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Calvin for Lent: Love in Mind

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Matthew 22: 34-40

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‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and soul, and mind’


Patriots’ Day


Almost a full year ago, many of you gathered in our home for breakfast on Marathon Monday.  You came with clothing fit both for sun and cold, sol y sombra.  You received a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, the reading of a Longfellow poem, and sang together a couple of familiar, patriotic hymns.  You sang well, by the way.  You prayed over a simple breakfast and enjoyed eggs, bacon, juice, toast and coffee.  In order to see the race completed, you walked a block over to Kenmore Square, and basked in the sunlight of Patriots’ Day, the thrill of the Boston Marathon, and the convivial consanguinity of our annual Boston family picnic.


Some then went home.  A few were tempted into study.  Others of you walked down Commonwealth Avenue, had some lunch, and enjoyed lollygagging along the Commonwealth Mall.  Two of you had volunteered to work in the medical tents, healing blisters and skinned knees and heat exhaustion.  One couple turned right on Exeter and went over to Boylston, and next to the Fire Department, so important to us this week, a fine Richardson Romanesque building, and rather than going down Boylston, you chose a quieter path, past the hotel and onto Huntington Avenue.   Odd, loud sounds, blasts of no identifiable origin, you heard, and then you walked back to Massachusetts Avenue.


By then someone had told you what had happened.  Some of you came to the chapel.  With the rabbi and others, you opened the doors and gave shelter, blankets, water, facilities, land lines, prayers and hugs to hundreds who were walking back west, without benefit of trolley.   The BU police came to take us to BMC, where a BU student lay critically injured.  She survived, praise God.  But the next day, awake, she asked, ‘where is my friend, where is Lu Lingzi’?




         You could see depravity, even total depravity, in bombs that killed a child and our student and others.   You could see randomness, election, strange if not unconditional, in the sheer random horror of some hurt and some spared.  You could really for once recognize limited atonement—not just every one, not all have been captured by the gospel of Christ, the love of neighbor.  You could also observe grace, an irresistible grace, in the two who went to the tent for bandage and stayed for tourniquets, and in so many first responders like them, and in those who ministered from the front steps of Marsh Chapel.  From that day, a year ago, you have watched perseverance, a perseverance of the saints, through grief, through trauma, through amputation, through restoration, through renewal.


Yet in our experience, especially our Boston Marathon 2013 experience, the hard realism of Calvin’s TULIP formula was visible—evil, randomness, hatred, yes, but also grace and perseverance.  Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, yes, but also irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints.


Calvin had a friend in Faulkner.  In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf.   A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable: ”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.

This Lent we engage as our 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.  It is fitting that we began with Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more 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.  (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

(A friend wrote recently:  It seems to me impossible to speak of Calvinism without mentioning the famous/infamous acrostic for the 5 points of Calvinism—TULIP  Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). 


With due respect we honor the divine freedom affirmed in Calvin’s TULIP form.  More, we honor the divine freedom in his vision of the glory of God, the majesty of God, the beautiful nothingness of God, the indeterminate mystery of God.   Yet alongside this divine freedom we place the human freedom given us in the Gospel, given the church, that capacity to define loyalty or as exit or as voice, that wonderful communal living letter of recommendation, that deep thirst for the divine, and tradition that keeps love in mind.


For all our warlike failings, there is still grandeur to the human being, a grandeur personally known in love, and that love modeled after its partner in the divine love, love divine, all loves excelling! (Excelling but not erasing).


A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon a common hope. 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.


Love in Mind


Our gospel lesson today, Matthew’s curt summary of the Markan teaching, gives us a way forward, a way to live out such a common hope.  Unlike some philosophy and some religion today, the gospel does not separate head from heart, does not separate, mind from faith, does not separate the spiritual and the cerebral.  In fact, here, to love with heart and soul means, emphatically to love with the your mind.  Do you?  Do you have love in mind?


Matthew has shortened the passage from Mark.  He has taken out the positive reference to the Jewish interlocutor.  He has winnowed the narrative structure of the text.  He has emphasized mind.  Especially he has removed the kind response Jesus makes in Mark to his questioner:  ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God’.  What he has added is an introduction that describes a conniving collusion of the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘test’ Jesus.  In Mark Jesus is invited to help, and he does.  In Matthew he is put to the test.  Love of God.  Love of Neighbor.  On these two depend all the others.  That is, even in the darker condition of the church, perhaps in the fear of the terror of Domitian, reflected in Matthew, the gospel stands.  Love means love in mind.


And ‘mind’?  Almost every NT use of the mind, is in Paul, as this morning in Romans, a measure of his Greek outlook.  There, in Paul, and here, in Matthew, the word refers to the breadth of human intellect, ingenuity, and creativity.  But in Matthew there is a prefix, and  the word gives a breathing, process, dimension to the root of the noun, which you will recognize, nous.  Here:  Not so much thought, as thinking.  Not so much mind, as minding.  Understanding as gerund:  “if I am understanding you…” A disposition.  A manner of thinking, like ‘after a manner of speaking’. (BGD, loc cit).

Let us live with love in mind.


Something temporal.


Boston University under the leadership of President Robert A. Brown and former Mayor Thomas Menino gave last week a day of reflection and instruction about last year’s Marathon bombings in which four people were killed, one a child and one our student, and several hundred were maimed and injured.   The immediate crisis response, medical response, security response and civic response, in retrospect, proved to be stellar, superior, and ultimately life saving for many.  Some of you in this room were part of that heroic effort, and many more of you, listening from afar this morning, were also a part of that heroic effort.

Something temporal.

Something universal.


Love in mind!  Use your head for something more than a hat rack!  You cannot be both good and stupid!


And be very careful about mindless misinformation:


In the film, Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, told this story:


A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have blamed false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you cut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’

And from another rooftop, in Poland in 1982, recently deceased Solidarity leader, and physicist, Zbigniew Romasewski, broadcast for a minutes a day Radio Solidarity, sending worldwide, feathers of freedom:  ‘Solidarity is not a name only, it is a value’ (NYT, 3/28/14)


Something universal.


Something lasting.


You will need it.  You will need your wits about you to navigate the swells and tides of what Christian Smith describes in Lost in Transition:  The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.   A generation caught up, to a great degree, in amoral sexuality, steady inebriation, rampant drug use, limitless greed, self celebration and adulation, and an almost complete lack of empathy for the hurts of others.   This generation reminds you of their parents.


You will need love in mind.  You will need your wits about you to navigate the swells and tides of millennial culture, what Charles Blow calls the ‘self(ie) generation’ (NYT, 3/8/14):  unaffiliated with religion, distrustful of politics, heavily indebted, largely unmarried, distrustful of others, digitally native:  all in all we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal minded detachees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual and social networks are digitally generated rather than interpersonally accrued. 


You will need love in mind. Learning that begets virtue and virtue that begets piety.  Knowledge that begets action and action that begets being.  Love in mind—your thoughts, your understandings, your perspectives.


Geena Davis, BU\CFA 1979, spoke to us Friday.  She remembered being told that 1% of theater majors find lifetime work acting, and reflected, how sad for those other 99!


In the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, another sort of TULIP, inverted if you will, is expressed:


T. In the Gospel, Jesus loves and teaches love.


U. In the Gospel, 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.  Look at David, whose foibles and faith, together make him the man he was, in conjunction:  David and Saul.  David and Goliath.  David and Jonathan.  David and Bathsheba.  David and Nathan.  David and Solomon.

L. In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, all, like a hen with a brood.


I. In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that these 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.


P. 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.


Something lasting.

Something imaginative.


You need love in mind!  Deuteronomy had ‘heart and soul and strength’, but the gospels prefer ‘mind’.


John Calvin put it this way:  Only the free service of our wills is acceptable to him… in Hebrew the word heart often includes mind…


Augustine:  “What are kingdoms without justice but large bands of robbers”.


Coffin:  “Be loyal to a truth that is good for all.”


Daedalus:  “I go forth to forge in the smith of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”


Norman Maclean:  “you can love completely without complete understanding”.


Erazim Kohak:  “A life wholly absorbed in need and its satisfaction, be it on the level of conspicuous consumption or of marginal survival, falls short of realizing the innermost human possibility of cherishing beauty, knowing truth, doing the good, worshiping the holy”


A Wilder:  ‘life is more volcanic than we thought…art provides human beings with the incentive to go on living…Theopoetic ‘reversing the process of disenchantment…the modern world has lost the sense of the sacred…a more general awareness of the mysterious and unpredictable in life’.


None of April 15 2013 was God’s will.  Not the grace and not the depravity, not the perseverance and not the limitation. No, all this was the will of man, for ill and good, not the will of God, the freedom of man, for ill and good, not the freedom of God.  God gives freedom but does not dictate its use.  Gabriel Vahanian:  ‘The will of man is more inscrutable than the will of God.’  Perhaps you are an apophatic, but if so, be an emphatic apophatic.  God is mystery, wonder, spirit, presence, and lies beyond all reason.


Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.



Something imaginative.


Something powerful.


American higher education is the envy of the world.

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?

Something powerful.




This world is not going to get better only with the comforting aid of sentiment, feeling, emotion, and things of the heart.  It will take a hard headed realism, and a hard minded love to transform this TULIP world.  That is where you come in.  You have gained admission to a stellar university.  Smarty Pants.   Good for you, smarty pants.  When you write your history of John Wesley, summarize please his teaching in TULIP formula.  The future, God’s future, needs your mind:  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 of lasting love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Some real power.


From this day forward, will you live with love in mind?


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

Deep Thirst, Living Waters

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

John 4:5-42

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I thank Dean Hill for the privilege of sharing as a preacher in our Lenten observance.  It’s good to be back in this pulpit.  Dean Hill wants us to think through Lent with the eyes of John Calvin whose theology is not always in accord with the Wesleyan tradition of Marsh Chapel.  Our texts for today illustrate some of the principal issues of Calvin’s theology.  God is imagined many ways in the Bible, and Calvin picks up on most of them, from the most anthropomorphic to the most sublime.

