August 9

Faith and Fear

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 14:22–33

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The text of the sermon will be posted when it is available.

-The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

August 2

Good Trouble

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22–31

Romans 9:1–5

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“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful; be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether life has meaning.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether love is real.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether struggle is redemptive.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether friendship is nourishing.

The Hebrew Scripture

Our psalm and lesson from the Hebrew Scripture recoil around us to recall for us the place of struggle in life.  In pandemic and pandemonium, in political and presidential reckoning, in personal and familial realignments and choices, we right now may benefit from such a reminder.  After all, why return Sunday by Sunday to ancient writings, if not for a chance to orient our own selves and lives by the light of what our forebears have seen and done?

One the great gifts of Boston University to our life has been the immersion and inclusion in a tradition of struggle, redemptive struggle.  Over dinner, courtesy of the Gotlieb Center, perhaps six years ago, we sat with John Lewis.  Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres, say the Spaniards.  Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.  After the meal he quietly told stories which had the aspect, for one who tells stories, of frequent narration, as overtures to good trouble.  In particular it brought a full smile to hear his childhood dream of being a preacher, a story that was new to us, but well known to others, and now to the world.  He would come home and preach to the chickens as he fed them, and baptize them as they were born, and bury them with dignity and the end of their egg producing days.  Hence, Lewis picked up the nick name, Preacher.  Yet it was really his life that spoke, and that commitment to a sense of redemptive struggle.

Now Marsh Chapel, you remember that on May 19, 2018, Mr. Lewis sat right here in the second pew before the pulpit of this nave.  You remember that he sang the hymns of faith, and heard the words of Holy Scripture, and prepared himself to address 20,000 at Commencement.  You remember his lingering among us on the Plaza, as the bus driver nervously waited.  You remember that, like any good preacher, he was willing to take the time to take you seriously.  Said the parishioner, ‘I just wish that the preacher in his sermons would take my life seriously’.  Well, by the echoing hallelujahs sent his way later that day, from the voices of the class of 2018 and others, you could hear that he did.  Take their lives seriously, I mean.  You remember the climax of his address.  Yes, class of 2018, you will get jobs and find work and buy cars and build homes and raise families and take trips.  Good.  But what else?  What else are you going to do?  What else are you going to do in the brief span years you have? Will you help make this world a better place.  And to do that, will get into some good trouble along the way?  In my years at BU Commencements, it was the rhetorical high point, and that’s saying something.  Later, in the President’s gracious lunch, we stood next to him for a photo (I was uncertain whether to interfere so, but Jan said, ‘No, let’s get a picture).  And I looked at it again this morning, from two years ago, and wept. One the great gifts of Boston University to our life has been the immersion and inclusion in a tradition of struggle, redemptive struggle.  What an inheritance, what a legacy, Marsh Chapel, you have to share.

Now recall just a few of the words offered in memorial across the nation to John Lewis:

Moral authority…aggressive yet self-sacrificial…animating a mass movement…non-violent protest grounded in the principal of ‘redemptive suffering’……from the Rev. James Lawson…and Mahatma Ghandi…’something in the very essence of anguish that is liberating, cleansing, redemptive…opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves’…the essence of the nonviolent life is the capacity to forgive…’even as a person is cursing you to your face, even as he is spitting on your, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck’…At bottom, this philosophy rested upon the belief that people of good will—the Beloved Community—would rouse themselves to combat evil and injustice…in March of 1965—Bloody Sunday—Lewis suffered a fractured skull…the voting rights act…was signed into law that summer…the Supreme Court crippled the act in 2013…colleagues…we can best honor his memory by picking up where he left off… (NYT on J Lewis, July 2020)

Now hear the words written by our own congregant, friend, Marsh Chapel community member Kwame A. Mark Freeman, just this last week:

“I had the honor of meeting Mr. Lewis on a few occasions over the years. The last time I spoke with him was at Metcalf Hall in the George Sherman Union at Boston University.

Mr. Lewis was a humble man in the truest sense of the word. He was one of the last living civil rights titans of his generation who more than virtually anyone, had a grasp of the institutional memory of both the turbulent and tragic but yet triumphant period of Black people living in the United States during the period of the civil rights movement. The work Mr. Lewis engaged in on behalf of Black people is indelible and stretches over six decades beginning in February of 1960, at a lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee.

I want to thank Mr. Lewis for all that he has done for Black and brown women and men living in the United States. Just importantly, I want to thank him for what he has done for all of humanity by his clarion call for justice, both now and until the day and time when -injustice- becomes a fleeting memory and a tragic but yet another triumphant footnote in the annals of Black history in the United States.

 God bless Brother John Robert Lewis, and may his soul rest in peace.

Meanwhile, back in the Bible, in Genesis Jacob receives a new name, One Who Struggles With God:  Israel.  There is a redeeming quality in struggle, so much so that one’s full identity emerges in a different way, with a different name.  Jacob recalls for us the power of community, the formative range in the struggle of each community, including his own.  We sure need such a reminder this summer, in this summer of uncertainty. The summer, be it remembered of the use of unmarked cars and camouflaged federal agents in Portland.  We are on the brink of lawlessness from the highest offices in the country.  What shall we bring to this struggle?  A little honesty and a whole lot of ownership?  But also, a critical caution, in our choices?

In the spring of 1972, graduating soon from High School, I was watching as various communities were struggling, including that of the USA itself.  My father had bought a pool table that winter, the first of its sort to adorn that Methodist Parsonage.  Looking back, I think he had some idea to try to connect more fully with a teenage son who was about to leave home.  And it worked.  We spent some evenings playing pool and talking about nothing and about everything.  It was down in a pretty dank basement full of the things you throw in a basement.  He would smoke his pipe and I would talk about things I really knew nothing much about.  But I had opinions.  That spring there was a protest against the War in Vietnam, and I had decided to go, and we discussed it.  It was to be held outside his old high school, where he had been elected class president in 1949.  He had gone on to serve in the Air Force as a chaplain, so he was a military person but was himself also and strongly against the war.  Yet when I told him about the protest, well, he did not try to talk me out of it, but he filled his pipe and racked the balls for another game.  I could tell he was trying to tell me something, or teach me something, or something, without being too parental.  Anyway, the gist of his question, as I remember it in the haze of faulty memory and pipe smoke, was, ‘Do you know who is organizing this?  Who is running this?  For what reason?’  Well, we did not argue.  I went ahead and attended the thing, such as it was.  But that careful, critical edge, that question, who is really doing this and why, stayed with me. I cannot begin to number the times, in so many different situations, when that basic question—who is really behind this?—has come back to help me.  And this is still a struggle today, across the land, trying to do and know how to do, the right thing at the right time, in the right way.  Good trouble.  It is almost like that hymn, ‘You Got Good Religion?”  Or not.  ‘You Got Good Trouble?’  Or just trouble?

The New Testament

Likewise, our two New Testament passages, lesson and gospel, guide us in redemptive struggle.  In Romans, Paul is about to launch into two chapters of farewell to his own beloved religious inheritance, his own spiritual legacy, his mother tongue, the law.  Religious faith sometimes means leaving things behind, shaking the dust from one’s feet, and moving on.  In a way, every day has some measure of that leave taking, of saying ‘Thank You’ and of saying ‘Good Bye’.

In our weekly staff work here, we are guided by a set of values, in which we embed our ministry, music and hospitality, and which share a curious quality of leaving some things behind.  We try daily to 1 build trust, to 2 foster consensus, to 3 seek unity (not uniformity) in peace (not dishonesty), 4 to review all communication that speaks to or for the whole  5 to avoid any secrets, surprises or subversion, 5 to live a life that becomes the gospel 6 to speak to others in their presence not of others in their absence, 7 to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Christ law, 8 in teaching to search the Scripture, 9 in daily work to reflect on our envisioned mission (‘a heart in the heart of the city’ and our primary foci (voice, vocation, volume)10 in liturgy to be informed by the hymnal and book of worship, by Methodism and the ecumenical consensus 11 in all things to look for charitas, 12 to encourage by example regular worship, tithing, and interpersonal faithfulness, 13 to be punctual, frugal and industrious but not to worship work, for we are saved by what we receive not by what we achieve, 14 to offer attention to outsiders, first, as a matter of course, 15 to remember that the staff supports the mission of the chapel not the other way around.  16 To believe that God loves us into loving and frees us into freedom. 17 In working with staff our reigning interest is:  “Tell me what best exposes your authentic self (baptism) and what unshackles your fiercest passion for life and ministry (vocation)?”  We can build some real future around this. 18 In communications, we hope to model dimensions of spiritual health and honesty, specifically by responding promptly to voice-mail (same day or next day), e-mail (three days), regular mail (one week), interoffice memos (same day if possible). 19 Also, we believe that a good meeting lasts no more than 90 minutes, and preferably no more than 60. 20. We expect to be people who are “happy in God” (Wesley).

