Words of Welcome

October 15th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel


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Matthew 22: 1-14



At this time in the year, at Boston University, we see parents and students, coming and going, sending and being sent. It is a bone jarring moment. It is reality, the reality of time and eternity, change and love. Most of our words to parents and students are meant to convey our sincere commitment to excellence, our attention to detail, our trustworthiness, if you will, as an institution and as individuals. The message is sincere and true, important and timely. This is a good place, and your sons and daughters will be here among good people.

But another reality of ‘Parents Weekend’ is about feelings, feelings wrought by coming and going. We also should speak of and to them. We see parents with their children and overhear…feelings.

There is a feeling of gratitude, so thick you can see it in the air. We mean not only the word of thanks that one more teenager is leaving home, one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry, though that is there, too. We mean the feeling that comes with a gasp in the throat, ‘thank you’, the feeling of seeing, my goodness, 18 or more years have gone by, and here, look, look at that young woman, that young man, my son, my daughter. It is a feeling of thanksgiving, for life, for youth, for children, for family, for affection. Every now and then, you catch a smile on a dad’s face, a lightness in a mom’s eyes, and you know gratitude, a real feeling.

There is a feeling of loss, too. In fact, loss is next door neighbor to gratitude, funny as that is. We mean not only the loss you feel with the first tuition check sent, though that is truly a real feeling.  In the autumn, we see sometimes a parent turn away, with eyes brimming, a private moment that even as a pastor I feel unworthy to engage. As a parent, I know that feeling.

There is a feeling of hope as well. You cannot be around many hundred eighteen year olds and turn a cold heart to the future. That much energy brings its own promise and parents feel it. At matriculation last month we sat in front of 3500 young hearts, 7000 young eyes and ears and hands, 3500 souls. When they cheer together there is a tingle, a mixture of awe and fear and wonder, like the feeling of a ten-foot wave breaking right in front of you. ‘Bless you’ we say and pray, and so do our parents. There is a new day upon us and it brings a sense of promise.

Now our parents have other things to think about and bigger fish to fry than to connect their feeling (far more than sentiment or emotion by the way) with the birth of Boston University. Yet these three feelings of gratitude and loss and promise created this school in 1839. Oh, John Dempster and the other 19th century founders would have used other, more religious, more technically theological terms, but the feelings were exactly theirs too, as they served as midwives at the birth of Boston University. In place of gratitude, they would have spoken of grace, prevenient grace at that. In place of loss, they would have spoken of itinerancy, the spiritual journey that is the heart of life. In place of promise, they would have invoked the gospel word of freedom, in the name of the God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. But the feelings—that is, the realities—are the very same, and they bring us straightway into the Gospel this morning.

Three Words of Welcome


                  Do you hear a voice of invitation?

We seldom recognize what a powerful thing an invitation can be. We know the power of an invitation when we hungrily receive one heartily desired. Nothing in all the world ever happened between persons without invitations. Every sermon is in some way an invitation to decision for Christian discipleship.

The voice of invitation is an enticement, a coaxing, a luring, a courting. The board is spread, the meat and drink are prepared. All is well in the house. This open invitation is the mark of Christianity at its best.

You remember that St Matthew, the Evangelist, has a passion. It is invitation, evangelism. The point of the Gospel of Mathew the Evangelist is that he is an evangelist. This is his love. His first love. To seek the lost, gather the dispersed, church the unchurched. And it is a passionate love.

The fun of teaching knots is to show the tenderfoot the square knot. Everything else is derivative. The joy of coaching swimming is to help someone learn to float. All the rest is a corollary. The excitement of instruction in a language is the alphabet and the first declension and the initial vocabulary. All the rest is subordinate.

The capacity to offer a genuine invitation depends on the measure of verbal kindness, and so personal trust, within a community. Let me ask you to pause for a moment and think about the way we speak.

We are invited to feast with one another. We are invited somehow to communicate to one another that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

How many of us, by contrast, live lives that are visually beautiful but verbally vacuous? Maybe that is why Luke, in his telling of this parable, has the invitation go out to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. To begin to invite, let us begin by attending to the character of our conversation as a community.


But the master’s call, as Matthew’s darkening tale reveals, is not heeded. That is the invitation is “taken lightly”, or as Matthew puts it, “they made light of it, and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants and treated them shamefully.” As they had, we are meant to interpret, the prophets of old.

                  The divine calling does not stop, but we now hear a second dimension of it. Here the call is not so much an invitation as it is a warning. One of the most startling points in the study of the parables is to notice the difference between Luke’s account of the story in Luke 14, and today’s reading. Luke is happy. Matthew is angry. Here a man has become a king, those who refuse are not forgotten but violently killed, those who miss their chance are not worthy, and many are called but few are chosen. It is hard not overhear some bitter church experience here, perhaps related to the persecution under the Emperor Domitian in the last decade of the first century.

While we may chafe at Matthew’s intensity, we can readily appreciate this new voice, a voice of warning. Jesus exists for us at some points as a warning. A warning that there does come a time when it is too late. All the parables have this element in them. The mercy of God is eternal, never ending, all pervading. But the time to accept the invitation is passing; the time to accept is the eternal now. There comes a time when it is too late. When we are sensitive, we hear this same warning all around us.

There does come a time when it is too late. The parables shout this warning. We cannot play forever with life-threatening nuclear weapons. We cannot supply the world with arms and expect them never to be used. We cannot applaud forever a narrow nationalism ill-suited to a global village. There does come a time when it is too late. The parables gracefully warn us of that time. Those of us laden with much property, much knowledge, much position may have a harder time hearing this than otherwise we would.

(The sad story which Matthew alone knows about the poor bloke who has no wedding robe apparently is a warning, either moral or spiritual. If moral, it is a warning that grace is free but not cheap. If spiritual, it is a warning that those invited to a daily feast should appreciate and celebrate.)


                  The call to the banquet is an invitation and warning, but in the end, it is a summons. “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find”.

An open, general summons goes out. Even this morning.

A couple of weeks ago, during the communion, I recalled in one of our churches long ago the memory of an elderly man, thinking of the summons of a school bell. Every morning he would prepare to go off into the cold, at age 6. For the winter, he would cover himself from head to toe in layers of clothing. Then his mother would take a huge pancake from the griddle and put one in each mitten to keep his hands warm. The summons came. The bell rang. He dressed, prepared, and went.

For her, for me, for you, this summons is delivered: work is not meant to drive out love. No, nor are any other penultimate passions meant to take the place of God the God of love in our lives.

In Jesus Christ light came into a world of darkness. In him we are called—invited, warned, summoned—into the kingdom of heaven. This call is not an abstract, universal bellow. It is a whispering that touches and knocks at the door of every human heart. Jesus teaches of a pardoning God, who is quick to forgive. Jesus tells us of a gathering God, who gathers good and bad together. In him has the light shown in the darkness.

Exemplum Docet

Schweitzer: Invitation

                  Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer, for all the complications and contradictions in his life and our memory of it.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

As a scholar, he wrote: (Tom) “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (QHJ, 389).

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine. Like love, like falling in love, like the discovery of a soul mate, life partner, spouse, real friend, an invitation is as powerful as it is numinous. A real mystery.

Addams: Warning

         Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide.   But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So, Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: (Denise)“The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a former neighbor who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. He said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.” 

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Thurman: Summons

                  Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, in summons. As a summer student minister, Thurman received a late-night phone call.

(Nick) ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’ 

                  In one kaleidoscopic moment, I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’. ‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’…

                  In a barely audible voice (the man) said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

                  I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen. 

                  We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts. Hear the gospel in invitation, warning, and summons. Words of welcome, words of welcome, words of welcome 

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

And wait to watch the water clear I may

I shan’t be gone long. You come too.


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

Readers: Tom Batson, Denise-Nicole Stone, Nickholas Rodriguez

Ministry is Service

October 8th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Philippians 2:5-8

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Have this mind among you, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, takin the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.


For most of 2017 here at Marsh Chapel we have attentively followed St. Matthew, as the basis of our preaching, including through our national summer series. We are grateful for the Gospel of Matthew, including his remembrance of the parable of the watchtower, a teaching about watchfulness, about judgment, and about living on the ‘qui vive’. Today, we turn, though, away from the Gospel, and toward the Epistle, which we have happily been hearing these past several weeks, that of Paul to the Philippians, his most ringingly joyful letter.

Our lessons today are about service, about ministry. Ministry is service. The word means service. We are taught, here, in Philippians, to hunt for life, to find real life, to have the experience of really being alive, in ministry, in service. This morning our readings invite you to think a bit about service. ‘Taking the form of a servant…’

In the advent of Christ Jesus, anxiety is eclipsed by joy, fear is overcome in thanksgiving. All this happens in service.

At Marsh Chapel, we are expectantly awaiting the advent of another generation of twenty year olds and others who are captured by the mind of Christ and enchanted by the prospect of service in his name. But if this is so, we shall need to be direct and honest, with them and with ourselves, about what service involves.

It may be that this intention lies behind Paul’s magnificent letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing, in the mid- 50’s of the first century, from a prison cell. Think Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela. Paul notes the resistance that some have to his trip into the slammer. Not everyone finds Paul’s stay in the calaboose uplifting. Some do. Some see the gospel advanced through imprisonment. Some do not. Some see Paul being Paul, always spoiling for a fight, always on the edge of conflict, always polemical Paul. They preach Christ, but denigrate Paul, or denigrate Paul in the way they preach Christ.

Let us imagine what may also have been in the air, though we cannot prove it. Let us imagine that Paul decides not, at this point, to parry. Imagine that rather, he listens, hard, to this. He wants to understand: The Greek knows a thing by ‘overstanding it’ where we understand (by getting to the bottom of it) EPISTAMAI’. Paul wants to understand, to stand under, to go underground, to see the underpinnings.


To provide some exposition of Paul’s letter, let us look for a moment at our own experience.

