‘This I Believe’ Meditations

May 12th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

The full service and meditation are currently not available .

Jonathan Allen – JD – Liberation Theology, Critical Race Theory and Civil Rights Law; LAW’19

This I Believe:

We are all God’s children,

Interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent.

This I Believe:

Our diversity is our strength and our power.

This I Believe:

God sides with the oppressed and is actively working throughout the world to liberate those under the weight of oppression, injustice, and deprivation of life, liberty, and dignity.

This I Believe:

We have more in common than we think and therefore, share a bond that if activated can disrupt forces of evil and injustice in our world.

This I Believe:

That all things are possible and that with the power of possibility we can create a more just and equitable world.

This I Believe:

The best is yet to come and that with faith, hope, and love we are indeed better together.

This I Believe:

If God is the Creator, and we are God’s Creation, then the best way to get to know more about God is to spend more time with what God has made.

This I Believe:

Life is a collection of moments; therefore, we must cherish each one.

This I Believe:

NO weapon formed against us shall prosper, we are more than conquers.

This I Believe:

God is greater, wiser, smarter, more caring, and more involved in our lives than our human capacity can conceive.

This I Believe:

We have an obligation, a collective responsibility, to treat all living things with dignity and respect. And thus, our obligation requires that we work diligently to eradicate dehumanization.

This I Believe:

Irrespective of our religious affirmations, God’s love and heart for justice transcends doctrine.

I believe in our capacities to make change. I believe that we are inherently good.

I believe that anything that divides us is counter-goodness and Anti-God.

I believe that regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, educational level, religious background, gender, or even political party, that we need each other.

I believe that we are greater than our worst mistake or misjudgment, and are therefore, worthy of forgiveness and restoration.

I believe God is everywhere, capable of living in everyone, and can do anything.

I believe, we, as God’s offspring, are equipped to foster greater harmony in our communities through empathy and intentionality.

I believe that leaders concerned with social transformation must take care of themselves by developing self- awareness, social-awareness, and spiritual-awareness.

This I Believe:

That LOVE is the answer to all things. This I Believe!

Carolyn Hoffman – BA – International Relations; CAS’19

If the past four years have taught me anything, it is that life can be unpredictable. The major you began freshman year in has absolutely no interest to you anymore? Sure. The dryer in the laundry room does not actually dry your clothes in one cycle? You bet. The BU Bus is not around the corner as the app claims but is instead all the way at the medical campus? Every other day it seems.

But in all seriousness, my time as an undergraduate student at Boston University has fast-tracked my life from being a 17-year-old nervous about how to spend the weekends to a 21-year-old who is employed, in a graduate program and with a partner I want to spend the rest of my life with. This evolution did not happen overnight; it happened over minutes, hours, days, weeks and years of hard work, late night snacks and purchasing of face masks that claimed to rejuvenate my extremely tired-looking face.

I have mental illness, and for the last year I’ve been battling depression. I’ve had anxiety for almost my whole life, and I began seeing a therapist when I was 10. In high school I began medication for generalized anxiety and it made a world of difference. My sophomore year in college I began having panic attacks, and I started additional medication for that. But depression is unfamiliar to me, and that has made my mental illnesses even more unpredictable.

As someone with mental illness in her family, you could say that I was genetically predisposed to it. But as a “type A” student at a challenging university, I would say that predisposed me to mental illness even more. My longing for perfection in all aspects of my life—academics, extracurriculars, relationships etc.—is countered by the reality that there are only 24 hours in a day, and it is impossible to make everyone happy while making sure I am happy.

I, like many students, appear perfectly fine on the outside because I am able to hide behind the façade of my resume. President of this, co-chair of that, Honors in this…the list goes on but the reality is skewed. Too often I fear that disclosing my mental illness will result in others’ thinking I am less capable and less stable. But I realize that in doing so, I am preventing myself from living authentically.

I believe that if we talk about our mental illness experiences, not only would mental illness become less stigmatized but the world would also become a better place. Being vulnerable with loved ones and strangers is scary but necessary if we wish to create a more compassionate and empathetic society. If we hide our stories, we do ourselves the injustice of limiting support and failing to speak our truth.

I have mental illness, but mental illness doesn’t have me. I am not defined by my mental illness and neither are you. I have faith that we can join together by sharing our stories in order to eliminate, once and for all, the silent suffering of those with mental illness.

Katherine Ward – BS – Biomedical Engineering; ENG’19

My journey these last four years through Boston University and my spiritual growth journey are intertwined and inseparable. The physical journey to Boston wasn’t trivial: home is 918 miles away, my closest distant relative is in Philadelphia and the closest person from my high school graduating class was going to college in Washington, D.C. I quickly realized when I got here that the culture I grew up in and the culture of Boston University were vastly different.

I was alone.

I knew regardless of where I went to college that I wanted to form my own religious affiliation now that I had left the private Presbyterian school I attended for 12 years. I came to Marsh Chapel my first Sunday at Boston University because it was the closest walk from Warren Towers. I’m not sure whether it was the space, the stained glass, or the music but Marsh instantly felt familiar. While I personally identified with the Episcopal tradition, I never felt the need to look elsewhere for a church home once I came to Marsh.

So I stayed.

I stayed until the people became familiar faces and then close friends. I kept coming long enough that I eventually grew out of my habit of sitting alone in the pews on Sunday and then heading straight to study to Mugar library alone for the rest of the day. I became an advocate for the small community of Episcopal students on campus and worshipped regularly with the Episcopal chaplains Cameron Partridge and then Karen Coleman. I began to look forward to the community dinners and even studying for finals because of the study retreats organized by Brother Larry. I found my community and my family, my home away from home.

Now that I have attended my last community dinner and my last study retreat, I can look back on this whirlwind trip through Boston University. I can’t imagine what my journey would have looked like without Marsh, as it was an integral part of every week I spent on campus. Once I paused to reflect a bit, I realized that God was behind all of this. God’s spirit is in this space, the people who fill it, and the sounds that resonate inside of it.

About this time next week, my journey through Boston University will be complete.

Maybe I’ll return back to Boston and to this community at Marsh that I’ve come to call family, or maybe I won’t. But, no matter what, the experiences and memories I’ve formed here are coming along with me for the next leg of the journey.

Karey Statin – BS/MS – Political Science and Urban Affairs; CAS 18′ and MET’19

I believe that we can learn to live as one human race. We have the capacity to eradicate the embedded racism that has been reinforced by fear and greed. We have the intelligence to cure all diseases physical and mental, if we choose to work together and share all experiences and knowledge. We have the strength to overcome all challenges foreign and domestic, external and internal, if we unite as one. We have the power to decimate all forces of evil, if we join together in faith. We have the love to conquer hate, if we individually and collectively treat everyone the way we would like to be treated.

I believe that in order to achieve our real and true potential, we must be willing to change. We must seek the truth and release the lies we have been taught. We must accept our own faults and strive to make the right corrections. We must be willing to learn and acknowledge the commonalities that we share with others that don’t look like us. We must face our fears and denounce the hypocrisy that created, and continue to fuel them. We must relinquish our unfounded advantages, to remove unfair disadvantages imposed on others. We must sacrifice our gains to empower those who have been denied opportunities through systematic oppression. We must, with purpose and intention, visually and expressively change positively to encourage others to embrace our change, and to make the same change for themselves.

I believe, because after initially coming to Boston University in 1978 and experiencing the positive change of attitudes and behaviors toward each other showing a new respect of individual persons and cultures. Now, nearly two generations later, I believe because in spite of all the chaos and pessimism, I see optimism in the eyes of my schoolmates here at BU, and I hear optimism in the expressions and conversations of my classmates. So, I know we are headed in the right direction.

Finally, I believe with our Creator guiding and leading us all the way, we will all become the best versions of ourselves, as He who began a good work in us has and is careful to see it to completion.

Denise-Nicole Stone – BS – International Relations; CAS’19

My sophomore year, after reading the book, This I Believe which compiled accounts from the NPR segment, I wrote my own version. When thinking about writing this, I went back to it, curious to see what has changed in the past two years. I wrote that I believed in presence and appreciation, that these tenants drove the core of my being.

This assessment holds generally true. However, I think I would define it differently now. Now, I say that I believe in bearing witness. Bearing witness to the beauty, heartbreak and complexity of life. I think this journey; the good, horrible, and mundane moments of life, is sacred and worthy of sincere attention.

My BU experience, and especially the past two years, has been full of opportunities to explore new topics in a variety of situations. They have taken me to Israel, Geneva, South Africa and St. Louis. They have asked me to explore restorative justice, international responses to conflict, peacebuilding, the shortcomings of aid and the challenges of community. I have seen the capacity of people to address challenges and collaborate for healing, and to do immense harm to one another.

Bearing witness is not merely to see. It is to allow all that we have seen to change us and alter how we approach the world. It is active. It is a commitment to hold the stories of those we have met and to carry them with us. It is a commitment to try to understand what can be understood and above all to honor our human connections. I believe in sitting with tension and discomfort, wrestling with pain and love in community and asking questions of myself and others. How am I contributing to this situation? How can I disrupt cycles of harm? What are our responsibilities to one another?

What I believe has changed slightly since Sophomore year, it has evolved and been clarified by my experiences. The college years are dedicated to such growth. It is a period of near constant change and opportunity. As I leave this space, I hope life continues to teach me, challenge me and that in 2 years I will be able to further refine my beliefs.

I want to live in a way that interrupts harm, that bears witness to all of life and that honors my connection to all people.

This I believe.


This Holy Mystery

May 5th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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John 21: 1-19

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In the Morning

The sermon begins with a recitation of Psalm 110, in gender neutral language.

Habits lead us forward.  Come Easter. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human. At the tomb.  Come Resurrection. This is a Holy Mystery.

Jan and I have grave plots in the local cemetery of Eaton, NY.  Where is Eaton? Exactly. It is nowhere. We bought them for $400 each, which is a real estate bargain.  Especially when you amortize the amount over eternity! All need to plan ahead, one way or another. In addition to burial or equivalent, you will want to employ the Robert Allan Hill planning for post-retirement system:  OOPS. O O P S. My mom always remembers the OOPS but then asks, what do they stand for? Order of worship. Obituary. Photo. Special papers (DNR, will).

Over the Hill from the fancy Hill post-retirement real estate there is a little town, Oriskany Falls, dating, like the graves in Eaton, from just after the American Revolution.  Our friend’s dad, Russell Clark, a Colgate and BU graduate, loved life as a pastor there. One winter a farmer, his lay leader died, and the widow was not in church for a long time.  The pastor tried to console and help, but she didn’t want company. Grief is a slippery dragon. If I had another two lifetimes I would spend half of one really studying, trying to understand grief.  It is a dark stranger, an opaque mystery, individual to each. For Russell’s Oriskany Falls widow it was too. Then one day she called to say that she would like a pastoral visit. She told him something, when he asked how she was doing.  She began: Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev.  (You know you are already in trouble with that prelude.)  It has been so unutterably hard for me.  There were days when I could not get out of bed.  But I did. And do know why? It wasn’t the resurrection sermons I have heard. No.  What got me going, got me out of bed was…the chickens. Every morning at dawn they would fuss, and rustle around and cluck, waiting to be fed.  They were hungry and they needed feeding. So I got up and put on my robe and went out and fed them. By then the sun was up, by then the mist was lifted, by then I was awake, and by then I could stand the thought of breakfast, and after that, well the day opened up.  So don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. (you know you are in trouble when…), don’t take this the wrong way, but the clucking of those hens meant more to me in my grief than all the hymns of Easter.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.

You see?  The rhythms of life, evening and morning one day, detailed disciplined attention to the routine can by grace admit illumination, the light in which we see light.  Including religious practice. Joanna, the newcomer, found it so. So can you, especially if you on Easter are a newcomer, looking for a first helping, an initial course in faith, a church family to love and church home to enjoy.  Particularly in grief. It is one thing to attend to religious practice, and another to do so, to visit the body, when you have loved the person. As some of you have done so this year.

