Lessons & Carols

December 10th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols. Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below:

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The Adventure of Faith

December 3rd, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Sermon Outline Sketch:

Prophetic Vision…

The adventure of faith is a shared adventure of a common faith.


We today enter Advent, a season of preparation, in which we celebrate, and share the adventure of faith.  A shared adventure, a common faith.


A prophetic vista…


The world can work.


Isaiah 64 shows us a post-exilic communal conflict. 587bce. Now 510 or so bce.

They returned from exile with the Bible.  Exile can be uncannily, eerily, unexpectedly fruitful.  Keep that in mind for a decade or so.


Visionaries and realists, dreamers and doubters.  Realists.  Visionaries.  Zadokites.  Levites.  Justice. Temple.


Visionaries:  like those in 2 Isaiah, Levitical priesthood, those ‘left behind’ in Judah.  Utopian vision.


Realists:  Zadokite priests who control temple now.  They want to repair the roof and boiler.  Restoration, for them, means restoration of the temple.


Hope in this bitter conflict gets unhinged from history. Visionaries and realists separate, as prophecy applies less to daily politics, hope takes flight from history.  This is the Dawn of Apocalyptic.


See Paul Hanson’s old work from across the river.


We know this kind of trouble.  Not just from the ferocious inter and intra party conflicts in 2016.


See Mark Lille, The Once and Future Liberal.  Academic liberal failures: forms of identity politics that are broadly off-putting; nearly complete absence from actual political activity.


A communal connection…


1 Cor:  53/ethical pastoral/work with nascent congregation/first urban Christians.


Every heart has secret sorrows.


My November Guest.


Royal Couple:  is he kind?


R Scroggs, Paul for a New Day.


There is no substitute for gathering in the same space (house of cards).


Our endless celebration of the petty narcissism of small religious differences.   Post-modern politics of differences.


Shared adventure.  Common faith.


Ease of anonymity to power of connection.


Humanity and technology:  Hillary and E-mail; Donald and Twitter; German Right and Facebook (350,000); North Korea and Cyber Theft.  Two hands clapping out a sorrowful beat.  One of the forces normalizing hatred on a global scale.


Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird


And what would Paul say to the famous, many religious, gentlemen, who are accused of harassment and abuse?  Where is the influence of the Christian Gentleman today?


Lillian Ross (b Syracuse 1918): the act of a pro is to make it look easy.  Fred Astair didn’t groan when he danced to let you know how hard it is.


Many helpings of faith, first helping.


Apocalyptic Admonition…


A ‘little apocalypse’


Mark 13:  its history/70ad/cataclysm like that of 3 Isaiah/never rebuilt


New religions, Judaism and Torah, Christianity and Church.


We are not the first generation in faith to face cataclysm, in this looming decade of humiliations.


In which there arises the temptation to substitute political opportunism for moral judgment.


The cataclysm of:


Distortion of Truth and Falsehood


Mocking of Nuclear Opponents


Hideous Anti-Muslim, meaning anti-religious, videocasts


Mistreatment of women with impunity


Disdain for diplomacy


Indirect discourse of racism (sometimes not even indirect)


Daily Presidential\Journalistic game of go-fetch


Watch.  From eschatology to ethics, here.   You know neither the day nor the hour.  You watch.  You keep your chin up.  You keep your head high.  You keep faith in relationship, in worship, in stewardship (your body, your time, your money).  Beware a growing accommodation of totalitarianism.


Three plural imperatives (shared, common)


Nightime arrival.  Why?  Danger of eschatological slumber.  Don’t be caught napping at the Parousia.  Eyes open, eyes open.


On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover

A fisherman mends a glimmering net

Happy porpoises jump in the sea

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be

The voice of the violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night

On the day the world ends

-Cselaw Milosz





Sawdust Trail Altar Call

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent

We believe in God

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

And All the Angels With Him

November 26th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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People of common faith b trust in today’s Gospel, that as the least are treated, so treated is Christ the King.  How by faith one sees so, with the eyes of the heart, is a matter of pure mystery, of glad wonder—you could call it an angel song and sign. And all the angels with him…

Some years ago, we had the privilege in ministry—and ministry is privilege in full—to know such a person of faith, a native of Michigan.  Those years ago one would not have thought or needed to say so, but in our divided, conflictual era of abiding humiliation, which will in all probability endure a decade in length, we would today rightly add that our friend was all red.  Red to his toes, not an ounce of blue (with one exception) in his perspective, when it came to government or politics or taxes.  He had grown up in a small Michigan town.  It happens that so very long ago, one of his earlier pastors was later to become one of the now deceased former Deans of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.  In that town, he learned to love math and music, and on graduating from college had a hard choice—music or math.  He chose the latter, and on retirement had become the CFO of a major US corporation.  The only blue he celebrated was related to a certain big Michigan football team of his liking.  And he had his wisdom sayings, like, what is good for the Michi-goose is good for the Michigander. 

In those years, we had launched a mission in Honduras.  (The missioners have preached from this pulpit in past years). By some quirk our friend, more naturally inclined to music and finance work, had found himself on the missions committee.  It was proposed that the church send a work team the next winter.  My pastoral colleague with some astonishment announced at staff the next Tuesday that our friend was the first to volunteer.  In the soup kitchen ministry that year a group of parishioners and clients had together been reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. He had been reading it.  In and with that winter trip into the slums of Tegucigalpa, our dear friend’s faithful witness acquired a missional dimension.  In his full life, all red and blue aside to the contrary notwithstanding, and now in his choice within retirement to travel and work alongside the least, there was a true reliance on the truth of today’s Gospel.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  In a full and broad sense, down under the skin and right alongside the heart, and the eyes of the heart, we share a conviction, and a confidence, that the measure of faith is measured in the treatment of the least, the last, the lost.  Real religion is never very far from the justice that Ezekiel did prophesy would nourish, would feed, the scattered flock.  In Sunday worship, faithfully and without fail week by week, and in steady personal faithfulness within friendships, partnerships, and marriages, and in the disciplined determination to tithe—purposefully to give away each month a substantial portion of what we earn, up to a tenth—we follow the trail of faithfulness set before us by Ezekiel, by Ephesians, by the Psalmist, and preeminently by St. Matthew.  You hear our volunteer, communal, non-audition Thurman choir in faithful chorus this morning, for instance.  You will come to know over time, in the community of Marsh Chapel, the multiple creative and missional engagements of our people.  In research.  In medicine.  In public health.  In personal mission.  In advocacy for the enslaved.  In disaster response.  In personal giving.  But mainly, in worship, faithfulness, and tithing.

