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Among You (Us)

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Romans 7:15-25a

Luke 17:20-21

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The kingdom of God is among us.


Many years ago, there was a man who worked in a pottery factory—a large man, a quiet man… Let’s call him Joe.[1]

Like so many of us, every day, Joe came to work, kept his head down, did his job to the best of his ability and then went home.

Now, as happens in most factories, there was always something extraneous to the process that was left over at the end of the day; nothing much: a piece of glass, a bit of ribbon, a shard of broken pottery—you know, trash—the result of human error along the production line.

Most of those items would be discarded, thrown away, sent to a landfill somewhere never to be seen again, but not all of them.

You see, before he left for the day, much to the bemusement of his coworkers, Joe went around silently sifting through those extraneous pieces, those scraps of the industrial process, the things that everyone else had thrown away. He would search until he found at least a couple of items to add to what most considered a pile of junk now occupying a rather comical portion of his locker.

But the snickers from his coworkers didn’t stop Joe.

No, every day, either staying late or coming in early, Joe found some time to do something with that junk. Every day Joe E Everydaworked with those scraps to make something new, not always large or complex or artful, but new so that he always had something colorful or unique to bring home.

You see, Joe had a son at home whom he knew from his birth would never leave his bed.  His “wee lad,” as he called him, spent each day in his small bed in his small room in a small house.  And large Joe, though he couldn’t always find ways to express it with words, loved his “wee lad” more than anything in this broken world.  And though it meant a little extra time at work, he brought something home every day that he knew, if only for a moment, would make his son’s face light up.

Every day he pulled together scraps that others had discarded in the name of love.

The kingdom of God is among us.


Once, according to Luke, some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming. We don’t have much context for the question in Luke’s Gospel, we’re just told that once—that is, at some point—they asked it.

And if we’re honest, we get it.  After all, it’s a question we’ve asked from time to time as well.  If not always in those words.

Perhaps some of us have done so this week. As we look around at the political mess we find ourselves in, as we get increasingly terrifying news alerts on our phones, as we witness the saber rattling our leaders, as we learn of the ice caps breaking apart, of meetings with Russian lawyers, of health care without the care, of nobel peace prize winning dissidents dying in prison, it might be only natural to pause and ask ourselves…is this the end? Is the kingdom of God finally upon us?

The Pharisees had similar question.  They were concerned with timing.  Who knows? Maybe they wanted to get invitations out in time for the party.  More likely, they wanted to prepare themselves for the end; for that time when God would come in final victory and their hard work would be rewarded.

Now to be fair, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, also seemed to believe that the Kingdom of God was imminent; as each of those gospel writers said in their own way, they believed that not a generation would pass before the Kingdom would be upon them; hopeful words for those first century Christians to whom they writing.

Those early Christians must have heard these gospels and taken comfort that the kingdom of God was right around the corner, that the uncertainty and alienation and exclusion of their present age would soon pass…that they needed only to bide their time.

But, as we know, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, was wrong.   John, writing at least a generation later, had to deal with their misunderstanding in his gospel, but friends, no matter how we dice it, the kingdom of God didn’t come about within a generation. Nor, as it turns out, in the hundreds of generations since.  The truth is, we’re still waiting for that uncertainty and alienation and exclusion to pass.

In other words, the gospel writers were wrong.

Now, on the one hand, it’s comforting to know that even the gospel writers could be wrong every once in a while…after all, we know the feeling.  On the other, though, it’s a little disconcerting.

Here, they had been waiting for something to happen, longing for something to happen, promised that something would happen, and then, it didn’t.

And now we, nearly 2000 years later, are left to ask, “Why?”  Another question with which we have more than a passing familiarity. Why?

Fortunately, we get by with a little help from our friends.

In our case today, we receive some help from the Gospel of Luke itself; from a quirky little passage that speaks about the Kingdom of God in such a different way than the rest of the gospel that its authenticity to Luke has been questioned.

You see in our passage today, when the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming he surprises them by saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “look, here it is,” or “there is it!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Do you hear? Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” or as might better be translated, “within you.”  The Kingdom of God is among us.

That changes some things, doesn’t it?  At the very least, it shifts our attention from the sky to the mirror.  Not that that makes it easier, it doesn’t, but it does make sense.  It makes sense to us that the Kingdom of God is not something that happens to us, but rather something that we take part in.  It’s not passive, but active.

Friends, the Kingdom of God is not some apocalyptic vision about the end of the world, but rather a hope for a world in which we all finally and fully live as God commands.

And fortunately, we know the gospel writers didn’t get that part wrong.  We have the rest of Scripture and our own experience to affirm it: in the end, we know how we are called to live.  We know that as a people of faith we are really only called to do two things: to love God and to love our neighbor.  Or said more succinctly we are called to love. Full stop.

“I give you a new command, that you love one another.”

For some of us, that means staying a little late at the factory.

For some of us, it means letting go of a broken relationship, or workplace, or heart.

For some of us, it means changing the way we spend our time or money or life.

The truth is, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete.  Human to human, person to person, heart to heart.

Friends, the kingdom of God is among us and is revealed one relationship at a time.

The good news is that we don’t have to figure it out on our own.  That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’ve tuned in this morning, isn’t it?   To get a little help from our friends?

The purpose of the church universal is to help one another find better and fuller ways to love.  And though we’ve made it more complicated and at times missed the point entirely, that’s really the only purpose we have.

Friends, we are called to keep reminding each other that each person we encounter is someone of worth, a child of the same God.

All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.  All of us are God’s children, which among other things means that we have an awfully big family to care for.

It means we have an awfully strange family to care for.

It means that we collect the scraps that everyone else thinks of as trash.

But we don’t do it alone.  And as we know from hard experience, we can do an awful lot if we know we don’t have to do it alone.

As Howard Thurman said, we have each, by the grace of God, been given a crown to grow into…a crown which we did nothing to earn and, thank God, can do nothing to take away. A crown of grace which means that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the kingdom of God is within us.

Friends, Luke believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. He believed that it would not be long before the barriers that we use to divide ourselves, the walls that we build would finally and fully be taken down.  After all, it’s hard to love your neighbor through a wall.

Perhaps he was more optimistic than he should have been, but the good news, friends, is that the Kingdom of God is just as close today as it was when Luke was writing.

The kingdom of God is not a place.  It’s our hope for a world in which we each recognize the crown we have been given and then help others to do the same.

Do you hear? The kingdom of God is among us.

And sometimes it only takes one act of love to change this broken world.


Nobody quite knows how Joe’s co-workers found out about his “wee lad,”—no one ever spoke about it.

Nevertheless, one by one, the other pottery workers began to collect scraps of their own.  And soon, a couple times a week, Joe would return to his locker to find a little cup with wheels or a painted piece of scrap, or an engraving in wood, and he understood.

Over the next few months, the culture of the factory began to change.  The workers were said to grow quiet, becoming gentle and kind, swearing less frequently, even if not altogether.  Then, at some point they noticed the increasingly weary look on Joe’s face and knew that the inevitable shadow was drawing nearer.

They began to do a piece for him every day and put it on a sanded plank to dry so that he could come in later or go home earlier.

And so it was that when the funeral bell tolled and that small boy finally left that small house in a small procession, there stood a hundred stalwart workers from the pottery with clean clothes on, having taken the day off for the privilege of walking alongside Joe and the “wee lad” that not one had ever seen in life.

Do you see? They couldn’t take away Joe’s pain—that’s a part of love.  But in the end, they could remind him that he was not alone.

Friends, neither are we.

The kingdom of God is among us…let’s not leave each other waiting.

-The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady II

[1] This is my adaptation of a story found in Howard Thurman’s The Growing Edge.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady, II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, delivers a guest sermon entitled “Among You (Us)” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series. 

Imagination and Discipleship

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

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Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Upon this summer Sunday, let us meditate together on imagination, and its influence in discipleship.  Our gospel turns to the playful imagination of children in the marketplace.  St. Paul wrote in a similar way to his Corinthian congregation:


19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.

20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:

27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

Discipleship requires more than wisdom alone.  The walk of faith evokes and involves imagination, the free play of insight, the province of children and saints.


What a gift are the parables of Jesus!  He taught them in parables, says the Scripture, and without a parable he taught not one thing.  Here, in a story form, is the same sentiment just remembered from Paul, God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.

Jesus stands in the marketplace.  He sees two warring groups of children.  All community is endless contention and intractable difference.  One group wants to play a game called ‘weddings’:  we have our pipes, we are ready to dance, come and join us, and let us play the game of weddings.  Another group wants to play a game called ‘funerals’:  we have our tears, our wailing, our gathered mourning clothes and forms, come and join us and let us play the game of funerals.  One game for the enjoyment of life preferred by Jesus himself, one game for the dour, self-discipline for life, preferred by John the Baptist.  Come and join!  

Yet neither group will give way.  Groups, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us in Moral Man and Immoral Society, have a hard time changing direction, or giving way, or forgiving, or summoning an imagination ready for discipleship.  That requires a childlike heart.  It requires an imagination soaked discipleship. It requires the person whom you are meant to become.

Did you ever know and love somebody who was always a bit on edge?  I mean a beautiful person with a heart of gold, who was run raw by the gone-wrongness of life?  This can be a rough world for a sensitive soul.  Someone who has an unquenchable passion for getting things right and for knowing when things are wrong.  A little of that can go a long way.  If your very hunger is for what establishes the soul, you can sometimes go hungry.

Imagine with her eyes:  Every child in the community was attending a safe, well-lit, quiet school, where virtually all could read at the sixth grade level by the time they finished the sixth grade level.  Every sick person in the community had ample medical care, most of it preventive, and all of it shot through with a heavenly infusion of time, talent and money.  Every person of color in the community felt confident entering the public spaces—theaters, churches, stadiums, stores—in every corner of the community. Every man was free to be a man.  And every woman was free to be a woman.  Every person is seen and heard as a real human being.


Here at University, we are blessed with intelligence, youth, freedom, and reason.  

