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The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

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Matthew 2:1-12

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Preface

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

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

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

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

A Way Forward

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

The Christmas Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Flesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Glimpse of Christmas

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

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Luke 2:22-40

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My thanks to Dean Hill for the generosity of the opportunity to preach, and to my husband Soren for the generosity of letting me preach the lectionary texts on the day they were actually assigned; he took on the far more difficult preaching task this Gospel lesson a few weeks ago.

Did you catch a glimpse this Christmas? A glimpse of light? A glimpse of glory? A glimpse of salvation?

Perhaps, out of the corner of your eye, this Christmas, your vision was warmed by the hazy glow of stringed lights, and you felt the Light of God well up in you for a moment. A glimpse of the light of the Star over Bethlehem.

Perhaps, in the quiet hum of a carol over the percussion hiss of the radiator and crackle of the fire, your ear caught a tune both new and familiar. Perhaps you caught a note of angel song. A glimpse of the glory of the heavenly host singing.

Perhaps, in the sticky embrace of a child with candy cane-stained hands or in the cool, dry kiss of an elderly parent or grandparent, you felt a sense of connection, communion with the past and the present and the promise of the future all at once; perhaps you caught a brush of a King’s cloak or a  shepherd’s homespun. A glimpse of salvation offered to all, prince and pauper alike.

Perhaps you caught a glimpse this Christmas. I hope and pray that you did. It’s what we wait for, what we long for in the preparation of Advent. We wait and long for an experience of the presence and power of God in humanity; we wait for Christ.

And the author of Luke-Acts introduces us to Simeon and Ana, adding narrative to a long wait for consolation and redemption. In Luke-Acts we have a gospel that grasps for hope in the aftermath of a failed real and apocalyptically imagined political revolution, struggles for some kernel of identity in the midst of real or imagined rejection, and wrings its hands over real and imagined competition from fellow Jews, fellow philosophers and fellow cults. And lurking in the background of the composition and compilation of this text, a growing anxiety over fellow Christians who believe differently and are unafraid to say so. In the gathering of this text and these stories, we find early layers of polemics, perhaps against Marcion, as Joseph Tyson has argued. So just as the writers and compilers of Luke-Acts wait and hope for a crystallized Christian identity that will resolve theological conflict, so Luke-Acts crafts characters who wait and hope for a crystallized, or perhaps we should say, incarnate figure who can bring heft, weight, reality to the longings of Israel. Simeon waits for consolation, and Ana waits for redemption. These are personal stories but they are universal hopes, and both Simeon and Ana are rewarded for their long wait with a glimpse of Jesus. And for them, a glimpse is enough.

Even Paul, in the midst of his grumpiest letter to the assemblies in Galatia, in his long wait, manages to catch a glimpse of Christmas. The previous sentence needs some unpacking on several levels. First, the letter to the Galatians is undoubtedly Paul’s grumpiest letter, although that is hardly a formal New Testament studies term. In this letter, Paul forgoes his usual epistolary custom of giving thanks. For example, the beginning greetings in Romans are followed by, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.” In Philippians, Paul and Timothy write, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” In Galatians 1, we move right from the greeting to “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all,” and things go downhill from there, until Paul finally resorts to name calling in chapter 3, “You foolish Galatians!”

Paul does not seem to know or, if he knows, to care about the infancy or birth narrative of Jesus. For Paul, his primary focus is on the glimpse of the risen Christ that has caught him up in a transformed hope for the reconciliation and consolation of God to all people, including and especially the Gentiles. However, this passage in Galatians 4 is the closest we get to a Christmas message in Paul, “In the fullness of time, God sent God’s Son, born of a woman…” But I would argue that Paul’s real glimpse of the meaning, consequence, and yes, incarnational theology of Christmas comes in verse 7: “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” Because we have caught a glimpse that God lives among us, and because we can call Jesus brother, we are able to be called children of God, and because we are children, heirs of the promise of God. This is Pauline incarnational good news.

But let’s be honest: Paul is caught in an apoplectic and apocalyptic waiting game, and I’m not sure that for Paul, that one glimpse of Christ is enough. And, if we’re honest, too, about our own Christmas experience, there might have been a little Galatians-time in the midst of our waiting for our next glimpse of God. Gratitude left unoffered, frustration over expectations unmet, tensions or infighting amidst family and friends, and perhaps even a little name-calling. Or worse, the deep tug of disappointment, the gnawing absence of those gone. Paul knew these feelings, too. An uneasy waiting. They, too, are part of the Christmas story, because a glimpse is just that, a glimpse.

Momentary, fleeting; the briefest flicker at the corner of vision, a single strain of music, the quick brush of a hand. So often, our religious experiences, those saving moments, are a mere glimpse. Christmas comes and goes, a blink of the eye, it seems, and five Christmases have flown by. A theological question lies before us today, modelled by Paul, Simeon, and Ana: How can these glimpses be enough?

We might expect that someone like Mother Theresa, Saint of Calcutta and founder of the Missionaries of Charity, who worked with the poor, sick, and dying in India and around the world, must have regularly experienced the light of God in her life. She must have had such a constant vision of God to do the work she did for so many decades of her life!

In reality, the exact opposite is true. In Come Be My Light, an autobiographical collection of writings compiled and edited posthumously by her closest confessors, we find that after a powerful experience of a call to serve the poor, Mother Theresa experienced decades of silence, loneliness, and darkness. In the midst of the explosion of her work and ministry and the rapid expansion of her order, she never once caught a glimpse of God like the one that so inspired her.

Writing to one of her spiritual directors, she recounted, “Now Father – since [the age of] 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss – this untold darkness – this loneliness – this continual longing for God – which gives me that pain deep down in my heart. Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. – There is no God in me – When the pain of longing is so great – I just long and long for God.”[1]

Mother Theresa’s story is not some happy-ending fairy-tale where after a call experience and a brief narrative tension of divine silence, a light from heaven breaks in to provide resolution. Rather, Mother Theresa’s story is a very human tale of waiting, and of finding enough in the glimpses of God to sustain us for the work of faith, for the process of sanctification.

We have a theological term for this; you’ve probably heard the phrase, “A dark night of the soul.” The phrase comes from a poem and exposition (La noche oscura del alma) written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic. John describes the crisis that people of faith sometimes encounter, those periods of absence, longing, and confusion. We who live in New England, who have just passed through the solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year, know this experience intimately. But John of the Cross writes:

INTO this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners—which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road—and begins to set them in the state of progressives—which is that of those who are already contemplatives—to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.

Now, I don’t know if John Wesley read or knew John of the Cross’s poem, but I think this is about as good a description of sanctification as I have come across. The salvation process, the process of being made well, of being made salvus, well, whole, the process of receiving balm for our sin-sick souls, is the work of our entire lives as we continue to grow more open to the grace of God flowing into us. Salvation, a glimpse of Christmas, does not mean that we wake up the next morning feeling spiritually whole and perfect. The Christmas season, through Paul and Simeon and Ana, also teaches us that faith is about waiting.

The question still lingers. We have a little comfort from Theresa, John of the cross, Simeon, Anna, and yes, even Paul, but the catch in the throat is still there. How can this glimpse of Christmas be enough?

Theresa washed, fed, and cared for the dying alongside her fellow sisters in the Missionaries of Charity; silent John worked closely with St. Theresa of Avila to found the barefoot Carmelites in Spain, Simeon reaches out to a young family scraping enough together for the offering for their son in the temple; Anna, widowed for decades, spends her days in the temple sharing conversation and hope with those who enter; Paul has his beloved assemblies, whom he writes to and longs for even when he is at his grumpiest.

A glimpse of Christmas is enough when we join in with others in a community of faith. A glimpse of Christmas is supported, encouraged, and perhaps even sustained through the regular rhythms of a life in the family of God, through the interconnected feeling of participation in the body of Christ. You might not feed the physical and spiritual needs of thousands, but you can bring a homemade dish to our potluck next week and get involved in our abolitionist chapel group. You might not punctuate your contemplative life with communal, daily participation in the full liturgy of the hours, but you can be present in worship come Sunday. You might not be a prophet, but you might share a good word with a member going through a difficult time or a visitor overwhelmed by the space and service. And you might even write someone a letter, a physical letter, opened with a proper line of thanksgiving. When a community of faith shares its glimpses with one another, these glimpses, seen at different angles, heard with different pitches, and felt with different textures, begin to coalesce into a clearer sense of God’s vision.

I hope and pray, brothers and sisters, that you have caught a glimpse of light, glory, and salvation this Christmas, and I also pray that those saving glimpses you have had are enough for the work of Christmas to begin in this community, in your community of faith.

Or, as Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, former Dean of Marsh Chapel, put it in the Christmas poem we read here every year:

When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.

Have you caught a glimpse of God this Christmas? Is it enough? Enough to sustain the work of faith and faithfulness, enough for an assurance of things hoped for, enough for a conviction of things unseen?

May we pray?

Come, Lord Jesus, give us a glimpse of you this Christmas. Sustain us for the work ahead, so that the glimpses we have had of your light, glory, and salvation are enough, by your grace and the support of a beloved community. Come, be our light. Amen.

[1] Come Be My Light, 1-2.

- The Reverend Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Born to Give Us Second Birth

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

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Luke 1:26-38

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Preface

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Look around.   Notice the candle.  Touch the Bible.   Hear the organ.  Sense the evergreen.   Taste the happiness, the joy, and the conviction that life is good.

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Christmas evokes stories.  See what you remember of the Christmas stories.   In those days there came from Caesar Augustus. House and lineage of David.  Shepherds abiding in the fields.  An angel of the Lord appeared.  Wise Men from the east.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh.  They went home by another way.  The Word was with God, was God, was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him.

