October 16th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18:1-8

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‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’

 Persistence amid Confusion and Timidity

 Tuesday you may have been driving mid-day out over the BU bridge, and into Cambridge.  If so, on that bright crisp autumn day, you would have run into a delay.

Along the river, remember, there are swans, many white swans, encamped alongside and under the bridge.   But they do not exclusively sojourn riverside.  Sometimes, by the by, they saunter out, due north and west, themselves headed for Cambridge, or at least a little part of Cambridge.  Ah, the allure of the other side of the river, and all its Cambridge delights—colleges, students, green grass, bicycle lanes and endowments.  Sweet.

The River Charles is deep and wide, Alleluia.  Thirty-eight billion on the other side, Alleluia. (J)

Tuesday, which was a BU Monday by the way, but still a Tuesday, you perhaps came to rest awaiting the green light.  In the head of the car queue there was an elderly couple, somewhat timid, surely nice, perhaps kindly Midwestern folks, and the light turned.  But the swans had made their way into the intersection, and the kindly couple was loath to disturb them.  The car, and so the subaltern many cars behind, waited for another light change.   A dozen or two confused birds crossed, and then, just as the light changed again, they turned and walked back, solemn in waddling procession, one by one, ‘beginning with the eldest’ as in John 8.  Again, our dear Midwestern guests made no honking, threatening, aggressive moves, and waited, and again the light changed.

You might want to imagine what sorts of reactions to all of this were then occasioned and vigorously offered by the line-up of cars eager to leave Boston and enter the Shangri La of Cambridge.  We Bostonians are such a patient, calm, irenic crew, especially when behind the wheel, don’t you know…

It was not pretty.

After another light change or three, somehow, by grace, the swans elected to return home to their nests and spots and cribs along the River Charles.   Driving, say, then, along Memorial Drive, perhaps headed to visit a friend and parishioner in a nursing home in Watertown, you may have mused, bemused, about what you saw, swan and car, light and traffic, intersection and interruption, and mainly, in equal balance, the timidity of the lead drivers and the confusion of the birds in procession.  One part timidity, one part confusion, or one part confusion and one part timidity, in largely equal measure.  Confusion and timidity.

You may have been reminded of many church meetings, where the two, confusion and timidity are also often found in equal measure.

You may have been reminded, in our season, of the choices made in cable network so-called journalism, where the two, confusion and timidity, have been found in full this year, in equal measure.

You may have been reminded of the cultural demise all around us, to the shame of us all, the acceptance of bullying and demagoguery, the normalization of vulgarity and sexism, the accommodation of buffoonery and megalomania, our willingness to have our children and grandchildren so surrounded in a culture careening into a nihilistic abyss.  ‘Yes, I really got him.  Low energy.  That was a one day kill. Words are beautiful things.’  Can you hear that?

Institutions are far more fragile than we sometimes think, especially the bigger ones.  They all require trust, commitment, integrity, self-sacrifice, and humility on the part of their leaders, or over time they disintegrate.  It is not just the processes, the systems, the organizations and structures that matter, it is the people.  No amount of systemic adjustment can ever replace the fundamental need, across a culture, for good people. No wise process has any chance against unwise people. Do not assume that institutions that have been healthy will always be so. Do not presume that free speech in newspapers, that due process in political parties, that honest regard for electoral results simply exist.  They do or they don’t.  It depends on the people who inhabit, support, and lead them.  Beware a time like ours when the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (Yeats).

Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.  To support an organization at the cost of honor, of integrity, of honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  That is, to support a political party at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  This is sin at its depth.  That is, to support a denomination at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  In the hour of judgment, the organization—party or church or other—depends on the courage and integrity of individuals to resist idolatrous loyalty to penultimate reality and to respond with courage and integrity to ultimate authority.  You cannot serve God and Mammon. Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.

Persistence in Jeremiah

 In 1980 with 12 Cornell students, and for a full year, we studied Jeremiah.  Two of those then young graduate students are now teaching at Brown University, and are part of the extended Marsh Chapel family.  Last year they reminded me that the group had asked to study Jeremiah, high above Cayuga’s waters, and I had wondered ‘whether they were ready for him’.  They said they were, and they were.  In all these intervening years, with student and campus groups from Cornell, McGill, North Country Community, Syracuse, Lemoyne, Colgate Rochester, the University of Rochester, United Seminary and, now, Boston University, we have returned in group study to Jeremiah.  Never, though, have I been more grateful for Jeremiah’s evocation of the stark suffering divine love of God, for Jeremiah’s unswerving realism, than this fall.  In the autumn of demagoguery and its partial acceptance by America, I kneel and kiss the ground, thankful for Jeremiah and his divine human realism.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what horrors can befall people and a people when they forget their identity.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what happens to a people whose leaders have and live values diametrically opposed to the nation’s own values.

I am eternally thankful, painful as it is to hear the words, for Jeremiah’s realism about how naïve in selfishness a people can become, and how earth shattering that foolishness can be.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about the crucial importance of diplomacy rather than violence, and about what happens when megalomaniacal leaders mock diplomacy.

I am eternally thankful, if such can be said, for Jeremiah’s own wretched suffering as he watched his beloved country exchange their birthright of justice for a mess of material pottage.

I am eternally thankful for the clarity, not confusion, for the courage, not timidity, of his voice ringing out across 25 centuries to say to you in a way you cannot avoid:  if you follow leadership that is immoral, unjust, unloving, unwise, you will get what you deserve, and the desserts will be disastrous.  In real time.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s pitiless reproach for people whose own religion bluntly teaches them to tell truth, honor others, seek justice, protect the poor, who then select leaders who say they have done and will do the opposite, and then are proven to have done.  We have been warned.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism which—did you hear?—includes at the end, encompasses at twilight, for all the suffering the divine love endures, including Jeremiah’s own slave death and unmarked grave in Egypt, a grace note, a ringing bell, a song sung, a word spoken, a hope, that one day ‘says the Lord,  I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…


Persistence in Luke

 So we arrive today in the confusion and timidity of our time, at the town court of Nazareth, the honorable UnJ Judge presiding.   Hear ye, hear ye.  Hizzoner awaits.  And Behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the apparel of a poor woman.  For those who, rightly, feel anxiety or despair or depression at the rampant sexism now latent and palpable, revealed by the events of this year and autumn across our decaying culture, take heart:  behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the raiment of an importunate, a persistent poor widow.

Yes, in our autumn of anxiety, we can readily appreciate the Scripture’s utter realism.    Luke too needed to remember that Jesus told them about “losing heart”.  This phrase communicates, in a time like ours. Greater souls in easier times have felt such ennui.  So we are not surprised today to hear reports of increased therapy, medication and consumption of comfort food.  We can feel the depression.

Jesus pointed to the Town Court of Nazareth and therein to the simple figure of a persistent woman.  See her at the bench.  Watch her in the aisle.  Listen to her steady voice.  Feel her stolid forbearance.  Says she:  “Grant me justice.”

‘The widow’s untiring pursuit of justice is translated into the ‘faith’ that should mark the church’s welcome of the awaited Son of Man’ (Ringe)

In Nazareth town court, all rise hear ye hear ye the honorable U J Judge presiding, a persistent woman employs time and voice.  You have time and you have voice.  Like Christ himself, she implores the implacable world to grant justice.  Like Christ himself, she comes on a donkey of tongue and patience.  Like Christ himself, she continues to plead, to intercede.  Like Christ himself, she importunes the enduring injustice of this world.  Like Christ himself she prays without ceasing.  Like Christ himself she persists.  She is an example to us of how we should use whatever time we have and whatever breath remains–to pray.  It is prayer that is the most realistic and wisest repose of the anxious of this autumn of exasperation.  By prayer we mean formal prayer, yes (more here next week). But by prayer we mean, too, the persistent daily leaning toward justice, the continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.

Notice, waiting with us, this poor widow.  She lacks power, authority, status, position, wealth.  She has her voice and all the time in the world.  Like Jesus Christ, whose faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of the word.

If we are not to lose heart, in the seemingly unending search for justice, we shall need to pray always, to “relax into the truth”, and to give ourselves over to the divine presence in our midst.  To give ourselves over to a real, common hope, and to be clear, not confused, courageous not timid about our hope:

Persistence in Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistence Today

 We hear the call to persist today.  It is a daily practice, a daily discipline.

An example of persistence, in the figure of an importunate widow.

By the by, that drive on Tuesday, amid confusion and timidity, you recall, ended in the presence of a poor widow, now 100, one of your dear sisters, residing across the river in a nursing home.  100 years of growth, and travel from the west to the east coast, and faculty spouse leadership in fresh and salt water schools, and administrative guidance and correction of several General Conferences, church meetings, Bishops and the writing of the 1988 Book of Discipline, and motherhood and sisterhood and discipleship…and, through it all, persistence. ‘For what should we pray?’ she was asked.  ‘Pray for all those who are hurting’, she replied.

‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’

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

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Good Advice from the Most Unlikely

October 9th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 17:11-19

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The word “leprosy” in the Bible refers to more than one type of skin disease, not just Hansen’s disease, which is what is commonly thought of as leprosy when the work is mentined.  All the biblical diseases of that name are similar in that they are fearful diseases:  they are thought to be highly contagious, they cause physical disfigurement to greater or lesser degree, and they cause afflicted persons to be banned from society until they can prove themselves healed.  The two leprosy stories in our scriptures this morning seem fairly straightforward and turn out well:  Naaman and the ten lepers are healed.  However, as theologian and disability activist Sharon V. Betcher has pointed out for us before, the healing stories in the Bible are not only or not even about healing.  They are also social commentary and teaching stories as well.