That is, we hope, a to find a way into ‘good trouble’, not just trouble.  Our community here at Marsh Chapel will continue to go through changes in rhythm.  Remember that once we thought we would be together again the day after Easter, April 13?  Hm.  With the insight, foresight and hindsight of Paul in Romans, we shall also need, for the long haul, the remembrance of Matthew, the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five barley loaves.  Not much to go on.  And yet, all were fed.  And more miraculously, according the Scripture, not only were all fed, but all were all satisfied.  All were satisfied.  Along with values to guide us, we shall need, Marsh Chapel, the gospel promise to keep us.  Satisfied.  Hm.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together. And all were satisfied…e


Our virtual congregant Milton Jordan in Texas reminded us this week of John Lewis’s words:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful; be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether life has meaning.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether love is real.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether struggle is redemptive.

Faith is the affirmative answer to the question whether friendship is nourishing.

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

July 26

The Parabolic Path

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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A mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, and a net. What do these have in common? Some are valuable and others are cheap. Some are organic and others are inorganic. Some serve an essential purpose and others are ornamental. We could continue to make such comparisons but fear not, this is not a Sesame Street game of “one of these things is not like the other.” Besides being used in parables by Jesus and recorded in the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, these earthly objects do not have much in common. Yet, Jesus says that each of them is like the kingdom of heaven. Each provides one part of a comparison. These comparisons describe to us what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is not that each is like the kingdom of heaven in their atomic or chemical make-up such that if we gathered all of the objects together we could put the kingdom of heaven on a table, but the parabolic comparison shows that each has the capacity to reveal the kingdom of heaven. In their capacity to reveal the kingdom of heaven, the materiality in the relationship between the earthly and heavenly is indispensable. What is seemingly mundane can disclose the sacred. The parabolic path is marked by a participatory presence.

The parables of Jesus show that everyday objects can participate in the divine economy. On the one hand, we learn about the kingdom of heaven through the particular comparisons Jesus makes, and on the other hand, we learn that such comparisons can be made. This is significant because it reveals the potential for a sacramental quality of Creation and life. Not everything is a sacrament but Creation has the potential to be sacramental. For a society that goes through its everyday existence with a loss of amazement at life and the world, this is a word of Gospel. It is good news because it re-orients our experience of existence. It invites imagination, wonder, and excitement into life. It reminds us that every person, made in the image of God can offer insight into the kingdom of heaven. Every lush garden or arid desert has the touch of its Creator. Even time can be sacramental. There is a time for weeping and a time for joy. There is a time for work and a time for rest. While it may seem obvious, it is worth stating that how we approach life impacts how we interpret our being. The kingdom of heaven is a potential present reality through the parabolic path. The parables help re-orient toward a participatory nature of existence. God participates with humanity and humanity has the potential to participate with God.

In her book, The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor shares a story where a seemingly ordinary childhood encounter transformed her outlook on life. One Sunday her pastor asked her to sit in the front pew and listen attentively to his sermon. He offered an illustration of Taylor nurturing tadpoles in a birdbath and watching them grow into frogs as an example of participatory Creation care with God. Listen to what she writes about the aftermath of the sermon:, “I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth. Every leaf, every ant, every shiny rock called out to me—begging to be watched, to be listened to, to be handled and examined. I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow.”[1] After that sermon, she viewed Creation in a whole new manner. She looked for ways in which God was revealed through God’s work of and in Creation, partly through her own participation. She became a detective of divinity.

Detectives are people who have gained the skills to be able to interpret what untrained eyes and ears might miss. Detectives are people who can make sense out of seemingly incomprehensible data. They can connect the dots. For Taylor, God’s work was present in her life but for her to see God’s work, someone had to point it out to her. Someone had to name it as such. Creation drew her childhood wonder which only grew when nurtured to recognize the wonder of the Creator. There is a difference between seeing and understanding. It can be easy to see what is going on but it is a lot harder to recognize what is truly happening. What would it look like to be a detective of divinity and where would you look for traces of the divine.

The parables can help us here because they remind us that we do not have to look exclusively in the grandiose. The kingdom of heaven can be found in modest places. It is not only the mountain tops and majestic waters that invite us to see the hand of the Creator. As magnificent as the sublime is, it should not overshadow the possibility of revelation in other places. With open eyes, the kingdom can be found in bound books, coffee conversations, and even socially distant zoom meetings. Perhaps, it is hard to see the kingdom in the everyday because we think it ought to be something so magnificent that it cannot be mediated in the ordinary. Surely, the kingdom is greater than simple seeds, cooking ingredients, and fishing tools. Yes… and no. These do not exhaust the kingdom but they do reveal. Excluding the common from the kingdom attempts to preserve the mystery of the infinite and offers due regard. Yet, by itself, it misses that God chooses to reveal Godself through everyday materiality.

It is a wonder that God trusts the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven to comparisons with earthly objects. Then again, God is wonder. Enlightenment rationality for all of its benefits has shaped us into a society that sees value in what people and objects produce; rather than, in how they participate with God and others in communal thriving. Parables whisper invitations to pause and listen to another hum of the universe, where God holds all of creation together. This hum contributes as the core of a song that includes many voices. This song resounds with all that is true in philosophy, science, medicine, music, and is guided by the constant resonance of the Creator. The parabolic path hears this hum in conjunction with life. The song is always present faith and life do not need to be bifurcated.

In two of the parables, the treasure and the pearl, Jesus reveals that the kingdom of heaven may be found by those who are looking. There is no guarantee that the kingdom will be found or that finding it is easy. But this reassures us that looking and finding can take place. While we cannot create a scientific method or formula for discovering and quantifying God’s presence and work in the world, whether or not we are open to it makes a difference.

Openness to the kingdom requires openness to the world. It may seem counterintuitive but it is in and partially through the world that the kingdom comes to be. A mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, and a net. These are all things of the world. These are items with the potential to lead us toward the kingdom. When you think about it, none of these particular items are necessarily religious or holy. They are just stuff; albeit, with various degrees of value. But, we do not regularly find mustard seeds and nets in the church buildings; however, it is not only in church buildings where we should seek God’s presence and work. The institutional church does not have a monopoly on the work and presence of God. In fact, there are times when the church must observe what God is doing elsewhere to listen to God’s call. The Gospel is deep and wide.

This is a time of listening where discernment of the Spirit’s presence and work in the world is needed. In an age where we stand on the brinks of nuclear, ecological, economic, political, and interpersonal disasters the church must engage with the world and it must do so from a position of humility. The church can no longer presume to have all the answers or the exclusive understanding of truth. The church cannot always presume to set the agenda for the conversation and must learn how to cooperate with others. Cooperation is no small feat, especially when considering how hard it is to get different denominations to cooperate. The church cannot abdicate its theological voice and responsibility but we are called to listen to collective wisdom. Doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists, social workers, lawyers, parents all have the potential to lead us toward truth and communal thriving. Detectives of divinity can come from anywhere.

In the 1960s the Catholic Church convened the Second Vatican Council and drafted a new document on the relationship between the church and the modern world. This document, Gaudium et Spes begins, “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”[2] This underscores that the church has a responsibility to the world and all of humankind. Gaudium et Spes sought to approach this responsibility from a place of mutual respect.

For too long and in too many places still, the relationship between the Church and the world is marked by opposition. Fraught with tension, this rivalry has had detrimental effects. History and science were rejected and social progress characterized as unbiblical. I am not suggesting that the church must uncritically accept all positions but abnegation with the modern world is untenable. For too long the concerns of the world have not been the prominent concerns of the church. For too long the desire for superiority has prevented cooperation. The anguish of COVID and racism must be the anguish of the church. The anguish of a system that oppresses all, but especially those who are not white, male, and heterosexual must be the anguish of the followers of Christ. The grief of a world hurtling toward destruction must be the grief of the church. These are the issues of the world that makes them the issues of the church. If the church is honest with itself, these ought to already be the issues of the church too. The parables of Christ invite us to see these as spiritual concerns.

Later in Gaudium et Spes, the document says, “Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the worlds citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has people had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one person depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes.”[3]

I have read Gaudium et Spes numerous times in my life, but when I read that this past week, I forgot that it was written in the 1960s as it continues to be poignantly true today. The aptness with which that paragraph describes the modern world is an indictment and an invitation. It invites us to repentance and change. It invites us to continue searching for God and Gospel. The perils of war continues to loom, even as it looms in different places. The perils of racism, poverty, disease, and exceptionalism are rampant. It might be tempting to try and withdraw from the world and its many problems. It might be tempting to seek for the kingdom outside of such pain and suffering. But maybe, these are the places where God can be found working. Maybe these are the places where ordinary mustard seeds and yeast are needed the most. Small seeds and yeast have transformative potential.

A mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, and a net. These invite us to see God and the world with faith. These are not the places we might expect to find God but these invite us to search for God in unusual places. The kingdom is not a vacation destination that once discovered means we get to escape from the world and its struggles. The kingdom is here and it calls us to live in light of the call God has placed on our lives. The Kingdom pulls us toward loving justice, seeking mercy, and walking humbly. A call of cooperation. In doing so, let us remember that “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Preaching Life. (Plymouth, UK: Cowley Publications 1993), 16.



-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics

Boston University School of Theology

July 19

Elusive Presence

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 28:10-19

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30

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 One summer some years ago our family made a three-day trip to Maine.  We stopped in Kennebunkport and swam in the ocean.  That day the newspaper carried a little book review of a short book called On Presence.  The review noted that the book had been written by Ralph Harper, an unknown Episcopal priest in Maryland, who also taught a religion course at the local college.  The book won a prestigious prize.  The author was quoted as saying, among other things, ‘After preaching almost every Sunday for the past 31 years, I know how hard it is to say anything honest’.  I stuffed the review in my shirt pocket.  I finally bought the book (though nine months later).  On Presence is about the practice of the presence of God.  Harper writes, We have too short a time on this earth to pass up any chance to find words and images to live by.  I believe almost everyone is capable of being moved by some person, place, (part of) nature, or individual work of art.  Of course, there is instability and incoherence in and about us all the time.  There is also the inexhaustible store of Being to keep us permanently in awe.

 This summer we are not traveling, neither up or down the coast.  Perhaps you are doing so, and is so, many blessings to you. But the matter of presence, or the question, is freshly alive in the season of plague, the season of power and its policing, the season of presidential reckoning.  One asked, Just where is God in all of this?  To the few verses of Holy Scripture accorded us this summer morning, we may portage that question, of presence, of divine presence, of God, of God’s presence, or absent presence, or present absence, during pandemic, and pandemonium, and political reckoning.  Our Scripture affirms an Elusive Presence, oddly lodged in remorse, in scrutiny, in longing and in contest.  All of our lessons today explore this question, a good and honest question of faith, the question of presence.  But they answer in a Scriptural key, in a Biblical tongue, in a Holy honesty.  In a strange way, a strange answer, coming out of the heart of the strange world of the Bible.


 Sometimes presence appears in remorse, in hindsight.  From your campfire days you will remember Jacob’s ladder.  The Book of Genesis is about to move from Creation and Covenant, on to Providence, or at least to the naming of the sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes, with which the rest of the book will be consumed.  But first, there is the matter of Jacob himself.  Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending to and from heaven, and hears the promise of promise.  He awakes and rubs his eyes, and realizes.  He had not seen, he had not known. I knew it not!  In this place, with a baffling dream and a rock for a pillow, here, not in comfort or completion, or conquest, here, alone at night and in a dream, there appeared a strange presence.  But he sees so in retrospect, in reflection.  He sees after the fact.  And, with more than a tinge of remorse, he realizes what he had missed.  ‘Surely the Lord was in this place….but I knew it not’.  In case we are prone to think this a cheery tale, the lesson schools us otherwise.  For Jacob, we are immediately apprised, ‘was afraid’.  In hindsight.  In retrospect.  In remorseful recollection.  So that was it…was blind but now I see…If only… If only we had seen that coming tsunami of a virus for what it was, say, and earlier, say, and more fully and truly, say, and, well…

Consider, in hindsight, what you may have missed, along the way.   A season ago, or a decade ago, or most of lifetime ago.  Presence, though elusive, presence still.  So many are the examples.  The Gospel of John has as its main point, the ladder up and down to heaven, for sure, but more so, the utter grief of a congregation that only belatedly recognized just Who, just Who, this Jesus had been, among them.  God.  Divine Presence, but Elusive, mistaken, mistaken in identity.  Way and Truth and Life and, now we see in hindsight, we mistook Him—Way and Truth and Life—for so much less.

The hard truths of the strange world of the Bible include a somber recognition of divine presence, eerie and elusive, but presence nonetheless, seen most clearly in hindsight.  Presence? Yes, but known in remorse.


 Sometimes presence appears in scrutiny.  In being known in full and in truth and in person.  Seeing ourselves as others, or Another, sees us.  This is the wearying challenge of friendship, of partnership, of marriage, of employment, and of any long term, honest relationship.

You may love the 139th Psalm, as did Howard Thurman and as do I, perhaps more than any other in the Psalter.  Usually we hear it, and properly, as light in darkness.  O Lord though hast searched me…such knowledge is too wonderful for me…even the darkness is light to Thee…

 Yet some years ago, I offered it at a BU Commencement, a joyous and happy and celebrative day, in this, my preferred sense of it.  Still.  Afterward a friend and colleague, and a veteran lover of the Psalms too, came up and said, I heard that Psalm in a completely different way today.  In hindsight, I believe what he meant was, Thanks for a gladder reading of the verses, 1-12, but there is a more sober one too.  Think of being so entirely well-known by another, any other:  O Lord thou hast searched me…Thou knowest when I sit down and rise up…Whither shall I flee from thy presence…

A sudden sense of no escape, of being known through and through, of being seen for just who we are, of having no dark corner in which to hide, of having no fig leaf behind which to huddle…Even the darkness is not dark to Thee.  Yes, there is an elusive presence, at the sheer price of being fully known.  Is this not one of the great challenges of CORONA?  Our full social and cultural exposure, to full scrutiny?  Scrutiny of who suffers and who is healed, of who has and has not, of who can make easier strides and who stumbles through no athletic fault, but for lack and lack and lack?  I see your true colors…

 There is, for sure, a gladness in being known through and through.  But there is also, for sure, a sobering effect to such scrutiny, such an elusive presence in such scrutiny, be it human or divine or both.


Sometimes presence appears in longing.  Paul names for us the groaning, the groaning of all creation, awaiting the revealing of the children of God.  There is hardly a longing or groaning at more of a fever pitch in all of Scripture, or in all of literature, or in any life, than here in Romans 8.  Groaning inwardly…as we await…the redemption of our bodies…For this hope we were saved…but hope that is seen is not hope…who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see and wait for it with patience.  Patience. 

 Our time waits for such redemption. And ours is a hard, a challenging time, yet one within which there is a shared groaning, a communal longing.   My friend’s 7 year-old daughter, at the end of glad hearted family meal, as one or another mentioned the virus, the pandemic, burst into tears, saying, When is Corona going to end?  We hope for what we do not yet see.  And wait.  With a disciplined patience.  Without a vaccine, there will need to develop a semblance of antibody bulk, of herd immunity.   We need to have a sober mind, an awareness of waiting, waiting, waiting for what we do not yet see, and may well not see for some time.  This capacity in St. Paul and in my seven year-old, to long and long without yet seeing, but still to wait, too is part of the elusive presence.  We have a long way to go.  But the 7 year-old’s groaning is spirited expression of hope, presence, divine presence, though utterly elusive.  She awaits a hope, not seen, but awaited, as did Emma Lazarus.

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


 Sometimes presence appears in contest, in the contention of life.  The Gospel of Matthew leaves wheat and tares together sown, unto joy and sorrow grown, without yet a final winnowing, without yet an eschatological separation.  And here is our condition, too.  The challenge of every day, with decisions to make, small or large, or what appear to be small but are large, and what appear large and are actually small.  The challenge of wheat and tares is in the contest of the everyday, for and toward the true and the good and the beautiful. On your prayer list, it may well be, you have a place regularly to lift up those near and far who face rigorous, awkward and multiple daily decisions in a new era.

In this contest, we may need traveling partners, allies, those from and with whom to learn.

One may be David Brooks.  He wrote movingly this week about such an elusive presence, and the contest of perspectives needed to arrive at a better day.  It was striking to me, as a son of a BU graduate, who studied here in the 1950’s at the time of the high water mark of Boston Personalism, to hear Brooks use the term Personalism, without any reference to BU, or any sense that the term had a longer fuse than the one he lit under it.  Yet, perhaps by accident, or grace, or the influence in contest of an elusive presence, his conclusion came close to home.  We will leave quibbles for another day.

