Sing We Now of Christmas

December 29th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 2: 13-23

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All in a Lifetime

Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble.   He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt.   So the prophet had predicted.


Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy.   Herod fulfills another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour.  So the prophet had predicted.


Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty.  His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean.  So the prophet had predicted.


Jesus is immersed in our full life.  Jesus is our childhood’s measure.  Day by day, like us he grew.   He was little, weak and helpless.  Tears and smiles like us he knew.  And he feeleth for our sadness.  And he shareth in our gladness.


The Christmas Gospel is this:  God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh.  For our present congregation, and especially come Christmas for our faithful radio congregants, listening from afar, we gladly announce this good news!


He came that we might have life and live it abundantly.   In the next century after his birth, Irenaeus was to say, in summarizing his salvation:  “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”


The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.


Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons:


For everything there is a season

And a time for every purpose under heaven


As we pause between Christmas and the New Year (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can incarnationally celebrate the seasons of life.  Look with me out at 2014, from a theological, liturgical, and religious perspective.  Listen on radio, from afar, to the ecumenical voice of Marsh Chapel, wherein all the families of Christendom, and of the earth itself, find a real home.  For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven!  Here is what I mean.  Every theological insight is here liturgically on site.


To Every Denomination there is a Season


  1. A.   Calvinists


You may not think much of the Presbyterians.  They can be cold people, I know.  ‘God’s frozen people’, said one.   You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair.  You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film.  But there is a time and a season.  When Ash Wednesday arrives in a couple months, we are all Presbyterians.  Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin.  For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught (more on him in a moment).  We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God.  We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others.  In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”.  His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight.  Yikes!  That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos.   I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one.   As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say:  “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!.” Marsh Chapel embraces Presbyterians, especially on Ash Wednesday.  As we have done other years on Atonement and M Robinson and D Bonhoeffer and J Ellul, we will preach on Calvin this March, 2014.  Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.


B.   Jesuits


Speaking of Lent, you may be thinking about the Jesuits.  Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. (I have taught in one, Lemoyne College, since 1989). Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior.  Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits.  In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline.  You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus.  You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation.  You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic.  In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you.  But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit.  As Teresa of Avila put it, “even when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” (Her voice we will need with our annual Marsh prayer brunch this Marathon Monday, April 21, 10am, here). Marsh Chapel embraces Jesuits, whether in the Vatican or on the street, especially in Lent.  Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.


C. Lutherans


Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due.  Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride.  I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia.  Lutherans!  We love you at Marsh Chapel! The Cross alone, come Good Friday, is our teaching.   Luther’s grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there.  We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short.  Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong.  It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry.  Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray.  Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing!   When it comes to the Cross, “nobody does it better” than Luther.


D. Baptists


I have just mentioned the Baptists.   This, you worry, brings the camel’s nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus, you say.   You give them an inch, they will take a mile, you say.  Speaking of miles, they can seem a mile wide and an inch deep, you say. They give anarchy a bad name, you say.  But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody.  Especially the Baptists.  For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit.   Every week I know you try to invite one person to join you in the joy of Marsh Chapel.  Baptists are embraced here. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us.  Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!”  (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.  Remember, we are gathering some Methodists here at 10am on May 22.)   Beware your caution about Baptists.  The Baptists are not all canoe and no paddle, not all axe-murder and no sheriff, not all fire and no hose, not all hat and no cattle, God love ‘em.   Not All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say.   The Baptists may seem almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity!  I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through.   When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little.  Yes you do.  Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble.    Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”  See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!

E. The Orthodox


The Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday.  Or on Monday.  They happily meet in Marsh Chapel every Monday evening, and there is but little hollering.  They’re not big shouters, except during their summer festivals, which happen to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday.  The more liturgical churches, Orthodox and Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, better than others.  We love the Orthodox at Marsh, especially come Trinity Sunday.  This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Muslims say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say).  God is three, three, three Faces in one.  Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us.  Their wedding services last three hours.  One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps.  When you come to June 15, go to a Greek festival and dance to the Triune God.  Go ahead.  Hug a Trinitarian in June!   A few blocks down Commonwealth, at Arlington Street, the ghost of William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self.   As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem,  “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.”  Our national 2014 summer preaching series, on the theme, ‘The Gospel and Emerging Adulthood’—with preachers Nix, Walton, Romanik and others—will help us revere God in our time.