A Later Addition

Here are some notes about the unusual chapter John 21, our Gospel today.  R Brown: *An added account of a post-resurrectional appearance of Jesus in Galilee, which is used to show how Jesus provided for the needs of the church.  *1-14; 15-23; 24-25… *‘The gospel never circulated without 21’…. *Appendix, supplement, or epilogue?… *Stylistic differences…. *We shall work on the hypothesis of composition by a redactor… *Material drawn from the same ‘general reservoir of Johannine tradition’… *Completion or correction? (RAH)…  *Other miraculous catches of fish (Lk 5)… *Ecclesiastical and Eucharistic and Eschatology, symbolism of the chapter… *‘There are good reasons for finding Eucharistic symbolism in the meal’…*15-17 ‘Peter’s rehabilitation’ (!)… *‘As shepherd, Peter’s authority is not absolute’. *Did the community think the BD would not die?* Dodd:  ‘The naïve conception of Christ’s second advent in 21: 22 is unlike anything else in the Fourth Gospel’…*Thus, while the differences are not significant enough on their own to suggest that the original author did not write the 21st chapter, it does texture its continuity: *it is not immediately apparent why the original author, “wishing to add to his own book, would add [to] it in so clumsy a manner” (577)… *This chapter occurs after a strong conclusion (ch. 20:30). It is rhetorically weak to have material after a strong conclusion. *The chronological introduction of the narrative (“After these things Jesus showed himself again”) is strikingly less precise than other temporally-concerned introductions (ch. 20:1: “Early on the first day of the week;” v19: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week;” and v26: “A week later.”)…* From these comments, Barrett suggests that chapter 21 be read as if it were a metaphorical account of the birth of the early Christian church *for the purpose of explicating the different, yet equally important, roles of Peter and the beloved disciple, penned by a second author (577). Read this way, we are to see the disciples as “catching men” (579)… *“pastoral ministry and historical-theological testimony” (587).

Lessons For Us

Our Gospel today offers us three lessons.

The first is that change, amendment, development, becoming are not only a part of life and life in faith, but also and earlier so, found right in the heart of the Bible.  The Fourth Gospel, twenty chapters long, written in the years leading toward 90 a.d., was composed out of sermons stitched together: a wedding in Cana, Nicodemus at night, the woman at the well, healings of body, feeding 5,000, debates with opponents, sight given to the blind, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus in farewell, passion and resurrection.  But then, a decade later, another chapter was added, because another chapter was needed. And all the things left out of the Gospel—so beautiful the Gospel—now have their time to appear or re-appear: the importance of the church, the centrality of leadership, the holy mystery of communion, the inherited tradition of the eschaton, the rehabilitation of Peter, the importance of pastoral care, the significance of evangelism.  The Bible has a story, too, and it is a story of becoming, not of static changelessness, but of adaptation, flexibility, formation—evolution. The Gospel ends in chapter 20, and is re-started in 21. If you find that you are changing, learning, growing—GRADUATING, well, you have some hints about how that happens, in the Holy Scripture. New occasions teach new duties.

The second is that institutions matter a whole lot, including the church.  If you eliminate ethics and pollute politics and contaminate culture, then you are left to go all the way upstream, from ethics and politics and culture, into the higher ground, the colder waters of religion.  The thing about institutions is that they don’t go away, they just either get better or worse. Love is finding a way to use time, even to waste some time, in the advancement of institutional health, in learning virtue and piety, in knowing, doing and being.  In leadership. Leading by example.

(The Methodist church hit an iceberg in February, for instance, and we are a long way from beginning to fathom the cost, damage, impact and consequence that crash.  It was an institutional failure of colossal proportion, and a spiritual defeat of colossal dimension. There is enough blame and responsibility to go all around. The question now is how to care for him who has borne the battle and his widow and his orphan and do all we can to attain a just and lasting peace, for ourselves, and for all.  Start with ten facts:

St Louis was decided by 27 votes.

42 votes were neither cast nor counted.

2/3 of US votes were liberal.

Of $400M spent outside the US by the UMC in 2017 $398M came out of US collection plates. (Funds 1,4,7).

In Finding Our Way 2014 the African UMC general superintendent referred to gay people as ‘beasts of the field’.

In 1972 mainline Christians were 33% of the US population; today 11%.

In 1972 ‘nones’ were 4% of the population; today 24%.

All but 6 UMC general superintendents finally supported the One Church plan, but they did not say so clearly and early with signatures.

Baldwin Wallace University in April 26, 2019 severed its 174 year old affiliation with the UMC by unanimous vote of the University Trustees.

Marsh Chapel marries gay people and employs and deploys gay clergy on a regular basis.

The third is that personal concern, and pastoral care, feed feed feed, have no substitute in the peculiar holy mystery of the church.  We are present for each other come Sunday. We are present for each other in Sacrament.  We are present for each other in fellowship. We are present for each other in education.  We are present for each other in visitation. We are present for each other in spoken prayer.  We are present for each other in care. In the ministry, stay close to your people. In the church, stay close to your neighbors in town and in the pew.  Love one another, as Christ has loved you.

On Friday, after senior breakfast, I met a new friend, who said, with some poise and calm, ‘well, I guess people gathering once a week to be together and remind each other to be good people and become better people, I guess that’s not such a bad thing’.  I guess not.

The sermon concludes with a recitation of the Canadian Creed.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

“Divine Presence”

April 28th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Good morning! Happy Eastertide! Happy Earth Day! There are so many things to be thankful for this morning. Some of us are nearing the end of another academic year, some of us are finishing degrees, and some of us are just happy that life appears to be returning to Boston – trees are sprouting new leaves, flowers are in bloom, and you can hear birds singing in the early morning hours. I’m happy for all of these reasons. Happy for my students that they have succeeded academically through another semester, happy for those who finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that is accomplishing a graduate or undergraduate degree, happy that we have a constant reminder that new life and growth is possible. Plus, we’ve entered into the 50 days of Eastertide, a time when we rejoice in the reality of resurrection – of finding hope when there appears to be no hope left.

Today’s gospel tells us the familiar story of Christ appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. The disciples were frightened, having just lost their teacher and friend via state execution, probably wondering if the same fate would await them as his followers. Even though Jesus indicated that he would return, the disciples did not think it was a possibility. They didn’t believe the prophecies that Jesus proclaimed during his life which prepared the way for his return. So, when he appeared before them in a locked room, they of course were unsure how to process the information in front of them. But after Jesus appears to them, they tell Thomas, who happened to be away that evening. Thomas, like the others, cannot believe that Jesus could be back. He knows that Jesus died and for the others to claim that he was alive again does not make any sense. Jesus still appears to Thomas, who insists on physically touching the wounds of Christ to fully accept that he had, in fact, returned to life after death. Jesus appears and acquiesces to Thomas’ need for physical confirmation, but cautions that those who have faith in the reality of the divine presence of Christ in the world after his death are especially blessed. Should we criticize Thomas for his insistence on getting to see what the other disciples also saw the week previous? I don’t think so – Thomas is trying to wrap his head around an impossible possibility. The only thing that will change his mind is the assurance of divine presence.

This past Monday was Earth Day. Maybe you were extra aware of this because of local initiatives to remind you to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Or maybe you celebrated Arbor Day this past Friday by planting a tree. Here at the chapel, we hosted over 20 BU students and staff to make their own tiny terrariums to help green their desks, dorm rooms, or apartments. Earth Day is our yearly reminder to be more in tune with the state of our home. It’s like a state of the union for the planet. A time when we can choose to tune in and analyze the ways we’ve contributed to healing the Earth and in what ways we could be doing better. I recognize that not everyone has the same frame of mind when it comes to the importance of Earth Day – I am particularly attuned as someone who studies and analyzes environmental problems and the ways in which our Christian faith can guide our care and concern for the Earth.

At the beginning of this month, I attended an eco-symposium which brought together scholars and activists in the field of ecological justice and environmental sustainability to think about the ways that we can collaborate with one another to create change and the roles that faith can play in making that change. It was a great opportunity to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to share the ways that they are incorporating concern for the Earth into teaching, preaching, and civic engagement at both local and global scales. One of the presenters was the Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies here at BU, Dr. Adil Najam. Dr. Najam co-authored the Third and Fourth Assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the guiding document for scientists and other environmental policy advocates on the issues of climate change. Dr. Najam made an excellent point in his presentation to us. If you were to look at the Earth as an outsider like you would assess a country, based on overall economics, health, and sustainability, our planet would not seem like a very good place to live. In fact, Dr. Najam referred to the Earth as “Third World planet.” A large portion of our population is impoverished, many face illnesses and even death on a daily basis, and the overall health and sustainability of our planet is poor and decreasing each day. Dr. Najam called our present time an “Age of Adaptation” in which we must address several failures that have led us to our current status – failure of wisdom about scientific consensus, failure to negotiate the necessary responses and responsibility for contributions to climate change, failure of vulnerability between those who are affected and those who cause problems, and a failure of morality in not fully understanding the ethical implications of the complex environmental, political, social, and economic factors at play.[1] He advocated that there needs to be massive overhauls in how we understand our relationships to one another as neighbors living on the same planet, and also how we view our relationship with the Earth.

My belief in the centrality of Christian faith to guide our ethical decisions based in nature is primarily centered in a God-infused understanding of the world held in tension with a notion of God as wholly other and beyond human comprehension. The paradoxical nature of the assertion that God is both fully immanent, that is, present to us through the world around us, while at the same time transcendent, or separate and completely other. My claim to this understanding of the divine develops out of my Lutheran heritage that continuously asks followers of Christ to hold contrasting ideas together about divine relationships with humanity and the world. Luther’s own use of the idea of “finitium capax infiniti” or the finite bearing the infinite, amplifies this paradoxical nature. In particular, he uses this concept in discussing the nature of the Lord’s Supper, asserting that the original elements of bread and wine maintain their qualities while the divine is intermingled with them. Lutheran theologians and ethicists embrace a paradoxical way of approaching the world to guide the pursuit of self-understanding and seeking knowledge about the divine, and then ultimately, the ways in which we can employ such knowledge in our world.

Recently, the presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote an article for Living Lutheran, the monthly magazine of the ELCA. The title of the article was “All Created Things” in which Bishop Eaton discussed the importance of maintaining our connections with the world and environments around us. She started by quoting Luther who wrote, “God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.” The idea that all creatures are deeply infused with the presence of the divine is something carried through Luther’s theological claims. God is the undergirding force of all life on Earth – the alpha and omega, beginning and end, an intimate part of life on Earth. Reflecting on this divine presence, Bishop Eaton cautions “…setting ourselves apart from the creation is also physically and spiritually deadly for humans…Physical alienation has spiritual consequences.”[2] The more we disconnect ourselves from the world around us, the less contact we have with the divine. The less we see the ways that our actions affect others, both human and otherkind, the less we see ourselves as a part of the divinely-infused creation. We are incomplete if we deny our relationship with the Earth because that relationship is just as essential as every other relationship we hold dear to us.

It is often difficult to remember that we are a part of the creation. We are so caught up in our daily existence of going to work or school, attending this meeting or that event, caring for our family members, paying bills, making sure we’re keeping up with current trends, or even just spending hours staring at screens all day. We lose touch with the fact that we are a part of the natural world; that our actions have consequences, that we depend on the Earth’s systems for our continued existence. We all want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe and healthy foods to eat. We want these things ensured for future generations as well. But many times we do not act that way. We pretend that our individual behaviors are not contributing to environmental degradation. We choose convenience over sustainability. We want to protect other species of animals, like polar bears floating on untethered glaciers, but not if it’s going to create more work for us. Or we simply don’t know how to respond – it’s easier to push images of deadly wildfires, droughts, or flooding off into the corners of our minds if we are not directly impacted by them. We can’t see climate change as it happens. It’s hard to be fully conscious of long-term changes in sea levels and loss of biodiversity when we have so much else to be concerned about in our immediate future. We may love the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the calm of sitting next to the Charles River or the top of a mountain, but we find it hard to keep the divine nature infused in each and every bit of the world around us in mind on a daily basis.

For many of us today, just connecting with our human neighbors seems difficult let alone connecting with the rest of creation. We have found new and inventive ways of separating ourselves from one another – not only by physical location or physical barriers, but also through mindsets that automatically close us off from hearing information that could lead to greater understanding and appreciation of our neighbors. If all creatures are filled with the divine presence that is more intimate to them than they could ever know themselves, then all humans also possess this same quality. We encounter difficulties in seeing others as bearers of divine presence repeatedly through racism, xenophobia, and bigotry – the most recent example of which just took place yesterday at Chabad Synagogue of Poway on the final day of Passover and six months after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Or we can recall the attacks on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka last Sunday during Easter services…or the devastating mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last month. We continue to face the racism and xenophobia of those seeking asylum in the US, with thousands of children still separated from their families in detention centers around the country. Issues like these will continue to increase as climate change leads to massive migrations of people who will be climate refugees – unable to live in their current home countries because of drought, flooding, famine, or other conditions that will make life unbearable. Our world is in crisis in more ways than one and we must find new ways to respond.