Service requires the willingness to be immersed in community life. Community life means endless contention and intractable difference. In a family, church, town, city, university, country or community, real life means real life, including conflict. Anyone in public life and leadership, including clergy, but not only clergy, and not mainly clergy, knows the disappointment involved in service. Here is some good news. Look at disappointment. Look at it– with reverence for the meaning underlying it.

It takes a big dose of courage to swallow disappointment and to hunt around in disappointment for what may happen when people meet in a real, shared partnership based on real, shared struggle. And that swallowing, friends called to service, friends engaged in ministry, friends growing to leadership size, that swallowing is the beginning of wisdom. Here, conflict. But also–the opportunity, taken or missed, to enter another’s real life, real pain, real soul.

It is from the locations that people give you that you will have the chance to give people some healing. If they place you in a high pulpit, far off and up there, and 15 feet above contradiction, the ministry will have to begin there. It need not end there. If they place you in a rough parsonage with a leaky roof and a long, sad history, the ministry will have to begin there, but should not end there. If they place you at the family table, as guest and as host and as minister, you can start where they are, there, but you need not end there.

In 1982, one bitter cold February Saturday night, we were invited to dinner. Saturday night always carries a proleptic anxiety over Sunday morning, especially, as in the case of this clear winter night, on the Canadian border, when the morning’s sermon was not finished, was still in gestation, was still seven months at least from birth, with birth only hours away. The family dinner, it turned out, was an extended family dinner, three generations, hosted by grandma and grandpa. After dinner, the dozen of us retired to the family room of the big country house, when, over dessert, the purpose of the evening arrived. Or was revealed. Grandpa wanted grandson to be Christian, to believe, to be confirmed, and to attend church, and wanted the new preacher to effect this, to explain faith, to defend belief, to convert the heathen, then and there. It needs emphasis that these, all, were the ruddiest and handsomest and best of good people, none with more than a high school diploma. They had a location into which they had appointed a minister, their minister. If ministry was to start, it would have to start there, which it did, over a couple of hours. The minister answered what questions he could. He did not complain about the ambush, but he did identify it. Then he also asked his questions, of the family and for the family, questions of histories and systems and silences and, even, identified patients. By 11pm, the work was done, but not the sermon. It was a sneak attack, to be sure. But it was also an invitation to partnership. Leaving in a huff, in defiance, would have communicated boundaries but would not have been service. Answering questions but asking none, compliance, would have communicated sincerity but not authenticity, and would not have been service.

Exhausted and enervated, the minister and young family drove home through the crisp snow and black beautiful cold, cold night, the temperature 20 below zero And still no sermon finished for the next morning.

Leaders. Current leaders. Future leaders. Servant leaders: You cannot leave false nametags on your shirt or back, as inevitable as their placement is. They need removal. But you also cannot predict where real, responsive service or ministry will emerge. People only hear you when they are moving toward you. (repeat) They can best move toward you when you are located near them.

When you are invited to become chaplain of the fire department, accept. When you are asked to pray at the blue and gold banquet, accept. When you are encouraged to join the country club, accept. When you are invited to Saturday dinner, accept. When you are called to come to the barn for a talk, accept. When you are asked to visit the family burial ground, accept. When you are invited to speak at Christmas for the service club, go. When you are encouraged, not so subtly, to visit Aunt Tillie, make the visit. As a rule, accept every invitation. These are overtures, questions and hopes, addressed to you and to who knows who. Your response: ‘I am at your disposal, at your service’.


In respect of Paul, as our exegesis has shown, and as our exposition has outlined, we turn to apply Philippians to Christian life in America, 2017, awaiting a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope (repeat). The One Who took the form of a servant meets us today right in the teeth of the gale, in the heart of the storm.   He speaks to us the eternal word. Peace. He speaks to us the saving word. Have this mind among you–a timely word, a fit word, a word fitly spoken. We are a people drenched in sorrow, anger, worry, and exasperation. The boat is heaving from side to side, stem to stern, port to starboard.   Newtown, Santa Monica, Washington, West Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas…Las Vegas.

What shall we say, think and do? But, friends, you know your answer already, to this. (We all need more reminder than instruction.)

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

By pray I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil. But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging and empowerment. You can do this. You can engage and support others. If week by week you only regularly see family, co-workers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow. But in the pew you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments. Not your mom, not your boss, and not your golf partner. Others–who are other. Somehow as a people we think that we can muster the will to address issues on the grand scale, when our orbits of relationship are with people who are like us, are like ourselves. This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into the Calculus without mastering multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles. This next summer our preaching series considers Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’. But to stretch toward that Johannine, Roycean, and Kingly vision, we have to start by sitting for an hour near people who are other than we, in the presence of God.

By vote I do mean election-day ballots. One of our leaders here at BU, when asked what advice she might have for graduates of 2017 said, simply, ‘vote’. Yes, go to the polls. But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference. Personal engagement. One of our most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston died suddenly of cancer six years ago. How we miss her. One day we were walking together on the Esplanade. We were talking about gun violence. In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman. ‘They know me there. I have them on speed dial’. She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person. Well that may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money. She was a great person. We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.

By act I do mean doing something, within your sphere of influence. Several gathered here at Marsh Chapel for a compline service this past Monday evening. Others attended other events. You may have decided to attend a gathering for good sometime this week—a fund raiser for Puerto Rico, a walk for peace in our time, a committee meeting to address, in some measurable way, the horror of gun violence, with more than 200 mass killings in this country this year. Good for you. Tell them Dean Hill sent you. Let us find ways to act. Our Boston University President, Dr. Robert A. Brown, challenged us this week to ‘seek to understand the causes of grotesque acts of inhumanity that we might work toward making the world a better, safer place.’ There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of endless unsolvable contentions. 350 million guns there are across the land. Yes. Yes. I know. These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful. But you know, life is full of change, even surprising change. In her late 80’s my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door. It read: ‘Do one thing. There. You have done one thing.’ I have a voice, and I will use my voice. You do too.

Speak through the pulses of desire

Thy coolness and thy balm

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire

Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire

Thy still, small voice of calm.


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

Sharing in the Spirit

October 1st, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

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                   Please be seated. Good morning! It is an honor to be sharing the Word with you from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again! Thank you to Dean Hill for this opportunity and to my colleagues here at Marsh Chapel for their support in organizing today’s worship service – especially our anthems from the choir for the day.

I want to invite you to take a moment to think about the best dinner you’ve ever attended. I don’t mean necessarily the meal that you ate – maybe that’s a part of it – but the best dinner experience you’ve had. I’m almost sure that this dining experience you’re remembering right now is with at least one other person…maybe a whole table full of people. How did you feel? What did you talk about? Maybe your dinner was a part of a celebration, for a birthday or an anniversary. Maybe it was at a family holiday gathering. Maybe it was with friends out at a restaurant. Maybe it was a home-cooked meal made by a family member. There is something about that dinner that sticks with you, a connection made, an emotion felt, an experience that cannot be forgotten.

Every Tuesday night in this building, something wonderful and amazing happens. Onions are chopped, sometimes with tears, dough is kneaded and shaped, chickpeas ground, tomatoes sliced, garlic sautéed. Simple ingredients are turned into a meal. And while all of this is happening, people gather. Some of us are in the kitchen, learning how to make whatever dish is on the menu that night. Some stand just inside or outside the doorway, carrying on conversation with those who are cooking, and others gather just down the hall conversing about the week so far or playing the occasional game of Jenga. We all come from different backgrounds – some of us from neighboring towns in Massachusetts, some from the South or the West, some from China, or Mexico, or India, or Nigeria. The places we know as “home” might differ, but in our interactions we create a new place of belonging for ourselves.

Global Dinner Club has grown in the last two years as an opportunity for hospitality and understanding across cultural differences as members of the Boston University community come together to share a meal and conversation. Most students, when they first come, ask the same question: “You do this every week? For free?” Yes, a home-cooked meal, prepared with care and attention by people who may or may not know each other all with the goal of sharing together. And sometimes those new people jump right in, offering to chop or slice, stir or roll, and sometimes they hold off for a week or two, observing what goes on before feeling confident and comfortable enough to fully participate. And that’s okay too – no one is ever told they must help or participate, but we hope they come around to it sooner or later.

Tuesday nights are wonderful and amazing because they are grounded in love. Every person who attends wants to be in community with others – even if they’ve had a hard day. Global Dinner Club serves as a release from coursework and other concerns, allowing space to only focus on cooking and enjoying food with each other for a few hours.

What is also amazing about Global Dinner Club is that it is antithetical to everything that the world wants me to believe about life in the United States at the current moment. It is people from all different backgrounds and varying ages coming together only with the agenda of eating and getting to know each other. Attendees find points of commonality – for instance, a favorite television show or a class taken – and from there the conversation grows. Or they find points of difference – for example, idioms that are commonplace in American English need further explanation to make sense for non-native English speakers. As an aside, this week I realized how Western the term “damsel in distress” is, and how hard it is to explain if you didn’t grow up with fairy tales about castles and knights and dragons. While there are barriers we have to overcome in understanding each other sometimes, and while there are many possible outside forces that prevent us from experiencing the joy of learning from others and growing in friendship, it is still possible. It gives me hope at a time when so much of our world seems to be in chaos. It reminds me that love is stronger than hate.

Consuming food for nourishment is a basic need for all human beings, but it becomes something so much more because it is shared. Eating together enables us to get to know one another. It is an intimate act. When I asked you to envision the best dinner you’d ever attended, I bet it brought back particular memories about whom you shared it with and the emotions you felt during that time. Sharing a meal unifies those gathered around a table through telling stories, revealing oneself enough to find common ground, and leaving behind quarrels or divisions to enjoy a meal together. We may, at one time or another, have sat at a table with someone who sees the world differently than us, but have been able to learn and grow from interacting with them over a meal. It is not the act of eating alone that brings us together, but the act of sharing in the experience of a meal – of conversation and eating, words and action – that enable us to grow into community.