As we are invited to explore the story of Naaman further, for instance, we note that he is a powerful and rich man.  He has access to captured Israelite children and is able to give a young girl to his wife as her servant.  He has other servants himself.  When he wants to give a gift, he is able to give away ten sets of garments, 756 pounds of silver, and 151 pounds of gold.  His success in life has come from the favor of his king:  as commander of the Aramean army he has won a great victory over the army of Israel in the series of border wars and raids that Aram and Israel conduct against one another.  The King of Aram is pleased, of course, but see how the writer of II Kings phrases the victory:  it is by Naaman that THE LORD had given victory to Aram.  This is the first sign that this is not just a healing story;  it is also a story about the reach of God’s power through all lands and all kinds of people, even an Aramean general.

And through a captive servant girl.  She is the one who tells Naaman’s wife about the prophet Elisha, who at this time is in Samaria, the northern part of Israel, and who can cure Naaman of his leprosy.  And Naaman’s wife tells Naaman.  It is a measure of Naaman’s desire to be rid of the disease that he listens.  Female captive foreign children and wives of the time, especially those who suggest to their master and husband that he go to the prophet of another people’s God who after all did not give that people the victory,  did not usually sway the decisions of rich, powerful, commanders of men,  But Naaman not only listens, he goes to his king.  The king of Aram, who after all wants Naaman at his best, not only gives him permission to go to the foreign prophet, but smooths his way with a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

So Naaman takes his gold and silver and garments and horses and chariots and servants and letter and makes the trip to Elisha’s house.  He expects to deal with a professional prophet like those in Aram, who control their prophecy, able to say and do as they wish, and who have a responsibility to please their betters.  Instead, Naaman gets Elisha, who does not even come out to greet him or put on a show, but sends a messenger to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan.  Naaman is so insulted that he misinterprets what the messenger says, and thinks that Elisha only offers him a ritual cleansing.  But his servants, who were not in a rage and who were able to listen to the messenger properly, convince Naaman to do what Elisha instructed.  Again, it is a measure of Naaman’s desire to be rid of his leprosy that he listens, and changes his rage and his mind in front of his servants and military personnel.  He washes, “according to the word of the man of God”, and is healed.  So he is no longer disfigured and no longer isolated.  But this is not just a healing story.  It is a story of conversion as well.  Because of his need, Naaman throughout has converted his power, wealth, and position to a position of acceptance of help and advice, help and advice that comesfrom the most unlikely people:  a female captive child, his wife, his servants, a disrespectful foreign prophet, all of whom had to manage him up to get him into the water.  And at the last, he makes a final conversion, to belief in the God of Israel as the God of all the earth.  For the writer of II Kings, Namaan is not just healed, he is truly whole.  And it doesn’t end there.  Later in II Kings there is the story of how the Aramean king, who now knows about Elisha, realizes that Elisha is working to advise the king of Israel.  Because of what Elisha does in a certain situation that there is no loss of life for the Arameans, the King of Aram stop the border wars and raids against Israel.  There are many kinds of healing.  And of conversion.

As we are invited to explore our second story, we notice that all ten of the lepers address Jesus as “Master”. They do in fact obey him when he tell them to go to the priest, and they are healed in the going, before they even reach the priest.  But nine of them, who we assume from the story were Jews, did not turn back.  Only one of them did, and he was a Samaritan, not only a foreigner but someone considered by Jews to worship wrong.  Yet he praises God loudly, falls on his face before Jesus, and thanks Jesus for his healing of body and his restoration to society.  The other nine may have b3een cured of their leprosy.  But the Samaritan is not only healed, he as a foreigner who worships wrong exemplifies true faith, faith in Jesus and in the power of the God of Jesus.  A better translation would have Jesus say to him that his faith does not just make him well, his faith saves him.  In his obedience, but even more in his conversion to praise and gratitude for God’s free gift, he is an example of the true disciple, of one who is truly whole.

Our theme for the Fall here at Marsh is conversation.  Conversation involves both speaking and listening from all parties involved.  Who is invited to take part in the conversation is also an important point.  In conversations about conflict transformation, for instance, one of the best practices is to notice who has not been invited.  This is because, if some of the people involved in the conflict are not in the conversation, their insights will not be available.  Or, and perhaps even more importantly, the uninvited will be angry about their exclusion and so the conflict will continue even if the invited people come to an agreement.  This is especially true in conversations about the dis-eases of our time, fearful that can disfigure our minds and souls if not our bodies.  We all know the categories:   race, sex, class, economic status, gender preference, climate change, body type, war, normality, religion.  Dis-eases that can have us isolate ourselves in barricaded ideological and social compounds,  lest we be contaminated by the change and inclusion.  Some of us now, in our country and in some of our faith traditions including my own, some of us actually find it is easy and acceptable to make others figurative lepers, to consider them the cause of our dis-eases.  to castigate them as not normal, wall them out, persecute their faith as wrong, take away or try to take away their agency and freedom,  love them only to a certain point in the name of God, deny our shared humanity with them.  No conversation at all with these outcasts.  No talking.  No listening.

Naaman and the people Jesus was talking to were instead invited by God to expand their conversation, to listen as well as talk.  They were invited to listen enough to take good advice and good example from those who were the most unlikely people to have it to offer.  But when they did listen, and acted on what they had heard, they were not just healed of their dis-ease.  They were converted, to a new relationship with God, with themselves, and with their neighbors.

The stories of Naaman and the thankful Samaritan invite us to expand our conversations too.  Not just with the rich and powerful or with each other.  But with those who we might consider most unlikely:  marginalized people, foreigners – whoever that is for us, people whose allegiances or worship we might think are wrong, those we might consider “the help”, people who don’t take us as seriously as we think they should.  Conversation sounds simple, but it might not be easy.  It probably depends on the measure of our desire to be rid of our dis-ease.

On the other hand, in conversation with those who are different from us we might just find some good advice or a good example.  We might find some healing, some wholeness, some praise and some gratitude, some truer discipleship.  We might find ourselves converted, to a new way of being with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors.  Before our dis-eases  disfigure our minds souls bodies and completely cut us off.  Before our dis-eases kill us and the rest of creation.  Conversation, even with the most unlikely people, is possible.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this chance to be whole.  May we choose to accept it and act on it, to talk and to listen with one another with praise and thanksgiving.  Amen.

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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The Sacrament of Conversation

October 2nd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 17:5-10

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Sacrament:  Conversation

Our theme at Marsh this year is Conversation.  Sacrament means mystery.  2 Sacraments and 5 sacramental rites shape our life of faith.  John Wesley named 5 means of grace including conversation (Scripture, Prayer, Eucharist\Baptism, Fasting, Conversation).   Vancouver 1983, WCC, ‘in Christ there is no East or West’.

Conversation:  Sacrament

Iva.  A Winter Sunday.  So angry.  (Janitor).  My PhD that year.  ‘Of course, you know, they have PhD’s.  I should be more understanding.  They have PhD’s.  You really can’t expect much. (J).   Learning is no substitute for meaning.  Making of living is no substitute for leading a life.  Your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties.  Learning is good and very good, but it will not alone lead you to meaning.  Our business at Marsh Chapel is not talent but grace.  We would rather have untalented grace than graceless talent.  As Wesley, ‘we would rather throw over all the libraries in the world than lose one soul’.


 Jeremiah may or may not have written this. Catharsis of grief and despair is the aim of the poems (we can use this).  They are all acrostics (facilitates memorization).  ‘The pent up emotion  of a people who had lost practically everything that belonged to their former way of life IBD’.  Historical faith vs. historical actuality. ‘What is the meaning of the terrible calamities that have overtaken us?’  A new, firmer faith emerges, dominated by strong convictions:  responsibility for sin; the disciplinary value of suffering; the absolute justice and abiding love of God; the inscrutability of God’s ways; the unconquerable trust of the believer; the necessity of patience.


Your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties.  Men and parenting.  Students and parents.  Adults and mature parents.  Civil Society including church and worship.

 Slavery is here used as a positive analogy.  It is Biblical and dominical, ‘Jesus says…’ Should we then affirm slavery?  This is the hermeneutic of the evangelical Christians who use 6 verses in all of Scripture to support bigotry against gays.  The Bible has a history, too, as do you.

 You are not finished once you have recited the conjugations, written out the periodic table, aced introduction to computer science, memorized the ten presidents of BU and the 44 of the USA, and defined the teleological suspension of the ethical.

 Faith as a mustard seed.  ‘Faith that mountains can move’.  Hyperbole (eye, pluck it out, etc).  The way of discipleship:  worship, prayer, study, tithing, faithfulness, charity, hospitality.  ‘Service!’  At your service.  At your disposal.  Ministry is service. Ministry is to put yourself at another’s disposal.

 Condition according to fact (even if you only had faith the size of a seed it would be enough, but you have a whole lot more than that!)


Spirit:  The church as the bride of Christ: conversation, divine and human.

We are here with you because we are here for you (repeat).  We have come from many regions of the world and many ranges of your past experience in order to be present here, to share your presence, and our presence with you.  Here with you, we are here for you.

And yet, quite soon, we will not be present, at least most of us.  You will go off on your own for another week.    We will need to give you over, and to give over to…Another Presence,  God’s Presence.  God’s presence, spirit, or, as the reading for today names it, God’s Abiding in us.  As will you, day by day, so will we need to trust in…Another Presence. 

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

In Love.  Love is the attentive gift of time, as in the course of a lifetime of faithfulness—in family, in friendship, in work, in marriage.   In Love.

In Joy.  Joy is happy embrace—physical, mental, spiritual, soulful—morning and evening.  In Joy.