We want to be careful, and caring, so we pause here.  We educators sometimes  tend to leave civil society to the rest of society. We have much freedom, but how we choose to use it, in relation to the rest of community and society, is another matter. We after all have that next paper to write, 50 pages of small print not including footnotes, titled with some version of the title, ‘Obscurity Squared’.  To do that, one needs a capacity to spend 12 hours a day alone in a library or in front of a computer screen.  To do that, to write that series of scholarly papers become books become resume become tenure become professor, can risk leaving aside, if we are not careful, or leaving to others, if we are not careful, the imaginative stewardship of forms of civil society.  Girl Scout cookies.  Umpire work for the Little League.  Pinewood derby leadership.  A seat on the PTA.  Sunday worship.  Neighborhood watch.  Refugee resettlement work.  These we have to leave in the hands of others, or at least we think we do, those basic cultural building blocks that rest on a willingness to sit quietly in dull meetings, hoping against hope for the blessed refrain, ‘I guess we’re done for tonight’.  In civil society we have the chance to influence others, and to be influenced among others, in lasting, personal ways.  You want to speak to others, to convince others, to educate—good. But.  You cannot speak to others until or unless you speak for others.  To be speak to requires first to speak for.  Others will not hear or heed you, and should not, in your speech to them, if they do not, with utter confidence, feel, feel, that you speak for them as well.  To speak for, you have to be with.  At breakfast.  Playing golf.  In book club. In church.  At the YMCA.  Then, only then, will you enough funds in the relational bank when you need to withdraw some to say something that may then be audible. If you want people in Wisconsin to hear you, candidate, you have to go and be with people in Wisconsin.  If you want people to hear you, preacher, you have to go and be with people, in visitation, on their turf.  If you want to speak to others, educators, you will have to find a way to speak for others, not just to others.  This is the whole genius of American civil society, from the time of De Tocqueville.   Whether we will find, in the humiliations of an era whose leadership is shredding inherited forms of civil society on an hourly basis, the humility to go out and suffer with and for others, over the better part of the next decade, in order then to speak, is an unanswered question.  To get to an answer we may just need some imagination in our discipleship.


Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.  Our Gospel lures us and lures our imagination forward, for discipleship.  Have we yet learned the lesson that what one means—by an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say—is not all that such an act means?  We have experienced this lesson this year. The lesson, that is, that what you in your heart meant by an act, a word, a statement—a vote, is not in fact the limit of what that act, word, statement or vote meant:  in fact it is a small part, the greater part of the meaning being found in the effect, the impact, the historical influence of the deed. Wisdom is vindicated, known, in her deeds. The meaning of a text is found in the future it opens, the future it imagines, the future it creates. (Ray Hart). So too, the meaning of an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say, is found in the future, bright or dark, which it creates.  What you meant is not what it means.  For that, you have to listen to those harmed, or helped, by it.  Meaning is social, not individual, hence our use of words, our developed language, our investment in culture, our life in community.  You may have meant it one way, but its meaning is found along another.  Such hard, tragic lessons, to have to learn and re-learn.

Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.  Imagination is a dimension of discipleship that is waxing not waning, needed not superfluous, crucial not peripheral.  Our passages today, Genesis, Psalms, and Romans, draw our imaginations to forms of authority, and our engagement with them.  In Genesis, the authority in ancestry.  In Psalms, the authority in government.  In Romans, the authority in conscience.  In all these, the writers struggle to imagine a way forward, following the light of the beacon across the challenge of the boundary.


Pause and meditate a little this summer on your own enjoyment of play. Our esteemed colleague and beloved mentor, now of blessed memory, Peter Berger did so, with imagination for discipleship, years ago in his little book, A Rumor of Angels.  1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun.  2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self-forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what.  3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4.Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade?  Peter Berger: A. In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.  The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence.  It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B. This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these.  One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.”  Talk about it a bit, parents and children.


Imagination in discipleship forms a wisdom vindicated, justified by her deeds.  (Luke has changed the ending to ‘justified by all her children’—maybe an even closer memory to the marrow of imagination.)

Hear again the imaginative wisdom of Boston University’s own late personalist philosopher, Erazim Kohak, The Embers and The Stars, with ten of whose epigrams we conclude, this summer morning, to kindle the imagination:

‘We shall dig again the wells of our Fathers.’

‘Humans grow angry so easily, so heedlessly venting their anger at those nearest and most vulnerable, needlessly, wantonly injuring what is most precious and most fragile’.

‘Humans are not only humans, moral subjects and vital organisms.  They are also Persons, capable of fusing eternity and time in the precious, anguished reality of a love that would be eternal amid the concreteness of time.  A person is a being through whom eternity enters time.’

‘There is self-discovery in remembrance.’

‘We have a sense of history.  But we have lost a sense of eternity.’

‘The authentic relation between beings is the personal encounter of mutual’ respect.  208

‘Most of the time we possess and covet far more than we can care for and cherish.’ 212

‘Generosity personalizes as greed depersonalizes.’

‘We need to rediscover ourselves as persons, not as need gratifying organisms.’ 215

‘The chief task of philosophy is to write footnotes to the text of experience’ 219

But to what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting  in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’…Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

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

The Discipleship of the Lost

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

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Genesis 22:1-14

Romans 6:12-23

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May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock, and our redeemer. Amen.

We journey together in these summer months, we who gather along the banks of the Charles, whether near or afar. We journey along with friends and with guests during our annual summer preacher series at Marsh Chapel. We journey, this summer, charting new directions in discipleship.

Over the course of this liturgical year, Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, we have been journeying with Matthew, who is the leftmost figure in our Altarpiece here at Marsh Chapel, depicting Jesus and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For the past three weeks, we have abided for a time in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus calls and sends out the twelve disciples. We would do well to remember how that sending begins in verses five and six: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Most of the rest of the tenth chapter delineates just how fraught their mission will be, replete with persecution, rejection, and division.

At last, we come, this week, to the final three verses of the chapter and the conclusion of Jesus’ mandate in mission to the disciples. At last, things are beginning to look a bit brighter. At last, the disciples are encouraged to gird up their loins and persevere for they will receive the just rewards of the righteous if they do. And so, Jesus declares, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” In sum, good things come to those who persist.

And so, we pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off, emboldened and encouraged by Jesus’ words of instruction. Off we go, continuing our journey. Now wait a minute, I forgot, where was it you said we were to go again, Jesus? “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Israel. Right. Off we go.

Now wait just a second. WE are of the house of Israel. WE descend from the house and family of Jacob. And what’s more, SO DO YOU, JESUS! Well, isn’t this a fine “how do you do!?” This is no journey to see the sites, to get out in the world, to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus is telling us to go home!

Indeed, Jesus finds it easier to find faithfulness outside of Israel than within. Just back in chapter eight, we recall that “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (8: 5-8; 10-12).

“Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” We remember that God made covenant with Abram, who was renamed Abraham, that his descendants would become nations, including both of his sons, Isaac, who he almost sacrificed, and Ishmael who he sent away and whose nation was the harbinger of Islam. But it was Isaac’s son Jacob, who was renamed Israel, whose tribe would become lost so that Jesus must send the disciples to find them. Indeed, “in no one in Israel have I found such faith,” and “the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

It would be all too easy, and over the course of Christian history we have proven all too susceptible to making this finding of a lack of faith in Israel a justification for antisemitism. To be sure, the community of the Gospel of Matthew was in the midst of a wrenching divorce within synagogues between those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and those who did not. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the moral of this story is to write off those who did not understand Jesus to be the Messiah. The moral of the story, instead, is that to learn what it means to be faithful, that is, what it means to be a disciple, and thus what we should be teaching and mentoring each other to become, we may have to look outside of our own community, as Jesus did here in the eighth chapter, and again in the fifteenth:

“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (15: 22-28).

This is not a matter of those outside of Israel being right and those within being wrong. This question as to proper faithfulness and discipleship in Matthew is not antisemitism. Just as Jesus found a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman to be faithful by contrast with Israel, so too he found his Israelite disciples to be faithful by contrast with his natural family in the twelfth chapter: “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (12: 46-50).

So, you want to be a disciple of Jesus, do you? Go home! Go home. Go home to the lost sheep of Israel, that is, go home to the church, your church, your tribe, and your nation, and testify to the faithfulness you have encountered on the highways and byways of life. Go home to your brothers and your sisters and your mother, and tell them of those from the east and from the west whom you expect to meet at the banquet table of heaven.

My, my, my, you may be thinking, that does sound hard. Indeed, there is a great deal more at stake in providing welcome, in providing hospitality, whether to a prophet, or to a righteous person, or to a little one, than merely providing food, and drink, and shelter. After all, to welcome one of them is to welcome Jesus is to welcome God.

Consider, then, the sermon preached on Palm Sunday in 1959 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He took as his sermon texts two passages from the Gospel of John: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold” (10:16) and “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do, shall he do also. And greater works than these shall he do because I go unto my Father” (14:12). Doctor King applied both of these verses to Gandhi, and in doing so made two significant moves. The first is to simultaneously acknowledge the religious otherness of Gandhi and to adopt that very otherness of Gandhi’s life, practice, thought, and person into the fold of God. King argues that Gandhi is a Christian not by being a Christian but by being a Hindu, and thus not of this fold. This is to say that it is by virtue of Gandhi’s Hinduism that he belongs to King’s God.

The second move is even more startling, especially since it arrives in a sermon on Palm Sunday, third only in importance on the Christian liturgical calendar to Christmas and Easter. The appellation of the second text signals that Doctor King believed that in his life Gandhi had achieved greater things than Jesus. To be sure, by noting that Jesus predicted this, King is safeguarding the sanctity of the Christian narrative. Nevertheless, the greatest accomplishment of Jesus according to the Christian narrative is nothing less than the salvation of the world. It is that very Christian narrative, then, that Doctor King employs to elevate the significance of Gandhi’s life to the level of soteriological efficacy. This is a shocking move for any Christian preacher to make, even one trained at the Boston University School of Theology.

Doctor King came north via Morehouse College in Atlanta and Crozier Divinity School in Philadelphia to take his PhD in systematic theology at Boston University. It was on that journey that he learned about Gandhi, not least from the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman here at Marsh Chapel. Then, he went home. He went home to the south. He went home to Atlanta and to Selma and to Montgomery and he testified to the faithfulness he had encountered on the way.