The other day, a friend of mine posted about Fred Rogers. You might be familiar with Mr. Rogers from his PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Many of us grew up with him welcoming us into his home as one of his neighbors, taking us on adventures to learn how crayons are made or explaining that it’s okay to feel our emotions, and how to use our imaginations to take a small yellow and red trolley to a Neighborhood of Make Believe with a King and Queen, talking tigers, owls, and cats. Mr. Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister. While his show wasn’t overly religious, it exuded the central principles of Christianity in secular ways. Mr. Rogers was all about instilling messages of love and kindness in children while also helping them navigate the world around them. The quote that my friend posted an excerpt of what Mr. Rogers said he would want his last broadcasted message to be. He stated:

Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be. And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way. If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes on their neighbor and realize, ‘My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and that there never will be.’ If they could value that person – if they could love that person – in ways that we know the Eternal loves us, then I would be grateful.[3]

Mr. Rogers reminds us that we should value the uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves, because of our connections to the divine. While he may not use the language of divine presence, his words point to an divine presence that makes each person unique and valuable. Recognition of the unique value of other people is obviously needed in our world today. We can also expand Mr. Rogers’ valuation of human uniqueness to our non-human neighbors as well.

What we need and desire is connection. Our relationships are the things that bind us together as a community. Our selves, our communities, our Earth are built upon the divine presence that undergirds us all. As many of you sitting in the congregation know, I completed my dissertation this year in ecological ethics. Obviously, I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go by without sharing a quote from it with you that I think is particularly apt to the message of locating divine presence in all things:

To stand in the sight of the Earth requires us to acknowledge we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves that is a complex web of interactions. Observing the self as a part of this complex web, with the potential to create and destroy on small and grand scales, brings into question what the human role should be in light of the world. If we are truly a part of God’s creation – not just stewards, but intimately connected with the Earth through our very being – then we must acknowledge that our relationship with the Earth requires the same sort of consideration our other close relationships ask of us. To care. To love. To protect. To seek justice.[4]

We have the capacity for the care and ingenuity needed to address the daunting global environmental problems that we and others will face. We may not have Christ standing before us to prove divine presence in the world, but we do have each other AND the world which can remind us of God’s grace and love. If we are able to recognize the Divine presence in each being – human or not – then we can begin to take responsibility for one another. In our local contexts, whether it is our neighborhood, town, or ecosystem, we have the tools already present to us that can help us develop new ways of being in the world. We can expand our care for one another out of the love that Christ showed to us by recognizing the divine nature infused in each and every thing around us. We can respect the uniqueness of each person, each plant, each animal and what it offers to our Earth community that keeps us bound together in an interconnected web of creation.


– Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Adil Najam, “Age of Adaptation,” Presentation at Boston Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education, April 5, 2019.

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “All Created Things,” Living Lutheran, March 29, 2019, Accessed April 1, 2019: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/03/all-created-things/.

[3] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 161.

[4] Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, God, Self Humanity Earth: Christian Ecological Ethics in Local Contexts, PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 2019, 271.

In Thy Light We See Light

April 21st, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

Audio for this Sunday service is currently unavailable. Please check back soon.

Luke 24:1-12


The Lord is Risen!  Indeed.

In thy light, we see light, confesses the church of Christ.  In thy light we see light…in Wonder…Weakness…Whimsy. “In lumine tuo videbimus lumen.”

Joanna, otherwise a stranger to us, has been included, in Luke, in the group of women who religiously approach the tomb.  She is a newcomer. You may be too. You may be leaning toward, even longing for, a first encounter in faith. Good.  In the main, this service, in the main every sermon, is mainly meant for you.

Joanna, and others. You. You are here on Easter.  Something, some lingering memory of a lingering memory, has brought you along. Ordinary, regular religious practice—ask Joanna—can sometimes, suddenly, surprisingly, bring illumination.   Our preaching, here, is in part for those who are in between. Not religious enough to come to church every Sunday, but religious enough to listen.  Still within earshot. A paper, a bagel, a to enter a bit of religious practice from afar, by radio, by i-pod, by internet, by computer. Come Easter, many have come here. Not preaching to the choir—at least not ONLY to the choir! The beauty of the Marsh pulpit: not preaching to the choir, but to the driver, the bagel muncher, the i-pod user on a bicycle, the ecclesiastical expatriate, the atheist, the one harmed by the church, the musician attuned—seemingly—only to the music, the academic, the lonely at home.

Our festival today affirms that religious practice, affirms your choice to be hear, to listen in, and affirms that the detailed discipline of attention to the sacred, can be showered with light.  They are keeping the Sabbath by waiting until the first day of the week. They are keeping tradition by anointing the body, with materials earlier prepared. They are keeping faith by facing death.  By visiting the tomb, the flesh, the corpse. Habits lead us forward. At early dawn. Death makes us mortal. Facing death makes us human. At the tomb.

Jan and I have grave plots in the local cemetery of Eaton, NY.  Where is Eaton? Exactly. It is nowhere. We bought them for $400 each, which is a real estate bargain.  Especially when you amortize the amount over eternity! All need to plan ahead, one way or another. In addition to burial or equivalent, you will want to employ the Robert Allan Hill planning for post-retirement system:  OOPS. O O P S. My mom always remembers the OOPS but then asks, what do they stand for? Order of worship. Obituary. Photo. Special papers (DNR, will).

Over the Hill from the fancy Hill post-retirement real estate there is a little town, Oriskany Falls, dating, like the graves in Eaton, from just after the American Revolution.  Our friend’s dad, Russell Clark, a Colgate and BU graduate, loved life as a pastor there. One winter a farmer, his lay leader died, and the widow was not in church for a long time.  The pastor tried to console and help, but she didn’t want company. Grief is a slippery dragon. If I had another two lifetimes I would spend half of one really studying, trying to understand grief.  It is a dark stranger, an opaque mystery, individual to each. For Russell’s Oriskany Falls widow it was too. Then one day she called to say that she would like a pastoral visit. She told him something, when he asked how she was doing.  She began: Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev.  (You know you are already in trouble with that prelude.)  It has been so unutterably hard for me.  There were days when I could not get out of bed.  But I did. And do know why? It wasn’t the resurrection sermons I have heard. No.  What got me going, got me out of bed was…the chickens. Every morning at dawn they would fuss, and rustle around and cluck, waiting to be fed.  They were hungry and they needed feeding. So I got up and put on my robe and went out and fed them. By then the sun was up, by then the mist was lifted, by then I was awake, and by then I could stand the thought of breakfast, and after that, well the day opened up.  So don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. (you know you are in trouble when…), don’t take this the wrong way, but the clucking of those hens meant more to me in my grief than all the hymns of Easter.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.

You see?  The rhythms of life, evening and morning one day, detailed disciplined attention to the routine can by grace admit illumination, the light in which we see light.  Including religious practice. Joanna, the newcomer, found it so. So can you, especially if you on Easter are a newcomer, looking for a first helping, an initial course in faith, a church family to love and church home to enjoy.  Particularly in grief. It is one thing to attend to religious practice, and another to do so, to visit the body, when you have loved the person. As some of you have done so this year.

These daily rhythms, in Easter fact, do in fact matter, a great deal. They matter in life, and they matter all year long, too.   Our Gospel this year, Luke 24: 1-12, follows on Luke’s keen interest in history—Roman history, Palestinian history, church history—by following the women to the tomb.  They are going about their regular rhythms, in the hour of death. They are finding ritual hand holds as they walk the dark path, the pre-dawn path, of grief. In grief, they stick to their regular routines.

And along they come, toward us, along the practice road. Your bit of religious practice has brought you out into the light.  How so? Just what are we doing here? Joanna and the women, moving at dawn, through the mist, toward the tomb, attending to the routine practices of the day, may teach us.    

Teach us what? What do we see illumined by the light in which see light?




In thy light we see…wonder.

They might affirm what we find all around us, when we pause.  At dawn, through the mist, toward the tomb, they find joy, order, humor, hope, virtue, beauty, music.  

There is the sweet scent of a newborn child, silent in the arm.  

There is the orderly happiness of that rarest of arts, a well-written email.  

There is touch of humor.

There is a calm.  Drop thy still dews of quietness ‘til all our strivings cease.  Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess, the beauty of thy peace.

There is the native hue of resolution behind hope.

There is the patterned simplicity of a well lived life.

There is the beauty of dawn or sunset or both.  There is music, beautiful music, invisible beauty, the ringing beauty of music.  

There are hints and allegations and forms of presence.  You cannot be fully alive, humanly speaking, and miss them.  Wonder.

Joanna teaches us:  The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder.  Or was that GK Chesterton?

Joanna teaches us: Philosophy begins in wonder. Or was that the founder of Boston Personalism, Borden Parker Bowne?

Joanna teaches us (trigger warning for academics here):   The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it.  The larger the lake of learning, the longer the lakeshore of mystery that surrounds it.  Or was that Ralph Sockman?

Joanna teaches us: I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.  Or was that e. e. cummings?

Joanna teaches us:  Just what are you going to do with your one beautiful life? Or was that Mary Oliver?

You listen to a child singing alone just before falling to sleep, and tell me you sense no enchantment?  

You watch a 9-year old, ball glove on, striding toward Fenway park, other hand in his Dad’s other hand, and tell me you sense no amazement?  

You see Lake Lucille.  You look down from the Matterhorn.  You walk in mid- December through a jewelry store.  And no wonder?

You come into a barn at dawn, with the milking in gear, and Louis Armstrong on the radio.  You watch a daughter caring for her father in the last month of life.  You hear the hymns of Easter.  And tell me you sense no enchantment? No wonder? No “thaumadzon”?

In thy light we see wonder.  Joanna schools us about wonder.


In thy light we see…weakness, too. Easter, inside the tomb, our frailty, our mortality, our fallibility is all too clear, well illumined you might say.

Twenty years ago, a good friend and I were competing for a position, which he ended up winning.  But so often the things we think we really want, don’t turn out to be that desirable. This winter, strangely, so quietly that I almost missed it, he said, of that job, I wish there were do-overs in life. On that one, I wish I had a do-over chance with that one.  It was a gracious, Easter, moment.  You know, sometimes, we get things wrong.  We err. You learn most, if you will let yourself, from mistakes.  

Inside the tomb, you see, in the shadow, as you see, there is much bowing and perplexity. Luke is accused sometimes of a lighter cross, that is, of seeing the cross as a human mistake, a rueful misjudgment on the part of his contemporaries, rather than the great Pauline cross of divine justice, righteousness, atonement and redemption.  Well, what of it? Let’s let Luke have his say: surely this man was innocent. (Remember Good Friday?)  A miscarriage of justice. Surely the cross is not less than that, whatever more it may be.  Luke tends to love the human side of things. So, Luke is more Methodist than Presbyterian, more Wesleyan than Calvinist.  He loves history, theology, the poor, and the church.

Most notably, we may humbly mention, the last sentence was not included in the RSV text, and would not have been read just a few years ago.  It (vs 12) is attached here, but only with cautions, for in truth it is probably a later addition. Added? Yes, added. Added to include Peter.  Added?  Yes, added.  Added to fit with what will come later near Emmaus.  Added? Yes, added. Added to record Peter’s ‘amazement’, which a few years ago was better translated ‘wondering’, which word has a tinge of perplexity, bewilderment, and uncertainty.

There is an admitted weakness, a humility, a vulnerability about Peter in the Gospels that does not always appear in the life of the church. Peter, in the Bible, is more humble than his church, in history.  Peter, come lately, at least scurries, at least sees, at least shows some humility before what in any case is beyond us. Come Easter, we may meditate on the importance, the propriety, of humility before what in any case is beyond us.

The natural horror of earthquake.  The historical tragedy of warfare. The social failure of poverty.  The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. Wonder comes along with a full measure of our weakness.  There is no avoiding or evading, and, worse, no explaining. As Ivan Karamazov tellingly put it, even one, just one suffering innocent defies explanation or defense.   Ours will be a muted, a humble, wonder, won by living through more than by thinking through.

 It is strange.  Some of the strongest people, the most radiant and generous, are often those who know weakness, who are living ‘after’ and ‘over against’ and ‘nonetheless’, and ‘in spite of’.   I knew ‘David’ for several years, admiring and enjoying his radiant generosity, his love for his family, before over lunch I learned his early loss of his first wife.  Emile Fackenheim, Canadian Jewish philosopher, said of his faith practice, post holocaust, that he lived so in order to deny Hitler any posthumous victory.  

In thy light we see weakness.  Joanna schools us about our weakness.


In thy light we see…whimsy, too.


The Gospel of Luke later makes a telling point: ‘he showed himself to those who loved him’.  Those who hear and receive the abandon, the self-abandon of faith, ‘see’ Him. Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly, like the angels. Not by historical inquiry, but by participation is the gospel known (Tillich).  By routine, by regular practice of faith in worship and learning and service.