In the lesson we heard this morning from Philippians, Paul urges the community of Christians in Philipi that they must be unified. That they mustn’t let in-fighting and quarreling divide them. They must act as servants to one another, acting in love toward one another. In order to “share in the Spirit” they must be willing to be open and humble as Christ-followers. Anticipating the needs of the other and looking toward the interests of the other before thinking of one’s self interests. Living in community with others is difficult, and Paul knows this, but he emphasizes that one of the ways that the community in Phillipi can come together is to let God be front and center in their minds as they go about interacting with one another, serving each other’s needs as God acts through them to do so.

A meal is a great place to put this into practice – not only are we able to meet the physical needs of others by providing the sustenance offered through food, but we are able to provide the emotional and spiritual support of others through listening and offering parts of our own journeys with them. Extending hospitality to others is a part of our Christian heritage, and a meal can be just that for those searching for it.

Sharing a meal is a sacred act. Today we will share in a meal together in Holy Communion. Other religious traditions also share sacred meals. Every Friday our Jewish friends celebrate Shabbat.  At the end of each fasting day during Ramadan, our Muslim brothers and sisters break their fast by sharing in iftar, and culminate their month-long fasting with an Eid al-Fitr dinner. In most worship practices within Hinduism, worshipers consume the prasad, the food which is first offered and then ultimately blessed by deities. Consuming food, especially together, is an important, sacred activity within many religious traditions other than our own.

Today, in a few moments, we will share in a particularly special and unifying meal in our worship service. The first Sunday of the month is always Communion Sunday here at Marsh Chapel. But today is an even more special day – today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. This first Sunday in October is celebrated throughout the Christian world as a time when we intentionally recognize how all Christians are connected to one another through sharing in the sacred meal of Holy Communion. Created in the early 20th century by the Presbyterian church, the importance and popularity of World Communion Sunday grew during World War II, when the world appeared to be tearing itself apart with conflicts on many fronts. Christian ecumenicism, bringing together many of the Mainline Protestant traditions and some of the orthodox traditions, helped people find points of connection rather than being defined by the theological traditions that separated their individual Christian denominations.  It resulted in the development of Christian-led reconciliation work in the face of on-going conflict that continues to this day through organizations like the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. Today, World Communion Sunday offers us a time to see how the Body of Christ extends across the globe in many shapes and forms as a unified whole. While communing with individuals who claim different denominational affinities, or none at all, is not out of the ordinary for us here at Marsh Chapel, today we affirm the call to come together as one in this sacred meal, open to all who wish to partake.

Our ritual of Holy Communion is not a full meal. At most, we usually get a bite of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. But it stands for a bigger meal with a greater meaning for us. In preparation for today’s sermon, I read Lutheran theologian and historian Martin Marty’s The Lord’s Supper. It is a small book and easy to read, designed for the everyday person – I highly suggest it if you’re looking to learn more about how and why we do the things we do during Communion. In it, Marty reminds the reader that we must keep in mind the greater context of what we are doing through the act of communion.  He states: “The Lord’s Supper is often called “Holy Communion,” a coming-together of bread with body, wine with blood, God with creatures, and believers with one another. To realize through Communion that one is a social human being who shares common miseries and joys is a benefit of this meal. It serves to lift a person beyond mere “me-ness.” While we may come to church services looking to find something that will resonate with us individually, usually through a sermon or the prayers, we must also be reminded that the purpose of worship, and specifically communion, is to bring us together as a “we.” Not just as a “we” of people in one place, but a “we” of connection with all others, including God and the creation. Communion brings us back in touch with the earth, to see the way God works through the world.

Just like a regular meal we might have on a daily basis, Communion also consists of words and actions. And in order to be communion, it must have both to. In the Small Catechism, the instruction booklet of faith for Lutherans, Martin Luther explains that communion is more than just eating and drinking. It is the combination of words shared and the action of eating and drinking that constitute the sacred act of grace and forgiveness which makes Holy Communion a sacrament rather than just another meal. In the words spoken by Jesus that we repeat during Holy Communion, and following his actions with the disciples, we are a part of the sacrament. Jesus said “Take and eat, this is my body, given for you.” “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” When we offer and receive, sharing these holy words, we are a part of the experience of the divine and are brought together as members of God’s holy family.

The meal we share in communion helps to feed our souls by offering us the grace of the divine and encouraging us to let that grace work through us in service of creating a more just and loving world. In coming together as a congregation, we open ourselves up to bear the burdens and serve the interests of others through sharing in the Spirit with one another. Our task is to continue extending the grace offered to us through our experience within Holy Communion by loving our neighbors and showing care for them. One way we may show care is offering a meal, or a place to rest to those who need it. Or we might gather supplies for those experiencing loss, like our community-minded service group MOVE is doing for people in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. If the intentions of our actions are grounded in faith, then we do much more than meet the physical needs of others. We also extend God’s love into the world.

We come together in worship to hear the Gospel, bear each other’s troubles, ask for forgiveness, receive God’s grace, and go out into the world living our lives being carried forward by the mind of Christ. Let us look for the ways in which we can all share in the Spirit with others, especially those who are marginalized or oppressed, creating a community of understanding and support, outside of this physical space and time. Let God work through us to bring forth justice and reconciliation in the world. Let us simply look up from our plates across the table to those sitting around us and share pieces of ourselves with others along with our meal. Amen.

-Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

The Bach Experience

September 24th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 20: 1-16

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Here at Marsh Chapel over the last decade we have endeavored to offer our listenership around the globe, and our congregation here in the flesh, a distinctive confluence of music and word, come Bach Sundays. By experiment and practice, we have tried to allow the preaching of the Gospel, God’s external word of grace in sermon, and the music of the church, the praise of God in voice and instrument, to dance together, to become a mutual enrichment, and a call to faith. Over time that has led us, Scott and me, to reform the service and sermon, upon these Sundays, into an antiphonal teaching, including a sermon in dialogue. To our current knowledge, what you hear, here, is sui generis, not like something or anything else, what we hope is a part of what across the oikoumene is distinctive, better and best about Marsh Chapel.

In preparation for the confessional humility of today’s cantata, we give ear to our Holy Scripture. In Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’ as Bultmann put it. The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity. Its point: behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same. As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice. To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay. To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive. To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs. To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.   The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers. When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath. When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.

Let us attend carefully for a moment to Matthew. In the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others. Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace. Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter. The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett on Bach  

Today’s cantata offers a similar version of the “Last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. You’ll recall with me that Jesus’s parable depicts the outwardly pious Pharisee praying ostentatiously, taking advantage of the presence of the tax collector to boost his own piety. By contrast the Tax Collector remained in the back of the temple, out of side, head bowed, beating his breast, in complete humility. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. So sit up straight this morning!

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill on Matthew

Listen again to the words in St. Matthew, a portion of his gospel that is all his own, unshared by Mark, unshared by Q, unshared in the rest of scripture. Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power. The allegory is clear. God is obliged to nobody. Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late. In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago. (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.) Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same. Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning, there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’. ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.

We have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith. Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing. Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too). (If faith comes by hearing it will help if you are in earshot. You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letters: live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

I wonder about you? and me? Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week? Are we better people than we were last Sunday? Are we able to pray each day? Martin Luther, the 500th anniversary of whose reformation we remember this autumn, recommended morning prayer to include a recitation of the Ten Commandments, a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, morning by morning. Will the remembered humility of this parable in Matthew 20, and the powerful call to contrition today of this music, bring us to our knees, morning by morning? And, are we better, as a people, than we were last Sunday? Luther celebrated the external word—not just spirit and experience. The external word in preaching. The external word in sacrament. The external word in forgiveness (confession and absolution). Can we somehow find our way to church to hear and be fed and receive that external word?

Here too is John Calvin (for once) interpreting this parable: We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God. From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling. Finally, we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)


Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

“Dearest God, have mercy: let comfort and grace appear 

 -Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music and

The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Remembering Elie Wiesel

September 17th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Exodus 14:19-31

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18: 21-35

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            After some significant internal struggle, come Senior year of college, I finally decided to go to seminary.

            That spring I visited Harvard, Boston University, Yale and Union. I stood outside the chapel here, and have a picture to prove it. Union in New York was easily the right place, for me. In part I went on the advice of a friend that ‘a year of seminary never hurt any one’. Once in for a penny, I was in for a pound, and really never looked back. Your calling is what you sense is your best response to God. And that can change. In fact, you need to practice the art of ‘editing your dreams’. They need writing, but they editing too.

What a world opened up in New York City at Union! How grateful I am. The urban world, the ecumenical world, the theological world, the biblical world, the world of the gospel and its preachment. It is an embarrassment to admit to you how little I knew about the Bible, for all my parsonage tenure, small Methodist college degree, summer camp leadership, and generational background. I knew nada. And into that mental wasteland vacuum swept Samuel Terrien, George Landes, Raymond Brown and Lou Martyn, four horsemen of the apocalypse, to furnish its empty mental apartment books shelves with, well, books. I fell in love with the Bible, with the Strange World of the Bible. There too were James Forbes, Cornell West, Chrisopher Morse, Linda Clark (who later came here), Horace Allen (who came here later), and many others. William Sloane Coffin came into the Riverside pulpit. Across the street was the Jewish Theological Seminary, whence Abraham Heschel had come in the autumn afteroons to walk around Grant’s Tomb with Reinhold Niebuhr, just a few years earlier. That image of interreligious, interfaith theological discourse inspires still.

