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Calvin for Lent

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

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John 12:1-8

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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

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Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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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

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Luke 13:1-9

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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

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Luke 9:28-36

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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

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Luke 4:1-13

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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

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Luke 9: 28-36

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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

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Luke 4:21-30

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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.

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The Architecture of Prayer

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

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Luke 4:14-21

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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.


Sunday, January 10th, 2016

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Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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Good Morning! It’s a pleasure to be in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again during this first week of Epiphany. My thanks to Dean Hill and the rest of my Marsh Chapel Colleagues for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Well, we’ve transitioned into a new liturgical season within the church this week. Christmas is officially over, the magi made it to the manger! We’re all getting back into our post-holiday work routines, or preparing for the next semester to begin. I don’t know about you, but the transition from the holiday season has been somewhat of a rough one for me – waking up before 8am, no more afternoon naps, watching less TV. Well, ok, so maybe marginally less TV – that’s been harder for me to transition out of. Over the past week or so, my husband and I have been binge-watching the HGTV show, “Property Brothers.” If you haven’t seen this show, the premise is basically that a couple or an individual is looking to purchase a home, have great expectations for what they want in a home, come to realize that those expectations cost a lot of money, and then end up purchasing a “fixer-upper” home that gets renovated. One of the brothers is a real estate agent, so he helps them find and purchase the home, and the other brother is a contractor who creates the vision of all the things that the homeowners want and executes it for them. I don’t know why, but the process and drama of the show is addictive…episode after episode you get drawn into the personal quirks of the potential homeowners and the unexpected problems they run into in renovating a house. But it hit me a few days ago that the storylines in Property Brothers are really similar to the narrative of the Baptism of Jesus in Luke. No really, there’s a connection.

One of the big parts of the show is the brothers, Drew and Jonathan, getting the homeowners on board with doing renovations. There’s usually a bit of played up drama at this point – people wanting a house that they can just move into instead of having to do work on an older, out of date house.  Most of the homebuyers at some point complain about having to do renovations – some about the time it will take or the expense, but most about not really being able to see how a rundown place could be transformed into something new. How what they desire can come about in a space that they can only see in one way. The property that they purchase will undergo a transformation, and they themselves will go through a great period of transition, of living their lives through this process of transformation. Although his primary job on the show is to be the designer/contractor, Jonathan ends up reaffirming and consoling the homebuyers that the vision really will come true, they just have to be patient and realize that he does know what he is talking about. And in the end, it usually ends up working out – the property brothers have helped individuals find a home and make it fit their renovated vision.

What does a reality television show about home purchasing and repair have to do with today’s Gospel lesson about the Baptism of Jesus? Well, they both describe the complicated nature of transitional moments. Transitions are hard. Whether it be buying a new home, starting a new job, grieving a loss, or some other massive life change, the period of going from what was to what will be can be daunting. But at the same time, it can also be exciting. New possibilities, new relationships, new discoveries about yourself. But in that transitional moment, the mixture of old and new, of intimidation and expectation, can be overwhelming.

In today’s gospel, we learn of Jesus’ baptism and the events surrounding it. We encounter John the Baptist, a relative of Jesus (according to Luke), who recognized who Jesus was when both of them were still in utero.  Remember, back in Advent? He leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to tell her she was pregnant. It’s that same person. John has special knowledge of Jesus’ origin and who he will become, so it’s not surprising that he plays an important part in the start of Jesus’ ministry.

I will say that it’s unfortunate that our gospel reading starts where it does today, because before this section that is focused on the baptism of Jesus, there is a description of what John is doing and his interaction with the people he attracts. I think this is integral to actually understanding why the people thought John was the Messiah and also how John’s ministry connects with Jesus’ ministry. For some context, I will read part of it for you now:

Luke 3: 2-14

… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

John is called by God in the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, as stated in the book of Isaiah. So he begins his prophetic ministry, baptizing those who seek repentance for their sins. However, John does not just baptize those who seek to be included as part of those who are chosen. He is also very clear that it’s not just claiming one’s heritage as part of the family of Abraham that will save the people, but that they must also behave in appropriate ways, acceptable to God, which will support the community. He instructs them to share what they have, to not cheat other members of the society, and to not abuse any power that they might have in positions they hold in society.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit familiar? I think it helps to set the context for the gospel reading we heard today – John is not just preparing the way for Jesus by baptizing people, but also reminding the people of the words of God found in the book of Leviticus to love their neighbors as they love themselves, especially when it comes to fair distribution of property. John points back to the historical roots of Judaism. He uses his position as a prophetic voice to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. However, like some enthusiastic groups of people, the crowds misidentify John as the Messiah. Instead of taking this honor and running with it, John says “no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not the Messiah.” John knows his role – bridging the old ways of Judaism with the new reality that will be found in the life and death of Christ.

John is a transitional figure – he has the vision of the future, but emerges from the past. He fits within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but knows that the Messiah will bring a change to the way people understand their relationship with each other and with God. John knows his role and his position in this narrative – he is at the threshold of something new, and part of his role is to prepare the people for this great transition – how they should behave before and after this transition takes place. Luke’s gospel is specifically focused on Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the oppressed, and John’s message of both repentance and goodwill to others continues this idea.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism the way most of us think of it. There’s no mention of the Jordan River, in fact, the actual occurrence of Jesus’ baptism almost seems like an afterthought. Jesus “was baptized” – there’s no grand description of Jesus wading into the Jordan with John, and John baptizing him. Instead, it’s the events and the people surrounding Jesus’ baptism that make it special. The practice of baptism in Judaism at this time was a practice of repentance – those who were sinful came to repent of their sin and be washed clean. So it would seem that Jesus would not need to be baptized in this manner according to the teachings of the church. But Jesus chooses to be baptized. Not individually, as some sort of demonstration for others, but as a part of the general crowd of people that were baptized. It is only afterward, when Jesus is praying that a new element of Baptism is introduced. The Holy Spirit descends in a form like a dove and God’s voice booms a pronouncement that Jesus is God’s son and that God is well pleased with him. It is a dramatic appearance of the trinity, to not only Jesus but to all who are present for baptism.

Baptism goes through its own type of transformation in this story as well. While it retains its meaning as being washed clean and repentant of sin, it also endows the Holy Spirit. As we saw in the reading from Acts today, the Holy Spirit doesn’t always necessarily come at the same time as the physical act of baptism – it could actually come before, during, or after the practice of baptism by water, according to the Bible. Baptism washes us clean and also seals us with the Holy Spirit. We are marked as one of God’s children, as part of a community, as part of the Body of Christ.  We welcome each other into the community of Christ through this practice.

Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism also highlights the importance of community in the process of baptism. Jesus identifies himself as part of the community by being baptized with all the others who were present. God’s announcement to Jesus about who he his is not just for Jesus Jesus’ identity is not a secret, and the start of Jesus’ ministry to the world, an important focus of Luke’s gospel, is ready to begin.

We encounter transitions every day. Some transitions are barely noticeable. We learn new things, we encounter new people, we try new foods, we get slightly older – but all of these moments affect who we are as people. The cliché that you are not the same person as you were yesterday is true. But we tend to notice transitions when they are big. Sometimes transitions are actions we choose to take – we change jobs, move, get married – and some are not – a loved one passes away, we lose our job, we have a major medical crisis. For the first kind, we can attempt to choose how those transitions will happen – at the very least when they will occur. But most of the transitions in our lives have aspects that we have no control over. An example from Property Brothers – the homeowners choose to undergo renovations, the host of the show chooses what the design elements will be, but inevitably there tends to be an unforeseen problem that both the homeowners and the designer have to deal with. We try to make plans for our transitional points, but sometimes life doesn’t allow those plans to go the way we want.

Transitional moments do not have to be an individual moment either – we go through transitions as a community at both the local and global levels. Even as a church we experience transitional moments within our greater social context that point us toward new ways of seeing the world and engaging with it. These moments of transition can be harder to deal with as people can have different approaches as to how to deal with the problems that are spurring a transitional moment. Unfortunately sometimes our reactions during these transitional moments can be delayed because of the many diverse opinions within society. This can continue to create harm. For example, delays in our response to climate change as a society have continued our dependence on fossil fuels and continued the emission of greenhouse gases that have created irrevocable damages to the earth. Our failure as a country to adequately address issues of gun control have led to more mass shootings, more innocent deaths, to the point that reports of them have become commonplace in our media. These moments of transition are opportunities. They are not just events that happen out there in the world, they are moments that affect all of us. What we can do is remember who we are as members of the Body of Christ.

