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The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

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Mark 1: 29-39

Psalm 147: 1-11

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Reverend Hill

There come wintery episodes in the course of a snow battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become frozen, snowed in.

You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.

Over the years I have grown frustrated by my own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.  When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something so bone marrow close to my own life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith.  And he also I think was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language.  Anyway, you by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that I am lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…I can make my way…I can find a handhold or foothold…I can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here we want to underscore Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Dr Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Jarrett

BWV 1 was written for Sunday, March 1725. By it’s date, it concludes Bach’s Second Yearly Cycle (Jahrgang) of cantatas written for liturgical purposes in Leipzig. Following the pattern of many from that second cycle, the piece is named for and draws inspiration from a great chorale tune, in this instance, one by Philip Nicolai ‘Wie schön leuchtet’ — we Methodist sing this chorale as #247 ‘O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright’. The tune is featured prominently in long high notes in the soprano throughout the first movement in one of Bach’s most opulent Chorale Fantasias. The final chorale is the same tune as well.

Liturgically and theologically, March 25, 1725 presented Bach and the clergy with a rarity: the movable feast, Palm Sunday, coincided with a fixed feast, the Annunciation of Mary. Officially, BWV 1 is listed as for the Annunciation of Mary, though there is good ‘King’ language through the piece. In general, the cantata’s text and music celebrate Christ’s coming both as King entering Jerusalem, and with ‘eastern opulence’ of the anticipated birth of the King. Pairs of violins, English horns, and French horn contribute to this opulence and richness of texture in a cantata so highly regarded that the first publishers of Bach’s collected works listed this as BWV 1 in the initial volume of the Bach-Gesellschaft.

It is unbridled in joy and praise, heard in hearty dance rhythms befitting the celebration of the coming and the entrance of the King….

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Reverend Hill

Given the wintery snares, cold air illness, icy night terrors, and snow bound disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of our lessons, particularly our psalm, one of the great trusting hymns of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning.  Beauty can heal.

Our psalmist, our singer is a person of simple faith.  We could make many complaints about this hymn and its singer.  He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world.  He has a way of implying that trust, or belief, are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses, and we know to be untrue.  He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside.  He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future.  He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be.  As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of psalm 147 fails.  He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith.  He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet… for those who have walked past a February graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world at war, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song:  “the Lord heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.

Our writer is not a philosopher.  He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker.  He has one interest:  getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home.  So he does not worry about the small stuff.  In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is a bit desperate.  His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump.  You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed.  Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk?  You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith?  Our writer is at that point, the point of decision.  Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need.  Fear not’  The Lord is not interested in ‘the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner’. Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, every one be convinced in his own mind.

I remember a Day Care center where I used to see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of daycare toddlers.   This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger.  When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith.  Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find along the way.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

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


Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

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Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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One:  Black History Month

First.  Those listening from afar might want to know that Old Man Winter visited Boston this week.   Those of you in Paris, Buenos Aires, San Diego, Tokyo, Beijing, London, Charlotte, Buffalo, and Miami who have connected with the Marsh Spirit in liturgy, music and homily, and support us from afar, might want to know that we have had a blizzard here.  On Tuesday, in the thick of it, I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, grateful for the hard work of BU staff who kept roads and sidewalks and the Marsh Plaza clear.  I saw, but then thought I was mistaken, that our new coffee shop across from CAS appeared to be open.  It was!  Then I knew the truth of the wisdom saying that essential and emergency services in Boston include the police, the hospitals, the fire department—and Dunkin Donuts (☺).

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue,  wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan, even secular spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture, but Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Secularity  is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life.  And today, the Secular.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture.

It is in the ordinary, the extraordinary ordinary of early February, in the ordinary of Capernaum, the ordinary of the synagogue, the ordinary of teaching and learning—that of a sudden, it can be, there is amazement, and healing, and trust.  What is this—the Markan secret unfolds.  Capernaum—at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee—of the gentiles, those coming to faith.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure–Challenge and change—a costly discipleship.  Fame spreading now, but a fickle crowd and a fickle fate await—the crucified Christ. A maniac healed—apocalpytic encounter.  (Remember the 5 fingers of the Markan gospel).

Voices come in many tones.  Sandy F Ray.  Gardner Taylor.  James Forbes.  Edgar Evans Crawford.  Howard Thurman.  Sojourner Truth.  Harriet Tubman.  And some closer to us in time and space, some closer to home.  Nikki Giovanni gave us creation in January.  February is Black History Month.

Some deep winters ago later, Jan and I drove with a few others down to the Eastern shore of Maryland.  We went there to attend the funeral services for our friend, and Bishop, Violet Fisher’s father, William Henry Fisher, who at age 87 had died early on a Sunday morning, after he had gone over to his church to turn up the heat and ready the sanctuary for worship.  It was important for our congregation to be represented in bodily support of our Bishop, whom we love.  But it was more important, for Jan and for me, to be with a friend, at the time of leave-taking.  After all, all the other departures of life, with their laughter and tears and valedictions, foreshadow the final departure.  So the benediction closing our weekly hour of worship.