Whimsy.   God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. Freedom means this: Reality is the arena of God’s cosmic process of redemption. (What is going on around us is infused with the divine.  Freedom is the Easter gospel laid bare, and lived out in happy abandon. It is the freedom to live each day on tip toe, to live each day as if it were the last, to live each day with abandon, to live each day with self-forgetful freedom.  Lost in wonder, love and praise! Or, lost in wonder, weakness, and whimsy. Watch fight and pray and live rejoicing every day.

A priest, minister and rabbi were driving across Ireland and had car trouble.  They emerged from the car and could see no one, only a horse. Suddenly a horse leaned over the fence and said, ‘Open the hood, and let me have a look’.  ‘You are a talking horse?’. ‘Yes. Clean the gaskets and retry the ignition.’ The car purred, and off the clergy trio drove, terrified. They stopped in a nearby pub to calm their nerves. ‘You look terrible’ said the barkeep.  ‘What happened to you?’ ‘You won’t believe it. The car broke down. Then a horse came up and spoke, and fixed the car’. ‘Really? What color was the horse?’ ‘Black. Why?’ ‘Well, you were lucky it wasn’t the white horse.’ “There is white horse over there, too?  But he doesn’t speak?’. ‘Oh, no his speech is fine, his English excellent. But he just doesn’t know anything about car mechanics.’ A little Irish whimsy, don’t you know.

Our seven sacramental moments in life are each and all meant to release us to self-abandon, self-giving, self-mockery.  In Tillich’s phrase, to move from self-centered life to life of the centered self. Don’t take yourself too seriously.  

We had a Bishop who loved golf, and would include college students to fill a foursome.  One day we finished and went to drink ice tea. A man from the foursome ahead of us shouted: “I left my putter on the eighth green. You were right behind us.  Why didn’t you pick it up?” I wanted to say, you know, he is a Bishop, but I kept quiet. After a while the Bishop excused himself. He was gone a while, then came in the shop door with a putter and silently laid it on the man’s table.  Afterward, thinking about cheeks and cloaks, I saw him in a new light, a confirmed light, a resurrection light.

Out of the blue in February a friend recommended Wallace Stegner’s novel, Crossing to Safety.  It is an exquisite book, about two couples, and about grief, tragedy, academic life, and, especially, friendship. In New Hampshire one summer, on a long hike, the men find themselves under a waterfall and near a beautiful natural whirlpool.  It demands baptism, one says, and in they go.  Of the swim, of the day, of the friendship, of the baptism, of that present moment, Stegner writes, It was a present that made the future tingle.  That gorgeous sentence is Easter in wonder and weakness and whimsy;  a present that makes the future tingle.  We could even say, a future that makes the present tingle, but that would take another sermon.

In thy light we see whimsy.  Joanna schools us in whimsy


Are you, like Joanna, new to the story, new to faith, new to religious practice?  Welcome. In light of Resurrection, we pray, Lord grant you, and grant us all, the revelation of wonder, the admission of weakness, and the liberation of whimsy.

I could give all to Time except — except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.

(Robert Frost)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

The Bach Experience

April 7th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

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Our two readings, Philippians 3 and John 12, confront us with the ranges of reality in loyalty and mortality. Philippians is about loyalty.  John is about mortality. In the blurr of activities, come Sunday, in Christ, one is accosted by loyalty and mortality, through whom, in Christ, ‘we become like him’.

That is, two very different readings from Scripture greet us this Sunday morning.  One describes loyalty. The other evokes mortality. Both are good news, and each story amplifies and explicates the other.   For you this morning, the lesson and the gospel raise a mortal question about your forms of loyalty, and a loyal question about your sense of mortality.  A hymn of love and a reminder of death are somewhere, somehow buried in every sermon and every service of worship. In decisions about loyalty and in the encroachment of mortality, we become like Him:  Jesus Christ, the loyalty of God; Jesus Christ, the mortality of the human being.

There is today a tendency to minimize Paul’s change of allegiance, as expressed in Philippians 3, and elsewhere.   So this scholarly trend would argue: Paul did not really distance himself from his earlier religious expression. Paul did not really reject his mother tongue, mother land, mother religion.  Paul did not expressly depart from the eighth day, the tribe, the law. Paul did not really intend to step aside from his inheritance. Paul was born loyal and died loyal, and his loyalty at birth and death were of a piece.  I suppose that scholarly trends, like fashion, move in and out of vogue, for and with some regularity. Certainly, the work of these mentioned scholars, and that of many others, reminding us of the depth and breadth of background to the letters of the APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), carry much of importance.  Still, there is the little matter of…rubbish.

Paul calls his inheritance rubbish.  SKUBALA. It is a remarkable Greek word, whose force you can hear in its simple repetition.  SKUBALA. Rubbish. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish.   It will not do to muffle Paul’s apocalyptic sense of loyalty.  In fact, much of the work of late that tries to do so ends up representing a view of Paul that is much more akin to the views of his opponents than to those of Paul himself.  But what of the particular inheritance, yours and mine and Paul’s? What of our particular, idiosyncratic, experiences and cultures and hues? In Paul’s case, what of circumcision, of covenant, of history, of torah, of valiant duty past?  I regard them as…SKUBALA.   We may wish Paul had been more temperate.  He was not. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, sea change in the fount of loyalty.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  

Across town, across the Scripture that is, and in the heart of the Fourth Gospel, meanwhile, we are engaged by another story.  Now mortality, not loyalty, addresses us. If there is a richer set of eight verses in the entire New Testament than John 12: 1-8, honestly, where would you find it?  Here is the Passover, the third in the fourth Gospel. Here too is Bethany, site of earlier astonishment. Here is Lazarus, who emerged from a tomb, covered with bandages, odorous and squinting.  Martha, of serving fame, and Mary, of praying memory, are here, too. A year’s wages are here poured out on feet, feet of course being of sacramental power in this Gospel, as we saw two weeks ago.  There is fragrance, the fragrant scent of perfume poured on holy feet, perfume dried in loving hands, perfume gathered on the hairs of the head. An astounding scene, already, but there is more. In comes Judas Iscariot.  There arises an argument about money, surely not the last religious argument about money. The poor and the present are set against each other, surely not the last religious argument about the good and beautiful. And then a dominical pronouncement:  keep it for the day of my burial.  After so many visual, audible, tactile, olfactory and savory images, we are sensorially exhausted and ready for  a nap. These images share a common trait. They evoke mortality.

The Passover is the scene of death.  Lazarus was raised from death. Mary has a premonition of death.  Martha and Mary pleaded with Jesus about death. Judas Iscariot is the agent of death.  The plight of the poor is mentioned to avoid a confrontation with death. The perfume is a symbol of anointing at death.  If there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—and it is not clear that there is anything more significant in Scripture than justice—but if there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—it is mortality.  Our gospel lesson this morning pulls out every stop to evoke mortality.

Reminders of mortality, like attendance in worship itself, which is one such reminder on a weekly basis, may make us squirm.  We have a way of thinking that death happens always to somebody else. We find ways to change the channel. In the last few years we have become experts at changing the channel.  Think for a minute about deaths in this country, over the last decade, due to gun violence. Diminishment to a part of the gentle hope, for a real spiritual culture and community, across this land, in our time.  Harm to some of the soaring ideals of a young republic, now seen from abroad as a pre-emptive behemoth. Defeat to a part of the great dream of those who built the United Nations. Yes, reminders of death make us squirm.

Dr. Jarrett, how does the music of Bach, aid us in our meditation this morning?


Bach’s point of departure tells another story of mortality and promise of awakening – of Resurrection. Luke Chapter 7 finds Jesus traveling to the town of Nain where he encounters a funeral procession. Moved by the mother’s grief, he calls for the dead man to rise from his funeral bier.

Cantata 8 was written a little more than a year after Bach began to work in Leipzig, placing our cantata in the second cycle of cantatas, the year of the Chorale cantatas. The chorale on the which the cantats is based is Caspar Neumann’s familiar “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” The 1710 melody is feature in the first and last movement, though treated slightly differently in each instance.

The cantata in concerned with mortality, and specifically, the hour of our final moment. We await the ticking clock toward the chime of our own funeral bells. In 18th century Leipzig, parishioners were notified of the death of a member of their community by 24 tolls from the tower bell.

In the opening movement, Bach creates an extraordinary Leichenglocken – funeral bells – using string pizzicatos, the wheels and sprockets of the interior mechanism of the clock, the two oboes d’amore chasing each other as the hands of the clock, and finally the flute tolling exactly 24 repeated pitches, punctuating and “chiming” throughout the movement. All of this extraordinary music accompanies the eight phrases of Bach’s setting of the Neumann chorale.

The clock continues to tick as the cantata turns inward for the first aria. The tenor takes up the strain with oboe obliggato. Typically when Bach wishes to call attention to a particular word or concept, he employs extended melisma. In this aria, note the treatment of the verb “schlägt” describing the striking of the final hour. Similarly, the place of rest – Ruhstatt – finds repose on a long, sustained pitch.

Fear, anxiety, worry are all dashed when the baritone steps forward to sing a gigue, reminding us that it is through Christ Jesus that we are called to new life and transformation. The flute’s somber tolling from the opening movement is transformed to the dance rhythms and melody’s of the baritone’s gigue. When the chorale returns in the final movement, it comes with confidence in full stride: Help me earn an honest grave next to godly Christian folk, and finally covered by earth never more be confounded!


Loyalty and mortality…

Let us return to loyalty for a moment.

In Philippians, our APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), has now stated for us the force and source of loyalty in Jesus Christ, as he does with equal power in Galatians 2 and Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith.  (The loyalty of Christ, the righteousness of God based on Christ’s loyalty.)   Paul has been found in a new life.  His earlier code and covenant have come to an end.  They are set aside. They are good and true and beautiful, but not by comparison with the truly good and the beautifully true and the divinely beautiful.  It is the loyalty of Christ to which Paul sings his hymn of praise as read this morning. The rendering of these verses depends upon a reading of the phrase, ‘faith..Christ’ as first in reference to Christ’s own faith, by which in faith Paul and we are ‘owned’.  It may be that Paul has written these words in prison, and it may be that these words from prison were written at the end of his life. He will have had, as we do on some days, and Sundays, a clear sense of the fragility of life and its brevity.

So let us return to mortality for a moment.  

The several marks of mortality set before us in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, are also reminders of divine love.  Lazarus evokes such love from Jesus that, in that shortest of verses, we are reminded, ‘Jesus wept’. Mary and Martha are the figures of serving and praying that we know so well in the teachings about disciplined love.  Judas is never portrayed as doing ill for the sake of doing harm, but is found to mistake some love for all love. Most strongly, the pouring of perfume in lavish expense is understood as the full fragrance of affection and love.  

Our readings today give us grace to live by faith.  We may want to consider, on a bright spring Sunday afternoon walk, the examples of abiding loyalty and loving mortality which we have known.  We are meant to ‘become like him’, and so we shall want to notice the forms of loyalty and limitation that are ever before us.

We may want to remember something of Josiah Royce, and his evocation of loyalty. You may recall from your own life and family experience, the example of a truly loyal friend.  You may recognize that sometimes lesser loyalties must be laid aside in the face of greater loyalties. No one wants the lower lights to occlude the one great loyalty of life. You may recognize the difference, say, between asking forgiveness for a promise broken, and asking forgiveness for a promise that should never have been made in the first place, whether kept or broken.  We may deeply recognize the need we have to reclaim the language of remorse out of our religious traditions, so that we might walk again in newness of life, following Lenten confession.