Our Exodus text is from the saga of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt to take possession of Canaan, which they viewed centuries later when composing these texts as God’s Promised Land for them.  The relation between God and the Israelites was not a happy one, as they told it.  God did not consult them concerning their departure from Egypt, and you remember the desperate flight in front of the Egyptian army that God miraculously destroyed at the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea).  This hair-raising escape was enough to make them nervous, especially since they had stolen all the goods they could from the Egyptians, at God’s command (they reported), and now had great herds of animals that needed to be fed and watered.  Shortly before the incident in our text, the Israelite company had run out of food and the people angrily asked Moses why he had led them away from the fleshpots of Egypt, that is, the diet of meat and a plenitude of bread, to die of hunger in the wilderness.  That’s when God send the manna from heaven, a nourishing special condensation of dew.  But traveling on they ran out of water and complained to Moses again.  God was royally provoked but stood on the rock which Moses struck with his staff and water poured out, saving the people.  This satisfied their literal thirst and that of their flocks.  But God was indeed provoked by their lack of faith in his providence and their complaint that they should never have left Egypt in the first place.  We know from our responsive reading, the 95th Psalm, that God therefore determined that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who had complained about thirst would have died.  That included Aaron and Moses. Only afterward were the Israelites allowed into Canaan.

The image of God here is plainly primitive.  We tend to read the later image of God as love back through these parts of the Hebrew Bible. The practice of giving a “spiritual reconstruction” of the Bible based on the theological principle that God is Love was common in Christianity from the earliest times up to the Reformation. Those stories of God’s pettiness and genocidal ways were construed to be allegorical expressions of something else, something consistent with an orthodox Christian theology of God’s perfect justice, mercy, and benevolence. But this is in fact to be inattentive to what the Bible says. The Reformers, Calvin as well as Luther, said our theology should be based on a careful reading of the Bible, not the other way around where the reading of the Bible is based on a preconceived theology. Read straight, God in Exodus is arbitrary in choosing the Israelites over the Egyptians and Canaanites and is jealous about the Israelites’ loyalty, which was shaky.  God is depicted as one deity among others who wanted to prove his superiority to the Egyptians Gods, and later to the Canaanite ones.  To prove this God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as not to let the Israelites go until afterGod had killed all the first-born of the Egyptians.  This was genocide of untold numbers of innocents.  But it is hardly worse than God killing off nearly all the animals and people on Earth at the time of Noah. Read straight, the God of these stories is a primitive tribal deity whose crimes against the humanity of everyone except the Israelite tribal ingroup are atrocities.  He was even tough on the ingroup, as I say, requiring the deaths of all those who complained before letting them enter the Promised Land.  Later Jewish and Christian interpreters had to find ways of taking these stories to be not true literally but symbolic of something closer to the God of justice, mercy, and love.  There is a story I’ve heard of from the Jewish Talmud, for instance, about the angels and deities in Heaven having a party after the drowning of the Egyptian army and rescue of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. But they noticed God standing off the side weeping. “Why are you not rejoicing at the salvation of your people Israel,” they asked him.  “I’m weeping for my people Egypt,” God replied.

For all his Biblicism, Calvin did not escape imposing his own consistent Christian theology on the Bible.  For instance, he was a super-monotheist whereas much of the Hebrew Bible is polytheistic. Calvin has a lesson for us here, however.  Realistically, the world is not balanced and just.  Some people are rich and others poor.  Some nations are favored, at least for a while, and others are swept aside. Some people move easily into a life of general benevolence with only minor setbacks while others damn themselves again and again despite a heart-felt will not to do so. Calvin’s God is arbitrary, creating a world where some are saved and others are damned.  The imbalance in the world must be the result of divine creation, said Calvin, because God is sovereign and somehow everything that happens, even the bad stuff, is the result of the divine will.  Perhaps we do not like this and want to attribute a generous loving spirit to God.  But then, given the realities of unequal life, God would have to be blind or inept, or not personal at all, or at least not sovereign.  Calvin says, do not close your eyes to the shocking inequalities and injustices of the world and assume that God is really behind the scenes trying, without much success, to make it right.  Life sometimes runs out of water.  When God supplies the water, as at Rephidim, it often comes at a great price: death before the Promised Land.  Sometimes God’s water is a deadly flood, as the Egyptians discovered.  God is Wild, knew Calvin.

Now Calvin and I are not supposed to be talking this way.  We are supposed to deflect attention away from the primitive God to the spiritualization of the metaphor of thirst.  We are spiritually thirsty, and God can satisfy this spiritual thirst.  This is the background orientation for the text from John’s Gospel.  Jesus turns his own human thirst at the well into a spiritual interpretation of the thirst of the others for the water of life.  The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is chock-full of boundary-crossing elements—talking with a Samaritan, talking with a woman, describing her dubious sex life without moral judgment, and offering her the water of life when he had originally only asked her for a drink from the well for himself. I presume you have heard a multitude of sermons based on this text about how we have a spiritual thirst that is far more important than physical thirst.  Jump from John 4 to John 6 and you find Jesus claiming to be the bread of Heaven, quenching a spiritual hunger that he contrasted with the mere physical hunger satisfied with manna from Heaven.  You all know how to think about the spiritual life in terms of the metaphors of thirst and hunger and you have my permission to rehearse in your mind’s ear what you would say if you get bored with the rest of what I am about to say.

Calvin’s greatest genius was to see that religion is about God more than about us.  For Luther, and for most other Christian theologians, religion is mainly about our salvation, including God’s role in it through Jesus.  Calvin paid lip service to the salvation problem and wrote many pages about how Jesus is our savior.  But the main intentionality of his vision was focused on God.  He had the largest conception of God in Western history. For him, God is unmeasurable, glorious beyond imagination, so radiant in beauty that of course God is sovereign. Nothing can compare with God.

So what Calvin would lift up today from the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is Jesus’ shocking dismissal of the tribal and religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans.  Forget about whether one should worship in Jerusalem or on the Samaritan mountain. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Jesus does not dismiss cultic differences, and says that the Jews know whom they worshipp whereas the Samaritans do not.  But he relativized cultic differences.  Real worship is a spiritual matter that should not be limited to cult.  Calvin would read John 4 as testifying to the transcendent sovereignty of God.  Just glimpse God and you are blown away.  Worship in spirit and truth is something that can only be approximated from a cultic base.

Of course, this is unmanageable theophany. It seems we need to domesticate conceptions of God for them to be to useful.  Calvin then turned to the Bible for finite things to say about this infinite and sovereign God.  He tried to make out a consistent biblical set of affirmations about God and about commandments for human life.  Like his symbolically interpreting predecessors he was reading in more than he was reading out.  But he assembled a rather detailed special interpretation of what the Bible is supposed to mean that has organized his Reformed tradition ever since.  Because we cannot live up to God’s beauty in creation, human beings are utterly depraved, Calvin said; this is not a politically correct position today.  Most of us take offense at that part of Calvinism.

Even worse, by subordinating the project of human salvation to the transcendently beautiful glory of God, awkward consequences such as predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation have followed since the Geneva days.  In the Synod of Dort at the beginning of the 17th century the Calvinist divines had to decide whether God offers salvation to anyone with free will who takes it up, or whether God determines in advance whether you are saved regardless of what you think you choose.  The former group, led by Arminius, was followed by the Methodists who continue to believe in free will.  The latter group won out at the council and so Reformed people, that is, Presbyterians, are supposed to believe in total predestination.  This put subsequent Calvinists in a panic to discover whether they were predestined for salvation or damnation. For Calvin, all these sometimes awkward consequences were not half as important as acknowledging the sovereign majesty and beauty of God.

This transcendent beautiful sovereignty of the infinite Creator cannot be described in words.  Some theologians had said that God is the fullness of reality that is whittled down in finite form to create the world.  Calvin said yes, but more, God’s creation cannot be understood as the domestication of divinity.  It is the wholly new creation of the world that embodies the divine beauty.  Every thing in creation is good, if you could but see it with God’s eye.  The swell of the oceans, the transience of the sunrise, the special thisness of each bird chirping in the bush, the vastness of the cosmos, the remote radiant heat of the Big Bang, the supernovas destroying worlds, the flooding of the coastal peoples, the parching of the deserts, the wars for dominance, the numbing poverty of our economic system, the blighted lives of the oppressed, the sick with poor care, the dying on our doorsteps, our own deaths coming anytime—all, all, bespeak the strange beauty of God.  What a horrible thing to say, we think! Moral protests abound against Calvin’s vision and Calvinists themselves have been at the forefront of movements to relieve suffering and transform the world to a more nearly just comportment.  But in a profound sense, perhaps only glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the Calvinist vision says sit down and shut up. It’s not about you, it’s about God. May I whisper softly, Calvin had it right in the long run?

No one can bear this stark vision of divine glory for long, so think back to the human side, as Calvin suggested at the beginning of his Institutes.  For what do we truly hunger and thirst?  Forget the metaphor that we are spiritually empty vessels longing to be filled with divine substance.  Our ordinary condition is to be spiritually filled with mediocre satisfactions.  The ordinary metaphors of thirst for God’s living water can too easily be turned to consumerism: we are needy—so we think of God as the resource to fulfill our needs.

Calvin blows this off.  Forget human needs!  Look to God’s glory: this will create a need for satisfaction you had never imagined.  Look to God’s beauty: you will be drawn with an infinite passion that will strangely show you beauty in life’s smallest details and worst horrors.  Look to God’s sovereignty and you will develop a thirst beyond your parchest history, a thirst deeper than any moral plumb line, a thirst that leaps over any water brook for which you had panted, a thirst that forgets your own proximately valid priorities, a thirst that brings us up short to gape without guile at God’s glory in the “thises” of creation.  Calvin dares us to look at God through the corner of the eye, through thick filters prepared for eclipses, and to be blown away.

Although Calvin in fact gave all sorts of suggestions about Lent and the moral life, suggestions that have their place, his fundamental message was, forget about it!  Ultimately, we are not important enough to worry about.  So you need more discipline, ok, get a program.  So you need to practice forgiveness, ok, get on with it.  So you need to confess, oh, duh, yes, yes, we know you are sorry and will do better next time.  Or not.  For the glorious God in whom we live, it does not make much difference.  Forget yourself. Forget whether you are saved or damned.  Forget for the moment the need to fix the world. Instead look to God whose beauty will create in you a thirst of inhuman proportion.  God beauties forth in all creation.  Beauty elicits the thirst and the more you crave the closer you come to God.  Calvin knew God does not satisfy thirst: God increases the craving.  The whole creation is God’s living water.  The more we smell that water, the thirstier we become for God.  Forget satisfying the thirst.  Intensify it.  God’s immense, transcendent, and immanent beauty calls forth the deepest thirst that unites us to God.  So, flee from spiritual satisfaction. It’s not about you.  Increase your thirst. It’s about God. Calvin understood something, didn’t he?