We do have a choice in how we respond to those unforeseen moments within transition. There is one thing that is always constantly present to us: God. God is present to John as a voice in the wilderness, God is present in Jesus, God presents Godself in bodily form like a dove through the Holy Spirit, God speaks to Jesus and lets both Jesus and those present know that this is God’s son. God is always there to rely on and direct us forward. Our baptism reminds of our connection with the trinity. God’s constant presence to us does not mean our lives will be easy, and it would be foolish to think that this would be the case. However, God’s constant presence does mean that we should remember the love of God in how we treat one another and the world around us. We are called to love ourselves and to love our neighbors in a radical way through the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Often times, the way that we are able to see God’s presence is in community with others. Reaching out to our community for help and support during times of transition can be a helpful aid in making it through this liminal state. The wisdom and assistance of others can help us adjust to new ways of being in the world, or help us to think about how to move forward from a pivotal transitional moment. Even Jesus had a community of support around him as he was about to begin his ministry.

As we continue to transition into the future, dealing with our own personal periods of transition and our larger societal moments of transition we can remember some things. One is shown through Luke’s narrative today – that transition into a new way of being does not mean that we have to leave behind those things that were in the past – they have helped to influence who we are and will become. The past can inform our decisions – it is like the bare bones structure of a house upon which we can build. We cannot forget our past because without it we have no foundation. But we also cannot be afraid to make transitions into the future. We cannot be afraid to speak out against injustice, to change how we live our lives because we think it will be too hard, or to come together as community and support one another through these transitions. While daunting, these transitions are also exciting because of the possibilities they bring about. Like John, we need to have a vision for the future. We cannot get caught up in our own egos, misidentifying ourselves as outside of the problems or more powerful than we actually are as individuals, but instead see that at the heart of all changes and transitions there needs to be support from one another and, most importantly support from God.


–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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One and All

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

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John 1:1-5, 9-13

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Happy New Year!  and welcome to this second Sunday of the Christmas season here at Marsh Chapel.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus for many reasons, and our scriptures this morning give us one reason in particular.  For it is not just as individuals that Jesus Emmanuel comes to us; he comes to us also as individuals in community; indeed, he comes to form us as individuals into a community, the community of the church, his heart and mind, ears and eyes, hands and feet still at work in the world.

Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work to build and restore community did not

begin with Jesus’ entry into the world.  It has been a constant in God’s relationship with humanity.  Jeremiah writes from exile in Egypt, while the rest of Israel is exiled and captive in Babylon.  This breaking apart of the community of Israel is a consequence of their choices and the choices of others.  Israel has chosen to break the covenant they had agreed to with God, and they also suffer global forces beyond their control as the Babylonians choose to expand their empire.

But Jeremiah keeps the vision of a restoration beyond exile.  God promises the fulfillment of this vision, a vision of an Israel brought back together from dispersal, a vision of homecoming and of a new covenant that will not be broken.  In spite of seemingly overwhelming forces against its happening, God will reunite the community.  And this reunification will be marked by dancing, merriment, abundance, and joy.  

The author of Ephesians writes out of a conflict within the new and growing Christian movement.  Jews and Gentiles have long been separated by law and culture.  Now they find it a challenge to integrate into this new inclusive community of church.  The author of Ephesians reminds them that they are united in Christ.  Because of that unity there are divine benefits as a present reality in the church’s life.  God provides forgiveness, wisdom, and spiritual power. Through the Holy Spirit God also provides an inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.  Thus the church is a Spirit-filled community that brings the presence, power, and peace of God not just into its own life, but also into the life of the world.

The Psalmist glorifies God for three great blessings.  The first is the security God provides through inheritors, peace, and abundance.  The second is the creative word of God in creation.  And the third is the coming of God’s creative word to the community of Israel in the precepts that will form them as a unique people.