We shall want to find and practice the forms of loyalty by which, and through which, we may dimly acknowledge our mortality.  Any pastor will tell you that young people live as if they were immortal, and not only young people. There is a youthful courage in this, but also a tragic risk.  We may want to recall the verses of Scripture that warn us about limits. Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume…All flesh is grass, it withers and fades…Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire…The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…This night is your soul required of you…

Here is a potentially saving word.  It is the intimation of mortality that puts steel in the spine of our loyalty.  It is the practiced sacrifice of loyalty that gives us courage for the facing of the last things.  Where there is a sense of mortality there is a sense of loyalty. Where there is a preparation of loyalty there is a preparation for mortality.  The one inspires the other. (Where there is no inkling of mortality there is no spur to loyalty). Perhaps that is why, in the mystery of all things, and in the planning for Sunday readings, Philippians 3 and John 12 were yoked.  Think this lent about your lasting commitments. Think this lent about your limitations. And recall the hymn written next door, in the school of theology, by then Dean Earl Marlatt, singing of Jesus, a beacon to God, to love and loyalty…

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music 

The Mysticism of St. John of the Cross

March 31st, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 15: 1-32

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When he came to himself…
The God beyond God of the mystical tradition, the mystical chorus in which
does sing San Juan de la Cruz, by means of wonder and love and praise, can bring
us to your selves, our real selves, our own most own selves…
You qualify. Yes, you qualify. You are qualified. You qualify because you
are in the flesh. Once you are born, an uncle did used to say, you are old enough
to die. You qualify. Once you are born, an uncle did used to say, you are old
enough to die. The community of faith, the community of faith working through
love here in Marsh Chapel, has reason this month to remember such existential
qualification. Directly or indirectly you have born witness: in memorial, in
funeral, in pastoral care, in personal prayer, in vigil, this month. The line of death
crossing the line of life at age 84, at age 71, at age 20, at age 18 months, and at all
the ages in between. A theologian, a professor, a young adult, an infant, a foreign
worshipping community. You qualify. Yes, you qualify. You are qualified. You
qualify because you are in the flesh. Once you are born, an uncle did used to say,
you are old enough to die.
Death makes us mortal. Facing death makes us human. Our three lessons,
in this sense, acclaim together, not the denial nor the avoidance nor the
suppression of the reality of death, but faith in the face of death, faith facing
death. And what else is faith.
The disgrace of Egypt was slavery, social death. Death abides. Faith faces
death, and, in that, rolls away the stone of disgrace. You come to communion
month by month, in that faithful spirit. The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have
rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." Like his cousin, David, in the psalms,

Joshua sings out faith: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days of
my life, AND…I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In Corinth, amid communal chaos aplenty, St. Paul lifted the same call:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even
though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer
in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has
passed away; see, everything has become new! Not Christ according the flesh, nor
even according to the spirit, but Christa kata staupon, according to the cross. You
come to communion month by month in that faithful spirit. He will and does have
more to say, elsewhere, on the fruit of that spirit (Gal. 5), on the effect of that
spirit (Phil. 4), on the gift of that spirit (2 Cor. 3).
If we know a parable, it may be this one, the prodigal son. We will walk
with the prodigal to communion today. Notice this: his discovery of life in life, his
coming home to his own-most self, the best return home odyssey day of his life
come out of what? Failure. His salvation emerges from what? Failure. His
coming to his senses and coming to terms with self, world and God, is forged in
what fire? Failure. Not all failure is self-inflicted, but almost all failure is partly so.
Consider our condition. An authoritarian mind may have no intention at all to
leave office, at any point at all, defeated or undefeated, impeached or
unimpeached, convicted or un-convicted. Read again Eric Fromm, as we did in
the autumn, sentient citizens. Here is diminishment, here is failure: in
mendacious speech, in predatory relations, in destructive disregard for common
good institutions, in cheap or small-minded reduction of life and its living to deals
and their undoing, in disregard for climate and environment, in pitiless toying
with nuclear violence, and the myriad shreddings of American civil society and its
hard won support of voluntary associations (church, country, school, hospital,
scouting and the like).

Merton Remembered

Last year, Lent 2018, we debated and discerned with Thomas Merton, you
may remember, for whom San Juan de la Cruz was a powerful influence. From six
pages of Merton’s reflections on John, we here select several telling lines:
The two words "desiring nothing" contain all the difficulty and all the
simplicity of St. John of the Cross. But no Christian has a right to complain of them.
They are simply an echo of …words that sum up the teaching of Jesus Christ in the

Gospel… "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself”…This total self-
denial, which St. John of the Cross pursues into the inmost depths of the human
spirit, reduces our interior landscape to a wasteland without special features of
any kind whatever. We do not even have the consolation of beholding a personal
disaster. A cataclysm of the spirit, if terrible, is also interesting.
These times of aridity cause the soul to journey in all purity in the love of
God, since it is no longer influenced in its actions by the pleasure and sweetness of
the actions themselves, . . . but only by a desire to please God…
The joy of this emptiness: it is a solitude full of wild birds and strange
trees, rocks, rivers, and desert islands, lions, and leaping does. These creatures are
images of the joys of the spirit, aspects of interior solitude, fires that flash in the
abyss of the pure heart whose loneliness becomes alive with the deep lightnings
of God. (RAH emphasis for delivery).

Dark Night Theology

San Juan de la Cruz was an apophatic theologian, a negative theologian,
one whose language of God began and ended by saying what God is not. We have
kindred cousin compatriots of this tradition here within Boston University. Think
of Ray Hart, God Being Nothing. Think of Bob Neville, God the Creator. Think of
Wesley Wildman’s new book, dedicated to the ministry of Marsh Chapel, God Is.
Think of the legacy of our BU poets and professors interpret who interpret poetry:
Christopher Ricks, or Geoffrey Hill, or Roseanna Warren, or Robert Pinsky, or
Derek Walcott.
Colin Thompson has summarized this form of thought: For Christian
tradition, there are two main strands of thought about the relationship between
language and God. One is positive (‘cataphatic’), and sees likenesses
between…the world of human experience and the nature of God…It is associated
with …the immanence of God…and a spirituality….that rises from the known to the
unknown… The other strand is negative, or apophatic, and denies that human
language can convey anything at all about God…The name of Dionysius the
Areopagite is indelibly associated with it…It springs from a theology of
transcendence, which insists on a complete ontological separation between the
Creator and creation, on the otherness and unknowability of God…Its spirituality is
one of purgation of the soul from its natural concerns…to commune with God in
darkness and nothingness. Its language is of…paradox, antithesis and oxymoron
(Thompson, 227).
Remember? O for that night when I in him might live invisible and dim
(Vaughn). This week, concluding a superb Lowell lecture on queer theology, Dr.
Mark Jordan from Harvard exclaimed, in his critique of unfair naming, turn off the
factory glare of false naming! Negative theology, the theology of the dark night
of the soul, we might add, theologizes his faithful cry, saying, of language about
God, turn off the factory glare of false naming!
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). We might paraphrase:
Whatever straight Methodists do not know about gay Methodists reveals,
precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
You heard Isaiah 55 last week: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor
are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the
earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your
There is an herbal bitterness, an antique acquaintance with hardship, in the
dark night, the dark night of the soul. It recalls Ecclesiastes, for whom there is
nothing new. Young adults, students it may be, can acquire a kind of muscular
wisdom, a personal endurance, for STEM and pottery and all everything in
between. Thompson: Before maturity can be gained a certain degree of
independence is required, and…the process of gaining it sometimes leaves a bitter
taste. St. John is, after all, ‘of the cross’.
So, in his spirit, we want to look at the people who work at Dunkin Donuts
not at the people who shop at Dunkin Donuts…to look at the people who leave
High School or college, not at the people who set up camp at high school or
college…to look at the people who suffer the wounds of warfare, not at the
people who gain glory by sending others into battle…to look at the people who
defer to others in conversation and listen, not at the people who override others
in conversation and speech.

The question whether our time and condition afford a true opening to an
inner life, of any vibrant sort, is itself open, very much an open question. The
momentary droplets of technologies new and inescapable stand up the first
phrase of the question, while the commerce and discourse they carry construct
the second. Our Lenten theological conversation partner is St. John of the Cross.
His one interest was the inner life.


Have you given attention to inner life?
If you will forgive personal illustration, in the main to be minimized or
avoided in preaching, the question arose in early January. With SJDLC and Lent on
the horizon, and the prospect of his poetic, pious illumination of such a life, it
seemed fit to use the works of early epiphany ins some seclusion, to try out, or
test again the prospect of an inner life, largely un-invaded by the droplets of
technologies new and normally inescapable. A fortnight, this was to be, given
over to reading, to quiet, to composition, to exercise, to nature, to prayer.
It was unpleasant. In temperament and by habit only roughly aligned with
seclusion, the early days caused an increase, not a diminution, of anxiety, worry,
acedia, despond and ennui. The temporary banishment of routine, rhythmic, and
regular stimuli—no internet? no cable news? no unexpected visits? no steady
buzzing of instruments—caused lingering worries to multiply, potential crises to
seem real, and absent anxieties to return, like the biblical demon into the
woman’s scrubbed home, seven-fold. It was miserable. I am not fit for the
monastic life, neither eromitic nor cenobitic. Not even a tiny bit(ic). Of a sudden
the great distance between our Lenten sermons was no longer geographic
(Segovia to Boston), epochal (16 th to 21 st centuries), denominational (Catholic to
Protestant), theological (medieval or early renaissance to late modern or post-
religious), or linguistic (Castillian Spanish to American English). The great
distance, it first seemed, was from sound to silence. In the silent din of loneliness
and anxiety, the study and reading and early sermonic composition went ahead,
unfunded, as it were, from the central government.
Yet something remarkable happened. After several days, somehow, the
fever broke. Somehow the absence of earlier common stimuli and the presence

of regular exercise, pages read and written, intermittent visits from spouse and
friends, the draw of the poetry itself (it must be emphasized), and a determined
hour glass routine, caused the fog to lift. The quieter routine, unto itself, brought
at least an inkling of a tiny little aperture—a fortified inner life. It is difficult for us
to assess our addictions and our dispositions without some intervening variance
in habit and position. The standard recommendation here, for ordinary life, as
you know is quiet or rumination or reading or prayer or reflection: an hour a day,
a day a week, a week a quarter, a quarter a year. Death makes us mortal. Facing
death makes us human.

Eucharist at Eucharist

Gracious God

Thou giver of every good gift visible and invisible
We pause in grace to offer our thanks

Thankful we are for women and men who have given support, labor and service to

our ministry, over many years

Their talents, loyalty, commitment and care we honor today

Thankful we are for this day, a harbinger of coming warmth, of brighter days, of

robins’ return, of the promise of spring

Every day is a gift from your hand, including this one sunny day we share, here and


Thankful we are for the kindness and thoughtfulness that make our work spaces,

classes and meetings better places, happier places

Help us remember that it is not the night that kills but the frost, not the night of

unknowing but the frost of unloving that does harm

Thankful we are for the good people in this good place at this good time
For leadership rooted in nearly two centuries of moral intention, of ethical

compass, including our leadership here today

Thankful for commitment, kindness, and goodness, we come to eucharist, to


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

The Poetry and Piety of St. John of the Cross

March 24th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

Click  here to hear the full service

Luke 13:1-9

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           We interlace our interpretation of Holy Scripture, this Lent, with the poetry and piety, the mystical witness of John of the Cross.  Today, then, first Luke, then San Juan, second Isaiah, then San Juan.


Luke On Mercy


            We listen for the Gospel in St. Luke Our other gospels do not carry any of these teachings from Luke 13. Like most of the second half of the Gospel of Luke they are special to Luke.  They are notoriously hard to interpret, with edgy choices for the interpreter.  But given their specificity to Luke and their place within Luke, along with their absence elsewhere, we might be forgiven an inclination to give them a heartily Lukan rendering.  Luke celebrates history, theology, the poor, and the church.  Yes.  But Luke also celebrates love, pardon, mercy, love.  When he was yet a far way off, we read soon, the father saw him, saw his son, and raced headlong toward him, racing to put an ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and hug and embrace him, and ‘love on him’ as now I understand some people say, though the odd use of the preposition in between the verb and the pronoun seems odd.  The Galileans are not greater sinners than others, for all the political violence and then death sent their way by Pilate.  They are beloved children of God.  Those on whom the natural violence inherent in gravity and the cascading violence inherent in human architectural and other error, which led to their tragic deaths, by no means means they are greater sinners than others.  We may take from their tragedy for ourselves quite simply the wise admonition to straighten up and fly right, to prize our time now we have it, to seize the day.  And to what end?  To love, God and neighbor.  To love, God and neighbor.


            And there is still time.  Yes, there may well come a time when it is too late.  Other portions of Scripture make sure for sure we remember that.   It is later than we think.  But Luke has a different Gospel to announce:  there is still time, there is extra time, there is more time, there is time.  The kindly gardener, gently redirecting his boss, the owner of the vineyard, makes a call for mercy.   A little water, a little fertilizer, a little time—a little more of each—and who knows what may come out of the ground?  And if not, next year, well…You have the feeling don’t you that next year that same gardener will have another way to protect the vine.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Your inner life, your John of the Cross life, your wisdom and contemplation in life—a little water, a little nourishment, a little time, especially time, and who knows?  Mercy. It takes time.


Feminine Divinity


St. John evoked mercy.  Mercy, pardon, peace and love, discovered through the inner life, through inner struggle, is the gift of St John of the Cross and his sixteenth century mind, to our own time of bewilderment in century 21.  San Juan is best known, if at all, in popular imagination for the poetry and piety in the opening phrase of his greatest poem, ‘The Dark Night’, of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.  Listen again to three lines from this most beautiful and famous of poems: …en una noche oscura…en la noche dichosa…!o noche que guiaste…Dark night. Lucky night.  Guiding night.  Colin Thompson has aptly best summarized this poem, in his recent composite study of St. John of the Cross, based on years of work and multiple essays and articles: ‘in this ‘noche’ a woman cries out and…all activity ceases and all cares are abandoned’.  There is an abandon, a freedom here, that casts aside what is inherited, expected, and customary.