We traveled easily following our map and directions.   Because I had a sense that we could do even better than the given directions, I took some alternate routes on the Peninsula.  In fact, these alterations, mid-course corrections, did not make the trip down any shorter.  We were not altogether lost.  Certainly not disoriented enough to actually stop and ask directions.  Nothing of that sort.  Just an hour or two of further sightseeing.  Anyway, since we had already gone out of our way on the way down, I just followed the directions home.  Jan slept, and as the sun set, it fully dawned on me just how much our dear friend had left behind to be in ministry with us. Not all the stories of Black History Month are played out on a global stage The scene from Mark is an idealized one.  Yet, over time, the Voice still calls to command, and, over time, people of faith summon the courage to leave, to change, to turn.  To leave the south for the north.  To leave home for others.  To leave family for ministry.  To leave dad for the joy of service.  To leave the energetic black church for the earnest white church.  To leave the lengthy eclectic worship for formal, liturgical order.  To leave familiar foods and sounds and rhythms and sights for a colder clime.  To leave, to leave.  “Immediately they left their nets”.  How lightly we weigh others’ sacrifice.  It takes courage, a gift of faith, to turn and move, and itinerate.   It is isn’t only the globally known people who make a difference.  My colleague Phil Amerson reminded me this week of the line in Middlemarch:  Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great.  It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”  In ministry we remember to honor the hidden lives and remember the unvisited graves.

Two:  Presidents’ Day

Second.  Paul exhorts his feisty Corinthians to watch for what causes another to stumble.  ‘If it causes my brother to stumble, I shall not do it.’  He makes an even broader claim.  The point of life is not to know but to be known.   One is known by God in love, and that is the point, not to know but to be known.   We know a lot.  But when it comes to life, to the big things of life, to sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness, we have to go on faith not on sight, and if we think we know we do not know.   Our recollection of the guiding Presidents in deep winter Lincoln and Washington, who had to step out with faith, brings a dim reflection of the truth in holy, ancient writ.  Washington freezing at Valley Forge.  1777. Lincoln shot in the Ford theater. 1865.  One God from whom and one Lord through whom.  We are trying, every trying, to keep a sense of cultural humility, in and through the strains of history.  February is the month of the Presidents, as well as Black History Month.  These two may be distinguished without being set in opposition.  We honor those who served and so built our country.

As the 1991 Gulf War began, we were meeting on Sunday nights, moving from apartment to apartment, with a group of graduate students.  I remember very little about this fellowship, from more than 20 years ago, other than its convivial spirit, its population by forestry students—know as ‘stumpies’—and it production over time of several marriages.  It also produced the single most unusual love “poem” I have heard, which came in the aftermath of a summons to leave.  Keith met Amy in this group.  They were both stumpies and both competitive lumberjacks and both very bright and very attractive young people.  One night Keith was extolling the glories of ‘his girl’, to a few of us—her beauty, diligence, kindness, spirit.  She came from a large family farm near Cooperstown and he from a similar farm in Medina.  Keith offered his love poem, reminding us that they had met in the lumberjacking competition.  With eyes glazed over, voice low and loving, with heart pouding, to all the rest he added:  “and she is also a great lumberjack…and man can she chop!”

I had their wedding in Hartwick Seminary some years later.  I think of the two of them as two of the finest young people that the Empire State has produced.  Like the early church, I remember almost nothing of detail, expect the word, “chop”.  A pungent saying, like, “fishers of men”.  In those winter months of 1991, Keith bade farewell to us, as a member of the Air Reserve.  He was summoned and he summoned the courage to serve. I honor even revere his courage to turn, to change, to leeave.  You and I know that many others today, some from our own extended family, have also summoned that kind of courage.   In ministry, we recognize the crucial importance of face to face groups.

Three:  Groundhog Day

Third.  The Book of Deuteronomy, the second law, or the second rehearsal of the law contains very little that  has not already been written in the other Books of Moses.  Hence ‘deutero’.  At the heart of our reading there is embedded a firm conviction of the possibility of speaking and hearing.  Something can be said, and something can be heard.  We carry some seasoned doubt in our time about this.  There is after all so much said and so much to hear.  We are awash in endless, cacophonous information.  But here, as in the gospel of Mark, the ancient writer rings a bell, sings a song, tells a tale with confidence in the possibility and power of real speaking and realm hearing.  The reading ends with what we might rephrase as a clear warning not to go against your own conscience.  You trust the prophet whose words come true.  And your voice, day by day, can bring an intervening, prophetic word (Numbers 11: 29)  In ministry, we live to serve the living Word.