And what did Gandhi’s faithfulness consist in, you may be wondering? The faithfulness of Gandhi may best be summed up in a word: Satyagraha, loosely translated, insistence on or holding fast to truth. Satyagraha was the name Gandhi gave to his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It was also the name he gave to the ashram he founded. Of the first half of the term, satya, Gandhi says, “The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat, which means ‘being.’ Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or a general, names of God such as ‘King of Kings’ or ‘the Almighty’ are and will remain generally current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realized, that Sat or Satya is the only correct and fully significant name for God.” (M. K. Gandhi.  Non-Violent Resistance. New York: Schocken Books, 1951. 38.)

A testament to truth we may also find yet further east, in China. Consider then the words of the scholar Xunzi of the third century BCE: “If a man has attained perfection of truthfulness, he will have no other concern than to uphold the principle of humanity and to behave with justice. If with truthfulness of mind he upholds the principle of humanity, it will be given form. Having been given form, it becomes intelligible. Having become intelligible, it can produce transmutation. If with truthfulness of mind he behaves with justice, it will accord with natural order. According with natural order, it will become clear. Having become clear, it can produce transformation. To cause transmutation and transformation to flourish in succession is called the ‘Power of Nature.’” (John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1988. 177-78).

Truth is at the root of the power of nature. Truth is the only correct and fully significant name for God. “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Could the will of God be anything other than truth? Faithfulness. Discipleship. “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Faithfulness. Discipleship.

Go home! Go home. Go home to the lost sheep of Israel. Go home to the church, your church. Go home to your tribe, and your nation. Go home and testify to the faithfulness you have encountered on the highways and byways of life. Go home and witness to the discipleship of the Roman and the Canaanite and the Hindu and the Ru. Go home to your brothers and your sisters and your mother, and tell them of those from the east and from the west whom you expect to meet at the banquet table of heaven. Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life

Word to the Wise

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

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Genesis 21:8-21

Romans 6:1b-11

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Matthew 10:24-39

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People of faith, hear the Gospel, a Word to the wise: God’s grace shines through and over all human weakness; human failing cannot eclipse divine grace; the moonlight of the Grace of God still illumines, even if dimly at points and darkly at times, the very shadowlands of life. True in Scripture, true in life. Let us lift up our hearts and hear the Gospel: God’s grace, light, and love, shine upon us this Lord’s day.


Pause for a moment, as summer begins, to ponder and to wonder at the strange world of the Bible. Our own reckoning with law, prophecy, and wisdom, with gospel, epistle, and revelation, in our brief lived experience, occurs, and stands out before, the strange world of Scripture, whence we turn—where else shall we go?—come Sunday. And the works of our time and times we most prize, at some times we name ‘biblical’ in portion and proportion. And the challenges, the momentous lived responsibilities of our time and times (love means taking responsibility after all) we most anxiously apprehend, at some times we name ‘biblical’ in portion and proportion. Think of an age wrestling with health, like ours, for instance. Our wise women and men over time have begun to prepare us.

Consider WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school near Atlanta. Some years ago she wrote this one play.   It was a success. She was asked to write more, but she demurred. ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade. We are busy people here in Georgia, in the third grade. What with the periodic table, and the solar system, and the multiplication tables, and the dissection of frogs, and the poetry of America, and a bit of recess every now and then—we are busy people here. I won’t have time to do another stage play anytime soon, thank you very much. I have all I want to do with these young minds here. One play is enough’. We gladly remember her on the day of our own annual Vacation Bible School.

Her work is biblical in proportion, about death and life, a sort of commentary if you will on Matthew and on Matthew 10. And apt for Marsh Chapel, here at the intersection of academic wisdom and human mortality. The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program. At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course. Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care. ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say. ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny. Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma? It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point. For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest faithful men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death. It is a play worth reading or seeing again, just now, in the cross currents of debate about health, healing, salvus, salvation: God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

            Biblical, in proportion, yes ‘biblical’.

The rugged biblical texts read this morning convey to us this existential dilemma. With Hagar we can sometimes find ourselves at the point of no return. With Paul we do face our endless and inevitable sin, yet are not free to wallow in it. With Matthew we are confronted by a stark twist to the fifth commandment, to Honor Father and Mother, to admit that there are times, when to do so is to do the opposite–in order to do so. One best honors an abusive parent with dishonor. Whatever comes not from faith is sin. The height of human longing, the starkness of proximate death.

Pause for a moment with Hagar, Paul, and Matthew. Our dear friend, colleague, now suddenly deceased and of blessed memory, with us in a greater light and from a farther shore, Professor Dale Andrews, regularly taught us, taught all, to consider, among other things, the social, the cultural contexts of the texts we read. We honor him in memory, but so let us honor him in spirit, word, and deed. Set these rugged texts in context, if you please.

The project of Genesis (beginning), is the beginning of creation, covenant, and providence. Our passage lies squarely in the most central of the beginnings, that of the people of faith, the story of Israel, the covenant people. To make way for Isaac, what will become of his half brother? What of the other peoples alongside the ‘chosen’? The earthy cry of a mother for a child braces and embraces us, like Rachel weeping for her children. There is no avoidance of the real costs of decision, choice, preference. God visits Hagar. Theology is learned over time in the school of visitation, of confession, of prayer, of conversation, of pastoral presence in the presence of Presence. God has mercy and shows mercy, an extra mercy, if you will, hearing and heeding. ‘God was with the boy’. At least here, at least for a moment in this passage, there is in the context of Scripture a divine expanse, an universal embrace, an extra mercy. And there is no substitute for visitation, no substitute for hearing the voice of pain, no substitute for seeing in the flesh the need of the other.

Paul’s work in Romans, as well, and whether or not for the moment you agree with Luther that this is the one, main text of the New Testament or not, likewise emerges in context. ‘Paul among Jews and Gentiles’ is the way our neighbor Krister Stendahl regularly phrased it. How are we to live by grace as people who are utterly mortal, regularly prone to harm others, in the deepest sense finally unable to rehabilitate ourselves? His vocabulary may differ a bit from ours, but Paul’s probing of the depths of life is very much our own as well. How are we to live both as healed and as sinful, both as saved and as broken? Well, here the context in full makes every difference. Paul is writing to answer this and other questions, but the writing is not his final answer. Is this your final answer Paul? No. What is? His final answer is coming. He is coming to make a visit, pay a call, stop by and see, pause in Rome and talk with his confreres. For the moment let us give Luther a nod, and, for the sake of argument, agree that Romans is THE book in the New Testament. (Or is it Galatians?). No, let us say Romans for today. But look: the whole of the letter is MERELY an introductory note to the main event, his coming visit to Rome, which he does make, and which leads then to his martyrdom. How important visitation.

Matthew has placed a harrowing set of demands, strictures, commands before us. He too was facing a decade of humiliation, though his in the latter years of the first century ad. He wanted his people steeled, ready, perseverant, of happy heart, of glad spirit, but of disciplined capacity for faithfulness. After all, those who took up the journey would be in regular visitation among others of different perspective. We do well to recall, as we did in February, regarding some of the hyperbole in the dominical teaching, particularly as recorded in Matthew, the wise, word to the wise, interpretation of Amos Wilder:

Jesus meant the requirements very explicitly…but the radical formulation of the requirements is to be explained by the imminence of the kingdom of God.  The judgment was immediately at hand and an extraordinary ethic was proper for an extraordinary emergency.  We have then in Schweitzer’s term ‘interim-ethics’ immediately relevant only to Jesus’ disciples in the brief period before the end…his insight that the teaching is significantly governed by the drawing near of the new age is today generally accepted. (IBD 161) As did Matthew, we are under obligation to appropriate (Jesus’ words) in a free and responsible way, applying them to our own situation…bearing in mind the disparity between his situation and ours (IBD 164) (Amos Wilder).

            We read the text in context, as our beloved Dr. Andrews and so many others would have us to do.




As in Scripture, so in life. Pause for a moment, as summer begins, to ponder and to wonder at the strange world of our lived experience.

The weekly ministry of the gospel, as basically constituted, in most settings and painting with a rough broad brush, requires a sermon, as good as one can do fifty times a year, and two dozen pastoral visits—home, hospital, nursing home, work place, third place. The two are intricately interwoven, the speaking the listening, the visiting and the proclamation. One significant portion of the visitation necessarily includes hospital and nursing home visits.   In a week of national debate about health care, these rise to the surface of memory and reflection. Not only Scripture but also our lived experience, this Lord’s Day, in the announcement of the Gospel, strikingly recall us to the power of visitation. Have we not learned so in our own struggle?

On an August Sunday, in 1975, there is a 20-year old recovering from an appendectomy, in a rural hospital.   There are four beds in the modest room, 1975. Into the room come four people, a minister in the AME tradition, dark and in dark suit and collar, and his wife and two deacons. They are there to visit the roommate on the left. In the heat the talk quietly and briefly. The fans buzz. Most of the afternoon—hours—they spend in silence. Once a bit of hymn, once a furtive reading out of a prayer book. A prayer at the end. As it happens, this one cameo becomes one of the myriad pushes into ministry for the fellow in the bed beside.

Here in the summer of 1976, oddly in the same rural hospital, is a 21 year old untrained minister making a first pastoral visit on a 22-year old man, who for three years has hoped to be a State Policeman in the Empire State. His life dream. But in the prior weekend he crashed a motorcycle, risking life and limb. His life was spared, but not the future full us of his left leg, his limb. He would heal in time, but not in a way that would allow him to hold his life dream any longer. What does one say?

That same summer, in the overheated house nursing homes of small villages, many soon to be and rightly summarily closed by the state, one saw and heard, and experienced with all the senses, the plight of the sick.   In four decades much progress has been made, but we are still a long way from Tipperary.   Have you been in a nursing home of late?

In the early 80’s, a call in the evening, pre-surgery. “Are you ready to go?” (meaning intended, ‘are you ready for the procedure’)   “I certainly am not. I will survive”. (meaning heard—and what else do you think of when the minister shows up—‘are you ready for the end’.)

In the late 1980’s on Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas, accompanied by growing children, there were visits in homes and nursing homes, maybe on those holy days a dozen in the afternoon before dinner.