It happened that Union was in the throes of a renaissance of sorts, and the President, Donald Shriver had somehow convinced Robert McAfee Brown, a longtime Union alumn, faculty member, and Union family member if you will, to leave his beloved California haunts and come back to New York, with his wife Sydney (a missionary’s daughter). Bob and Sydney met in the summer home of Reinhold Neihbuhr near Heath, MA—they were in that sense god-children of the Neihbuhrs and so of that tradition at Union. Brown stayed at Union only three years, but they were the very three I was there. He had been the Protestant Observer at Vatican II and taught a course we fought to gain entrance too, titled, the Ecumenical Revolution.   He knew about Heschel and Neibuhr walking in the autumn light on Riverside Drive very well because—he fell and love and got married under Neibuhr’s roof. Brown encouraged us to go and work in 1978 at the World Council of Churches, in Swizerland, in the Office of Urban Ministry, run by the one and only George Todd, Brown’s fellow Presbyterian. Due to health issues, we left Union and New York suddenly and precipitously in February of 1979. In that early winter of 1979 we retreated to a church in Ithaca, to heal and to begin the work of ministry, among the students at ‘godless Cornell’.

Before we left, perhaps a week or so before, Bob and Sydney Brown held a winter dinner party in their home, which was an apartment in McGiffert Hall, under the wing of Riverside Church along Claremont Avenue. It may have been, if memory serves, that the dinner guests were his seminar students and spouses or friends from the course on the Ecumencial Revolution. Many things for us were unsettled at the time, a time of existential fright and anxiety. The welcome, the warm welcome of that home, the dim awareness we had of who Brown was, who the Browns were, and their very humble circumstance, hospitality and kindness to 2.5 itinerant Methodists stands out after forty years. Robert McAfee Brown had a special reason for the dinner, because he had invited a special guest, colleague and friend of his, whom he had met at Stanford, but who was also now in New York, though he spent a part of each week in Boston. Our dinner guest had been invited to a University Professorship here at Boston University by then President John Silber, and, after some hesitation, as I understand it, he accepted. In a way, Brown’s firm, lasting friendship with Wiesel, at least it seemed to me, reflected the friendship of the earlier generation between Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel (who delivered Neibuhr’s funeral eulogy in Stockbridge MA, 1971, just 5 years before we arrived at Union). So it was that we came to know Elie Wiesel.

Robert McAfee Brown’s vision of the oikoumene included Elie Wiesel, his celebrated dinner guest that snowy evening in 1979. By precept and example, then, Brown taught us to consider thinking and living in the same way. The later edition of NIGHT comes with an introduction by RM Brown, after which Brown wrote his full book, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, which includes this passage: I have tried very hard, my friend, not to write this book. At every stage it seemed a tampering with things I had no right to touch. But because each exposure to your work moves me more deeply, I fell compelled to share of portion of what you have given me. To receive and not to share—that would be a denial of all I have learned from you. You have said that to be a Jew means to testify; such must also be the obligation of a Christian. And you have taught us all—Jews, Christians, and all humanity—that before testifying ourselves, we must liest to the testimony of others. I have tried to listen to your testimony. And now I feel obligated…to testify (p. vi.)

 There is a gracious power in hospitality, like that which Professor Wiesel showed us in the Browns’ residence, forty years ago. It lasts, the warmth and authenticity of it, they last. Said Unamuno: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost’. (Not the night of unknowing, but the frost of unloving—that is what kills). Speaking of night…


Through the eighties I pursued a PhD at McGill. As the dissertation was slowly writing itself—we shall sell no wine before its time!—I began teaching in various schools. Montreal had an excellent film library, free and substantive, which I would raid on occasion for the course taught in community colleges along the border, up north. One perennial was a reel to reel film of Professor Wiesel.

Later still, the dissertation simmering nicely on the back burner for most of a decade—do not take my example—in teaching at Lemoyne College, Syracuse, we read NIGHT, as so many have done over the years. The course prepared the way for it by use of another film—ancient technology—ON RITUAL, whose JTS lead figure was Professor Gillman, whose daughter Abigail is now our colleague her at BU. Gillman: ‘The central Jewish vision is that whole world made holy: all of life raised to its deepest and highest level’. The film follows the annual, weekly, and daily ritual life of woman named Carol, one of the first women to enter the rabbinate in Conservative Judaism, and so teaches about Sabbath, and then about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Booths, Hannukah, Purim and Passover. Ritual brings order to life.

Wiesel was the quintessential teacher. His books carried his voice out across the globe. Those who studied with him here regularly remember his remembrance of them. My Norwegian friend vividly remembers Professor Wiesel gradually getting him to come out his shell, by telling funny stories. Our students in the small Catholic School, where most were the first in their families to attend college, connected with him from afar. In particular, the students always read and could always fully engage Wiesel’s book. I taught it by showing the points at which the ten commandments were engaged or broken (pps 50, 59, 71, 73, 90, and others). I never had a chance to ask him whether that was a fair way to teach the book, and whether he had the Decalogue in view for its structure. We learned from Wiesel and his book by raising questions. What is the central theme of the book? What is its weakest point? How do you describe the ‘voice’ of the author? Which scene did you dislike most? What other writing does it recall? What would you ask the author if he were here today?

All of us are far more human than anything else, including and especially those who remind us best of our own best selves, like Professor Wiesel. There is I am sure a full set of observations in loving critique that can and should be raised, and will be in the sessions offered this morning and afternoon in his honor. I wonder, for instance, just how inclusive his perspective was with regard to gay people. I wonder about his relationship with non-Orthodox Judaism. Like every sermon, every life has its points of challenge. But I, for one, have been deeply and lastingly influenced by the life and work of this one who lectured to us here thrice each autumn over 40 years.

Franklin Littell, the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, was not in the habit of mincing words. One ongoing application for those of us who have been seized by the confession of the church, who have been loved by the faithfulness of Christ, is to look again, to look long, to look hard at the Holocaust. We have yet to understand what happened to Christianity in the dark abyss, the hellish, ghoulish fire of Auschwitz. Crucified, Judaism has risen from the dead. But what will become of Christianity? Will there arise a movement from religion to faith? Will there appear on the earth a religionless Christianity? Seventy years later, and the clock is ticking:

Nazism was in no sense a revolt against ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Neither was it ‘secularist’. Quite the contrary: in its central creed the party affirmed a devotion to ‘positives Christentum’. The Fuhrer and other party orators made constant reference to ‘divine providence’, ‘spiritual renewal’, ‘moment of decision’, ‘immortal destiny’…and the like. Many of the party hymns were simply new words written to popular gospel songs, with the same brass bands marching and evoking from crowds the same emotional response. The key question, and here the issue of ‘heresy’ arises, is why the millions of baptized and confirmed Christians had no sense that they were now responding to visions and programs antithetical to the biblical faith. (F Little. The Crucifixion of the Jews. 70)

            Yet it was not finally the acute academic work of Littell and others that brought a fuller witness to and understanding of the holocaust to the American conscience. That work was largely the influence of Wiesel. Just think back to the most horrific and jarring passage in NIGHT: 

“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

 The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live Liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

 “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

 At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”

 Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive… 

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ” (Night, 78)

             There is a fierce power in memory. Marcel Proust with his madeleine moment teaches us best: a single minute released from the chronological order of time has re-created in us the human being similarly released…situated outside the scope of time, what could one fear from the future…(these are) resurrections of the past (Proust, RTP, II, 992, 996).


            From your own losses, your own experience of loss, you will know perhaps the power of kindness in the hour of grief. Our manner of grief, the way we grieve, is about the most personal thing about us—more individual than our eye color, height, skin pigmentation, gait, or fingerprint. Our friends and loves ones give us ourselves, and when we lose them we lose whole body parts, full and veritable pieces of our own most selves. For some grief is light, for others heavy, for some tearfilled for others ‘not something we cry about’, for some long and for others short, for some traumatic and for others timely then gone. At least, we could be aware for others of others manner of grief, and respect what we can see and know and understand.

Our Gospel lesson today, neither taken from St. Mark nor from ‘Q’, but from the particular reservoir of Matthew’s own sources (it is not found elsewhere), stands out, up and alone, and hardly needs interpretation. Is there not a poignancy in this pericope, not unlike that known in grief, the recollection of a beloved teacher? The parable itself is as clear as a bell, and as plain as the nose on your face (or, plainer still, as the nose on mine). You have been loved, now love. Greatly have you been forgiven, so greatly now forgive. IBD, Matthew 18: 21-35: ‘Man can have no more important privilege that to mediate to others the forgiveness which he himself experiences.’

In the weeks following my Father’s death seven years ago, there came many expressions of condolence, all of which were deeply appreciated, personally meaningful, and part of the healing, or the healing in grieving, or the health in grieving. It is a sacrament of sorts, grief is, as one friend said. At that time, June 2010, one of our leading choristers and dear friends worked here at the University. She was and is at the heart of Marsh Chapel to this date, even though she and her husband and children live in France. Her French is impeccable. Here, at the University, she worked as an assistant to Professor Elie Wiesel. At the time of my dad’s death I received from her a note I cherish today, still:

Dean Hill –

Professor Wiesel asked me to send you the following message.



Dear friend,

My deepest condolences. In our tradition we say: may you be spared

further sorrow.

Elie Wiesel

            There is a poignant power in kindness. Abraham Heschel: “Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.”


 Remember the words of Psalm 139…

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


Peter Berger: A Rumor of Angels

September 16th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Alumni Memorial Service 

                     After my dad died seven years ago we began to go through his things, as families do. Desk, tools, books, guns, clothes. (Order, play, hope, justice, humor). We did not make much progress at first. After three years I noted: ‘We still have not made that much. His desk, somewhat more ordered, is laden drawer after drawer. The many tools, both inherited from earlier generations and purchased as needed over a life time, still lie here and there in the basement. A doll house, made for a granddaughter and then taken in for repairs years ago, and then left unattended, did migrate to the home of the great grand daughter. The guns—a relic of another time in the woods and deer hunting of northern New York—were carefully removed by two lawyer siblings. The papers and records now are in boxes with little titles—an improvement of sorts. His clothes still hang in the old closet’.