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

You notice though that none of these stories are in our Gospel of Mark, whom we follow this year.  In fact, we have had to retreat from the high ground of Mark for these Sundays, come Christmas, for there was no Christmas in the earliest Gospel, no room in the inn of Mark 1 for birth stories.  Or in Paul, earlier still, who says only, ‘born of  a woman, born under the law’ (Gal. 4).  The stories came later than the gospel they narrate.  Why did they come at all?  Because people want to know about these things, and so a gift wrap of history and theology, memory and art came to pass.

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

This moment gives birth to stories.  Including your favorite.   Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is.   Raymond Alden’s Why The Chimes Rang.   O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.  And some films too:  Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, Home Alone (J). 

Perhaps the shock of Incarnation requires us to mask our befuddlement, to muffle our astonishment at presence, mystery, divinity here and now, by and through the telling of stories.  That God would choose to enter our condition…That God would stoop down to us, to walk about us…That God would immerse Godself in our terror and horror:  Antietam, Flanders Field, Nagasaki, Auschwitz, Dresden, Pakistan, Newtown, Boylston Street, World Trade Center.  That God would stoop to take on our grief and loss:  a friend moved, a relationship severed, a parent buried, a marriage ended, a job removed, a dream deferred.  That God would decide to enter our duplicities and disguises:  best foot forward when the other one is the real one; saint at home, devil abroad;  suppression of our own foibles, but accentuation of others’.  That God with man is now residing, yonder shines the infant light?  What sort of news, what sort of gospel, is this?

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Exemplum Docet

We have never been far from academia—Colgate, Syracuse, Ohio Wesleyan, Cornell, McGill, Lemoyne, U of Rochester, now BU.

Bob Fisk worked at Syracuse University for four decades.   He and his wife Connie started coming to our church out of an old family connection, on her side, and because his Boy Scout troop met in the building, on his side.   She was an architect, community leader, financial developer, and outgoing spirit.   He was quiet, kind, soulful, and real.   I could swap stories with him about Eagle Scout courts of honor, about trading neckerchiefs at the National Jamboree, about Philmont Scout Ranch and the Tooth of Time.

Bob worked in a small office on campus.  We will need some archaeological tools to describe his life’s labor.  He supported students who needed AV and other equipment.  In the chaos of his little nest, he could find for you all manner of treasures:  carbon paper, white out, typewriter ribbon, film strip projectors, carousel slide projectors, screens, amplifiers, ditto paper, pens and pencils, and virtually anything else you, dear student, might need, some decades ago, for your class presentation due in two hours, due early tomorrow morning, due in 10 minutes.   In the joyful freedom of pastoral ministry, as the church grew, I could go and visit Bob, and watch the nearly endless stream of orphaned students stampeding their way to his little room.  He didn’t preach at them:  your lack of planning is not my personal crisis, proper planning prevents poor performance, be punctual and do everything at the appointed hour.  No.  He just helped.  He just quietly and joyfully helped.  One winter a middle aged former minister, working on another master’s degree, came by to speak about Bob:  “I watch him.  He is salt and light.  He would give you the shirt off his back.  He is there for students.”

On weekends he took his scout troop to be enveloped in the natural world, usually deep into the Adirondacks.  There he taught a love of the created order, a respect for the history of places, and the rudiments of leadership:  ‘affirm in public, criticize in private’, and other lasting truths.  Big eyes covered by big glasses, a big smile, and silent except for laughter—I can see Bob right now.  He never bought a thing on credit.  Not his house, not his car, not his camping gear.  He taught his four children that same frugality.

Connie predeceased him by some years, but until Bob died last winter I knew and smiled to think that at least one Christian walked the earth.

A Christmas Story

As we trying to get that urban churching rolling, we one year arranged a dish to pass dinner.  We sang some carols, maybe 100 of us or so.  I had asked three of our people just to tell a Christmas story, as our fairly humble program that snow covered evening.  Bob’s was the last.

As a 20 year old he had gone to England, as part of a bomber crew in 1941.   He told us, simply, about being away from home for the first time.  About having a photo of his girlfriend, Connie.  About his mom and dad and two sisters.   He said that his only thought was to hope that he would see them all once more.  Connie.  His Mom.  His Dad.  His sisters.  “I would like to get home alive”.  This was his prayer, as it is for many today.  Christmas came, but the service men were not allowed any decorations.  No candles that might be lit and so shine and so guide enemy bombers.  Bob noticed that their rations came in cardboard boxes with a coating of paraffin on them.  So, when he had time, he would sit in front of Connie’s picture, that December, and using his scout knife he would peel off the paraffin, storing it in a number 10 can.  By Christmas Eve Bob had enough for three candles, each with a short wick made of shoestring in the middle.   That night as the plane after the plane took off, he set up a little table in the rear of fuselage.  When they leveled off, he and the crew, except for the pilot, gathered at the little table.  He was afraid maybe the paraffin wouldn’t work.  But after a while, all three candles were lit, burning now in the dark sky over the cliffs of Dover and over the English channel.  After a long silence, one of the men recited a psalm.  Then they said the Lord’s prayer.  Bob prayed his hope to get home.  Then together, without much singing talent and without any practice, they sang two verses of Silent Night.  “I would like to get home alive”, Bob said, as the candles dimmed, flickered and went out.

From that personal Christmas remembrance, I caught a glimpse of the origins of Bob’s humility, kindness, and integrity.

Redeemer Judge

As the years in ministry roll on, the Christmas season becomes heavily populated with such narratives.  I find my worship time with you—lovely the music, exquisite the spirit—haunted by ghosts of Christmases past, like that of Bob Fisk.  At Lessons and Carols, the opening prayer states, Let us remember before God them who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.   This year I thought of Bob’s recent death, and of his Christmas memory, as we prayed so.  But the Lessons and Carols service also has a closing prayer, O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ:  Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge.  This year I thought of Bob’s faithful life, as we prayed so.  And I wondered:  how will I be judged? And by what measure, and in what way, and for what account, and to what end?  Our Redeemer, that is Christmas.  Our Judge, that is Easter.   By grace we are assured Who will judge us, the same Lord Jesus who by faith has redeemed us.  But by what measure, standard, purpose, or metric?

That is, just what is the just point of life?

We should simply state, come Christmas, what, by grace, we judge to be the point of life.

What is the point of all this birth, death, activity, trauma, tragedy, success, failure, health, disease in the span of three score and ten years, or if by reason of strength, four score?

 Theme

The purpose of life is to love God and love neighbor.

The point of life is to learn to love to learn love to know Love, love divine and love human.  If that is not the point, then what is?  All the rest—achievement, successes, earnings, power, education, family, legacy, all (and these and other things are of course quite important in their own right) are meant to help us to learn to love, and have meaning if they help us to learn to love.  Are we lovers?  Are you loving?  Are we lovers any more?

To see and live such a purpose in life requires a second birth.  Not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man but of God, to become children of God.  It requires a new birth, which may take 9 decades of life, or 9 months of gestation or 9 minutes of a sermon.  One way or another, faith comes by hearing.  Christmas forces you to make a choice.  What is the point of your life?  Is it to love your God and love your neighbor?  To such an end the Redeemer is born.  By such a measure the Judge is raised.  Are you going to wholeness?  Do you expect to made whole in love in this life?  If not, just what are you going on to?  9 minutes is plenty of time for that question to be posed in the pulpit and answered in the heart.  Are you here on earth to love?  If not, what are you are here for?

Three Magnificat Thoughts

Our Holy Scripture surrounds the nativity with a memory of God’s care for David, and with a single sentence summary in Romans, and with the announcement of a great portent from the angel\messenger Gabriel.  But mainly the Holy Scripture impregnates the birth of Jesus with the voice of Mary, in the Magnificat, following 1 Samuel 1 and 2, almost to the letter.  A soul that magnifies the Lord, and spirit that rejoices in God.  Mary sings of the lowly, for the lowly, to the lowly.  She has her eye on the next generation.  She has her mind on those now left out.  She has her heart on the fallible, the tardy, the hasty, and the self-occupied.  Her hope is in the ancient God of Holy Writ, the God of Jonah, the God of Hannah, the God of Deborah, the God of Sarah, the God of Moses, the God of the poor.  Just like there are many ways to be rich, so there are many ways to be poor.

The Gospel bears a regard for those of low estate.  The Gospel lifts up those of low degree.  The Gospel spreads a blanket of mercy.  The Gospel feeds the hungry.  A regular birth, no less or more miraculous than any other (see S Ringe, LUKE, 32-33).

To connect with a Greek culture, the Christian scribes found birth stories befitting the miraculous arrival of the divine.  But the songs are old and Jewish, the psalms here are eschatological and Hebrew.  They portend the arrival of the Messiah, and await the advent of that Day.

Humble among tardy students, Bob Fisk loved God and neighbor.

Kind among hasty students, Bob Fisk loved God and neighbor.

Self-giving among self-occupied students, able to crucify his own projects in order to resurrect theirs, Bob Fisk loved God and neighbor.

He did aim at humility, kindness and integrity.

And you? And I?  I could sure use your help, your example, your companionship and your good humor along the way.

Thurman Christmas

Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.

It is the time of lift to the spirit,

When the mind feels its way into the commonplace,

And senses the wonder of simple things: an evergreen tree,

Familiar carols, merry laughter.

It is the time of illumination,

When candles burn, and old dreams

Find their youth again.

It is the time of pause,

When forgotten joys come back to mind, and past

Dedications renew their claim.

It is the time of harvest for the heart,

When faith reaches out to mantle all high endeavor,

And love whispers its magic word to everything that breathes.

Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.

(Howard Thurman, THE MOOD OF CHRISTMAS)

 

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

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The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

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Isaiah 40:1-11

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1. The Marsh Spirit is one of patience.

To get to Bethlehem you first have to go down to the river.

Patience—purposeful longsuffering.  In the dark, the dank, the misty quiet, out in the wilderness.  We know: loss, injustice, violence, misunderstanding, miscommunication, misapprehension—mistake.

Sin, death, meaninglessness.  Pride, sloth, falsehood.  Superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.

2.  “River Cruise:  Change your Views”

See the shoreline.  Boston.  New York. Islands.  San Diego.  The Charles River.

All of the landscape is the same.  Kenmore.  CAS. West Campus.  Commonwealth.  Bay State.  Esplanade (down to the river on grass).  Our existence is the same.  Situation.  Location. Station. Temptation.  It is all the same.  Except.

Except our angle of vision, our point of view, our perspective—these are utterly different.  On the river.  We see, perhaps, as others outside see us?  As the past and future see us?  As heaven sees us?

Every sermon is such a change in perspective, as is every service of worship.  To re-clothe in the rightful mind.

Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

Endowment.

It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.

Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

3. Vivian Benton Skeele

In a personal mode, let me offer a remembrance of patience.

3.  Mississippi and Hudson River Views

In a pastoral mode, let me offer three overtures in reflection upon the events in Ferguson, MO and New York city this past few weeks.   These brief thoughts follow on sermons delivered this fall at Marsh Chapel, which already have addressed the tragedy in Ferguson (8/24, 9/7, 10/12, 10/26, 11/23, 11/30), and on the Marsh Chapel forum held here on 9/3, and on several other group and individual conversations.

First, it may help us most, and this counter-intuitively, to place ourselves sub specie aeternitatis, under the gaze of God, and approach this particular but revelatory event from a spiritual, and theological perspective.  In prayer.  In thought.  In worship. In gathering.  In conversation.  To remember that we and all whom we encounter are children of the living God.  We are not economic engines, solely, nor political operatives, mainly, nor cultural agents, centrally, nor partisan players, primarily.  We are angels in waiting.  And those whom we greet and consider are so, too.  As children of the living God, grounded in grace, sustained by spirit, we may have food for the work and bread for the journey.  General calls for ongoing conversation are well meaning but misdirected without daily rations.  Theologically then we will again brood over sin, death, meaninglessness.  Theologically then we will confess pride, sloth, falsehood, hypocrisy, sloth and idolatry.  Theologically then we will return to admission of evil, both banal and horrific, to admission of the enduring hardness and hardship of injustice, to admission of our complicity, hate to say so as we do, in the gone wrong part of life.  Isaiah Berlin would agree.  If nothing else, a spiritual, theological perspective will perhaps improve our capacity to listen.

Second, it surely will help us, and this more obviously, to read some history, some good, probing history.  Ferguson comes 200 years or so after much of our American economy, politics, culture and struggle were forged in cotton.  You can read Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  But the calculation is closer to home.  30% or 40% of slavery is still with us today—in economy, culture, politics, and struggle.  From 1810 to 1860 a  quarter-million slaves from the Old South were re-sold into the New South (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and, yes, Missouri).  Mothers had their babies torn from their arms on the now beautiful Baltimore harbor.  Husbands were whipped away from wives, and marched to Birmingham.  Children were held up like pumpkins and sold to the highest bidder, then sailed down to New Orleans.  They were herded into what had been Indian land (the Native Americans having been either slaughtered or ‘re-located’ to Oklahoma).  With cost free land and cost free labor trees were cut, fields were plowed, cotton was planted and harvested, mills in the north were set to work, all or almost all funded by a tsunami of credit, legitimated by the US government and various banks.   You know, you, even you, I, even I, can make money if you pay nothing for land and pay nothing for labor.  But the bills do accrue into the future, not just for the enslaved, but also for the enslaver, and for all those, both north and south of the Mason Dixon line, who benefitted from slavery and the torture it took to keep people chained. If nothing else, a historical perspective will perhaps improve our capacity to lament.

Third, we need to act.  I do not mean re-act.  To act we need a moral compass.  To find a moral compass you need a community of faithful women and some men, acquainted with wonder, vulnerability, and self-mockery, with mystery, generosity, and, yes, morality.  You need a church.  I am glad to host a vigil, as we did Tuesday night. But my interest in your presence will be quickened, made real, if I see you in church, praying, tithing, teaching children, visiting the sick, studying the Gospels, singing hymns, living a life in which you are really alive before you die.  Go somewhere once a week to gather with others, admit your mortality and fragility, and grow up, Sunday by Sunday.  The kinds of labor that it will take in this country for us to live down chattel slavery will require a moral compass rooted in ancient faithfulness.  Over time, then, you with others, over much time, will gain the footing, find the leverage, provide the strength to make real change in real time.

How should you respond to Ferguson?  Spiritually, historically, and morally.

4.  Marsh Geist

In a preaching mode let me invite you to breathe in the Marsh Spirit of patience.

Particular.  Different.  University.  Protestant.  Interdenominational.

Worship:  1/14 of your week (1/2 of one of seven days).

Discipleship.  Hill or Wiesel?

Fellowship.  Yes, Sunday (Open House, regular meal, other).  But otherwise?  Basketball, Brittain War Requiem, Interfaith Evening, Hockey, GSU.

Stewardship.

If the music of Marsh Chapel has touched you

If the preaching of Marsh Chapel has helped you

If the liturgy of Marsh Chapel has encouraged you

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Or a lifetime gift of $4M, to finish endowing our deanship

Or anything in between

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In support of music that touches, preaching that helps, and liturgy that encourages

So that what has been meaningful to you may continue to be meaningful to others

Give on line or mail a check to 735 Commonwealth.

As we prepare to receive the morning offering, we especially encourage our radio and internet listeners to take this moment to go to the Marsh Chapel website (bu.edu\chapel), click on the giving link, and make a generous contribution to support our ministry.  You may also simply send a check to Marsh Chapel, 735 Commonwealth Avenue.  Your tithes and generous gifts will strengthen our Marsh Chapel ministry, a heart in the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city.

5.  The Beginning of the Gospel

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin

Ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale

The beginning of the good newsa of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.b

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,c

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,d

who will prepare your way;

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’ ”

John the baptizer appearede in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you withf water; but he will baptize you withg the Holy Spirit.”

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Waiting for Christmas

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

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Luke 2:22-40

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Good morning.

Would you pray with me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you this day, O provident God, our strength and our redeemer.

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you as your preacher today. If you have read the chapel’s term book, printed this summer, you may know that Dean Hill was scheduled to be preaching today. More on that in a moment.

When talking with people about where I work, I often refer to Marsh Chapel as a “teaching church,” fulfilling that role of providing hands-on training for the next generation of clergy, in much the same way that so many of our local hospitals, as “teaching hospitals” prepare a new generation of medical doctors. At the chapel, we employ undergraduate students in a paid internship as they discern vocation and explore the practices of ministry and leadership. As a contextual education field placement site, the chapel hosts seminarians in their second and third years of study, as they hone the skills necessary for both for local church ministry and for leadership in nonprofit settings and the academy. Finally, the chapel retains a few “emerging” church leaders, each with advanced theological training, as members of the university’s part-time chaplaincy staff, usually charged with the management of one or another of the chapel’s specialized ministries. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be part of this third group. Like several of our Chapel Associate colleagues, we are entering the final stages of the process toward ordination in our respective denominations.

Each of our categories of part-time staff, our Marsh, Ministry, and Chapel Associates, are on a learning journey. Yes, our time here at Marsh is spent in service to the chapel community and the university more broadly, but we are also preparing for other kinds of leadership and service in the world. It is the same work of preparation taking place across the university day by day, week by week in laboratories, classrooms, and lecture halls. Being part of a university community predisposes people to being in a mode of expectation – whether for the completion of a hard-earned degree, the beginning of a new job or new career, or simply the publication of an article. Students, doctoral students especially, are accustomed to waiting a long time, but when the happy, long-expected moment comes, our joy is also the joy of the community around us. Here at Marsh we have celebrated one of those long-expected joys in the ordination to Christian ministry through the United Church of Christ of our friend and colleague Liz Douglass earlier this term.

Over the past several weeks, Jen and I have had the blessed task of completing 17 final requirements to be eligible to interview for ordination in the West Ohio Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Among those tasks is the need to preach a sermon based on a set of texts selected by the conference board of ordained ministry. With the Dean’s blessing, I have the honor of standing before you today, working with those texts, in a final examination of sorts.

If, as you heard the scripture lessons this morning, you thought to yourself, these passages don’t sound much like the reading for the first Sunday in advent, you would be right. The prophesy from Isaiah declaring that “God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” is traditionally read alongside today’s gospel lesson which recounts Jesus’ presentation at the temple and subsequent identification as the Messiah first by Simeon and then by Anna. Depending upon your tradition, these texts are read either on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or for most Protestants, on the Sunday following Christmas during certain years of the lectionary cycle. The gospel lesson is most definitely not a traditional advent story; it is one of only a few stories about Jesus’ childhood. This is the same gospel text you will hear again at Marsh Chapel on December 28, when my wife satisfies her conference requirement with a better version of this sermon.

While the Gospel lesson is not traditionally a text for the advent season – it undergirds the contemporary observance of advent as a time of waiting for Christ to enter into the world. Our gospel narrative tells us that Simeon had waited with patience and prepared for Christ’s arrival. Similarly, our story implies that Anna had been waiting, preparing perhaps for decades for Christ’s arrival. What does this period of waiting and preparation look like?