            For instance, we notice here the happy nonchalance about gender.  The seeker, presumably a voice for the saint himself, is nonetheless given voice as an adoring woman.  We notice here, as resplendently everywhere in San Juan de la Cruz, a direct and easy conflation or combination of the sensuous and the spiritual, erotic love and love divine.  Of course, the Bible, in particular the ‘Song of Songs’ has paved or led the way here from antiquity.  It is striking to assemble the chorus of female divines who in a broadly mystical tradition explored the back roads and trails of the inner life:  Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, St. Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtold of Magdeburg, and, of course, she from whom John learned and for whose Carmelites he labored, Santa Theresa de Avila. Together they sang: “God is incomprehensible to our intellect, but not to our love”.  Human language and thought will ever fall short (of God).  Here we notice the beautiful, the twilight ‘negative’ perspective of John of the Cross.  We notice here that the “dark night of San Juan is all-embracing:  it is the negation of the creaturely appetites at the start of the journey (ascetism, mortification), the route taken (faith), and the goal sought (the hiddenness of God)”.  That is, we here notice a movement from purgation to illumination to union, from purgation to illumination to union.  We notice here the rare, lily-like beauty of the poetry whose roots are deep in the caverns of Scripture, whose trunk is made up of the sung, country love ballads of Italy and especially of Castilla la Vieja, and whose branches touch and are touched by the personal, ‘dark’ experience of San Juan de la Cruz:  poet, priest, monk, theologian, confessor, leader, ascetic, Spaniard, Catholic—saint, lover of God and neighbor, a dead though living reminder of the possibility of the inner life:  en una noche oscura…amado con amada…amada en el amado transformada…sin otra luz y guia…sino la que en el Corazon ardia…en mi cuelo heria…todos mis sentidos suspendia…


Isaiah’s Hope


We listen for the good word, the God Word, today also in Isaiah.  One of Isaiah’s keenest modern interpreters was our preacher in Evanston, Illinois until his death in 1960, Ernest Fremont Tittle.  Back in the 1930’s Tittle organized a listing of 1000 preachers who, like him, were committed to the principles of Christian pacifism.  While his dream was submerged during the Second World War, nonetheless his hope lives on.  His work reminds us that citizenship is always subordinate to discipleship, that the first commandment against idolatry presides over all the other nine, that while the separation of church and state is a quintessentially American and necessarily Christian understanding.


            Tittle preached the Jesus of the prophets, of peace, of the new creation, the hope that Isaiah did foretell.  The special 8thcentury bce hope of Isaiah for Israel and her Davidic King, changes, is transformed, into a grand and lasting vision of the Christ of God, and the power of Christ to bring heaven to earth. Some of this changes happens in Isaiah itself, as part I gives way to Chapter 40 (II) in the exile, and the Isaiah of the exile is further decorated by the excitement of the last ten chapters, written during the restoration (III).  Isaiah 1,2,3. To be clear:  in Isaiah, a small, particular, national hope becomes a grand and universal vision of great hope, on earth as it is in heaven.  Divine hope is honed in the struggle of Isaiah’s own life, in the predicted demise of Israel, in the brutality of exile, in the sweetness of liberation, and, at last, by your faith, in the advent of Christ.  The ringing bells of hope, an eschatological bell choir of prophesy, make Isaiah so memorable.  Especially our passage today, Isaiah 55.  And Tittle’s Isaian hope for the future was based wholey upon his allegiance to Jesus Christ, the light shining in the dark:


                        Jesus, after 19 centuries, remains an object of wonder.  There is something wonderful in the very fact that he has escaped oblivion.  What chance, on any human reckoning, did he have to be remembered?  A Jew, living in a small and remote province of the Roman Empire;  an obscure Jew belonging to the peasant class; a man of whom the vast majority of his contemporaries never heard, and who moreover left no written record of anything that he had said or done or dreamed; a man rejected and repudiated by the leaders of his nation, and deserted at the last even by his disciples.  Out of obscurity he came; and when, an object of hatred and derision, he was put to death on a gallows, it might well have been supposed that into oblivion he would go. But upon the contrary, the name of Jesus, in Emerson’s phrase, is “not so much written as ploughed into the history of the world.”


Grace at Dusk


            For St. John of the Cross, in full depth, Jesus was an object of wonder.  We note the attention in SJDLC to the art of co-operating with grace, to the human search for God and God’s search for the human, to amanuensis—memory, to words that ‘find us out’, to witness even stammering witness, to the authority and oneness of Scripture.  We note that St. John’s prime concern is the inner life of the individual.  And that is as good a short definition of pastoral ministry as one can find.  It is based on eremetismo interior.  And it is based on the connection between sensory deprivation and imaginative stimulus:  out of his dark night there arose—poetry and piety.


            “In the same way God will appear dark to the human intelligence because it lacks the organs to comprehend him”.   The dark night is a night of purgation, yes, but also of faith.  Like the moth, like the owl, who see in the dusk not in the sunlight.  O for that night when I in him might live invisible and dim.  For St John, there clearly was a connection between sensory deprivation and imaginative stimulus.  Out of his dark night arose poetry.   In the poetry and piety of St John of the Cross, we may find, uncover or discover, the courage and capacity to see at twilight, in the dark, in the dusk.


            In the dusk.  What do we see at nightfall?  Do we see, for instance, to take one obvious and immediate example,  that a claim of national emergency might not be seen as merely an extension of corruption, mendacity, and scurrilous life.  Come twilight, cultural and social twilight, do we like moth and owl squint and see that it is quite possibly much more?  It is the harbinger, the promissory note of a move toward authoritarianism.  It may be the emergence, or ironically emergency, of an openness to authoritarian leadership, that against which the US Constitution was largely written, was largely composed.  We shall need our night vision, our dark night vision.


In the dusk.  What do we see at nightfall?  Our sight, dimmed in the dark, finally relies on, recoils to, the sight of moth and owl, the twilight sight along the path of spiritual negation, along the path of the dark night of the soul.  Fear not the dark.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Hope is a companion in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Love is present in the dark, in with and under all.  Or, to conclude, as San Juan wrote: 


On a night of darkness,

In love’s anxiety of longing kindled,

O blessed chance!

I left by none beheld.

My house in sleep and silence stilled.


In darkness and secure,

By the secret ladder disguised,

O blessed venture!

In darkness and concealed,

My house in sleep and silence stilled.


By dark of blessed night,

In secrecy for no one saw me

And I regarded nothing,

My only light and guide

The one that in my heart was burning.


This guided, led me on

More surely than the radiance of noon

To where there waited one

Who was to me well known,

And in a place where no one came in view.


O night, you were the guide!

O night more desirable than dawn!

O dark of night you joined

Beloved with beloved one,

Beloved one in Beloved now transformed!


Upon my flowering breast

Entirely kept for him and him alone,

There he stayed and slept

And I caressed him

In breezes from the fan of cedars blown.


Breezes on the battlements—

As I was spreading out his hair,

With his unhurried hand

He wound my neck

And all my senses left suspended there.


I stayed, myself forgotten,

My countenance against my love reclined;

All ceased, and self-forsaken

I let my care behind

Among the lilies, unremembered.



            May God grant usgospelas in Luke, poetryas in St. John,hopeas in Isaiah, and pietyas in St. John.  Lift up your hearts:  Fear not the dark.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Hope is a companion in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Love is present in the dark, in with and under all.


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

The Divine Presence and St. John of the Cross

March 17th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 13:31-35

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At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my course.

Every day, and especially each Lord’s day, Jesus brings us out, and meets us, at the existential line between life and death.  The Gospel from St. Luke foreshadows the cross.  The triumphant trumpet joy of the Letter to the Philippians, including its promise of our commonwealth, our koinonia, ‘in heaven’, pauses sharply to recall the cross.  Psalm 27, perhaps your favorite, or one of them, faces squarely the host of enemies encamped against Love, a prefigurement of the cross.  The genesis of Genesis which is the genesis of the people of faith, come Abraham, far more than the genesis of the creation prior, its real genesis is in the promise spoken to Abraham, often all we have to go on anyway, a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope, which is ‘Fear Not’, in a cruciform world, ‘fear not’, walk by faith in the dark.

Tomorrow in the dark on Marsh Plaza we will gather under the leadership of our BU Muslim student society, for vigil in faith, in the teeth of slaugher in New Zealand, and in the lasting shadow of the technology it was meant utilize and capture, world wide.  7pm.  We weep with those who weep.

We rustle about the cabin for nourishment, day by week, this Lent, delving for teaching and learning into the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz.

Toward the end of his life, St. John of the Cross was assigned to Granada in the south of Spain.  He came to love the natural beauty of his new home.  Those who have travelled in Andalusia can appreciate how he might have been enthralled so.  Though he loved the natural beauty of the region, the Andalusian accent, and to some measure the temperament of the people he met displeased him.  He missed the Castilian accent and the Castilian bonhomie it may be.

John offered his teaching, counsel, and spiritual direction in the open, warm Andalusian air, on long walks in the country side.  Spain does fully offer the willing peregrinator, pilgrim, pedestrian many and most wonderful trails, scenes and vistas.  Its ancient paths and pueblos carry in their very material the memories of a marvelous, ancient civilization.   That antiquity can teach us.

Jan and I visited once the winter home of Chopin, on Mallorca, where he composed etudes in concert with the rhythms of the falling seasonal rains, there in the heart of the Mediterranean.   Above the house in which Chopin composed and reposed was an ancient monastery, built in the year 1000 and closed near the year 1400.  We marveled, partly for the shimmering beauty of the mountain views, but also and more so that the monastery had been closed more than 600 years, more than twice the time my beloved Methodism has even existed.   It had more years dead and closed than we have had alive and open.  The ancient memories of Spain’s paths and pueblos help us gain, or regain, perspective.  One such is our 2019 memory of San Juan de la Cruz.

In Granada, later in his life, St. John wrote a great deal, including the composition of his commentaries on his few but famous poems.  Soon, though, in connection with ongoing institutional, religious disputes, he was transferred again, this time back to Castilla la Vieja, to the city of Segovia.  There he endured the ongoing political disputes within the Carmelite order.  After the death of St. Theresa of Avila, fights began between the factions of leaders, Doria and Gracian.  St. John travelled widely, to the detriment we imagine of his health in his waning years.  His habit was to ride on donkey or horseback, reading from the Scripture, and singing from his favorite book of the Bible—perhaps it is yours, too—the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon.  One thinks from the corner of the imagination of Cervantes’ woeful knight errant, the one and the great, Don Quijote de la Mancha, the religious knight errant of a begone era, tilting at windmills and at the locura, the craziness of life itself.  La razon de la sin razon a mi razon me enflaquece…  St. John engaged his own travels in the year 1588, the year, all bright BU undergraduates will recall is that of the Spanish Armada, and its surprising defeat by the English, the dreaded English, along the cliffs of Dover.   When St. John died in 1591 (in December), his body, or most of it, was interred in Segovia, where there is to this day a notable and sizable shrine.

In these years, San Juan de la Cruz was an outspoken critic of clerical power, favoring short leadership term limits, favoring elected rather than appointed leaders, favoring outspoken communal discoursed and debate rather than smoke filled rooms, and most especially, favoring full recognition of the corruption that comes with power.  We can take some notes here, particularly those of us consigned with and to religious leadership.  You do not have to go far into the Q document record of Jesus’ teaching, found in Matthew and Luke, to come upon his description of religious leaders, those wearing robes and holding degrees, to be clear about it, as ‘whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’.  As harsh as that may be to our ears, try to hear it in the context of kosher commands, the context of the uncleanness of burial, the context of early Rabbinic Judaism.  As my friend Roy Smyres used to say of bishops, though he meant it fully for all ordained and all religious leaders, ‘They hear so often what a good job they are doing and what great people they are that after a while…they start to believe it’.  I try to keep his voice in earshot myself.  Roy traveled in mission across Africa as a young man in the 1920’s, and loved to recite from memory the poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’.