In Peace.  Peace is the gift—all these are pure gifts of God—of real listening, listening with a full smile and a glad heart.  In Peace.

In Patience. You need persistence, the accelerator, and patience, the break, to make it over the mountains and through the deserts, and across the great plains of life.  Said the Buddha:  patience is self-compassion which gives you equanimity.  In Patience.

In Kindness.  Kindness is the long distance run, the gift of a gracious long distance perspective, known in part in the openness to forgiveness.  In Kindness.

In Goodness.  Real Goodness bursts forth in generosity.  You only have what you give away, and you only truly possess what you have the grace and freedom to offer to someone else.  What you give is what you have.  In Goodness.

In Faith.  Faith is a gift, like all other signs of abiding love.  Faith is the capacity to withstand what and when we cannot understand (repeat).  When you face struggle, challenge, difficulty, may this gift be yours by divine grace.  In Faith.

In Gentleness.  Tea, sunset, backrub, quiet, handholding, prayer, worship.  In Gentleness.

In Self-Control.  Self-Control, a gift of God’s Presence, guides you to work through any and all labors:  in care for family and extended family;  in stewardship of precious material wealth, never plentiful but always sufficient; in sensitivity in intimacy, sexuality, in preparing for an unforeseen future;  in the building of community—yes religious community, but also neighborhood, town, school, city, and a culture gradually amenable to faith.  In Self-Control.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

Into  Another Presence, into Another’s Presence, we send you, for another week.  With Ruth may you say: ‘Wither thou goest I will go, wither thou lodgest I will lodge, they people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Bach Experience

September 25th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:19-31

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Dean Hill

 In music and word, again this Lord’s Day, we worship Almighty God, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified.  For ten years now in this manner, twice a term, we have sought to preach the good news and offer the gift of faith, a gift now offered to you, the hearer, you, the listener, by way of the confluence of music and word, chorus and sermon, Bach and Experience.  To our knowledge, this sort of offering is sui generis, unique.  A woman, say, listening today in southern New Hampshire, struggling to interpret hard news from North Carolina and Washington State, may hear us and the offering of faith.  Faith in a recognition of the wonder of creation, God the Creator.  Faith in a beginning step alongside the promise of baptism, God the Redeemer.  Faith, to start, in the sudden exclamation by spirit—I exist! Here! Now!–, God the Sustainer.

Faith is a gift.  In the gift of faith we find the courage to face death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  In the gift of faith, we find the courage to face life.  Life in all its turmoil, cacophony, and difficulty.  To take another step.  That may be all our listener in southern New Hampshire needs from the gift of faith today, as Sunday morning slips into Sunday afternoon, and the burdens of the rest of the day and the week to come.  A sense of love, at the margins, a sense of possibility, though far off, a sense of promise, hidden but real.   Baptism is a sign of the gift of faith, and faith is the courage to face death and life, to take another step, to walk ahead into the dark.  Bach sings faith and Jeremiah speaks faith and we attempt to weave the two together.

 Dr. Jarrett

Today’s cantata was composed by Bach for the Feast of St John observed in Leipzig on June 24 of 1724. The date makes Cantata 7 the third work composed in Bach’s second full cycle of cantatas for the church year. As we have come to expect from this particular cycle, many of these cantatas are closely connected to their chorale tunes, these tunes often appearing in the soprano part on long tones, directing and connecting the listener to the stories and teachings of the great hymns of the faith. Cantata 7 numbers among the important “chorale-cantatas” of this cycle, and draws compositional inspiration from Martin Luther’s 1541 hymn “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan.” Of the cantata’s seven movements, the first and last movements, sung by the choir, take their text directly from Luther, while the inner solo movements are paraphrased from Luther’s inner verses and attributed to Bach himself.

The story of John the Baptizer and of Jesus’s baptism is found in the third chapter of Matthew and Luke, and right away in the first chapter of Mark and John. These accounts mark the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth, and lead ultimately to his Passion and Resurrection. Each account bears the familiar imagery of water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the God from the opened Heavens declaring pride and pleasure in his only Son. When viewed together, the fullness of the Trinity is richly depicted in the Baptism story, and Christian teaching through these symbols is a clear public anointing and forecast of the teachings and purposes of Jesus in his earthly ministry.

If we look back just a few verses, and focus on John, we find similarities in these accounts as well. John is depicted as something of a wild, ruffian whose prophesies excite and call his audience to prepare for the one who will come and will purify the world by fire. This is the important connection for Bach as he sets out to write his musical sermon for the day.

Water imagery abounds throughout the cantata, bubbling, rippling, even crashing in what Craig Smith has called Bach’s La Mer. Throughout the cantata, the purity and clarity of the water is tinged and colored by the awareness that Jesus’s blood – that is to say, his Passion – transforms the water with the purifying zeal of the refiner’s fire. Let’s take a closer look.

The Cantata opens with a monumental, even epic, setting of the first verse of Luther’s hymn. You’ll find the chorale tune in long notes, not in the soprano part, but submerged in the tenor part with old-style polyphony in the other four parts all around. The vocal parts considered alone proceed with an austerity that reminds the listener to look up from the Jordan to the Cross. Musically, the remarkable material here is the freely composed instrumental ritornelli that open, close, and punctuate each of the nine phrases of the chorale tune. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us that Jesus’s arrival at the Jordan for baptism marks the onset of his adult ministry, and Baroque conventions provide a stately French overture with dotted and regal rhythms for any auspicious arrival. And so the cantata opens with strong French overture rhythms in the upper strings and oboes in a harmonic sequence that outlines the austere modal colors of the chorale tune. But one immediately hears the Jordan lapping at the hem of Jesus’s garment in the cello and bass figurations that support the upper material. This short and strict two bar phrase freezes harmonically as the violin soloist’s second theme figurations depict more churning of the purifying Jordan waters. The cello’s original motif is transferred to the upper supporting strings, further suspending progress. The overall effect is one of churning, expectation, even foreboding.

The three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata paraphrase the inner verse of Luther’s hymn. In the first, sung without preparatory recitative, the bass calls every believer to baptism, not with water alone, but with the Word and Spirit of God. One imagines a good Methodist baptism in the sprinkling heard in the cheerful accompaniment. The central tenor recitative and aria connect all of the Gospel images with fiery virtuosity on full display from two solo violins and the bravura of the tenor part. The words of God in the moment of Jesus’s baptism are sung in the second half of the tenor recitative as if to provide full charge for the purification to come. The zeal of the aria’s opening imagery softens at the mention of the Dove. [Be careful – the German word for Dove (Taube) is only one letter away for the word for Baptism (Taufe).] The bass returns for a recitative that reminds us of Jesus’s call for his disciples to teach and baptize throughout the world. The words of Jesus are set in a manner the presages Bach’s musical treatment of the words of Jesus in the Matthew Passion with strings ‘halo-ing’ the text in red letters. The final aria for alto soloist begins notably without any introduction. To me, this underscores both the connection to Jesus’s commandment, but also creates a greater sense of urgency for this text. The message here is a direct exhortation of the purifying power of faith and baptism. The final movement is a standard four-part chorale, but the amount of theology packed into this verse is worth noting – here Luther connects everything: original Sin and our own inheritance of sin, the redemptive grace of Christ’s Passion, all forged by the purifying power of personal devotion, faith and baptism.

Dean Hill

 The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, on any college campus today, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see, as we said some weeks ago, there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.  Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.   Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape this fall to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this fall.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls on his or her behalf.  Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.

James Weldon Johnson gave us our marching orders, in words both of challenge and of hope, words that recognize straight-up what real harm can and has befallen people, especially his own people, and words that cling, even desperately, to a future, a future hope, something hoped for but not seen, and ever subject to neglect, amnesia, rejection, and defeat. Marsh Chapel’s own Max Miller gave us our accompaniment, as well, our marching beat, in music both of challenge and of hope, a hymnic cadence mindful of harm and aware of hope. May Johnsons’ words and Miller’s music, their Jeremiah 32, their Luke 16, guide us forward.

Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase,

And grant us Lord, in this  our day,

The ancient dream of peace.

God of our weary years

God of our silent tears

Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way

Thou who hast by thy might

Led us into the light

Keep us forever in the path we pray

Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee

Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee

Shadowed beneath thy hand

May we forever stand

True to our God

True to our native land

Bring Lord your better world to birth, your kingdom love’s domain

Where peace with God

And peace on earth

And peace eternal reign.

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

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

An Invitation

September 18th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:15-24

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An invitation.

Who: you!

What: this sermon

When: right now until…question mark?? (or approximately 20 minutes)

Where: 735 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, wbur 90.9 fm,, our podcast

Why: well, to hear the Word of God in a new way with insightful commentary and explanation, or so I hope

RSVP: By staying in the pew, not changing the radio station, or not skipping over the sermon while listening to the podcast later

Invitations are all around us. I was invited to this pulpit today by our Dean Hill, asked to reflect on the word in light of our international student population here at BU. Thank you, Dean Hill for your invitation! In turn, I invited others – three of our participants in the service are international students here at BU – Eleanor Yan, who read the passage from Romans in Mandarin and English, Moises Rodriguez who read the gospel in Spanish and English, and soon after this sermon ends, Sanghee Lim, who will lead our Prayers of the People in Korean and English. I am thankful for their acceptance of my invitation as well as the help of the Rev. Soren Hessler in the extension of those invitations. Thanks to each of your for your help and participation today And then of course there is the invitation that we extend each and every week to all of you who are here or listening from far away. We invite you to be a part of our worshipping community, to hear the Word of God, to engage in prayer, to meditate on the musical offerings, to occasionally partake in the Eucharist, and most importantly, to worship God.