Come Sunday, the ancient witnesses to faith found in our Holy Scriptures, are meant to recall for us that we are not the first people to face unprecedented, novel difficulties and challenges.

We may differ to some measure, red and blue, about just how to lean forward into Matthew 25.  But the foundational truth of the Gospel here, in normal season and in normal outlook, is not in doubt.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  We have ample cause to meditate upon such an evangelical, dominical command, in a season in which our nation is fractured by flagrant inequality between rich children and poor children, measured directly and easily in the distribution, or lack thereof, of education and health care.   The least among us, children, those who are hungry by the hour, who thirst by the half hour, who are naked unless clothed by others, who are imprisoned in slightness and weakness, who are the very stranger in our midst, generation to generation, mark out the edge of the least of the least.

How does such an apperception of faith, finally, settle upon the mind and heart?  How, that autumn evening long ago, in yet another church committee meeting which like the peace of God may have passed all understanding and endured forever, did our Michigander friend become seized by a full measure of grace?  Whence faith, change, heart, grace, compassion?  It is the work of the ministry, and the special work of the pulpit, to preach Christ the King—to teach, delight and persuade—so that across the rainbow spectrum of cultural and political thought, women and men may have faith in God.  How does this happen, when it happens, as it happens, if it happens at all?

Our Gospel today gives us a clue, a hint, a glimpse.  And all the angels with him…The Son of Man will arrive with some help.  We may quickly leave behind a literal idea of angels.  But the reality they represent, the uncanny sense of presence, the inexplicable moment of revelation, the seeing by the heart, by the eyes of the heart—these angelic signs can become, for you, this season, the nearness of Christ the King, and so, by grace, your footpath to faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  What do you hear this Lord’s Day?  This is your invitation to a life of faith.  Do you receive, open and read, ready to respond?  Or do you re-post, marking it off, return to sender?

There is a 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.

There is transcendence all about us.  Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Sunday.  What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience?

This year we bade farewell to our esteemed colleague and beloved friend Professor Peter Berger.  Are you looking for angels?  His summary still works, A Rumor of Angels.  You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears.  For this Lord’s Day, Christ the King Sunday, we recall his five suggestive allusions to the transcendent, the angels coming with the Son of Man.  Listen to them this day.  Give them the credit they deserve.  They are the angelic nudges, drawing you to faith.

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order.  Berger:  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.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play.  Berger: In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.

Third, we sense the ‘supranatural’, the transcendent, in the experience of hope.  Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. 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: 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.

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account.  It is this angel, in particular, and in full who sits down beside us in Matthew 25. As you have done it to the least of these… Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged… There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…to a moral order that transcends the human community.

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.  Berger:  There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe… The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the mighty 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.

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.  And all the angels with him…

Sleepers awake!  Hear the Good News.  There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive!  There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life.  You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you.  It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole.  Begin.  You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self.  It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do.  Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works.  Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work?  Do so.  But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being.  Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment.  You are being sold a bill of goods, here.  Be watchful.  It takes time to self-interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’.  Begin.  You do not have forever to experience Presence.  It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made.  It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach.  Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul,  not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s.  Begin.  And begin with the least: As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25)

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

The Bach Experience

November 19th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


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, Jr. 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!  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!  Come, especially today, amid the beauties of Bach and the rituals of Thanksgiving, to remember your humanity, fragility, mortality…eternity.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Bach today, and the Scripture every day, sing out to us:  God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.


 The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow. The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  So, Shelley.

El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality. El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.  So, Unamuno.

Our cantata today sings of heaven.  The cantata sings out for what lasts, matters, counts.

Lao Tze wrote:  The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it. The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.

At the heart of the human being there is a longing for God, for heaven, for eternity.

Pause for a minute.  Sometimes that longing has an overture in other forms of emptiness, of lack, of longing.

One autumn, following a brief pastoral conversation, you could see lingering on the leaf pocked porch step, a woman at young middle age.  For a variety of reasons, common enough, in her whole life she had really no real friends, until by grace in the years before, and by grace in the church of Christ, she had found a friend, made a friend, become a friend, been befriended by another woman her own age, with children of the same ages, husbands of the same baleful tempers, parents of the same haunting failings.  She had a friend.  If you have friend, one is a great number in a lifetime, then you know.  But in June her friend moved a long way away.   Come November, there was that ache, that emptiness, that longing, that ‘shape of the void within’.  To date, no other friend has come along to fill that void.

And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?  If only I had finished my degree.  If only I had fallen in love.  If only I had really discerned a calling.  If only I had kept that other job.  If only I had more loving parents.  If only I could put words to the pre-dawn presentiments of what I think is faith.  If only someone would notice that I can be a good pal.  If only I could shake off this daily anxiety.  If only someone would publish my book.  If only I could get the grace to forgive what he or she did to me.  If only my parents would see my beloved as I see him.  If I only I could wake once with a smile.  If only he would see me as I really am.  And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?

The more proximate longings can prefigure the ultimate longing, in its own full way unspeakable but not for that reason any less real.

The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Pastoral experience in the main shows that most of us most of the time do not fear death, but we do fear.  What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams. What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams.  Maybe something like that is behind Matthew’s rendering of the inherited parable today, his anger, his burning mean-spirited dyspepsia.  Said a faithful Anglican a few weeks ago: ‘How much longer do we hear from Matthew and the dark side?’ Not long, not long.  Yet Matthew’s recognition of the human failures in the human condition we do recognize in our own years of humiliation. The longing, that heaven shaped soul emptiness, that desire—anhelo—abides.  How does Bach sing this today?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett


In this year’s Bach Experience, we have been focusing on cantatas Bach composed in his first weeks in Leipzig as cantor at St. Thomas. His task was to provide a musical explication of the day’s lessons alongside the sermon. These cantatas, comprising solo arias, recitatives, choruses, and chorales, with librettos using both scripture and free poetic texts, typically last about 20 – 30 minutes. In this context, it was Bach’s task to work through the theological ideas at hand. Each cantata is masterpiece in miniature, and we continue to marvel at the astonishing invention, creativity, and complexity revealed note by note.