Often in America today we experience the civic holiday of Thanksgiving as the beginning of “the Christmas season,” or at least that is what many retailers would have us experience. A variety of large department stores and other retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day this year to provide opportunity for shoppers to get “great deals” on their Christmas gift lists. For many, Thanksgiving has long been a time to spend with family – giving thanks for the important people in your life and the rich blessings we have. But as the commercialization of the Christmas season expands, those “once-a-year deals” come at a cost – an especially high cost for those at the margins of our economic system. For thousands of hourly employees, many making not more than minimum wage, they have little option but to work on Thanksgiving Day if they hope to keep their jobs.  I enjoyed much of Thursday visiting with my wife’s parents, grandmother, and extended family, but one of my wife’s cousins left the multigenerational family get-together quite early because she works at a retailer which was going to be open Thanksgiving evening all through the night and into the evening on Friday. Do we really live into the season of advent by shopping for deals on Thanksgiving Day? If we are to live into the righteousness foretold in the Isaiah text today, perhaps we, as a nation, ought rethink our practices of preparation for Christmas.

What ought we do to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation on earth? What does it mean to be waiting for Christmas? Last year, Marsh Chapel, through the leadership of my colleague, Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka, initiated the Sustainable Advent Project – an alternative to the consumerism run rampant during this time of year. You are able to sign up on the chapel website – bu.edu/chapel – for a daily email devotional which includes a sustainable practice you can enact to support the stewardship of God’s creation.

Perhaps you participated in Small Business Saturday yesterday. Yes, the annual event which encourages shoppers to patron small and local businesses is a trademarked shopping event presented by American Express, but the sentiment behind it – that we should be (and can easily be) more economically and ecologically responsible consumers – is a good one. If you haven’t finished your shopping lists yet – and still intend to do so – perhaps you can think about how you can use your dollars to support your local economy and workers at a fair wage while also reducing your carbon footprint.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf and her husband Carson Dockum celebrate the advent season with an “advent tree.” They commit to writing notes to one another each day and leaving them for one another in numbered envelopes tied to the branches of the Christmas tree set up in the corner of their living room. Jen and I were so inspired by this that we skipped purchasing an advent calendar this year and have a wall of numbered envelopes in our apartment – approximating Brittany and Carson’s tradition. There is no single best way to prepare for Christ’s coming, but how will you walk closer with God as you wait for Christmas this season?

Simeon proclaims Jesus as a light for the world. In this season of waiting, can we also be reflections of Christ’s light in the world?

For many, the period of waiting in advent also coincides with a period of waiting for justice. The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown has rocked the nation.  Public demonstrations, many of which have been participated in by my own students at the School of Theology, are seeking to foster legitimate public discourse about continuing racial inequality in America. “Black Lives Matter” is more than just a hash tag. Yes, it is does appear regularly in my newsfeed, recently affixed to a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, here on BU’s campus, but it is so much more. It communicates the frustration felt by so many about the contemporary status quo in much of America. One theology student has flown to Missouri multiple times in the last several months to help organize and be part of the awareness-raising efforts there. To hear her speak with such conviction about the importance of using one’s body as a prophetic device is inspiring. Undoubtedly, she is a reflection of Christ’s light in the world. Her path is not an easy one to walk. But there are other things we are all able to do. We can start by having open and honest conversations with our neighbors about the variety of experiences we each have had with police, with employers, with mortgage brokers as we, as a country, seek to walk closer to God on a path toward justice for all. The reality is that I have not had the life experience of so many of my African American and Latino/Latina colleagues, but I need to know their stories if I am to be a helpful companion on the journey for justice.

How do we hear and learn each other’s stories? We need to be involved in the neighborhoods in which we live. My friend and colleague, Rev. Jay Williams, is the lead pastor of historic Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End and a doctoral colleague of my wife’s at Harvard Divinity School. Jay is leading Union with intentionality in developing neighborhood partnerships. In recent months, Union has been awarded several significant grants to further its ministry with and among Boston’s poor and at-risk communities. In 2015, the church expects to launch a new feeding ministry with a community partner out of the soon-to-be renovated community kitchen in the historic building. Many of you listening on the radio are part of religious communities with deep ties to your local communities through soup kitchens, free stores, and Freedom Schools. You can celebrate Christ’s incarnation into the world when you participate in these social justice ministries day by day and week by week, really becoming neighbors with those whom you serve and serve among.

A powerful instance of this work of dialogue – itself proclaiming the goodness of God’s love – was captured in a striking image on Friday. A photo, now captioned by several news outlets as “The hug shared around the world,” shows a 12-year-old African American, Devonte Hart, tearfully embracing a white police sergeant, Bret Barnum, at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon on Friday. Devonte was holding a sign reading “Free Hugs” as protestors gathered and milled about with police in Portland. In an act of radical hospitality, Devonte encountered complete strangers in conversation and offered a hug. As others had done, the police officer, Bret Barnum, also engaged Devonte in casual conversation but then, according to the Oregonian Newspaper, “He asked Devonte why he was crying. [Devonte’s] response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected . . . ‘Yes. [A] *sigh* [and] I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of [Devonte’s] hugs.”[1]

This radical hospitality is practiced each week by students in the group I Embrace You each holding “Free Hugs” placards on the plaza outside Marsh Chapel. Sid Efromovich, an undergraduate classmate of mine, founded the student group a number of years ago while participating in a United Nations youth think tank committed to finding radical, creative solutions for peace. The “Free Hugs” campaign is certainly not exclusive to BU; the simple gesture and conversation which ensues is practiced around the world in a variety of settings, and it has real, tangible results. If you feel drawn to this practice during advent, I Embrace You will give you on-site training to become a hugger yourself.

The act of kindness and finding common ground captured in the photo of Devonte and Bret’s embrace is exactly what Howard Thurman identified as part of the “the path of courageous, creative integrity.”[2] Devonte and Bret both refused to give into “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred,” what Thurman calls, “the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited.”[3] Together they wait actively for justice and their genuine act of dialogue announces the truth of Christ’s incarnation in this season.

As we seek to grow in righteousness this advent season, to walk the path of courageous, creative integrity with Thurman, may we, as Isaiah writes, not keep silent. May we have the strength of Devonte and Bret to actively wait for Christmas and to proclaim the Good News of the coming of the Messiah through courageous and creative words and deeds. Amen.


[1] See http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/post_495.html

[2] Vincent Harding’s forward to Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.

[3] Ibid.

- Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Christ the King

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

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Ezekiel 34:11-16

Psalm 100

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

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Today is the Sunday known as “Christ the King”.  It’s the last Sunday of the Christian Liturgical Year.  Next Sunday begins a new church year. It’s the first Sunday in Advent, when we begin to wait for and celebrate the fact that Christ the King began with us as a baby.  But today, Christ is with us in his full maturity as he comes into his own as King, with glory, with power, and with judgment.

Jesus was a Jew.  His followers sometimes hailed him as “Son of David”, and both he and the lectionary compilers of today’s scriptures connected him to the tradition of the Shepherd/King.  We are probably most familiar with this tradition through David’s 23rd Psalm.  And in our Psalm today, God is our Creator, and our Shepherd, worthy of our praise and thanksgiving because God’s steadfast love and faithfulness endure forever.  The Shepherd/King tradition is also here in Ezekiel, who portrays God the Shepherd as the true King, the King who rescues, reunites, cares for, and protects the people – the true King over against the false kings, who have scattered the people and brought them to ruin and captivity in the Babylonian exile.  God the Shepherd is the one true King who judges not only those outside but those inside the flock.  And God will set up a permanent Shepherd in David, one who will feed the people and be their leader under God.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus is both King and Shepherd, as he separates and judges between those who have done what he has done and those who have not done what he has done.  Judgment as well as care and protection are within the mandate of the Shepherd/King, and judgment can be very harsh indeed against those who are fat and strong at the expense of the weak and injured, against those who do not recognize the King in his people.  It is a Last Judgment, in fact, with the choices we make today having eternal consequences.

Well, we who have been knocking around in the Christian faith for a while know all this.  We know it well enough that we have no excuse not to escape the eternal fire; we know that we are not to take advantage of the weak and injured, we know we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner. We know it all.  And, quite frankly, it’s November, and it’s dark and it’s cold, and those of us with bears in the gene pool just want to sleep.  Many folks have some kind of major deadline in the next two weeks, and midterm projects and papers are running right up to finals.  And while “the holidays” can be fun, the fun can often be hard to get to in the crush of activities and expectations, in the trepidations about costs and housecleaning, in the unknown as to whether Aunt Sue the conservative and Uncle Joe the liberal will still speak to one another at dinner.  To say nothing … to say nothing … of the upcoming Ferguson grand jury decision.  It can be a challenge to promote peace and goodwill when our response to “How are you?” is automatically “I’m Fine.”, and “I’m Fine.” really means “I’m Freaked Out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Exhausted.”  Right now there don’t seem to be many good pastures and certainly not any lying down in them.

Now I grew up in a British constitutional-monarchist family, and I still keep some track of Wills and Kate and Baby George.  I  appreciate sheep for the wool they provide my knitting and thus I appreciate the shepherds who take care of them. But I don’t see many hereditary rulers or shepherds on Commonwealth Avenue, and if I did it’s a pretty sure bet that most of the rulers would not consider the “least of these” the members of their family.  And what Shepherd in his or her right mind would destroy the fat strong sheep and keep the weak and injured as the mainstays of the flock?  Christ the King is a very strange monarch, and Christ the Shepherd makes no sense at all.

So what are we daylight-saving-timed, democratic, urban, living-in-New Englanders to make of all this?  What are we as the congregation listening over the radio, webcast, and podcast to make of all this?

