Spiritual Gifts

June 8th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13

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Perhaps you too were arrested by the moving and powerful remembrances offered this week, seventy years later, for June 6, 1944.  This week we have heard again about those young men on Omaha Beach and elsewhere we gave so much for the common good, whose sacrificial martial action was offered for the common good.  Perhaps you found in such retrospective as we have had these last few days, an emotional upsurge, a spiritual shower, a reckoning with history and duty, an infusion of spirit.  There is a gospel echo here.

 

Spiritual gifts are meant for the common good.

 

Those who began the practice of ministry in the 1970’s officiated at many funerals, over the years, for men of this, ‘the greatest generation’.  As with all ministry, through which one puts oneself at the disposal and in the service of others, these memorials, over decades, have been moments of great privilege.  One such occurred yesterday across the river in the Harvard Memorial Church.  We are coming gradually toward the end of this generation’s memorials.  Have we truly learned the lessons, their lessons, which by accident of circumstance, age, location, timing, calling, we have been given to celebrate, in ministry? What a privilege, in ministry, to participate in the highest and hardest moments of life.  What a privilege.

Ministry is preaching and visiting.  To preach requires, invites, demands visitation, some two dozen forty minute visits per week, forty minutes of listening, which is an offer of life, and forty seconds of extemporary prayer, which is an offer of grace.  What a privilege to share the gospel week by week in such a way.  You are in the middle of things.

 

Once when our son was ten years old, he accompanied me during such a visit with two parishioners.  Mary and Bill had married just after the Second World War.  They raised four daughters, who all had become vibrant, creative, caring adults.  In addition they found time to prepare the Altar for Sunday, to sit through various Worship Committee meetings, to take an interest in local politics, to read and learn and grow and change, as faith intersected with life.

 

During the October that Bill was dying, our son Ben went with me once to see him.  On an earlier visit, Bill had told me about his experience in the war.  At age 20 Bill had become a pilot, and had flown 30 missions from England into and over Germany.  His plane had been shot down once.  He had survived, though not all of his crew had survived.  He had carried responsibility for an airplane, a crew, many missions, and to some small but human degree, the outcome of the war itself.  He was honored and decorated when the war ended.  30 missions later, several deaths later, many hours of anxious service later, many buildings and bridges destroyed later, after three years in command in England in the air in the war, he came home.  He was 22.  Bill was 22 years old, when the war ended, and he came home.

 

I cannot remember how this happened, but our son either asked to see or was offered to see Bill’s flight jacket.  It was a heavy, worn, brown leather flight jacket, waist long with an old center zipper.  At age 10, and I do not remember how this happened, whether he asked or was offered, Ben donned the jacket.  He was small in it, but Bill himself was somewhat small, and the jacket fit, if poorly.  Here was a moment when Mary, soon to be a widow, and Bill, soon to be buried, and Ben, soon to be 11, and I, soon to conduct a funeral, were fully quiet together.  With that jacket Bill came home, 30 missions later, a war won, at 22 years of age. 22. A young man.  Bill worked the next 40 years as a public relations writer for a small manufacturing company, a quiet life of backroom pencil sharpening, phoning, rewriting, and mailing.

 

Some moments stand frozen in time.  Our son in Bill’s jacket is one.  Bill’s primary work, his main adult life, as he reflected on all of his life, was completed by age 22.

 

Which provokes a question: Where did we ever get the idea that young people are not capable of great things?

 

Bill found his voice, his own self, at a young age, and quietly whispered his voice in faith for the rest of his days, right in the middle of things.

Here we are in the middle of things, the middle of June, the middle of life.  In media res.  In the middle of things.

Young adults are often concerned about relationships, anxious about performance, overly attentive to their changing appearance, and honestly uncertain about the future.  You notice, I am sure, that in all these things they resemble no one as much as another remarkable age cohort sometimes referred to as their parents.

 

         The issue of appearance, or appearances, which will dog us all for all our days, is of particular importance this morning.  Now I think it is good to dress well for church, and particularly for such a special occasion as Pentecost, Whitsunday.  In fact, we might wish that there were rather more than less attention, across our time and land, to the matter of courtesy, manners, and dress.  However, the Scripture lesson this morning acclaims in startling fashion a distinctly different truth, which is, simply said, that what matters is not how you look but how you sound.  In the life of the Spirit, that is, what counts is not your face but your voice.

 

To become a person is to find your voice.  Spiritual gifts are vocal gifts, meant for the common good.

 

You may, and rightly, wonder why St Paul would start down this rickety path with the shouting Corinthians. In ancient Corinth, a city like New Orleans in its love of the love of the flesh, Paul spoke:  God made them and gave them life; soon they would be at death in God’s presence; in the meantime they were a sorry lot; and Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to give them new life, community, heaven, meaning, love, and, oh yes, spirit.  To this they responded with the chaotic shouting and disrespect They shouted!  They groped!  They misbehaved!  They went overboard!  If nothing else, that is, it seemed that there was plenty of volume in Corinth.

 

This morning we are in earshot of part of Paul’s lesson for the Corinthians.  In a word, he is heard to say, you are mistaken to focus on what you see.  What matters is how you sound.   What do those around you hear and overhear in your voice?

 

I heard an editor at Random House explain how he could move through thousands of manuscripts very quickly, and know which ones to publish.  “Oh, I can tell in a paragraph or two.  Did you ever listen to someone sing?  You can tell in a line or two”.

 

Paul is asking his new born church to exchange volume for value, to listen for the good gifts that God is giving, to feel the heart beat of life and love in various forms of speech that are the whole content of the spirit.

 

Paul gives, too, a concrete, historical measure of spirit.  We all have come of age in a time in which the word spirit and its cousins are as exuberantly pronounced as they are unintelligibly defined.  By contrast, for the Paul of 1 Corinthians 12 spirit means speech that does good.  All of the gifts of spirit, he says, can be known and measured by one simple test: what do they do for the common good?

 

Notice the space Paul creates.  There are varieties of gifts.  Not one bouquet, but a meadow full of bouquets.  Diversities, multiplicities, all the many-sided manyness that his Greek culture decried as the enemy of the true and the good and the beautiful—the oneness of truth—this diversity Paul celebrates.

 

God is giving us gifts all the time, but our ears are so muffled that we miss their value, their resounding power.  The gifts which make up spirit are many and different, but are the bequests of a single spirit, lord and God (incidentally, one of the earliest Trinitarian references in scripture and history).  These vocal gifts are to be distinguished from their contraries by a single test:  do they build the common good?

 

So Paul directs the Corinthians to listen for the arrival of the gifts of the Spirit.  You receive your measure of them too.  Take the time, over the years, to hear them and know them and know your part in them.

 

To one is given the logos sophias, the word of wisdom.  Some of you will become wise before your time.  Our age disdains wisdom.  We prefer willpower.  It is willpower, or the will to power, that distinguishes our age, from the raucous willfulness of our music to the undisguised willfulness of our politics.  We love things not because they are right and true but because they are ours.  Look at many of our popular cultural figures.  Are they wise? No, but they are willful, and in that combination of audacious imagination and utter willfulness, they symbolize much of our era.  But the gift of the spirit is wisdom, the quiet capacity to see life as a whole.  Listen for a word of wisdom.

 

To one is given the logos gnoseus, the word of knowledge.  Paul elsewhere questions knowledge, but not here.  Paul himself knew a great deal.  He knew the Hebrew Bible well enough to use it, and recite it as a part of his heart.  He knew the tradition of Greek philosophy, the sophists and the epicureans and the teaching of Plato, well enough to recall them with ease.  He knew the cities of the empire well enough to traverse them with grace.   He even knew enough of the craft of leather working to make his living, city by city, as a tent-maker, the original worker priest.  I have no doubt that he would encourage our increase in knowledge, in many directions.  But the knowledge to which he gives expression here is of a different kind.  He means the knowledge that touches and warms the heart, that makes the heart strangely warm, the knowing word.  You will know it when you have heard it.