My role here at Marsh Chapel is to serve as the University Chaplain for International Students. Generally, when people find that out they ask what my job entails. What is a chaplain for international students? What do you do? I provide support for our international student population through pastoral care. I create opportunities for engagement, fellowship, and learning among our international and domestic student populations. I help plan worship opportunities like today and work with our interfaith and various faith student groups on campus. But mostly, I have the honor and pleasure of learning about and experiencing the various cultures and traditions present on this campus, and creating spaces for students to learn, explore, and be in community with one another. In short, my job rocks.

At the beginning of a school year, I would say that about 80% of a university chaplain or campus minister’s time is spent around the idea of invitation. Issuing invitations to students to come worship and events, being invited to beginning of the year receptions and gatherings, not to mention the running the actual events and gathering themselves. Here at Marsh Chapel we’ve hosted plenty of events and fellowship opportunities in the last week, meeting new students and welcoming back returning students. Joining them in fellowship over food, in discussion about faith, and giving space for clarity and mindfulness. Presenting them with open opportunities to interact through art, and opportunities to worship together. Our whole ministry staff team has put in hours of dedicated service to the community, often times by simply being present for a specific amount of time in a specific place. We have invited folks over the internet, over the radio, and via flyers and listings on the BU Calendar.

But perhaps one of our most effective ways of invitation was simply just being visible to others and enthusiastically welcoming them to join in our activity. You heard a bit about this last week, when the dean recounted our “greening of the dorms” activity out on the BU Beach. During this event, we stood out on the green lawn behind Marsh Chapel with small pots, paints, brushes, dirt, and seeds, inviting students to personalize their pottery and to take home planted seeds that will hopefully grow into delicious basil. What Dean Hill didn’t tell you was some of our invitation techniques. These included shouting “Hi! Do you want to paint a pot?” Or “Do you want some basil to take home?” or, and I think this may have been Br. Larry’s favorite tactic, wildly gesticulating at passers-by that they should join us by making large waving motions. The tactic worked, and most people, once they figured out what we were doing were enthusiastic about participating and conversing with us and other who had gathered around.

Not every interaction needs to be so lively, however. For example, Soren Hessler and Jen Quigley’s weekly offering of Common Ground communion on Thursday afternoons. And by every Thursday, I mean, EVERY Thursday, regardless of the temperature or meteorological conditions outside. They extend their invitation to passers-by rather simply, through a sign that reads: Common Ground Communion, Thursdays 12:20pm, Marsh Plaza, ALL ARE WELCOME. Having substituted for them once and also from hearing first hand accounts from both Soren and Jen, mostly you get a lot of stares, but usually there are a few who stop to take and eat. Through their simple sign they attract people, and have even created a small community of “regulars.”

As an expression of hospitality, invitation is the way we let others know that they are welcome into our space to share in a moment with us, whether significant or not. Invitation takes on many forms. The formal invitation, printed on cardstock, delivered through the mail. The evite – an electronic invitation sent via email. The Facebook event invite, which basically is what it sounds like. The informal invitation – which can be done in person, over the phone, or via text message. All of these forms of invitation require that the host extend the invitation, although not all require the same level of response.

There are rules about invitations. Who gets invited, when we invite them, how we expect to find out who is coming. For more formal affairs, invitations are exclusionary – only close friends or family, or important people are invited to such an event. These events generally require that the attendees are notified far in advance and that they send their response in enough time for the host to prepare for them. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the public event, those opportunities which are open to any person who happens to be in the area, and which may or may not require a response from the attendees. These events might occur at a moment’s notice and bring together a disparate group of people for one purpose, for example a protest or a flash mob.

While formal events still occur, for which people follow the rules of etiquette regarding invitations such as weddings and galas, our society has tended toward looser definitions of invitations and RSVP’s with the advent of social media and texting. When was the last time you received an invitation on paper to something? I’m willing to bet for many of you it was to a wedding, which has remained steady in the execution of formally extending and invitation (although even now, that may not always be the case).  Technology makes it easy for us to be wishy-washy on our responses – it gives us to say “maybe” rather than yes or no to an event, or to choose to say that we are interested in an event without committing to going. And believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing 7 “goings” and 40 “interesteds” on a Facebook invitation. What does that mean? How much food should I make. It brings to mind a campus ministry colleague’s posting earlier this semester: “Hmmm. Should I order 3 pizzas or 12 pizzas for tonight’s event? You just never know, do you?” Or about the first meeting of Global Dinner Club this semester, where we had about twice as many attendees as I was expecting, necessitating a last-minute run to the grocery store to pick up extra supplies. Ministry involves opening the door for community, but much of the time you’re never quite sure who will show up.

Today’s gospel revolves around an invitation and the accompanying customs of the time. The parable Jesus tells is in the midst of attending a banquet, a carry-over from the beginning of chapter 14 in Luke. Perhaps this is why this particular parable is left out of our lectionary offerings – it is too similar to the opening of chapter 14. This parable, like the one at the beginning of the chapter, also focuses on banquet etiquette, but does so in framing the story around a specific event rather than proclaiming general etiquette rules about where you should sit at a banquet and why. More specifically, the emphasis in the parable is on the responses the host receives from those whom he had invited first. Luke goes into detail explaining each of their excuses, framing them as the focus for this ethical tale. The first invitees, like the host, presumably have money and are at the same social level. They also presumably initially responded yes to the host’s invitation when he issued it. But, upon being prepared to receive the guests, the host is confronted with a barrage of lame excuses from them. The first two respondents are too concerned with their material possessions that they cannot attend. The first needing to survey the land that he just bought, and the second needing to try out the oxen he just purchased. It’s similar to having invited a friend to a dinner party, having them agree that they will be there weeks ahead of time, and then texting you two hours before to say “I just picked up my new iPhone 7, and I really need to test it out. Sorry!” The third response really gives no reason why, just “I just got married, I can’t come.”

Maybe you’ve been in the position of hosting a party or an event only to have a significant portion of people make excuses for why they can’t come at the last minute. Perhaps you understand why the host in this story becomes angered because of this. Or alternatively, we’ve all been in the position of making an excuse at the last minute to get out of going to an affair we’ve known about for a while. In justifying our behavior, we may assume that everyone else will follow through with their “yeses”, so us not showing up will not have any impact on anyone else. But if everyone cancels at the last minute, then the host is left without guests, and the event fails. The men who fail to show up at the appointed time in the story may feel that they have no need of what is being offered at the banquet (food and community), and therefore remain unaffected and somewhat unrepentant in their excuses.

What the host does next teaches us about the radical hospitality of God. Instead of trying to find more friends who might be able to attend, the host instead instructs his servant to invite the lowest of the low to the banquet; the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Does he do this out of spite for his friends that turned him down? Perhaps. But the host’s actions may also be out of recognizing who really needs and would benefit from such a banquet. Those who are hungry or left out from the rest of society would not turn down an invitation such as this. Or even if these new invitees have second thoughts about attending, the host tells his servant to compel them to come, to fill his house with people. And, in turn, to exclude those who initially turned away his invitation.

We could understand this story eschatologically, signifying the great banquet in the Kingdom of God and who or who will not be invited. It suggests that God’s invitation to the “great banquet” is available to all, but individuals must agree to accept it. In Lutheran or Methodist terms, that the grace of God is extended to all, but that we should not be distracted by other obligations or material gains in recognizing it. And this is an important reading of the gospel for all Christians, but we also need to recognize how this parable teaches an ethical lesson in addition to the theological points it brings forth.

But I think another way to look at this story is to see the situation as an example in present reality which is meant to teach the people Jesus is dining with and the audience Luke is writing for about proper Christian hospitality toward others. We are included in that audience. Christian hospitality requires both the host and those invited to be open to one another. Extending this form of hospitality is mutually beneficial for both the guest and the host. It calls on us to form community through our invitation, rather than to only acquire material goods. Even if material goods (i.e. the food) may be needed by those who do attend, the feeling of being connected to others and being considered a part of the community becomes what is ultimately important. In some ways, the Eucharist serves a similar function for us. It is the time when we all come together to share in a meal regardless of background or status and it anticipates the great banquet that will occur in the Kingdom of Heaven.

God’s invitation and the Christian notion of hospitality asks us to take on a radical form of egalitarianism, placing all on the same level. In welcoming the stranger, as Paul instructs in his letter to the church in Rome, and welcoming those from all walks of life, as the Gospel presents through Jesus’ parable, Christian hosts dismantle the levels of power which may otherwise exist. By extending an invitation to the stranger, we come to know the stranger as a person and care for them as a part of our community. We learn from the stranger and become fuller human beings. At the same time we are invited by God and by Jesus to rest and seek peace in them. To live as a Christian is to be both host to others as well as guest in the presence of God.

What we do here at Marsh Chapel is try to model this form of hospitality. Our stated mission is to be “a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.” Our context in an area of the United States with the highest number of people self-described as “nones” … that’s n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s…those having no religious beliefs, according to the Pew Research Center. We are also in the middle of a University setting where young people begin to question the traditions they learned at home and become more skeptical. We exist in a complex matrix of belief systems, enriched by multiple perspectives from around the globe. And despite these challenges, we send out an open invitation to all.