Cantata 95, ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’, takes up one of the most difficult but ubiquitous themes of Bach’s day: how to reconcile and countenance our mortality. Our program annotator writes: Consider that pre-Enlightenment Germany saw death and devastation in the Thirty Years’ War unknown to Europe since the fourteenth century, and that Bach himself was orphaned at age ten and lost his first wife and ten of his twenty children. Death was all around; the promise of immediate salvation cultivated a cultural longing for it and served as a powerful call to faith.”

Serving to teach, remind, and also comfort, Bach drew on four different familiar hymns or chorales that serve as the foundation for this seven-movement cantata. These tunes and texts serve as a beacon to the believer — a tuneful and memorable transmission of theology: Christ, He is my Life, To die is my gain; To it do I surrender myself, With joy I go yonder. / With peace and joy I go there according to the Will of God. Death has become my sleep. / I would bid you farewell, You evil, false world. In heaven it is good to dwell. / Since Christ is arisen from the dead, I will not remain in the grave; Your last Word is my ascension, Death’s dear You can drive away. For where You are, there do I come, That I may always live and be with You; Therefore I depart with joy.

These chorales establish the orthodoxy around which the believer can begin to reconcile his own personal response and call. Musically, the four chorale setting also offer a composition guide to the possibilities of setting chorale tunes. The first is set as an orchestral chorale fantasia with each phrase of the chorale set off by exuberant motives from the oboes and strings in G major. The second, heard as the concluding section of the first movement, casts the chorus in counterpoint with the oboes and and horn set over a more rhythmic, walking bass line. The soprano soloist takes up the third chorale, in a little aria that becomes a sweet devotional song with two oboes d’amore in unison encouraging her song. The cantata concludes with a four part setting of the fourth chorale in an expected way, with the notable additional of a fifth voice as descant in the fist violin part.

The most remarkable music of the cantata is reserved for the tenor soloist, who, through his clarity of faith, teaches Bach’s congregants a possibility of their personal attitudes toward mortality. His music in the central aria is sung almost in spite of the music of the instruments, which seem to proceed on their own clock. The aural image here is one of funeral bells, or a glockenspiel in a bell tower. The strings play entirely pizzicato, or plucked, throughout, and the organ remains silent. You can imagine this sound as the inner workings of the clock played in precise and regular patterns and rhythms. On two, the two oboes play their melody in parallels. The missing third note of their chords is obscured in the pizzicatos of the first violin part. And, to my ear, this further contributes to the ‘mechanized’ sound of this music – a Leichenglock or funeral bells. The tenor joins up musically with the instruments every time he sings the words “blessed hour”, singing the third or missing note in the oboe pattern. There are so many choices here from the composer revealing a musical reality the likes of which only a Johann Sebastian Bach could imagine.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Some of you have been reading again the Confessions of St. Augustine, in Sarah Ruden’s new translation.  Like the music of Bach, the music of his poetic prose, his prosaic poetry, lasts and matters and counts.  Augustine lifts our eyes from earth to heaven, from the visible to the invisible, from the daily to the divine.  Bach does the same.  Augustine in powerful particularity, teaches us again to pray.  In a word, for him, prayer is thanksgiving.  All right, in four words, prayer is grace, courtesy, respect, and gratitude.  Prayer is not a spiritual hockey puck, hit by slap-shot toward the masked goalie God.  Prayer is being thankful, giving thanks, bespeaking gratitude.  Howard Thurman knew this so well.  As the student choir Morehouse College sang, to honor Thurman’s birthday, in prayer, we give thanks.  So, each year, at Marsh Chapel, on this Sunday, so close to his birthdate, on this Sunday, so close to our nation’s holiday, on this Sunday, so set apart to honor the grateful, we offer Thurman’s Thanksgiving prayer.  You may, by the way, take it from the website to your own Thanksgiving table, should you want need or like. Count it our annual public service!

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger on by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

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

Luther on God at Play

November 12th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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Gen. 32:24-30

Matt. 11:12-19

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Luther on God at Play[1]

Does God play games? The fear that God might lies at the root of the anxieties of the modern world. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, sought certainty in the face of the possibility that God (the deus deceptor) might play tricks; and his opponents, solid Dutch Calvinist theologians, accused him of blasphemy for suggesting that such a thing was possible.[2] Albert Einstein famously objected to quantum mechanics by insisting that “God does not play at dice with the universe.” Enlightenment thinkers criticized the Christian God on moral grounds, insisting that God had to act according to our own, rationally discerned rules. The roots of this modern anxiety go far back into medieval and ancient philosophy and theology, which placed God at the transcendent apex of a crystalline hierarchy of being, or set God over the world as a sovereign legislator.

For Martin Luther, however, God is a God who plays games.

By now, on the second Sunday in November, 2017, two weeks after the October 31 anniversary of 1517, you are probably tired of hearing about Luther’s Ninety-Five theses and whether or not they were nailed on the Wittenberg church door.  This morning, I want to propose a different framework for considering Luther and his Reformation in this five hundredth anniversary year: God at play.

In the Gospel read this morning, Jesus says: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  . . . Yet wisdom is justified by her children.”[3]

For most of the centuries since Luther’s lifetime, until the liturgical reforms of the late twentieth century, this Gospel lesson was the one appointed to be read at commemorations of the Reformation. Luther understood this text to embody God’s call as a call to play: to join with God in God’s divine game.

Luther’s world was one (perhaps not unlike our own) in which games were coming into their own.  In a remark at table in 1537, Luther observed that

Games with cards and dice have become common, for our age has invented many games. Surely there has been a great change. In my youth, all games were prohibited; makers of cards and musicians at dances weren’t admitted to the sacraments, and people were required to make confession of their gaming, dancing, and jousting. Today these things are the vogue, and they are defended as exercises for the mind.[4]

Luther himself played chess with students,[5] and was familiar with the ancient European game of Mills known in English as Nine-Men’s-Morris. He compared the devil with a player who catches his opponents in a “double mill” in which no matter what the opponents do, the devil has them his trap.[6] Luther penned a satire on the pope and emperor based on the old German card game of Karnoffel.[7]

Yet this kind of game based on rules is not what Luther has in mind when he insists that God plays games.  Rather, these are the games that humans try to play with God—to subject God to the rules, as if we could catch God in our own “double mill” of metaphysical or ethical necessity. For Luther, this human impulse to play games with God by catching God in our own rules was exemplified by the scholastic theologians who “speculate and play games with God up in heaven: what He is, thinks, and does in Himself, and so on.”[8]

Among Luther’s own supporters, he discerned a distressingly similar effort to entrap God in the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli, who argued that God’s omnipotence in fact precludes His presence in the Sacrament, because for God to be bound to the elements would be a limitation of divine power.[9] For Zwingli, the God of human games is bound by necessity even in his omnipotence. God is spirit; He cannot be flesh. God is light; He cannot be obscure. But Luther’s God, playing not human games but the divine game, is radically free.