Then a decade later, and moving quickly, a fuller string of stops to make, some so quick that others referred to them not as visits but as sightings. Even moving quickly though, things happen, one conversation turning into another, and a roommate and a relative and another room and the day can just go. Today, one’s own mother, who would have expected this, resides in one of those places.

This year, one of our dear friends spent some time in such a home, and in recovery had struggle. One shadowy day a boy came and sat with her, a ten year old on the lam from his own family down the hall. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What do you do?” And from there, a long magic mystery in the gift of grace in human conversation, an intervention, a visitation, an appreciation, a recognition of the humanity of one older person through the humanity of one younger person. Healing ensued.

If you were to ask the changes, hospital and nursing home, in all these years, there have been many and very many. If you were to ask the abiding realities, what is the same, what is constant, unchanging, that is very simple to state: then as now, most people have no visitors. Most people in hospital and nursing home have next to no visitors. Even the inbred, trained, generations deep pastoral habits of visitation, in fact, and including those of one’s own denomination, have themselves atrophied, given the ever attractive lures of the computer screen.

So, now, with a decision on the table in our nation’s capital, whether or not to eliminate 25% of Medicaid support, when 60% of nursing home residents depend on Medicaid support, we are at sea a bit, because we have not been regular in our visitation. It is much easier when you no lived experience of what cutting from three nurses a day to two nurses a day will do to those who have no visitors.

One wrote a month ago: ‘Have we really degenerated into a nation so lacking in compassion and mercy that those of us who have more than we need are no longer willing to extend a hand to those who don’t have enough?’ (NYT, letters, 5/25/27).

Real religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and remain unstained from the world, wrote James (1:27). Each one of us this week could make a visit in a nursing home. Call on a neighbor, a parishioner, a family member, or just show up on the second floor with some Oreo cookies and stay a few minutes. This is one of those sermons with an altar call, a call to decision, an invitation to discipleship. You are hereby happily invited sometime within the next seven days, to help set our common conversation about health and care in the context of actual faithful experience, of pastoral visitation (never the sole privilege of the clergy, though their example matters greatly). Visit some or someone in a nursing home this week. Make a personal visit. Erazim Kohak: ‘Humans are not only humans, moral subjects and vital organisms. They are also Persons, capable of fusing eternity and time in the precious, anguished reality of a love that would be eternal amid the concreteness of time. A person is a being through whom eternity enters time.’

People of faith, hear the Gospel, a Word to the wise: God’s grace shines through and over all human weakness; human failing cannot eclipse divine grace; the moonlight of the Grace of God still illumines, even if dimly at points and darkly at times, the very shadowlands of life. True in Scripture, true in life, let us lift up our hearts and hear the Gospel: God’s grace, light, and love, shine upon us this Lord’s day.

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

Stirring the Pot

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

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Exodus 19:2-8a

Romans 5:1-8

Psalm 116:1-4, 8-10, 12-19

Matthew 9:35-10:1, 10:5-8, 14-22

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Pretty nifty, huh?  The disciples get to cast out unclean spirits.  They get to cure every disease and every sickness.  They get to go out on their own to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near.  They can raise the dead! Cleanse the lepers! Cast out demons!  They are going to be so cool!

And then Jesus spoils it.   Apparently, even with all this amazing power, some folks are not going to welcome the disciples, or pay attention to them.  What’s this sheep among wolves stuff?  Wise as serpents – why do they need to be careful and prudent?  And then there’s the being handed over, and the flogging, and the dragging before the authorities, to say nothing of the public speaking.  Really?  Family betrayals and hatred?  This is some pep talk.  What in the world is Jesus doing?

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a Christian community very like that of the disciples.  They were just starting to engage in mission, and while Matthew is a Gospel, it has  features that remind us of a handbook or manual for teaching.  Scholars also note that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, and that the community did not see their Christian faith as a new religion.  They saw it as a new constituency of Israel.  This brought particular challenges to their mission,

The Gospel was written after the year 70, in a highly politicized time.  In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple, which was the center of worship for Israel  So there was then the external challenge of Roman oppression with its calling to account of the Jesus movement within Judaism.  There were also the internal concerns within Judaism for Jewish identity and who were to be the true heirs of the covenant.  The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community constantly aware of and  in discussion with their Jewish roots and identity.  And sometimes the community was over against them.  The warnings of floggings within the synagogue were for apparent violations of the Torah and for consorting with Gentiles.  The warnings of family betrayals came out of the griefs and challenges of a family fight within the Judaism of the time.  Jesus as portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel is the Jesus who sees the urgency of the need for mission and empowers his disciples to go out in compassion. He also wants his disciples to know what they will be up against and how to take care of themselves.

Our own situation is not so dissimilar from that of the disciples and the Matthean community.  We too are called to share in Jesus’ ministry of compassion, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near.  And we too live in a politicized and polarized time.  No matter what our political preferences are, the uncertain situation in Washington is the 800-pound elephant in many a room.  With this come increasing concerns for the right to protest  and communicate our concerns to government.  The return of the church sanctuary movement, the concern for eco-justice and creation care, the incivility of our debates, and the violence of our racism and sexism – these all speak to our questions of identity and of who has right to belong.  Who has the right to power   Who has the right to resources.  Our family fights as to national and religious identity and inclusion are still a source of grief as well as frustration.  How do we put ourselves out there in compassion?  And given the challenges, why would we?
Well, there are certain themes in our scriptures this morning that invite us to take these risks.  One is gratitude.  Because we are thankful for what we have received, we do not hoard it, but we share what we have received with others.  In Matthew, Jesus reminds his disciples that they have received the good news of God’s love and community for free.  So they can give their witness to God’s love and power freely to others.  Paul writes to the church in Rome, and reminds them that through Christ they have the grace and peace of right relationship with God. So they can boast of their hope in sharing God’s glory.  God’s love came to them even when they were estranged from God in sin, to the extent that Christ died for them even before they believed in him.  So they can extend God’s invitation to others who do not yet believe.  The Psalmist testifies to God’s help and provision in trouble.  In return he will become God’s servant and pay vows to God in the midst of the people.  And the Israelites, delivered from Egypt and cared for in the desert, agree to covenant with God in love and obedience.  They will become a priestly and holy nation to bring other nations to God.

Our compassion comes from our gratitude.  It does not come from a place of patronage or superiority.  It does not put on a show.  Our compassion comes from our own having been loved and cared for in our own challenges and pain.  It comes from our gratitude for our release from sin and death and  for our freedom in God to choose the good.  So gratitude is something that encourages our compassion.

Another theme is that we are not alone.  The Spirit companions us.  It empowers us to act in compassion.   It gives us the words we need to witness in the face of challenge.   It pours God’s love into our hearts so that we can even boast in our sufferings.  They produce endurance. Endurance produces in us that character that trusts and expects great things from God.   Trust and expectation produce the hope that does not disappoint because we know that God loves us and will help us in our lives and in our work, because God has done this  for us before.  Even if we say with the Psalmist, “I am greatly afflicted.”, we can keep our faith.

And we are not alone because we have each other.  The disciples went out together, the Matthean and Roman churches endured together, the Psalmist sang first to his congregation.  So we bring our own selves, our talents and resources, our knowledge and our diversity of experience.  We do not have to do everything ourselves.  We can do our part and know that others are doing theirs for the good of the whole.

It is our past deliverance and present guidance that gives us confidence in being able to carry out our ministry of compassion.   And that mission is no small thing.  In all these scriptures, we are invited to join in Jesus’ ministry of compassion on a large scale.  In capital cities like Jerusalem and Rome, and maybe Washington.   In the cities and villages of a whole country, maybe in Boston.  In the midst of all the people, as a priestly nation that serves to bring the world to God.  It will take a big vision to accomplish a ministry of power and compassion.  There are a great many persons and groups who have no compassion.  They have vested interests in keeping people sick, dead, isolated, and enmeshed in evil.  Of course, we as individuals and as a community cannot do everything.  But the old phrase “think globally, act locally” does come to mind.  In a globalized world, our sin has far-reaching consequences as it separates us from God, ourselves and our neighbors.  But our acts of compassion have far-reaching consequences as well, that bring us together in trust and hope, to act in compassion toward love and justice.

Cure the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the lepers.  Cast out demons.  In our ministry of compassion, some of us will take these instructions literally.  And, even if we don’t: there are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, sick in spirit or body or mind or relationships.  As we may have, they need healing even more than cure, if cure is only for the symptoms.  There are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, dead in despair or numb or hopeless.  As we may have, they could use a witness in word or deed to the hope of grace, love, and power.  As we may have been, there are plenty of folks that are considered “unclean” by some standards of birth and religion, who in compassion, justice, and common humanity are to be included in the same love and acceptance that we have received, as beloved of God.  And there are plenty of demons, forces of systemic and even personal evil, that are to be named and confronted in the name of Jesus and the creativity of the Spirit.

Jesus wants us to be aware of the challenges.   The work of compassion stirs the pot.  It brings to the surface what is down below.  It mixes up what has been separated.  It distributes the heat.  Just because we are doing something right and good does not mean that everybody will like our work, or even like us.  But as we act out of gratitude, and know that we are not alone, we increase our own faith, hope, and confidence in God, as well as increase faith, hope, and confidence in God in others.

The other night I had dinner with a friend.  She is a practicing Christian, and often speaks of how God’s love and provision are at work in her life.  She said that she had joined a local group to voice some concerns and include some folks in discussion.   The group felt that these folks and concerns were either invisible or were being ignored in the community.  She also said that after feeling quite overwhelmed and depressed about these issues, joining the group had given her new energy and hope.  The group brought a lot of different experience and talents together, and there was a high degree of commitment to the naming of the issues, to the inclusion of those previously excluded, and to practical solutions for the challenges.  She was no longer alone in her concerns and her compassion, and was grateful to have been introduced to the group.

For what do we ourselves have concerns?  For whom do we ourselves have compassion?  The harvest is still plentiful, the laborers are still few.  The lord of the harvest invites us to join him in the work.  With gratitude, and companionship with God and each other, we can be confident in our calling and our work.  Amen.

– The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Grace, Love, Communion

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

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Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13: 11-13

Matthew 28: 16-20

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Good Morning! It is truly wonderful to be speaking again from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel today. My thanks to Dean Hill for making this opportunity available to me and to my colleagues here at the chapel for their support in leading worship this morning.