The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Calvin for Lent: Letters of Recommendation

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

John 3: 1-17

2 Cor. 3: 10

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‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)


Freedom and Melancholy


         In July of 2003 my dear best friend and family doctor drove us to a nearby book sale, an annual event, in a converted barn, along a country road, nearby to–nothing.  We go every summer.  He is an historian by temperament and some significant private reading, largely English history of the 17th century.  We browsed among the mildewed racks of lost tomes, lost to their original readers and lost on a generation growing impatient to reading.   For 25 cents one could buy the 1200 pages of Marcel Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, volume 1.   For eleven years, now, 2014, and now into the second volume, about page 230, this strange, difficult work has provided me some occasional early morning company.  You can see that progress has been slow.  Some months go by without a page being read.  In fact, after some real difficulty with sentences a page long, a whole year went by.


On page 233 of volume 2, Proust pauses mid remembrance to remark that with the onset of real adulthood, with the arrival of the experience of genuine freedom, with the sudden realization that one’s own life is in one’s own hands—an experience not unknown in college life—there comes melancholy.  Melancholy, for students for parents for retirees for all, melancholy comes in part from a full feeling, full thought of freedom, of the responsibility, the unique and unrecoverable responsibility of life, of living one’s own life.  Melancholy is a whole lot more than homesickness.  We sometimes presume that young adult ennui comes from homesickness.  Not so.  The real root is spiritual melancholy.  Though we respect Frederick Beuchner’s astute meditation, years ago, on the resemblance of homesickness to faith, a real rehabilitation for homesickness if ever there was one, what gives one pause in coming of age, at whatever age, is more—it is Proust’s melancholy.  Proust’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:


But by these very words which left it to myself to decide my own happiness, my mother had plunged me in that state of doubt in which I had been plunged long ago when my father, having allowed me to go to PHEDRE and, what was more, to take to writing, I had suddenly felt myself burdened with too great a responsibility, the fear of distressing him, and the melancholy which we feel when we cease to obey orders which, from one day to another, keep the future hidden, and realize that we have at last begun to live in earnest, as a grown up person, the life, the only life, that any of us has at his disposal.


Dear friend.  Your melancholy has a good in it.   Your avoidance of others, reluctance to engage, willingness to self medicate, endless sleeping, absence from worship, repetition of the verbal sign of the age, ‘whatever’—your melancholy—comes in part from a deep, perhaps pre-conscious awareness of life, of freedom, of responsibility, of the chance and necessity and dangerous challenge of really living.  Take heart if you are down.  Down is the marrow of up.


Calvin and Nicodemus


At least, that is what Nicodemus found.  Melancholy kept Nicodemus up at night, too, and one night he found, or was found by, Spirit.


This Lent we engage as our 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.  It is fitting to hear of Nicodemus at night, this morning, as we consider Calvin, this Lent. (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)


Calvin’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi: Christ mans that the movement and operation of God’s Spirit is no less perceptible in the renewal of (the human being) than the movement of the air in this earthly and outward life, but its mode is hidden.  And we, therefore, are ungrateful and (miserly) if we do not adore the incomprehensible power of God in the heavenly life, of which (God) shows us so outstanding an example in this world, and if we asbribe to Him less in restoring the salvation of our souls than in preserving the estate of our bodies:  Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed (person). (vol. 4, p, 68, NT Commentaries).


Calvin and Corinthians


Likewise, John Calvin emphasizes, rightly, in 2 Corinthians, Paul’s own stress upon the ‘fragrance’ or the ‘scent’ of the gospel.  Of course, Calvin means this both happily for the graced and sadly for the reprobate, both of whom are known in response to the preaching of the good news.  His ease in naming the ‘reprobate’ is hard for us, I expect, and makes sense only, and only in part, underneath his overarching celebration of the glory of God, God’s glory, known in all things ordained by God, both gain and loss, found and lost.  “The power of the Gospel is so great that it either quickens or kills, not only by its taste, but by its very (fragrance).’ (vol. 10, p. 35).

Calvin carefully follows Paul’s thought:  Continuing with the same metaphor, he says that the epistle was written by Christ, because the faith of the Corinthians was His work.  He says that it was ministered by himself, likening himself as it were to the ink and the pen.  In other words, he makes Christ the author and himself the instrument…(and later) For by the letter he means an external preaching which does not reach the heart, and, by the Spirit, life giving teaching, which is, through the grace of the Spirit, given effective operation in (our) souls. (p. 42)


‘You yourselves are my letter of recommendation’. (2 Cor. 3:1). Such a marvelous, supreme, beautiful commendation to you, hear at Marsh Chapel, to you, listening by radio signals, to you the community of Christ, near and far, old and young, visible and virtual.  You are a letter of recommendation!


So the Apostle Paul addresses his beloved Corinthians, and replies to those who seek a more formal epistle of reference.  You are… the recommendation.


Letters of recommendation—their solicitation, composition, delivery, reception and perusal—litter the academic landscape.  Graciously to request one is a delicate art.  Honestly to compose one is a delicate art.   Critically to assess one is a delicate art.  Over many years, having benefitted from the kindness of others who wrote them, I now, as writer, much more fully appreciate the effort therein invested.  Long before cyber files, e files, and electronic mail.  Each letter written, typed, enveloped, stamped and sent, over a kindly personal signature!   Letters of recommendation.  A pause:  may those this week composing such receive a personal blessing for a quiet labor, a thankless gift, a generous portion.


We may wonder about recommendation.  What do you and I commend, by our living?  What does our living, our mode of thinking, our manner of working, our habit of being, what does our living speechlessly recommend.  ‘None preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing’ (B Franklin).  What happy shadow, what felicitous echo, what alluring existential fragrance do you cast about yourself as you sally forth on the trail of life?  So that heads turn.  Are you—how are you?—a spiritual head turner?  We may wonder about recommendation.


Let us head off one misapprehension.  The gospel probes what you recommend, not just what you represent.  You represent—this or that.  Good.  Well and good.  But do you truly recommend what you represent?  Recommendation is spirit, representation is flesh, a distinction the Apostle most strongly asserts in Galatians 3, and again here in 2 Cor. 3: 1ff.   Here in Corinthians, Paul says, ‘you are my letter of recommendation’, not merely of representation.  Does your life sparkle, shimmer, quiver, shake, rattle and roll, outflowing in recommendation of what you represent?  In living, do you truly recommend what you dutifully represent?


You are a banker.  Good.  As such you represent savings, thrift, delayed gratification, the long view.  You represent what others can bank on, what others can count on.  As a banker you represent solid investment.  Does your own life recommend solid investment?  Do you save?  Do waste not, want not?  Do you prepare in visible ways for a rainy day?  Does your life shine with a soundness, a reliability, a trustworthy confidence, which others credit, and which others bank on, and which others can count on?  You are a banker.  Good.  But are you a banker I can count on?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?


You are a teacher. Good.  As such you represent curiosity, inquiry, learning, discipline, the converted and convertible life, as Emerson might have put it.  You represent what can be taught and learned.  As a teacher you represent the value of learning.  Do you?  Learn, I mean.  Do you learn something new, every day, and thrill to do so?  Do you seek out new vistas—another language, another land, another literature, another logarithm? Do you like to learn?  If not, what are doing teaching?  Does your conversation simmer in new sauces of tasty, salty apprehension?  Do you know how to ask questions that travel between the Scylla of banality and the Charibdis of the nonsensical?


You are a professor, an educator, an instructor.  Good.  You represent learning.  But do you recommend it in a life that exudes the happiness of understanding, the thrill of discovery, the contentment of mastery?  Are you a decent docent?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?


C.S.Lewis said ‘wake up’.  Sigmund Freud said ‘grow up’.  Paul of Tarsus said ‘show up’.  We ask you today—‘what up?’  What does your life joyfully recommend to others?


You are an American.  Looking at you, would and do others long to be one too?  You are an athlete.  Watching, do others desire to be one too?  You are an academic.  Living next door to you, do others decide to go after a PhD?  You are a political activist.  Does your dentist see and do likewise?  You are an atheist.  Knowing that, do others smile and drop belief?


You are minister.  Good.  As such you represent good news.  GOOD news.  You represent the gospel of freedom, grace and love.  You are a part of the representative ministry.  Congratulations.  You represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages (J Wesley).  You represent love divine, all loves excelling.  I couldn’t be happier for you and for all you represent.  Just one small question.  Does your life at all recommend what you ostensibly represent, what your ordination represents?  In your living, day by day, as you walk the streets where others live too, as you pass by, is there a hint of freedom in your gait, is there a scent—a fragrance– of grace in your cadence, is there a glimpse of love in your stride?  Is freedom something just to talk about on Sunday, or is it something you live out, on Thursday?  So too, grace and love.  You preach liberty, laughter and love.  Good.  Do you ever take a vacation?  Do you keep your friendships in good repair?  Do you give with a happy generosity, a carefree (not careless) abandon?  Ministry is ministry with people.  Do you spend any time with people?  Ministry is with hurting people.  Do you spend any time with hurting people?  Or is it just another day in front of the computer screen?  Does your life really recommend what your living represents?  How will others hear the gospel of freedom, grace, and love if they never see ministers of the gospel who exemplify freedom, grace and love?


You are a Christian.  I am glad.  But.  Can others bear witness that you would give them the shirt off your back, go with them a second full mile, offer coat and cloak as well, and love those who make it frightfully hard to love them?  Does your life recommend or merely represent Jesus Christ, and him crucified? Do you set out in the morning to love, to live as a love letter, to live out the knowledge and love of God with mercifully spirited existential letters, sent in multiple copies, and laden with grace, prayer and presence?


Is the print legible in the letter of recommendation, which is your (pl.) life?  Can people read it, read you, read, and reading, there, read gospel?