God’s game, for Luther, is not a rule-based game like chess or cards.  Rather, it has more in common with a sort of unstructured play, of pretending and playing in back-and forth alternation between the players.  Luther loves to describe God as wearing masks which simultaneously conceal and reveal God’s self: the masks of Creation itself, of the Word and the Sacraments—and Luther speaks of masks which God invites us to put on in the world: the masks of parenthood or political office, of responsibility for neighbors and for creation.  For Luther, the point is not to remove the masks or penetrate through them to God in unmasked majesty, but to join in God’s game.[10]

Luther can sometimes think of the public masquing of Carnival in describing this masked play, but he imagines God’s masks above all in terms of the games between parents and children: the kind of pretending and tricks for the sake of jest that give way to shared laughter and joy. We might think, for example, of a father who lumbers around pretending to be a hungry bear, to the combined sheer terror and equally sheer delight of his children, a game which begins with terrifying ursine growls but ends with bear hugs and laughter.

Indeed, when Luther describes God as “Father,” he is typically not invoking a perilous analogy of being between human masculinity and divine activity, as Aquinas and other realist theologians do, but describing a relationship typified by this kind of play. “God plays with us, and we are his dear children; he dandles us and chastises us.”[11]  God is a father who plays games.

What sets Luther’s understanding apart is not simply the idea of God’s play, but the kind of play. The great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the first editor of the Greek New Testament, when he finally took up his pen against Luther, compared God to a father who holds out an apple to a child in order to teach the child how to walk over and take it. The apple is a gift, but the child must learn to respond in order to get the prize. In a similar vein, Erasmus argued about the commandments. God would not command “thou shalt” to human beings who were utterly unable to comply.[12]

Luther has a more complex image of divine fatherhood and of God’s games: “How often,” Luther writes, “do parents have a game with their children by telling them to come to them, or to do this or that, simply for the sake of showing them how unable they are, and compelling them to call for the help of the parents’ hand!”[13]

Erasmus’ God plays games that are edifying and straightforward and cultivate independence (perhaps the sort of educational games that parents buy for their children that get played once or not at all)! Luther’s God plays games with terrifying reversals; their point is not to teach a lesson to be taken away from the game but to draw the players closer together.

What matters is not rules, or winning or losing, but the playing itself and the persons whom the game binds together.

God plays this game through preaching: preaching which does not simply inculcate a set of rules to keep to march up the ladder until we reach God on the final rung, but preaching which summons us now to mourn with the wailing of the Law, now to dance with the piping of the Gospel.

God plays this game through song, like Luther’s dramatic hymn which we sing this morning, “Dear Christians one and all, rejoice,” itself a proclamation of God’s play with the world.  When we sing together in church, we are not only singing to God, but calling out to one another. When I come to church on a given Sunday, I may or may not feel particularly penitent or joyful or even very strong in faith. If it were simply a matter of my own devotion and the state of my own heart I might or might not feel like singing at all. But Jesus tells us that you need the sound of my voice, and I need the sound of yours. God’s game continues through our singing, the call of the children calling to each other in the marketplace.

God plays this game through ordinary human words, spoken by one human creature to another, and makes them the power of God unto salvation [Rom. 1:16]. The Scriptures themselves, for Luther, are examples (as well as witnesses) of God’s play. Why do the Scriptures deal so much with inconsequential, practical matters like the marriages, households, and flocks of the patriarchs and matriarchs rather than with high, spiritual mysteries? It is because, Luther says, “the Holy Spirit, God the Creator, deigns to play, to jest, and to trifle with His saints in unimportant and inconsequential matters.”[14] Things which seem unimportant measured in themselves are nonetheless important within God’s game.

God plays this game through the ordinary water of Baptism which, joined with God’s Word, becomes a “gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” [Tit. 3:5].  God plays through the Supper, in which Jesus gives not what the senses perceive or philosophy can explain but what Jesus’ words declare: His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Zwingli, of course, sees all this as being “rather childish.”[15]  But for Luther, that is only being a spoilsport, the kind of peevish child who perhaps thinks himself too grown-up and refuses to join in the game. Luther writes, “these godless ones are not ready for God’s game—that is, for dealing with the Gospel—and they spoil it as much as they are able.”[16]

Here Luther stands also against old Pelagius, who described the mature Christian as so grown up that he no longer needs God (emancipatus a Deo) and with Augustine, for whom the Christian was always dependent on God’s grace like the child stilled at its mother’s breast (Ps. 131:2).[17] Spiritual growth for Luther is not increasing independence but an ever-deepening faith and reliance upon God, not independence. For Luther, the Christian never outgrows God’s play.

To say that God is a God who plays games is, after all, to say that faith is the fundamental relationship with God.  The God who does not play games does not need faith. If God is caught in human metaphysical or ethical schemes, then I can know what God must necessarily do toward me by analyzing my own status: if I am good, then God who is Good must be good toward me. If I am like God in my inner being then I am part or participant in God. But with the God who plays games, there can be only faith, trust like that of a child who is tossed in the air and can only trust that he will be caught in his father’s arms. The point of the game, again, is not victory for one side or the other through the application of rules, but the relationship of trust and love that is deepened between the players.

Above all, God plays this game through Jesus.  Jesus is the Wisdom of God, the wisdom who calls out in the marketplace, the wisdom who eternally delights to play with humanity.  Proverbs 8[:30-31 Vg] describes her: “I was with [God], arranging all things, and I took delight day by day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world, and my delight was to be with the children of men.”[18]

This is the Wisdom who comes into the world incarnate not as a solemn grown-up but as a child. For Luther, the incarnation of the Son of God thus embodies this eternal divine game: “we have an infant, this Child [Isa. 9:6]: the mother bears Him for us, nurses Him for us; He remains a Child for us for ever.  He does not display Himself to us in somber seriousness, not in some terrible majesty at which we would have to tremble, but he shows Himself to us as a little Child, and in his childhood he plays with us to all eternity.”[19] God’s play with His beloved people in Christ is perpetual and eternal.