At the end of his life, St. John found himself in rugged travel, and in contest with religious leadership and religious corruption, the corruption that comes with power.  Hence, at the end of his life, he found himself under suspicion of undermining his superiors.  An inquisition was begun by the Inquisition, during which time, to protect him, John’s correspondence and many if not most of his writings were burned.  A woman, Ana de Penalosa, of Segovia, helped him and later developed the shrine in Segovia to his honor.  In 1974 in Segovia, six of us from Ohio Wesleyan studied for a year, under the tutelage of Don Felipe de Penalosa, he of ancient Spanish aristocracy, and most probably of the same family as Ana Penalosa.   On January 6, 1975, a lovely young woman from Cleveland joined our class for the remainder of the year, very petite, blonde and Scandinavian, and Don Felipe, most happily and faithfully married, at age 85 or so fell in love again.  He just marveled at Rebecca Heskamp, of OWU, now in Segovia, who arrived January 6, saying Es un don de los reyes (she is a gift of the Magi, a gift of the kings).   A little later in the winter he would introduce her as Rebecca,  de los Vikingos, ‘one of the Vikings’.  It is amazing how spoken speech can stay in the memory, over long time, is it not?  St. John died at midnight, December 14, 1591, saying, ‘Tonight I will sing matins in heaven”.  We remember last words.  Like those of Stonewall Jackson, Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.  Like those of John Wesley, The best of all is, God is with us.  Like those of Jesus, I thirst.  Father forgive them.  It is finished.  Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani.  And, like those of John of the Cross, Tonight I will sing matins in heaven.

Some few of John’s writings and poems escaped the protective burning.  We have only 2500 verses of poetry, few but exquisite they are.  His poems rely heavily on a refrain of often repeated words: secret, secret; hidden, hidden; forgotten, forgotten; in disguise, in disguise; silence, silence; emptiness, emptiness; night, night.  His poems honor the inner life, ‘whose continual impulse’ is love of God and through God love of man and creation, or as we would say today, of the human being and of nature.  Beginning in 1614 and continuing on through 1627, his remaining poetry and prose and his memory recalled by colleagues, including his remembered speech, were recalled by colleagues and collected en route to his beatification in 1675.  The poems fill only a total of ten pages.

Influences on his poetry are both sacred and secular.  This accords beautifully with the lesson from Romans read among us last Sunday by Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman: If you confess with your lips that Jesus in Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches on all who call upon him (Romans 10: 9-12).   No distinction between Jew and Greek.  No distinction between religious and unreligious.  No distinction between observant and unobservant.   No distinction, as in the poetry of St. John of the Cross, between sacred and secular.  God is all in all!  God sings ‘don’t fence me in!’

Influences on his poetry are both sacred and secular.  The sacred in particular include the Bible as a whole, and the Song of Songs, of Solomon, especially and in particular.  The secular, most intriguingly, include ordinary Spanish love songs, pastoral romantic poetry, the popular influence of Garcilaso de la Vega (who imported the 11 syllable poetic line from the Italian Renaissance), and his own audition, his own experience of these.  Physically cloistered, he was poetically a regular citizen!  In Garcilaso, we read of Renaissance poetry, The refined sense of beauty, the artificiality of the pastoral themes, the diffused and sublimated sensations, all of which were taken from the Italian (106).  As a young man, St. John of the Cross would have read Garcilaso de la Vega.

Of most importance was the Song of Songs, an anthology of Hebrew folk songs intended for use at marriage festivals and dating in its present state from the third century bce (108).  The drama here of human love becomes a form and format for expression of love divine.  Marriage itself is just this.  With most coming to marriage at or over the age of 30, the more usual practical matters in marriage preparation are of less importance than they were a generation ago, when marriage occurred in the early twenties.  There is less need for counsel regarding budgeting, regarding sexuality, regarding extended family matters, regarding religious rhythms and observances.  But on the other hand, somewhat older couples coming to marriage today are more prepared to, more ready to understand marriage, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ as it were.  By the mid thirties soon to be newly weds are more experientially prepared, than their cousins a generation ago, to understand human commitment, covenant, betrothal, intimacy and love as forms and formats and especially foretastes of divine commitment, covenant, betrothal, intimacy and love.    We say this in consideration of and counsel for those among us preparing others among us for marriage, an honorable estate, instituted of God and signifying unto us the mystical union which exists between Christ and his church, which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified by his presence in Cana of Galilee.   Note this:  it was a secular love song heard through the walls of this castle prison in Toledo that set John off into his writing of sacred poetry.

Yet, for all his talent, St. John really could not fully explain his own work, to his own satisfaction: it is not only that the poet cannot understand or explain his own experiences, he cannot understand or explain the poems that have come out of those experiences either (110).  In this, as in many other things, St. John foreshadows the poetry of Antonio Machado.

Longing. Anguish. Lightness. Exhilaration.  Travel.  Adventure.  Passion.  Tenderness.  Mountains.  Rivers.  And VERY FEW ADJECTIVES!  These are the themes one finds in the poetry of St. John of the Cross.  His genius, throughout, is the capacity of ‘condensing different elements of thought and feeling into a single phrase’.  It is—here is a new word for it—a kind of ontomontopoesia.

We note that the central image in the poetry, in the work, of the theology of St. John of the Cross is marriage, as in the Song of Songs, as in the Fourth Gospel, as in the poetry of William Blake.  We note that the abiding, attendant issues of church political intrigue, of popular country music ballads, of a confluence of spiritual, sensual love, again of marriage, of the dark nights soul nights, the soul’s pain in memory and hope.  We note the wise and lasting dialectics: to know and not to know; to descend and to ascend; to live and to die; to dwell in light and in darkness.  With St. John and with St. John we note the power of the paradox.

One of San Juan’s most important contributions to the history of Christian spirituality is to give a necessary and positive value to experiences of inner frustration and paralysis.  Like the dark nights themselves, they have to be faced, but rightly understood and used they become a means of growth (Thompson, 220).

They become ‘rays of darkness’.  They become rays of darkness, and the listener becomes one with the music, the reader becomes one with the poetry.

Here is a pointed personal question.  Have you worked to allow the dark nights of your life, the inner frustrations of your life, the times of paralysis in your life, to offer a mode, a condition for growth in faith? Here is a pointed personal question.  Have you worked to allow the dark nights of your life, the inner frustrations of your life, the times of paralysis in your life, to offer a mode, a condition for growth in faith?   If so, you may have or may well find some unexpected, unusual company, in the figure of One who experienced threat, One who wrestled with inner demons, his own and others’, One who brought spiritual medicine to bear on spiritual illness, and One who died on a cross:

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my course.

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


The Dark Night of the Soul and St. John of the Cross

March 10th, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4: 1-13

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Five days ago here at Marsh Chapel about 1,000 students and others presented themselves for ashes, Ash Wednesday.  Our hard working Marsh Chaplains and team served 430 or so.  The Chapel also hosted three Catholic services and the weekly contemporary Theological School service, wherein ashes were given.  Hence, about 1,000.  In the last few years, Ash Wednesday has begun to catch up with Easter and Christmas in active young adult participation.


My middle name of late is ‘I don’t know’, which I don’t.  One of our chaplains preaches an Ash Wednesday sermon every year, ‘the ashes are not magic ashes’.  But they draw.  The touch draws.  The solemnity, too. The whisper of mortality at the fountain of youth.  The strange, numinous, yet public pause.  The flesh of it all.

There is perhaps another cause or reason.  Here, mid-winter, is an encounter with antiquity.  For two millennia women and men have been preparing for a holy Lent.  For two millennia women and men have stopped to remember, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  As our English chorister read it some years ago, Thou art DUST and to DUST though shalt return.  Is this not subliminally why, in part, we are here this morning, too?  For two millennia women and men have listened to readings from Holy Writ.  For two millennia women and men have received Jesus in cup and bread.  For two millennia, come Sunday, there have been choirs and preachers and prayers and candles and quiet.  The architecture of our gothic nave, with an origin nearly a millennium ago, speaks to us so.  Our long tall, yes traditioned, stained glass captures places and people from longer ago.  Our habits of liturgy, stand and sit, our habits of liturgy, sing and give, our habits of liturgy, bow and kneel, our habits of liturgy, our body language, give us a jarring encounter with antiquity.  For once, every seven days, we are not jailed and stuck in the shallow shallows of the twenty first century.  We are liberated to time travel, to get out and see the past, and perhaps, now and then, to hear something good and learn something new. 


It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent, we meet Jesus in the wilderness.  There He resists.  In the time honored tradition of a three part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human.  Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know.  They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice.  We come to church with some experience of temptation and resistance.  As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

In many communities, including our own, the sun rises this morning, this Lenten morning, on experience of loss and hurt.  This morning there are homes and families who have suddenly known unexpected loss.  This morning there are friends and groups of friends who have been faced with mortal danger.  At one breakfast table, a wife now sits alone, for the first time on a Sunday in 60 years.  At another breakfast table, a family gathers for the first time, in a long time, and missing a member.  It would help us to remember just how short our words do fall in trying to describe the depth of these moments.  Our words arrive only at the shoreline, at the margin of things.  Beyond this we practice prayer, a kind of sitting silent before God.

Our immediate community here along the Charles River today mourns unexpected losses.  Along with the scripture and the music, amid the hymns and prayers of our worship, there walks also among us today, by the mind’s farther roads, a recognition of loss.  There is some shock to loss.   There is a kind of fear that comes with loss.  There is, often later, an honest anger.  There is some numbness.  There is a real, and good, desire to do something helpful.  There are questions, numerous and important.  And there is the one haunting question, too, why?

We do not know why these things happen. We hurt, and grieve.  In the bones.  At the deeper levels, we just do not know, and for an academic community committed to knowing, and knowing more, and more, this means wandering in a serious wilderness.  Give us an equation to solve.  Show us a biography that needs writing.  Provide us with an experiment.  Happily we would organize a committee, or develop a proposal, or phone a list of donors.  But loss, unexpected and unfair, is tragic.  The tragic sense of life, el sentimiento trajico de la vida, takes us out into wilderness, where we learn, with Jesus, to resist.  Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come 11am, today again to walk in the wild, in the wilderness.

The Marsh Lenten Sermon Series

Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. John of the Cross.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In this decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018.  We turn this Lent to St. John of the Cross.  You may remember how much Merton loved St. John of the Cross, from last year.  If not, as we start, listen to Merton on Lent:


“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious saccounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”    Thomas Merton
San Juan de la Cruz

Let us then start our 2019 lenten Marsh Chapel tour of a part of antiquity.

St. John of the Cross was born in Old Castile,  Spain, in 1542, and is one of the great Catholic, great Christian, great religious mystics.  He came from a troubled, poor family of weavers, with perhaps some Jewish ancestry.  Out of desperate poverty, his single mother placed him in an orphanage.  He later studied in Salamanca, and was known there for long mid night prayers, endless silence, fasting, and self-mortification and solitude. In 1567 he was ordained priest, and went home by custom to celebrate his first mass in Medina, and there had his life reformed in an unexpected encounter with Theresa of Avila, who signed him up and signed him on to help her develop her reformed, descalced (that is, shoe-less), primitive rule new Carmelite order.

‘Carmel’ in Hebrew means garden, and the Scriptural reference of course is to 1 Kings and Elijah, on Mt. Carmel.  John adored the Bible.  Much of his young adulthood was consumed in spiritual direction and the hearing of confessions among the nuns (here nuns not nones), the religious committed to Santa Theresa de Avila, and to the endless ecclesiastical intrigues, contentions, and outright feuds involved in running, or starting, or reforming anything religious, including a religious order.  Such a mirror from the past has been spiritually helpful, this winter, as many of us face a winter of denominational discontents.  St. John was a man, like Zaccheus of old, of small stature, under 5 feet in height.

A most dramatic event in his younger adulthood came as a consequence of these administrative disputations, when he was arrested and then imprisoned in the Alcazar, the castle, in Toledo.  There he was rudely treated, nearly starved, and after nine months escaped, scaling down the walls of the castle just above the river Tagus.  It makes a dramatic narrative, and ends with his reception, his protection by and hiding out with the Carmelite nuns again.  Now St. John is known, today, if he is at all, today, by single phrase, ‘the dark night of the soul’, ‘the dark night of the soul’.  Unfair of course it is to anyone to remember them by one phrase.  Yet John of the Cross is so recalled.  He is our spelunking guide, our patrol leader through the caves of darkness, the hours, especially wee morning hours, of despair, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, which our Lord, sursum corda, endured, tamed and blessed, see Luke 4.  Think of John in the dark, nine months, in the Toledo castle.  Think of him in escape, on a moonless night.  Think of him, stumbling through the penumbruos streets, lurking in the vestibule of the nunnery for safety.  Then think of him translating that pedestrian dark night into the poetic dark night of the soul.