That afternoon of blizzard snow this week several waves of memory swept in.  We were raised in 200 inches of snow a year.  The day’s cascade and nevada brought alive the clear memory of the full liberty snow brought us, in those far off years and humble villages.   Snow brought a physical liberation to 11 year olds and others.   The freedom to hike and walk unencumbered and alone, in a cold wonderland.  The freedom, sled in hand, to go over to Library Hill, then up and down and up and down until the street lights came on.  The freedom to skate on the Swan Pond or elsewhere, to play hockey there, to glide and cut and shoot.  The freedom to build forts, tunnels, caves, hideouts in the mammoth drifts.  The freedom of play, fully alive on a Snow Day (someone should write a book about it), and partly available every winter day.  In 1966 we had something like 2 weeks off from school, in the blizzard of that year.   No one wanted to hunt you down in the bitter cold of January, so you were free, free to do what you wanted until you were frozen solid.   Then home to sit on top of the heat register and thaw out.  Groundhog Day is the best holiday of the year, and comes in the month of February.

That year spring did come, at long last, as it does most years.  Enjoy the winter.  Spring has its own rigors.  One May afternoon, with some early summer warmth and a garden about to go in, with school winding down and summer opening up, my Mother had me sit on the back stoop of our parsonage.   Spring brings change, following the freedoms of winter.

Now Bobby I want to tell you something.  Your sisters don’t know yet.  We have lived here in this house since before you really remember, and it has been a good place.  Most places are good, and most people are good, too, once they come to trust you.  That’s one thing you learn in life.  Most people are good people.

I paid as close attention as I could, given my desire to get over to the lot and play baseball.  It all seemed a little odd.

Anyway, son, I need to tell you something.   This will not sound like a good thing but it is a good thing, and believe me when I tell you it will be fine.  We are going to move.  We are going to leave this house in June.  We are moving to another town.

Now I was listening.  And now I heard words I did not fully understand.  Move.  New house.  Bishop.  Itinerant system.  Annual Conference.  And also I found I could not see very clearly.  Something was in my eyes.  My eyes were getting blurry and wet and red and I could not see too well.

But Bobby it will go fine.  I promise.  You will find new friends.  You will have a new school.  You will have your own room.  You will see.  When school starts in the fall, you will be excited to go to a big, new school.  And it will all go well.  I will be there.  Your dad and I will make sure it goes fine.  I promise.  I will need your help with your sisters and little brother.  I know you will help, won’t you?

And so it was.  The word came true, as Holy Scripture says the word of a real prophet does.  It all worked out fine.  Why some have trouble hearing the divine voice in soprano or alto tones I have never understood.  The prophet spoke and it came to pass.

We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  We are in God’s hands.  So it behooves us to share one another’s sorrows.  We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.

We believe in God:

who has created and is creating,

who has come in the true person Jesus,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others

by the Spirit.


We trust in God.


God calls us to be the Church

The Body of Christ:

to celebrate Christ’s presence,

to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.


In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Courage to Turn

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

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Mark 1:14-20

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A.    The Church Forms the Story

Do you feel like you are loosing your grip on the pigskin of life?  Do you sense that you are loosening your grasp on the football of existence?  Do you wonder if the air has gone out of you?  That you are a couple of spiritual pounds of air pressure short of divine regulation?  In a word, if I may, do you experience a little late January…deflation?  Aiming at conflation and avoiding inflation with others across the nation do you experience deflation?  Do questions keep hounding you, even after you have repeated:  ‘I don’t know.  I have told you everything I know.  No. Nope.  No Sir.  No.’ (No, no, never, never…) Are you lower than a wet, deflated, muddy, cold football in the bowels of Gillette Stadium? :-)

Well then, tune in for 20 minutes, turn on for 2100 words and hear the good news in 7 verses!  Turn to something ancient, good, holy and true:  Mark 1: 14-20.

The passage from Mark read a moment ago looks back forty years.

Mark is writing in the year 70 or so.  Jesus ministry in Galilee begins in the year 30 or so.  What is remembered across four decades?  (What do you remember about January 1975? What do you remember from forty years past?)

Very little.  Nothing about the time of year in which Peter and Andrew found the courage to turn, to leave their nets.  Nothing about the precise setting in which they chose to turn and follow.  Nothing about the manner of their discourse  with the Master.  Nothing about the reactions of families.  Nothing about the effect on the fishing business.  Nothing about what caused, in this idealized recollection, such a sudden change.  No, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, as at its middle and at its end, we hunt in vain for clear memory of Jesus.  The Gospels allude to the history of Jesus but they are not written to tell the history of events forty years past.  And, in fact, they do not.  A reading of the Gospel that tries primarily to upend the Gospels for such an alien agenda, misses the meaning of their message.

Because.  The scene before us today is an idealized memory, the memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  The story told today comes out of, is, as the wise men say, formed by, the church forty years later, shaped and formed by the church of the year 70, for reasons quite other than interest in history or biography or hagiography.  The Gospel has bigger fish to fry than the Tiberian fish of April 30ad in the nets of Aramaic speaking laborers.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the crucified.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure in faith—the church formed our text out of its own early experience.

The Gospel is not about Jesus, it is about you.