Well, we’re the sheep.  We’re the people.  We are (forgive me for this) the sheeple.  That means we are the fat ones who batten on the scattered, lost, weak, and injured, even if only through the complexities and complicities of our lives — and, we are also the scattered, lost, weak, and injured ourselves.  That means we are the ones who cry “Lord, Lord” and then do not do what the Lord does – and, we are also the ones who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoner.  How we end up in the Judgment depends on where the majority of our choices come down, and most of all to whom we finally give our allegiance.  If we as members of the flock first trust in God’s provision of nourishment, rest, and healing, and then we choose to help the Shepherd strengthen all of the Flock; if we as disciples choose to help the Monarch care for all the members of the family as we have been cared for; if our allegiance is finally to God through Christ in whatever form God through Christ is found:  Ruler, Shepherd, baby, teacher, then we move from being sheeple to become the Church.

And that, says the author of Ephesians, is where we have it all.  We become a Spirit-anointed community in which we are not alone, where we have hope, a glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of Christ’s power at work in and through us.  For as the Church we become Christ’s body, we become his fullness that fills everything, we become through the Spirit part of a cooperative  interbeing between Christ the head and we the body, an interbeing that even in November can bring the presence of God, the provision of God, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, to each other and to the world.

Christ the Shepherd.  Christ the King.  Maybe.  But certainly the one to whom as Christians we pledge our allegiance, certainly the one who with the Godhead and the Spirit protects us, cares for us, provides for us at our deepest levels so that we are able to do the work we are called to do as his disciples – and maybe we can even be able to stay awake and move with peace and goodwill through deadlines, midterms and finals, and the holidays.  We know it all.  Even if some of the images are strange to our form of governance and where we live, the choice is always under the mercy and love of God, the choice is always ours.  When we choose to pay attention to the wisdom, knowledge, and power for good we have in the Spirit as God’s Church, when we claim these gifts in faith, then we can begin to recover our courage, our creativity, our individual and communal energy, then we can begin to find ways that will help us to nurture peace and goodwill between us and God, between us and ourselves, between us and our neighbors, and between us and creation.

So how can we best pay attention and claim our wisdom, knowledge, and power for good?  Well, in a few days it will be Thanksgiving.  A secular Federal holiday, as it happens, but just as Charles Wesley asked, so to speak,  “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?’, so he used secular tunes for Methodist hymns, we would not be the first to see the gifts of God in the secular turned to the purposes of worship.  Thanksgiving is in fact a major traditional form of worship and praise:  it’s found in many if not all faith traditions; and it is certainly a mainstay for Christians.  To join in the spirit of this Thursday holiday/holyday, to look around us and acknowledge the gifts we have been given, to claim them in faith with gratitude — all this is to put ourselves in the middle of God’s love, abundance, and provisions for our need, whether they are the wisdom, knowledge, and power for good we have as the Church, or the smile of a loved one, a delicious meal, a favorite tree or an animal companion, even the slow but steadfast stirrings of justice and peace.  In thanksgiving there is no fear, no anger, no discouragement; in thanksgiving there is no freaking out, insecurity, neuroticism, or exhaustion:  in thanksgiving there is only the happiness and wonder of the world and its riches.

So this Thursday, we might be a bit more intentional about our attitude of gratitude, to God and to others:  for instance, we could be very specific and detailed about the people and things for which we are grateful and why we are grateful for them; we could perhaps expand our notion of what we are grateful for; we might allow other people to be grateful for us; we might, greatly daring, speak aloud our gratitude to those people and about those things for which we are thankful; we might decide to make thanksgiving a more regular practice in our lives beyond this Thursday.  For it is when we pay attention to and claim in faith the gifts of God with thanksgiving that we can truly say, when asked about how we are, “We’re fine.”  Fine in the original senses of the word:  high-quality, first-rate, magnificent, exceptional, splendid.  Just fine.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

-Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Impermanence

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

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Micah 6:6-8

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

Matthew 25:14-30

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Preface: Five and Dime

 
If you have some change in your pocket come with me for a minute.   We are going into the village green five and ten cent store, to see what we can see.   Don’t you love this little store?  For fifty years—even more—the shop has somehow survived, meeting the essential impermanent desires of the day.   Here you buy pencils and notebooks for school, a scarf in the winter, a squirt gun in the spring, a yo-yo for summer, and come autumn again, something to wear at Halloween.  John Wesley said his English people were “a nation of shopkeepers”.  So in some regions, the small business, farm, store still provide economic backbone.  The same scents and smells linger here, from so long ago:  a mixture of newsprint and bubblegum and paint and perfume.   The uncovered tongue and groove wooden floor creeks in the same odd placesFor so many years this store was the stage on which its owner performed.  He wore a handlebar mustache, bright white hair, a stunning smile, and cackled with a child’s laugh.   He looked like the wizard of oz.  Years later, when I sat next to him as a fellow, visiting Rotarian, he looked the same—the wizard of oz.   His little world of tiny transactions, most of the purchases made by people who had to reach up to the counter, on tiptoe, somehow kept his soul lit.   Of all people, I guess, he could have had the most reason to doubt his role.  His customers were few and supported only by weekly allowances.  The transactions involved pennies and dimes.  The days were long, the hours demanding.  But the sun streaming through his clean window touched most often a smiling, happy face.   I can remember handing over some little coin in exchange for some little trinket.   In that little sunlight, over the exchange of impermanent capital for impermanent goods, somehow, there lingered a graceful, mysterious, spirited, permanence, too.  Maybe that is what made the wizard so happy.
 
When our son Chris was 6 years old, we went to the same store to buy birthday candles and a fishing pole.  Chris also saw some candy.  I turned to pick up the NY Times, and saw Chris reach up to the counter with his purchase.  The wizard stood gleaming and ready.   Then Chris took out his wallet and stared up.  He fished in the little pouch, and found his coin.  Then the wizard looked at Chris, and Chris looked at the wizard.   The old eyes darkened with delighted understanding, and the handlebar mustache twitched and the wrinkled hand reached forward.  And Chris held his ground and waited, fingering the coin, for that eternal moment that hangs between childhood and maturity.  There they stood, matador and bull, boxer and champion, batter and pitcher, wizard and boy.   As he had for decades, the shop-owner patiently paused. At last out came the coin. The deal was struck. 

Talents.  Talents invested, exchanged, used, given.  Well done thou good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful over a little.  We will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of the master.

I count it as a true, holy moment, as is any first experience, and especially any first experience of impermanence.   Sic transit gloria mundi.

Once we begin to reckon with the impermanence of this life, so much paper and candy and seasonal needs, there comes another longing.  For an experience of God.  There arises in the heart, a longing for an experience of God, for the lapping light of the morning to touch the cheek, for the full permanence of …grace, love, heaven…to enter our boyish, girlish, childish, or childlike life.

People come to church for an experience of God.  You would be surprised to know how hard, even in the ministry, it can be to keep this truth in view.  Men and women come to church, longing for an experience of divine love.

A place where the longing of the heart can be fed, that “desire of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow.”

1.     A Prophetic Approach to Impermanence

The same longing we have tried to witness in the crowded aisles of the village green five and dime also pulses through the deep places of the Scripture.   Blessed are those who hunger and thirst.  Micah Ben Imlah did hunger and thirst, too.  In the pain and tenderness of too much loving, he wondered how, if at all, such an experience could be his.

With what shall I come before the Lord?

What shall I do?   Whom should I love?  How should I walk?

Amid the piles and aisles of impermanent, seasonal goods, where an experience of lasting love?

A path toward the permanent, this is what Micah desires.  In the uses of his resources, Micah believes, there lies hidden the potential for an opening into an experience of God.  Underneath that apparently chaotic impermanence, there lies the potential for an opening into the experience of God.   Micah advises us not to get too comfortable.

Do.   We may learn to use our resources for the making of justice.

Love.  We may come to love what cannot be seen, mercy, and then to use what can be seen, money, rather than loving what can be seen and using what cannot be seen.

Walk.  Because our transactions, most days, involve bills and not coins, we, unlike the shopkeeper, we are more tempted to take ourselves overly seriously.

 2.     Paul and Impermanence

In this same vein, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches us again today about impermanence.  Is this not a glorious and a liberating word?    In treating a matter of moral discernment among the wayward Corinthians, Paul asserts the impermanence of this world.  His blessed words are as strange for us as they are healthy to hear.

Paul advises us not to get too comfortable.   Marriage, death, birth, work, life, all—these Paul asserts are themselves impermanent goods, seasonal items in the aisles of life’s five and dime.  Good, holy, important, and, at last…impermanent.   Let those who buy do so as those who have no goods.  Let them recall that first experience, reaching up to the counter, of impermanence.   Let us treat our goods not in the form of this world, which is passing away, but in the form of the world to come

Here is a great blessing, for those with ears to hear.   Within the land of impermanence, there is the possibility of an experience of God.  It is for that experience… that touch of the divine hand upon the hand of the child of God… for which goods and seasonal items and crowded aisles and everything from five and dimes to great corporations exist.

When we give, we open the possibility of experiences of God, not necessarily for ourselves directly, although that may be, but more often indirectly for others.   Giving and generosity bless us because they open up the opportunity for an experience of God.

 3.     Impermanence Today

Now it is the autumn of the year.  November 2014.  Over six weeks, worthy causes and needy organizations will reach out to donors, generous supporters.  Some are here and some are listening this very morning.  Women and men are thinking about talents, about the coin in the pocket, and considering year-end giving.