Luther finds God at play throughout the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures. Jesus jests and plays with his disciples, in words and deeds, terrifying them as if he were a ghost when he comes to them over the sea before revealing himself and consoling them by calming the storm.[20] Jesus plays with the Syrophonecian woman when he denies her plea for help, but she joins in the game and compels Jesus through her faith.[21]  For a moment, God’s game may seem terrifying even to the saints—the game of the cat which means death to the mouse, as one of Luther’s German proverbs puts it.[22] Nevertheless, behind the mask or specter of anger, God is playing as a loving father with his children, and the saints come to perceive the sweetness of God’s game.

In Genesis, Luther finds the ultimate and climactic game of God with the patriarchs and matriarchs in Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord, grappling all night until finally the divine wrestler renders Jacob helpless by putting his hip out of joint.  Yet Jacob will not let go. Luther insists, “[this] wrestler is the Lord of glory, God Himself, or God’s Son, who was to become incarnate and who appeared and spoke to the fathers.” It is in playing, not simply in yielding but in wrestling with God, that Jacob comes to know God. “Jacob has no idea who it is who is wrestling with him; he does not know that it is God, because he later asks what His name is. But after he receives the blessing, he says: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face.’ Then new joy and life arise.”[23] It is this God who plays games who is able to become flesh, to reveal himself through playing, to gives himself as pledge.

When God plays his game with the saints, he does not simply set up a game for them to play (and lose) against terrible opponents—sin, death, and hell. Rather, God himself is in the game, in the Incarnation. God does not simply preside over the game in omnipotent transcendence. As we might say, quite literally, God has skin in the game. Therefore, as Luther says, “I do not have nor know any other God, neither in heaven nor on earth, but this One who is warmed at His mother’s breast, who hangs upon the cross.”[24]

To play God’s game is to play with God, the incarnate God. Wisdom, Jesus says, is justified by her children, the children who hear God’s call and join in God’s game.

Luther’s God plays games. In this five hundredth year of the Reformation, will we play along?

-Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown,

Associate Professor of Church History,

Boston University School of Theology


[1] See Christopher Boyd Brown, “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 81.1-2 (January/April 2017):153-170. http://www.ctsfw.edu/resources/concordia-theological-quarterly/archive/   On the theme of God’s play in Luther’s theology, see Ulrich Asendorf, Lectura in Biblia: Luthers Genesisvorlesung (1535–1545) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998); John Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2008); S. J. Munson, “The Divine Game: Faith and the Reconciliation of Opposites in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis,” CTQ 76 (2012):89–115.

[2] Cf. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 117f.

[3] There is a textual variant between ἐργων [deeds] and τεκνων [children].

[4] Table Talk of January 1537, WA TR 3:377, no. 3526a; LW 54:221–222

[5] Johann Mathesius, in Georg Loesche, ed., Luthers Leben in Predigten, Bibliothek deutscher Schriftsteller aus Böhmen 9, 2nd ed. (Prague: J. G. Calve/Josef Koch, 1906) , pp. 430-31. For allusions to chess, see, e.g., Answer to the HyperChristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser (1521), LW 39:211 (WA 7:677); Notes on Ecclesiastes (1526), LW 15:40 (WA 20:47).

[6] E.g., Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:203 (WA 38:562).

[7] Eine Frage des ganzen heiligen Ordens der Kartenspieler vom Karnöffel (1537), WA 50:131-34.

[8] Sermons on the Seventeenth Chapter of St. John (1528/1530), LW 69:39 (WA 28:101).

[9] See Heiko Oberman, The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, translated by Andrew Colin Gow (London: T & T Clark, 2004), pp. 195-97.

[10] For discussion of the larva Dei in terms of God’s play, see Anthony J. Steinbronn, The Masks of God: the Significance of Larvae Dei in Luther’s Theology, STM thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, 1991.

[11] De Sacerdotum dignitate Sermo, 1517?, WA 4:656.

[12] Erasmus, Discussion of Free Will, translated by Peter Macardle, in CWE. 76.  See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale, 1980), p. 297.

[13] Bondage of the Will (1525), LW 33:120 (WA 18:673).

[14] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 5:353, translation altered (WA 43:672).

[15] The Marburg Colloquy and the Marburg Articles (1529), LW 38:21 (WA 30/3:118).

[16] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:133 (WA 38:521).

[17] See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 351-52.

[18] Cf. Lectures on Genesis (1535-45/1544-54), WA 42:184, 44:466 (LW 1:248, 7:225).

[19] Enarratio capitis noni Esaiae (1543-44/1546), WA 40/3:641.

[20] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:229–231 (WA 38:579-80).

[21] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:253-57 (WA 38:593-97).

[22] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 7:225 (WA 44:466).

[23] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 6:130 (WA 44:96-97).

[24] Lectures on Isaiah (1528/1530), WA 25:107 (cf. LW 16:55).

A Mighty Fortress

October 29th, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Matthew 22: 34-46

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                           A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our shelter He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

The author of our first and famous hymn this morning, Martin Luther, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was a miner of some affluence, who wanted his son to become a lawyer, in part to help the growing family business. Martin disappointed his father, and became a monk, in part due to a frightening experience in a fierce thunderstorm in 1505. Terrified, he promised if he survived to enter the monastery. His love of the Scripture became the center of his teaching work, his ministerial vocation, and his spiritual existence. In the Bible he found what he did not find in the church of his time, in the religious practice of his time, and in his time. He found therein, truth. Once dwelling therein, Luther became a Scriptural genius, learning the biblical languages, lecturing on the Psalms, mastering especially the New Testament and particularly the letters of Paul. Were he to return from the dead and preach here at Marsh Chapel, he might well take as his theme, as last week, ‘What a Friend We Have in Paul’. Or, ‘Luther on Prayer’, as next week. Or, ‘Luther and Hymnody’, as with Dr. Christopher Brown the following week.

Luther’s disputations began well within the church of his day, and were at first understood by all as scholarly differences typical for religious contest. But, as Raymond Brown once told us, ‘all reformations go far beyond what the reformer did originally intend’. In 1517, on All Hallows Eve, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, attacking the practice of indulgences, and setting the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the church. In various tribunal settings, Luther, with a little help from his friends, affirmed the authority of Scripture, and attacked the authority of the Church. Over the next three years, his writing and teaching and publication and preaching, with the help of the newly developed printing press, quickly raised up a storm of controversy. In 1520 he published three magisterial treatises, and by 1521 he was excommunicated. He defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521 saying, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me’.