Imagine my pleasure when I discovered that the reading from the Hebrew Bible for the lectionary this week is the first creation account in Genesis (also the longest lectionary reading – thanks for your patience and participation!). As someone who studies environmental/ecological ethics, this is a perfect starting off point for a sermon. Themes of dominion vs. stewardship, our understanding of ourselves as a part of the creation and not separate from it, and the world having inherent value because of God’s care in creating it are all found in this one passage and are often upheld by Christian ecological theologians and ethicists as justification for why Christians should seek justice for the earth. So, easy for me. Slam dunk. This sermon could be written in an hour.

But instead, I’m choosing to go on a path that has many hills and obstacles instead of clear one. It builds character, right? Today is Trinity Sunday which celebrates the threefold nature of God. Theologically, the Trinity continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of Christianity to fully grasp. Martin Luther infamously stated that “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.” Similarly, John Wesley stated “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God!” There are many similar warnings from many theologians about the dangers and limits in human comprehension of one of the central claims to our belief system.

Let me start by saying, I do not fully understand the Trinity. And this sermon is not meant as an attempt at that. When we talk about the Trinity, with a capital “T”, we are usually referring to God in three persons or types – historically delineated as God the Father, God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one. The Christian math of 1+1+1 = 1. It’s found all over our liturgy. Disagreements about the nature of the Trinity go back to the fourth century when the church fathers tried to define whether Jesus was divine or not as well as establish the official doctrine of the Trinity (for more information see the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople from which we get the Nicene Creed professed in some mainline protestant denominations to this day). The entire church has split over understandings of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As Luther and Wesley have rightly pointed out, the Trinity continues to be a mystery to human beings. We can never fully comprehend it. But, that does not mean that we cannot try to understand aspects of the trinity and of God.

Instead of using the typical formulation which we find in Matthew today (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), I am more interested in the threefold description of God that Paul uses in closing the second letter to the Corinthians. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” A commentary on this passage that I read in preparation for this sermon referred to Paul’s formulation as “faintly trinitarian (with a small ‘t’).”[1] Formal orthodoxy about the Trinity (with a big T) wouldn’t come until hundreds of years after this epistle was written. While Paul’s use of Grace, Love, and Communion would most assuredly inform the later formal doctrine, he would most likely have not referred to himself as a Trinitarian, even though he does split God into three separate entities in this passage. Instead, what we can take from this passage is one way to express three foundational aspects of understanding how God and human beings relate to one another.

Paul’s formulation of the grace, love, and communion found in the divine may ring familiar to some of you, as it is for me – “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”. Growing up in the Lutheran church, this scripture passage was and is still used as the greeting at each service. In fact, while I was preparing this sermon, Brother Larry commented on how “Lutheran” my title is, which isn’t surprising given Luther’s particular fondness for Paul’s epistles. Used in the context of a worship service, grace, love, and community serve as a welcome and an opportunity for us to come together as one in praise of God. But we can take these words for granted. Just like in any relationship, we must be attentive to maintain a healthy relationship with God and with others. And now, when we find ourselves in deeply troubling and divisive times, perhaps it is more imperative than ever to remind ourselves what lies at the core of our Christian teachings.

You’ll notice that in the reading of second Corinthians we heard today, Paul is ending his letter to the Church in Corinth, not beginning it with this greeting.  Paul writes to the Corinthians after finding out that there have been crises in the Church that have created division between people in Corinth. This letter is meant as encouragement for the church to continue to move forward in reconciliation. Scholars believe that Paul sent another letter in between the epistles we have come to know as first and second Corinthians in which he admonished them for their behavior and was very harsh with them (he states as much in second Corinthians itself). The church in Corinth turned itself around to serve God and be in community with one another. One of Paul’s means of encouragement is to remind them that their strength and power comes from the ultimate source – God. In verse 5 of chapter 13, just before the passage we read today, Paul inquires, “Examine yourselves: are you living the life of faith?” This entreaty is not just to scold the Christians in Corinth to do better but to also recognize the fundamental reality that God resides with us in all that we do and by acting faithfully we affirm our commitment to God. Then, in closing he cites grace, love, and communion as expressions of this faithful relationship.

If we are to ask ourselves this question, “are we living the life of faith?”, what would our answer be? What does it mean to live a life of faith? Grace, love, and communion are all interrelated concepts, just as the relationship found in the Trinity are interrelational. They inform and help to shed light on one another.  Let’s explore together the ideas of grace, love, and communion a bit more to try to understand how we live a life of faith together and can be better disciples of Christ in the world.


One thing that we must fundamentally understand about our Christian identity is that it is relational. God as source of all maintains a relationship with the world and humanity. Our reading from Genesis for today is not out of place with the other readings – it demonstrates a gracious God who creates and proclaims a world that is inherently good. It also places God as the source of all that we can rely on when times get tough.

For Protestants, the grace extended by God is an essential part of our relationship with God. God freely gives grace to humanity. Grace is a gift from God given through Jesus Christ. Charis, the Greek word for grace, implies a gift freely given, even undeserved by those who receive it. As a Lutheran, my understanding of grace is that we do not deserve it, but that God actively extends it to us if we have faith. This is where the idea of “justification by faith” or sola fides comes from in our protestant traditions. Good works are not required in order to receive God’s grace, but good works come out of that faith and grace that we receive. For most Protestants, this understanding of Grace is central to our theological interpretations of the Divine-human relationship.

Why should we bother to do anything good then? If God’s grace is given to us freely, no matter what, then shouldn’t we just anticipate that it will be given to us? The answer is no, because faith is still required of us. Faith is the dynamic actor on the side of humanity in the divine-human relationship. Out of faith grows our sense of responsibility for others, for creation, and for ourselves. If we turn back to our scripture from Genesis for today, God creates all good things and finds the creation to be very good, but gives responsibility to human beings to be stewards of that creation. Although our reading used the words “subdue” and “dominion” when discussing the human relationship with the Earth, a more correct understanding is our care and stewardship of that which is ultimately God’s, not ours, and that which God finds to be good outside of our use for it. This flies in the face of claims that we might hear from some Christians today who say things like, if there is such a thing as climate change (and news flash: there is), God will take care of it for us. To believe such a thing abdicates us from our responsibilities and partnership with God and with others. This brings me to the second of our relational identities with God: love.


Love, agape, is how we interact with others. The love expressed by God through Jesus is understood to be self-giving, seeking out the needs of the neighbor. Love is our duty to one another – to serve and meet the needs of those around us. Again, referring to love, Luther reminds us that faith and love are intertwined with one another. Love is a consequence of faith. It is how we express our faith to others and in the world around us. There is a direct relationship between grace, faith and love. We are set free by the grace of God to love and do the work of God with our hands.

And that love is not limited in scope. We must love our neighbors and love our enemies. Surely hating what is evil is also proclaimed in the scriptures, and we must continue to resist ideologies that are damaging to those who are most in need, but the challenge for us is to try to find common ground with those who see things differently than us. As I said before, this is a deeply divisive time in our country. Recently, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding Bishop of the ELCA, wrote a column in Living Lutheran, the monthly ELCA magazine entitled “Serving the neighbor in charged times.”[2] In it, she reminds Lutherans of their call to be in service to others, no matter who they are, and that in order to do it we must be civically engaged. She states “We forget that we are one people. I think we fail to recognize Christ in others, whether the other is across the pew or across the world. We forget that we all—whatever our politics—stand under the judgment of God and that only God’s promise of reconciling love in Jesus can save us. Set free by that promise we can find a way to serve the neighbor.”

Aided by echo-chambers of media outlets and social media accounts, we can easily find the people who agree with us and reject/block/unfriend those who don’t. We can forget that those who hold beliefs that differ from ours are still people. Extending love does not mean that we necessarily have to agree with those who hold different beliefs than our own, but we must remember that our need to be in service to others outweighs political affiliation, race, religious identity, or sexual orientation, gender. True kindness and compassion should be our guiding light.

It is often in moments of tragedy and extreme strain that we see the walls that divide us come down. We saw it a few weeks ago in Manchester, as people offered their homes to complete strangers, and as people lined up around the corner to donate blood for those who were injured. We saw it a year ago this weekend, when over fifty people were murdered at Pulse nightclub in Orlando during Pride and a great outpouring of care and support came from people all over the U.S. and the world. We saw it in Boston four years ago as we proudly proclaimed “Boston Strong” after the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.  But must we wait until tragedy strikes to show our support for others? Can we be reliable neighbors every day for those we often fail to recognize who need our help the most? What does it mean to be in a community with others and to share in God’s love?


This brings us to the last of the attributes Paul assigns to God. Communion. Koinonia. A fellowship or gathering. Christianity is not a solitary endeavor. In order to be relational, we must interact with others. We come together in worship to hear the scripture together and to praise God, but we also come together in many other ways to live out our Christian witness. We commonly think of communion in terms of Holy communion – the Lord’s Supper that we share together during worship. We share in this sacrament with each other and with God at the same time, in a very obvious way. But communion and fellowship can be expressed in so many other ways. Obviously food is a great way to bring people together. During the school year, Marsh Chapel offers many opportunities for chapter members, students, and faculty to come together over a meal. I host Global Dinner Club each week. This space encourages students to not only learn some much-needed cooking skills for when they are on their own after college, but also gives us opportunity to find places of commonality or difference in our backgrounds. Undergraduate and graduate students, people of faith and people of no faith, domestic and international gather in preparing food, eating and having conversation. We’ve talked about everything from television shows to the finer nuances of process theology during these dinners and everyone walks away learning something new, like the history of the great molasses flood in Boston, and, more importantly, building bonds with other people. We can all recognize the inexpressible feeling that develops when a group of people comes together. I like to think that feeling, that connection we share is God. God is experienced through faith, through grace, through love, and in communion with others.

