidate, criticizing his opponent, ‘likeable enough’ (☺).  Some of that is underneath Luke 4. )

Forty Two

Strange, uncanny things occur.

Here is a baseball story.

It seemed fitting in Boston not to talk about football this Sunday, so the historical narrative comes rather from the national pastime, invented, as you well remember, in Cooperstown NY, by Abner Doubleday, more than 150 years ago.   It is a great sport, in which you can strike out 7/10 times and be a superstar.  Failure never felt so good.

Besides, football has its own problems, hard as it is for those of us who are avid fans to see.  We love the game.  Yet the spectacle of football, weekend by weekend, is at worst a cultural apotheosis of what one writer harshly called ‘violence, greed, racism and homophobia’ (NYRB 1/16).  As our Boston University researchers, Robert Stern and Ann McKee continue to highlight, football, in Vince Lombardi’s words, ‘is not a contact sport but a collision sport’.  30% of professional football players suffer dementia.  So maybe it will be all right to leave behind our beloved gridiron, at least for a while, and tell a story about a kinder, gentler sport.

Look back nearly a century.  Enter, by imagination, the main street of a small, poor southern town.  The town is Cairo, Georgia.  On one street there is a family with five children.  The year is 1919.

Strange, uncanny events take place.  Now move west, out to Pasadena, a few years later.  We think of Pasadena as the home of the Rose Bowl, that place where everyone is in shirt sleeves on New Year’s Day, while we shiver.  Brrr…One of those children, one of the five, from Cairo, Georgia, has graduated from Pasadena College.  He has four letters, four major sports, one of which, in some ways the least of which, is baseball.  He hits, he fields, he runs, he scores.  In Pasadena.

The ball player from Pasadena took a detour into the army, in the heart and heat of WWII.   In 1945 though he signed up to play professional baseball with a team called the Monarchs, a team in Kansas City.  Do you remember them?  They were the longstanding team in the old Negro leagues.  That was short-lived.   He soon got a better offer to play in Montreal, for the Royals, which then was a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

You remember the Dodgers.  ‘The Bums” they were called, if memory serves.  That couldn’t win for losing, couldn’t organize a two- car funeral, couldn’t compete with another team from NYC, whose name escapes me right now, and us on a regular basis.   He batted .330 in his first year, up in Montreal.  Summer starts about July 1 in Montreal.

Our Cairo GA fellow, our Pasadena star, our war veteran ballplayer, batting .330—do you recognize him yet?  Hold that thought.

That year, 1945, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, and its former baseball coach, now President of the Dodgers, edged his way toward making history.  Now Ohio Wesleyan, as you well know, was founded in 1842, along with other freedom and abolition loving colleges in the buckeye state, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, born near the same time.  Its graduates have included Tracey Jones, Norman Vincent Peale, Ralph Sockman, Ernest Fremont Tittle and Robert Allan Hill, and all his kids.  Ohio Wesleyan is a small Methodist school located on the banks of the Olentangy River, in a town know for horse racing, Delaware, Ohio.  An early Ohio Wesleyan President is with us today, in the balcony, well, actually, in the stained glass up there, Bishop James Bashford.  The OWU football team is known as the Battling Bishops, a name that does not often strike terror into the hearts of the opposition, but oh well.  The OWU baseball coach, now the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the one who made the Montreal arrangement, but with a bigger idea in mind.  In 1947, there were no black players in major league baseball. But the Pasadena star and the Ohio Wesleyan coach were about to make history.  Do you recognize them yet?

The coach is Branch Rickey, and the player is Jackie Robinson, number 42.  Branch Rickey, for whom the Athletic Building and Fields at Ohio Wesleyan are now named, was making his move.  Why?  Many years earlier his team from Delaware had a fine black catcher.  But when the team traveled to other states, or even into the Hawking Hills of southern Ohio, hotels would close their doors.   One night Rickey solved the problem by having his catcher stay in his own room.  He came in after a meeting to find the young man weeping and fiercely washing his arms, saying, ‘Can’t I change my color?’.  Rickey vowed that sometime he would do something about segregated baseball.  Rickey was not a saint.  He was a businessman running a losing team nick-named ‘The Bums’.   But he had his faith, his own experience, his sense of history, and his vow to live out.  He needed just the right player.  He recognized that player in Jackie Robinson.