Over the next two decades, again with much support and assistance from others, out of his voice and writing emerged the Lutheran Church, the Protestant Reformation, and the concomitant splintering of the Christian church’s visible unity, which fracture has not been healed to this day. In 1525, he married a former nun, Katie Von Bora, and together they had six children. He died in 1846 in the very town in which he had been born.   He preached, taught, lived, trusted and extolled the gift of faith. In that way, oddly enough, he was like, akin to, Thomas Merton, whom we shall hear from in Lent.

So, James Finley, ‘Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.’

So, J Louis Martyn, “All religions are attempts to know God; none is the event of being known by God…God’s graceful election of us by his rectifying and non-religious invasion of the cosmos in Christ is the subject of the whole letter.” (Martyn, Galatians, 4:9).


                   Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.

                  Properly to remember Martin Luther, in the space of a 20-minute teaching sermon, here with emphasis on his thought, we shall need to be brutally concise. We focus here on one year alone, 1520, and three fundamental documents from that cornucopia year, which, to some measure, encompass the broad range of Luther’s theological perspective. Together these three ‘made the breach with Rome irreparable, and established the foundations of what would eventually become a new church’ (with thanks to Dr. Lyndal Roper, now and later, 133).

The first is the essay, To the Christian Nobility of the Church. We should remember that Luther’s reformation coincided with the emergence of the printing press. 4,000 copies of Nobility were sold as soon as they came off the press, August 1520. It was addressed in German to lay people, and argued that since the church itself had been unable to reform itself, it fell to the laity to do so. The reform promoted here is heavily weighted on financial reform. Luther charged the church with avarice, and charged the nobility with the task of addressing that avarice, something the nobles had every interest in doing. Luther attacked usury. He attacked complex financial manipulations. He attacked the control of much money by few people. ‘The genius of the tract was to combine the economic grievances about the Church’s financial affairs with the religious issue of the authority of Scripture’ (Roper, 149) (which Luther averred overrode spiritual law, the Church’s teaching authority, and the Councils called by Popes.). Luther set fire to the cult of saints, to religious orders, to masses in memory of the dead, to pilgrimages, and to monastic vows, including his own—all on the basis of economics and Scripture. Most striking, to our ears, is the full sympathy Luther has for priests and religious who have fallen in love and fallen into another’s arms. Putting them together and forbidding sex ‘like putting straw and fire together, and forbidding them to smoke or burn’ (Roper, 150). Only the nobility, only the lay princes, said Luther, had the power to do all this, and he charged them to do it. Sola Gratia!

The second is the treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This came out that year in October, after he had been threatened with excommunication. The title, in which is his whole argument, refers to the children of Israel (the real church) held captive in a foreign land, by an alien power, for a sordid purpose (the church of Rome). Herein Luther trimmed the list of sacraments from 7 to 2, protecting only baptism and eucharist, on the basis of Scripture. Herein Luther rejected an ‘Aristotelian’ understanding of the Mass—one of accidents and essence—but emphasizing and retaining a full, actual Presence in the Eucharist. He hold strongly and fully to the External Word, in the actual preaching of the Gospel, in actual presence in the Sacrament, and in the actual utterance of Absolution. All these three we regularly practice here, month by month. “The sacraments are not fulfilled when they are taking place, but when they are being believed” (Roper, 152). And faith, then is all. It is the belief that makes the sacrament, not vice versa. “Human beings could not make themselves perfect and win acceptance with God because of their good deeds—they had to accept their sinfulness and recognize that God in his justice accepts sinners. Thus they were at one and the same time sinners and saved” (Roper, 154). At the beginning of the service every Sunday, a prayer of confession and a word of absolution. Sola Fide!

The third tractate is The Freedom of the Christian. If you are thinking to read just one Lutheran essay, this is the one to choose this week. Written in November of 1520, this is a 30-point sermon. See how lucky you are to have to endure only 3 points a week! A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. So the writing begins, and in the same manner ends, and argues through and through. So beautiful, so dialectical, so paradoxical, so realistic, so Scriptural—so Lutheran! It is the inner person who finds faith. For every human act, thought, deed, presentiment is colored by sin, tainted with pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy—creatureliness.  The Bible teaches us about sin. The Bible teaches us about faith. It is the Bible, alone, that holds the full authority to do this. ‘Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ, as 1 Peter says’ (Roper, 145). Sola Scriptura!

For his trouble, Luther was excommunicated in December of 1520.

Luther’s teaching is often and rightly summarized thus: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura. 


                  And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we shall not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. 

                  Luther’s influence shapes our understandings of power, preaching and prophecy.

                  Power. Luther reminds us of the relativity of all human ideals. Luther distrusted concentrated power, as M Gellhorn put it this year, I mistrust power for myself and everyone else, especially power bestowed by race, creed or color. Luther trusted preaching, but not those ‘whose heads were clear enough but who never cleared their throats’ (NYR 10/17). Luther respected but mistrusted reason alone: do you want to know better or do you want to get better? (RAH). Luther agreed with some current psychology, that man can do what he wills but cannot will what he wills. Luther would not be surprised by current political leaders who chose political opportunity over moral judgment. Luther’s voice is heard in that of Paul Tillich, The protestant principle is the restatement of the prophetic principle as an attack against a self-absolutizing and, consequently, demonically distorted church (ST, I, 227). Power.

Preaching. As James Kay has written on preaching: “(The great Lutheran) Bultmann operates with an “I-Thou” model or analogy of revelation as entailing existential commitments. Specifically, he construes the presence of Christ to an individual as analogous to the encounter of a Lover and a Beloved when and where the former says to the latter, “I love you.” The statement, “I love you,” is arguably a promise and simultaneously an existential statement in that it does not simply convey information but a self-involving declaration. In saying, “I love you,” the speaker does not discourse about love but enacts love concretely. This word of love is the love of which it speaks….(His) description of the proclaimed kerygma as “personal address [Anrede], demand [Forderung], and promise [Verheissung]; it is the very act of divine grace.” …Words heard with commissive force “self involve” an agent or subject… “I love you,” also functions as a demand, insofar as it places the Addressee in a new situation, namely, of being the Beloved, which requires a response.” (Forthcoming Kay paper). Preaching.

Prophecy. Here is a business leader, Charles Willie, warning of emptiness: “Those who would master the institutions of our society –a company, a community, or any other collectivity—must decide here and now to give themselves over fully to that which they wish to fully control. By so doing they also will forfeit some of their freedom and flexibility. Is mastery worth the outcome of an imprisoned personality that is efficient, well-organized, but constrained and unspontaneous?”