 

It is thought feeling.  It is felt thought.  Try as we might to unglue the two, feeling and thought, they are enmeshed in one another.  Someone will take you by the hand and whisper, “I love you”.  Someone will ask you, pointedly, whether you plan to make something of your life.  Someone will, at the right time in the right way, tell you to your face that you are forgiven for what you did and you should stop beating yourself up over it.  Someone will point out to you a different possibility, a new alternative.  Someone will invite you to come to worship God in a church, a church with depth, a church with texture, a church with body.  More to the point, some of you will have that voice, that knowing voice, that telling voice, the voice of knowledge.  Listen for a word of knowledge.

 

To another is given the gift of pistis, faith.  Faith comes by hearing, we know, and hearing by the word of God.  As a religion Christianity has yet to come to terms, far and wide it seems to me, with Paul’s blunt assertion that faith is a gift, a form of speech and hearing that is offered to some individuals for the sake of the common good.  Perhaps the word of faith, upon your tongue, is the gift of the spirit to you.  Listen for a word of faith.

 

To others are given the gifts of healing and energymata dunameon—energetic power.  Words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the good, for the common good.  Paul strictly measures the spirit, and spiritual gifts, according to a simple rule:  does this make for the common good?

 

Yesterday we took our son’s two daughters for an afternoon.  We rode the T.  We walked through the Common.  We rode the Carousel there.  We hiked over the Fiedler bridge.  We sat for ice cream along the esplanade.  We meandered up along the river.  We stopped in a playground, one where a tree has been carved into a part of the yard.  All public space, all common good, all ushered into existence by spiritual gifts for the common good.  I wonder how many meetings, how many hours, how many votes, how many speeches, how many voices have been lifted, for how many years, to make Boston such a shining example of public space for the common good?  Listen for words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the common good.

 

To still others are given the gifts of prophecy, discernment, speaking and understanding.  I ask that we notice only that all of these, like their predecessors have to do with speech, with voice.  You become a person by finding your voice.  Spiritual gifts are vocal gifts—in the tongues of Acts 2, in the shouts of Psalm 104, in the dominical cry of John 7, but especially in Paul’s declaration of 1 Corinthians 12.

 

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

 

         To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

 

         To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

 

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

Ascent

June 1st, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 24: 44-53

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In a moment we shall again stand together to proclaim the mystery of faith.  We shall offer a great thanksgiving.  Responsively, we shall offer the Lord’s presence to one another.  Responsively, we shall encourage one another to lift our hearts to the Lord.  Responsively, we shall recall the right goodness, the good rightness of great thanksgiving.  Friends, we are rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing.

Our Lord’s ascent(c)invites our assent(s).

 

The gospel is rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing, even as it is read and spoken in order to root us and ground us in love.  St. Luke, the author of the reading for today, has every intention of bonding us to the long parade of women and men who lived with happy hearts, in joyful blessing and great thanksgiving.  Our Sunday service of ordered worship has its own roots deep in the past, carrying us in memory all the way back into the first century.  You come from people who were thankful people, joyfully praising God.  They give us a clear example, these earlier witnesses, of a balanced faith, a faith honest to God about sin, death and meaninglessness, but a faith yet confident, joyful and thankful in life.  Luke ends his first book, the gospel, and as he starts his second, the Acts, with a hymn to ascent.

 

Now we may pause a moment to be grateful for the form of Luke’s message.  He does believe in doing things decently and in order.  Luke provides, by his own assessment, dear Theophilus, an orderly account.  It is his view that the words of the Old Testament in law and prophets and psalms, when written of the Christ, are fulfilled in an orderly account of the life of Christ.  It is Luke’s further view that Christ opens minds to understand Scripture. Luke makes plain the prediction, embedded in a right reading of inherited Scripture, of cross and resurrection and repentance and forgiveness and the preaching of all the above.  It is his understanding that disciples are thus witnesses of all these things.  They will be blessed as they bear witness.  We will be blessed as we bear witness.  You will be blessed as you bear witness.  His ascent invites your assent. Luke’s gospel ends with our reading today, an orderly ending to a well ordered gospel.  Jesus blesses and leaves.  The disciples give thanks and stay.

 

Some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of this passage say simply, ‘he blessed them and parted from them’.  Others read, ‘he blessed them and parted from them and was carried up into heaven’.  It is not clear, at least to this interpreter, which reading is stronger, which more probably original.  Yet it is significant, at least to this interpreter, to see and know that more than one version of this passage exists.  The addition, if it was a later addition, of ‘was carried up into heaven’, makes this passage a suitable and qualified Ascension passage, unmistakably congruent to the account in Acts 1.  Luke’s penchant for the orderly may have inspired a follower of his to do likewise, and clean up one aspect of the conclusion to the gospel.  To Luke it mattered to put things in order, to get things right.  His spiritual descendents may have had the same passion.  The true desire to get things right reveals, makes naked, a sense of joyful blessing.  A passion for true goodness, good beauty, beautiful truth, in life, work, politics, music, art, architecture, religion, hospitality and friendship reveals, unclothes, such a spirit.

 

We are thankful for Luke’s orderly account.  We may be a bit mystified by the mythic account of Ascension.  We may be less than certain of the meaning of such symbolic imagery in our own time.  But we can be utterly confident about the effect of Ascension, on our forebears, and so on us.  The religious consequence of the Luke’s conclusion to the Gospel is and invitation to lead a new life.

 

For all the dimness of creation, of the created order and the history within it, for all the trouble in life, in the gift of life and the history that comes with it, for all the fracture in body, in the body of Christ and the history that comes with it, still, at Ascension, there is hope, and promise, and life.  Sometimes the gospel and we its very human interpreters need to shore up our sense of the way things have gone wrong.  I suppose Lent and perhaps Advent too are markedly important seasons for emphasis upon the Fall—the way creation has somehow been loosened from the divine grasp.  Other times the gospel and its very human interpreters need to short up our sense of creation as God’s creative act, in thanksgiving for what is right.  Eastertide and Ascension may be such times.  Today, in gospel and Eucharist, is such a day.

Such good news. After a frightfully long, old time religion winter, which seems to have ended about 40 minutes ago—today, sun, light, warmth, color, growth.

With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day.  As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people.  This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life.  A doubt that things can change very much.  A doubt that anything new could ever emerge.  A doubt that people can repent and turn around.  A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly.  A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged.  A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted.  A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive.  A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable.  A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice.  A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.

 

When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the Ascension gospel.  Such a thick cloud comes from a theological weather system

 

in which the cold front of wrong has chased out the warm front of right,

 

in which the low pressure of the fall has displaced the high pressure of creation,

 

in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope,

 

in which the creation is seen from the cavern of the fall, not the fall from the prairie of creation.

 

This is a pastoral problem.  It is not a political conflict, it is a theological contrast.  It is not a matter of church coloration or religious style, it is a matter of creation, of God’s creation and the truth about creative goodness.   Just how balanced is your balance between creation and fall?

 

Our New Testament lessons are primary sources for the time, occasion, community and condition in and for which they were first written.  They are secondary sources, at best, for what may have come before.  Luke 24 shows us Luke, and his community, in joyful celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s ascent.  At his ascent they do assent, perhaps following decades of loss, displacement, and martyrdom.  Having lived through the long old time religion winter of most of the first century, and all its rigors, they acclaimed a faith in a high, divine goodness, through it all.

 

Others over time have done the same.  At this time of year I always think of Churchill and Wesley.

 

These two Englishmen have something for us, this Ascension Day,  June 1, 2014, after a long winter.   Think of England in May 1940.  Think of London in May 1738.

 

Winston Churchill knew something both of fall and of creation.

 

At the right moment, in May of 1940,  Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler.  With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With the whole German air force poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms, and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.   Re-read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940.   He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War.  In the end, America and Russian did.  But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.”  Ascension faith is about love of freedom. In his ascent we find the courage for our own assent.

 

          John Wesley knew something both of fall and of creation.

        

At midlife, one enchanting night in May of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good.   He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage.  There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime.  As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it.   Ascension faith is about freeing love.  In his ascent we find the courage for our own assent.

 

There are for sure a lot of things wrong.  But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right.  Hear the good news.  The gospel concludes with joy. You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks.  “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck).  As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our own look over Jordan, it is this joyful thanksgiving, which carries us.