Some idealized longing for justice, alone, would never have brought Branch Rickey to take the risk, to find the courage, to develop the imagination to integrate baseball.  That took love.  Love nurtured in a quiet home.  Love taught in a simple church.  Love preached, season in and out in a Methodist congregation. Love still in the water along the banks of the Olentangy, at Ohio Wesleyan.  Then, in a descript hotel room, with two lodgers, one coach and one catcher, somehow arrived the explosion, the resurrection, the uncanny sense of consanguinity, like that in the time of Elisha and Elijah, like that Jesus preached in Nazareth, the realization that the gospel of love carries over the lines of faith, the plans of justice, the boundaries of religion.

Jackie Robinson ducked bean balls, suffered spikes, endured taunting, hazing, racist rhetoric, and died, by the way, in Connecticut in 1972, still a fairly young man.  His courage, grace under pressure, had a physical cost in the long run.  But on April 15, 1947, Robinson stood at the plate in Ebbets field, played alongside Pee Wee Reese, stole home 19 times in his career, led the ‘Bums’ to beat the Yankees in the World Series of 1955, served for two decades in leadership of the NAACP, (whose current President Cornell Brooks will be with us here at BU\SPH on Wednesday), became the highest paid athlete in the country by retirement, and founded his own bank.  In Cooperstown, in 1962, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade before he died.  His number, ‘42’, across the whole of Major League Baseball, now goes unused, in tribute to him.

And today is his birthday, January 31.  1/31 is the birthday of 42.

I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him.  When he struck out we did too.  When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered.  When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants.  When he stole a base, he stole for us.  When he hit a home run, we were the victors.  And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south.  He gave us hope.  He gave us hope.”


Love outlasts death.  Love nourishes a lasting hunger for justice, which hunger alone can never feed itself.  Love inspires hope.  Another day, we can honor those, a few, who took the example of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, and applied it to themselves.   Strange, strange world…For example, who would have thought that the successor to the flawless personality of Jackie Robinson, would be eminently flawed character of Curt Flood?  Yet it was Flood, almost alone, who took the baton from Robinson and ran the next lap.  But that is another sermon, for another day.  For example, the young leadership of our own home team, the Red Sox, last month made a startling, strong statement about race past and future in Boston.  For example, Rickey’s own humble Methodist church now is moving toward a rendezvous with destiny, and truth, over the full humanity of gay people.

Love is stronger than death.  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.   Or, as Paul put it…

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 

 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Architecture of Prayer

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 4:14-21

Click here to listen to the sermon only


To illumine the imagination by the beauty of God.  To quicken the conscience by the holiness of God.  To warm the heart by the love of God.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

An architecture of prayer.  A house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Let us pause for moment along the trail.  Our journey of faith, cradle to grave, carries us along, headlong, day by day.  In this year, this school year, this calendar year, this liturgical year, this particular year, we have attended together to prayer.

Now we have had other fish to fry, to be sure.  Various thematic Sundays in the fall, from Matriculation to Thanksgiving.  The seasons of Advent, and Christmas, and the New Year, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, as well.  We have our struggles—with health, with direction, with trauma, with worry, with change.

Yet our common mind, our shared intention, here, has this year been to deepen, to broaden, to strengthen, our life in prayer.   Prayer makes the mind still before God.  Prayer is certain sitting silent before God.  Prayer is the strain to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer is the hurt of loneliness become the joy of solitude.

Prayer puts eternity into time by the memory, which like a lasso casts its circle around a day past. (Not to go all Marcel Proust on you!) When we can truly evoke a day past, today, when we can see and hear a day from the dead past in the experience of this hour, then time has given way, and we are raised from the dead.  

 That is the glory of an education.  With it you are freed from the present.  You are transported out of this time, and into another.  January is a good month, but not a great one.  2016 is a good year, but not a great one.  The 21st century is a good century, but not a great one (at least not yet).   So, we want of course to learn all we can about context and contexts, about integration and synthesis, about analysis and critique of our time—5%.  The rest is an escape from today, a liberation from the now, into the eternal now.  For those in theology it is biblical, historical, philosophical, pastoral study, and the chance to see the desert stars with Amoun of Nitria, to walk the North African sands with Augustine, whose Latin was great and whose Greek was not, to immerse yourself in love with Bernard, in grace with Luther, in vital piety with Wesley, in short, not to be stuck at in January 2016.  Behold:  you may skate on the pond of eternity if you truly leave the present and enter the past.