At least we may take the intensity and zeal of Walt Whitman going forward. Whitman’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:

I celebrate myself

This is what you shall do

Love the earth and the sun and the animals

Despise riches

Give alms to every one who asks

Read these leaves in the open air

In every season of every year in your life

Dismiss whatever insults your own soul

And your very flesh shall be a great poem


         Well beloved!  Lift up your hearts!  Let us this season live what we love, behave as we believe, recommend what we reference, be born of the spirit!  Hear the good news:


‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)


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

Calvin for Lent: Exit or Voice

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Matthew 4: 1-11

Romans 5: 12-19

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7

(Philippians 1: 19ff.)

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            Over pasta last summer, a hot July night, six of us of long friendship ate and talked.  Our dear friend Anita has been for decades a committed lay reader in her summer church.  She has taken pride in her work, praying and practicing for her lector role, recruiting others, and helping in worship.  With spaghetti and wine and the warmth of long relationship we nodded and supped.  But something had happened.  The old pastor left.  A new one came.  He was, sadly, rude and belligerent with his helpers.  Not just once, or twice.

Said Anita:  “What should I do?  I love to read, and I love my lector team.  But his behavior I cannot abide.  I have talked to him.  He rebuffs me.  If I stay, I endure and even collude in his misbehavior, but I will still have my voice in church and with the committee.  If I leave, I exit from what I love and also leave behind any influence I might have to help, support or protect others.  I am loyal to my church, but I am ready to go.  What should I do?’

Hours, days and months are actually shot through with this form of dilemma in choice.  Exit or leave?  A famous study forty years ago laid out for economists the dimensions of the dilemma.  (Albert O. Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)  But such a condition goes well beyond the marketplace.

Exit is as old the exit from the Garden of Eden.  Voice is as old as the dominical voice of Christ resisting temptation.  Exit and voice: how do the Scriptures frame such living choice?

Our lessons from Holy Scripture this morning propound the moral and mortal limits of life in sin and death.  As does every Sunday benediction, sung or spoken, Genesis 2 and Romans 5 and Matthew 4, directly remind you:  your life is brief and messy.

The ancient myth, beginning in the garden of paradise and moving to the east of Eden, entwines fragility and fragmentation, existence and estrangement, sin and death.   The tree of the knowledge of good and evil provides the symbolic substance, the serpent provides the symbolic occasion, and the fig leaves provides the symbolic covering of the entanglement of sin and death, shame and loss.   The strange world of the Bible—not strange in the sense of odd or wrong but strange in the sense of numinous and monumental—accosts us today with a ringing reminder of suffering and death.

Others may put these verses in different frames (a pan-religious frame (Joseph Campbell), or in a salvation history frame (G Von Rad), or in a tradition historical frame (Rudolph Bultmann), or in a literary religious frame (Diana Eck)).   For us in worship, though, these words are holy writ.  They function as words with divine import for human living.  They remind us of moral and mortal limits to life in sin and death, suffering and death.  They set before us the perilous multiple choices of life in a certain realistic context, as we shall see in a moment with regard to the choices, hourly and daily, between exit and voice.

The deep, hard cold of a real old time religion winter season, like ours here in 2014, befits our Holy Scriptures today.  It is bracing to feel the full wind and cold of winter.  We are thus reminded, perhaps even made mellow and melancholy, no bad thing, by the stern icy reminder of morality and mortality, sin and death.

This Lent we engage as our 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.  It is fitting that we begin with Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more 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.  (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

Our passage from Romans 5 gives us Paul’s own apocalyptic rendering of the themes of sin and death.  We should be careful to recognize that the words are the same here as in Genesis 2 and 3, but the meanings are different.  For Paul both sin and death are spheres of influence, orbs of control, dominions and principalities and powers.  His apocalyptic worldview makes a changed use of the inherited terms from Genesis.  Likewise his philosophical mode is quite different from the narrative structures in Genesis 2 and 3.  The freedom found in Christ smashes the controls of the orbs of sin and death, for Paul.

So Calvin writes, about this passage: To sin is to be corrupt.  The natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, although it does not produce its fruits immediately, is still sin before God, and deserves his punishment…Grace means the pure goodness of God, or his unmerited love, of which He has given us a proof in Christ, in order to relieve our misery. You did hear the Apostle say that this grace was given to all men.  That sounds fairly universalistic to most readers.  All.  Yet Calvin says otherwise:  Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all…not all receive him. (Commentaries, loc.cit.)

            Like that wind you felt on the Esplanade the other day, these sentences from Geneva in 1540 or so have their purposes.  They posit that we are not in possession of grace as much as we are in need of grace.   Grace is the gift of God sorely needed by the people of God.  130,000 dead in Syria.  A four year old pummeled to death in New England.  A mother driving into the surf with her children in Daytona Beach.  Construct your own list, following a good reading of the Sunday newspaper.  A cold, sober realism is found both in Romans 5, on Calvin’s reading, and in the daily reports of suffering, near and far.

Our passage from Matthew 4 connects with Adam and Christ along the trail of temptation, from the garden of Eden to the wilderness of Palestine.  This gospel, a teacher’s gospel, makes sure to begin with the harder news, that even Christ himself was tempted to make improper use of freedom.  In Calvin’s view, every form of temptation comes with a divine purpose, a gracious protection, and a form of grace to be received:  The temptations that strike us are not fortuitous, or the turn of Satan’s whim, without God’s permission, but that the Spirit of God presides in all our trials, that our faith may be the better tried.  So we may take our sure hope that God, who is the supreme Master of the ring, will not be unmindful of us, or fail to succor our weaknesses, as He sees we are unequal to them. (Commentaries, loc. cit.)

In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf.   A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable:  “Himself was his own battleground, the scene of his own vanquishment and the mausoleum of his own defeat’ …’aint only one thing worse than not being alive and that’s shame’…”they learn only through violent suffering, with words written in human blood”…”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.



            How shall we use our human freedom faithfully in the light of the divine freedom known to us in Christ?


Exit or voice or resignation?  Fight or flight or play dead?

Your roommate smokes for breakfast, drugs for lunch, drinks for dinner.  Do you leave—him, school or both?  Do you confront—‘one of us is crazy and I think it’s you’?  Do you grin and bear it?


Your faculty has taken a new direction, that is, a wrong turn.  For well- intentioned reasons, they have exchanged birthright for pottage.  Do you politic, agitate, criticize, and combat in what may well be a losing cause?  Do you call a friend who has wanted you to come to Brown or NYU for a long time anyway, and prepare to exit?  Or do you close your door, grade your papers and play a little more golf?


Your brother is about to marry the wrong woman.  He is impressionable and she is impressive—an empress if you will.  Do you shout a warning and then risk never speaking to him again?  Do you reason, consult, have lunch, empathize and appeal to the better angels of his nature?  Do you throw up your hands, send an early shower gift, and bite your tongue?


You are a major world super power.  With limited success you have partially pacified a resentful Middle Eastern Muslim nation.  Now what?  Do you exit, stage left, leaving behind a decade of warfare, tens of thousands dead, tribal hatreds still much in evidence, and hope for the best?  Do you stay, increase your footprint and military presence, give voice to the rights and needs of children, women, non-muslims and others?  Or do you practice a little benign neglect, and put your energy into health care, immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, Chinese economics, and the next election?


How much for exit and how much for voice?  How much for flight and how much for fight?  And, then, when do you just pull your turtle head back into the shell and play dead?


In 54 ad Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, in a verse with subterranean links to Genesis and Matthew, exit and voice, wrestled with the same angel\demon.


On one hand, he wrote, ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain. Yet which I shall choose I cannot telI.’ (Phil. 1: 21). For once his regular apocalyptic eschatology, the horizontal primitive hope of the day of the Lord, which he fully expects to see in the flesh, gives way to a simple, vertical, Greek, gnostic eschatology, an immediate translation to glory.  Troubles, trouble in the churches it may be, spark Paul’s momentary exit strategy, his longing to  ‘depart and be with Christ’.


On the other hand, he considered, ‘To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account’.  I am for you, so I should be with you.  It is better for you that I am here.  We can add:  to raise my voice, to lift my voice, to write my letters, to preach my Gospel, to have influence into the next generation.  Paul longs for exit.  Paul lives for voice.


How much for exit?   How much for voice?  How much protestant exit?  How much catholic loyalty?  How much reformation?  How much counter-reformation?  How much pulpit?  How much table?  How much discontinuity?  How much continuity?  How much new world?  How much old world?


On these spiritual balances  hang the cure of our souls.  Needless to say, there is not an answer, no formulaic response, no ‘one size fits all’, no ethical Procrustean bed.  Another Pauline verse beckons:  ‘only let each one be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Rom 8:44).  We could, in faith, though, at least carry away from Lent 1 some shared understandings as people of faith.


We understand that on a daily if not hourly basis, we are choosing, by the freedom of the will, between exit and voice.  To have voice means to have to stay.  To exit means to give up voice.  To exit may be your statement, your voice, within a certain context, but it is, then, your valediction, your swan song.  On the other hand, your voice may be your exit, but it is then a prophetic utterance, with all the continuing costs attested in the 4 greater and 12 lesser prophecies of our Hebrew scripture.   Or you could just sit this one out, take a siesta.


We understand that most decisions involve some admixture, some balance—neither Webster only or Calhoun, only; but the shadow of Henry Clay, the great compromiser.


We understand that where we place our physical self, our body, where we place our standard on the field of battle, our social location, makes a difference.  Starting with showing up for worship, to speak with our neighbors, to sing the hymns of faith, to utter our prayers, to attend to the Word.


We understand, too, that whatever voice we lift, even the muted voice of silent witness, has a hearing, makes a difference, marks our faith, and influences the faith of others.


Exit?  Voice?


Over forty years, in painful relationship to my beloved Methodist Church, I with others have struggled about exit and voice.  Many of my friends, colleagues, students, and companions have chosen exit, one way or another.  In some limited ways, I have, too.  These are faithful people making hard decisions.  I honor the cradle Methodist who chooses Episcopal orders, the Methodist seminarian who reluctantly becomes a Congregationalist, the gen-x and millennial cohorts leaving us behind


I stay.  I stay to raise my voice, and to reject giving my orders, my position, my influence, and, over time multiple generations of pastoral leadership, to a currently afro centric general church.  I stay because I believe that over time, around the world, under the influence of a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe, the mighty scourge of homophobia will be rejected by a body that in its singing voice and reasonable mind—in its spiritual bones—lives the gospel of freedom, grace, love, acceptance, kindness, and forgiveness.  Over time, Methodists will not want to harm 9 year old gay children.