Of course we strongly encourage your ongoing support of Marsh Chapel.  But many of you listening on the radio have your own churches.  You may be driving home from worship, listening to us.  You may be at home or at work this morning, listening.  And you have a church home, a church family, a church that needs your support.  I think prayerfully about you and your churches today.  I think about the good people in those churches.  I want to say an encouraging word about your giving to your church.

Every church is an adventurous ride on the tide of generosity.  You have no tax base in the church, like those which support schools.  You have no product to barter, like those that support businesses.  You live and die on the free choices, every fall,  that raise a tide of giving.  I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if the churches could not fund ministry?  What would happen to efforts with children and older folks, mission and outreach, staff and buildings, worship and music?

Every fall the churches wait for the tide, like surfers.  They crouch along the board, out beyond the San Diego Bay.  The sun is high, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the day is fine.  They feel the tide rising, and here it comes!  They stand, and put toes out on the board.  They hang ten.   And the tide rises, every year.  Thanks to freely chosen gifts.  Thanks to you.  Sometimes the tide is low, and we drift a little.  Sometimes the tide is high, and we spin.   The uncertainty that is the sign of real freedom for the giver and the gift is that warm and vivifying wind that feeds us.

Faithful people year in and year out generously, happily support the work of faith.  One is an elderly man, gracious and loving, who learned at an early age to tithe.  One is a fiercely able Trustee, who cares for the property and investments of the church, but who has a big heart for the poor in Honduras.  One is a woman who has prayed mission into life, and has had the grace to live with surprising answers to prayer, answers other than what she expected. They for and they come from experiences of God.

4. Taught to Give

What is lasting and good in my life has come from the church of Christ.  Name and identity in baptism.  Faith in confirmation.  Community in eucharist.  Wife and family in marriage.  Work, and vocation, in ordination.  Saving forgiveness in moments of  pardon.  Hope for heaven in the gospel of Christ.

Whatsoever has any permanence for me comes from the church.

So…I guess I would be lost in the fall without a chance to preach a Stewardship sermon.

I am here, really, out of a formation, long before adulthood,  in the midst of people who knew that the form of this world was passing away.  The superintendents who remembered to bring Christmas gifts, the military chaplainswho sat at the dining room table—they did so with an existential reserve, a freedom from the impermanence of this world, a joyful and sober sense that the form of this world is passing away.  “Don’t get too comfortable” they seemed to say in deed as well as word.  They modeled an existential itinerancy that is far more important the mechanical one we know too well in which, as we say, Bishops appoint—and disappoint. The ministers who came and sang hymns in our homes, who laughed at and with each other, and who prayed for the salvation of the world—they dealt with the world as if they had no dealings with it.  The people in our churches, churches supported then and now by the tithing of retired school teachers, who cared about the world and about the next generation—they knew the impermanence of the world around, and the brevity of our time here.  They tithed, and so what remains of our church remains.

Those who raised us, who could have had many more the goods of this passing world, lived with an aplomb, a grace, a savoir faire that better than any sermon interpreted 1 Corinthians 7.  Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning.  The discipline of the Methodists—this is your birthright, your legacy, your history, Marsh Chapel—comes from this presentiment about impermanence.

In our raising, you could have the courage to live on less, to itinerate at the direction, if not the whim of a superintendent, to pull up stakes and make new friends, to know the hurt and the excitement of a gypsie life.  How did they do this?  Because they believed in their bones that what lasts is not the various goods and seasonal items of the five and dime, but the touch of the wizard’s hand.  That gracious experience of God that comes in and through the impermanent cacaphony of life, and is primed by giving.

I wonder if we are ready to open the world up to experiences of God?

People come to church for an experience of God.  Giving is one doorway to such an experience.

5. An Experience of God

It is great blessing, that giving opens opportunities for experiences of God.  They come in God’s time and they come over time and they come to others.  But giving gives the chance for such an experience.

A while ago I had a wedding.  It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year.  The service was wonderful.  The organist played a version of “Love Divine” with bells that rounded off the service to perfection.  I was proud to be a part of it.  Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, upstate NY, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

Near Alexandria Bay?

“In Alexandria Bay.”

Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement (who is Jan’s grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled.  I wondered what I had said to upset her.  This is the “joy” of the ministry–you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable!  You make small talk and women cry!

“No”, she said, “you don’t understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college.  Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me….”

By now we were both emotional.

What does that have to do with me?

“I learned a few years ago that your wife’s grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons!  His gift formed my life!

What are you doing today?

“I am the director of music for a Methodist church near Albany.  The bride grew up in my youth choir.  Music is my life.”

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened:  I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away.   The hidden blessing of generosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God.  Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead.  His wife Anstress is long dead.  But after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world

Coda: A Midnight Prayer

Sometime later tonight, especially if the sky is clear and if the stars come out, I am going to walk out onto the esplanade.   The moonlight glistening on the frosted riverbank, the sound of squirrels scurrying with nuts to store, the smell of the dampened leaves, the taste of crisp autumn—the season of accountability—touching the tongue, hands clasped against the cold—now beneath a gleaming North Star it is time to offer a prayer.  I wonder if you would pray this with me sometime later tonight:

Dear God

                  Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.

                  I am going to give away 10% of what I earn.  I am nervous about doing it.  I need your help.  I want to tithe, but the coin seems to stick inside the wallet somehow. I want to give but the counter top seems so high up.  I want to invest my talent in life by faith with hope but this is something new and I am nervous.  So I need your help.  Dear God.  Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.

                  Amen

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Bach Experience

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

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Matthew 25:31-46

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The Bach Experience

It was always YF; never MYF. Calling it MYF, or Methodist Youth Fellowship, failed to recognize the fullness of the denominational identity of the United Methodist Church, which resulted from a merger between the Methodist Church USA and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Carl and Judy Rife came to us at Hughes United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland from the EUB side of the family tree. Carl is a United Methodist elder, while Judy’s ministry could only have been diminished by ordination.

Judy was one of our YF counselors, and in preparation for our annual Youth Service one year, she led us in a more profound exegesis of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats than any seminary curriculum could hope to achieve. When did we see you sick? We made tray favors for patients at Sibly Hospital. When did we visit you in prison? We visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When did we see you hungry or thirsty? We served meals at Shepherd’s Table homeless services. When did we see you a stranger? We visited disabled neighbors in the affordable housing unit the church had built next door. When did we see you naked? We made quilts from scraps of our own clothes. Consider for a moment the spiritual fortitude of a woman who could teach more than two dozen suburbanite adolescents to appreciate the tradition of quilt-making, encourage us to participate in that tradition as a lived expression of faith, and inspire us to continue to live into the meaning of that act more than a decade and a half later.

Judy died on October 20th in York, Pennsylvania with Carl faithfully by her side as she breathed her last. She lived, in so many ways, a life of righteousness as depicted in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, and she died, I am confident, with something like the opening chorale of today’s Bach cantata on her lips: “Jesus, you who powerfully rescued my soul, be now, O God, my refuge.”

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.

Like our readings for today, our cantata is rather, well, dark: bitter death; the devil’s dark pit; the anguish of the soul; the ill and erring; the leprosy of sin; blood that cancels guilt; wounds, nails, crown, grave; sin and death assail. Bach’s Augustinian Lutheranism can seem quite foreign to contemporary religious sensibilities. The cantata’s text is a stark reminder that faith is serious business, a matter of life and death, that faith addresses the grievously painful situation of blood guilt, and that faith places us in the existential situation of judgment under threat of eternal damnation. There but for the grace of God, say Augustine, Luther, and Bach, go we all.

The very terminology of blood, guilt, sin, anguish, and judgment press back against the proclivities of late modern religious consciousness toward what might be called, and has been called, moral therapeutic deism.[1] Moral therapeutic deism believes that God exists, created the world, and watches over human life; that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair; that the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself; that God is not particularly involved in our lives; and that good people go to heaven when they die. Of course, this caricature of Christianity is subject to the same critique that H. Richard Niebuhr leveled against the Social Gospel movement in the mid-twentieth century for believing that “a God without wrath brought [humanity] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[2] For moral therapeutic deism, there is little reason to take religion seriously, and thus to pay much attention to it. Religion in this vein is as Karl Marx described, the opium of the people.

Not so for Bach, or his theological predecessors, Luther and Augustine. For them, faith is intimate and works its way into our deepest vulnerabilities. It is there then, in our inmost selves, that we meet God, and where God’s presence with us is experienced as grace.

Lord, I believe, help my weakness,
Let me never despair;
You, You can make me stronger,
when sin and death assail me.

Such pietism, of course, must be careful, tending as it does to promise more than it can deliver. Even in a state of grace, we are, at times, yet given to despair. But without allowing for the seriousness of the religious claim for the deepest and often darkest parts of ourselves, what hope could there be in our times of despair?

Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about the hope Bach offers us in today’s cantata.

Thank you, Brother Larry. Today we present Cantata 78 – ‘Jesu, der du meine Seele’ or Jesus, by whom my soul. Written in September of 1724, our cantata dates from Bach’s second year as cantor of the Thomas Church in Leipzig, where his duties included weekly composition of a cantata for the Sunday liturgy. Bach’s texts that day were lessons from Galatians Chapter 5 urging Christians from the ways of the flesh to live in the spirit, and from Luke Chapter 11, in which Jesus heals the ten lepers. As is often the case, Bach draws poetic and musical inspiration from a familiar 17th century chorale tune, in this case Johann Rist’s 1641 Jesu, der du meine Seele. The text calls us to pin our sins on the cross with Jesus using particularly direct Passion imagery. As with Paul’s letter, there is no escaping the depravity of the flesh for Augustine, Luther, or with Bach.