Personalism is about constructing systems where the whole person is seen and cultivated—schools where a child is not just a brain on a stick, hospitals where patients are not just bodies in beds, cities where cops are seen as people, communities in which each person is seen as rich interplay of multiple identities, economic systems that allow people to realize their full dignity as makers and earners.  Personalism judges each social arrangement by how well it fosters the kind of relationships that enhance the full complexity and depth of each soul. (NYT 7/10/20)

 In this contest, we may need our predecessors to lean on.  Elmer Leslie taught Hebrew Scripture here when my parents were at BU so long ago.  His son, James Leslie, became my chaplain at OWU, a mentor and model for chaplaincy, he, one of only two Chaplains OWU has had since 1960, each serving thirty years.  Elmer wrote on the prophets, who themselves needed their own predecessors, in the contests of the eighth century bce. Friends, we shall need a biblical grace, tough as well as tender, for the days ahead.   Let us draw down on our spiritual endowment, our religious inheritance.  It has been done before.  A favorite verse, perhaps for you, is Micah 6:8:  He has declared to you O Mortal what is good:  and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah drew on the three great prophets who preceded him, Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, finally to craft his magnificent verse:  justice from Amos, kindness from Hosea, and humility from Isaiah.  And so, drawing on the Elusive Presence, he could preach to the need of his time.


 When we ask about divine presence (and how can we not?) we may be surprised to hear a response—Jacob, David, Paul, Matthew—that affirms, strangely, a presence, but an elusive presence, hidden in, with and under, even the sobrieties of our day:  in remorse, in scrutiny, in longing, and in contest.  Who would ask for more remorse, tougher scrutiny, unrequited longing, and ribald contest?  Yet, of a summer Sunday, in the reading and reckoning with Holy Writ, we are sent their way.

Ask yourself about a moment of remorse, of hindsight.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about an experience of scrutiny, of being known, really known.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about a keen sense of longing, a cry at night, a groan at dawn.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about a kind of contest, struggle in contention for the good.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

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

July 12

Finding Our Own Good Ground

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 55:10-13

Psalm 65:1-8, 9-13

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Click here to hear just the sermon

For Mother’s Day this year our older son and our daughter-in-law brought me a charming pot, and an hibiscus plant to put in it.  The plant was covered in large flowers with crimson throats, then a band of white, and then edges in a beautiful pink, with yellow stamens and orange pistils.  The leaves were a dark glossy green, and the bark was a light gray that complemented the rest of the plant but did not distract from the show of the flowers.  I was instantly smitten.  Now, usually my choices in companion plants have by necessity the constitution of granite.  But this was my first hibiscus, and, as I think I mentioned, it was given to me by our children.  And did I mention that hibiscus is one of their favorite plants?  I really did not want to report back an early death, or a slow demise brought on by rusts, smuts, molds, blights, or plagues of insects.  Growing a flowering tropical plant that I did not know in Boston was going to require some effort.  My just being smitten was not going to make either the hibiscus or me happy in the long run.  So, like many graduates of BU, I decided to rely on research.

Turns out that a modern hibiscus is a bit of a diva.  Its ancestors came from China or India, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands off the coast of Africa, Fiji, and Hawai’i – all places with abundant sunshine, lots of humidity, and high temperatures.  I, however, live in a Boston neighborhood with high buildings and tall trees that block much of the sun, with dry air and chilly temperatures for a good part of the year.  Hibiscus is also referred to as a “voracious feeder” that requires frequent watering and even washing.  It has specific nutrient requirements not just for the soil but also for the fertilizer in the frequent waterings.  The required soil and fertilizer are not, of course, easily or cheaply obtained.  Fortunately, there are people online who have been living beautifully with hibiscus for years.  They are very generous with care information and problem-solving.  For a modest price and outrageous shipping charges, they will send you hibiscus soil that feels lovely in your hands. as well as an attractive soluble fertilizer tinted aqua so no one can mistake it for salt.  I am still smitten.  And so far, my hibiscus plant in its pot is glossy-leaved, putting out flowers, and voraciously eating and drinking, while I cart it around our small yard to find the place with the most consistent sun.  Grow lights may be in our future, say around late September.

With all this, you might imagine my bemusement as I contemplated the parable in our Gospel text this morning.  A sower goes out to sow.  The sower doesn’t care where the seeds go: the path, rocky ground, among the thorns, good soil.  And predictably, only the seeds that fall on the good ground grow and multiply.  And then Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”  This is just silly, on the face of it.  Unlike my hibiscus plant, the seed that the sower is so careless with will provide part of the yearly food crop for their family and their community.  Unless the sower is making an experiment to see if the seed will or will not grow in different kinds of ground, why waste it so?  Seed is expensive, especially in Jesus’ time, when a lot of it had to be saved from one year to the next.  By this time, everyone in the listening crowd would know that the seed being sown in that region would only do well in good ground.  The explanation follows, of course, but why go through a story that calls forth a basic response of “Duh,” and tell people to listen to it, and then immediately give an explanation that really has nothing to do with plants at all?

Well, part of the interest in preaching from the lectionary is to see what the lectionary compilers leave out of the readings.  And here the compilers have left out something important in verses 10-17, the verses between the story and the explanation.  These left-out verses tell us that Jesus is speaking to the crowd in the original story; in the following explanation he is speaking to his disciples, the ones who say they are serious about following him.  Jesus tells the disciples that he speaks in parables to the crowd because they are just that – a crowd, that follows him for who knows what reason:  it’s a nice day to be at the beach, there might be a miracle, it’s a break from routine, what else?  They fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy:  “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’’

But the disciples are blessed, because their eyes see and their ears hear in their commitment to discipleship, and so Jesus gives the explanation of the story to them.  The seed is the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the different kinds of ground are the different kinds of responses of the people who hear the good news.  The path response is to not understand or to refuse to consider the good news, and the evil one makes sure that these people will not remember that they have heard anything at all.  The rocky ground response is to get all excited, but then not to develop roots through the experiences of discipleship, and so these people fall away when the going gets difficult or the consequences of discipleship are uncomfortable.  The thorny ground response is to hear the good news, but to let the challenges of the world and the desire for wealth and success choke out the good news, so that nothing of it can grow.  Only the response of the good soil – to hear the good news, to take the time to understand it, to bear the fruit of the kingdom – only that response is to bring forth the desired harvest as each person and community is able.

We noted last Sunday that Matthew is considered among other things to be a manual for discipleship.  With this story of the sower, I would like to consider three ways we might take this story for ourselves this morning.

Perhaps the most obvious way is to take the story as Jesus’ exhortation not to respond as did the people with the unfruitful results.  So we will not treat the good news lightly or with disdain until we study it, live with it, and live out of it, and join with others who will learn with us, so that we can teach each other our own best ways to grow and thrive.  So we will not stay in our discouragement when things get difficult, but we will remember God’s help in the past, and the great joy that is possible with God, so that even the earth shouts and sings together, as in our Psalm. So that we will remember with the Psalmist and with Paul that we are not condemned for our sins, and that the Spirit lives within us and empowers us to grow in love.  So we will rejoice in our freedom from slavery to sin and death, and see the possibilities in the challenges before us, and look for the way that God makes for us out of no way.  In the good news of the Kingdom we find our own good ground in which to flourish, and through our sharing of the good news we help other people and all creation to do the same.

A second way to take the story is to see it as a statement about how some people may respond to our sharing of the good news.  Jesus is very matter-of-fact about it:  you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and as we share the good news with others, these kinds of responses are all possible.   Some of the more unfruitful responses might be because of how we share the good news, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But people’s responses will be their own.  What we are called to do and to be as followers of Jesus is often a challenge or scary or counter-cultural or counter-intuitive for us, so we should not be surprised to find that others may not leap immediately for the chance to join us.

This second way to take the story plays into a third – we are invited to see ourselves as the Sower.  While people’s responses are their own, it is our job to sow the seeds of the good news and to cultivate those who decide to be nourished by it.  In one sense our sowing is in fact a great experiment:  we cast our seed widely to see what will take.  And like the Sower in the story, we do not at first in many cases know where the good ground will be in our particular situation, unless we cast our seed widely.  Sometimes that will mean doing things that we have not done before, or being with others we have not previously experienced, and we may be reminded that the Seven Last Words of the Church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”  Sometimes that will mean prioritizing energy and resources, and we may be reminded that if we are not good stewards, only the squeakiest wheel will get the most grease, and it may not be the one most vital to our mission.  But in the end, we are reminded that to find good ground is not enough.  Finding our own good ground in terms of what we are called to grow, and where we are called to grow it, and then how we are to grow it, means that a Sower must also learn to be a cultivator, or at least learn who to join with as cultivators, so that the whole fruit of the Kingdom can grow and thrive.