 

          The communion homily today is an altar call for you.  And the path toward the communion rail is our own sawdust trail. I propose that you come to communion, ready to accept the gift of faith, to give assent in the hour of dominical ascent.  So come, to experience freeing love.  So come, to receive a love of freedom.  So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love.   Such is the gift of ascent upon this Lord’s day.  So come, on the feast of the Lord’s ascent, ready and willing, joyful and happy to assent to a new life of faith, hope and love.

 

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

In the Love of God

May 25th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Acts 17: 22-31

Psalm 66: 8-18

1 Peter 3: 13-22

John 14: 15-21

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I. Learn to love what you do not understand – God

So, here we are in Marsh Chapel with its Cram designed neogothic nave, its Connick stained glass, and its Casavant organ.  Just as we have had four deans of Marsh Chapel named Bob, apparently if you want to work on the infrastructure of the chapel your last name must start with “C.” Here we are, listening to texts written neigh on two millennia ago, singing songs sung over the past five centuries, and yet inflicted with a preacher only three decades old.  Here we are, in a chapel dwarfed by its surrounding schools and colleges, at the heart of a great research university, in the midst of the city that Oliver Wendell Holmes cited as “the Hub of the Solar System.”  Here we are, pausing for a moment of awe, groping for a touch of wonder, steeped in the richness of history, and inspired by the presence of mystery.  Here we are, come Sunday, that’s the day.

Do you know why you are here?  My parents and my in-laws are here because I put coming to church on their itinerary for their trip to Boston, but the rest of you are here of your own volition.  You have no excuse!  What are you doing here?  Why have you come?  What possessed you, motivated you, inspired you to either make the trek in to church, or to flip on your radio, or to navigate to our live stream, or to download our podcast?  And on Memorial Day weekend, no less!

Well, the reason that most people come to a major research university is that they do not know.

Now Brother Larry, you’re starting to sound like that student last semester cited in The Bunion, Boston University’s satirical student newspaper: “Rich Girl in Dining Hall Can’t Even.”  Just as a fictional employee in the story wonders, “What can she not even? … That’s barely half a sentence!” so too we have to ask, they do not know what?  What is it that they do not know?

Well, dear friends, particularly in the case of matriculating undergraduates, the answer again is: they do no know.  That is, they do not know what they do not know.  Before you can learn what you want to know, first you have to learn what you want to know.  At the masters level, of course, we expect you to at least have some idea of the general field out of which your questions arise.  Then at the doctoral level we expect you to have honed your question to such a narrow degree that you can write a dissertation entitled something like “The use of the conjunction ‘and’ in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson written between May 1 and May 17, 1841.”  (They’re funny.  They think I’m kidding!).  Of course, the greatest accomplishment of a PhD is learning exactly how much it is that you do not know.

Why would you go to a university if you already know?  Libraries are places where knowledge is stored; universities are places where knowledge is pursued.  But here’s the thing: at their best, churches are more like universities than they are like libraries.  That is, church should be a place we come to pursue God, not a place where God is packed away in storage.  In the life of the church, God is the great unknown for whom, as Paul says in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we would search, and perhaps grope, and find.  Paul identifies the God of Christ with the unknown god of the Athenians.  Then, rather than presenting knowledge about their unknown God, Paul goes on to further affirm God’s unknowability.  God is not like things we can know, like images made of gold, or silver, or stone, “formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  Rather than knowledge, Paul presents a paradox: “God who made the world and everything in it … is Lord of heaven and earth,” and yet God “is not far from each one of us.”  God is transcendent and immanent; God is aloof and intimate.

This is why we have come, and more, this is why we were made: to be struck by awe, to be transformed in wonder, to emerge from history into the heart of mystery.  We are travelers on a journey, not dwellers in a homestead.  We are learning, we are traveling, we are growing, here on Sunday, and day by day in the classroom, and the laboratory, and the field site, we learn to love what do not know, we learn to love what we do not understand, we learn to love God.

God is here! As we your people

meet to offer praise and prayer,

may we find in fuller measure

what it is in Christ we share.

Here, as in the world around us,

all our varied skills and arts

wait the coming of the Spirit

into open minds and hearts.

II. Embodied feeling of God – Spirit

On this Memorial Day weekend I remember my childhood friend Marion McCrane.  Now, Marion was my childhood friend because she was my friend when I was a child, even though Marion herself was of an age to be my grandmother.  She and her sister Edna lived across the street from us, and my brother and I would go over to spend time with them, to hear their stories, to explore the antique artifacts of their childhood and family, to pet their three dogs and two cats, and to help care for the flora that proliferated under their deliberate care and guidance in both front and back yards.  Marion died this past fall, and I had the privilege of presiding at her funeral.  In preparing to lay Marian to rest, I found this story in Bernard Livingston’s book Zoo, Animals, People, Places.

One of the more interesting examples of skillful simulation of motherhood for a zoo animal was the experience … of Marion McCrane in hand-rearing a two-toed sloth born at the National Zoo.  The two-toed sloth is a nocturnal creature that spends practically its whole life – eating, sleeping, traveling – suspended upside down in the trees by its limbs.  The infant lies on the mother’s abdomen as she lethargically moves about the forest.  Ms. McCrane, as a zoologist on the National staff, had hand-reared everything from monkeys to snakes, but as far as they knew nobody had ever hand-reared a two-toed sloth before…

Ms. McCrane was equal to the challenge.  After experimenting with a number of techniques that did not quite work she managed to succeed in simulating the precise position that an infant sloth assumes while nursing in his upside-down world.  And a bottle of half-strength evaporated milk did the trick for little Mary Jane…

Ms. McCrane solved the material-contact problem by housing Mary Jane in a strong basket packed with towels, blankets, hot water bottle and a muff to which the infant clung as a substitute for her mother’s abdomen.  The waking nocturnal hours were filled in with feeding and a bit of clinging to Ms. McCrane herself.

Can there be any experience of greater awe and wonder than that of mothering love?  Here was Marion, living out of the history of her own experience and into the mystery of mothering this small, vulnerable creature in love.  As Jesus said, Marion lived, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

For Paul, we do not know God, and yet in God “we live and move and have our being;” God “is not far from each one of us.”  We do not know God, but we feel God, we encounter the mystery of God in our bodies.  Awe and wonder are not thought; they are felt.  We feel God in the quickening of the heart, in the shortness of breath, in the fleeting failure of words and concepts.  It was the great Protestant theologian, and grandfather of liberal theology, Friederich Schleiermacher, who said that religion is “the feeling of absolute dependence.”  We do not know but we feel ourselves dependent on God for our very being and the world in which we live and move.

We do not know God but we feel God and we desire God.  Jesus, speaking in the voice of John the Evangelist, does use the language of knowledge to describe our relationship with the Advocate, the Spirit of truth.  But is this the knowledge of facts or the knowledge of lovers?  Well, apparently we will know the Spirit because the Spirit “abides with” us, and “will be in” us.  This hardly seems like knowledge acquired by pure reason.  Rather this is the language of eros, of desire, of embodied feeling.  “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  To be sure, erotic language in relation to God is dangerous.  There is a reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters prohibit reading the Song of Solomon until you are both married and have passed your thirtieth year.  Nonetheless, what other language could express the intimacy that is the embodied feeling of God other than the language of desire between lovers or the image of the loving and nurturing parent?  “I go and I will come to you and your heart shall rejoice.”  We know, in that we feel, in our bodies, the love of the unknown God in the intimate presence of the Spirit.

O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;

III. Suffering persists – Christ

And yet, suffering persists.  Our feeling the glory and love of God, while it may transform suffering, does not overcome it.  “The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross.  The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection.”  The Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth accompanies us on the journey of life and faith into the never-ending depths divine unknowability, but cannot walk the path for us.

On this Memorial Day weekend we remember too many who have endured suffering and death as a result of human failure: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.  In the end, these seven deadly sins are our human succumbing to fear: lust is the fear of solitude, gluttony the fear of hunger, greed the fear of poverty, sloth the fear of being overwhelmed, (no offense to Mary Jane!), wrath the fear reconciliation, envy the fear of being enough, and pride the fear of being wrong.  Alas, these sins are all too often most deadly to those who surround those who commit them.