The author of the Gospel of John also lifts up God’s creative Word, in the person of Jesus, who is a gift to those who receive him and believe in him.  Jesus the Word here is a social being:  with God and as God he creates all things.  He comes into the world in flesh to live in creation among human beings.  He experiences rejection as well as belief.  To those who do believe in him, he gives power to become the community of the inheritors of God.

So these are four of the ways God forms us as individuals in community, as individuals into community.  One is the renewal of covenant and homecoming.  Another is the transformation of conflict.  A third is the giving of security and precepts for a unique identity.  And the fourth is the empowerment of the community to become the presence of God in the world.  So our individual belief and relationship with God is important in itself, and, its purpose is to incorporate us into a community that will act as God’s people in the world.

Now this may sound simple, but it isn’t easy.  With all the trouble in the world and our exhausting busyness, there is great temptation to cocoon and isolate ourselves with escapism and numbing out.  There are also many people, groups, corporations, and governments, including some of our own, that have vested interests in our isolation, and in the fear and sense of powerlessness that accompany it.

For instance, there is very little in the mainstream media that encourages us in our work for the kindom.  A steady diet of “If it bleeds it leads.” does not nourish us in love, power, or hope.  We have to be intentional to find the good news of God’s presence at work in the world.

There are also calls to other allegiances who claim to be sources of power.  I was at the movies last week, and an ad for an international computer corporation came on.  The computer corporation shall not actually be named, but let’s call it Corporation X.  Its ad showed happy and energetic people using the corporation’s products.  The end statement was “Corporation X empowers people to change the world.”  Now from a Christian perspective, a more accurate statement might be, “God empowers people to change the world, and then they use some of the tools sold by Corporation X to do some of the work.” It’s perhaps a subtle distinction, and, it’s a type of distinction that needs to be made more often.  Otherwise we give over our intrinsic power to act as the people of God to some other allegiance or entity with another agenda entirely.

Likewise the rhetoric of part of the current presidential debates, full of wall-building and carpet bombing, ignores the fact that at least some of the people to be walled out and carpet bombed are our sisters and brothers in the community of the Church, or at the very least are our neighbors who we are to love as ourselves.

Perhaps most challenging of all, in an individualistic culture such as ours, is to have the courage and conviction to step out of our individual concerns, out of our preoccupation with “My God”, and out of our fear of the stranger,  so that we can become truly God’s people.  Our greatest challenges are our own:  our remaining racism, our exclusion of LGBTQ persons and women from the full life of the church, our remaining consumerism instead of stewardship, our incivility toward those who disagree with us.  All these are things that keep us as a collection of individuals going in different directions, instead of being the beloved community united to assist the power and presence of God in the world.

We celebrate the coming of Christ because in him we see real assistance in the isolation of our lives.  God’s own self is a Trinity, one God in holy community, Source and Emmanuel and Spirit.  It is that God who invites us into the divine life of perichoresis, the divine life of dancing in partnership with God and with one another.  And in that dancing we are deeply loved and understood and renewed as individuals and communities, loved and understood and renewed by and because of the God who is with us.  

We also celebrate the coming of Christ because he begins with us as a baby.  Mother Teresa said that it is important to do small things with great love, and what we do in community does not have to be huge and exhausting.  The God who begins with us in baby steps will not mind if we begin our projects of love and justice the same way.  And for God to begin with us as a baby means that God trusts us.  God trusts us:  to protect, to nurture, to help grow, to bring to maturity in ourselves and our church community, and to rejoice in the presence of God-with-us, as we then embody the presence of Christ in the world.

In this new year we are invited to see beyond ourselves as individuals to see ourselves as part of the community of God’s people, and to encourage ourselves in that identity.  Where is God at work?  Where is the good news?  Where are we called to support that, or even blaze a trail?  We do not need to be afraid.  We are able to get up and be and be doing.  Because we are not alone.  The coming of Christ to one of us is the uniting in Christ of all of us in the community of God’s people, that community whose work and joy is to bring hope and new life to the life of the world.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory in the name of Jesus Emmanuel and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Merry Christmas!

–Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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