Today’s passage was formed in the life of the early church.  Somewhere in the lost past, all of the detail now worn away like the memory you do not have of what you were doing, eating, wearing, saying, fearing, praying in January of 1975, somewhere in the lost past something happened over time to bind Simon and Andrew to Jesus.  The church needed to remember this, and so, in this idealized, skeletal, and didactic way, the church did so.   What is remembered, with accuracy or without, is recalled to meet a pressing need in the fragile life of a suffering church (repeat).  If we miss this formative effect of the church on this material—the material mattered to a church struggling with the grim and glorious matter of life and death—then we miss the point.  Then the sacred Scripture becomes even for the church what it becomes in other settings—parlor game fodder, material for debate over beer and skittles.  But for us, here, the Scripture is the very Word of God.

Something frightening and powerful is at work here.

What crying need does the church experience, in the years near 70ad that occasions the forming of this scarecrow text?  Why would the church want, at the very outset of the Gospel, to remember the hurt of leaving, and its requirement of the courage to turn?  Think about the hurt of leaving.  It hurts to leave.

Life in faith means difficulty.  It hurts to leave the womb.  It hurts to have those first teeth leave their gums for the daylight of dinner and dentistry. (My friend the dean of Dentistry and I introduced ourselves one evening on an elevator, to which our fellow traveler replied—“Great.  Here I am riding along with the two things I hate most, dentistry and religion!”) It hurts to watch your daughter get on the bus and leave for kindergarten. It hurts to see your son take the family car and leave for the evening with a young woman you do not know well or fully trust.  We have been around college towns all our lives: it hurts to leave your parents and go in the dorm, to carry the sweaty boxes up the stairs, to fiddle with room arrangements.  Here at BU on Labor Day, it gets to the point that I can not look at the same repeated scene: a dad and mom, hugging their boy goodbye, and leaving town.  It was a holy, frightening, powerful scene.  Like our Bible reading today. Now that we have physically left home and in are in college, say, we may need to turn, to turn our minds and hearts and souls toward the challenge of this new situation, really to turn, to leave home in spirit as well as body.  The fall term freshman year you physically leave home.  But now the snow is falling. The spring term freshman year you spiritually leave home.  You begin to fashion another part of your identity.  What an adventure!

The Bible is not about some oddball potpourrie of cluttered historical facts regarding fishing rights near Capernaum in the first century.  The Bible has bigger fish to fry.  Even regarding fish the Bible has bigger fish to fry, as Gershwin said of Jonah, which is the outreach edge, the evangelism and ecumenical high water mark of the Prophetic tradition, the inclusion even of the Ninevites:”

It ain’t necessarily so

He made his home in that fish’s abdomen—

It ain’t necessarily so

Today’s story is about turning.  The gospel gives the courage to turn.

 Somehow, in the life of the early church, leaving became an issue for attention.   How could it not?  Look at all the leave-taking in the formative early period.  Jesus leaves life.  Peter leaves Galilee.  Andrew leaves home.  Paul leaves Judaism.  The church leaves Palestine.  Every time they turned around, someone was leaving nets.  Someone was turning.  Someone was turning up, turning around, turning out, turning down, turning.  To everything there is a season—turn, turn, turn.

The church remembered or crafted this scene out a dire need to teach disciples that discipleship bears a certain cost, and a certain cast: now and then one is invited to summon the courage to turn.  The life of faith is an adventure, but an arduous one.   Faith, the gift of grace, when accepted and lived will ineluctably lead to risk.  Risk is a part of what we mean by faith. 

 B.    Mark Tells the Story

Returning to Mark for a teaching moment.  We have followed Luke in 2013 and Matthew in 2014.  Now the lectionary guides us through Mark.  Notice, as you have in other settings five personal interests, five finger prints, present in this first chapter, but carried through the length of the Gospel, which you will hear this year:

1.     A Secret

Mark’s messianic secret is a reminder to us that following the Christ means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the unforeseen future, the ready and easy for the unknown.  His is not a cozy Christ.  His Christ is One who calls upon us to summon the courage to leave. (1:24, 1:34, 3:12, 1:43, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26, 8:30, 9:9, 7:24, 9: 30, 10:48 [total 12, at least])

 2.     Galilee of the Gentiles

The interest in evangelism, out of which the Gospel is written, is imprinted upon us in this very early passage.  When you hear Galilee, think un-churched, think, outsider, think the nations, think the unreligious.  With Paul, Mark asserts that Christ had died for the ungodly.

 3.     The Cost of Discipleship

Mark reminds us that transformation begins with the courage to leave.  The moment of letting go and leaving is both awesome and agonizing.  Ask Abraham, Sarah, Moses; ask Amos, Micah or Jeremiah; ask Peter, Andrew or James; ask Paul, Silas or Barnabas.

4.     Jesus Christ, Crucified

The suffering that Jesus endured was to be a watchword and warning for the first Christians.  Mark teaches in this passage that at the very outset of the journey there is the experience of loss and bereavement that comes with leaving, changing, with turning

5.     Apocalyptic Right Side Up

In sayings like this (‘I will make you fishers of men’)—in the calling of disciples, there is a harbinger of what is to come.  Mark tries to put the Christian hope right side up, (perhaps correcting for his community, the reading today from 1 Cor. 7, a time grown short and a form passing away), culminating in the warning of Mark 13 that of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father only.