Some communities we get to voluntarily choose, for example, what church we attend or the friends we keep close. Others we have less of a choice in: our families, our neighbors (to an extent), and our school or work colleagues, even the ecosystems we are a part of. But whether our communities are self-selected or not, we have the opportunity in all cases to try to learn a little more about one another and to share with one another. Our community as a Christian congregation is important, to be sure, but we are not only in Christian contexts. We can bring our faith and our values to these other communities by practicing the love that God enables us to share with one another. When Jesus sends the disciples out to go and make disciples in all nations, to form a worldwide community of people of faith, it is through the word and baptism, but also through the actions of those whom he sends that disciples are made. Our faith informs our actions and those actions make an impression on the world around us.

Grace, Love, and Communion. As a welcoming wish at the start of a worship service or the departing words of a letter written nearly 2000 years ago, the Christian message is delivered through these three interrelated concepts. Our challenge now is to go out into the world and live into them as fully as we can to be disciples of Christ.

– Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13,”, May 18, 2008. Accessed June 7, 2017.

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “Serving the Neighbor in Charged Times,” Living Lutheran, June 2, 2017. Accessed June 7, 2017.

Gift on the Altar

Sunday, June 4th, 2017

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John 17: 1-10

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A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

The month of June each year provides a space and time for various gifts shared and received:

A Community Luncheon today (Marsh Room):

Featuring a presentation on planned giving by Sharon Wheeler, Associate Director of Planned Giving at Boston University. Then…a wedding of two members of our community, to which all are cordially invited.

June 11 a Summer Reading Discussion Group, convened by Ray Bouchard, at 9:45am.

On June 18 our Annual Father’s Day Brunch, 9:30 to 11:00am, meant for ALL.

Then on June 25, from noon to 1:30pm Vacation Bible School: “Pizza and Psalms” For children, youth, and the young at heart.  Led by Bob and Jan Hill.  Come and join us.  Jan says everyone can sing.  And she actually knows something about teaching.

You and you all who have chosen to bear witness to faith, here on a University Campus, live out gifts on altars.  You welcome freshmen, as they arrive, eager and sometimes lonely.  You bid farewell to them four years later, after they have both warmed and stolen your hearts, and the good bye hurts because it so good.  You take up your place in the heart of an academic enterprise, to recall with joy that learning and meaning are both important, that head and heart are both utterly human, that all of us are better when we are loved, even if we don’t get an A.  Some graduate Summa, some Magna, some Cum, and some of us just graduate THANK YOU LAUDE (LORDY)!  You have to be willing to say hello, and to say good bye, here, and you are, and you do.  What a gift on the altar of life!

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

In a few minutes we will bring our ordered hour of worship to a climactic close.  Ushers will come forward out of the gathered people of God.  A hymn of praise will be sung.  Two of our fellows, a man and a woman, maybe a couple, a mother and daughter, two old friends, perhaps two youth, will stand before the altar, collection plates in hand.  A gift will be placed upon a beautiful altar.  We will offer a prayer.  Almost every week, as we conclude our one hour of common prayer, we do this together.

Why do we do this?

Our physical statement, a regular occurrence in most worship services, particularly adorned and beautified in the habits of this congregation, is meant to be a ringing affirmation, in this moment of a gift upon the altar.

Pentecost causes us to consider this, as does today’s Gospel, John 17:1-10

More than we regularly acknowledge, issues of life and action that may not seem theological at first, at depth really are.  How shall we offer our time, energy, and money?   What is the Christian understanding of warfare?  Is personal possession, ownership of property, a proper feature of a good life?  What is the status of those at the start, children?  What value do we ascribe to frail, mature life?  How are women and men to relate?  What are faithful uses of money?

At length, or depth, all of these questions, on which our daily lives founder or are founded or both, require a theological horizon, demand a theological response, deserve a theological assessment.

The great strength of our now passing post-modern, or even post-Christian era, has been a sense of limits, a sense of humility, even ignorance before the question of truth.  Our time more than any other has honored the biblical and human perception that truth is very difficult to determine, nearly impossible to ascertain, as Solzenhitzyn better than most did remind us.  In life there is much gray.  The great weakness of our now passing post-modern, or even post-Christian era, has been this same sense of limits, sense of humility and ignorance before questions of ultimate reality.  Too readily we have let the sense that truth is difficult to ascertain become a despondent acceptance of the impossibility of affirming truth.  Too readily we have let the sense that truth seems nearly impossible to ascertain become a fatalistic denial that any truth at all is preferable to any other.  The truth of relativity has given way to the falsehood of relativism.

To this the word of truth responds.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

Listen again to the strange, stark mystery of today’s Gospel, come Pentecost, come the day of spirit, come the presence of the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete.

‘The hour has come, glorify your Son’.  In John, glory means the cross.  Jesus’ glorification is the completion of his life in death, ad gloriam dei.

‘Eternal Life’.  This is eternal life that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.  Notice how different in five ways this simple verse is from Matthew, Mark and Luke.

‘I glorified you by finishing the work’.  The word is the same, the last upon the lips of Jesus in this gospel, ‘finished, it is finished’.

‘Before the world existed’.  Eternal life precedes created life.  God is not in time, time is in God.  Eternal life, love, resurrection are both prelude and postlude.  Love is God’s first name.  Or, Resurrection is God’s first name, Creation God’s middle name, and…Surname…Inspiration.  In this Gospel at any rate.

‘They have kept thy word’.  In our time, an emerging time of the famine of the word, words to speak and hear are hard to find.  The Risen Jesus whose voice emanates from 2000 years ago, out of the imagination of a dear soul beloved community preacher calls out a word and for a word kept.

‘All mine are yours and yours are mind and I have been glorified in them’.  He speaks from beyond.  The words of glory come before the moment of glory, the cross, in which all is finished.  Eternal life.  Life, Love, Light.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

Someone recently proposed that we resist alienation by way and by means of participation.  Resist alienation through participation.

We are 6 months into a decade of humiliation.  The path ahead requires steady participation, personal discipline, the service of God with gladness, a sure hold on a common hope.  For this, we shall need each other, and the regular engagements of worship.

Each of us oversees a mental parking lot, over which we have no control for entry and exit.   Worries come and go, parking and leaving.  Fretful cares come and go, parking and leaving.  Anxieties come and go, parking and leaving.  Just when you think the lot has emptied out for a bit, another jalopy, hooptie, pulls in.  Though the parking lot is imaginary, and the worries are invisible, these cars are real, real metal, vinyl and rubber.   In quiet, come Sunday, we can simply watch, as the traffic pulls in and out.  Automobiles of anxieties global, national, cultural, denominational, vocational, personal, all.  Some days the lot is filled.  Others, closer to empty.  You have little to no control over these parking patterns.  That may be good news.  Just let the traffic flow.

You do have a life, a gift on the altar, in faith, to offer, in the song of the Apostle, Have no anxiety about anything but in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving lift your needs to God.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

Our community has become a generous, giving one, over many years.  The Lord loves a cheerful giver, and the Lord loves you.  You Marsh Chapel folks are known as giving, generous, tithing people.  You are not alone in this, but you are exemplary in this.  This past week many of us spent in our Annual Conferences, doing various Methodist things like singing lustily, and like eating endlessly, and like arguing vociferously, and like finding ways to hug one another and pray for one another, even after our words have stung.   There was a woman, now a minister in the Adirondacks, who as a child, with her parents, in a very modest home in the Finger Lakes fed a simple dinner to an untrained and uneducated and unprepared young preacher, 1976.   It both bothers and moves me to remember that the ‘table’ was a cardboard box, upended and covered with a white cloth.  A gift on the altar.  One retiree recalled her first church of 21 people, whom she asked, ‘Do you use the lectionary’?  The lay leader said, ‘Sure, you can use either pulpit or the lectionary to speak from’.  She was telling others to translate the tradition, not to serve it raw.  And there were bitter differences, growing more painful by the years, largely over the fundamental gospel issue of the full humanity of gay people.  But as the proceedings wandered along, and now not as 21 year old preacher in name only, but as an aging, rookie, grandfather in training (‘dad, you are just another old white guy with a comb over’), my mind could not help but wander across the landscape of love in the churches in that room.  It does not take long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey.

I remember a widow with four teenagers who somehow still found the time to run a Wednesday dinner for all the neighborhood kids.

I remember a recovering alcoholic, living alone in a trailer, who took on the job of raising $4000 for preachers’ retirements, out along the blue highways of the North Country.

I remember a couple who decided to run an old car two more years, so that they could help to build a new church, out along the blue highways of urban upstate New York.

I remember two retired teachers, loving housemates forever, who singlehandedly started an endowment fund, out along the blue highways of the Finger Lakes.

I remember the story of a janitor at the University of Pennsylvania who the left the school $2 million dollars in his will, along the Quaker state blue highways.

I remember reading about a maid in Mississippi who never graduated even from elementary school, who cleaned student rooms for 40 years, and left this world heavily endowing a scholarship fund for minority students at Ole Miss, out along the blue highways of the sweltering south.

I remember a Colgate graduate who put the church’s endowment into his will, and so put his estate into the endowment.  Someone here could do that, Colgate graduate or not.

And now, coming home to Marsh Chapel, I remember Daniel Marsh.  I tell you, without the tithing of other generations, we would be worshipping in a pup tent.  But they gave us something, a beautiful, reverent, charming Chapel.  They made it their gift.  So much so that Daniel and his wife are buried right here, their ashes right in the shadow of the altar, right before the pulpit.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

My friend Doug Mullins told me once about another gift on the altar, with which to end:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise a five year old Ryan.  She was a single parent because when her husband learned that the requisite surgery for her cancer would leave her disfigured, he left.  One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him.  He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him.

“Yes”, she said.

He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept.

Again the answer was “Yes”.

Had she bought the house they called home?

Yes, she said.

And what about the new sweater he liked so much?

“Yes”, she said, she had bought that too.

He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying all his needs, and finally he said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank.  There are seven pennies in it.  Take them and get something you really want for you.”

You know, everything we have is a gift from God.  Life, breath, faith, forgiveness, and hope of eternal life.  Cross, altar, gift.  Life, light, love.

This summer think, again, about tithing.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

-Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean


Sunday, May 28th, 2017

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Xunzi 1.8

Mark 16: 14-20

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Few! Thanks be to God that’s over with. It is tempting to say that we unceremoniously threw the class of 2017 out last weekend, except for the small matter of all of that ceremony. Nevertheless, having dispensed with the class of 2017, we now shift gears to welcome the class of 2021. Welcome, new terriers!