In March, Bishop Elias Toume, Greek Orthodox bishop of the Valley of the Christians in Syria gave the keynote address at the annual Costas Consultation on Global Mission hosted by the Boston Theological Institute.  He spoke of the suffering of Christians in Syria, in the midst of the suffering of the Syrian people generally.  He reminded us that Christianity was, in a sense, born in Syria, with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  He wonders whether Christianity now will die in Syria.  Bishop Elias told the story of facilitating a prisoner exchange between the military and the rebel forces, in which some of his congregants were caught in the middle.  At the end he said, “Being a bishop is not about going to parties and presiding at ceremonies.  Being a bishop is about being ready, at a moments notice, to lay down your life for your people.”

“But if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.  Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated… For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3: 14 & 18).

Abide, then, in the love of the unknowable God.  Feel the flaming desire of the Spirit in your heart, in your gut, in your spirit.  And even in the midst of suffering, keep the commandments of Christ, whom God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness.  Amen.

 

~ Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life

University Baccalaureate

May 18th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the University Baccalaureate service.

Click here to watch the video from BU Today.

Boston University’s 2014 Baccalaureate speaker was Dr. Nancy Bishop, Amgen, Inc., Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more information, please see the BU Today article.

There will be no sermon text posted for this Baccalaureate address.

This I Believe

May 11th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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The This I Believe speakers from 2014 were Charlotte Saul, Jenny Hardy, Robert Lucchesi and Brian Sirman.

Means of Grace

May 4th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 24

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New Creed

 

We believe in God

Who has created and is creating

Who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and make new

Who works in us and others by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

God calls us to be the church, the Body of Christ.

To celebrate Christ’s presence

To love and serve others

To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen

Our Judge and our Hope

In life, in death, in life beyond death

God is with us

We are not alone

Thanks be to God

 

Karen Daly

            Karen Daly spoke at Sargent College last week.  She is a courageous nurse.  In the ER one afternoon she was accidently stuck by an infected needle, contracting Hepatitis C and Aids, some twenty years ago.  She spent many years then successfully combating these diseases, both in her own body and also in the halls of congress.  This Sargent lecture each year is one of the very best moments available at BU for pastoral preparation.  It is theological without being theological.  She told her story.  After living with the realization that she was infected for some days, in a kind of stupor, she received a phone call from her new doctor.  Somehow he found her, though she was thousands of miles away.  He said:  “I am your new physician.  You are going to be fine”.  She said for the first time she began to feel human again.  Weeks later the doctor gave her his home phone number.  He said, “If you cannot sleep at night and are worried, don’t worry alone.  You call me.  We will talk”.  She said that for the first time she began to think she might get better.  Salvus is the latin word for health.  Salvation is healing.  Healing comes through words and through fellowship, preaching and sacrament.

 

 

Luke 24

            Our gospel summarizes resurrection to preaching and communion.  Not to try to boil us down to grandchildren of Rudolph Bultmann, but this long narrative depicts Jesus Risen as the telling of the good news and the sharing of the bread and cup.  The difference resurrection makes is the possibility of preaching and the availability of sacrament, both means of grace.

I remember an Anglican cleric, whose journalist interrogator asked about the precipitous numerical demise of the Church of England.  “What will happen when there are almost no members left and all the buildings are sold?” he was asked.  “Well, I guess then we will find a Bible, a table, a cup, a plate, some bread, some wine, and we will start over”.

What happens in Luke 24, as you have just heard, is what happens at Marsh Chapel on Sunday morning.  People on a journey gather.  The Scripture is read, and more importantly, interpreted in preaching.  The table is set and the meal is served.

That’s it, folks.

Not much to go on, you might and rightly say.  A simple meal and some fairly simple words.

Seniors

This morning we gather up in prayer the experiences of four years:  the learning, the growth, the change, the gladness, the adventure, the losses, the tragedy, the trauma, the friendships, the successes, the mistakes, the loves, the heartaches, the happiness, and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace.

This morning we embrace the young graduates of 2014, as they commence with the rest of life, in a world ever a stage, with men and women merely players, in a lifetime taking many parts:  infant, schoolchild, lover, soldier, judge, retiree, convalescent, and we lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace.

This morning we open ourselves to the world around us, to all its great gifts and all its crying needs, mindful of other young people who in this hour lack raiment, lack shelter, lack nourishment, lack health, lack freedom, and pledge ourselves to live not only in this world but also, and more so, for this world, in a spirit of grace and peace.

Our prayer:  four years, one class, our world.

As the grace for our meal I invite you to join with me in a prayer written by John Wesley.

Wesley was the founder of Methodism, the religious tradition that gave birth to Boston University in 1839.

His breakfast prayer exemplifies that tradition:

The words are simple:  that is significant

The language is universal:  that is significant

The tone is thankful:  that is significant

The phrasing is memorable:  that is significant

It is a prayer fit for use in a call and response manner, as we shall this morning:  that too is significant:

Gracious Giver of all good

Thee we thank for rest and food

Grant that all we do or say

May in thy service be, this day

Voices

            Flanner O’Connor:  “I would like to be intelligently holy.”

DJHall:  ‘ours is a religion that must share spiritual nurture of the world with many other faith traditions…

Paul Theroux, advice to writers:  “1. Leave Home.  2. Go Alone.  3. Stay on the Ground… “

Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

St.Chrysostom:  “A just, useful and suitable intercession…The poor are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the rich…Your brother is more truly God’s temple than any church building…Show a natural compassion…To make you humane for your own salvation…Enjoy luxury in moderation, give the rest away…God:  Scripture, Sacraments, Poor…Those who are sent out to be dependent upon the hospitality of others: the apostolic ministry…’Ministry is mendicant’…The sign of the mendicant church calls forth generosity…Serve the poor under all conditions and circumstances…The poor are the bearers of God’s spirit in the way that the rich are not…All goodness in the world is a reflection of God’s grace…”

Two Friends

           I recall two friends, recently deceased:  Jim Burchett (69); Bill Hardoby (62).  My pastoral ministry to Jim, a corporate leader, and to Bill, a psychiatrist, is finished.  Whatever it is, it is over.  Did they receive grace?  Were their souls healed, saved. ‘If anyone is damned, Jesus has failed…I can tell you how the world works.  But we still have to decide what it means…The world is absurd, but faith is an act of faith.’ (R Cooper).  Did they live?  Did they live before they died?  Did they know love? Were they loved?  Did they love?  As they died, did they have care: personal, physical, pastoral?  Did they die in fear or trust?  Were they practically ready?  Did they have a will, funeral plans, a burial plot, finished conversations? (OOPS).  Did they die in fellowship with God?  Did they die in friendship with God and others?  What regrets did they harbor, what unshared hurts, what secret sermons, what despair, what deferred desire?  What models for dying, for a good death, did they have?  Did they die in belief, believing in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting?  In their last months, or days, when they wanted to talk, was there anyone there?

These two men worked hard, played by the rules, achieved and succeeded.  They took big responsibilities for their long marriages, gifted children, extended families, communities of fellowship and meaning, and to some degree, their environment, legacy, and world.  They were men.  Good men.  They ‘did their duty’.  Were they happy? At peace? Centered? Satisfied? Contrite? Humble?

Did my friendship and pastoral care provide the right space, depth, meaning, hearing, word, example to ‘bring them home’?

For Jim, the church was central.  For Bill, the church was peripheral.  For both, the church was meaningful.

Ancient Creed

Said Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’.  Our faith, expressed in the creed, says much the same

1.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth

A light angelic voice, a crisp little line.  The ancients said only what they needed to, here.  God made the world.  God set the conditions for the world to be.  God created.  Heaven—things invisible.  Earth—things visible.  There is no attempt to explain the fallen darkness of the world, here.  There is no avoidance of the absolute mystery, here.  There is a just an abrupt statement:  God created.

2.  And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…

A clear voice, narrative and personal.  Jesus is our guide, our measure, our Lord above all Lords.  His life is the line of God in the sand of time.   Sent with the love that only a Dad can know and give to a Son known and loved.  Conceived with the joy of passion in spirit.  Born of the best of women, like every birth an absolute miracle itself, a smoking cradle.  Who suffered, and suffered in a social political matrix, under the thumb of the ruler of the age—suffering particular, local, individual and unappreciated.  Who died an ignominious death, stretched out as a common criminal among others common and criminal.