Here is the Gospel hand reaching for you in 2015—holding a secret, loving the Gentiles, counting the cost, preaching the cross, right-wising apocalyptic.

C.  We Are Invited to Live the Story

It is not just the church that formed this passage that knew about turning.  It is not just the Evangelist who tells the story of departure that knew about turning.  We too know about turning.  Leaving nets, neighbors, niceties.           It takes a courage to turn.  Students live and know this.

From 40 years ago I recall a courageous Spanish student, Guzman Garcia Arribas, who turned away from Francisco Franco and turned toward a freer life.  From 30 years ago I recall a graduate Syracuse Forestry student, Keith Parr, who turned from studies to service with his Air National Guard in the Gulf War.  From 20 years ago I recall an architecture student, Barry Jordan, who turned and traveled with us in mission to Honduras.  From 10 years ago I recall a BU undergraduate, David Romanik, who left the nets of historical study to turn to ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Last week we remembered the struggles of Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, who found the courage to turn enshrined in the best of our traditions:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents go awry

And lose the name of action

The courage to turn is the courage to lay hold, to register, to sign up, to rent to buy, to take on real weight.

To lay hold of faith, you may just have to turn.  You may have to leave the nets, or leave the nest.  To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past.  To lay hold of life we may need to summon the courage to leave.  To leave the inherited for the invisible.  To leave the general for the particular.  To leave existential drift for personal decision.  To leave the individual for the communal.  To leave renting for ownership.  To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough.  It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!)  To leave engagement for marriage.  (Where is Engagement Ohio?  Half way between Datin’ and Marryin’) To leave intimacy for pregnancy.. And that takes the courage to turn.

Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk.  As D. Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

And A. Schweitzer:  “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

And E. Kasemann said, “Faith means a continuous exodus from established positions.”

In the exquisite recent film, The Theory of Everything, there comes a moment to turn.  Said his first wife, as she turned away from him, to Steven Hawking:  I have loved you…

It takes courage to turn–to morning prayer, to daily study, to weekly worship, to monthly giving, to yearly faithfulness.  It takes a kind of courage to turn, to get up from a dormitory bed on Sunday morning, and file past all the sleeping sleepers, and get ready, and walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and find a seat in the back of the chapel, and bow for prayer.

A courage to turn, to turn away, to turn again, to turn out, to turn up.   To take another turn:  in a relationship, in a church membership, in a roommate relationship, in an abusive relationship.  Have we the courage to turn

As a society, when shall ever find the courage to turn away from gun violence?  Again this week, in Boston, we have ample reason to ask, and ample reason to seek the courage to turn, to turn away, to turn a corner, to turn round right.   People know this.  85% of Americans agree that back ground checks should be used for purchases at gun shows.  And:  81% of gun owners agree.  When will we ever learn?  When will we ever learn?  As a people we await the courage to turn.

Today’s Gospel comes from a church that held onto a memory of departure, from the evangelist who reflected on departure, and from a recognition in our own experience that includes the courage to depart, to leave, to turn.

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

Til by turning, turning, we come round right

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

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

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The Embodiment of Goodness

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

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John 1:43-51

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Many of you will remember the stories about Jesus calling his twelve disciples to follow him. As reported in this morning’s gospel reading, Philip was so impressed with meeting Jesus and being asked to join his movement that he did what any one of us would have done. In a very excited manner, he passed the word onto another namely Nathaniel saying,  “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”   

Nathaniel was not immediately impressed but responded skeptically saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a prejudiced question because the answer is implied in the question. Philip seemingly ignored the question and simply responded by saying, “Come and see,” clearly implying that after meeting Jesus he would change his mind. And, accordingly, that is what happened. Soon after meeting Jesus, Nathaniel confessed that he was the son of God; the King of Israel. Meeting the man himself had purged him of all his prejudices.

Now, we can rightly assume that many asked a similar question when they first heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. who came out of the racially segregated ghetto in Atlanta known as “Sweet Auburn.” Can anything good come out of Sweet Auburn? Or more generally, can anything good come out of America’s black ghettoes? The most convincing response is, “Come and see.”

I first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1959  in Athens, Ohio at the founding meeting of the National Christian Student Federation of North America. He was then only thirty years old and already known internationally for his successful leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That conference became a launching pad for students as they entered the decade-long struggles for moral transformation in the churches, universities, and the military industrial complex symbolized by the War in Vietnam. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Needless to say, I was happy to be part of that generation where most of us seemed to view ourselves as agents of social change.

Many asked the question then “can anything good come out of a coalition of Christian and secular students allied with the civil rights struggles of black Americans, guided by the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., the spiritual music of ancestral African slaves, and the theme song of uncertain origins,  “We Shall Overcome.” The only answer then and now was, “come and see.”