In his beatification in the 17th century, about 40 years after his death, it was remembered that he heard, in his prison despair, in Toledo, the voice of a young man singing a simple love song, Muerome de amores, Carillo.  ?Que Hare?—que te mueras, alaide.  ‘I am dying of love, dearest.  What shall I do?  Die’.  Of a sudden, somehow, in the heart of darkness, San Juan de la Cruz was transported into ecstacy, the song of love becoming the song of death, and life.  The simple voice of a love poem gave the heart of his mystical encounter, transported of course to the love of God.  This becomes his poetic, spiritual, prayerful, mystical pattern.

Is this not the Lenten gospel, for you?  Your wilderness, your wandering, your wasteland—see, hear—is the landscape of love, the landscape of longing for love, love personal, love human, love spiritual, love divine all loves excelling.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  ‘Whoever does not know hurt does not know good things either’. (San Juan de la Cruz).

This lent we shall see by the dark light, the dark night, the dark night of the soul.

While life’s dark maze I tread

And griefs around me spread

Be thou my guide

Bid darkness turn to day

Wipe sorrow’s tears away

Nor let me ever stray

From thee aside

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

Communion Meditation

March 3rd, 2019 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 9: 28-36

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The single striking word in our passage from the Holy Scripture, Luke 9, is ‘departure’.  To be sure, Luke has more broadly added to what he took from Mark 9, written 25 years earlier.   He adds that Jesus went up to pray, giving to the wild scene a liturgically human focus.  He adds that Moses and Elijah spoke together of him, perhaps out of earshot, or in muffled tones, another human touch in what is otherwise a resurrection scene.  Luke adds that Peter and others were sleepy, human beings they, for all the ‘glory’ of the Transfiguration.  He adds a word about their human fear.  He renames, changes, Jesus appellation from Beloved to Chosen, a slight demotion.   Luke particularly adds that they told no one about this, perhaps by way of late first century explanation as to why there were no memories of this.  In all the narrative is utterly human in that we have a tendency to ’mark the places and preserve the moments where we has encountered God’ (S Ringe, loc. cit.).

But ‘departure’, Jesus’ departure, is the striking gospel word in Luke today.  Whether the reference to the coming Jerusalem event, of which his late first century readers would be well aware, was to crucifixion, in Jerusalem, or to ascenscion, in Jerusalem, or to both, or less probably to something other, we are not told.  Luke’s story comes down the mountain faster than Mark’s or for that matter Matthew’s.  The cross is upheld in the chill of glory.   The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, announces freedom right in the teeth of disappointment, love right in the pain of dislocation, and, today, grace in the hour of departure.  Grace meets us in departure.  Whether personal or communal, departure opens the way to grace.

First: Personal Departure

You know this from experience when your loved ones die.  Today at 2pm we face the departure of a loved one, at 2pm, Dr. Horace Allen.  We gathered two weeks ago to celebrate the life and faith of my father in law, Jan’s dad, Robert E. Pennock, age 92, whose mind, heart, and soul we honored that day in love.   In light of the painful outcome of the Methodist conference in St. Louis this week, it may be particularly important to recall the best of Methodism by remembering him today.  As the Romans, and my Latin teacher mother would say, exemplum docet, the example teaches.

Bob carried many titles over the years, including Mr., Rev., Dr., Professor, Dean and others, but cherished most closely the titles of Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Husband, and Friend.  We who had known him so, with anguish and hope, gave him over to God.

Bob loved the Lord with his mind.   What an acute, imaginative mind he did possess.  Raised in Syracuse, a graduate of Nottingham High School where he was captain and quarterback of the football team, a further graduate—following service to his country in the navy, 1944—of Syracuse University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he then went to Iliff School of Theology and over time earned the equivalent of today’s Master of Divinity, and a PhD focused on the theology, actually the ontology, of Paul Tillich.  He said he saw an article in Life Magazine, ‘They are educating a new kind of preacher at Iliff’, and promptly chose to go off to Denver. He was a natural teacher and a life-long learner, curious, honest, and sharp.

One summer night, years ago, we were hiking back over the sand hill from lake Ontario to the cottage which he so loved, under a bejeweled canopy of stars in the clear night sky.  He stopped and looked long heavenward, saying, ‘So many questions, so many unanswered questions.’  His study of Tillich was thus no accident, for Tillich always began with the questions, bringing the tradition of faith to bear in faithful answers to existential questions.  Into his nineties, Bob was able to preach with head as well as heart.  His ministry, which included pastorates in Onega, Kansas, in Denver, Colorado, in Mexico NY, and in Oswego NY (there also the leadership of the Wesley Foundation He was the best NNY preacher of his generation.  His preaching combined intellectual height with emotional depth, and met the moment, Sunday by Sunday, including November 25, 1963, following JFK’s assassination, with a necessarily re-written sermon that began, ‘We are a nation drenched in sorrow’.  Earl Ledden, who was later Bob’s Bishop in Syracuse, would play the piano for singing when the ministers came together for conference, a humble, gracious man.  ‘That is ministry, to play the accompaniment to people’s lives’, Ledden would say.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind.

Bob also loved the Lord with his heart.  He was a positive, optimistic person, most naturally himself when setting sail, running with the wind.  During an earlier illness, this some many years ago but still a perilous malady, it was striking to hear him say, ‘I will be all right.  I will pray.  I believe in the power of prayer.  I believe in the power of prayer’.  At the heart of his heart were his children, and their children, and their children, too.  He could easily give way to tears when the moment arose and allowed, and was unafraid of emotion, public or otherwise.  Anger did not worry him, neither his own nor that of others, as those of us who occasionally disagreed with him can attest.  He would have agreed with my own dad, who, when such emotion overtook another would say, ‘That’s fine.  It’s worth the price of admission to see him (or her) so worked up.’  It was in his preaching that his heart, too, came through.  In 1980 he preached in the little Forest Home Chapel in Ithaca, and told a story about a boy who wanted his dad to play in the annual father and son baseball game.  But Dad was a terrible ball player, with coke bottle glasses, a big paunch, and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.  Still, Son persisted and so, in terror, Dad stood at the plate and easily made two quick strikes.  Then he heard a voice from right field calling out, ‘Come on Dad, you can hit it, I just know you can’.  And wouldn’t you know, by some miraculous somehow, Dad swung and hit a little Texas leaguer, a short single into center field. Standing proudly at first base, he heard that same voice from right field, ‘I knew it Dad.  I just knew you could’.  I can hear him telling that as if it were yesterday, rather than forty years ago.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.

Bob loved the Lord with his soul.  He was a Methodist of the veteran liberal variety, who combined, in John Wesley’s way, a deep personal faith with an active social involvement, a weekly Sunday worship hour with a weekday engagement of faith in culture, in society, and in politics.  The full humanity of gay people was affirmed.  The dangers of authoritarian, mendacious Presidential leadership was a given.  The care of the migrant, the poor, those in bitter need, was the first order of business on the Christian agenda, the lifted lamp beside the golden door.  “These are things we have to keep before us, always before us”, he would say, and did preach.   He lived the freedom of the Christian, and could, and did, acknowledge failure, defeat, and mistake, and pray, not with the Pharisee, but with the publican, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.  On his last day he could mouth a greeting by name and whisper ‘I love you too’.  Would that we all could be so alive when we die.  About eight years ago, on a Boston visit, we talked about death and burial.  He said he would be buried in Richland, far up in the Tug Hill plateau of Northern New York State, and then added, ‘That is so comforting to me, to think of being buried there, under those deep winter snows, lying at peace and quiet under those North Country drifts, under that bright white blanket.’     In that Methodist faith Bob was born and baptized, and in that Methodist faith he is now dead and soon buried.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul.

With mind, and with heart, and with soul, we shall love the Lord our God.

One perceives grace in the hour of personal departure.


Second: Communal Departure

Bob’s church, and mine, this last week endured a communal departure, a parting of ways.  In light of his life and minisltry, it may be particularly important today to face directly the collapse this week. Methodists of mind, heart and soulf today face fully the defeat of St. Louis and what Methodism has become.

The death of my father in law preceded by a fortnight the death of his and my church.  The Rev. Mr. Mark Feldmier of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, put it this way:

Late Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church betrayed its most essential and enduring standard for Christian faith and practice: “do no harm.” The events and outcomes of the Special Session of the General Conference have done irreparable harm to the LGBTQ family, as well as to the majority of United Methodists who live in the US and represent a more centrist and generous orthodoxy. It is a sad day as we confront the dark reality of what has taken place.

As I am sure you know, delegates to General Conference voted to retain and reinforce policies prohibiting LGBTQ clergy and same-gender weddings. These policies, and the new consequences for violating them, are barbaric, shameful, and intolerable…The United Methodist Church, as we have known it, died on Tuesday, he concluded.

We gather, come Sunday, with regularity to receive the Lord in bread and cup, and to listen for His Word, a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.

In that spirit, here are some few, specific, pastoral comments about the conference, offered to the Marsh Chapel community present this morning, and to our global listenership around the world:

With many others, I supported the defeated One Church plan, which would have allowed freedom for local churches with regard to marriage, and for annual conferences with regard to ordination.

Marsh Chapel, with historical ties to Methodism but now an ecumenical University chapel, has and will continue to solemnize marriages for gay people, and has and will continue to employ and deploy gay clergy.  We had another such wedding submission for next year, which we will happily honor, on the day  conference ended. Our full embrace and affirmation of the LGBTQIA community will not change at all, except  that we will strive even further to energize our inclusive ministry here.   Marsh Chapel, as you are doing, do so more and more!

Today, the United Methodist Church is split.  About two thirds of the delegates from the United States supported the One Church plan, and thus supported openness to gay people in marriage and ordination, as determined in churches and conferences.  Opposition came heavily from abroad, especially Africa and the Philippines (NYTimes, 2/25/19) and also significantly from a fundamentalist minority in the USA.  As Dr. Stephen Cady, one of the leading young liberal voices in Methodism today, the senior minister of the largest UMC in the Northeast Jurisdiction, Asbury First UMC, Rochester NY put it: ‘Some in our denomination wish to maintain our current stance but others, like me, desperately wish to change it…Unfortunately our global nature, with roughly half of our denomination residing outside of the US, also means that it takes us longer to progress on social issues like these’.

Whether there will be an actual institutional split, and if so how so, I cannot yet say, but I would not fear it.

As to the fuller significance and effects of this I refer you to the Marsh Chapel sermon, 2/17, (http://www.bu.edu/chapel/worship/sunday/sermons/).  It may be that local churches will begin to look more carefully at what they support in global giving, especially general apportionment funds 1,4,and 7 (world service fund, episcopal fund, Africa University fund).

For those concerned and curious about the process of the conference, here are a few concluding unscientific postscripts:

*43% of votes were from overseas, 30% from Africa alone.

*a 25 vote shift would have changed the outcome; forty potential votes were not even cast (the total vote was 824 out of 864 delegates);

*the 2019 delegates were elected in 2015, but over time  another younger group is coming;

*some progressives may not have supported the One Church plan, preferring to hold out for the perfect rather than supporting an imperfect improvement—you might want to think about that another time;

*bluntly, this is painful, disappointing and disheartening, for all, but especially for those just emerging in life and leadership.  Several students from Marsh Chapel attended the conference in St. Louis, and I am proud of their vocal leadership and faithful embrace of the LGBTQIA community issues.

*United Methodist lay and clergy conference members will want to make a point of attending annual conference this year.  The annual conference, remember, is the basic body of our church. United Methodist elections of delegates to the April 2020 General Conference (only 14 months away) will be held this spring 2019, and it will be crucial, for instance, that some retired clergy who do not always attend conference (but have a vote) do choose to attend, and so hopefully help to move the balance of US votes closer to 100% for acceptance, affirmation, and inclusion.  We can expect no help, support or mercy neither from overseas nor from the fundamentalists.

50 years ago, Methodism was actively engaged in merger discussions with the Episcopal Church: it may be time for moderate Methodism to start there again.

*Last month we visited our oldest parishioner, C. Faith Richardson.  Faith, like Marsh Chapel is rooted in Methodist history, but her branches are the whole oikumene, historically Methodist, functionally ecumenical.  How does it feel to be 103?, I asked. About the same as it feels to be 101, she answered.  Then we discussed the conference in St. Louis.  Faith was the secretary of the 1984 conference, and retyped the Book of Discipline repeatedly on Smith Corona typewriter.  Haven’t they finished opening up the church to gay people yet?, she said.

Hear the broken Gospel: The leaven of grace is obscurely present, in departure, affirms St. Luke.  The leaven of grace is obscurely present, in communal departure, acclaims our St. Luke today.

As in humility we approach the Lord’s table, perhaps the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer may guide us:  “The question is how the reality in Christ—which has long embraced us and our world within itself—works here and now or, in other words, how life is to be lived in it. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God. As we travel further along this road, a large part of traditional Christian ethical thought stands like a Colossus obstructing our way.” (Ethics)

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