…The third day he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

A trumpet angelic voice, sonorous and somber and serene.  Heaven is His.  He is ours.  What else shall we take with us?  Who else could we ever expect to judge us?  Easter is the victory of the invisible heaven or the visible earth.  There is a judgment for life and for death and for the living and for the dead.  And Love has the last word.

3.  I believe in the Holy Spirit:  the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

A sweet voice.  Placing you at the global table.  Feeding you with the fellowship of greatness.  Steadying you with mercy, mercy, mercy.  (If you take no other clue from Easter, take along an inclination to forgive).   The capacity for renewal of the church, and so by extension of your spirit, soul and body.  The confidence that life outlasts death within the mystery with which we began.

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

The Bach Experience

April 27th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Dean Hill:

Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”

 

                  We tend to want rather instant results.  Rapid feedback, metrically based, positive and solid—these are the sorts of outcomes we prize.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we do and desire so.

 

But in a larger sense?

 

Ministry in particular and life in general require a long view.   The planting of seeds.  The lighting of candles.  The casting of empty nets.  The waiting, and waiting and waiting.  It is a long wait to live by faith, hoping against hope, and trusting the invisible to vanquish the visible.  Easter is the announcement of the victory of the invisible.

 

Thomas, poor Thomas, remembered for his very human desire for the visible, the tangible, the metrically based, positive and solid, verifiable knowing—picks up the monicker, Doubting Thomas.

 

Thomas.  Logos.  Nicodemus.  Samaritan Woman.  Lazarus.  Paraclete.  BELOVED DISCIPLE.  Thomas.  Where did all these figures come from?  Not one every seen or heard in the rest of the New Testament, particularly not in the other gospels.  Whence?

 

The strange world of the Bible is at its strangest in the Fourth Gospel.

 

But Thomas is not just the doubter.  Thomas, alone, Thomas, more than any other, Thomas, of the silk road, Thomas of the so named Gospel, Thomas of our reading today, Thomas alone perfectly summarizes the whole of John, saying of the crucified and risen One:  ‘My Lord, and My God’.  Thomas is not just the doubter.  Thomas is the true believer, too.  The Son of Man is both Earthly Lord and Heavenly God.

So we have some reason to wait, some basis for the long view, some heartfelt humility as we move forward through the ages.

 

To live in faith is to build schools in which you will not study, though your grandchildren might.  To live in faith is to start churches in which you will not pray, though your grandchildren might.  To live in faith is to plant trees under which you will never take a siesta, though your grandchildren might.

 

Herman Melville worked in a government office most of his life, having written the greatest of novels, Moby Dick, whose popular appreciation came well after Melville’s death.

 

Ludwig von Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony, without the capacity to hear it, to hear its beauty, its power, its wonder.

 

Daniel Marsh moved this University out to the banks of the Charles river, and constructed buildings, including this very Chapel, later named for him,  but did not live long enough, though he lived a very long life, to see just how much Boston University would change and grow.

 

Alistair Macleod, eulogized this week as an author, ‘not in a hurry’, who left behind one novel and one ample collection of stories, all set in Cape Breton, will never fully know how meaningful his beautiful prose has been to so many of us.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his magnum opus, gathering together over time material older and newer, and giving us one the greatest artistic, musical works of all time, perhaps the very greatest, a portion of which we shall hear together in a moment.  Bach never heard the B Minor Mass in lifetime.  Bach never lived to hear the greatest of his works performed.

 

Dr. Jarrett, what Bach did not hear, we shall.  At the conclusion of this year’s tour de force, this year’s celebration of Bach, here and there, in NYC and in Boston, and by radio and internet the world over, what are we about to hear?

 

Dr. Jarrett:

We come this morning to the fulfillment of a year-long survey and study of Bach’s greatest work – the Mass in B Minor. Many would even argue the B Minor Mass is humanity’s greatest work! In this final section of the B Minor Mass, we hear Bach’s Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and the famous Dona Nobis Pacem. We hear some of Bach’s earliest music, the Sanctus written his first year in Leipzig in 1723, more than 20 years before it found final resting place in the B Minor Mass. Mirroring Isaiah’s six-winged Seraphim, Bach scores for 6voices, the only such instance in his entire output of vocal writing.  Caste as a grand and bold exultation at the throne of the Almighty, we have truly entered a musical Holy of Holies. The Osanna that follows surpasses the Sanctus in texture, expanding six voices to eight in double chorus, exclaiming their Creator’s Praise in joyful dancelike shouts of Osanna. From the largest complement of voices, Bach next scores for his most intimate in the entirety of the Mass with the Benedictus. Only three members of the orchestra accompany the lone tenor voice. The delicacy of the flute line and the tenderly sung tenor, bring us to the humility of the Savior, entering Jerusalem on the donkey, the meek and mild manger, and ultimate humility of the cross.

The Agnus Dei brings us another intimate moment of austere devotion. We are fixed and transformed by Christ on the tree, the emblem of suffering and shame.

In the fall we knelt together in supplication for the Kyrie, a moment of corporate pardon and affirmation of grace. In December we rejoiced in the nave of Bach’s Mass with that great hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo. IN February, we affirmed our faith at the crossing of word and table with Bach’s Nicene Crede. Today, Bach invites us to the High Altar, transformed by the Holy of Holies. Emboldened and renewed, we take up the cross, sent forth into the world in an eternal quest for God’s peace – Dona nobis pacem, pacem, dona nobis.

 

Dean Hill:

 

With your help, and that of the choir, and especially that of Bach, we have learned some things.

 

(From Scott Fogelsong): (The mass) offers music lovers a dear and faithful friend.  Like certain other beloved choral works—Handel’s Messiah comes immediately to mind—its grandiose scope never overwhelms the intimate humanity at its core.  Thus we cherish it, not only as a masterpiece, but also as a mirror that shows us the saints that lie within.

 

The entire Mass might be assembled from re-purposed material.  We may never know for sure.

 

Bach never heard a performance of the completed B Minor Mass.  “The greatest work of music of all ages and all peoples” (Nageli).

 

What part of the symphony of your life, or mine, will be played, enjoyed, celebrated only after you are not able to hear it?  What gift of inquiry that causes an inspiration to vocation?  What gift of wealth that endows in perpetuity some form of the good, the true, the beautiful?  What gift of progeny that continues a genetic and biological trajectory in life?  What gift of institutional, institutionalized improvement that makes this world a better place?  What song of yours will others be singing when you are long gone?

 

Marilyn Robinson traces the emergence of her faith, in part, to a long ago Sunday morning:  “One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded…(227)…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder.”

 

          Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”

 

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Angel Voice

April 20th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 28:1-7

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Yellow and Blue

 

It has been a long week.  It has been a long old time religion winter.  It has been a long year.

 

On April 15 I jogged in the morning, down along the river.  A cold day.  A sad day.  A mournful day.  A blue day, with the slight budding wind of a yellow dawn in early spring.  By the Hatch Shell someone had beautifully placed a dozen boxes, along the path and along the river.  In each flower box there were dozens of flowers, of only two types and colors.  Daffodils.  Yellow.  Violets.  Blue.  Daffodils and violets, yellow and blue.  In Boston, on Easter, this year of our Lord, 2014, we are right in those flower boxes.  One part violet, on part daffodil, one part yellow, one part blue, on part singing the hymns of Easter, one part howling with the laments of loss.

 

In the last year, we have been a city drenched in sorrow.

Our good words about resilience, rightly spoken, as our honest reaction this year to neighborhood terrorism, do not displace our sorrow.   The best of days, the highest of moments, the most charmingly gracious of cityscapes, the culmination of the American experiment in PatriotsDay-MarathonDay-SpringHoliday-BostonDay—all trashed a year ago by senseless, needless, heedless, injurious, intentional, hateful, killing violence.  When another takes what you hold dear, count precious, think lovely, and rapes it, you cannot avoid anger, and the sorrow at the heart of anger.   Now the angel of hurt has come near, here.  Some of the sensitive in listener land wonder whether anything religiously cast, any preachment, can carry any truth, any good.  We have become closely acquainted again with sin.