But.  This response is generational.  It will take longer than my limited life time for this change fully to come.  This response is global.  It will require a change of heart, over time, in African Methodists.  This response is gritty.  It will mean underground railways to marry gays and deploy ordained gays.  It will mean prayer and withholding apportionment dollars.  It will mean seasoned, genuine response in many settings:  charge, annual, jurisdictional, global and intergalactic conferences.  It will mean upomone—longsuffering, longsuffering, longsuffering.  It will involve political love.


(Political love, active love in institutional life, is a crucial, necessary feature of realistic faithfulness.

Political love is political because it occurs by intention within the city community.  Political love is love because it is divinely gracious—an incursive addition to life.

Love listens and remembers.  Love compliments with sincerity and pointed limitation.  Love watches for another’s unspoken longing.  Love uncovers festering injustice.  Love shows up, attends, responds, and then invites.

This political love accepts the requirement of alliance, even alliance with opposition, without neglecting friendships, or forgetting the beauty of friendship.)

Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.


Exit or voice?  You be the judge.

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

One Means of Grace

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Matthew 17: 1-9

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            Walk with me for a moment, if you will.  You are saintly souls, so you will smoothly saunter along.   Our seminarians want to think about the way they walk, through the town of their service.  People can tell a lot about you by the way you walk.  Is she approachable? Always in a hurry? Open to interruption (ministry is interruption)?  Able to kick up leaves or snow?  You as a community know how to saunter.  You do.


Our walk is the journey of faith.  Faith is a gift.  The gift is the gift of a journey, of travel, of motion and movement and progress and regress.  It may be that in a lifetime we create more problems than we solve.   Who is to say?  Yet we do learn, step by step, whether in progress or not, whether in fruitfulness, or not.  After failure, after defeat, you can always ask yourself, or another:  ‘what did you learn from that’?  ‘For all that hurt, what did you learn?’  That can be as healing as anything, for those with whom you walk.


Ahead of us on the trail—just take a moment to lift the gaze and train the eyes—we can see or foresee some trail markers ahead.   You will come walking, sauntering, the saints of God to feast on the holiness of God, down the aisle in a moment for One Means of Grace.  You foresee Holy Communion.  You will walk further and later this week into the forty days of Lent, starting Wednesday.  You foresee preparation, discipline, study, fasting, come Lent.


You see out more than a month, and just at the end of Lent, too, another marker.  A return, one year later, to Boylston Street.  A return, step by step, a year later, to Marathon Monday.  A return, just about Easter, to the horrific violence, the unspeakable and damnable bombing of our New England family picnic.  A return to the death of Lu Lingzi, our BU student.  We are preparing services and vigils and gatherings, including at 10am Monday April 21, here.  Hold those hurt in prayer, those hurting in prayer, those who helped in prayer, those healing in prayer.


There is something, one step two step, something of heart beating as we walk along, lub dub, lub dub, the beating of the heart as we beat along the path in the journey of faith.




            Take one step.  You are coming into One Means of Grace, which it the holy meal of Christ, the Eucharist.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.  Eucharist is thanksgiving.   As the years pass, the gospel of Transfiguration becomes so dear, does it not?  In a lingering moment, a poetical beauty, the three disciples without Andrew, high on a mountain, are entranced, enthralled, enchanted.  They worship.  They truly worship.  They give thanks and worship God, bowing to Moses (law) Elijah (prophets) and Jesus (grace).  Love—how can you not?—the painting Matthew does:  a face of sunshine, a deference (‘if you wish’), a bright cloud, falling on the face, filling with awe, the vision.


Follow the trail of this text, Matthew 17.  Its seedbed is in Exodus 24, by the way.  Its roots are in Mark 9, which Matthew has appended and amended.  It has its own beauty, right here right now.  It is preached upon, early, in 2 Peter.  The gospel itself steps along, moves along, makes progress.


The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  To a friend last week:  “I am aware of the increased attention to Calvin and Calvinism, even in newspapers (N.Y. Times, others).  I believe the attention is in part due to the overall substantial theological material therein, and in part to what you allude to below, which is the gracious grandeur of the creator behind the creation, so emphasized in Calvin.  It is striking to me that Calvin, working in the beauty of the Alps, and Robinson, growing up in the beauty of the Rockies, have a kindred sense of the mountainous greatness of God.”   Pause just a moment on the mountain.


When you come to worship you place yourself in earshot of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  To be thankful, Eucharist.  To give thanks, Eucharist.  To sing a song of thanksgiving, Eucharist.


Opposition:  Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time.




            Take another step. You are coming into One Means of Grace, which is the holy meal of Christ, in remembrance.  This do in remembrance of me.  To remember and to recall are not the same things, but memory and recollection are cousins, at least.  Do you ever have conversations with loved ones who are now ‘in a greater light and on a farther shore’?  The bath of baptism and the meal of communion, simple gifts, remind us of who we are and whose we are.


There is here bread for the journey.  But some of that nourishment is found not in the meal but in the mind.  You are walking now, or soon, up the sawdust trail that is our center aisle, or imagining that walk from your breakfast nook, your front seat, your living room, or your desk.  This One Means of Grace reminds you of your best, own most, truly faithful self.  Such a reminder can be blinding, joyous, painful, and costly.  Your social location does truly matter.


Boston University invited students and others to apply to run the Marathon, this year, in memory of our student, Lu Lingzi.  200 applications came for 7 spots, a process well ordered by our Dean of Students office.  Some of us read through the applications in order to select 7.  They are private so they are not quoted, here.  But moving?  Emotional? Wonderful? Real?  All, and more.  This do in remembrance of me.  All 200 wanted to lace their sneakers and don their running togs and endure the 27.3 miles—to remember.  In a way, these worthy applications were themselves sacramental.  This do in remembrance of me.  In our congregation we have others who are running, this year especially in remembrance.


Such kindness, such reverence, remind us who we have set out, and sauntered on, to be.   Good people can differ about real and big things, people of faith can see things in varieties of ways.  There are many ways of keeping faith.  Yet, when one hears the call to exact the death penalty, even for such heinous and miserable violence a year ago, one wonders, in remembrance.  This is not really about two brothers, one dead and one heading to trial, is it?  This is really about us, about you and me, about what kind of community we are, and want to be.   Taking life as a way of protecting life—is this who we want to be?  Opposing killing by killing—is this who we want to see when we stand in the mirror of judgment?   You may well feel the real and raw urge for vengeance.  Who would not feel some at least of this?  But who are we?  This is about us, about the people of Boston, and who we most want to be.  It is something to think about on the long walk, the journey of faith, from Eucharist to Lent to Easter to the marathon.




Take a third step. You are coming into One Means of Grace, which is the holy meal of Christ, in real presence.  In, with and under the humble elements of bread and wine, changing nothing and changing everything, we are met in presence. ‘You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.  2 Peter is the latest document in the New Testament, written in the name of Peter more than 100 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth (Jude is its second chapter!).  The tradition and memory of the Transfiguration lives on, and lives on well, here.  We need not fear the dark.  We need not fear death.  Death is not like a candle snuffed, but like a lamp turned down because the dawn has come.  Eliot poetized that we humans are ‘fear in a handful of dust’ and so we are, full of anxiety—existential anxiety, survivors anxiety, performance anxiety, emotional anxiety.  Into fear and anxiety intrudes a sense of presence.  For your journey of faith, take along a hymn of thanksgiving, take along a word of remembrance, but take along as well a sense of presence.  For all the forms and understandings of disenchantment around us, there lingers, here and now, a sense of presence.   Presence is all about.  Immediacy.  Inwardness.  Experience.


We are coming to communion.  My grandmother, born in 1893, spent five decades as communion steward of her little Methodist church.  Four times a year she filled tiny shot glasses and carved small bread cubes, juggling the trays into church, and waiting anxiously through the hour to see whether she had prepared sufficient elements.  I do not remember her remembering to me a single communion homily, by the way, though she will have heard more than fifty years’ worth.


At communion I remember her.  I am thankful for her.  I sense her presence.


After graduating from Smith College she went to teach school in Tivoli NY, a little town on the Hudson River, east shore.  There later she met my grandfather, in a boarding house for single teachers and others, run by his mother.  His first wife died very young.  One cold winter day—it may have been 100 years ago this winter—she skated on the fully frozen Hudson (rarely so fully frozen), from Tivoli down (south) to Poughkeepsie, 14 miles.  Then she skated back, 14 miles.  Here she is, a young woman, free of the farm, teaching German, meeting young men, falling in love, and skating 28 miles on the rarely so frozen Hudson River.  I see her lacing her skates, in the bright cold air.  I imagine her arranging her coat and cap and scarf and mittens.  I watch her push off, across the clear smooth ice, like that on the Charles this morning.

She pauses, mid skate, looking up into the blue tinted evergreens on the shore line, smiling, happy, free.  All the wonderful Olympic skating of Sochi pales by comparison.  She skates in the Presence.  A real presence, in, with and under all else.


At communion I remember her.  I am thankful for her.  I sense her presence.  She embodies what the greats have taught:


Tillich: ‘such a degree of entanglement between worldly wisdom and divine revelation that culture is considered the form of religion and religion as culture’s depths’

Kelsey: ‘God actively relates to us to create us, to draw us to eschatological consummation, and to reconcile us when we have become estranged from God’

Neville:  Live the Ultimates.   Be Just.  Develop Wholeness.  Be Compassionate.  Accomplish Something.  Be Grateful.  Honor the universality of value in anything that has form.  To be is to have value.

M Robinson: ‘Our civilization believed for a long time in God and the soul and sin and salvation, assuming, whatever else, that meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world (Adam, 84).  We hope to acquire rather than to achieve.  We still believe in the seriousness of being human, while we have lost the means of acknowledging this belief.  We are spiritual agoraphobes.’



            William Sloane Coffin offered his generation ways of thinking and living One Means of Grace.  With happiness we may call one another to the walk, the journey of faith in remembering his wisdom (from the Faces on Faith series)

Faith:  faith is being grasped by the power of love.