But the theological and, thereby, musical trajectory of the cantata moves the Christian through a cycle of eagerness to cleave to the cross, the power of Christ’s redeeming blood, and the assurance of Christ as our breast plate in a world where Satan lurks to thwart our every thought and deed.

In the opening movement, Bach’s depicts the poignancy of the passion, the deep, deep love of Jesus, our long-suffering – all — as an extended Passacaglia. Not just a formal unifying structure, this recurring tune is laden with all the pathos necessary to depict our frail human condition and the urgency of the need for redemption. As the tune is passed through the instruments and the voices in nearly thirty iterations, Rist’s chorale tune is heard in the soaring voices of the sopranos, doubled by flute and horn. As the text describes the vigor with which Christ rescues our anguished souls, the music, too, becomes more active and urgent, yet all within the framework of the prevailing ground bass. In the end, Bach achieves astonishing scope of idea and musical transformation in one of the most well-known of all Bach’s chorale fantasias.

The corpus of the cantata moves the Christian from earnest, eagerness to follow in Jesus’s steps – listen for the pizzicato of the double bass as the soprano and alto tread in each other’s musical steps – to the redeeming ‘sprinkling’ of the blood of Christ depicted by the elegant flute solo with tenor soloist – to the ultimate offering of not just our sin, but also our whole heart as we, too, take up the cross to live the Gospel in the world. Listen for the wisdom of the baritone and the full, confident stride of the redeemed whose soul is stilled by faith the promise of sweet eternity.

Thank you Dr. Jarrett.

In two weeks, Dr. Jarrett, Dean Hill and I will travel to San Diego with members of the Marsh Chapel Choir where we will meet up with members of the Bach Collegium San Diego to bring the Bach Experience, now in its eighth season here at Marsh Chapel, to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  There we will present Cantata 77, Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, “You shall love the Lord your God.”  That cantata, presented here at Marsh Chapel in February of 2013, is less dark but no less serious, treating the relationship between law and grace in conversation with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We invite your prayerful, and if so moved material, support of this expanding voice of the Bach Experience and Marsh Chapel.

The question addressed in Cantata 77 is how we are to live in light of the grace of God in us. The question for today’s cantata, Cantata 78, is what God’s grace does in us that we might live at all. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today, preached in the glorious music of Bach, is that the grace of God in us transforms sin, death, guilt, despair, and anguish to blessing so that we might say,

I will trust in Your goodness,
until I joyfully see
You, Lord Jesus, after the battle
in sweet eternity.

Listen. Learn. Love. The Bach Experience for you. Amen.

- Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+, University Chaplain for Community Life & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


[1] Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina. Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1959: 193.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

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Matthew 5:1-12

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My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walked the sodden pasture lane…

…Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost

For All the Saints

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of our sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort.

Yours is a living spirit of recollection.  Of memory, history, remembrance, recollection.

September:  Inquiry.  October:  Hymnody.  November:  Recollection.

Revelation

A Multitude that no one could count

Out of ordeal to springs of living water.

Not everything that is meaningful is measurable.

How do you measure a full heart?

How do you weigh a soul?

Prayer.  Faith.  Hope. Love.

1 John

Children of God

Dislocation and grace.  Disappointment and freedom. Departure and love.

Psalms

The Lord redeems.

Redemption.  An economic and a spiritual meaning.

To redeem: to buy back.  To get back.  To pay off.  To set free by paying a ransom.  E Baptist, The Have Has Not Been Told.  To set free.  To make amends.  To make worthwhile.

Debt and regret.

Be careful, Commonwealth about funding common life on the basis and backs of debt and regret.

In the summer we live near a grand institution devoted to gaming.   Young eyes, poor homes, older people.  Those at the dawn, twilight, and shadows of life.

Is this the best we can do?

Matthew

The saints:  poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted.

Someone.  Silent recollection.  Organ moment.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.  Presence. Longevity. Heart.  Every opening.  Physically seen by half the population.  Silber Way:  Is there any other?  Photonics:  How should I know?

Robert Frost

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets. Edward Thomas (d. 1917, France) on North of Boston:  ‘This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive.  It speaks, and it is poetry.”  They had one year of friendship, to walk the sodden pasture lanes of England.

Walked, not walks (in the poem)

Truth instinctively apprehended not intellectually grasped.

Recollection.

Yes, thanksgiving, and yes, real presence, but also remembrance.

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

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Religion on Campus

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

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Matthew 22:34-46

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Love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:35)

 

A. A Sociological Perspective:  Safety on Campus

Our siblings at the Bossey Institute in Switzerland focus weekly on Bible, Church, and World, while we do the same here at Marsh Chapel, as lenses upon the love of neighbor.  With our theme today we take them in reverse order, World, Church, Bible.

Religion on campus today is blessed with sociological, ecclesiological and theological opportunities, on a grand scale.  To all three of these blessings we will return during the rest of the year, for more detailed attention.  Today’s sermon is meant as a map of the whole territory, religion on campus, in three dimensions, social and communal and spiritual, on behalf of this marvelous Marsh community, for whom Jesus is our ‘beacon not our boundary’.

One

First, in the very present, with increasing attention, our nation has recognized a pervasive malady within student life and culture, certainly not limited to any one college or city, a callous disregard for the safety of women.  This is not a women’s problem, this is a men’s problem and a community problem. In this past year, appalling renditions of campus life have gradually brought about a ‘raised consciousness’ (a phrase whose currency we owe to the women’s movement of a generation ago).  Read again the March (Caitlin Flanagan) Atlantic article on fraternity life.  Look once more, if you can endure it, at the New York Times early August account of assault and rape in Geneva, NY, at Hobart William Smith.  Peruse the various columns on acquisition and education, excellence and sheep, like that of William Deresiewicz. Assess the attention last week to Harvard’s administrative change, and the objections of their law school faculty.  Sift through carefully the daily details of what young adults recount of their own experience.  A young friend this week related the chilling experience of being chased for blocks in the early evening on a well-lit street, through no fault of her own.  One student at Columbia now carries, cross-like, day-by-day, from class to class, the mattress on which an assault occurred some months ago.  Groups of students readily volunteer to help.  No campus across this land is free from the responsibility and the opportunity of facing and addressing, in real time, the issue of safety on campus.

Unlike many other problems—tornados, cancer, mortality—these are problems that need not occur and have both consequences and cures.  One reads that 20% of college women are harassed, attacked or assaulted during their student years.  That is going to change.  That has to change.  That will change, if only because those funding college tuition payments over time will make sure it does.

The voice of religious life (history, community and leadership) has everything to offer to this dilemma.  Where there are still religious voices to be heard, on campus, where that is there are still pulpits, on campus, (a mere fraction of the number a generation ago, a tiny fraction of that two generations ago) religion has been consistently, faithfully and aggressively engaged with issues of safety on campus, in concert with many good people and leaders across campuses like this one.

At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will continue to provide sacred space that is a safe place. Come Sunday, in worship wherein we remember that life is lived before God, and that our experience rests in the presence of ultimate reality.  And on weekdays, by employing and deploying sexual and other minorities in ministry and for ministry—the Inner Strength Choir, the LGBTQ work, and all manner of life affirming and spiritual enriching groups, events and programs. Spend a Friday evening with the Seventh Day Adventist student group and you will feel and see this in action.  Learning, yes, but also virtue and also piety.  Knowing, yes, but also doing and also being.  Mind, yes, but also heart and also soul.

A few years ago I met with a group of theologians at Yale.  At dinner, a highly accomplished professor approached. ‘I picked up that you work with religious groups.  What can you tell me about Intervarsity?’  His question carried a nervous apprehension.  I replied that they were a campus group, more conservative than I, and my tradition, but reliable and experienced.  ‘Why do you ask?’ I responded.  ‘Well, my daughter goes to that group here at Yale.  She was raised a Presbyterian.”  I asked why she chose Intervarsity:  ‘did she like the bible study, or the leader?’  ‘Oh, no’, he answered. ‘I think she just was looking for a group her age who were not drinking every night’.

Two

At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will also continue to uphold a vision of a beloved community among women and men on campus.  A beloved community, and nothing short of it!

A while ago someone asked why religious leaders on campus weren’t saying more about campus safety.   It took most of what little self-control I have not to blurt out: ‘where have you been?  Are you interested in these things?  Really? Then why aren’t you in church with us on Sunday?  If you were, you would see, hear and know just steadily we have done so.  So if you are really interested in a beloved community of women and men on campus, then I expect to see you in church on Sunday.  Put your body where your mouth is!  Come to Marsh Chapel.

Here is a community of faith living weekly in the shadow of a monument to Martin Luther King.  His dream is greatly deferred, we confess.  But the dream lives, we affirm.  The dream of a beloved community, including such a community among women and men on campus.

Here you might be greeted by an African American woman from Atlanta, like one of our former ushers, Jennifer Williams, now researching her PhD dissertation in urban planning at the University of Michigan, with a winter in South Africa.  Here you might be greeted by an Asian man like Maadiah Wang, one of our former ushers, now in business in Toronto, who was baptized by immersion on Easter Eve, on the side lawn here, last spring.  Here you might be greeted by Dominique Cheung, one of our former ushers, a BU graduate who taught for a year in Taiwan, and who has now returned this fall for a Masters degree in Education, and is an usher again, an usher both former and current. Go ushers!

Here you might find a friend like mine who guided me to a column by Emma Green, Atlantic, 11/14:  Americans born after 1980 are less likely to identify with a religion.  But.  Religious people report more satisfaction with their love lives and sex lives.  Church\service attendance protects healthy people against death.  College grads born in the 1970’s are more likely than non-grads of the same age to identify with a particular faith.  Maybe there’s something about contemporary campus life that maes people more, not less, likely to gravitate toward traditional institutions—or maybe college grads have simply learned that religion is pretty good for you.