This brings us to our present day, and as was noted above. how we sow our seed, and how we find our good ground to sow it in, are pressing questions right now.  In too many cases the seed of the good news has been linked to and even corrupted by Empire, greed, racism, sexism, bigotry, and anthropocentrism.  In too many cases individuals and whole populations have been harmed, with results of trauma to this day that hinder human societal flourishing, and human spiritual flourishing.  There are two ideas in particular that we might consider as we consider our work of sowing and cultivation.

First, if we do not know what the seed needs to grow and flourish, we cannot help it to root, leaf, blossom, and fruit.  It is not about what we want to give.   Instead, just as I needed to learn, to ask it if you will, what my tropical hibiscus plant needs to survive and maybe even thrive in New England, we need to learn and discern, we need to ask God, what the Kingdom needs to thrive in our particular situation.  This can get complicated.  Just as different kinds of seed need different grounds and different conditions in which to flourish, so the vast diversity of the Kingdom’s manifestation in the world needs different grounds and conditions.  It depends on the context of our calling.  What particular manifestation of the Kingdom’s love and justice does God want to manifest in our context and calling?  We will need to discover the details of the people, ground, and resources or lack of them, in our location.  We will need to be honest about our own motives, resources, and capacities.  And we will need really to pay attention to our prayers and to God’s answers, if we are not to dilute or corrupt the good news for other than Kingdom ends.

Second, it is not the seeds’ fault if they are not able to grow because the conditions they need to grow and thrive are not met.  And while it is true that people’s responses are their own, it is also true that a little augmentation of their ground might make it easier for them to receive the good news and take it to heart.  If as sowers and cultivators of the Kingdom we insist on scattering our seed in places that we know it will not grow, and we do nothing to cultivate the ground, it is not the seeds’ fault if there is no harvest in spite of our sowing efforts.  And if the ground does not welcome our seed it is not the ground’s fault.  The ground is what it is, and unless we change that, nothing will grow.  Just as with my hibiscus plant, this is where the need for augmentation and fertilization of the ground come in.  For too long individuals and populations have been castigated for being unresponsive ground for the good news of the Kingdom.  We might want to consider that this is not a surprise, considering the corruption of the good news through its linkages with Empire, greed, racism, sexism, bigotry, and anthropocentrism as mentioned above.  Individuals’ and populations’ lives have been destructively affected for generations by these evils, and by the systematic evils that accompany them:   poverty, violence, lack of education, genocide, voter suppression, lack of healthcare, and loss of hope.  They might be forgiven if they do not respond to the rescue of salvation offered by those who may not be trustworthy and whose message has so often been a cheat.  It may be that in order to prepare the ground for the seeds of the Kingdom, we may need to augment people’s lives with justice and the resources of justice for their bodies and minds, before we can plant the seeds of the Kingdom with any hope of appeal to their souls.

Finding, or even creating, our own good ground so that the Kingdom can flourish is a call to be both a sower and a cultivator.  In that call the word “ground” has a meaning in addition to its being a medium in which something grows.  Ground is a place to lay down roots, and, it is also a place to stand, to take a stand.  To find our own good ground as disciples of Jesus is to stand our ground for the sake of the Kingdom, even in the midst of pandemic and national upheaval, so that present and coming the Kingdom may grow and flourish, and that we and all creation may grow and flourish within it.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

July 5

Rescuers Need Not Apply

By Marsh Chapel

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Zechariah 9:9-12

Psalm 145:8-14

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Every once in a while, as someone who usually preaches from the lectionary, I look at the selections of Scripture for the week and say to myself, “What were they thinking when they put these together?”  This week, there were almost twice the selections that ended up in the Bulletin for today, so that meant I had to make choices.  And, quite frankly, what I had to choose from had little appeal.  Especially problematic for me was that the majority of my choices involved texts in which women were either rejoicing themselves, or were told by others to rejoice, because a rescuer had arrived.  Even more challenging was the Gospel text, in which Jesus presents himself as a rescuer, and a problematic one at that.  The wise and intelligent know nothing.  God has given him everything.  He’s the only one who knows God, God is the only one who knows him, and no one else can know God except him and anyone that he chooses to reveal God to.

These texts have little appeal and lots of challenge because many women – along with many other populations – have learned to be wary of rescuers  These other populations include but are not limited to other gender than female, minorities, commercial businesses in straightened circumstances, people promised good jobs in far-away places, even nations.  Too often, it seems, the rescuers become either betrayers or destroyers, so that people are not rescued at all, but are pushed off the rescuer’s charger into the ditch, worse off than they were before.  Still, especially when times are tough, going to desperate, many individuals and populations do look for rescuers.  And there are plenty of people, especially now, who are very willing to take on the role.

The Gospel of Matthew is often referred to as a manual for discipleship, and there are plenty of teachings in Matthew that describe the desired behavior and attitudes of disciples, in this case, disciples of Jesus.  And, it also becomes clear that one of Matthew’s major concerns is to answer the question, if we are to be disciples of Jesus, do we choose to follow him as he is a rescuer or as he is a leader?

This is not just a question for us as followers of Jesus.  The question of what kind of leaders we choose to follow comes to us in all walks of life.  Religious walks, certainly.  My own denomination’s leadership after fifty years plus has not been able yet to help us decide institutionally whether or not God loves lesbian and gay people in a fully inclusive way. BTQIA+ people have not even been part of the conversation until very recently, and certainly not by formal invitation or inclusion, so we haven’t decided institutionally if God loves them either.  Many members of the denomination feel that in the harm that has been done, these leaders’ times have passed, to the point of desiring schism rather than more debate.  Many religious leaders generally in this country, in theory and action, have questioned and still question the full humanity, human rights, and dignity of indigenous and African-American people.  Political walks are also involved, as a number of leaders around the world have each presented themselves as the “only one” able to save their people from the encroachments of change, and the “only one” able to restore their countries to their rightful places of power and prestige in the world.  Work walks also, as we find ourselves questioning the meaning of the work we do in this time of social upheaval and global climate change, and we question whether or not our business leaders care for us to any extent as much as they care for the stockholders and their own profit.  And now, in what seems to be the increasingly long middle of a pandemic, scientists, politicians, religious leaders, public health practitioners, business people, and our own complexity and complicity of hopes and fears all lead us to question whose voice or voices we should follow.  The idea of a rescuer, someone who will take us away from the confusion and pain of our suffering and bring us to a place of safety and stability – that idea often holds an attraction that the idea of a leader does not.

Now don’t get me wrong.  If I am in a tough spot and there seems to be no one around to help me out of it before disaster ensues, I’m all for a rescuer, as many of us may have had a chance to appreciate.  People who competently intervene in a touchy situation, first responders, folks who get us where we need to go when we have no means of getting there on our own, folks who help us with skills and graces that we desperately need to regain our health or life or soul – we give thanks to God for them.  And, just because the idea of imminent disaster comes along with the idea of rescue, so a rescuer saves, delivers, and shines in the moment, in the immediate, in the one-time big need.  A leader, on the other hand, works longer-term, as a guide, conductor, director, authority, or influencer.  To mistake a rescuer for a leader is to risk the betrayal and imprisonment so many have experienced in the long-term hands of rescuers, whose decision-making skills and power in the moment may not be effective or helpful in the long-term.  And to mistake a rescuer for a leader begs the question of what kind of leadership is necessary for the long haul, as so many of our challenges now seem to be.

Recently there have been a number of articles and even books on leadership.  While the certain schools of leadership debate what might be necessary for a particular situation in a particular walk of life, there is surprising agreement on what kind of leadership is not effective in any situation or walk of life, and far from being necessary, is more often than not harmful if not toxic.

A summary of this harmful leadership is often discussed in terms of narcissism. Narcissism in itself is not necessarily bad.  Often leaders need a strong sense of self and need to be confident that they are the best person to lead others to reach the goals required in a particular situation.  They also, as do many of us, have the healthy desire to know themselves unique, appreciated, and effective in the world.  Where healthy narcissism becomes a problem is when it goes beyond the healthy to include a number of unhealthy traits:  grand exaggeration about one’s talents, knowledge, and achievements; difficulty in accepting even helpful or necessary criticism; an excessive need and demand  for devotion and admiration; a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, so that the usual societal norms and ethics do not apply to them; and a lack of empathy and/or compassion.  In practical terms these traits often manifest in behaviors such as:  lying; a refusal to delegate authority or power, or to denounce or fire those who have been given authority or power when they do not operate in lockstep with or criticize the leader; a preoccupation with enemies and traitors; and the attempt to normalize behavior and ideologies formerly thought of as unacceptable or problematic, such as cruelty, disorder, and division.