We, as a community of faith, are happy to meet people where they are. We attempt to embody this openness in a place that can sometimes feel resistant and cold to hospitality. To the lost and the lonely, we offer a place to be oneself and to find others. We model Christ’s teachings. We learn from our sisters and brothers from other faith traditions. We welcome all whether believer, questioner, or none. We form community, give grounding, a sense of place, and facilitate growth, personally, spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and communally. . We invite our students to claim Boston as a home away from home where they can grow and learn from people and perspectives from a many places around the world. We accept the invitations of others to learn and develop in our understanding of the world as well as expand our relationships within the BU community, in the city of Boston, regionally, nationally, and globally

We do all these things, not for our own sake, but because of the higher cause that we serve. For as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated in his writings while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

How will we as a community issue an invitation to the world today? Will we accept an invitation from others? From God? Will we be committed to the yes that we give, or instead be “maybes” or “interesteds” who prioritize other pursuits at the last minute? The decision is ours to make. An ever-present invitation waits for us. How will we respond?


–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Tenebrous Edge

September 11th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 15:1-10

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Faith walks along a tenebrous edge—a dark, shadowed, cliff walk.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All seven billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All seven billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All seven billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All seven billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All seven billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.  All seven billion.

Today, September 11, 2016, in memory and honor, we remember our ancient and future hope, a hope of peace. Faith walks along a tenebrous edge—a dark, shadowed, cliff walk.

Along our way, this Lord’s day, as we hike in faith along the tenebrous edge of life, we do so in dire need of memories—of Jeremiah, of America, of Luke, of Nine-eleven.


Remember Jeremiah.

The prophet Jeremiah excoriated his people, hoping against hope to keep them in faith along a tenebrous edge. For four decades he challenged, criticized, and vilified his beloved country, and its leadership, and its people.  They heeded him not.

The prophet was the victim of the nationalistic hysteria of those who favored revolt, a rejection of their own best selves.  Untrue to themselves and to their history and to their God, and heedless of Jeremiah’s words, his beloved people subsequently suffered the great distress of 587bce, in which the northern Assyrians conquered them, their city was burned, their temple destroyed, their nation buried, and their population deported to Babylon.  Judah became a vassal state, a province of Babylon.  Yet for four decades before this disaster, Jeremiah spoke truth to his wayward people, four decades of unheeded sermons.

Jeremiah lived from about 650 to 580 bce.  King Josiah in 621, heeded his word in part, but himself was killed in 609.  And then the defeat in Carcamesh in 605, and then the partial deportation in 598, and then, the end, apocalypse 587bce.  Along the way Jeremiah counseled diplomacy and even capitulation, to no avail.  He was condemned to death, but survived, thrown in a cistern, yet prevailed, until his own deportation, and probable death, in Egypt.  Anatoth, 2 miles from Jerusalem was his home; Hosea was his model; harlotry the main image:  ‘Again and again he exhorted his countrymen to obedience and persisted in his call to repentance and change of heart although he came to feel that their moral sense had become so atrophied that repentance was impossible.’  He urged the people not to listen to the optimistic predictions of the prophets.  Jeremiah’s opponent, the prophet or pseudo-prophet Hananiah wrongly predicted the defeat of Bablyon, wrongly predicted the return of exiles and wrongly predicted the restoration of the temple treasures.  Is there any word from the Lord, plaintively King Zedekiah asked Jeremiah?

Yes, Jeremiah whispered, there is:  You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon. (37:17).

Jeremiah exclaimed: False prophets deceive people with their optimism.  The temple has no efficacy in and of itself.  The true circumcision is not of body, but of mind and heart.  Even the Bible can lead astray: Even the Torah may become a snare and a delusion through the false pen of the scribes.

By the way, notice some of the themes from the sixth century bce:  Deportation, false optimism, betrayal of heritage, forgetfulness of history, ineffective leadership, personal failings which damage the nation, turning of a deaf ear toward the voice of God. For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

Jeremiah, whom we have heard in the background of our worship and preaching for some weeks, speaks to us today, and continues into late October.  He warns of the tenebrous edge.  

May his memory help us.


Remember America.


For us, as part of a national culture now careening toward decay, our memory is failing us. Rhetoric and rancor that befit no civilized people we have somehow accepted, acceded to, accomodated. We forget Emma Lazarus and prefer demagoguery.  We forget Lincoln and support nativism.  We forget King and accept narcissism.  We forget Jesus the crucified and cleave to the cry of triumphalism, out of fear and out of exhaustion and out of amnesia, both a cultural and a Christological amnesia.

Yet on the horizon today we hear and see demagoguery—America First, Birtherist, Misogynist, Racist, Xenophobic, Narcissistic (don’t you love all these Greek rooted words?) bigotry.  I sure did that well. ‘Low Energy’.  That was a one day kill.  Words are beautiful things.

Over time, we get the leadership we deserve.

We desire a faith amenable to culture, and a culture amenable to faith.  For what good is a baptized cleansing if we are simply thrown back into the mire? Personal and social holiness are married to one another.  Loving faith expects loving culture.


Some express surprise, a sense of mistake, regarding the willingness of a grand old party, a party of Lincoln, to nominate a particular candidate. Yet there is no surprise or mistake about the nomination in question.  80% of voters in that party agree with these three propositions:  Muslims should be banned.  A wall should be built along the Rio Grande.  Undocumented immigrants of all ages and stages should rounded up, arrested, jailed, and deported. (New York Review of Books, p 8-10, June, 2016) If you are in conversation with a member of such a party, chances are 4 out of 5 that you are in conversation with these views.  No surprise.  No mistake.  You see?  The shadow falls on us.  Shadow.  Dark.  Twilight.  The tenebrous…

Pause, Boston, to remember who and whose you are.   How, why and for what purpose did your forebears arrive here in 1630, and in the years thereafter?  Why did Jonathan Winthrop drift and write out in the Boston harbor that year?  To deport immigrants?  To erase religious freedom?  To wall off and wall up borders?  Hardly.  Their original hope, so often expressed only in the breach in years to come, was the very opposite.  Not to deport immigrants—they were themselves immigrants, as were your people.  You Lutherans in Wisconsin and Iowa.  You French Canadians in New Hampshire and Maine.  You Irish and Italians in Albany and Buffalo.  You Scots and English in North Carolina and Florida.  Not to deport immigrants—they were themselves immigrants, as were your people.  Not to deny religious liberty, but to find it and live it, in a new land, a New World, where your creed could be yours indeed.  Not to fortify borders, but to expand them, and expand them they did, so that the original dream would be city set on a hill, a last best hope, like the moon, a lamp of the poor.  We walk along a precipice, a philosophical cliff, a tenebrous edge.  

May this memory help us.


Remember Luke.

Though no one says so, and to my knowledge no one has yet so written, Luke 15 may be the most Gnostic of chapters in the New Testament.   As the Gnostics taught, we are trapped in a far country, a long way from our true home, and moved from light to darkness, from found to lost.  As the Gnostics taught, we are meant to get home, to get back home, to get back out from under this earthly, existence, and back to higher ground, to heaven, to the heaven beyond heaven, to the land of light, like a sheep or coin being found and returned.

It is jarring, I give you that, to admit that this most traditional and most popular and most orthodox of parables may well have grown up outside the barn, outside the fences of mainstream Christianity:  ‘I need to get back home.  Back to the land of light.  Back to the pleroma.  Back to the God beyond God.  Find me!’  No ‘Christ died for our sins’, here.  No ‘lamb of God’, here.  No settled orthodox Christology here.  No cross, no gory glory, no Gethsemane, no passion of the Christ, here.  It all comes down to the safety of being found, and included again in the great light of Light.  

The Gospel challenges us to come out from hiding.  Our Sheep parable is also found in Matthew 18: 12-4.  Luke moves the story from an if to a when and from strayed to lost, and from a functional rescue to a joyful recovery—communal rejoicing!

Just how far is Luke from Jeremiah?  Marcion thought so far that the two preached different divinities, and, listening today, you can sense a bit of why that was—one God of anger, wrath, judgement, justice, and fear, one God of love, mercy, embrace, acceptance, and grace; one God of creation, one of redemption; one of the Old and one of the New Testament.  We have Marcion to thank, by the way, for our Bible.  He proposed the first one, around 150ad, made up of Luke (like today) and the letters of Paul.  But the church, rightly, added the Hebrew Scripture, other Gospels and other Letters and other books.  The church spoke of God as both Creator and Redeemer, and so do we.  Moreover, if you listen carefully to Luke, you hear of the darkness there too.

We race in hearing to the joy of discovery.  But anyone who has lost or been lost knows otherwise.  The fright of despair that loss will be permanent.  The darkness of dismay that what is hunted is not immediately found.  The terror, the tenebrous terror, at what that loss of sheep or coin, of person or value, will ultimately mean.  There is more Luke in Jeremiah than you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than you think.

The fall of freshman year can include a sense of loss, and of being lost.  There is more loneliness in college than we usually calculate.  So the daily processes, now underway right here, Lukan they are in spirit and ethos, are so crucial:  to find and help others find and be found; over time to connect and be connected.  Our chaplains Friday offered a table of small pots to paint and flowers to plant, small natural green room decorations, and a gathering for conversation and friendship along the way.  Luke here and in general reminds us that evangelism ever trumps pastoral care, that outreach ever trumps contemplation, that the minister is present for those who are not yet present.

May his memory help us.


Along with Jeremiah, America, and Luke we today remember Nine-eleven, as we did so here in 2006 and 2011.  We print again in your bulletin the names of those Boston University alumni who were lost 15 years ago.  In a moment we pause in prayer and quiet to honor them, with an abiding sense of hope.

Rightly to honor those lost and those loved, and fitly to meet this moment, we shall need briefly to look out toward the far side of trouble.  There is, we hope, a far side to trouble.  We may watch from the near side, but there is a far side to trouble as well.  That is our ancient and future hope.  Dewey spoke of a common faith.  Thurman preached about a common ground.  Today we recall a common hope.