Here you might catch a glimpse of what love can be, neighbor to neighbor, what loving kindness, chivalry, honor, care can be.  We still teach Shakespeare at Boston University:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.  Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.[1]

In sociology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

B. An Ecclesiological Perspective:  Love and Law

Second, religion on campus has an opportunity with regard to religion off campus, an ecclesiological rather than a sociological responsibility, one of church rather than college.   That is, the voices of religion on campus can provide a hopefully humble but also historically nuanced counterbalance to contemporary church vision and leadership.

For instance, as only one example, and turning to our own situation and heritage here at Marsh Chapel, there has been an historic, creative tension between the preaching leadership and the administrative management of the Methodist church, dating back at least to Peter Cartwright and his tangles with various presiding elders.  Both are important, both spirit and structure. Our ministry at Marsh this year emphasizes spirit, but structure has its role, importance and place.  Today, however, with most of the preachers in many Methodist conferences now lacking full education, and lacking ordination with consequent guarantee of appointment, the balance of power has shifted dramatically in the last generation.  Those whose primary weekly commitment is to interpreting the scripture are outweighed by those whose primary annual commitment is to upholding the discipline.  The gospel trumpeted in Scripture and tradition, freedom and grace and love, for all, including especially those in minority, including sexual minorities, is overshadowed by the rules and constraints re-voted every four years.  University pulpits, the few that remain, bear a significant responsibility to model dimensions of humility, integrity and courage (along with those healthy, strong churches whose northeastern voices you heard a summer ago, from New York, Washington, Rochester, and Boston).   As Lou Martyn said, we are free here to set heaven is a little higher.  So we need to take responsibility to lead, along the fewer strong, stable pulpits across the land.   We have the advantage of resources in interpretation, in memory, in thought, and in reflection that can be of some use, in this particular time.

One

One illustration.   Ministry is now denied to gay people in Methodism.  Ordination, that is.  But think about this for a minute, in a University chapel.  We have spent more than a generation re-learning that ministry belongs not to the ordained, alone, but to the baptized.  Entrance into ministry does not begin with the bishop laying on hands, at ordination.  Entrance into ministry begins with the pastor laying on hands, in baptism.  99% of ministry is conferred in the sacrament of baptism, and 1% in the sacramental rite of ordination.  Those who really would consistently exclude gay women and men from ministry should never have allowed the church to baptize or confirm or commune gay people. That would have been more fully effective and consistent bigotry.  But in baptism– the barn door has been opened, and no amount of shutting it will ever work!  Gay people are baptized, and therefore are already in ministry! It is a short way from denying orders to denying baptism.

Christopher Morse, my theology professor, and a Methodist minister from Virginia, told us once at dinner about a humorous baptismal moment.  Forty years ago you baptized every infant in the northern half of the county, no matter what county, on Palm Sunday.  38 baptisms in a row.  He moved down the line, seizing the children one at a time.  ‘What name shall be given this child?’  John.  Mary. George.  Pinundress.  A French couple, just learning English, presented the child.  So, ‘Pinundress, I baptize…’  A distraught father came up later to show Christopher the pin on the dress, on which the name had been clearly written, ‘pin on dress!’  We are not so hasty now.  We have spent a good deal of time on the prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace of God in baptism.  All the baptized are all in ministry.  Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight.  But it is our religious opportunity, on campus, freely and safely to think about these things, with humility but also with honesty.

Two

Another illustration.  The rules in Methodism explicitly state that the pastor alone is to decide whose marriage will be solemnized, ‘in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the church’.  No local committee decides.  No vote of session.  No poll of the community or neighborhood.  No family habit of a patriarchal auction of a daughter to an opposing family.  No.  The pastor shall decide.  There is an accrued wisdom in this, the leaving of these lasting decisions to those in the local situations, in the contexts in which they are to be lived out.  Would you want a General Conference every four years voting on a list of those to be married in Boston, those to be allowed to marry in Los Angeles, those types of people fit for matrimony in Wisconsin?  Surely not.  That is why the primary directive in the discipline leaves such to the discretion of the pastor.

Marriage:  UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a.  (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.  The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.  So.  Do we mean this?  Are we going to ‘enforce’ as one general superintendent in the book, FINDING OUR WAY, ‘enforce the discipline’?  Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple.  There is no shading here, no hem or haw.  The pastor decides.   After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules.  No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different.  State law 50 years ago to prohibit interracial marriage was widely ignored by Methodist clergy, who performed interracial marriages in states prohibiting such.  Not to marry a gay couple is now to contradict the laws of 30+ states who protect the right of gay people to marry.  Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister.  “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”.  Not the General Conference.  Not the General Superintendent.  Not the District Superintendent.  Not the Charge Conference.  The pastor. And that is as it should be.  Thanks be to God.

In ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

C.  A Theological Perspective:  Freedom to Dream

Third, religion on campus has a theological chance, a spiritual opening, the opportunity and freedom to dream, both regarding creation and regarding redemption.

One

That is, the remaining significant campus pulpits (Marsh, Harvard, Duke, and just a few others) have the spiritual opportunity to challenge and engage thought forms in college and culture, including some forms of popular atheism and agnosticism, and introduce them, for example, to some religious forms of atheism and agnosticism.  Leslie Weatherhead did this already sixty years ago with sermons collected as THE CHRISTIAN AGNOSTIC.  Edward O. Wilson this fall wrote:  “Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.”  But the contrary is true as well:  “Love is the one thing that makes otherwise bad people do good things”.

The asperity with which the Holy Scripture summarizes creation is only matched by the asperity which the creeds of the Church summarize creation.  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Period.  ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’. Period.  Scripture and creed say what reason and experience know:  we have the brute fact of the brute creation.  Period.  The rest of the Holy Scripture, all 65.9 other books, and the rest of the creed, the long second paragraph and the shorter third, go on from there.  The love of God comes accompanied by faith and hope.  Creation is the occasion of love but does not occasion love, does not occasion faith in love, and does not occasion a hope for a loving future.  God is Love is more about the second person of the Trinity, the Christ of God, than about the first person of the Trinity, the creation of God, more Fairest Lord Jesus than For the Beauty of the Earth. Love is in the Second Person of the Trinity.

Two

When invited to come to Marsh Chapel, I looked back on the great dreamers, the voices, influential and real, that had formed me.   My father-in-law, who built a Wesley Foundation from the ground up in the 1960’s in Oswego, NY.  My dad, who served a college town church and helped create an ecumenical form of college ministry, UMHE, in the same decade. My mother and mother in law, who in those years hosted and graced endless fellowship meals for nervous pre-seminarians, bruised freedom riders, troubled conscientious objectors, chastened veterans, and their various boyfriends and girlfriends.  Our friend, the Chaplain at Colgate, RV Smith, whose presence and courage, in hard years, were sustained by MOTIVE magazine.  William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Williams, and then at Yale, before becoming our pastor at Riverside Church in NYC in the 1970’s.   Coffin’s preaching ministry, in New York and at Columbia and through Union, continues to be a large part of my model for work here at Marsh, in Boston and at Boston University and through the School of Theology.  Peter Gomes, both colleague and mentor, who succeeded at Harvard, as he famously said, by being ‘ubiquitous’.  The years and losses have mounted up in equal measure for religion on campus.  There are but 1 for every 5 to 10 pulpits now on campus that there were 50 years ago.  But we are here.  You are here.  Where there is life there is hope.

All of these fine ministers, for all of their substantial theological differences, when it came to spiritual theology, shared a freedom to dream.  In fact, far beyond their own limited spheres, they kept dreams alive, in decades of confusion, and kept preaching alive, in years when across the land there was, in Amos’s fine phrase, ‘a famine of the word’.  They read Paul Tillich and made his ‘depth’ available to others.  We can do the same, here, with the great theological minds of our time, some of whom are close at hand.

The Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano said recently, “I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years.”  And I have felt the same, preaching or trying to preach the same sermon for the past 45 years.  I preach love.  God’s love.  Love is God.  All of us are better when we are loved.  Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.  Love God, love neighbor—so the Bible says, today.

Religion on campus can give future leaders, secular and religious, a sense of possibility, imagination, freedom and breadth in the theopoetics of God talk.  Those who attend worship at Marsh Chapel over four years as undergraduates, that is, will have also virtually acquired much of the vocabulary and content of the first year of graduate study in theology—biblical, historical, philosophical, and pastoral theology.  At no extra charge!  What a bargain!

We shall give King the last word:

“Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship.  Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return….   When one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him.  And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.  I think this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘love your enemies.’  I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people.  Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights.  But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.”[i]   

If a student, your question is, where are you found on Sunday morning?  If faculty, that one, plus a second, where are you on the weekends, when pedagogy gives way to life?  If an administrator, both the former, plus a third, how have you planned in finance and leadership for the growth of a beloved community?  And if a community member all three of those, plus this one:  are you with us or not?  We need you.  We have not a person, hour or dollar to spare.

In theology, as in sociology and ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

Jesus, the very thought of thee

With sweetness fills the breast

But sweeter far thy face to see

And in thy presence rest

 

Jesus our only joy be thou

As thou our prize wilt be

Jesus be thou our glory now

And through eternity


[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” in A Testament of Hope, ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco:  Harper, 1991), pp. 46-7.  Washington notes how King relies expressly on Nygren in his depiction of agape and also amplifies what he finds, p. 16.  For an interpretation of King’s account of love, see James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm and America:  A Dream or a Nightmare ((Maryknoll:  Orbis, 1991), e.g., pp. 120-150.

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

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

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