In our Gospel text today, Jesus at first glance presents as both a rescuer and as a problematic leader.  He’s got everything!  Directly from God!  The supposedly wise and intelligent know nothing!  He’s the only one who knows God, God is the only one who knows him, and no one else can know God except him and anyone that he chooses to reveal God to!  But as we noted before, while Matthew emphasizes the attitudes and behaviors of discipleship, he is also careful to emphasize all the attitudes and behaviors of Jesus, the leader who the disciples follow.

So a look at the whole Gospel reveals that there are certain themes in Matthew’s descriptions of Jesus’ leadership that put our scripture today more in perspective.  He is consistent with the law and the prophets of his religious tradition, coming to fulfill them, not replace them.  He is consistent in his life and teaching, with a focus on the kingdom of God.  He performs miracles of healing, teaches with authority, and, as in our text this morning, has a strong sense of who he is and who he is in relation to God.  And, in the whole of his work he also delegates power and authority to his disciples for mission on their own.  He prepares them for what is coming as they go along, and teaches them attitudes, behaviors, and ways of being together that will sustain his followers and the mission after he is gone.  He respects women and even changes his mind about the mission in an exchange with a Canaanite woman.  He holds up children as an example to follow.  He practices his own teachings about forgiveness and reconciliation, with Peter after Peter’s betrayal, and in the calling of Matthew. considered a traitor to his people as he collaborates with the Roman occupiers of Israel as a tax collector.  Jesus is not cruel or capricious.  His teachings here in the Gospel of Matthew are full of the need to do unto others as you would have them do to you, the need for lack of judgement of others, the need for reconciliation and non-retaliation.  In our text this morning he acknowledges that we can’t please all of the people all of the time, and he will not do things — and by extension his disciples will not do things – just because people expect it of him or them.  He invites all sorts of people to follow him, and instead of worldly success or glory he promises ways for them to experience rest in he midst of weariness and the heavy burdens of life.  And while he does teach that his disciples must serve one another and the mission, the yoke of that service will be easy, and the burden of it will be light.  As a last gift to them Jesus gives them an expansive community around a meal of grape and grain, so they can remember his life, teaching, and covenant with them even to death, and so they can nourish each other both in body and spirit,   They will not be alone, and the yoke and burden will be even lighter because they will have others with whom to share them.

Jesus is a leader for the long haul who invites and includes them and us, everyone who will, to follow him in his work of reconciliation between God, self, and neighbor toward the present and coming Kingdom of God.  And he is a leader for the long haul because he does not sugarcoat – he is clear that there is lots of work to do, in ourselves and in the world, and there are choices to be made.

Crystal Williams, Boston University’s Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, spoke during last week’s Boston University’s Day of Collective Engagement around racism and anti-racism.  She noted that our current situation is unique – the corona virus pandemic simultaneously with a great outpouring of energy toward justice for those who have experienced state-sponsored violence and injustice for far too long – as a Moment.  A Moment is what many people understand to be a time of great import, often unexpected, when old or new fissures in society are revealed in particularly intense ways and new possibilities and opportunities to make things right appear.  But Williams noted that it is not just or even the dramatic Moments that bring about lasing change toward diversity, inclusion, and equity.  It is also or even more everyday life, and the small essential choices we make every day,  This is especially true as we acknowledge our allegiances to Jesus and recognize our need for good societal leaders as well.  Paul in our passage from his letter to the church at Rome points out our dilemma:  he and we often do what we do not want or intend to do, and we often do not do what we want or intend to do.  We are caught between the workings of God within us which we intend and the workings of sin within us that we repudiate.  Paul recognizes that Jesus’ leadership is of the kind that can help both Paul and us to choose ever more the workings of God in us, toward the restoration of the image of God within us, and toward the recognition of the image of God within others.  Our choices of societal leaders then might want to promote the similar ends in similar ways.

This is part of the yoke and the burden for us in this moment of pandemic and national upheaval, the yoke and burden of choice.  Jesus does not rescue us from the challenges of change and the choices we must make as we are caught up in what is often unexpected and often not wanted.  And the societal leaders we need, for the long haul that change will demand to be sustainable, will not rescue us either.  So except in very short and limited circumstances, rescuers need not apply to us in this moment.  Instead, as we follow the leadership of Jesus that teaches, companions, and empowers us in our discipleship, we will be able to choose societal leaders that also teach, companion, and empower us in particular human situations, and together we will be able to make the choices in the Moments and in everyday life that will move us toward sustainable love and justice.  The yoke will be easy, and the burden will be light.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ indeed.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

June 28

A Reading Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10: 40-42

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Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.


At Marsh Chapel in June, we have a fairly long-standing set of Sunday traditions, honored this year, for the obvious reasons, in the breach.  On the first Sunday of June we gather for Holy Communion and monthly dish to pass luncheon, with a presentation by Sharon Wheeler of BU on planned giving, and a review of forms of ministry in our midst.  On the second Sunday of June we gather ahead of worship for a discussion of “suggestions for summer reading’, led by the Dean, or a staff member or a lay leader in the congregation.  On the third Sunday of June we gather for Fathers’ Day brunch, welcoming all of every age and station, fathers or not, ahead of worship.  On the fourth Sunday of June we offer a foreshortened Vacation Bible School, after worship and over lunch, with one leading the singing and another teaching the Bible.  Well, this June 2020, none of this has come to pass, a bit of a loss for or community, June being the optimal time, before vacation and after graduation, to focus on the congregation itself, University and Summer notwithstanding.

Still, though, it has been pleasant to think of these none so rare as a day in June rituals, amid pandemic and pandemonium.  More, it seemed perhaps fitting to offer a sermon, this Fourth Sunday in June, to pick up at least one of these threads, that of reading.  At least, in a fallow time, we may find more time to read.  Who taught you to read?  Not how to read, but to read, to love to read?  Who taught you to read?


In 1965 our sixth-grade teacher, Marjorie Shafer, began each morning by reading to the class.  She read for about thirty minutes, standing in the middle of the front of the room, glasses fixed and eyes down (though she could readily spot any movement, misbehavior, drowsiness or discourtesy).   While other books remain in some misty memory (Harriet the Spy for example), only one of the books she read from stem to stern hangs in the mind to this day.  This was JR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  My seat was somewhere in the middle rows, somewhere mid-way back, neither by choice nor personal assignment, but by the luck of the alphabet and a last name starting with H.  Jill Hance sat right in front of me as she had, more or less, every year of grammar school.  The Hobbit captured my imagination.  The figure of Bilbo Baggins.  The setting out on a journey from home to somewhere.  The various tangles and intrigues.  The mystical setting.  The return.  It was a sad day when the book ended.  In the spring, I learned that our family was moving out of town, the only town I really knew, and the place of school and friendships since kindergarten.  For some reason I became sick, and unable to go to school for about ten days.  One afternoon Mrs. Shafer came to our home to read to me from the last book of the year (Harriet), to make sure I did not miss the conclusion.

A few years later, rummaging in the ten-year old pile of Saturday Evening Post magazines in our summer cabin, there appeared a simple story.  The title, author, and details are gone.  Only the plot remains.  The high school quarterback and class president is challenged by his friends to date a very plain, bespectacled, socially awkward girl, a loner in their class.  On a bet and on a whim, he does so.  At first all goes well:  he is able to take her out and return to his friends and laugh with them about their trick.  But then something happens, or some things happen.  Given his attention, her attire and appearance change.  She starts to dress, well.  She doffs her spectacles.  She dotes on him, and is enthralled with his stories.  In short order she becomes something of a beauty.  Given her transformation, his own behavior changes.  The dates are no longer tricks, the words no longer jokes.  He stops seeing his friends afterward.  They fall in love, they fall fully and passionately in love.  Well.  Behold the power narrative.

One summer in high school, 1971, Tolkien struck again, this time in the form of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If memory serves, I read the three books that one summer.  They carried me away, into another place and kind of place, and into another mind and kind of mind, and into another story and kind of story.  The struggle of light and darkness, of what is good and what is not, compellingly conveyed, stayed in memory and in heart.

Then, two summers later, heading into a Great Books of Russia autumn course, taught at OWU by Dr. Ruth Davies, a Professor of fearsome reputation, I took to lifeguarding work at church camp The Brothers Karamazov. It seems as though it took me the whole summer to read it, and to savor it, and to capture and be captured by it.  You could feel the power in the pain of Raskolnikov and the love in Alyosha, without knowing much of anything, yet, about life and books and all.  Needless to say, the book served as a fitting preparation for an introduction to the course, which, of all college courses, in its readings, requirements and sessions, was easily the best, and the hardest.

I skip to For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in the hills up outside Segovia, Spain, where I lived and studied 1974-5, the last year in the life of Francisco Franco, and of his Spain, and where I read this perhaps my favorite book.