I was either assigned or self assigned or asked (or not) to begin to take care of the books, forty years worth of books in the lifetime library of a Methodist preacher whose preaching teacher at Boston University, Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, had admonished his pupils to read one book every day.   That is to say, there were more than a few books to look through.

I dawdled, lollygagged, procrastinated, avoided, and otherwise shirked my solemn duty. I asked all those I could to go through the library and take at least two books. The books are mostly signed and dated, and of course they have the personal underlining and notes which are typical for most of us. I appropriated a few: a set of Jacques Ellul, for a Lenten series two years ago; a few books from BU—Booth, Chalmers, Bowne; sermon collections from Weatherhead, Gomes, Tittle, Fosdick; others.   But I found my progress slow and slower. With each book, my willingness to skim and skip diminished. I found my intrigue at his notes increasing, and my attention to his underlining expanding. I dream on and off of a large oak door, heavy with metal locks and frame, unopened, chained shut: my dad on one side and I on the other. In the lasting grief I feel at the earthly loss of my dad, it has happened that his preacher’s library has become a kind of spiritual bridge, a mode of ongoing conversation between us.

There is range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience. Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

One day this summer, on one of my less than fruitful forays into the library, I came upon a book, the title of which is borrowed for this morning’s sermon (A Rumor of Angels: NY, Doubleday, 1969—portions quoted below found therein). Published in 1969, hardly more than 100 pages, accessible to clergy and lay alike, brisk and direct in style, sprinkled with salt and light in humor and aphorism, the book, it happens, was written by a Boston University colleague and friend of mine, the premier sociologist of religion of our time, Peter Berger. Professor Berger has graciously endured lunches and conversation, including some semi-successful jokes, with me over these last few years. I knew of this book, both its title and its general argument, which is that God is not dead, religion is not dead and religious experience is not entirely absent from this earthly vale of tears. But I had never read it. I stuffed the book in my bag.

It is hard to try to recreate the context, 1968, in which Berger was writing and thinking what hardly anyone else was thinking and writing. I will not try to do so. 1. But try to imagine, or remember, a time when Time magazine’s cover read, ‘Is God Dead?’, or 2. when the most potent religious word was ‘secular’, or 3. when administrative malfeasance led to a drug experiment on Good Friday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, or 4. when the most successful camp meeting was a mud soaked musical weekend in the Upstate New York village of Woodstock. Just when all hell was breaking loose, Berger wrote about heaven. Like debate participants try to do, he caused people to take a second look at something, or someone.

There is transcendence—he speaks of the ‘supernatural’—all about us. Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Alumni weekend. What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience? Berger’s summary still works. You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears…

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order. Some of you are hoarders, of sorts, and bring order by refusing to get rid of anything. Others are the very opposite, ‘when in doubt throw it out’.   You have a desire to see things set right, one way or another. What were those kids doing at Woodstock, in the mud, listening to Janis Joplin, fifty years ago? They were shouting to the heavens that things were not right, that something was out of order. Berger: A. This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality. This faith is experienced not only in the history of societies and civilizations, but in the life of each individual—indeed, child psychologists tell us there can be no maturation without the presence of this faith at the outset of the socialization process. B. Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience. Talk a bit about it, parents and children.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play. 1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun. 2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what. 3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4. Families were mesmerized this past summer, glued to gymnastics in England. 5. Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade? Berger: A.In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood…(Viewers of the recent film Moonrise Kingdom readily understand this). The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence. It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B.This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these. One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.” Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Third, we sense the (my word) supranatural, the transcendent, in the experience of hope. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Hope keeps us going when otherwise we would not. 1. You may have seen Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones dramatize this in the midst of their struggling marriage. The movie title: ‘Hope Springs’.   2. Parents hope their children will thrive in college. Students hope so too. So do professors and administrators and Deans of Chapels. We hope. There is something lasting, real, meaningful, costly and true about hope. 3. Where there is life there is hope. Better: where there is hope there is life. People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence. Berger: A. Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B. Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason…Faith takes into account the intentions within our natural experience of hope that point toward a supernatural fulfillment. I wonder if the generations sitting together in the pews this morning might, come Christmas, talk a bit about that most unreligious religious experience, a thing called hope, a place called hope, a time called hope, a feeling called hope?

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account. Berger uses, well, the word damnation. I am using slightly different language because I cannot make his argument as well with this word this morning. It is too loaded. But the heart of the intention is true and strong. We want people who get away with murder not ultimately to get away with murder. E Brunner, after WWII, was asked why he spoke about the devil: Said he: Two reasons. Jesus did. And I have seen him. When we think of mass murder, of horrific injustice, intentionally and painstakingly executed, we demand justice. There is something down deep in the human heart that just will not let things go. This is not about forgiveness. It is about retributive justice. Sometimes young people have a keener sense of this than their elders. Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions…A. There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…Not only are we constrained to condemn, and to condemn absolutely, but ,if we should be in a position to do so, we would feel constrained to take action on the basis of that certainty…B.Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell…No human punishment is enough in the case of deeds as monstrous as these…(this is) a moral order that transcends the human community and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human. When adults talk as adults, younger with older, there arise memories and understandings, dark in hue and deep in sentiment, that call out for an extraordinary, unearthly, transcendent justice. How shall we talk about these? Talk a bit, bit by bit, in the years to come, parents and children.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the supranatural or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice. 1. Here I will pause to tell an ostensibly humorous story. I was asked to pray at the start of a billion dollar campaign. My reply: ‘It would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure.’ 2. People ask about interreligious life on campus and I say: ‘The Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with’. 3. Phyllis Diller died this year. You remember her husband: Fang. You remember her mother in law: Moby Dick. You remember her sister in law: Captain Bligh. You remember her self deprecation (‘I once wore peek a boo blouse. One man peeked and then shouted ‘boo!’). You remember her cackling laughter. Humor, real humor, stops time still. ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh’, says the psalmist. Berger: There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe…A. The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…B.Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the might who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity. When you gather at Thanksgiving table, after the prayer and before the turkey, tell one funny story, or one joke, or one humorous memory. Talk a bit, talk a bit, talk a bit, parents and children.

Here is our theme: Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think. But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor? These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary. Talk a bit about it, parents and children. As Bonnie Raitt put it: let’s give them something to talk about!

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

A Season of Remembrance

September 10th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 18: 15-20

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            It felt so good last week to come back, after a summer of travel and preaching, to be at home in our church home, to lean forward from our home pulpit, that of which we are the current, temporary stewards.  It is like when you go away for a week, and you come home.  You turn the key in the latch.  You pick up the mail.  You turn on the light.  You open the refrigerator to see if anything has arrived or departed (why do we do that?).  And we take in, you savor, that sense, scent, sensibility of being home.  It connects you again to who you are, reminds you of who you are.

Last Sunday a couple who had been married at Marsh Chapel fifty years to the day earlier attended worship here.  Our attentive usher team made sure, amid Matriculation madness, that the dean had a chance to greet the happy couple.  We asked them their secret of success.  He replied, ‘She is the secret’.  He did not miss a beat.  They came to remember who they were, who they are, who they want to be.  Fifty years goes by more quickly than you might think.  They had connections with Kingston Ontario, and Queens College there—a beautiful college town, a fine school, along the lakeshore.

Our summer travels took us, as it happens, to Kingston, Ontario in the last days of June—near Queens college, in that beautiful college town, along the lakeshore.   We went in something of reminiscence, since decades earlier it had been a regular family vacation destination.  Then only 2 hours away; only a couple of hundred US dollars for a few days; only a ride across the Thousand Islands Bridge, and, wa-la, another land, another country, a different currency, a slight difference in inflection.  In those years we had gone, summer and winter, to a hotel with a big pool, an indoor gym, hot tub and sauna:  a place where the kids could play and the parents could enjoy seeing them do so.  What one would or would not give to return, for an hour or a day, to that young adult  happiness, in a Canadian hostel!  In the hot tub, we found ourselves with two couples, one French and one English speaking.  We watched as they watched as their kids did exactly what our kids used to do, in the same spot, the same splash, the same laugh, the same joy.  We talked as travelers do.  They four were headed the next day to Ottawa to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the birth of the Dominion of Canada.  All six of us could remember the World’s Fair, MAN AND HIS WORLD, from the Montreal of 1967.  All of us had been there.  They spoke of their new leader, son of a former Premier, Justin Trudeau.  They spoke plainly, eloquently, proudly, lovingly, and personally.   The English wife said, ‘You know, it’s just that, I mean, it’s just that…He reminds us of who we are, at our best’.  As in that moment we did refrain, so here in the sermon we will refrain from making any comparative remarks, regarding current Canadian and US leadership, as to what each has reminded us about.  ‘He reminds us of who we are’.

Who reminds you of your own most self, your own best selves?  You could ponder that this week, and let us know next Sunday.  Whose memory, whose books, whose voice, whose example, whose life and the living of it re-clothes you in your rightful mind?


            With that question, we offer a word of invitation to you, an invitation to discipleship and through Marsh Chapel.  Welcome to the varied ministry of Marsh Chapel at Boston University!  We look forward to getting to know you, as you sign up to sing in a choir, as you volunteer to usher or greet, as you attend a fellowship or study group, and especially as you worship with us on Sunday at 11am!

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is to be ‘a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city’.  To that end Dr. Jarrett will invite you to vocal expressions of faith in the life of our music program.  To that end Ms. Chicka will invite you to global outreach in our work with International students.  To that end Br. Whitney will invite you to take part and take leadership in campus student ministry.  To that end Mr. Bouchard will solicit your support for work and works in hospitality.  To that end I will invite you to formal membership, to joining Marsh Chapel, on October 22:  mark the date!

This year, with our emphasis on ‘voice, vocation, and volume’ in our shared life, we are using as a focus for our work the word remembrance.   Our fall and spring term worship and community life are laden with moments of remembrance.  2017-2018 is a full season of remembrance.  On September 17, we remember Elie Wiesel.  On October 29 (and again in November) we remember Martin Luther.  In Lent 2018 we remember Thomas Merton.  Then in April 2018, in the week following Easter, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Come and join us throughout this year in a special season of remembrance!