Do you pray?  How do you pray?  How shall we pray?  Do you know the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 commandments, the beatitudes? (A mind is a terrible thing to waste). What is the architecture of your house of prayer?


Step first with me into an open dazzling spacious room, glass before and above, light all light filling the parlor.  Such a room is like a beach, like the sand and surf and open big blue of the shoreline.  Pause.  Light streaming in from the higher windows.  Light, sunlight or light with shadow, entering the parlor from the lawn and from the street.  Light, moonlight, starlight, light at night joining with candles and lamps.  The Scottish call the moon ‘the lamp of the poor’.

In God’s light we see light.  Light opens life, and prayer initially turns to the light, like the weary soul turns east when the dawn has come.   Prayer illumines the imagination.

Luke loves to open Jesus’ story.  At every turn Luke adds.  His main addition is half his gospel, from Luke 9 to Luke 18.  But that does not surprise us because he does so all along the way.  He follows Mark, but paints in extra accounts.  Today, where Mark simply has Jesus show up in synagogue, teach, and be rejected, Luke has added a sermon of sorts, a mixed quotation from Isaiah 61.  He hears Jesus this way.  Luke hears Jesus announcing deliverance from human hurt, and especially deliverance for the poor.   He adds to the gospel as he writes his gospel.

He praises, adores, loves, enjoys, celebrates the divine light splashing upon human life!   This is the first room in the great architectural design of prayer.  ‘When I consider the work of thine hands…’

You may be neither fully a theist nor technically an atheist, neither fully an existentialist nor technically a naturalist. Neither naturalist nor supernaturalist, though if you allow one definition, ‘supranaturalist’ might work.  Repeated citations of Chesterton, Sockman, and Hammarskjold, regarding wonder will have to suffice.  You may think we can say less than most of the theists say, and more than what most of the atheists say.  You may think atheists know too much and the theists too little.  You may think the atheists say too much and the theists say too little.  You may recall JB Phillips’ little book, Your God is too Small; or maybe on the contrary it is Wordsworth who touches you, ‘to see eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower’   We are not really in a position to say what God can or cannot be, nor what God can or cannot do.  We are surrounded, shadowed, embraced, and faced by mystery.  Great, deep, fathomless mystery.   We know neither less nor more of God, in one sense, than did the psalmist, or Paul, or Nehemiah or St. Luke.

Illuminating prayer begins with hymnic praise, hence the gift of Methodism, the singing Methodist.  The heavens are telling the glory of God…


Now walk with me into another room, this one small and austere.  It might be a library in a large home.  It is quiet more than the books, here, that apprehends us.  A lamp, a chair, a painting.  Yet the books, large and small, ancient and modern, Bible and Shakespeare, stand before us to embed our prayer in the range and wealth of human experience.  Of human suffering.  Our lot is more to suffer than to settle, more to suffer through things than to settle things.

Here we can make a list of mistakes, ancient and modern, personal and collective, and learn from them.

But are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?

The world does not revolve around your inbox.  

What if meaning is not in connectivity but in dis-connectivity, being truly plugged in is going unplugged, real surfing is really surfing, with ten toes not fingers, and faithful wisdom inspires a courage to ‘tune out, turn off, drop in’?

With a little quiet, we too as a people can recall the language of compunction, the grammar of contrition, the syntax of lament, the alphabet of confession.  Our current grotesquerie of rhetoric in the public, political sphere, was not born last night.  Such unspeakable speech comes up out of a long, pained, tragic history.  It comes from somewhere. Listen for its march.  As our friend Ed McClure asks, is our rhetoric that of confrontation or conciliation?

In the library, lamp lit, psalter open, quiet around, we might get better acquainted.  With ourselves.  In the new, lovely movie, CAROL, the protagonist declares (in a library), ‘I am no good to anyone if I cut against my own grain’.  We will add the footnote to Dean Thurman.