Here is a scientist, Charles Darwin, of whom a new biography was published recently, naming him the greatest Englishman of his age: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…the loss…is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character.”

Here is a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warning about the dangers even in good motives: “the greatest evil comes not from selfishness but from self-lessness in the service of a great cause”.

Here is a Methodist bishop, Violet Fisher, warning us about our present peril: “I ask us to turn over to God for healing the anger and the fear and the desire for dominance that would lead us to harm another human being or to acquiesce in harm done to another”.

And here is a Chapel Dean: We see what we want to see. We minimize hatred and evil. We ignore the lessons of history, to our hurt. We love to be entertained. We neglect worship. We worship identity politics. We need humiliation for humility to be born. We learn only from experience. Doctors we humor, pain we obey.  



                  It may be, as even later Lutheran history and teaching has noted, that the adjective sola, ‘only’ should bear some scrutiny. Maybe not sola gratia, grace alone, but grace and love together, that can measure and resist, say, the anti-semitism that predates Christianity, that is found in the New Testament (John and even Paul in 1 Thessalonians), and that is tragically found throughout the works of Luther. Maybe not sola fide, faith alone, but faith and works, one being dead without the other as James, actually quite rightly put it. Maybe not sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, but Scripture as formed in tradition, as explicated in reason, and as interpreted in experience. So: gratia and agape, fide and semeia, Scriptura and aletheia.

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.

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!

Let goods and kindred go

This mortal life also

The body they may kill

God’s truth abideth still

His kingdom is forever

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

What A Friend We Have in Paul

October 22nd, 2017 by Marsh Chapel

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I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

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         What a friend we have in Paul!


Whose mighty voice has rolled down through the ages bringing us the good news in all its stark simplicity:  Christ the Lord is Risen!


Raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the Tribe of Benjamin, as to the law a Pharisee, a defender of the traditions of the elders—and so a persecutor of the church.


Who rode to Damascus and on the way was blinded and there heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”


Who in that blinding encounter with the Risen Lord, gave himself up, pronounced a sort of death sentence over himself, and so died with Christ and walked henceforth in newness of life.


Who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and so lived moment by moment thinking, “Who knows what will happen next?”


Who cared for those first few Christians, and worried about them, and grew angry with them, for they so easily lost this vision:  that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, who knew what would happen next?


Who challenged the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.   He taught them about death.

Who challenged the Galatians: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”  He taught them about circumcision.

Who challenged the Philippians: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”.  He taught them about service.

Who challenged the Romans: “Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds.”  He taught them about the law.

Who challenged the Corinthians: “Be reconciled.  The form of this world is passing away”.  He taught them about culture.

Who challenged Philemon: “May your goodness not be by compulsion but of your own free will”.  He taught him about power.


Whose mighty voice speaks to us today, in these verses from 1 Thessalonians 1 (the oldest chapter in the New Testament, from 50ad) ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something, first, about what God has done.  Our faith springs not from ourselves but from God, the Giver of both life and faith.

Paul reminds us that “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7).  What else can we expect from a God who raises crucified Messiahs?  Who knows what will happen next?

The future is as open as we, in faith, will allow it to be.

                  We may recognize in Paul a form of thought that differs utterly from our own.  If Paul did retain some of his formative Jewish worldview, the part he closely retained here was his inherited apocalyptic eschatology.   The resurrection must be, he reasoned, the beginning of the end.  Hence, preaches Paul, the form of this world is passing away.

Paul’s worldview, his apocalyptic eschatology, is not our worldview.  Paul’s world, though, is very much ours too.  So, this morning, we shall need to imagine, to dream, and to interpret these verses in a new way, for a new time, as did Martin Luther, Elie Wiesel, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.  So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of humiliation.  And what a time it is, this decade of diminishment. Let us survey our humiliation and let us convey our hope.



                  In the Gospel of Matthew 22, Jesus meets us between Caesar and God.  He is ensnared, or nearly so, in a trap set between conservative Herodians and liberal Zealots.  In good rabbinic fashion, he responds to a question with a question.  Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, this little bitty coin, and render to God what is God’s, your very life.

We are not alone in history to have suffered civic or cultural humiliation. As Christian people, trying by day and week to walk by faith not by sight, in an era of daily outrage and regular civic humiliation, we know something of the difficulty here, and something more perhaps than we knew a year ago today.  Sometimes you just have to learn things the hard way.  The preacher is not free to read the Bible and not the newspaper, nor free to preach without reference to civil society, culture, and the social conditions of life which have pervasive, profound impact and influence on the baptized and unbaptized alike.

Let us hold and finger the coin of Caesar as we are touched by the finger of God.  Let us take stock.

This past summer, at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the pleasure of learning from, dining with, and speaking to Stella Rimington, the former head of British Intelligence, MI 5 (1992-1996).  She was the first woman to lead that agency.  A television drama was produced about her, starring Judi Dench.  She was bristling and candid regarding current global perils.  She proferred no immediate or ready recommendation for resolution to the dangers posed by North Korea.  She affirmed no optimism about the current US President.  She frankly, bluntly admitted the US and British intelligence failures that led to the tragedy of Iraq, the mistaken misinformation about weapons of mass destruction.  She suggested that Theresa May should ‘warm up a little’.  In particular, she worried extensively in rumination about the internet, about the technology controlling so much about us.  That is, she offered no encouragement, no bright forecast for the near term global future.  To conclude, she said, as you would expect, ‘that nonetheless the best we can do is to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

Well might we cherish that reminder.  For we have entered a decade, at least, of freighted difficulty from which there is no rapid escape, no ready, present remedy.  In local, personal, idiosyncratic and individual ways, we each and we all can but soldier on.  The fruit of the spirit, upomone, patience, longsuffering, will need to be our daily manna, our daily cloud, our night fire, our nourishment that is more than bread alone.  There is no quick fix for the regrettable condition upon us, enveloping us, now, with a full year of evident humiliation heaped upon culture, nation, and globe, and our shared need to consider the opportunity to recant, to say in prayer, what we meant by that is not—a year’s evidence now in—what it means. We are judged not by intentions but by consequences.  What it means is what it did–to others and to all.  By the numbers, now, here is one quantification, one calculation of the decadal humiliation that is our current condition, 11 lines parsimoniously cut from four full pages of similar lines:

7—Muslim Nations’ Immigrants Initially Banned in January

54–B$ increase in military spending in February (10%)

2000–legal US citizens seeking Canadian refugee status in Montreal, in March

59—Tomahawk missiles that killed 10 Syrians in April

1—the number of FBI directors fired in May

10,000—the number of transgender soldiers serving in June

40,000—the number of Boy Scouts in Jamboree ‘addressed’ in July

1—the number killed  (Heather Heyer) amid ‘good people on all sides’ in Charlottesville in August

50—the percent of proposed tax cuts accruing to the top 1% in September

11—the number of paper towel rolls tossed at poor Puerto Ricans in October

0—the number of Planned Parenthood centers open in Iowa today

24M—the number under threat to lose health care every day

You now need to keep your own list.  An honest calculation, by the numbers or in some other fashion most effective for you, is a requirement for faithful living today.  You owe it to your future to record, collate, compile, journalize, narrate and describe what you see, and what you hear.