During the fall term of seminary year one, when I should have been reading the detailed notes about the 39 books of Hebrew Scripture, about which prior I knew next to nothing, and during which season my relationship with my soon to be wife Jan was settling and congealing, heading toward marriage the next summer, I found myself up late at night reading, for the first time, Moby Dick.  In another sense, my reading life began with this book, though, in detail and in full, it would be hard to say why.  Yet it proved to be an excellent backstage for theological study of the formal sort still proffered at Union, NYC.

Two years or so out of seminary, say 1981, before the long journey into doctoral work, I found myself at the cottage, in dead summer, reading, line by line K Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  It landed with the same demolition on my soul and ministry as it had landed ‘on the playground of the theologians’ earlier in the century.  You cannot speak of God by speaking of Man in a loud voice.  I was not, and am not, a Barthian, but I am a lover of the Bible, in part due to my reading of Barth that summer.  For many years into the next decade, it seems, any free time for reading, not sermonic or ministerial, was flooded into the dissertation.  There was gain and loss in that gain and loss.  I found myself reading less fiction.

That changed again in the 1990’s, for whatever reason.  The two books of Alistair Macleod, Island and No Great Mischief, with their silently beautifully rendering of the geography of Cape Breton, and of the inner geography of its people, stunned and captivated.  And from there I found my way back along the trails of older classics, especially Middlemarch, G. Eliot, whose close reading of close living in cloistered secular culture kept my imagination and interest.  And so many others…The Remembrance of Things Past, Proust…The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley…and on…Who taught you, not how to read, but how to love to read?

The Strange World of the Bible

 Those who fall in love with reading will often, over time, find the pages of Holy Writ.  Because in these there is a durability, a realism, a poignant sense of suffering, and a depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  As this very hour, in our lessons from Holy, Holy Scripture.

Take decisions, for example.  While Genesis 22, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the tragedy of choices.  People choose, but they do not choose their choices.  For three months, you have been choosing, and you have that freedom, and must use it with courage, but you do not choose the context—say COVID 19—of the choices.  So, each day carries a dim reminder that our choices, not fully ours, will have ramifications, even mortal ramifications, in the lives of others.  My friend said last week, in full heart confession, ‘I am suffering from decision fatigue.  I am suffering from decision fatigue’.  Maybe you know the feeling today.  Abraham, caught between faith and love, between God and son, at least reminds us that we are not the first, at this grim altar of choice.

Take change, for example.  While Romans 6, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the great watershed—god, freedom, love, grace, heaven—into which Paul has been washed, and to which, by apocalyptic poetry, he bears witness.  You can change, be changed.  The world can change, be changed.  A country can change, be changed.  The orb of sin, the wages of which are also grim, may be displaced.  Life may become an orbit around the planet of love.  HERE: Love God, Love neighbor.  Love, and do what you will.   Paul, exiled from his god, has now been enslaved in love by THE GOD BEYOND GOD.

Take contagion, for example.  While Matthew 10, a most difficult passage, allows of multiple readings, they all have in the background the power of contagious love.  It is a hundred years at least in Boston since the citizenry has been so aware of the dark mystery of contagion.  One finger touches another, one hand by doorknob traces another, one chill cough caught in the breeze catches up to another.  Beloved we are probably many months and tragically hundreds of thousands of deaths away from getting away from COVID 19.  Contagion is our condition.  But read the Holy Scripture, Matthew 10.  Here the power of contagion OF A GOOD SORT is the metaphor for God in the world.  Not, to be sure, the malevolent contagion of infection, virus, illness.  But the power of it.  That kind of power—and you have seen it, here and there, now and then—where one contagious prophet and prophecy touches another, where one contagious justice touches another, where one hand of faith, act of kindness, moment of self-abnegation touches, and gives birth to another.

Before you miss the chance, in a short life time, to befriend the Bible, reckon with its durability, realism, poignant sense of suffering, and depth that are at least and more a match for our own experience.  Especially today’s Gospel, Matthew 10.

Matthew 10

The authority of Jesus’ ministry is herein transferred to disciples, ancient and modern.  To you.

We meet Jesus today on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel in Matthew 10.  First. Jesus has been about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember Jesus ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect to turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples.

Hold that thought.

The clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.  Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours.

Which part of this ministry draws you?

Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.  Many at BU did so, or tried to, this Wednesday June 24.

Reading Today

In consonance with the preaching of Marsh Chapel over long time, and especially in the last three months, Boston University this week offered a full day of teaching and reflection on racism and anti-racism, this past Wednesday.  What was central, and striking, in the rich hours of presentation and discussion, were the many, and extemporaneous, references to apocalyptic, revelatory insights, recalled by the speakers—aha moments!—in reading.  In reading.  Alongside our own ministry through Marsh Chapel and Religious Life, and that of the now beautifully expanded Howard Thurman Center, which you celebrated right here in worship on January 19, 2020, the voices and leadership of the faculty, staff, presidential and provostial leadership of the University, and then that of the African American Studies Program, the Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and the new BU Center for Anti-Racism, came together in a great watershed, a confluence new in my experience.  It was wonderful.  I commend to you its recorded version.  Let me leave you with ten sentences (out of a hundred that might have been quoted) from that day, rooted in a shared, reading life:

There is nothing innate about our racial hierarchy.

The final act of violence is the very denial of violence.

The heartbeat of racism is denial.

Racism creates a group differentiated vulnerability, and premature death.

Freedom, real freedom is a whole lot more than civil rights alone.

It is unjust to ask those marginalized by the current system now alone to fix it.

Even if you can’t do empathy, can you at least do justice?

People are rediscovering their own power.

We are at a point now that comes from a movement fifty years ago.

(And last, as a cautionary note, in a sermon on reading):  We can’t just read our way out of this.  (!!)

Is yours a reading life, liberally fed by what is read?  Happy Reading, summer 2020!

Hear the gospel:  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.

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

June 21

Have You Ever Been Afraid?

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10:2439

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The text of the sermon will be posted when it is available.

-The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

June 14

Better When Loved

By Marsh Chapel

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Romans 5: 1-8

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All of us are better when we are loved.

Ride On

One day, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9-year-old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. They do. This was pre-COVID when there was still summer camp and horse camp and Methodist horse camp. But on Monday she fell off a horse, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago, somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First, he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full-throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast, straight pitch. And he hit it. He hit the ball! Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

 All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won. Number 43 is my son.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.


On October more than a few years ago, my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40-degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying. Romans 5: 1-8.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless, heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is, to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

Now friends, there are a lot of things wrong. You can find them fast enough. In climate. In culture. In corona. In classism. In racism. In connection. In church. Right now, there are a lot of things that just are wrong. It may be that the tragic, horrible death of George Floyd will galvanize and focus us, as a people, in a new and different way. There are for sure a lot of things wrong.

But friends, there are also a lot of things right. We are going to need to hold on to these, too, in order to have a future worthy of the name. Just this week I see and hear them. Where? In the self-less ministry of our BU Catholic Chaplain, Fr. David Barnes, giving last rites for two months, recently described in the New York Times. Where? In the advent of Professor Ibram X. Kendi, coming soon to BU to found a new Center for Anti-Racist Research. Where? In a kind note from a former student, Sam Needham, now finishing his PhD, applying to lead a University Chapel, hoping to ‘incorporate both academic work and pastoral leadership into my ministerial career, as you have done so well’. Where? I give no better sermonic encouragement than that found this week inn the hopeful words of our fellow Dean, School of Public Health, Boston University, Dr. Sandro Galea:

There is no question that the circumstances of the moment are unremittingly difficult. That many millions are, and will continue, suffering ill-effects from this great national trauma for years to come. That the consequences of the moment include a loss of hope and of trust in our collective capacity to grapple with complex problems and an anxiety and fear that will haunt our dreams for years. There is no question that the moment will further entrench social divides and that these divides themselves will continue to challenge our capacity to see one another as we do ourselves, separating us by widening gulfs of experience, straining our capacity for empathy.
And yet, and yet, we shall, perhaps against all odds, survive even this moment. Why? We know that the country has survived dark moments and has gone on—at least for the privileged some—to thrive. We did survive 1918, 1933, 1968, 2001. We also survived two world wars. Each of these moments seemed to defy hope, to threaten our sense of safety and stability for our world. And yet, there was a year that came after each of these moments that brought better, a dawn after a stormy night.