Where I can be personally helpful to you, and where our staff, chaplains, and campus ministers can be a benefit and blessing to you, do not hesitate to call up on us.

John Wesley famously called for a means of grace to ‘spread scriptural holiness and reform the nation’. May grace expand and extend in meaning for us in the fall term, 2017!

A Season of Remembrance

            Elie Wiesel reminded and reminds us, at Boston University, of who we are.  From the very first day of the life of this University, the school has welcomed with open arms all people, regardless of gender, race, or religion.  Women, Blacks, Jews—all—matriculated with day one.  Today we would quickly add—all religions, all nationalities, all sexual identities, all varieties of physical abilities.  Wiesel’s lectures, attended by more than a thousand a night, thrice each fall, in a stroke set a moral compass for the year’s study.  Every era, though few quite as despicably as our own, tempts us, particularly public leadership, to sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  To sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  It is not only a leader taking us, say, toward authoritarianism who is to be resisted and rejected, but it is also and more so those who, without recantation, abet and abide with that leadership, those who are collaborators, who use the same language, who take the same partisan identity, who quietly allow the drip by drip accretion of unfettered power that leads to the great hurricane of later trouble.  It starts with a few drops.  Wiesel reminds us at BU of who we are.

Martin Luther reminded and reminds us, in Religious Life, of who we are.  Many are the difficulties to arranging a proper, nuanced recollection of Luther, Protestant Reformer, Biblical Genius, Person of Courage–and Virulent Anti-Semite.  Down and up, though, for ill and good, he reminds us that religion is indeed like the weather.  Sometimes sunshine, sometimes rain, never perfect, and in need of steady meteorological, that is to say, theological prediction and predilection.  To be a protestant is to apply the protestant principle, as did Luther, and to subject religion to utterly, fully religious critique. (It was Paul Tillich who best did articulate the protestant principle, that all authority, including and especially religious authority, is subject to critique when it makes what is relative, absolute).  The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  You see how sharply our moments of remembrance do diverge this year, from Wiesel to Luther and beyond.  SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, but SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  The Gospel in St. Matthew today, a rehearsal of an inherited Jewish tradition, with a remarkable and telling late use of the word ‘church’, ECCLESIA, certainly many decades after Jesus, itself places us in this ongoing reformation, from the first century on.  Luther reminds us in Religious Life of who we are.

We will trust to Thomas Merton to remind us, as he did in life, of the better angels of Christian nature.  His artistic spirit, his international range, his mysticism, his Catholicism, his brilliant writing along the climb up life’s SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, have much to commend them, for us just now.  This is an age in this country when a group of nine or so religious leaders in Nashville, who having studied the Bible surely know better, can stand together and dehumanize 10% of the world’s population, straight forwardly dehumanizing anyone not straight.  This is a season in which 81% of Evangelical Christians have supported the recent cultural affirmation of white nationalism, without so much as a fare thee well, and, to date, without recantation.  Here is the bottom line:  You shall love the God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The reason your dean ended up preaching\ speaking 18 times not 8 this summer is in part that there is a wide-open field out there for Christian preaching that is biblical, traditional, theological and practical—that is, in a word, liberal.  Who is to speak for the full, deep, wide, global body of Christianity—the Nashville 9 and the Evangelical 81? Or the deeper wisdom of scripture, tradition, reason and experience? The deeper wisdom of the church has not yet found full voice or hearing, over against the conservative cacophony.  It will.  But it will take a decade, and the capacity to endure humiliation for a decade.  A light touch, a little whimsy, and deep wisdom: Merton reminds us as global Christians of who we are.

Come April, we will turn toward Martin Luther King, Jr.  We will need to do so, to recognize and honor his sacrifice, the loss of his life in and for the cause of Right.  While most are not yet across the land, or even our community, focused on the season, this will make 50 years since King was murdered, April 4, 2018.  Whatever others may not or may do, Marsh Chapel, we have a song to sing, a bell to ring, a word to say, and a responsibility to meet.  The statue out front, the doves, the remembrance of King, does not give us the endless troubles that schools near and far are having with their own statues.  My brother is proud graduate of the law school at Washington and Lee, for instance.  But it does ask something of us, and specifically of you, Marsh Chapel. With every gift, there comes a task, in the economy of grace.  It asks of us a season of remembrance.  Our cultural amnesia leading toward fascism, our Christological amnesia leading toward exclusion, our collegiate amnesia leading toward silence finally stand under the shadow of the King statue.  King reminds us as the Marsh Chapel congregation, virtual and actual, past and future, tithing and non-tithing, you and me and all, of who we are.

A Word of Faith in a Pastoral Voice toward a Common Hope

We await a common hope, a hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We await a common hope, a hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We await a common hope, a hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We await a common hope, a hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We await a common hope, a hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We await a common hope, a hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We await a common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.


            Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’.  He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’.  He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name’.  He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.  He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us!  I mean it.  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

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

Spiritual Life in College

September 3rd, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Exodus 3

Romans 12

Matthew 16:21-28

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Spiritual Life in College


                        There is a great rush, a wind of life, energy, and hope with which every school year begins. May we not ever miss the privilege and joy of this Matriculation moment. Here you are, having bid farewell to mother and father, and said hello to Alma Mater. Your own life, your own most life, your second but truly first life now begins, or commences in another way. We should, all, remove our sandals, for this holy ground. ‘I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Spiritual life in college, as in all life, but in a particularly particular way, causes you to walk, to walk pretty, to walk in a certain way. You will walk in a moment down Commonwealth Avenue, whose more Eastern blocks Winston Churchill called ‘the most beautiful street in America’. He was not wrong. Like the heart beating lub-dub, like spirit and flesh engaged together, like ear and eye, mind and heart, sol y sombra, one two, one foot two foot, hay foot straw foot, you are on the trail. I take my hat off to you, and bow before you, as did St Vincent De Paul before his students, with the dim awareness that in your midst is genius, somewhere someone somehow.

Boston is the country’s best walking city, a pedestrian palace of nature and culture. You know from the SAT the French phrase, ‘flaneur dans le rue’, to saunter down the street with no especial task, just the breathing joy of breathing, and so you are a flaneur of the spirit. Walk. Walk at dawn. Walk. Walk in the mid day. Walk. Walk in the evening. Walk in the sunshine and especially the snow. But walk. And for those otherwise abled, guide the walkers with a sense of strength in difference.

Come Sunday, that’s the day, walk to worship, walk to church, walk to the Chapel. It is the one walk most needed, on which all the rest in some balefully unappreciated measure does depend. You are child of God. Walk here and hear so.


                        Now the spiritual life takes shape. Here you are. Come and listen. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century set out his orders for his order, beginning with the first and most important. Listen. It is not what you see but what hear that matters, lasts, counts, gives meaning. Faith comes by hearing not scanning. Hearing comes by the Word of God, not the words of a screen. Tweet, tweet. The eye is the window of the soul. The keyboard is not the window of the soul. What holds, molds, scolds, folds, for youngs and olds, is in the hearing. We have three regular blind parishioners who will remind you, in their faithfulness, of the primacy of the ear. Listen.

Listen for what is not said, for the dog that does not bark. Listen for what engages, and for what enrages, both. Listen to the sounds of silence. Listen for a word of faith offered in a pastoral voice toward the prospect of a common hope. Listen for a word of faith offered in a pastoral voice toward the prospect of a common hope. “Dad, I heard something fantastic the other day. It went like this…’ We have two ears, and one tongue.

What Jesus said in 30ad is written down at last by Matthew in 85ad. There was a long line of listening, hearing, sharing, speaking, long before the writing. In part we know this because the two saying here are at odds, one offering to hearing and faith the paradox of saving and losing life: you only have, only possess, only truly hold what you have the power, grace, freedom and courage to give away. If you do not have it, you cannot give it. If you give it, truly, you then show you have owned it.   The sayings were written down together in Matthew 16 because they shared a tag word—life. What can you give in exchange for your life? (Here the message is conservative: hold on, flee false forfeit, prize life now you have it). Whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses is life will find it. (Here the message is liberal: splash around with generosity, give with no thought of return, take up the cross, follow). The two teachings are at daggers drawn. Which one for which day on which way will you say? It’s up to you. Over time, you will need them both. Listen. Tune your ear to God.   Life is short.


                        As today, so every Lord’s day, much is read, come Sunday. A love of reading conjured in college—for this we pray for one and all.   Not scanning. Reading.   Reading will take you out beyond and behind the twin towers of your birth. You have come of age in the shadow of the toppled towers, class of 2021.   You were born in the shadow of two falling, flaming towers. You came to breath under the ash cloud of nineleven. Its soot and its debris and its loss. In 2011, ten years on, as University Chaplain I telephoned the BU families, some 50, who had suffered loss that day. Some I could not reach. Some hung up. Some listened, offered thanks, and bade farewell. Some paused and spoke, in remembrance. In the shadow of the World Trade Center.

Yet there is, by analogy, another set of towers that came down as you came up.   At your birth two great towers fell. The tower of peace. The tower of voice. Terror toppled the tower of peace. Technology toppled the tower of voice. In that era, 15 or twenty years ago, extremism emerged to quash peace. In that era, 15 or 20 years ago, the internet emerged to quash voice. The latter, the loss of voice to the omnivorous screen, is by far the more pernicious. Tweet, tweet. Though, with a nod to Stockholm, and its syndrome, a whole generation, global, has come to love it. We kiss our captor. We snuggle up to our tormentor. See where we have come. T plus T equals T. Terror plus Technology equals Trump. F plus F equals F. Fear plus Falsehood equals Fascism. Tweet, tweet.