It seems that we have temporarily sold our birthright as a country for a mess of white racist, ethnic nationalist pottage.  And there are no guarantees.  No guarantee that civility and custom once shredded can somehow be restored, somehow survive daily outrage and humiliation.  No guarantee that the one person uniquely so empowered will not push the nuclear button at 5am.  No guarantee that having as a nation chosen this shared humiliation we will come to seek and find recantation and forgiveness.  No guarantee that many, especially and tragically those most vulnerable (the young, the brown, the foreign, the different and the poor) will not just give up on institutions and slide into the mire of anarchy.  No guarantee.  No guarantee at all.



                  No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.   So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of humiliation.  Let us survey our humiliation but let us also convey our hope. Let us lift a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Two shades of hope abide.  “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage” (Augustine).  One realized.  One unrealized.  One of John and one of Mark.  One for today and one for tomorrow.  One from Bultmann, and one from Niebuhr.

Here is one shade of hope.

                  You can in faith ‘face the world free from the world’, with a righteous and realized indignation, tempered with full humility. Even a kind of anger, if tempered with humility. That daily form of hope is yours by decision, by choice, through a commitment to live by the faith of Christ.  This is your invitation:  a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

We may rely not on ourselves alone, but upon God who raises the dead.

We may face the world, free from the world.

 We may lean into the future, free of the burden of past worry.

We can live on tip toe.

          We can compose every day with brilliance as if it were our last, which, in a way, each one is.

The person of faith, who overhears the distress down deep in this world, so deep that others don’t hear it, does not rely on himself to sooth it.  He knows there is one Savior and he isn’t Him.

What a friend we have in Paul, who preaches Jesus Christ, and Him crucified!

Why does Paul teach this way?

Because Paul expects that “the form of this world is passing away”.   God has raised Jesus from the dead.  Who knows what will happen next?

For Paul, this meant a daily, excited, imminent expectation of the turn of the ages, a new heaven and earth, the end of time and the beginning of a new era.  For our sake, it is a blessing that Paul’s own timeline was a little fuzzy.  Otherwise we would not be here.  But the spiritual truth which lives in this passage, its existential reality, is the same.  Every day is our last.  Paul so reminds us, and so shakes us out of our stupor.  THIS is the day the Lord has made.  We shall rejoice and be glad in it!

In all of life, in the fullness of faith there lies this strange, new potential.  Potential.  Potential for something new.

We face the world, free from the world.

                  When things go south, let us live not in the form of this world (in despair and doubt and dread), but in the form of the coming world (hope and freedom and a sense of God’s awesome potential).

Bultmann: “Only Christ can give the kerygmatic character to everything which is ‘taught’ as Christian. Therefore, Christ is correctly preached not where something is said about him, but only where he himself becomes the proclaimer.”

The resurrection is, simply, the preaching of the gospel.  But preaching in a way that is heard. Bultmann helped us see the present hope in Paul, facing the world free from the world.

Here is a second shade of hope.

                  Niebuhr, the great Lutheran liberal, liberal (still a great tradition, affirmed from this pulpit, if not elsewhere, sore oppressed by both nationalism on the right and anarchy on the farther left), who helped us see the future hope in Paul.  Both shades of hope require a translation from apocalyptic expectation into insights for living today, both individual and collective, present and future, Bultmannian and Niebuhrian.  Niebuhr gradually left behind the optimistic and utopian tones of the social gospel.  He also gradually left behind the narrow and prideful tones of a strict socialism.  Gradually he found his way, as we will need to do again in this painful decade ahead, toward a faithful Christian realism.  He found a realistic way toward hope.  That is our work today as well.  We too need to beware ‘the sentimental optimism about the essential goodness of men without realizing how evil good men can be’.  We too need ‘a check not on policies but on pride, to guide men in a mood of dialectical humility’.  We too need to realize that ‘all justice rests on a balance of power’.

You can in love ‘love one another’ as Christ loves you, toward an unseen horizon, a far-off land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  You can hope against hope.

Let those who rejoice do so as if they were not rejoicing.  Let them rejoice not in the form of this world but in the form of the world to come.

We meet each day with courage. We touch and are touched in the presence of Divine Potential, the raw possibility of a new day. We live on tip toe.  We live each day as if it were our last, which it is.  We greet the hour and its struggle, from a certain distance, and over every loud booming statement there is a misty question mark.

You know, it is not always clear what is bad news, or good.  What can seem cause for the greatest rejoicing also can carry hurt, and vice-versa.  God’s time is not our time.  God’s purpose is not equivalent to any one of ours.  God’s justice is not the same as our own.  God’s freedom far surpasses yours and mine.  A crushing defeat can, in God’s time, and with patience, become the source, the medium of great victory.  I think of Franklin Roosevelt.  Where would our country be today, without his life’s strange mixture of rejoicing and suffering and struggle and perseverance?  Is it not odd that the one President who appeared to be the least vigorous, was in fact the most? ‘To lead you have to love, to save you have to serve’.

Let those who buy and sell, do so as if they had no goods.  Not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Augustine said it so well:  we use what we should love and we love what we should use.  We use people and love things, when we are meant to love people and use things.

Yes, use the things of this world and buy and sell.  Let us do so, though, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Not in grasping selfishness, not in anxious pursuit, not in such strangely intense attention.  Rather:  with aplomb, with a certain disregard, with an inner freedom.

About your car, your house, your wardrobe, your bank account, your things—ask this:  Do you own it or does it own you?  Do you own it or does it own you? 

What a friend we have in Paul!

Paul who in hope wrote to the Thessalonians so long ago:

We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 1: 1-10).

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

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

Click here to hear the full service

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Click here to hear the sermon only

                   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