Safety:  God provides minimum protection and maximum support.

Adversity:  We learn most from adversity.

Sin:  Sin is a state of being.  When the triangle of love, GOD SELF NEIGHBOR, is sundered, there is sin.

Guilt:  Guilt is the last stronghold of pride.

Will:  The rational mind is not match for the irrational will.

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

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

Love:  The religious norm is love.

Trouble:  It is what is known and unspoken that causes the most trouble.

Truth:  Faith gives the strength to confront unpleasant truth.

Journey:  Faith puts you on the road.  Hope keeps you on the road.  Love is the end of the road.

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

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

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Brother Lawrence Whitney:


First: confession.  Second: glorification.  Third: belief.

Here, at last, we turn with Bach in the movement of the Mass to belief.  “Credo…” “I believe…”

“Br. Larry, I’m not sure I believe in hell anymore,” a student stated with no small hint of trepidation.  “So?” I asked in reply.  “Br. Larry, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally down with Jesus,” another student remarked, “I’m just not sure he’s the only way to God.”  “Should you be?” I inquired.  “Br. Larry, how can I believe in an almighty God who let my friend die like that?”  After a period of silence I wondered aloud, “After such a tragedy, can any of us believe in such a God?  Should we?”

There is an underlying concern in these inquiries.  This is the reason to bring them to a chaplain, even one who refuses to give a straight answer.  The concern is what impact these beliefs, at odds with received tradition, might have on the salvation of those who hold them.  If I believe the wrong things, can I be saved?

This reduction of salvation to doctrinal conviction is not classical Christianity but rather a modern phenomenon.  It is a result of the encounter of Christianity with particular forms of Enlightenment rationalism, admittedly itself an evolution of Protestant thinking.  Ironically, Christianity as right belief in this way takes a pernicious turn toward humanistic works righteousness.  It insists that salvation is achieved by intellectual assent and not in the first instance by the grace of God.  Frequently it turns to idolatry by turning the bible, and belief therein, into the gatekeeper of heaven.  As the slogan goes, “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  This is Christianity become Biblianity, in spite of Paul’s injunction that “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

If this misplaced emphasis on belief were limited to the Protestant Christians from whom it arose it would be bad enough.  Alas, given the ways in which belief-oriented Christianity has become a taken-for-granted stream in the American conscious, it has become the predominant paradigm for interpreting all religious orientations in our pluralistic society.

As we speak, the United States Supreme Court is in the process of hearing several religion cases. One regards prayer in legislative sessions.  Two regard the right of corporations to deny birth control coverage on the basis of the religious beliefs of their owners.  If their decisions in these cases follow their track record, and we should expect they will, it is likely the Court will err.  The errors will not be on the basis of jurisprudence, but rather on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of religion as belief at the very foundation of American jurisprudence.  In spite of the fact that there are no Protestants left on the Supreme Court, it is likely that all of the justices will prove themselves Protestant by proxy in making decisions based on a particular Protestant understanding of religion as belief.

Given the transitions in the field of religious studies over the past fifty years, it is unlikely that any undergraduate religion major could graduate without a thorough understanding that belief is but one aspect of religion, and a minor one in many traditions.  Little wonder, then, that Secretary of State John Kerry said, “if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

Religion reduced to belief is dangerous.  Assertions of belief are ways of delineating in-group, out-group boundaries.  Right now, Arizona awaits the signature of their governor on legislation that would allow religion as belief to be cited as grounds for denying services to gay and lesbian couples.  Beliefs become justifications for standing your ground against those who believe else or otherwise.  For most of human history, the function of religion was in fact to just so delineate groups from one another.  In the Axial Age, however, figures such as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus, among many others, were instrumental in the transformation of religion toward a universality that transcends difference.  And so it is that Jesus rejects any justification of “Stand Your Ground:” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

This is not to say that belief has no place in religion at all.  The “Credo” in its proper context in the Mass setting is an excellent example of belief within the wider framework of the practices of religion.  The “Credo” is sung, that is, it is embodied in the voices of the choir, the tintinnabulations of the orchestra, and the gestures of the conductor.  It is the belief of individuals who belong to a community and to God.  It is belief enacted, not belief intellected.  Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about what we believe with Bach this morning.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

In October we began our journey in this great cathedral of music, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, entering first the narthex with the supplicant Kyrie. In December we joined the mighty congregation in the nave in the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Today we come to the Cathedral crossing – where the tenets of the faith are taught, affirmed and observed.

Written late in Bach’s life, the Credo is an unparalleled compendium of compositional style and skill. Marsh Chapel congregants are now well familiar with Bach’s interest in symmetrical structures and architectures. The nine movements of the Credo unfold in such a way that the Crucifixus text comes as the centerpiece with Et incarnates est and et resurrexit on either side. These three movements, the crux of the faith, form the central portion of this grand Credo setting. On either side, Bach sets extended portions of text for arias – first a soprano/alto duet and later a baritone solo. The first depicts the three in one nature of God. You’ll hear the alto melody as an extension and mirror of the soprano, interweaving and informing one another, as if to depict being of one substance of the father.

The capstones of the Credo are two pairs of choruses. Each set begins with a movement proving Bach’s skill and interest in the old 16th century style of a Renaissance motet. These two movements – ‘Credo in unum Deum’ and ‘Confiteor’ –draw their compositional model from Gregorian Chant melodies. Both movements yield in spectacular display to music in the high Baroque style with trumpets, timpani and full-on display of Bach’s unmatched mastery of the contrapuntal style.

For the performer – and we hope for the listener – Bach’s music impels these texts to leap from the page. As Luther wrote, “The Notes makes the texts live.” And as Br. Larry reminds us today, Bach’s music calls us to a belief re-imagined, a belief quickened, revitalized, and transformed. This is a Credo of cosmic utterance, new realities and possibilities of faith far beyond the sum of the parts.

Brother Lawrence Whitney:

Dearly beloved, what we believe with Bach this morning is the living and breathing of the life of faith.  The words are ancient, the spirit is fresh.  Believe then in God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Amen.

make haste slowly

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

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The sermon text is unavailable at this time.

~Ms. Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate


Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Ephesians 4: 1-7

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Robert McAfee Brown


One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…


It is hard if not impossible for many of us, who studied at the feet of Professor Robert McAfee Brown, to hear these words spoken with anything other than his own excitement, spirit, and love.


Over time you will sift out for yourselves, at whatever age, the teachers who have not only informed but have formed you.  Information is good.  Transformation is really good.   In that spirit it is hard to hear Ephesians 4 and to face the fact that our teacher Robert McAfee Brown is not here any longer to recite the passage.


We washed up on the venerable shore of Union Theological Seminary in the autumn of 1976, there to stay for the better part of three years.  Dr. Brown came and left in the same time period, three short years.   He was a Union man.  He said, often, ‘you can always tell the Union people’.  He meant by that the emphasis in life not only on a deep personal faith but also on an active social involvement.  We here would quote Mr. Wesley, ‘there is no holiness save social holiness’, and add, ‘you can always tell the Boston people’.


President Shriver somehow convinced the Browns, Bob and Sydney, to come back from the sunny west coast to their alma mater, Union, where 2o years earlier they had come of age with Tillich, Niebuhr, Knox, Terrien, Heschel, Fosdick, Steimle, Scherer and all.  Perhaps they felt they owed it to their forebears.  The match lasted only briefly, but for those of us there in the same brevity, it was a brief shining moment.  A transformational moment


The first Christmas, in what was to become a series of jovial parties, Robert McAfee Brown brought a stack of telegrams sent ostensibly from the North Pole.  They played on ‘Claus’, one being a commendation of Union for affirming the ongoing ‘claus struggle’—workers of the world unite.


One spring he preached at the wedding of friends in James chapel, citing Jeremiah and ‘the old paths’.  Strikingly, for that setting and those days, and much to my appreciation, he warned the couple that many things they could share with others, but not the most intimate things–‘dining room but not bedroom’ was the way he put it.  I can hear the sermon as if it were given this morning.


The next autumn he invited about 10 couples to have dinner with him and his wife Sydney in their apartment along Riverside Drive.   The Browns had invited also as their guest a relatively young Jewish scholar, recently connected to Boston University, but living and working also in New York.  Brown was to provide later a new and moving introduction to a short book many of us have used and reused in teaching over decades.  The book:  NIGHT.  The scholar:  Elie Wiesel.


You see how information pales before transformation, how life stands out from work, how hospitality invades ingenuity.  You see all too easily what homiletically the sermon is up to.   You are, or will be, many of you, teachers and preachers still in 2060, but remembering perhaps the influence of Brown, born in 1920.  Kierkegaard was right about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  Mark that.  We want to connect you, a generation behind us, with others, a generation ahead.  The past is not dead, it is not even past.


Robert McAfee Brown is a model for many because he was an unapologetic generalist, in the forest of specialists.   For him the fun of the university is the universal part.  Oh, he had many specialties, over the year:  theology, church history, world religions, liberation theologies, and others.


But Brown was a model because he continued to evolve, change and grow year in and out, decade by decade.  He would celebrate the life of this University if he were here.  He would attend the annual honored University Lecture, participate in the University Faculty, celebrate at University Commencement, Baccalaureate, Matriculation, attend University Chapel worship on Sunday, and read BU Today, day by day.


I see him walking the quadrangle.  I peer at him in the refectory.  I hand him in memory a book he has requested from the library stacks.   I admire still their happy marriage, which lit and warmed and brightened just by manner of being, happy.  I rue the lasting awfulness of death that takes such a life out of life–at least this life.  I am grateful for the wealth of teachers and teaching I was given, whose full merit I could not appreciate, and whose full measure, I have not taken even to this day.


His wife Sydney Thomson Brown wrote:  “Grounded in the traditional, the traditional never contained him.” (Memoir, 121).


The Ecumenical Revolution


At last, in the final year, there was a place in a class with Professor Brown.   It was titled for one of his other specialties, and one of his books, THE ECUMENICAL REVOLUTION.  Brown had been a protestant observer, in some ways THE protestant observer, at Vatican II.   For the rest of his life, he exuded the spirit and theme of that remarkable Council: aggiornamento.