Perhaps, however, before shifting our gaze entirely to what comes next, we would do well to pause, just briefly, and consider what precisely it was that we accomplished last weekend. Most obviously, the ceremonies of commencement transformed the members of the class of 2017 from students into graduates, and thus, alumni, of Boston University. Ostensibly, this is a transformation from those who learn into those who know. It is a change of social status, from one social category to another.

Alas, there is a not-so-small problem with this analysis, and it was eloquently addressed by our Baccalaurete speaker, Dr. Mario Molina, from this pulpit last week. Did you catch it? He said, “the notion that what you learned in college is sufficient for your future work was an acceptable point of view in the past, but it is no longer valid. The big change, as you are all probably aware, is that you have to continue learning throughout your career. This means that perhaps the most important skill you should have acquired in college is how to learn, how to become motivated to keep learning, that is, how to become a lifelong learner.”

So what really happened last weekend, then, is that in enacting the rituals of commencement, we told over 6,000 people that they were finished, that they had accomplished something, that they could check that box off their to-do list and move on, and in so doing, we lied to them.

In point of fact, though, it should not be so surprising that we cast graduation as a shift between binary categories. After all, the whole system, model, and structure of the modern university is inherited from those born in medieval Europe at the height of Christendom, and Christianity, since its inception, has cultivated such dualisms at the center of its self-understanding.

Consider the texts that were read just a few minutes ago:

when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust. (Psalm 104: 28-29)

May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more. (Psalm 104: 34-35)

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind. (Isaiah 65: 17)

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21: 1)

To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’ (Revelation 21: 6b-8)

The same dualistic view is replete in the gospels as well. Hear, then, these words appended to the Gospel according to Mark by later editors, drawing from the rest of the Gospels’ accounts of the resurrection:

Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16: 14-20)

Belief vs. unbelief; saved vs. condemned; living water vs. a lake of fire; new heaven and new earth vs. first heaven first earth; filled with good vs. returned to the dust. To be sure, Paul tells us that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28), but this is in the wider context of the dichotomy between those who belong to Christ and those “imprisoned under the law” (cf. Galatians 3: 23).

It is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that an apocalyptic movement, imminently expecting Jesus’ return accompanied by very real physical and socio-political consequences would schematize life in such a dualistic fashion. Surely, it has been the theological work of centuries to soften, temper, and reinterpret the harshness of these apocalyptic binaries. And yet, here we are, in 2017, five hundred years after the start of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s emphatic principle of Sola scriptura, that scripture is the sole authority for faith and practice, a principle, alas, that has not aged terribly well. Too often, sola scriptura becomes the basis of biblical literalism or even bibliolatry, an excuse for intolerance and exclusion, and thus reinforces apocalyptic dualisms. Should we celebrate the Reformation? Yes, but let us do so with eyes wide open, attentive to the full range of its lasting effects.

The problem with these dichotomies, these binaries, these either/or formulations, is that they leave no room for the process of growth, for transformation over time, for the period of change, for development. Alas, the mismatch between dualistic categories and our lived experience of ongoing, incremental growth and development is quite painful. Spiritually painful. Existentially painful.

Perhaps you have experienced this. I have.

Perhaps you have been told that your faith is lukewarm. I have.

Perhaps you have been told that you are not fervent enough. I have.

Perhaps you have been told that your belief is unorthodox. I have.

Perhaps you have been told that your soul is in peril. I have.

Perhaps you have been told that who you are or what you believe is not adequate for heaven, and so you must be damned to hell. I have.

Or perhaps your experience of the misfit of dualistic categories appears in the form of an imposter syndrome.

Perhaps you were baptized but harbored doubts.

Perhaps you were confirmed but still had questions.

Perhaps you were ordained in spite of suspicion of the church.

Perhaps you were asked to teach but have barely read the bible.

Perhaps you were asked to lead but worry that you yourself are already off the path.

Perhaps you were asked to testify but have only brokenness to offer.

Perhaps you were honored for uprightness but are all too aware of your own iniquity.

The good news of Jesus Christ for you and for me is this: Congratulations! You are normal! You are human! Christ is with you! And Christ has sent, is sending, will send the Holy Spirit to lead you and me through an ongoing process of growth and development into all truth and the full measure and stature of Christ.

But how can we hear this saving word amidst the dualistic cacophony? How can we swim in this river of saving grace when the waters have been divided to the left and the right? Dear friends, it may not be possible to hear what the Spirit is saying, to reunite the divided waters, by merely abiding in our present communities and reading the same texts. It may be that in order to hear the still small voice calling us to become as Christ, we must move beyond the din and find another body of water in which to immerse ourselves for a time. It may only be when we look back from afar that we can see the seeds and sprouts, the fresh growth to which we are otherwise oblivious in our native land.

Hear, then, these words from the third century BCE Chinese scholar Xunzi, from his “Exhortation to Learning:”

Learning—where should it begin and where should it end! I say: Its proper method is to start with the recitation of the Classics and conclude with the reading of the Rituals. Its real purpose is first to create a scholar and in the end to create a sage. If you genuinely accumulate and earnestly practice for a long time, then you will become an initiate. Learning continues until death and only then does it stop. Thus, though the methods employed to learn come to a conclusion, the purpose of learning must never, even for an instant, be put aside. Those who undertake learning become men; those who neglect it become as wild beasts. Truly the Documents contain the record of governmental affairs. The Odes set the correct standards to which pronunciations should adhere. The Rituals contain the model for the primary social distinctions and the categories used by analogical extension for the guiding rules and ordering norms of behavior. Accordingly, when learning has been perfected in the rituals, it has come to its terminus. Surely this may be called the culmination of the Way and its Power! The reverence and refinement of the Rituals, the concord and harmony of the Music, the breadth of the Odes and Documents, the subtlety of the Annals—all the creations of Heaven and Earth are completed in them. (John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1988. 139-140).

Learning, growing, developing, changing, transforming, is a process both life giving and lifelong. As is said of Confucius in the Analects:

The Master said, “At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning; at thirty, I took my place in society; at forty, I became free of doubts; at fifty, I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty, my ear was attuned; and at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desires without overstepping the bounds of propriety.” (Edward Slingerland, Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2003).

What do we learn from this wisdom from China? What is different from the view of life as a series of binary transformations? We learn the age-old lesson not to mistake the forest for the trees. Yes, there are moments in life when we can recognize, can feel, can express the difference between our former selves and ourselves as we are now, but these moments are signposts along the way of a much longer journey, not destinations or achievements in and of themselves. Salvation comes in the accumulation of wisdom, of insight, of understanding, of attunement, not all at once in single step. Salvation is following the path demarcated by the Spirit, led and prodded along by the Spirit, into all truth, not the appropriation of truth in a single grasp, which must inevitably be partial, limited, and fleeting.  The question, then, is not whether or not you have achieved salvation or spiritual fullness, but whether you are undertaking the journey and process of growth and development, or standing still, mired in place.

The week before Mother’s Day, my older daughter made a gift for her mother, my wife. Happy anniversary, love. When I picked her up from childcare, she made us whisper the entire way home so that my wife, who was not with us, would not find out about the gift, as it was supposed to be a secret. That Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, she ran into our room and woke us, waving the gift in the air, exclaiming, “I made you a Mother’s Day present, Mommy, but it’s a surprise!”

Now, this lack of clarity about the nature and proper revelation of a secret is endearing and amusing in a four-year-old, but that very endearment and amusement is in part rooted in the fact that we can expect the child to grow, develop, and mature into a fuller understanding and stature. Sadly, we in the United States, and perhaps especially in the past week everyone around the globe, must suffer under the ongoing denigration of leadership, of virtue, of statecraft, and of humanity by one who views the path of learning and growth and development as beneath him. As Xunzi rightly points out, “Those who undertake learning become men; those who neglect it become as wild beasts.”

This summer at Marsh Chapel, our annual sermon series takes up the theme of “new directions in discipleship.” Christian disciples are students, learning what it means to follow Jesus. Unlike secular models of education, however, there is no graduation from the school of discipleship. Instead, discipleship is a lifelong process of learning, growing, maturing, and developing, but so too it is a process of the finite approximating the infinite, a process that can never come to a final conclusion in the finitude of life. “Learning continues until death and only then does it stop. Thus, though the methods employed to learn come to a conclusion, the purpose of learning must never, even for an instant, be put aside.

Today we observe the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, transposed from this past Thursday, which was forty days after Easter. Jesus is back in heaven, having descended from heaven in the incarnation at Christmas, descended further into hell on Good Friday, been resurrected from the dead on Easter, and now, at last, ascended back to heaven. Good news! The story is over! A happy ending! But no! The story is not over. Next Sunday is Pentecost, when we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, who will lead us into all truth. We are not done. We are unfinished. As we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, then, let us recognize it for the signpost it is along our journey of lifelong learning and discipleship, a sign pointing us to the very need for our ongoing development. Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+, University Chaplain for Community Life

Boston University Baccalaureate

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

Click here to listen to the full service

Click here to listen to the Baccalaureate Address only

This year’s Baccalaureate speaker is Dr. Mario J. Molina, University of California, San Diego, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

This I Believe

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

Click here to listen to the full service

John 14:1-14

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Graduating Students Share Their Spiritual Journey

Ian Quillen – BA – Neuroscience; Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, CAS/KHC’17

There is a saying that home is where the heart is. When I first came to BU, I wanted to create a new space that I could call home. Perhaps I could have gone further away from Brookline, the town near Boston where I grew up, to accomplish this. But when I came to Marsh Chapel my freshman year, I found a place that grounded me where I could place roots.

Marsh Chapel has been described as a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city. I would take the first part of this phrase and add an “h” to the word heart: Marsh chapel has become a hearth for me, as well as a heart for the city and a home. When I say hearth, I mean a space where people can find rest, food, and warmth. Most of all, I mean a space where people can find solace, grow, and change. I believe in building such hearths through acts of hospitality.

This belief stems from spending Tuesday nights cooking dinner for students in a basement kitchen and sharing it over conversation and laughter. It emerges from nights I would spend cleaning dishes and just listening to the simple peace of water flowing and dirt being washed away. It comes from my experiences sitting down with people and yielding space and time to them—space for them to comfortably be themselves, and time for them to tell me their stories.