Read. Thereby you escape the confines of the early 21st century. Are there no other escape routes? No. You read. While other party, you read. While others drink, you read. While others play, you read.   You will come to a great land that has been awaiting your arrival. It is the land of memory. See the meadow, bright in the morning! Memory. Hear the chorus of birdsong at dawn! Memory. Now you are ready to move into memory in reading.   Pick a favorite verse. Read it well enough to commit it to memory. Dr. Jones at Trinity College said last week, When you start to memorize you start to notice the things you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading. As the congregation knows by frequent infliction, today’s epistle is one of mine. (Let love genuine…). Reading will take you to a land of memory, the location of a deeper story.


                        Heather Heyer’s mother spoke clearly about the spiritual life, as she gave grieving lament for her daughter’s death.   You come of age in a dark time in the history of our land, a decade of humiliation under the aegis of leadership devoted to ethnic nationalism. We are one year in, or almost so. It will take nine more, or more, before we are on the brighter path again. You will want and need to think how we got here. Start with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. You dwell in the tenth floor of a building whose first three stories were constructed with stolen land and enslaved labor, free land and free labor, for the benefit of anyone who had or used money, then or now.

You have the subsidized freedom, for four years or more or less, to think. Think things through. Think from the top down and the bottom up. Go where others are trying to think, and think with them. Challenge them. Question them. Press them. See what lasts. I am not afraid of the Gospel. It is the power of salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith’.

You remember what the bereft mother of a college age daughter killed in Charlottesville by a marauding white racist driver, and a marauding white racist crowd, and marauding white racist leadership said, quietly, said, gently, said truly, said directly to a feckless, heedless national leadership, ostensibly the soggenante leadership of the free world: Think before you speak. Think before you speak.

                        Spiritual life—walk, listen, read, think—spiritual life true to your own-most self, is the only primary nourishment you will need for the next four years. Or the next forty. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?




The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean


Have You Not Known?

August 27th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 40:21-31

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

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It’s a privilege to be with you today, in the presence of both this university and the broader listening community. In gratefully accepting Dean Hill’s invitation to preach today, I had no idea that it would coincide with the first category 4 hurricane to hit the Texas coast since before I was born. My heart is heavy with concern for many friends whose churches are closed this morning and who might not even be able to tune into this broadcast for lack of power. I ask you to keep the communities of the whole Gulf Coast and inland areas in your prayers, not just during this service, but in the long rebuilding time to come. And now will you pray with me? —

            I am the product of two United Methodist-related institutions—Emory University in Atlanta for seminary and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, for my bachelor’s degree. I’m a trustee of Southwestern now, and it’s been interesting to watch its relationship with the church change, even as the role and place of the church in our broader society has also shifted. You may be acquainted with those in the world around us who are way too smart to find themselves in church. You also may be acquainted with churches you are too smart or too nice a person to be a member of. It is an interesting time. But it is not a time in which the church is exactly sure of what to do with itself. What used to be clear isn’t anymore, and the word “decline” hangs as a dark cloud over our heads.

            Yet we are here, in body or earshot, because we still believe there’s something to all of this. The church reacts to its changing context, either by trying out new venues and songs and language, trying desperately to crack the code and reach old and new generations of people who either stopped listening to us or never started. Or we hunker down and sing old songs with fingers in our ears, hoping the place stays open long enough to do our funerals. But there has to be something more to what we are about, doesn’t there? Something underneath and above and in the middle, a truth we could not have made up for ourselves. Even as the ground shifts beneath our feet, we hope, we believe, there’s a deeper foundation still.

            In today’s gospel, Jesus calls Peter a rock, the foundation for the whole church, which is kind of funny, knowing what we know of Peter. A rock? Really? Peter is, among other things, bone-headed and selfish, and on his worst day, he denied knowing Jesus at all. Yet Peter on this day knew one thing, the one important, true thing, which was who Jesus really was. And somehow Peter’s knowing, combined with the strength of that Jesus truth, was itself enough. Peter, with all his failings and fear and short-sightedness, was able to serve as the foundation for the church, because there was something bigger and better at work in him, despite himself, and he knew it. We are heirs of that foundation, that rock, that truth. Today, this moment, is a time when we as church in this country need to get clear about what that inheritance is and how it lays claim to us. And here in a chapel on a university campus, at the intersecting point of faith and knowledge, we sit in a good place from which to ask ourselves, “What do we know? What is true? What is the living word we have received and which Christ calls us to pass along, as challenging as the times may be?”

            My story of what I know starts with being a preacher’s kid and getting a full, early dose of church. By the time I arrived at college, I was trying on my own adult life, putting intentional space between my parents and myself. I struggled with profound feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. I studied political science, history, and Spanish. I worried about all the nuclear weapons we and the Russians had pointed at each other, and I hoped to help find a way to work for peace. I had serious questions about the faith I had inherited. I wondered whether the story of Jesus might have been a fairy tale written to help us live better lives. I learned in college anthropology and then later again in seminary that it’s very natural for humans to figure out ways to make meaning, to interpret the world around us beyond our control, and that religion is one response to that impulse. I took philosophy courses and tried to decide whether I was a hard or soft determinist; I considered that it’s very possible that most of what we call reality is something we’ve made up.

           Yet every Thursday, I sat in chapel, in a place very much like this. I sang with the University Chorale my whole time in school, and sometimes we had to be there for worship. But I came even when I didn’t have to, drawn in by that space, set apart—its height and color, dark and light, cool and quiet, the sound of the organ, even the smell, which in Texas includes the aroma of bats. That chapel to this day feels to me like the embodiment of an alma mater, mother of my soul, always somehow pointing me up and out, while at the same time reaching in, deep, and bridging the distance between the two.

           That’s actually one way I could describe my whole education—an ongoing process of connection and communication between the deepest place in me and the wild wonder, the out-there-ness of the world. And as we turn to today’s Old Testament text, I hear this same deep and wide soul connection in the reading from Isaiah.

            This prophetic word was a message of hope and consolation to the people of

Israel, exiled in the 6th century BCE from their land and seemingly from their identity.

They despaired over what would become of them and what it meant that their life in

the Promised Land had been so violently cut off. They must have wrestled with the accusations and judgment of the early prophets, who called out the power structure of God’s people as unjust and brutal toward the poor. It was a tough and traumatic time, as they tried to figure out who they were now in relation to their covenant God.

            The 40th chapter begins a long section that announces consolation for the people and hope for the future. As a pastor I can tell you that the first verses of Isaiah 40 are used today by the church as readings for Advent, while its final verses, which we read today, are common in the funeral liturgy. This is a big chapter, an important word resonating across the centuries for people who doubt or wonder or suffer, for whatever reason. And the consolation of this word comes in part through the message that God is life, at a cosmic level—stretching out the skies as you would pull open the drapes in the morning. Princes and rulers, those with power to wage war and exile whole nations—these wither under the breath of God, these of shallow seed and fragile root. No matter what trouble the people faced, the prophet proclaimed, God was bigger.

           We live in a context very different from the one in which this particular text was written, yet much also remains the same. It is intriguing, for example, to consider the rulers of this day as withered shoots, blown away by a stiff wind. The crazy roller coaster of news that hurtles us through every week, leaders here and elsewhere, ones you agree with and ones you don’t—all blown away by the breath of God. Then there are the oppressive burdens borne by so many in our nation and the world—racism, both blatant and unacknowledged; systemic poverty, held in place by law and practice; state brutality, civil wars that terrorize the most vulnerable; journeys of fear and flight from one land to another, families seeking refuge on foreign shores, often without finding it.

            And just as troubling, somehow, in the midst of so much suffering, we have become unable or unwilling to experience each other’s reality. Especially in this country, we have created bubbles of homogeneity and deafness for ourselves, unfriending and categorizing and writing each other off based on yard signs and Facebook posts. We’ve begun to believe that there’s something fundamentally wrong with “those people.” We’ve armed ourselves and taken sides and crafted narratives that explain the guilt of the other, without challenging or calling ourselves to account. And the weak and the long-oppressed continue to suffer, discounted as one more special interest group. How we might wish a hurricane like Harvey might wash it all away. It doesn’t happen that way, though.

           So why, then, do we hope? From the perspective of the heavens, we are grasshoppers of a sort, scattered across the land, small and vulnerable. There is much about this complex life I—and we—do not know. But what I do know, I have learned in part from a community of people rooted in a God vision, not ready to be conformed to this world, not ready to say “uncle” in the face of great, destructive power, even when that destructiveness lies within ourselves. I have learned what cannot be proven, in the scientific sense, but what I have come to believe within the deepest fibers of my soul—that there is something bigger than me and us in this life, and not just bigger things that can hurt us. There is a different power at work for good in us and the world, and we know it because we experience it; we’ve seen it transform people and even whole communities.

           The power to which we point as people of faith is that found in the final verses of today’s passage, words of comfort for generations of Jews and Christians and all kinds of people who have wandered into funeral parlors. Because you know it happens; hard things happen—youth do sometimes faint and grow weary; young ones do fall exhausted, to say nothing of older ones. Maybe it’s happened to you or your community; maybe it’s happening even now. But our proof of power lies in the strength that comes to us from outside ourselves when we are weak. Perhaps it comes through people gathered together, through music or quiet or the stars strewn above our heads. We may see it when what looks like randomness takes on pattern, or when selfishness becomes sacrifice. But it comes. Life and trouble, death and evil continue, but strength also comes, and it makes all the difference.

           One name for that kind of power is love. It is love to which this text testifies; love in the eye of the Holy One without equal, who sits above the circle of the earth; love that Christians receive and proclaim in Christ Jesus; love that centers so many other faith traditions, too. It is love that breaks opens hearts and minds to the new idea, the different perspective, the stretch that true learning and listening require. It is love that allows us to take seriously testimonies of experiences we haven’t had, and to lay down power and privilege on behalf of people who are unaccustomed to either. It is love I have always found in spaces like this one and at the gracious table of Jesus Christ—welcoming, feeding, moving me up and out.