This is the hope of peace.  We long for the far side of trouble, for a global community of steady interaction, an international fellowship of accommodation, a world together dedicated to softening the inevitable collisions of life.  This is the hope of peace.

Without putting too fine a point upon it, this hope is the hallmark of the pulpit in which we stand, and the place before which we stand.  If nowhere else, here on this plaza, and here before this nave, we may lift our prayer of hope.  There is a story here, of peace.

Methodists like Daniel Marsh, a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley), have honored a common hope of peace.

Mahatmas Gandhi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”.  A common hope of peace.  Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “The events of my days strike a full balance of what seems both good and bad.  Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”  A common hope of peace.  

Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our village green.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”.  A common hope of peace. Martin Luther King inspired generations of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote and said (9/16/01, 9/11/06, 9/11/1, 9/11/16):

Have faith, people of faith.

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The  World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

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

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On Beginning a Conversation

September 4th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:25-33

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*On Beginning a Conversation:  

A Psalm, 100

*On Beginning a Conversation:

A Prayer

Gracious God, Holy and Just, Whose Mercy is over all thy works

We invoke thy blessing today as we embark on this new journey

Guide us as we sail out for points unknown, ports unseen, and horizons unexplored

Be our North Star, our compass, sextant

Keep a clean wind blowing through our lives to make us happy and humble

Help us to seek shelter when the gusts of loneliness and failure threaten to capsize

Bless and help us to be a blessing to those commissioned to sail this ship, to the set our course, and to the lead the way

And a special intercession today for all sailors and crew on the good ship 2019

For those on the bridge—wisdom

For those learning the ropes—patience

For those working the in the rigging—a light heart

For those who bid farewell at the gangplank, our parents and sponsors—thanksgiving,

thanksgiving for the birthpangs that brought life, the hands that prepared us to sail, the hearts that forgave and conditioned and seasoned us, for the tear filled eyes and proud hearts that wave to us as the ship leaves the harbor, our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and our communities of meaning, belonging and empowerment—thanksgiving, thanksgiving.

O Thou who stills waters and calms seas, grant us fair winds, bright skies and an adventurous voyage


*On Beginning a Conversation:

Questions at the border (4):  What is your name? Where are you from?  Where are you headed?  Do you have anything to declare?

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Read

Here is a matriculation account. Vernon Jordan went to Depauw, a small Methodist school in Indiana, lead by various BU graduates.  His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off their in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Lousiana.  Weeping, his father said, “Vernon, we are not coming back until four years from now.  You are here where your future opens.  At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row.  This is your time.  I have one word of advice.  Read.  When others are playing, you read.  When others are sleeping, you read.  When others are drinking, you read.  When others are partying, you read.  When others are wasting precious time and encouraging you to do the same, you read.”   He did.  Read, that is.  Last week, on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Jordan celebrated his 80th birthday, in the company of Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Speaking of Presidents, Boston University’s third President, Lemuel Merlin, left Boston for Greencastle Indiana, to become the President of Depauw, nearly 100 years ago.  All of our Presidents—Warren, Huntington, Merlin, Marsh, Chase, Christ-Janer, Silber, Westling, Chobanian, and Brown—would salute this Augustinian slogan, ‘take and read’.

For like our gospel lesson today, they and this University, have been interested in what makes a person human, in what makes a human be human, in what lies not outside, but inside, not in measurement but in meaning, not in the visible but in the soulful, not in making a living, only, but in making a life, fully.

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Gaining Soul

Your challenge in these fours years is not only to earn a BA.  Your challenge is to do so without losing your soul.  Your challenge is to do so gaining your soul, tending to the inside, walking in the light, becoming your own best self, finding the place where your heart, ‘the inside’ comes alive, uniting the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, and uniting vocation with avocation, ‘as two eyes make one in sight’.  Frost:

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes.

Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices.  There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix.  In Mark 7, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic attention to cleanliness.  There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community.  Here the community is reminded about the priority of the ‘inside’.  The tenor line is that of the evangelist.  Mark here, marking his own appearance in the record.   The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies:  “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” (in Richardson, ECF, 377) (If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.)

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Mortality


“Is it dead, Papa?”  I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

“Yes”, I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die”.



“You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


“And me?
“Yes.”, he said.  But then he added in Yiddish, “But may it be only after you live a long and happy life, my Asher.”

I couldn’t grasp it.  I forced myself to look at the bird.  Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why”, I asked.

“That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom mad this world, Asher.”


“So life would be precious, Asher.  Something that is yours forever is never precious.”

“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed (p. xi).”

“People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives…avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete…our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet those needs” (p. 155)

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Scripture

  1. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.


*On Beginning A Conversation:  Spirit

Class of 2020:  we are here with you because we are here for you (repeat).  We have come from many regions of the world and many ranges of your past experience in order to be present here, to share your presence, and our presence with you.  Here with you, we are here for you.

And yet, quite soon, we will not be present, at least some  of us.  The airplane will taxy down the runway, the gas tank will be filled, and we will be off, absent, or present in thought and care but not in flesh and bone.   We will need to give you over, and to give over your commitment to, your delight in,  and your wonder at each other, to…Another Presence,  God’s Presence.  God’s presence, spirit, or, as the reading for today names it, God’s Abiding in us.  As will you, day by day, so will we need to trust in…Another Presence.  

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

In Love.  Love is the attentive gift of time, as in the course of a lifetime of marriage.  In Love.

In Joy.  Joy is happy embrace—physical, mental, spiritual, soulful—morning and evening.  In Joy.

In Peace.  Peace is the gift—all these are pure gifts of God—of real listening, listening with a full smile and a glad heart.  In Peace.

In Patience.  A marriage needs persistence, the accelerator, and patience, the break, to make it over the mountains and through the deserts, and across the great plains of life.  Said the Buddha:  patience is self-compassion which gives you equanimity.  In Patience.

In Kindness.  Kindness is the long distance run, the gift of a gracious long distance perspective, known in part in the openness to forgiveness.  In Kindness.

In Goodness.  Real Goodness bursts forth in generosity.  You only have what you give away, and you only truly possess what you have the grace and freedom to offer to someone else.  What you give is what you have.  In Goodness.

In Faith.  Faith is a gift, like all other signs of abiding love.  Faith is the capacity to withstand what and when we cannot understand (repeat).  When you face struggle, challenge, difficulty, may this gift be yours by divine grace.  In Faith.

In Gentleness.  Tea, sunset, backrub, quiet, handholding, prayer, worship.  In Gentleness.

In Self-Control.  Self-Control, a gift of God’s Presence, guides you to work through any and all labors:  in care for family and extended family;  in stewardship of precious material wealth, never plentiful but always sufficient; in sensitivity in intimacy, sexuality, in preparing for an unforeseen future;  in the building of community (you both have great natural gifts and capacities for friendship, as is evident today)—yes religious community, but also neighborhood, town, school, city, and a culture gradually amenable to faith.  In Self-Control.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

Into Another Presence, into Another’s Presence, we, your families, loved ones, and friends, now send you, married, from this day forward.  With Ruth may you say: ‘Wither thou goest I will go, wither thou lodgest I will lodge, they people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’

*On Beginning a Conversation:  2 Creeds


Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

Treasuring the best of all that’s old, searching out the new

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

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A Special Guest

August 28th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:1, 7-13

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We have a special guest with us today.  He has made his way into our midst, through a long and arduous journey. Our guest over a great expanse, has come our way.  Because his presence has come at significant expense in time, labor and effort, and because his presence is precious to us, in ways both known and unknown, both speak-able and unspeakable, we pause to honor him.

Many thousands of miles separate us from his homeland.  In fact to travel here, he travels over land and sea, over continent and sub-continent, over mountain and valley and hill and molehill.  The very fact alone that we have him here is cause for delight, wonder, celebration, reverence, awe and joy.  Many hundreds of years separate us from his family of origin, from the time and times of his time.  To travel here he has to engage in a sort of time travel, like that involved in every day, in every hour, in every moment, in every memory and in every hope.  Here is the future:  ah, it has slipped into the present.  Here is the present:  ah, it has slipped into the past.  Here is the past:  ah, it has slipped into memory.  Here is memory:  ah, it has been lost, or reborn in hope.

Peer into his eyes for a moment, eyes aware of a numinous divine humility.  Our visitor awaits your recognition.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Can one acquire humility without enduring humiliation? It is a serious question.  Discomfort, we ignore.  Pain, we obey.

Our visitor emerges from the strange world of the Bible.  In these weeks, in case we might have tried to avoid the mysterium tremendum, in worship, we have had the lava flow of Hebrews to terrify us, the ringing prophetic voice like no other in Jeremiah to rivet us, the heart wringing prayer of David in the Psalms to stop us in our tracks.  Our visitor emerges from this kind of strange world—Hebrews, Jeremiah, Psalms—the strange world of the Bible.  Strange. The Bible is very different, up to and including its most distinctive different difference, the Gospel of John.

Yes, wee have a special guest with us today.  He has made his way into our midst, through a long and arduous journey.  Because his presence has come at significant expense in time, labor and effort, and because his presence is precious to us, in ways both known and unknown, both speak-able and unspeakable, we pause to honor him.

Our guest began life as a story told perhaps among shepherds and wanderers.  His is the kind of story beloved of the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the lame.  His is the kind of story beloved by you, at 3am, with troubles.  His is the kind of story audible to the mortal, the sick, those in need, and those beyond help in need.   Our guest brings a Sunday story.  Six days shalt thou avoid your impending death and your ongoing fragility and your endless fault lines, but the seventh shall be a Sabbath unto the Lord.