Sin is utterly personal.  This we understand.  The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20).  For we confess, too a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin.  The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may “need no repentance”.  As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions.  We get lost.  It is our nature, east of eden.  We get lost in sex without love:  lust.  We get lost in consumption without nourishment:  gluttony.  We get lost in accumulation without investment:  avarice.  We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle:  sloth.  We get lost in righteousness without restraint:  anger.  We get lost in desire without ration or respect:  envy.  And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility:  pride.  If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance.  (You also may not be quite human).  But if so, hear good news:  the Easter gospel is for you!

 

Angel Voice

 

Today is Easter.  Sursum Corda!

 

The Lord is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

 

Early in the morning, before dawn, two women—Matthew has no place for men at the tomb, except guards so fearful they are like dead—come on a religious errand to the sepulchre.  They approach quietly, on tiptoe, for the air is quiet before the storm.  They listen and watch…

 

And behold!…There is an earthquake and an Angel, a messenger of the Lord who descends from heaven, rolls the stone away—notice this—sits upon the stone.  Like lightening and snow is he—like the lightening of Labor Day and like the snow of March 6 is he.  We know about lightening and even more about snow.  Dazzling white, fearsome power.

 

Why an angel?  Why all the drama?  Why such an appearance?  Why the stone as a stool?  Why the title, angel of the Lord?

 

An angel is a messenger.  The drama means to get your attention.  He sits—to teach.  Remember Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—“he sat down and taught them”.  In antiquity, a teacher sat to teach.  His sitting is for our instruction.  And he sits—where?  On the stone of death.  There it is, at Easter:  an angel of the Lord, sitting to teach, atop the symbol of death.  Death is a part of life.  In Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting.        Behold I tell you a mystery… Kata staupon…Crux sola…Que es la vida…Le Couer a sais…

 

Let us suspend our disbelief for a few minutes, and listen and learn from the voice of an angel, sent to teach us.  For we trust—that life has meaning, that worship deepens meaning, that Scripture carries meaning, and that preaching applies meaning to our very hearts for our eternal health and wellbeing.

 

The Angel says, “Fear Not….”

 

I am a Christian because I see in Jesus Christ that God has tasted all that I will ever taste—all the way to death.  Am I weary?  So was he.  Am I alone? So was he.  Am I downcast?  So was he.  Am I betrayed?  So was he.  Am I rejected?  So was he.  Am I to die?  So did he.  Where I go, he has been.   “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18).  He has become like us, that we might become like him.  As Paul says, “he was put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25)

 

Be not afraid! In the hour post-mortem, we learn:  Fear not.

 

Fear not:

 

You may be fixing breakfast, either a theist in doubt or an a-theist doubting your doubt.

 

You may have given first aid and first response last Marathon Monday, and now are in worship finding a way toward peace.

 

You may have sat in your car, last Tuesday at 2:49pm, silent, weeping, and carefully mentioning by name:  Lu Lingzi, Martin Richards, Krystle Campbell, and Sean Collier.

 

You may have realized, as a young adult, as young adults do, walking the Esplanade yesterday, that you are not as self-aware, self-critical, self-disciplined as you should be, by now.

 

You may be new to your job, a responsible one at that, involving the safety of many others, rising to meet the day, and praying for an incident free tomorrow.

 

You may be a preacher giving his 35th Easter sermon, wondering what the judgment of them all will be.

 

You may be remembering a loved one who has died, and grieving that loss still, as the music subsides.

You may have been healed this winter, a long time healing in a long cold winter, warmed by the sunshine of Easter weekend.

 

You may be in the choir, glad for the beauty and conviviality and community of church and worship, but also convinced that none of it will last if based on shaky philosophical foundations, and you are right to be so convinced.

 

You may be in the balcony, ready to hear, by inspiration and grace, a saving word, a healing word, an intervening word, an angel voice.

 

You may remember that you have been radically accepted, as Paul Tillich would say, that you have this acceptance by the work of Christ, as Karl Barth would say, and that you have this through no good work at all of your own, as John Calvin would say.  So share your faith!, John Wesley would say.

 

The Angel says,  “He is not Here…”

 

Jesus’ absence is at the heart of Easter.  The Gospel helps us see his absence, then and now.

 

Very few people are ever argued into faith, or out of faith.  Persuasion does the former, sometimes.  Tragedy does the latter, sometimes.

 

All of the Matthean touches are metaphorical:  the wild earthquake, the stone miraculously moved, the guards made soporific, the clothing as bright as sunshine, the shining as white snow (the snow part is the part we get easily).

 

So too is the Angel Voice.

 

You and I do not hear such voices, normally at least.

 

In 1977 I sat as a seminarian with an elderly Presbyterian minister and a young first year student.  The student said:  “God spoke to me and said…God’s voice rang in my ears…God shouted at me…God whispered to me…The minister, aged and bespectacled and white haired and hard of hearing, said:  “I have been in ministry for 50 years.  God has never, no not once, not ever spoken to me.”  Well, after 35 years, I am with him.  God has not ever spoken to me.  Angel Voice is a figure of speaking, metaphorical not literal.  For Matthew.  For that Presbyterian minister.  For me.  For you.  For you all.  It is a sign, a symbol, a metaphor.  BUT IT HAS POWERFUL MEANING NONETHELESS.

 

Angel voice reverberates, resounds, rolls, undulates, crashes, sings, calls, shouts—‘He is not here’.

 

Like the ocean rolling at night, ebb and flow, tide and surf, wave and beach, the ocean rolling at night, a natural Angel Voice.  We sense behind the phenomena, the numinous.  Howard Thurman:  ‘the ocean and the night…’ Angel voice beckons you from the shoreline of the world, roaring with the wild beauty of the untamed universe.

 

Like the still, small voice of your conscience.  You have in your heart, in your mind, in your soul, in your self a kind of inner voice, which in its own way rolls in and out like a wave on the ocean.  Or, it is like the ‘ping’ in a message box, echoing, lost, ringing from the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  Angel voice.  ‘Not sure you really want to do that…’  ‘Not sure you really should have said that…’  Not  sure you really do think that…’  You could help her… You could encourage him…You could think about that another way.  Angel voice beckons you from that inner voice, the singing solo of your own-most self.

 

Like the heart felt longing, feeling, careening, caring of love.   You can feel the love of those who lost limbs or senses or loved ones last year.  You really reach out in love to them, and to others in hurt, tragedy, need.  The Bible says:  no one has ever seen God.  The Bible says:  if we love one another, God’s love abides in us.  The Bible says:  God is Love.  The Bible says:  Love is God.

 

At age 8 or so, from our little village in farm country, I had never traveled to a MLB game.   But once a summer in Cooperstown the two worst MLB teams played an exhibition.  I do not remember the second team.  But you know, in the early 60’s, who the first team was:  the Mets.  My dad and his clergy friend Bruce took me.  Bruce was the first Boston voice I remember:  a BU graduate, a Sox fan, pork and beans and Saturday evening, he did not drop his r’s.  Those two Methodist preachers had very little spare money or time, but they found a way to give a happy day to a boy who would not leave early, even though the Mets were down by at least 20 runs (J).  On the way home, in the evening, though I had been warned not to do so, I lifted my new cap out the window into the breeze:  off it went, in the wind, across the road, down the embankment, and into the Cherry Valley Creek (where in 1910 my grandmother had been baptized.)  “It’s not fa’ down.  Yo fatha and I can get it.”  Every loving word, deed, act, prayer, every one has a lasting influence, lasting fifty years and more.  Is it any wonder, so raised, but such, that I went into their ministry, served churches along the Cherry Valley, preached as a Methodist itinerant, and ended up, where they started out, here in Boston?

 

‘He is not here’.  Angel voice in creation and in conscience and in compassion tells us so.

 

 

 The Angel says, “He Has Risen”

Easter is a mystery, a resurrection mystery.  The old creed can display its meaning for what we believe.

 

In God, Maker of heaven and earth.  God creates the world, known to us in all its brute fallenness, its sin and death and threat of meaninglessness.  This is the all the creed says about the world, life, creation.  Here it is, all things visible—earth—and invisible—heaven, created from nothing by God.