Now,  Boston.  Over the last several months we have faithfully, culturally remembered other anniversaries: I Have a Dream, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the death of JFK, and even this week the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.   What have we remembered about Vatican II? James Carroll did write a compelling column in the fall, and a few others have done similar things.  But in the main?  We have missed the anniversary.


A thunderous silence somehow has hidden, this year, a great anniversary.  A celebration that should have already begun.  A festival!  Yet, I have not heard or read a single word of it.  Vatican II?  Of this celebration, I hear nothing.  Somebody needs to be throwing a party, a thirty year birthday party, a festival!  So, rather than curse the media darkness–a not unenjoyable pastime–I today light one candle, one birthday candle.


One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…


These years mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, 1962-1965.  In the fall of 1965, Pope John the 23rd’s great three year meeting came to an end.  So much went off-track in the 1960′s that we sometimes throw out the baby with the bath water in our generational sifting.  We forget people and moments of genuine courage.


One Lord, One faith, One baptism…


Pope John 23, that happy, rotund, gracious, thankful Italian pastor, had an inspiration late one night in 1959.  From the corners of the earth, he would gather church leaders, including non-catholics, to meditate on Paul’s teaching about “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”.  The Council opened in the autumn 1962 and ended in the autumn 1965.  The Bishop of Rome felt that the time had come for “aggiornamento”.  A renewal.  An updating.  Change.  Times were changing, and the church, he felt, would need to change with them.  And yes, my teacher, Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian, attended and wrote the best available summary of the council, The Ecumenical Revolution.


Venerable, conserving, religious, beloved institutions can change to serve the present age.  If you wonder whether anyone, anyway can ever bring renewal, updating…change (ooh…) then I see this birthday candle lit today.  We remember R. M. Brown’s stories about John 23 and recall that fifty years ago a then 700 million member venerable, conservative, religious, beloved church—threw the windows open!


One Lord, One faith, One Baptism.  One God and Creator of us all who is above all and through all and in all!


Aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change–can even come to big institutions, even churches, with the right leadership.


John 23 championed principles of change:  constant reformation, study of the Bible, collegiality, religious freedom, the role of the laity, diversity, ecumenism, dialogue, and mission.


Here is the good news, from Ephesians, and from the portly Bishop of Rome, 1964:  the church can change, and in so doing, can gain its life by losing it.

The pronouncement of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the lasting ultimate victory of substance over form!


After all, Ephesians 4: 1-7 was written by a student of St. Paul, as the early church was moving from diversity to unity, and finding its way toward an ecumenical shape, at the end of the first century.


I’m waiting for an invitation from somebody to attend a party!  I hear nothing. As Gabriel Vahanian said at the time of those courageous council leaders, “the Catholics have become the real Protestants today.”


Three applications—serve, listen, change.


One Lord


First.  With all Christians, we serve one Lord. Aggiornamento today should mean for us, the freedom to serve.


An old documentary film depicts Mother Teresa visiting the tenderloin, red-light district of San Francisco.  Teresa and three other Sisters of Mercy are shown touring one of the houses in this area, which they have bought to use as a haven for battered women.  The contractor, who has recently renovated the beautiful 19th century great house, proudly guides the Saint of Calcutta through American opulence.  He shows her the great hall, the carpeted rooms, the fine draperies, the posted beds, the ample lighting, the mirrors.  He hopes she will admire the repairs to the porcelain in the baths.  He has donated some of his labor and is clearly honored to be with this great woman.  During the tour, Teresa says nothing, jotting a few notes.


As they return to the front door, the contractor asks Mother Teresa whether she will need anything else.  The film focuses on her face, as she gives a quiet response.  She thanks him for his work.  She compliments the beauty of the house.  She expresses admiration for such finery.  Then she says:  “the mattresses can stay.  Everything else must go:  the drapes, the mirrors, the beds, everything.” The contractor takes notes to undo his handy work, but cannot resist asking the saint at the end: “Mother, Why?”  “Because, we are here for people.  We cannot let any distraction interfere with our connection to these for whom Christ died.  What matters is their healing, their life.  We must not let anything get between us.  We’ll keep the mattresses.”


Pope John Paul II once said: “You need courage to follow Christ…especially when you recognize that so much of our dominant culture is a culture of flight from God…”  And Pope Francis:  ‘who am I to judge?’


Paul Baumann:  “In the emerging struggle against the spiritually stultifying effects of technological society, Protestants and Catholics need to join forces.”


Service can unite where doctrine divides.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  Let your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.


One Faith


Second, with all Christians we hold one faith.  Aggiornamento today should mean for us the freedom to listen to others’ journeys.


One summer we shared a late Sunday dinner, with two very close friends, children of Vatican II, Catholics from the north country.  It was a good dinner.  Fish, potatoes, sunset, candles, and the quiet rosy warmth of friendship.  When dusk comes, what do you have anyway, but your faith and your friends?  Over dessert, we talked religion, which often we do.  Coffee and dessert came, but the real end of the conversation eluded us.  I wanted to know what worship meant for my friend.  It was important to me, and maybe for that reason, I at last could hear her response.  I had entered that prized moment when one suspends disbelief.  What of the mass, the weekly eucharist, the liturgy?  “I just feel so thankful”, she said.  “I go to communion and I just feel so thankful.”  In a quiet voice, with a full heart, she spoke God’s truth.


What a joy to see windows opened, and saving renewal occur.  We know this well on a personal level, and hear it in each others’ stories.


In therapy, a man has the hurt of 20 years exposed to the healing light of acceptance.  A clean wind blows upon his heart.


In surgery, a woman has the disease of a decade removed through the light of skilled hands.  A clean wind blows upon her body.


In work, a man has the opportunity to fail, and does fail, and has his real calling suddenly exposed through the light of grace.  A clean wind blows upon his life.


In marriage, a couple finally faces the truth:  this is not going to work without some change.  The anger of so many fitful nights is exposed.  A clean wind blows upon their future.


Aggiornamento is real hard.   And real good.


In fact, this year, our musicians are leading us home.  Piece by piece they are presenting the Bach B Minor Mass.  John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on Bach ‘like other biographers, ponders whether the work is Lutheran or Catholic…If Bach had lived longer it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass…There he might have confirmed the Catholic nature of the whole…Bach’s music sets in order what life cannot’ (G Stauffer, NYRB, 2/20/14, 25).


 One Baptism


Third, with all Christians we share one Baptism.  Aggiornamento for us should mean the freedom to change our minds.


After fifty years, I think the church of John the 23rd still has some things to teach us all, especially bout Christ transforming culture–that is Augustine of Hippo.  About feeling thankful. About the physical body, and respect for the body.   About the Body of Christ, the church.   About natural and moral law.


And so I light a birthday candle today.  I am so thankful that I grew up in a time of aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change.


So I was advised by Raymond Brown, S.J., for eleven years was served by a Roman Catholic secretary, have shared countless weddings and funerals, enjoy the opportunity to teach, still, in a Jesuit school, am grateful for BU Professor Jay Corrin’s new book on liberal English Catholics in the 1960’s, and enjoy the fellowship of many traditions in the Boston Ministers’ Club. Without the Catholics in my life I would have been much less of a Protestant!


You know, life is a smorgasbord, and some of us are going hungry.  I mean, others, different others, can teach us, show us, and help us.  But we have to have the courage to think again, think twice, and change the mind.


I think of those who have given up their churches for the sake of the larger church.  The leaders in Canada in 1925 who gave up the name Methodist and became part of the United Church.  The leaders of the EUB in this country who gave up their name and history to become part of the United Methodist church.  I remember my dean and friend, playfully asking, in one letter:  “Is God a Methodist?”  Maybe if we are really thankful for what counts we will become freer about what counts a little less.  We may be able to move out of our religious families of origin with a little more ease.


“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”


We have a number of listeners to our broadcast in Albany, NY.  The downtown churches there, some five of them or so, share the challenges of urban ministry, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist.  Older buildings, smaller congregations, aging roofing, uncertain boilers, many empty pews.  Twice each summer, though, and three times again during the year, all five come together in one sanctuary:  the place is full, the hymns are sung well, the fellowship is warm.  You wonder whether what they are doing now and then might well be done every week, and not just in Albany?


One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.


Let our prayer be that of Thomas Aquinas:

Give us, O Lord,

                        steadfast hearts which no unworthy thought can drag downward

                        unconquered hearts, which no unworthy purpose can wear out

                        upright hearts, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside

                        Bestow upon us also, O Lord our God,

                        Understanding to know you

                        Diligence to seek you

                        Wisdom to find you

                        And a faithfulness that will finally embrace you

                        Through Jesus Christ our Lord.


(St. Thomas Aquinas)

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

The Means of Grace

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

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                        John Wesley taught his poor bands of early Methodists the effectiveness of prudent means of grace, ways by which to receive the freedom, love and faithfulness of God.   By precept and example he taught fasting, abstaining from food Tuesdays and Fridays—he exercised the body, mens sana in corpore sano.  By precept and example he taught the full study of Scripture, truly trying to live as homo unius libri, a person of one book.  By precept and example he applauded Christian conference, ordinary conversation if engaged with heart and mind.  By precept and example he commended the sacraments of baptism and the lord’s supper, not endlessly quibbling about their theological nor the proper modes of celebration:  use them, use them, use them, he exhorted.  By precept and example he coveted prayer, the sitting in silence before God.   You struggle and stumble, it may be, do to lack of nourishment, unintended abstinence from grace in exercise, study, sacrament, talk, and prayer.  Find meaning this winter in the means of grace!


1. Fasting


Fasting is a way to discipline the body.  Many of you do so through regular exercise.  (Having been caused to stand for 7 minutes for the gospel as ung, you may feel your work today is done!) Several here will run the marathon April 21.  Some here will walk in the winter along the river.  A few here will walk or take the T this afternoon to the Common to skate at 1pm, our annual Ground Hog Day observance.  Yesterday here at Marsh Chapel several dozen students exercised their voice in all day choir practice.  Yesterday here at Marsh Chapel several dozen other students exercised their minds in study retreat on the theme ‘the blueprint of life’.  Let us find grace this winter in exercise.