Each of these moments found some resolution, in some cases vastly imperfect, that allowed the country to move on. We also know, and have seen even in this moment, that the country has stores of fierce determination to survive, to get past the dark. We have seen it in the abundant cases of heroism in the face of COVID-19, in first responders—not only nurses and doctors, but also grocery store clerks and morgue attendants—who continue to do their job, at high personal risk, because it is is the right thing to do, and because it is what is needed to ensure that our society continues to function, that we make it past the moment. We have seen it in the acts of generosity that have sustained so many through the economic hardships of the moment, and in the acts of courage in the face of unimaginable adversity shown by those who are speaking for social justice, facing down entrenched systems of structural racism that are larger than all of us. The past, and the abundant traces of hope offered by the tenuous present, both suggest that we will emerge from this moment. That there shall be sun after the dark of 2020.
Dean Galea brought us a timely, saving word of loving encouragement. For love alone has the grace and power, savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

Just so, Romans 5 brings a clear, even simple, word of encouragement, some bread for the journey. Better when loved, better when loved. Like many of you, we learned first this power of encouragement from our parents. My mother died, Friday, at 7pm, in a COVID encased nursing home. We were able to be with her for the hours prior to that, an opening in protocol that came just soon enough for family to gather with her. She turned 91 last Saturday, and carried her genial and congenial spirit, her smile, her gracious spirit to the very end. Before Friday, I happened to be the last person to be immediately with her, in conversation, on March 9. After that it was only through nurses (wonderful), FaceTime (equally so), and arranged ‘through the glass’ waves and greetings with my sisters (not so good, but better than nothing). It is reminder of the torrents of unexpressed, unaddressed grief around us, that will consume our work for months, perhaps longer, into the future. And, although she did not say it directly, she surely lived it fully, this saving word of loving encouragement: all of us are better when we are loved.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we’re loved.
All of us are better when we are loved.

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

June 7

Ground of Being

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 28: 16-20

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We are a people drenched in sorrows. As this sermon is recorded, today, Wednesday, June 3, we are a nation afflicted, caught somewhere between pandemic and pandemonium. So, come with me for a moment aside, a moment apart, wherein we scour together the high ground, the background, and the common ground of our current condition, the condition our condition is in.

The High Ground

First, the high ground.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson led us toward high ground this week. He had done so before. Right here. Some of you will remember his voice in 2014 from this pulpit. Secretary Johnson preached from the Marsh pulpit on January 25, 2014. Present with Johnson and the Dean of Marsh Chapel were Charlene Hunter-Gault, two dozen BU medical students in their white coats, another physician who had been the doctor for Arthur Ashe, the then President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, and about 300 guests, family, and friends. We were present to honor the life and faithfulness of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a BU alumnus, renowned physician, and national civil rights leader. Marsh Chapel was full. At one point we asked the congregation to recite together the 23 Psalm. Family and friends in the first pew did so. Colleagues and physicians across the nave did so. Leaders of national organizations near and far did so. In the balcony, twenty white coated medical students together did so. Either at that point or another in the service they stood silently together, to honor the life and faith of the deceased. That day I met a friend a personal physician of Arthur Ashe, whose life, prowess, faithfulness and service have always so inspired me. Read again this summer his autobiography, Days of Grace. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

In the collation following the service, some of us remembered Arthur Ashe. “Arthur Ashe: Ashe suffered a heart attack in 1979. He would later undergo surgery for quadruple bypass, but continued to suffer chest pain. This forced him to retire from tennis with a record of 818-260, including his three Grand Slams.

He remains the only African-American male to have won any of these Men’s Single titles. Ashe would have to under-go a second bypass surgery in 1983. During this operation he received a blood transfusion: the blood Ashe received was infected with human immunodeficiency virus—HIV. In 1988, this discovery was made. The condition was kept private until 1992, when Ashe announced to the world, he had AIDS. When asked if having AIDS was the toughest challenge he had ever had to face, Ashe replied: “No, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with was being a black man in this society…having to live as a minority in America. Even now it feels like an extra weight tied around me.” (Blaine Spence, 2009).”

Also, in the collation following the service, Charlayne Hunter Gault introduced herself. You may remember her, as we did, from her many and fine contributions to the News Hour, with Jim Lehrer. She said, ‘I need to talk to you later about the 23 Psalm’. I was so pleased to meet her, and then so worried that I had somehow offended her, that the collation time passed anxiously. It needn’t have done. She wanted to recall a memory. A memory of her younger self. At 18. The first African American to integrate the University of Georgia. The daughter of a Baptist minister. Alone in a big place, a strange place, a new place. Walking home the third night, there were taunts and threats. The University that day had suggested she might want to go home, at least for a while. She went into her room. She closed the door. She turned out the lights. And she waited, until quiet came. And then—it was the only thing that came to her mind—the prayer of David in Psalm 23 came to her. And she spoke the psalm, alone, afraid, uncertain, at night. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.’

I do not recall the full content in that memorial of Secretary Jeh Johnson’s eulogy. I do clearly remember his necessarily taking over my downstairs office, with two fully uniformed attaches carrying the famous black box, who announced, ‘we need to be next to a telephone land line’. I do also recall what Johnson said on Tuesday of this week, keeping us focused on the high ground, the high ground. June 2, 2020: “Protest, as Martin Luther King said, is a form of language by those who believe that their voices are not heard. And the grievance here is legitimate. Protests that crosses into violence is counterproductive to the message. It undermines the message. It cedes the moral high ground and it strengthens those on the other side of the debate…looting undermines the larger effort here. It undermines the message, it distracts from it, and it gives — it strengthens the hand of those on the militant extremist law and order side.”

As the sermon last Sunday affirmed, order matters, order matters…in order that the legitimate grievance be heard, the language of protest be heard.

The Background

Second, the background. From high ground to background.

We have covered this ground, call it the background, from this pulpit, many times before. A few from several examples: We did so under the theme ‘A New Birth of Freedom’, in reference to Jeremiah Wright, January 18, 2009. We did so under the theme ‘Learning Together, in reference to Ferguson and Treyvon Martin, August 24, 2014. We did so under the theme, ‘Still Point’, in reference to the Charleston Nine, June 21, 2015. We did so under the theme ‘Bear Witness to the Truth’, in reference to Charlottesville a year earlier, November 25, 2018. We do so today under the theme ‘Ground of Being’, in reference to George Floyd. These are offered with encouragement that if you have the time and energy, you take the time and energy to read these, or other materials, to know better our background.

Not everyone will find satisfaction in listening to or reading old sermons. Pity. So, you may simply want to read, and read. So, read! Don’t scan. Read.

Start with James Baldwin:

‘Nothing is fixed forever and forever, it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting and the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down the rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them, because they are the only witnesses we have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to one another, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with each other, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out’…James Baldwin: whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves. (Letter from a Region in my Mind (New Yorker, reprint, 12/3/18)

Continue with William Faulkner, Light in August, say, something bracing and dark, Faulkner on fire:

…a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and dont try to hold him, that he cant escape from.” …He said, ‘Remember this. 240

The past is not dead. It is not even past.

But don’t stop until you have read Cornell professor Edward Baptist’s,

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. You dwell in the tenth floor of a building whose first three stories were constructed with stolen land and enslaved labor, free land and free labor, for the benefit of anyone who had or used money, then or now. Now bear with me a moment, as we cover the contours of our background.

Read Baptist on the building of the new south, 1807-1861: The massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire—this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power (xix).

Read Baptist on the investment incentives therein: And because the main in the iron collar and all who followed him into the depths of the continent would make not a luxury product but the most basic commodity in a new kind of endlessly expanding economy, there would also be no limit to the number of enslavers, or to the number of investors who would want to chase enslavement’s rewards. Only conscience, or the inability of the world’s investment markets to deploy enough savings, could impede the transfer of capital to slavery’s new frontiers (41).

Read Baptist on avarice: A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of a continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible…Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the constitution and the beginning of the Civil War. It made the nation large and unified (413).

The Common Ground

Third, the common ground. We conclude with a Trinitarian reminder of our common ground, from high ground to background to common ground, in our holy gospel.

Our gospel lesson, the conclusion of St. Matthew, is an early introduction of the Trinity, the relational mode of divinity so struggled after and so central to early Christianity. In that way, the Trinity is the original Christian common ground, the divine dimension of the possibility of relationship. We can use that reminder this morning in early June 2020. We conclude with a Trinitarian reminder of common ground, in our very humanity.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All eight billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All eight billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All eight billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All eight billion. We all age, and after age fifty its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All eight billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All eight billion.”

We conclude with a trinitarian, that is a relational reminder of common ground, in our communion with one another, the communion of saints. A reminder that given our endless fallibility and our ending mortality, we need each other.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for Eucharist. We are not together to receive together the bread and cup. But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer. And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel. Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past

Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints… Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

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