           As church, as university, it is the power of love to which we should witness. In this brilliant world, traveling at breakneck pace; in this culture, which has trouble remembering what was important five minutes ago; in a land where human hearts are as selfish as forever yet also yearn beyond words for fullness of life—in this moment we must strive to create disciples of Christ who will testify to love and its power in their lives and communities. We must be and invite and form people who know there’s something important that’s bigger than they are, who sit upon the earth like tiny grasshoppers but who yet use their compound eyes to take in and know the world, and use their legs to sing a song of praise. We must testify to being lifted up as on eagle’s wings, humbled and empowered by strength that is not our own, and inspired to walk and serve and speak out on behalf of others and ourselves. We must be and invite and form mature, moral citizens, compassionate neighbors, people with what we call emotional intelligence, in addition to all that other intelligence y’all practice around here. From where I sit, I don’t know what to call that but love.

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

28 The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

God does not faint or grow weary;

God’s understanding is unsearchable.

29 God gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

            We have inherited a word, a vision, a deep knowledge, a solid rock of truth as our foundation, and our work is far from finished. May God bless us with the joy and opportunity of sharing what we know, even in this uncertain and troubling time, as people transformed by love.

– The Rev. Laura Merrill, Assistant to the Bishop for Clergy Excellence

Surprised, Touched, Inspired

August 20th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Ephesians 3:14-21

Matthew 8:5-13

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Conversation is part of the fabric of human interaction. Our words can hurt or heal, divide or unite, create community or chaos. The recent violence in Charlottesville has sparked conversation about free speech, racism, antisemitism, national leadership, and the inherent values of our nation.

Robert A. Brown, the President of Boston University sent a letter to the community this week in which he said:

“As we seek in our democracy and our academic community to appreciate and understand difference, we speak of tolerance and the fundamental importance of free speech and respect for diverse points of view.  But tolerance doesn’t necessarily imply or entail acceptance or approval.

Palpably evil acts, such as occurred in Charlottesville, invite the challenging question about what is and is not tolerable or morally acceptable in speech and accompanying deeds.”

President Brown’s letter continues: “I believe it is a view that is broadly shared in our community, that a claim of inherent racial or ethnic superiority is abhorrent.  We must, I believe, explicitly denounce white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that make such claims.  The obligation of our community must be to hold fast to the values that are in our Boston University DNA.  As we participate in broader conversation in our society, we should seek to set a standard of civility and generosity of spirit in discourse that perhaps over time will be an illuminating counterpoint to the hate speech that threatens the very fabric of our republic.”

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In this time in our country when there is so much division and hurt, we do seek deep conversations that help move us into awareness and actions. Persons of faith also seek spiritual strength to guide us in our conversations and actions.

In Ephesians 3, St. Paul asks God to strengthen us by his Spirit—“not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength.”

Paul says: “And I ask God, that with both of your feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

Today I want to talk about 3 conversations that help bring us into the fullness of God, so that we can serve in a fragile world with inner strength and love.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is a pioneer in integrative medicine and relationship centered care.  Dr. Remen writes books, practices medicine, teaches and works with helping professionals and activists who are burned out, feel like they have given all they can give, are tired, annoyed or resentful, and don’t want to do it anymore.

In her workshops, Dr. Remen takes participants through three questions.

What positive thing surprised you today?

What touched you?

What inspired you recently?

All of three questions are directed at what we call the heart.

In Hebrew scripture, the heart is the place where human beings connect with God.

These vivifying questions open up the heart, the place of aliveness, compassion, energy, connection love, deep understanding. The Psalmist knows about the importance of opening the heart.  The Psalmist says:

Create in me a clean heart O God,

and renew within me a right spirit.

Let’s examine each of these questions starting with the question:

What surprised you?

In the healing story of Jesus in Matthew 8, Jesus is approached by a Centurion (a high ranking Roman military official) who says:

Sir, my servant  is home, paralyzed, racked with pain and paralyzed.  

Jesus responds without hesitation: “I will come and cure him.”


The Centurion says:

I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. You are the great healer. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.

Scripture says that Jesus was astonished. Really, really, really surprised.  For one thing, a centurion would never say that he is unworthy.  He had a power position. Jesus said, “Nowhere I have found such faith. Go home and so let it be done for you according to your faith. And the servant was healed in that hour.”

What does being surprised do?  Surprise wakes us up. Surprise almost has a gasp quality to it. Our perception of how the world works shifts, making way for a new reality that has unlimited possibilities.

In that new reality I ask myself, is my faith that bold? Am I willing to trust that all will be well?

For example, I would never say that if you have enough faith in Jesus you don’t need health insurance.

But I do have great faith in working as a team across party lines for our nation’s healthcare system in a way that brings equity and healing to all. And I do treasure the saying:

Everything will work out in the end.

If it doesn’t work out, then it is not the end.

And I am surprised how the healing stories of Jesus always make me think.

“What surprises you?” is a vivifying question.

Another surprise story is not in the Bible, but like many stories, it points to the gospel message:

Some frogs were hopping in the forest, and suddenly two of the frogs fell into a deep hole. They jumped and jumped trying to get out of this almost impossible situation.

The other frogs looked into the hole and shouted: “You should have been more careful, give up, you are already as good as dead. Stop jumping so much, your struggle makes us uncomfortable.”

Exhausted and dispirited one frog lay down and died, but the other frog put forth a super-frog effort and by a miracle, jumped out of the hole.

The observer frogs were shocked: “Why did you continue jumping when we told you it was impossible and why did you continue jumping when you knew it made us uncomfortable?”

Reading their lips now that he was close, the frog explained them that he was deaf. When he saw their gestures, he thought they were cheering him on.

The surprise ending is beautiful: It is astonishing that encouragement, companionship, just being there for each other has so much power. How can that be?

In the end, it is not about the words.

It is about the power of what we call the Divine presence.

We are surprised about the simple power of encouragement.

Jesus was surprised that the Centurion really got what Jesus was teaching about the true power of God. I think Jesus spent his life giving a message that people couldn’t take in.  And when they did, He was deeply touched.

Let’s examine the second question: What touched you today or recently?

What was so beautiful or so powerful, that you were humbled by it, opened, connected, heart-filled?

I am always touched by the story of Moses at 120 years old, in the wilderness giving his final lecture to the people of Israel who would have to enter the Promised Land without him.

FINAL lectures or sermons are so touching when people sum up years and decades of wisdom and give it to us as a parting gift.

Deuteronomy 30: 11. The commandment (commandment to love and obey God), I lay on you this day is not too difficult for you, it is not too remote.  It is not in heaven, that you should say:

Who will go up to heaven for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?

No – it is a thing very near to you — on your lips and in your own heart so that YOU can do it.

The story of Moses’ last lecture touches that deeply vulnerable place in us where we feel like we can’t go on, we can’t recover from loss, can’t turn our country, our world, our planet around.

Moses says to the gathered people: God has given you everything you need to keep moving forward towards the promise. That is God’s covenant with us. But remember, Moses said that to the gathered tribes, not just one person.

The story is touching because it touches a place in each of us that is afraid; and says to the fear: As a community, you have everything you need to create a Promised Land.

A second touching story is from the Islamic faith tradition. It has been a really horrific year for the Muslim community in our country and parts of our world.  So I want to honor this tradition,  this faith, by telling one of their ancient stories that always warms my heart.

Shuaib received a magnificent horse from his brother as a present.  The next day Shuaib came out of his house, and saw a street urchin walking around the powerful beautiful animal, admiring it.

“Is this your horse sir?” the ragged child asked.

Shuaib nodded and said “Yes, my brother gave it to me.”

The boy was astounded. “You mean your brother gave it to you, and it didn’t cost you nothing?  Boy, I wish….” He hesitated.

Shuaib knew what he was going to wish for.  The street boy was going to wish he had a brother like that. But instead the boy said:

“I wish I could be a brother like that.”

We are touched by acts of selflessness. We are all longing to be lifted out of ourselves. Out of our egos that want more and more, the ego constantly compares ourselves to everything and everyone, and labels things as good or bad, less than, more than. It is exhausting to live racing around in a pool of self-absorption or self-loathing, which is simply the other side of the coin.

We long to be surprised, touched and inspired to higher ideals, authentic relationships, deeper healing.

What Surprised you? What Touched you?


 Dr. Remen’s third heart-opening question for us is: What inspired you?

The word inspiration is from the same root word spirit, breath, life.  Inspiration implies that our spirit is alive, breathing, awake.

Inspiration opens us up to the divine life force that is always and everywhere around and within us.

A family took care of a 96-year-old Mom who was dying of weariness and Alzheimer’s, and inability to swallow.  It was a long arduous journey. It was smelly and not fun. They really wanted to be there for her and with her, but they were wearing down.

One day the son came across an article about how Japanese tea bowls are repaired.  The Kintsugi method is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powered gold.

Basically, you fill the cracks and chips with gold.  The bowl is not thrown away, but becomes more beautiful because of the events in its life that occurred as it served us.  The cracks are honored rather than disparaged.

The image of the old bowl, its cracks and fragility honored with gold, inspired him, and reawakened his desire to serve and love in the face of the great challenge of taking care of a dying, non-communicative elder.

What surprised you, what touched you, what Inspired you?

These questions take us to the place of the heart, the place where God is able to speak to us, energize our spirits and motivate us to move forward and create a world that benefits all of God’s creation.

I close with St. Paul’s hopeful words to the Ephesians and to us:

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” Ephesians 3:20-21

Surprising, Touching, Inspiring.

That is the good news of the Gospel. And how will you bring those three golden elements to honor and encourage a chipped and cracked world that needs them so much?

The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch

The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch from the United Methodist Minister Church in Upper New York Conference, Ithaca, New York delivers a guest sermon entitled, “Surprised, Touched, Inspired” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series.