In the Son of God, Jesus, in life

 

Conceived in the joyful explosive passionate spirited love of all conception

 

Born as in all birth of a woman whose self giving in delivery is utterly virginal

 

Suffering as all do under structured oppression, from Pilate to Putin and beyond

 

Crucified, dead buried, shuffling off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns

 

Raised from the dead, sitting on the right hand of God to judge the living and dead, all visible and invisible, a sound, solid but utterly incomprehensible mystery by which death is swallowed up in victory.

 

In the very Spirit of God

 

Which we taste in the global church

 

Which we enjoy in the fellowship and goodness of friendship

 

Which we hold for dear life, like those capsized at sea, in the saving life preserver of forgiveness

 

Which we trust for the renewal of the church, the body so resurrected daily

 

Which we leap into at last, at death, trusting that life everlasting is the last word.

 

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

 

Salvation is about space, about openness!  “In my father’s house there are many rooms..”  “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting…” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgression…” We used to sing:  “Give me land, lots of land, ‘neath the starry skies above—don’t fence me in!  Salvation is about space.

 

Jesus goes to Galilee—the place of difference, of the unreligious.  Go quickly and tell his disciples…

 

Coda!

 

The angel voice speaks to you:

 

Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20

 

Whether your mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony

 

Whether your favorite film is Casablanca or Easy Rider or Ferris Buehler

 

Whether the day that lives in infamy is December 7 or November 22 or September 11

 

Whether bridge means River Quai or Chappaquidick or Nowhere

 

Whether your trumpeter is Armstrong or Jarrett or Marsalis

 

Whether that poster is of Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch or Madonna

 

Whether you fought anti Semitism or racism or homophobia

 

Whether your best baseball card is of Ted Williams or Karl Yastremski or Big Papi

Whether your medium is radio or television or the internent

 

Whether you read Ernest Hemingway or Lionel Trilling or David Foster Wallace

 

Whether you shout Airborne! or Right On! or Whatever!

 

Whether your default mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony

 

Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20

 

 

Angel voice speaks still…

 

Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

 

My friend is a member or the American College of Cardiology.  They have instituted a new conclusion to all of their continuing education units, which he, rightly, thinks should also conclude every worship service.  In short, the doctors are asked before they leave:  “How will what you have learned at this conference change the way your practice?  What will you do differently than you did before?

 

He adds:  I long to hear this coda, or something like it, in every sermon, every Sunday:  ‘Friends and fellow disciples of the living Christ, what will you now do differently as a result of your participation here this morning?  What deeds of the body will you begin today to put to death by the Spirit, and what fruits of the Spirit will you now cultivate, harvest and distribute?  What life giving, life sustaining, life affirming practices and habits will you today begin to establish.  Make them specific, personal, demanding, actionable, measurable.  What will be your actions and metrics? Please join us! (Dr. Larry Gage, Rochester, NY).

 

 

Through it all rings the Resurrection Hope, and an angel voice:

Fear not

He is not here

He has risen

 

 

Whether you are enchanted by sincerity, or enchanted by authenticity or enchanted by irony—whether you are 80 or 50 or 20—Angel Voice speaks for and to you.

 

Big steps are better than small steps.  Small steps are better than no steps.  No steps are better than backward steps.

 

‘Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we will not fail.’ (Macbeth)

 

‘And go to church on Sunday.’ (Billy Graham).

 

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

Embracing Fear and Great Joy

April 19th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Each year Dean Hill focuses the Lenten preparation for Easter by considering the special insights brought by some important Christian author.  This year it has been John Calvin.  Several weeks ago I had the special privilege of preaching the Sunday morning service at Marsh and drew attention to Calvin’s claxon insistence on the transcendent glory and beauty of God.  Although Calvin began his Institutes with the claim that any consideration of God immediately reflects on the wretched human condition, and any consideration of the human condition directs the light back to the unmeasurable perfection of God, for him the real point of religion is God, not the human condition.  Martin Luther, the other great Reformer of Western Christianity, said in effect that it’s all about human beings, their salvation, and how God brings about that salvation.  For Calvin, religion is all about God who, incidentally, brings about salvation. People concerned for their own salvation and the renovation of the world in justice find Calvin austere. They take little comfort in his claim that from God’s point of view the whole creation is beautiful and that God’s justice is glorified as much in the punishment of the damned as in the heavenly welcome of the saved.  Calvin is rarely associated with feel-good religion.  But Calvin was indeed concerned with the human condition and in fact wrote far more about how we ought to behave within the divine economy than he did about God per se.  So I feel obliged tonight to preach the Word through Calvin’s warm and fuzzy side.  Only a Methodist would attempt such a thing.  And if you are thinking that this means a very short sermon, think again.

The Easter Vigil is an appropriate occasion to seek God through Calvin’s understanding of the human condition.  It is a time between the crucifixion, which symbolizes the worst in the human condition at its most depraved, and the Easter resurrection, which symbolizes the best that can happen.  Officially after sundown on Saturday we are in Easter day as the Jews reckon the beginning of days, and we all know about the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounters with the Risen Christ that are coming in the morning’s symbolism of our liturgical year.  But this service is still a vigil, a waiting for what has not yet arrived, albeit promised.  The side of Calvin that is so genuinely empathic with the human condition, the side that has drawn people to him despite his abrasive austerity, is his recognition that life every day is like the Easter Vigil.  The catastrophic judgment of Good Friday is past and the fulfillment of Easter resurrection is only promised.  This is the condition in which we actually live.  We can pretend that we in fact

live face to face with God dying for our salvation as symbolized by Calvary.  But that is not in our personal experience.  It happened in the past and perhaps it has been misinterpreted.  If we are honest we worry.  We can pretend that we actually live fully resurrected Easter lives, that our souls are purified and that our institutions guarantee justice and flourishing for all.  But of course that is simply mistaken.  Theologians protect their hinder parts by saying that we now live in anticipation of the fulfilled resurrection triggered by God’s saving act in the crucifixion, an “already but not yet” resurrection.  This is called “proleptic consummation,” a great phrase to remember for cocktail parties.

Dean Hill tomorrow, I wager, will talk about signs and manifestations of resurrection.  “Christ is Risen!” we will sing.  But what about us?  How are we risen? Tomorrow we will know deep down that it is still only promises.  Easter morning is still only promises, just like the Easter Vigil tonight, and any honest heart knows this.  Every day is still the Vigil.  When we face up to this with an honest mind, and look carefully to see who we really are and what our world really is, we have cause to worry in this Vigil.  Only preachers who are realistic about the vigil-character of Christian life offer honest comfort.  This is the warm and fuzzy part of Calvin because he is with us in what we know in our hearts to be true.  His honesty is the beginning of true comfort.  Let me call this “deep” warmth and fuzziness.

Calvin’s own theology is quaint, offensive to our usual understanding of Christian kindness, and out of date because his mythic understanding of the world is premodern.  But permit me to sketch the logic of his theory of the human condition.  He began with St. Paul’s claims about law and grace in the fifth chapter of Romans, the chapter just before our Epistle tonight. Paul drew the language of law from the Jewish Torah and Calvin drew it to extremes from his own background as a lawyer.  What they both meant, phrased more generally, is that the created world has moral standards, whether expressed as laws, or better and worse policies, or better and worse choices, or ways of life.  No matter how hard we try, we come short of perfection as measured by those standards.  Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and knew as well as anyone that there are great human accomplishments and that some people are better than others.  But from God’s point of view, according to Calvin, any moral imperfection is a failure to meet the standards and thus is sin: we are depraved.  “Depravity” is a good Calvinist word for the ineluctable tendency to sin.  That we are moral failures was as empirically obvious to Calvin as it is to us. Why we think perversely and behave badly is in part because of bad intentions and choices, but why we make bad choices despite our best will to the contrary is a deeper problem.  Calvin’s mythic understanding blamed it on the original sin of Adam from which we inherit an irresistible tendency to sin.  Our own mythic understanding more likely looks to deep psychic contradictions, incompletely suppressed infantile urges, bad upbringing, neurologically damaged impulse control, economic deprivation, dysfunctional families, and wicked social structures.  From a compassionate human point of view we readily make allowances for our behavior. “Sarah surely is a selfish person, but look where she came from; and she is not half as selfish as her brother.” But for Calvin, the human point of view is not the relevant one.  It’s God’s point of view that counts and part of God’s perfection is perfect justice. If a person fails to meet the moral standard the person deserves to be punished in Calvin’s juridical imagination.  We all fail, and thus we all deserve to be punished.  Because no one is perfectly justified, everyone must be condemned according to God’s justice.  In Calvin’s mythic world, God is anthropomorphized to be a judge as depicted in the great paintings of the Last Judgment and people are mythically conceived to have a natural afterlife that must embody their just reward, Heaven or Hell.  Because everyone is guilty, everyone belongs in Hell, according to Calvin  (and Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and Paul).