Allow me to present him to you, if you will.  You may greet him with a Methodist handshake.  He already knows you, as the Bible knows us where and when we know ourselves not, as God knows us, though we were to know ourselves not at all—what sweet truth!   That is, you need no introduction to you.  He knows you.  But allow me to present him to you, perhaps for the first time, but more likely for the first time in a long time.  Isn’t it happy to have such a guest today?

In his younger days, he was a story told along the highways and byways of life.  It may be that he was a Palestinian.  The fifty by one hundred and fifty mile rectangle of ancient Judea was probably his home in his growing up days, though as for that, we cannot be entirely sure.   As a story goes, he is an old one, from the time of his youth until today.   Remember we piped to you but you did not dance, we wailed to you but you did not weep?  That account earlier in the gospel of children playing games in the marketplace, one group wanting to play the game called ‘weddings’ the other wanting to play the game called ‘funerals’?  Pipes?  Wails?   Of course life is much more than weddings and funerals, isn’t it? Or is it?  Our guest was in the mix of these sorts of stories and games and reposts and conversations and imaginative utterances.

As a Palestinian, spoken in Aramaic, our guest found his way to Jesus, or to someone close to Jesus, or to Luke, or to someone close to Luke (by then translated if that is the case, into simple—koine—Greek).   You see he has quite a pedigree (Lk 11:43, 20:46).  What an honor for us to have him here.   (Note:  if I were presenting to you a human guest who is 2000 years old, who has traveled from the ancient Middle East to us in our modern experience of the ongoing middleeastification of American life, who has consorted with Jesus and Luke and all, who has been a compinche, compadre, companion to Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich and Georgia Harkness and Mother Teresa and Mother Olga and your Momma and mine, who has been spoken and spoken of since before Polycarp was a pup—would you not be astounded?)  We venerate the venerable, in worship:  ringing out for us are sturdy words, millennia old.

Greet him please.  Our guest is our Gospel reading, an ancient manuscript.   We rightly stand, at his reading in the service, to honor him.   In worship, he stands among us, VERBUM DEI, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, St Luke, Chapter 14, vss. 7-11, though before his life in ministry he was simply an ordinary businessman, walking the dusty trails of Bethlehem and Nazareth and Capernaum and Jerusalem.   He is the everlasting account of a wedding banquet, which, like all social moments, is one full of both treasure and treachery, a feast to which you—YOU!!!—have been invited.

Peer into his eyes for a moment.  Our visitor awaits your recognition.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Can one acquire humility without enduring humiliation? It is a serious question.  Discomfort, we ignore.  Pain, we obey.   The preaching of the gospel is the utterance of the word of faith in the hope, and in the trust, that such a word may become, by God’s grace, an intervening word, a saving word, a word that enters and changes the course of life.   Can humility so conveyed and so acquired protect us from humiliation, learning the hard way, learning from experience?

You may be curious about our guest’s features, temperament, personality, and resume.  His extended family includes a hero from Proverbs: Claim not honor in the presence of the King, Nor stand in the place of great men; it is better for you to be told, ‘Come up hither’, than to be humbled before a noble (25:6).   The question of whether you are seated ‘below the salt’ or not abides.  His face is present also in Luke 18: 14 (everyone who…) and Matthew 23: 12 (everyone who…) and James 4: 6 (God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble).  He has a second cousin or two in Luke’ ‘sermon on the plain’ (Lk.  6).   His is a familiar face, one you recognize even though you cannot place it immediately:  Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  Our guest has many colleagues in traditional Jewish wisdom literature, and shares its characteristics of artistic language, hyperbole, paradox, metaphor, and (here) similitude.  Our guest is not really a parable, though Luke kindly affirms him so.  He is a simple tale, with a proverbially twist.  The story he tells warns about humility, in the mode of a wedding feast.  The twist, at the end, announces a turning in the world, from high to low and low to high.  And here, he shows his true colors.  He is an introduction to the Christ of God.  Luke 14: 7 intimates, whispers, a reverence for the divine humility, the hiddenness, silence, absence of God.

Luke has included, here, a wisdom saying fit to the voice of Jesus. To honor others, to count others in higher esteem, to give credit where credit is due, to develop a capacity for wonder and vulnerability and self-mockery, to take ourselves lightly that we may fly like the angels, to acquire a capacity for humility—such a process of development in life, here, in this wisdom saying, fit to the voice of Jesus, is offered us as a way of life, of health, of salvation, of peace.

Peer into his eyes for a moment.  Our visitor awaits your recognition.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Can one acquire humility without enduring humiliation? (repeat) It is a serious question.  Discomfort, we ignore.  Pain, we obey.

For us, as part of a national culture now careening toward and into an apotheosis of hubris, the similitude of Luke 14 hits home.  The way of the long future is along the path of humility.  But we get tired of humility, because it is a tiring and tiresome talent to hone.  We get tired, and if we get scared when we get tired, if a portion of fear is laden into a potion, poisonous potion, of pride, and if that fear potion is potent enough to carry us, we forget who we are.  We forget Emma Lazarus and prefer demagoguery.  We forget Lincoln and support nativism.  We forget King and accept narcissism.  We forget Jesus the crucified and cleave to the cry of triumphalism, out of fear and out of exhaustion and out of amnesia.  We forget the advice of the author of Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.  We turn aside from the prophetic voice of Jeremiah, Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Can we acquire a modicum of humility, that measure we will minimally need as a people, without enduring humiliation?  Can we learn without learning the hard way?  Can we see the pending consequences through the lenses of humility, without needing, in order to learn, a full experience of humiliation?  Or, as so often in history, will we need to drink the bitter cup of full cultural and national humiliation, in order for humility to return?  I would like to be optimistic… Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way.  To learn what?  Pride goeth before a fall.

For us as individuals, who have known more than our share, as our guest reminds us, more than our share of elbowing our way to the head of the table, the similitude of Luke 14 hits home.  Narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leads to life, and few there be who go therein.  We all, one way or another, get born on third base and think we hit a triple.  We all see a turtle on top of a fence post and think he got there by climbing.  We all preach our version of the sermon, Humility and How I Achieved It.  We all have one set of arithmetic for our own deeds and misdeeds and another for others, one abacus for our own intentions and another for those of others.  We all can stand a little and more than a little house cleaning when it comes to the rooms marked off by what we think we did when we didn’t and what we think we didn’t when we did.  There is, that is, still a place in the pilgrim faithful heart, for the quiet Yankee voice of self-criticism. There is still a value in the teacher who began every class bowing to the students, not knowing what range of genius might already be present.  H R Niebuhr in the evening hunted up a student whom he had chastised in the morning, asking forgiveness.  Can we learn without learning the hard way?  Can we see the pending consequences through the lenses of humility, without needing, in order to learn, a full experience of humiliation?  Or, as so often in history, will we need to drink the bitter cup of full personal humiliation, in order for humility to return?  I would like to be optimistic… Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way.  To learn what?  Pride goeth before a fall.

Mahatma Ghandi, whose favorite Christian hymn we have just sung, in sandals and Sari, walked four miles a day, among all his people.  He knew the English court, the banks of the Thames, the style and rhythms of British life, but went home.  Ghandi reminded us that for the hungry God will present, if at all, in bread.  To listen to the hurt in others, to pause before the hidden courage of others, to accept the grace to celebrate the good in others, to spot the one thing needful in the need of others—herein, behold, a humility, a divine humility—today’s special guest.   Shakespeare:  There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will. (He) ‘who came not to be served but to serve’…who today occupies the supreme place in history…to whom has been given the name that is above every name’. (So E F Tittle, Commentary on Luke 155).

Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom

Lead Thou me on

The night is dark and I am far from home

Lead Thou me on

Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see

The distant scene, one step enough for me

So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still

Will lead me on

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent till

The night is gone

And with the morn, those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost a while

Sursum Corda:  Lift up your hearts!  Great this Lord’s Day a Special Guest, Luke 14: 7, and shake his hand: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

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

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The Lukan Horizon

August 21st, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

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Come summer in the north, we are closer in some ways to nature, than we are otherwise.   You may be listening this morning, toes in the surf or sand, or high up a mountain trail, or along a lakeshore, or in the back lawn, coffee in hand.   We need the summer to survive the winter.  You are wise to embrace it.

In the evening hour, with a tenebrous cool after a long, hot day, you may have, this summer, looked out on a horizon, blue and pink and moving.   The day has a beginning at sunrise, and an end at sunset.  To know the day you need to know both, as to know a person you need some information regarding whence and more regarding wither.   To know people, and to know a people, the far horizon, tenebrous at dusk, is keenly, crucially meaningful.  Quo vadis?  Where are you headed?  Dime a donde andas, y te dire quien eres.

A question for those to be married:  where will you be ten years from today?  A question for those to matriculate:  to what end is your education?  A question for those entering retirement:  are there now different shores on which to land?  A question for those newly diagnosed, suddenly alone, shorn of routine, anxious about the unseen:  what is the ‘telos’, the point, the soul forming meaning of your disappointment, dislocation, or departure?  Our gospel affirms lasting meaning in life.

In particular, the Gospel of Luke paints a compassionate horizon.  The third gospel has a passion for compassion. In a broad compassion Luke locates our ultimate destination.