Clearly, the good in history is always ambiguous. What is good for some is not good for all. The legal, social, and political progress of the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, was good for the growth of the black middle class but not good for those millions of blacks who were left behind to stagnate in the isolated cauldrons of the nation’s inner cities. There they are identified collectively as social pariahs. They comprise disproportionate numbers of the homeless and  jobless, drug addicts and dealers, armed criminal gangs who kill and abuse one another as a way of life. Many rightly view our inner cities as war zones where no one trusts anyone and very limited resources are made available to heal the social and psychological pathologies that flourish in that environment.

Tragically, both the residents and the law enforcement officers view each other as irreconcilable enemies. That mutual disrespect has led to widespread killings of unarmed blacks by the police which in turn has given rise to a new social protest movement inspired by such tragic symbols of defeat such as “Hands up; don’t shoot;” “I can’t breathe;” and such  novel practices as  “die-ins.”   The names and images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner  Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley have become the embodied symbols of this movement’s protest against the police,. Yet, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s twitter lists 76 unarmed blacks who were killed in police custody between 1999 and 2014. That list includes nine black women. Hopefully, such names as Sharisse Francis of NY, Shantel Davis of Brooklyn, Aiyana Jones of Detroit, Tarika Wilson of Lima, Ohio, Miriam Carey of Washington, D.C. and more will gain public visibility alongside their brothers.

Let me hasten to say that numerous moral issues attend these cases of alleged police violence that cry out for public redress. Needless to say, perhaps, much needs to be done to transform an assumed war zone into a civil space of mutual respect and trust between police and citizens. In my judgment, that can only be done by eradicating poverty in our inner cities and cleansing those urban spaces of stigma. Ending poverty  was one of the unmet goals Martin Luther King, Jr. set for his first March on Washington in 1963 as well as the second March on Washington that he was planning at the time of his assassination.

Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, blacks had viewed racial discrimination and segregation as a moral, social, legal, economic, political, and spiritual problem that required a comprehensive approach for its solution. Thus, the combined force of his moral insight, academic knowledge, theological wisdom and rhetorical skill combined to convince many that the depth and breadth of the problem constituted a malignancy that would surely destroy the nation itself if it were left unchecked.

The residue of that same problem remains deeply embedded in this nation’s fabric and wholly confirmed by the experiences of all African Americans regardless of our wealth, power or social standing. We all know that we are perceived as actual or potential threats to white America’s psychological ethos that forces it into a permanent posture of self-defense.

Now, truly good actions need to be interpreted so as to reveal their moral, political and spiritual significance. That is what Dr. King did so well and why his words have become such an enduring global treasure. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Our present situation longs for a similar interpreter. Those who claim that we have no need for such are grossly mistaken.

Clearly, the cause of our present problems is the same as those Dr. King confronted. Alas, effective cures have not been found for every malignancy whether  biological or social.

Clearly, all who shun the spiritual dimension of the struggle for racial justice fail to understand the depth of the problem we face.  It is a problem deeply rooted in our nation’s spirit: one that laws alone cannot solve; that days of service alone cannot correct; that protests alone cannot cure; that education alone cannot heal; that incarceration alone cannot repair; that jobs alone cannot restore; that wars on drugs alone cannot eradicate.

As with every spiritual problem the answer lies in bringing the human spirit into conformity with the spirit of God who alone is able to usher in a new world order; one shaped by the universal principles of love and justice the embodiment of which constitutes what is truly good. Those who have seen its embodiment must do what Philip told Nathaniel to do: “Come and see.”  Such a prophet is greatly needed in our day. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied that goodness fifty years ago. Let us pray for the coming of a new embodiment of that much needed goodness in our day.

- The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Paris, Walter G. Muelder Visiting Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology

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The Moment Between Chaos and Creation

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

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Mark 1:4-11

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In the Beginning….this is a phrase we hear so often when we read the scriptures. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. It seems especially appropriate to uplift the very beginning of our canonized scripture-Genesis 1:1, at the beginning of a New Year. We are a society of resolution, of movement, of goal-setting. At the beginning of each new year we resolve to lose weight, watch less TV, be more productive, and take on various tasks and endeavors that are often forgotten by the early snows of February. This year, I was so over-zealous that I wrote in my journal 12 different resolutions I wanted to accomplish, and then divvied them up and assigned them separate months-like 12 little Lenten projects throughout my year. This urge to be productive, planned, and off and running this time of year runs deep in our bones. In many ways the rush of things, the ebb and flow of the tides of our lives are inescapable and unending. Even in the cyclical endlessness of life, we still have this deep yearning for beginnings.  We find the need to begin each year anew-but our beginnings are often hurried, rushed, hustling-and bustling us to newer things, better selves.