Here is a third step forward, yet another room, but this one with a hearth.  Neither parlor nor library, here is a den, and fire behind a grate.  The embers lift off of the logs.  The wood crackles.  The ancient experience of firelight warms us.  As it did for you on first camping trip, or your first winter hike.  Sit for a moment in the January cold and thaw out.  Dry your mukalucks, tuc and gloves.  Here is a grate.  Here is a fire.  Here is a chimney drawing well.  Prayer brings us back before love.  What do you love?  Whom do you love?  How do love?  You tell me how you love and I will tell you who you are.

Hear the Gospel.  St. Luke does not here commend to us an agenda, some work, a proper policy and procedure.   He announces, before the fireplace.  He announces what God has done.  The prophetic is a part of the Gospel but not the heart of the Gospel.  The Gospel is God in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self.  Paul says the same in 1 Corinthians.  He does not admonish or direct.  He does not say, ‘become a body, become the body’.  He does not write a book of discipline.  He announces.  You are the body.  This is given to you.  Like an architecture of prayer—parlor, library, den, kitchen—you are the recipients of grace.

‘Warmth, warmth, warmth, we are dying of cold, not of darkness.  It is not the night that kills, but the frost’ (Unamuno).   It is not the night of ignorance that kills as much as the frost of hatred.  It is not the night of unknowing that kills as much as the frost of unfeeling.

We send warmth to our listeners in Washington DC, in northern Virginia (including my attorney brother John) and in New York City, this morning.  We have been there.

Last Monday our MLK speaker was the US poet laureate Juan Herrera, who came to Boston from sunny California.  His presence warmed us.  His voice warmed us.  His humor warmed us.   He helped us get up again to face hard things with hope.  You are here out of love, to face hard things with hope.  He remembered elementary school in San Diego.  He spoke almost no English.  In the third grade his teacher was Mrs. Sampson.  She taught him, but more, she cared about him.  She could see that he would survive the night on his own, but not the frost.  One day, he remembered vividly, in the third grade Mrs. Sampson looked at him.  Mrs. Sampson called to him, in the back row.  She said, ‘John, you have beautiful voice.  John, you have a beautiful voice.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Sing for us.  Sing ‘three blind mice’.  Sing for us.  You have a beautiful voice.  You have a beautiful voice. “I write while I’m walking, on little scraps of paper,” he said. “If I have a melody going, I can feel it for days.”

A melody like Rilke’s:

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

-Rainer Maria Rilke


We end in the kitchen.  Why does everybody always end up in the kitchen?  You can spread your guests and pastries through all the house, and into every room, but all gather, in the end, in the kitchen.  A place of labor, of production, of distribution, of nurture, or community, of shared affection, the place for the community of faith working through love.  Water splashing, knives cutting, plates filled and unfilled.   My grandfather stationed himself at the sink, following dinner, to wash while others dried and stored the dishes.  How vibrant that after dinner conversation, now many decades gone!

No meal is perfect.  In the kitchen we gather for devotion to shared divine tasks.  To feed the hungry.  To clothe the naked.  To visit the sick.  To release the prisoner.  We make our mistakes here and we acknowledge our regrets here and we move forward together here.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

Some of our doing may involve reshaping our work life. One accomplished journalist, Janet Malcolm, recently (6/7/13) expressed regret about her chosen profession: ‘I learned over time that journalism is morally indefensible…it is a moral anarchy that willfully places a text’s necessities over and above a person’s feelings’.  She came  to the ability to face the hard and hardened truth of her occupation, from one perspective.

Sometimes it takes calamity, micro or macro, to teach us devotion and purpose.  As Proust wrote, Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed:  to kindness, to knowledge we make promises only; pain we obey (II, 104).  Thomas Hardy: ‘a certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable’.

We are committed here, speaking of devotion and purpose, to the shaping of a community that honors, or tries to, the freedom and soul and personhood of young adult women and men, but also the  privacy and safety and security of emerging young adult women and men.  Our work with women, with communities of sexual minorities, with survivors of predatory behavior on campus, with themes, now either neglected or denigrated, of honor of morality of virtue of sensibility of respect, continues today.  

In the kitchen, prayer helps the work continue.


Prayer illumines the imagination by the beauty of God.  In the parlor.

Prayer quickens the conscience by the holiness of God.  In the library.

Prayer warms the heart by the love of God.  In the den.

Prayer devotes the will to the purposes of God. In the kitchen.

Though what I dream and what I do

In my weak days are always two

Help me, oppressed by thing undone

O Thou whose deeds and dreams are

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.