The National Preacher Series

Today concludes the tenth year of our annual Marsh Chapel Summer National Preacher Series.  Our intention has been to bring the best preachers—the best whether or not the best known—to address, either in some indirect or in some more linear fashion, a shared theme.  Listen again, on the website to some of our past sermons.  Consider ‘the Gifts of Summer’ in 2007, including the missionary witness of Mark and Lynn Baker.  Hear again (now) Bishop Mike McKee on the Call to Ministry in 2008.  Pick any of the ten sermons on Darwin and Faith from 2009, say that of Wesley Wildman.  Receive the Gospel from (now) Bishop Ken Carter, on the theme of Grace in 2010.  Hear Rev. Dr. Robin Olson on student ministry in 2011, or enjoy again the venerable voice of our saintly (now)deceased friend and neighbor, Professor Peter Gomes, earlier that year.  Learn about New Testament Apocalyptic, say with Dr. David Jacobsen, in 2012.  Enjoy the Peter Falk like voice of Dean Snyder, so wise and true, on Hope in the Church, 2013.   Reckon with Professor Jonathan Walton, summer 2014, on Emerging Adulthood.  Or reflect again on the Beloved Community, from last summer 2015, with the Rev. Dr. Regina Walton.  Our is a University Pulpit, and with your aid, support and engagement we shall continue to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.

The Summer Series 2016

Your 2016 series made some news earlier this summer. Our local reporter, Mr. Richard Barlow of BU Today wrote about the 2016 series:

The series kicks off Sunday, July 3, with the first of seven sermons on Luke’s Gospel and its central theme of compassion. The Lukan Horizon, as the series is named, seeks “to remember the compassion—the passion for compassion—in the person of Jesus the Christ,” says…dean of Marsh Chapel. The Gospel stresses humanitarianism and forgiveness; it’s the only one of the four Gospels with the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and it is full of sympathetic portrayals of women.

This message… contrasts with the “less than appealing and frankly appalling conditions of some parts of our culture that have been revealed in some ranges of (our recent experience).”

The compassion motif also echoes several recent Commencement addresses, Hill says, including the Baccalaureate talk this spring by Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (CAS’79, Hon.’16), who called on BU graduates to “embrace the cause of humanity with optimism and enthusiasm.” (BU Today, June 2016).  (We could quickly add the magnificent speech given this spring at the Boston University Humphrey Scholars graduation program May 9, 2016 by Hubert Humphrey’s niece, Dr. Ann Howard Tristani, who quoted her uncle’s famous 1948 spell binding Philadelphia aspeech: ‘There will be no hedging, no watering down, of the instruments and the principles of the civil rights program.  My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say we are 172 years late…To those who say this bill is an infringement on state’s rights, I say the time has arrived in America.  The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow states rights and walk forthrightly intot he bright sunshine of human rights.’  It is both stunning and tragic to recognize how much of what he addressed then is still with us this great, but troubled land, in today’s issues of urban violence and its state level address, in affordable health care usage (or not) state by state, in the lasting not just lingering formative power of slavery in the making of American Capitalism, in the willingness or lack thereof of those who have much, to provide for others who have little, in the use of a word like ‘liberty’ to mean its opposite, its very denial to tens of millions of poor children.  

Luke 13: Gospel and Tradition

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era (in fact, possible much later).  Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us.  We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find?  

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark.  An example is the memory of our passage today, Luke 13.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark.  But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need.  In fact, we are summoned and ordered to do so, and not free not to do so.  Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service.  Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere.  The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, where we find ourselves this morning, are all his.  Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward.  We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories.  Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say?  

This will take us the rest of the fall and more to more fully unravel.  We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one traditional episode at a time.  Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth.   First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose, or better said, divine meaning, in history—on this more in a moment.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way.  The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion.  Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.  Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’.  That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.   It is this feature of Luke, the Lukan Horizon, the Lukan passion for compassion, upon which our preaching has centered this summer.  So we are taught:  know history, think for yourself, love the church, have compassion.

Compassion in interreligious dialogue framed and formed the sermon by Br. Lawrence Whitney on July 3: ‘ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and causes us to recognize one another’. Compassion for those at the margins of society, including those who have suffered in this year’s tragic killings of various sorts and in various places, inspired the sermon of Chaplain Jessica Chicka on July 10: ‘the Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear’.  Compassion for those searching for meaning, and a direct challenge to find such in spiritual inwardness, self-discipline, and struggle gave the heart to Dean Lawrence Carter’s July 17 address.  Compassion for those of  ‘another flock’ gave wings to his July 24 acclamation—the witness of Ghandi, the voice of King, the advice of Thurman, the wisdom of Buddhism, the mothering of Hinduism and the stark reminder:  it is not Christian belief but its realization that finally matters.  Not belief but realization! Compassion and concern for our shared home, our natural habitat—a worthy and frequent theme in this pulpit—empowered Dr. Davies’ homily on July 31:  dominion is not domination, both optimists and pessimists can at least be meliorists, our children’s children will ask questions of or to us, about how we have cared for our environment.  Compassion of a substantial, material, physical, even financial kind—‘forgive us our debts’ carried the burden of the Communion Homily on August 7.  And last Sunday, beginning and ending with Tutu, probing the power of relational rather than authoritarian power, finding examples in hospitality near and far, the Rev. Susan Shafer, in the heat of the day, interpreted a tough passage from Luke and memorable line from our Vice President:  ‘the world needs from us not the example of our power, but the power of our example’.   It happens, perhaps providentially, but certainly in a timely way, that our lectionary readings this year hail from Luke.  Toward what horizon are we hiking?  Onto what shore do we hope to land?  By what compass and map, what star, what conscience call, what soulful spirit shall we be guided?  ‘Quo vadis?’  Whither?  Where are you headed?   Is yours, at twilight, a compassionate horizon?

Today’s Gospel, it happens, presents this theme under the cloud of smoke and pillar of fire of a familiar, pan Gospel, episode, Jesus’ compassionate willingness to heal on the Sabbath, to judge the Sabbath by its human or humanizing effect, to forever trump tradition with gospel, and to make religion necessarily subject to judgment in the categories of pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry and hypocrisy.  Is religion a good thing?  It can be.  Is the weather a good thing?  It can be.  It depends.

In our passage from St. Luke chapter 13, the Gospel writer has sharply implanted his own emphasis, on compassion.  The similar Sabbath passages are in Mark 2, Matthew 12, and John 5.   Luke explicitly heightens Jesus’ authority by placing him in the synagogue, in the synagogue teaching, and in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath.  Luke changes the gender of the afflicted person, from male to female.  Luke quantifies the hurt, to 18 years of suffering. Luke accentuates the verbal condemnation, ‘hypocrites’.  Luke connects the healed one to Abraham, and amplifies the size of Jesus’ legal victory, shaming adversaries and causing rejoicing by all.  Clearly, this is a story that has developed, that has lived a while, that has been marinating in the sauce of the church’s own growth, advance, and expanse.  Sadly, there is here the hint, the glimpse, the clear though far-off hymn, that hails—triumphalism.  Not Jesus the minority view rabbi, arguing uphill against a majoritarian Torah tribe, but rather Jesus the conqueror, the great debater, the winner of arguments about Torah.  We might do well to re-hear and rehearse Elie Wiesel’s lecture on this from 5 years ago.

The Far Horizon

One final note about Luke today.   The gospel itself, and its sibling book the Acts of the Apostles, written also by Luke,  make heavy use of a short, Greek verb.  The three letters, delta-epsilon-iota—not a fraternity or sorority as far as I know—mean simply ‘it is necessary, it is needful, it was necessary, it was needful’.   For St. Luke there is a necessity at work in the church’s expanding involvement within the culture around, and hence its need for story as legend, for leadership in unity from Peter to Paul, for organizational forms, bedrock heroes, and ways of thinking about others, and others within others.  Yet Luke’s spirit is one of compassion.  His theology is determinist to some degree.  He sees purpose, necessity, even fate if you will, behind most trees, and behind many bushes.  You may not see things that way, as many in late modernity do not.  In interpretation, you will then perhaps need to hear Luke’s song of necessity transposed into the key of meaning.  Purpose in the sense of meaning, not in the sense of destiny.   Not so much ‘God has a purpose for your life’ as ‘God has life for your purposes’.   

At Marsh Chapel we have the privilege to solemnize weddings on a regular basis, especially come summer.  You need summer to survive winter, here in the north.  There is grace in every wedding.  There is unspoken, volcanic power in the hearing and speaking of the vows in every wedding.  There is real change, which is real hard, heralded in every wedding.  A privilege—what a privilege—to be present at the creation, nay the new creation, of such a moment.  In a play otherwise precious and beautiful, Thornton Wilder had his dour New England minister say, as he prepared to marry Emily and George, speaking of his wedding experience, ‘Once in a thousand times it is interesting.’  That is the very opposite of my experience.  Over 40 years at 20-25 weddings a year on average, I have not reached, but may be closing in on his number.  Every one in the thousand was not just interesting but unutterably so.  A while ago we married one couple, who were standouts in spirit and soul.  Their four parents rose to greet them after the vows.  Her parents, the mother from Japan and the father from England.   His, the mother from India and the father from Italy.   Buddhist, Methodist, Hindu, Catholic.  Sometimes it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams.  And then you go to a wedding, and, as every other time in a thousand, it is not only interesting, but unutterably so.  This world can work.  It may take a little compassion.  But it can work.

Which brings us back to the very beginning.  Your purposes.  Your horizon.  Your outlook, perspective, your end point and its hope.  The offer of the Third Gospel, the horizon in Luke, is the possibility of a life of faith, girded in compassion.  Will such a life be ours?

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

More:  Will you consider—it is offered with love and care—perhaps reconsider, maybe accept an invitation to lead a faithful life?  To practice—nay, realize—the Christian faith?  To walk steadily toward a horizon of compassion–a Lukan Horizon?

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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Power by Example

August 14th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:49-56

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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