So it is important for us to consider what happened in THE BEGINNING? Genesis 1 reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters.”The translation of this passage, historically and due to the elegant language of the King James Version has often been understood as “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and earth”-giving the impression that God created something out of nothing, a common latin phrase for this creatio ex nihilo. This would mean that there was nothing before God first created the heavens and the earth.  But many Hebrew and old testament scholars see the Hebrew as perhaps being more grammatically accurate to say ‘God began creating the heavens and the earth’,  in this reading of the text the passage would hold the notion of God creating out of chaos-the latin term for which is ordo ab chao. This translation would imply that the universe already existed, and God creates purpose, order, and light within it. Creation, then, is in fact, a re-ordering of an already chaotic universe. It is this ordo ab chao reading that I want us to spend some time with today.

In Genesis, this universe is a formless void, a watery deep swirling and teeming with disorder, chaos, with no purpose and no life. The earth is wild, it is unknown, it is a dark and watery abyss. And yet, there is this moment in between ‘the beginning’ and God saying ‘Let there be light’. There is a quiet moment between the chaos of that world below and the creation yet to come. In that space, in those moments the wind, which in Hebrew is the same word for the spirit, ruah, is hovering, brooding just above the earth, sweeping across the water. I love this image- like a hen protecting her eggs, the holy spirit, broods, clutches, hovers above the abyss. The divine spirit encompasses a chaotic earth, waiting for that moment of birth, that moment of beautiful creation. IN our world today, when we experience chaos we crave creation-we feel rushed and urged to manage, order, begin again, start anew, dissolve and resolve and move forward from the chaos in our lives with immediacy. But in the same way there is a breath between 11:59 on New Years Eve and 12:00 a.m. on New years day, there is a space in between.  There is this one beautiful moment between chaos and creation where the spirit of God is so near to us, hovering over us, urging us to give into the beauty ahead of us.

Every year, we observe merrily as Christ is born in a manger on a chilly night amidst the hay bales and the donkeys (and if you have ever seen the film Love Actually-you know there were at least a couple of lobsters present at the birth of Jesus), we follow the star with the Magi and bestow gifts and grace upon our gentle Jesus. And suddenly, out of nowhere, liturgically it is Christ’s baptism Sunday. Last week, the Magi were bringing frankincense, myrrh, gold on a young toddler, and this week we see a fully grown, adult, Jesus going into the wilderness to seek out John the Baptist and begin his ministry. Before Jesus’ extraordinary life and teachings can begin, we find this separate moment that is neither here nor there, neither childhood, nor grown Rabbi-but a space in between. A quiet moment at the river, A chance for renewal, a baptism. John the Baptist is emanating the prophet Elijah by wearing camel’s hair and baptizing people in the wilderness. This image of wilderness is supposed to remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the exodus. Wandering, lost, and barely surviving in desert heat, the wilderness for us is an image of chaos.

And yet Jesus seeks out John in that dry wilderness, in that chaos, to be baptized by him. In the Jewish tradition at this time, baptism was a source of renewal into the covenant of Israel-a repentance of sins so that one could be washed clean to join once again the people of God.  Also at this time, the Jewish tradition of baptism was widely self-service. People would go to the water and baptize themselves, by dipping their head under water, or sprinkling themselves with water from head to foot. They simply needed to be baptized in the presence of a prophet, like John the Baptist.  But when Jesus approaches, he asks John to baptize him, the physicality and vulnerability of this gesture cannot be overstated. In the space between the chaos of the wilderness and the creation of Jesus’ life as Rabbi-as minister, in that quiet moment, in that space-Jesus is held in the arms of his fellow human and washed clean. In that in-between moment, the same God that calls forth life from the primordial deep and dark waters in Genesis 1, calls Jesus to new birth out of to the waters of baptism.

Sometimes, creating that space between chaos and creation is not always easy for us, sometimes we need someone to help us center down. We fill our lives up with meaningful work, deep relationships, and required daily tasks and often, even at the beginning of a New Year, don’t give ourselves a chance to reflect, to really linger in reflect. Howard Thurman, who was once Dean of this Chapel and preached from this pulpit for many years, was a mystic man of faith, a compassionate mentor to many, and a slow searching man. I read earlier this week a story in Dr. Walter Fluker’s book “Ethical Leadership” about Howard Thurman and his relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman writes in his autobiography that he often had gentle premonitions, deep soul-callings, to engage with people who were in a time of trouble. When he  was 29 years old, just a young, fervent, and fiery preacher talking about justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing. Thurman felt a deep spiritual need to go to him, to visit with King in the hospital.  During his visit Howard Thurman urged Martin Luther King to take even more rest than the doctor’s prescribed,  he urged him to take 4 more weeks to be exact to reassess his purpose, try to understand his cause, to rest his body spirit and mind, and to find healing.  King did heed his advice, and unique to the rest of his life, adopted a brief time of quietitude, meditation, and stillness. He delivered no speeches, went to no meetings, and did not take up agenda items for the civil rights movement at that time.  After the time had passed, he was re-invigorated towards the cause of the civil rights movement with clear and determined understanding of his purpose and mission within the organization. And the rest as we know, is history. The moment between chaos and creation offered Dr. King a chance to find his own renewal, his own sense of presence in the Spirit.