This mythic understanding of God as an anthropomorphic judge, and of human life as naturally immortal with a destiny for Heaven or Hell, has lost its hold on most of us.  I don’t anthropomorphize God at all nor do I think about a natural or supernatural afterlife.  But I do know that in ultimate perspective I and maybe everyone else fail our moral standards and thus are ultimately guilty, however proximately worthy we are.  I don’t need to imagine an anthropomorphic divine judge in order to know what the ultimate judgment ought to be. I don’t need to imagine a Heaven or Hell to know that we are in a broken relationship with God as the ultimate Creator and that this broken relationship is ultimately the most important thing about us.  And I don’t need a belief in an historical Adam causing all his children ultimate grief to know that however much we might improve our relationship with God, we still cannot make it perfect.  What is your mythic understanding of all this?  I suspect most of you have mythic visions somewhere between Calvin’s and mine.  Calvin’s point was that, however you mythologize your broken relation to what is ultimate—a danger of frying forever in Hell or being ultimately estranged, if we take life seriously we are in ultimate trouble.  Most non-Calvinist Christians find ways of saying it is ok not to take life seriously.  Calvin was serious.

Now, the Christian Gospel is that God is not only perfectly just but also merciful.  Although everyone deserves to be damned to eternal punishment, however that is imagined, God sent Jesus Christ his Son to take the punishment for us.  Therefore, although we deserve to be condemned, in fact we are reconciled to God by Jesus Christ.  Notice the strict logic here: God’s justice condemns us all and God does not have to save anyone; but God does save us, at least some of us, and this is pure merciful grace on top of justice.  This is the sense in which Christians from Paul to Luther and Calvin understood the meaning of salvation: by the Law we are condemned but by Grace in the sacrifice of Jesus we are saved.

What happens, for Calvin, when we recognize God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ?  Do we become perfect?  No, not at all.  We do not need to become perfect because God saves the already condemned.  Instead we just need to get better.  Recognizing that we are saved by God in Christ, sin loses its hold on us and we can work at improving our lives.  For Calvin this meant building more loving communities and more loving relationships.  In his time, this was a directly political task and he set up a theocratic state in Geneva.  To determine how to be more loving he set up laws of thought and behavior, and more laws.  The state-church appointed elders as officials to administer pastoral care, which consisted in finding sinners and correcting their behavior. This passion for enforcing love is what seems so terrible to us today, an invasion of privacy, an authoritarian dictatorship, all in the name of helping the graciously saved to improve.

Looking around, Calvin saw a lot of people that simply didn’t seem to be working at becoming more moral and loving.  Some of them rejected the whole idea that they were naturally damned or that Jesus Christ makes them righteous in God’s system of justice.  Many nations never heard of Jesus Christ.  So it seemed to him that only some people are saved by God’s grace, manifests God’s freedom.  That God’s mercy saves some does not mean that God’s mercy has to save all.  There are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s elect and Calvin concluded that God elects some for salvation and leaves the rest to the damnation everyone deserves.  From the human point of view this seems terribly unfair and the great Calvinist Karl Barth said that, although God does not have to elect everyone,  he does.  For Calvin, what counts is God’s point of view and God’s justice is fulfilled as much in the punishment of the non-elect as in the salvation of the elect.  This famous Calvinist conclusion is repugnant to most modern mythic sensibilities and is a good reason to flee from his theological anthropomorphism, which actually is inconsistent with his other emphasis on God’s transcendent beauty and immeasurable perfection.

The consequence for Calvinists of Calvin’s conclusion about selective election is to raise the horrifying question, am I among the elect?  I try hard to do better, but still sin, as Calvin said even the elect would.  But then what is the difference between me as elect and me as a continuing reprobate?  The answer has been to work harder.  Take life seriously and work on being more loving.  Work, work, examine your conscience, work more.  Somehow working to be more loving became associated with working to be richer, but I’ll leave Dean Hill to deal with that.

Suppose we reject Calvin’s mythic world of an anthropomorphic God saving some and damning others to Hell.  Suppose instead we ask whether we are estranged from God and also somehow reconciled.  How can we tell whether we are reconciled?  What are the empirical marks of being reconciled with our ultimate Creator?  Methodists look to experiences of emotional assurance; the theologian Paul Tillich says to look to ecstatic experiences.  But can we be sure?  Need we be sure?

Tonight’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans, that comes after the Law and Grace chapter, says that as Christians we already have died with Christ in our baptism and have risen with him to new spiritual life.  Paul was talking about the Romans as they were then, not about an afterlife, although he also expected some consummatory afterlife.  The quality of being a Christian is to die to the bondage of sin and to rise with all the powers of God that might flow through us like rivers of grace to live well and better in the world.  Forget about whether you are elect and instead live with the bounties of grace that abound around us.  Don’t worry about others who might not be elect.  Point out to them the graces that abound.  Get up and do better, as Calvin said.  Forget about the salvation problem and just live abundantly.  This is the deeper message of Calvin, the deep warmth and fuzziness.

Back at the Easter Vigil, through which we watch every day, what is the gospel of promise?  According to Matthew, the women who discovered the risen Christ were filled with fear and great joy, which is what we should feel tonight and live with always.  The women at the tomb did not know what to expect, and neither do we.  But they had seen the reversal of death in this life and so were filled with great joy.  What did they fear?  Calvin is associated with the fear aspect of faith.  But contrary to what many people think, he did not say that we should fear that we might not be saved.  Rather he said that we should fear that we do not take all this seriously.  It is possible to go through life inattentive to what is ultimate.  It is possible to construe Easter as just good times and no worry.  What Calvin tells us is that we must keep close attention to the ongoing affairs of our lives, ready always to make an advance in love and to build a better community, because this is the way to pay attention to God.  The beauty of God is to be found in the details of life, however horrific and exhausting they might be.  Calvin and many Calvinists used outrageous and even cruel means to call our attention to the duties of this life, including threats of hellfire and brimstone.  But we are beyond that mythic worldview.  Calvin’s point was that concerns for some final salvific fulfillment are misplaced: we cannot know it, or do anything about it, and the concerns only illustrates the folly of living life from the selfish human point of view. Forget about the fulfillment of mythic promises because they only tempt our self-centeredness. Live rather in the Easter Vigil mode, baptized in Jesus’s death to whatever would hold us back and raised in Jesus’s new life to live filled with God in our attention to the everyday.  Life in the Vigil mode fears inattention to the seriousness of the fact that God is in everything we do and enjoy.  Life in the Vigil mode is also filled with great joy, celebrating not our victory but the fact that God is to be enjoyed in every detail.  The warm and fuzzy Calvin comforts us only when we crucify both the quest for salvation and the hope for victory in worldly terms, and discover the depths of our daily lives that are adazzle with the gratuitous and astonishing glory of God.  The Easter Vigil lets us know that life is charged with God in its details, in its responsibilities and simple pleasures. In the worst of sufferings, in the most humiliating failures, in the shortness and long-term vanities of life, what counts is the ever-present beauty of our Creator, which is the only warm and fuzzy comfort worth preaching.

Amen.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

The Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion

April 14th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 26:14-27:66

 

A Meditation on the Palms

Seeing With the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010

 

The Dean:   If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts

People:   And we doThe Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe in God

People:   And we do

The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust in God

People:   And we shall.

A Meditation on the Passion Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Deliver Us From Evil, 2005

 

The Dean:   To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.

People:   Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.

People:   Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.

The Dean:   Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.

People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.

The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.

People:   Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.

The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi‐colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

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