2.  Scripture


Scripture is holy especially when pursued in holiness.  What a loss not to fall in love with Scripture, not to befriend Scripture, not to be guided by Scripture!  Read in college Plato, Shakespeare, and Bible.  Prize your time now you have it.   Listen today to Micah.


The twelve minor prophets (named) include the prophet of righteousness, Micah ben Imlah.


Since we are in the middle of some old time religion winter weather, with school children sleeping in school in Atlanta and temperatures cascading in Albany and wind sweeping the frozen plains of Arkansas, we might hearken again to the prophet Micah, whose own voice carries three thousand years later with the harsh, crisp and freezing jolt of a blizzard.


Other windswept, snow covered scriptural peaks stand at the same height as Micah 6.   Deuteronomy 6:5 stands just as tall:  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.  Leviticus 19:18 stands just as tall:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Jonah 4:2 stands just as tall:  the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Amos 5: 24 stands just as tall:  Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream.


                        Then there is our joy, our memory verse for today (and you will want it memorized):  What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?


These verses are not religious.  They are helpful to religious people.  They are beneficial to religious communities.  They are nourishing to religious sentiment.  But they are not in themselves religious.   They require no creed, save that common to all people.  They demand no cult, save the culture of the human being at her best.  They depend on no special experience, no esoteric experience, just that shared by every mortal, of three score and ten years.  They rely on no foundational history, save the history common to the planet.  These verses are not religious.  They are merely true.


Look for a minute at Micah.

Let us find grace this winter in Scripture.


3. Conversation


Luncheon awaits us, and group life, and conversation, today.   More than we regularly admit, in this brief life, conversation among friends is lastingly meaningful.   To say ‘good morning’ and really mean it.  To inquire about another’s well being and tune to the response.  To journal and record memorable phrases, odd silences, dream sequences, and the mind waking in the morning.  We greet one another in communion, and then following service to acquire the knowledge of names.  It is all right to ask more than once.  We are all more human than anything else.  For all our vaunted differences, we utterly resemble each other, as we admit and relearn in conversation.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe.

            We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

            We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

            We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

            We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

            We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

            We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Let us find grace this winter in conversation.


4. Sacrament


                        Today in community, or later in the week in pastoral visit and communion, we will receive the lord’s supper.  Two sacraments and five sacramental rites.


One such, the moment of memorial, 600 of us entered, last Saturday in remembrance of a son of Boston University, Dr. Kenneth Edelin.   The truth and love in the afternoon made of that cold day a warm sacramental gathering.  Listen to the voices of those who spoke:


Governor Patrick:  Justice is what love looks like in real life.


Rev. Liz Walker:  Truth without love is brutality.  Love without truth is sentimentality.


                        Ken Edelin:  the seamlessness between doctor and patient (or, I would say, between pastor and parishioner, minister and congregation).


                        30 standing as students who were studying medicine through his influence and support.


Barack Obama, Gloria Steinem, Jeh Johnson (later on The State of the Union address).


Charlene Hunter-Gault:  The Lord is my Shepherd


                        Arthur Ashe’s physician:  Days of Grace


                        All days are days of grace and all days of grace offer means of grace


Let us find grace this winter in sacrament.



5. Prayer


“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.



            Let us find grace this winter in prayer.


Wesley taught us prudently to use the means of grace:  exercise, scripture, conversation, sacrament, and prayer.  But let us use them, use them, use them!


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

See the Light

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Matthew 4: 13-23

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            The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…

Many of you will remember our evening Christmas Eve service, and its conclusion.   It is one of the few times, as a congregation, at which we gather in the dark.   After prayers, scripture, sermon and Eucharist, there is a pause.  The organ plays a bit, preparing the way for the singing of Silent Night.

            Stille Nacht.  Heilige Nacht

            Alles schlaft, einsem vacht…

            Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh

            Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh


The usher team douses the light in the nave.  Clergy pass a bit of flame and fire from one candle to another.  At the start there is a startling darkness.  There is a depth of darkness, a deep and empty kind of quiet.  There is a yearning, there, a longing, then, a waiting.  I ponder it, following Christmas, every year, and more so as years go by.  People who would not otherwise darken the door of a church on a sunlit Sunday, will and do stand in the dark, and sing songs in the night.  Now, what is that about?   Most of our worship is on Sunday morning, in the light.  But on Christmas Eve we sing ‘songs in the night’, as Job might have it said.  Songs in the night.

I remember our daughter now 34, singing Away in a Manger, at age 3, in a country church, with the sense and scent of milking present, in the dark.  I remember a front pew of visiting foreign students, in a city church at midnight, trying to make sense singing out of the Methodist hymnal, which many were holding upside down, in the dark.  I remember, a church later, a rustle, like a covey of birds taking flight, in the rows of the Sopranos and bases, near midnight, when a wedding ring was offered and receive and the deal was struck, Bass to Soprano, after an anthem sung, in the dark.  I remember your faces here in Marsh Chapel, candles lit, moving through the familiar verses of a familiar carol, a hymn somehow though sung into an utter strangeness, in the dark. Songs in the night.

It is a mystical moment.  A Nicholas of Cusa moment.  Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) would have reminded us of the importance of a learned ignorance.  He would have recalled the priority of the spiritual journey.  Cusa would have taught us about the central importance of an experience of de-centering of the executive self.  He might have seen in the dark a kind of divine presence. Cusa I think would have celebrated as a very sign of the divine your own personal trek to church that night.  And this morning.  Nicholas of Cusa may have been on your minds, or someone’s, that dark night, four weeks ago.  For Christmas Eve, candles held, is one of the few moments in community when we see the light, see the light in the dark, really sense and see the light in which we see light.  It is a nearly unique culturally affirmed moment in which we wonder about appearance and reality.  We are freed, given permission even, to stand in a dark, empty presence that envelops us, dislocates us, unnerves us, and embraces us.  I can see you holding the candle, that night.  I can hear you singing the carol, that night.  I can recall the Thurman choir in resonant, redolent voice, that night. I can remember you receiving a benediction that night.

Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light?  What were we doing here on Christmas Eve?  What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway?  We arrived by mystery, live by mystery, and leave by mystery.  A mysterium tremendum.

En una noche oscura.

            Con ansias en amores inflamadas

            O! Dichosa Ventura!

            Sali sin ser notada

            Estando ya mi casa sosegada

The gospel today illumines our darkness, lightens our darkness, in order to minimize our metaphysical mistakes, our metaphysical malpractice. Our readings today are all about light.  The Gospel recites an Isaian prophecy, read already earlier, that light will come even to the least, the last, the lost, the outcast region of Galilee, the abode of the non-religious.  Christ came for the ungodly not for the godly, says Paul in Romans.   The Gospel shows us four who saw light and left nets and became disciples.   ‘Peter and Andrew, free and grown.  James and John, young and home.’  The light of the Gospel is candle light, here and there, emerging but a long way from noonday heat, sporadic, personal—and beautiful.

1.  With Peter, light the candle of incarnation.

As Faulker said of us, ‘they learn nothing save through suffering, and understanding nothing save what is written in blood’.   We might do a bit better daily to pursue a learned ignorance. We risk harm when we mistake other things for incarnation. The gospel of Matthew affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people.  The image of God.   To restore this image we give ourselves over each day and week to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We desire the rich announcement of incarnation.   That is, we are in the people business.  We are in the grace business, not the talent business.  We are in the grace business, not the cleverness business.  Here.  For example as P Gomes wrote:

 A few years ago the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and I engaged in one of our frequent exchanges of pulpits and each of us took an old sermon across the river to preach in the other’s pulpit. It is probably no secret to you that sermons are recycled.  If the great works of Bach can be heard over and over and over again, why cannot the best offerings that we have to make? The only rule is that you don’t repeat it to the same congregation.  So Dean Thornburg came over here to Memorial Church to preach to Harvard, and I went over to Marsh Chapel to preach to Boston University.  In the business of the when we exchanged the information for our respective bulletins so that the people would know what it was we thought we were saying, we each found out what the other was preaching about. Dean Thornburg chose to give his sermon the title “God and the Know-it-all”. The sermon that I took from my pile without consultation with Bob was titled “Ordinary People”.  Someone who knew us both wondered if we were trying to insult our respective congregations on that morning, and there were some people at Boston University, sensitive souls, who rather resented the fact that the preacher of Harvard University should preach to them about ordinary people.


2.  With Andrew, light the candle of integrity.

The ongoing spiritual journey affirms integrity not just innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we hardly talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex.  Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. Our forgetfulness about the nature of life as a journey has caused good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence.  We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage.  We need a fuller conversation.  And a more theological one.  Couples marry later today than once they did.   They are far more ready for a theological consideration of love, sexuality and marriage than years before.  They can think together about the Song of Solomon.  You can travel toward integrity and holiness without innocence.  I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity.

More generally, we know the process of repentance:  to apologize, seek pardon, find restitution, and move onward.  We are often our own very worst enemies in forgetting this.  We tend to tell our biggest lies to ourselves.

3.  With James, light the candle of divine presence.

The true light that enlightens everyone…Some of that illumination, for some, may come with a mystical theology that does not  replace God with Jesus. As a Christian, I say, Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity.  The gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism.  And our sense of the mystery of life.  As Smith repeated, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.  Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking, or make others ‘surrender’ like a thief. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way– there is the Christ, wherever there is truth– there is Christ, wherever there is life– there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith himself walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today!  Decades later I read Smith’s credo:  We are in good hands, so it well behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  The mystery of God is greater than the measure of our mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life.  The greater the body of knowledge, the longer the shore line of mystery that surrounds it.

4.  With John, light the candle of generosity.

The de centering of the self, the illumination of soul, sometimes comes with real generosity, disciplined generosity.  Is there a part of your soul which, once illumined by real generosity, would illumine all the rest? The faithful life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns.

The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in generosity, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in generosity, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of non communal life receives its denial in generosity, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith.  We need the illumination of real and disciplined generosity.

How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…

Will somebody light a candle? Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light?  What were we doing here on Christmas Eve?  What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway?  Will somebody light a candle?  Sing a song in the night?  In the dark, see the light?

Silent Night, Holy Night

            Son of God, Love’s pure light

            Radiant beams from thy holy face

            With the dawn of redeeming grace

            Jesus, Lord at thy birth

            Jesus, Lord at thy birth

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