When one of my students found out that I was preaching a couple of weeks ago they asked , “you are going to use Rilke again, aren’t you?” (I couldn’t tell if she was exacerbated or excited-but I mostly was thrilled she remembered one thing from my previous sermons), so as I have finished up my year-long journey with Rilke as a spiritual guide, I will include him again. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the human nature to rush and press on despite the need for stillness, despite the need for a space in between, Rilke wrote-

We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.

I find that our world is plagued with moments of voidless dark, watery abyss, dry wilderness. In the face of an ever-present cultural racism, mass incarceration, Ebola, The recent attacks on a newspaper in Paris, France, and the numerous other tragedies on our screens, in our newspapers, and on our hearts,  -how could we deny the deep and foreboding presence of chaos in our world? Rilke reminds us that we need these moments between chaos and creation, where the Spirit hovers over us, waiting to be pulled in, touched,  embraced, and intertwined with our spirits. When we forget to create this sacred space and time, we can get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the chaos or overwhelmed by creation. I remember when I first read in the news about the tragic and terrible school shooting in Peshawar Pakistan, where just a few weeks ago, over 140 school children were murdered in an act of terrorism. I saw this picture in a news article of a pair of empty shoes laying on a bloodstained school auditorium floor and I became completely overwhelmed with grief in the chaos of that terrible act. I cried, and thought of all the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and of the parent who must have helped to tie those shoes in the morning. I truly felt that I was grieving, and at a loss for our world. I saw the darkness and the voids of abyss and felt overwhelmed.

When I got into my office the next day I had a phone call from a thoughtful and courageous Boston University student, who was from Pakistan and she wanted to organize a vigil, a time for prayer, silence, and presence amidst such atrocity. The student said that in the face of not knowing at all how to cope with this, a vigil seemed ‘just the right thing to do right now.’ So the next night, in the middle of exam week, I gathered with over 50 students-most of which were from Pakistan or had family from Pakistan-and we created that in-between space. A space between the chaos of violence and the creation of hope-it was simple, it was quiet, it was a lit candle, and a tearful prayer, and a lesson on peace from the Q’uran.  I felt so full of the spirit in those moments, so close the brooding bosom of God. I am so grateful to those student leaders who called together for this moment of vigil prayer. I knew that the time for creation would come-the time when I would want to find hope and purpose and ways to help create a sustainable solution for the terror that often plagues our world and our children, but just then-that cold December night just before Christmas-I needed to abandon the chaos, and delay the creation, to exist in the in-between moment of stillness, peace, quiet, solidarity, and prayer to be reminded of how close the Spirit is to us, and how much we can rest in the Divine when we are in need.

This moment in between chaos and creation is not a passive moment, or meant to be seen as a privileged moment of removing yourself from the situation and ignoring the reality of a broken and bleeding world. Rilke’s poem says “only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” The word tarry is not a passive word – but an active verb. It is synonymous with the word Sojourn-to live temporarily. These in-between moments are not places we can stay, but still places where we should actively live. Furthermore, this is not an easy action – holding yourself in this temporary stillness is sometimes more difficult than jumping from chaos to make order.  In this action between the moment of chaos and creation we have the opportunity to be opened up in transformative ways. To tarry in the in-between is not doing nothing, it is doing something. Let the noise subside and in the silence and the stillness be ready for the sound of God, be ready to be found, be ready to be made new, re-created in the truest way. Only from the silence a word is spoken, only from the stillness, is a movement created.

-The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

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

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The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

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Matthew 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

A Way Forward

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

The Christmas Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Flesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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A Glimpse of Christmas

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

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Luke 2:22-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we pray?

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

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

- The Reverend Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate

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

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Born to Give Us Second Birth

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

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Luke 1:26-38

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Let the Christmas moment hold you.

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

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

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

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

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

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

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

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

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Exemplum Docet

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Story

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

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

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

Redeemer Judge

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Three Magnificat Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did aim at humility, kindness and integrity.

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

Thurman Christmas

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

It is the time of lift to the spirit,

When the mind feels its way into the commonplace,

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

Familiar carols, merry laughter.

It is the time of illumination,

When candles burn, and old dreams

Find their youth again.

It is the time of pause,

When forgotten joys come back to mind, and past

Dedications renew their claim.

It is the time of harvest for the heart,

When faith reaches out to mantle all high endeavor,

And love whispers its magic word to everything that breathes.

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



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

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

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The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

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Isaiah 40:1-11

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1. The Marsh Spirit is one of patience.

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

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

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

2.  “River Cruise:  Change your Views”

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

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

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

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

Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.


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

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

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

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

Common ground…

Content of character…

3. Vivian Benton Skeele

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

3.  Mississippi and Hudson River Views

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Marsh Geist

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

Particular.  Different.  University.  Protestant.  Interdenominational.

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

Discipleship.  Hill or Wiesel?

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


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5.  The Beginning of the Gospel

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin

Ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale

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

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,c

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

who will prepare your way;

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’ ”

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

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

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

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Waiting for Christmas

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 2:22-40

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Good morning.

Would you pray with me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] See

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

[3] Ibid.

- Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.