I believe that one of the greatest challenges as a student is learning how to listen. This is more than just paying attention in class so that you don’t miss something. It involves not thinking about how you’ll respond to what someone is telling you, and just being present with them. Listening is becoming comfortable with your own silence so that you can discern the voices of others, the sound of your surroundings, and maybe the gentle whisper of the Divine. Once you’ve discerned that, you then have a choice to make: how do I respond to what I’ve heard?

I believe that sometimes the hardest power to master is not knowing when to act, but knowing when to yield. This is not the same as giving up, or being complacent. Yielding is knowing how much you can do to support someone before stepping back, and letting them make decisions for themselves with the tools they’ve been given. It is knowing when to let go of your ego, while still preserving your worth as a person, for the sake of another. It is knowing that you don’t have to fix every problem to have hope, hope that survives best at the hearth you’ve created for yourself and for others when all else is said and done.

These are the beliefs I’ve developed at Marsh Chapel. They are the flames that nurture me as I leave my home. They form my hearth, and where my heart is.

Svea Schreiner – M.Ed. – Educational Leadership & Policy, SED’17

A year ago, I was sitting on a rickety front porch in a place known as Holler #5, surrounded by some of the kindest, sweetest people I’ll ever meet, who welcomed me and my husband into their lives with open arms. For two years, I lived and worked as a teacher in one of the poorest counties in the U.S., McDowell County, West Virginia. Life is extremely difficult in this rural, abandoned coal- country community; it was for us during our time there and it has been for life-long residents for many generations.

Although I’ve moved back to New England and it’s been 11 months since then, it still sometimes feels surreal to be here in Boston, a place that has got to be about as close to a polar opposite of the Holler if there ever was one.

Much has been made in the last year or so of the differences between people in rural America versus those in so-called “coastal elite” urban centers like Boston. The differences are many, and the culture shock was very real as I adapted from a life spent in the Northeast to one in rural Appalachia, which seems to still be at least a few decades behind the times, for better or worse. I experienced a second round of culture-shock coming back a few years later, reintegrating into “modern” life and going to graduate school full-time this year here in the city.

But for all the ways we’re different, there are also many ways that we’re the same.

First, people are good and want to be there for each other. When we first moved into our little West Virginia home, squished in next to 30 or so other homes in the hollow between two steep and lush tree-covered mountains, our neighbors brought us vegetables from their gardens, cakes baked in their kitchens, and invited us to drink iced tea with them on their porches.

Here in Boston, I’ve seen this essential goodness studying alongside talented fellow teachers and accomplished, principled professors. I’ve seen incredible dedication and commitment to equity for children in classrooms across the country and the world, and a willingness to sacrifice and work tirelessly to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to succeed.

Secondly, people are complicated, and they cannot be reduced to any single stereotype or label. It’s very easy to write off the West Virginia contingent as an ignorant, narrow-minded monolith. I can tell you from direct experience that this is not the case. Conversely, it’s also easy to assume all of us Yankees are cold, self-centered, and unfriendly; stereotypes I heard from WV friends that are similarly untrue.

The truth is, there is no one label that can possibly encapsulate all of the beauty and joy and pain of a person’s life. Everybody has a story, and we should acknowledge the complexity of those individual stories in every person we meet.

Most importantly, we all have the same amount of God in us, regardless of where we came from, what we’ve done, or where we’re going. Looking below the surface, finding the essential goodness, and practicing love over suspicion, mercy over judgment; these are the things I believe in.

In the collision of the two disparate worlds I’ve inhabited over the last few years, I’ve learned that the thing we need most ourselves and the thing others need most from us is simply this: grace. In the face of all that separates, this common thread unites, and that unity and connection are always worth pursuing.

Magdalena Buczek- MAMS, GMS’17

I discovered these words of Thomas Merton the year before starting a Masters in Medical Sciences: “Perhaps I am stronger than I think. Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength, and turn it against myself, thus making myself weak…Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me. Perhaps I would rather be guilty and weak in myself, than strong in Him whom I cannot understand.” This thought haunted me as I struggled to believe that one day I could be a physician working with patients who experience homelessness and incarceration. Questions buzzed through my mind: Was I cut out for medical school? Could I take the intensity that everyone warns about? Standing strong in God was scarier than letting go of self-doubt.

Anxiety and fear crept into every day during the first semester. I would cry in an empty classroom, and five minutes later pull myself together enough to walk into histology lab and study slides of kidney tubules. Nighttime was (and still is) the worst for my anxiety. I sat paralyzed at the thought of the work in front of me.

In the second semester, several things happened: my brother had a serious skiing accident followed by major surgery; a friend attempted suicide; a high school classmate overdosed; and a young friend nearly died in a car accident. All the while, I was attempting to hold it together in my coursework. In the midst of this confusion and my own anxiety, I could think only one thing: “Lord, I cannot do this alone.” I was overwhelmed with work and emotions, and so I invited God to be beside me one moment, one hour, and one day at a time. Today, I told myself, I will attend lecture, review the thyroid physiology chapter and the morning’s pharmacology lecture, and map the cranial nerves. I asked God to help me focus just on that, now and for the remainder of the day, and to worry about tomorrow when and if it gets here. The beloved people in my life had taught me in a harsh way that tomorrow is no guarantee.

I often feel guilty about my anxiety, especially when I have the privileges of an excellent education, a safe home, and abundant food and support systems. I don’t know why I feel it, or why it keeps returning. But I know that I have a responsibility to use my privilege to address the injustices, poverty, and violence that plague our world. I do my best to address my anxiety, both for my wellbeing and for the wellbeing of those I serve.

My anxiety is always nearby. Managing it will be a lifetime’s work, requiring vigilance and self-reflection. May my self-doubts be constant reminders that I cannot do this alone. May my fears be invitations to be in relationship with God. Alone, I am weak, but God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, and love are infinite. Thus, in God my strength is unbounded, and I should not fear my strength.

Adrienne Lotoski – MS – Arts Administration MET’17

This I believe.

I believe in journeys. I believe that life is a journey, whether short or long, it is a continual of time. We are all here for a journey through time, a journey to experience the preciousness of life and the bonds of humankind.

I believe in sharing. I believe that sharing helps others. Sharing your knowledge with someone is to give them a bond and to opens the door to friendship. Sharing a meal with someone is to give someone substance for being. Sharing your time with someone is to share experiences.

I believe in experiences. I believe with each and every experience comes learning and lessons. Learning should be constant and never ending. And lessons are necessary for providing boundaries and guidelines to ensure future experiences are meaningful. Experiences are also to be shared to create eternal bonds of family and friendship. What is life is we don’t have family and friends to share our experiences?

I believe in happiness. I believe that the gift of happiness manifests itself in smiles. Smiles can be simply shared with your family, friends, neighbors and strangers. A simple smile can change someone’s day and can provide a ray of happiness.

I believe in helping others. I believe it is important to help those that can’t help themselves. Help is one way of facilitating another person’s journey through life. Help someone else’s journey so they benefit from your knowledge and your goodness. How difficult is it to hold a door open, pick up someone’s dropped item, or to invite someone to share a cup of coffee?

I believe in the importance of understanding. I believe that understanding is necessary for taking the journey through life. With understanding comes the ability to accept or reject, to make amends and to move on. With understanding comes knowledge and with knowledge comes respect.

I believe in respect. I believe that each and every one of us is to be respected for our beliefs including those that religious, political, scientific or sociological. Respect fosters relationships which foster knowledge which fosters good will.

I believe goodness exists in each person. I believe each person is born with goodness and that it is always there, even if it just under the surface. It might not always be easy to find the goodness, but once it is found, it can help others with their journeys.

I believe in our children. I believe it is in our children that we deliver the messages of happiness, experiences, respect and education. By teaching our children these messages, we are teaching them how to experience the journey of life and understanding.

I believe in education. A Boston University education. With education comes knowledge and with knowledge comes the ability to change. The ability to change things for the better – to make your life better, to make your brethren better, to make your community better and to make the world better.

This I believe.

Kasey Shultz – BA -Sociocultural Anthropology; Spanish; African Studies, CAS/KHC’17

1,351 days ago, on matriculation Sunday, I came to the chapel for the first time for worship and sat in the third row of pews, trying to ignore the dull ache in my chest that had taken up residence ever since my parents had left the night before to fly back to Seattle. Nervous and alone, I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. But then, the ethereal sound of the choir filled this space, resonating against the stone walls and washing over me in waves. We sang the same hymns I had sung since childhood and I was wrapped up in the familiar, comforting rhythms of liturgy. That ache in my chest evaporated, the nervousness fled, and I knew I was home.

In the four years since then, I’ve spent hours here singing and praying, studying and meditating, laughing and eating, questioning and listening. Located at the heart of campus, the chapel has also been at the heart of my four years at BU. It has introduced me to new friends and ways of thinking about faith and vocation while grounding me in a community of believers that was always there to support and encourage me. In the midst of a cohort of people from various faith traditions and backgrounds, I was challenged to define my faith and to lay out a vision of what I believe—my own personal credo.

For one thing, my time at the chapel has helped me to realize that I believe people are inherently good. But also that we make mistakes—like, a lot of mistakes. I believe that God’s love for us is so vibrant and pure that it wipes all those mistakes away. I believe that all people are connected to each other and that we need to honor that connection by taking care of and respecting one another. I believe in the baptism of rain on a fall day and the communion of food shared with friends. I believe that science and religion complement each other, that God speaks into our silences and blooms into our empty spaces, and that the Holy Spirit lives in gusting winds and tranquil waters, in babbling toddlers and freely shed tears. I believe that worship requires a community and community requires forgiveness and forgiveness requires grace. I believe that doubt is the strongest form of faith and that no person or tradition can fully comprehend the complex, paradoxical, and timeless nature of God. I believe that we are called to welcome those who have been rejected, to speak for those who have been silenced, and to lift up those who have been oppressed. I believe that prayer is a conversation, worship is a relationship and scripture is a promise.

And above all, I believe that God loves, a love that is freely given, a love that we can never avoid or escape or ignore—a love that changes us and a love that frees us. A love that moves us to believe.