F. Roman Catholics


Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics.  Every third member of our Marsh community today comes out of a Roman Catholic background.  Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this move accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds.  On World Communion Sunday 2014 we will all be Catholic! Especially this year and next when we look back with joy on Vatican II, and its explosion of aggiornamento—renewal.  Aggiornamento:  I love the chance to say a word in Italian. You are listening on the radio to Marsh Chapel.  With the universal church we here celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  With the universal church we here acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.  With the universal church we here recognize the global character of the Christian communion.   It has been the Roman Catholic church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time.  It has been the Catholic church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate.  It has been the Catholic church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us.  Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome.  John Wesley preached a whole sermon on extending an olive branch, a sign of peace, to the Romans.  From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people.  We know the value of an olive branch.  On World Communion Sunday , come October, we shall affirm here at Marsh, one holy, catholic and apostolic church.  We remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time.


G. Anglicans


Now, I just mentioned the Anglicans.  Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way, on little cat feet, into our seasonal review?  Typical.  You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse.  To the Episcopalian, a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”.  Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso.  They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints.  They agree to disagree, agreeably.  They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character.  Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma.  A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good!  Tallyho!  Pip-pip! Cheerio!   It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints.  One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast.  On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans.  (And on Halloween, too!!!).  Marsh Chapel loves Episcopalians.  They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III.  They are optimistic people!  Said Queen Victoria, “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”.


H. Quakers


Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, are ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors.  In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through.  Oh, you worship God.  You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second.  Still, the city of brotherly love, only a few hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature.  “I have called you Friends”, said our Lord.  I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus.  It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist!  The Quakers may not have been always as militarily committed as others may have liked.  In faith, they may have stepped aside when others had to step forward.  Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him.  In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesesteaks and twinkies and sculling on the Scuykill River.  We all await peace.  We remember Mother Ann Lee and the shaking Quakers singing, “in truth simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come round right.”


I.              The People Called Methodists


Do you suspect that we have saved the best for last?  For come December 2014 it will be Christmastide, again.  Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel!  A song greets the dawn.  It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation.  You are here to invite somebody to come to worship with you in 2014.  So you will ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale of Christmas.  Christmas means invitation.  The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains.  People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. Emerson:  the human being is convertible. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing.  In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, carolling, at youth group, by yourself.  To sing is to be a Methodist.  A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares.  All sing, but none so sweetly.  All sing, but none so vibrantly.  All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war 3.  All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys.  To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar:  let the games begin! And what shall we sing?  Carols of course.  And which carols.  Those of the English tradition of course.  And which of these? There is but one of the first rank.    It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist.  The primitive church told two stories of Jesus, that of his death (Holy Week and Easter) and that of his birth (Advent and Christmas).  You must sing both, not just one, or the other.  So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.  So they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless.  (I love my church with all my heart, even in the teeth of all our difficulties.) So they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal—orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including 128 US schools and colleges, with Boston University leading the parade. So Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, 17 of whom survived, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!”, another of whom, Charles, gave us the gospel at Christmas:


Hail the heaven born prince of peace

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Light and life to all He brings

Risen with healing in his wings

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that we no more may die

Born to raise the us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the herald angels sing!

Glory to the Newborn King!


Can you hear this?  It begs a hearing.  If you do, I challenge you, call you to a resolution:  find a church in 2014!  Worship God once a week next year!  Join us here at Marsh Chapel!  And bring a friend with you!


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

Christmas Experience

December 24th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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

In 1978, barely married one year, Jan and I were living in a tiny apartment, too small even for a piano, under the wings of Riverside Church NYC.   Jan worked as a secretary in the Interchurch Center, the ‘God Box.’  To help finance the operation I was working at night as a security guard, studying for my afternoon classes and making rounds from 11pm -7am, then sleeping until noon.  Near Christmas, Jan had a day off, and went shopping,  by accident leaving our apartment door ajar.  I awoke about 11am to see a poor street woman standing over me, with a knife and rosary beads.  Somehow she had passed the receptionist and found her way in.  I hoped the rosary beads meant more to her than the knife.  But seeing her I shouted.  She promptly raced into the bathroom and locked the door.  About noon Jan came home to find police cars and a crowd outside McGiffert Hall.  ‘Your husband was down here in his pajamas’ one said.  ‘Really?’, Jan replied.  “Police are up in your apartment’ one said.  ‘Really?’ Jan replied.   ‘There is a woman in your apartment too’ one said.  ‘Really?’ Jan replied.  ‘She is taking a bath up in your bathroom’ one said.  ‘Really?’ Jan replied.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the poor—the street cast, the mentally ill, the drug harmed, the urban lost—the poor.  The poor, like the Shepherds abiding in the field.


In 1980, with one child asleep upstairs, and one on the way to his birth three months later, we sat down in a small Ithaca parsonage for a Christmas Eve dinner.   Services were over.  Snow was falling, heavy, snow on snow.  The hillside Warren Drive was all white.   The baby grand piano sat silent next to us.   Jan went up to check the child.  All of a sudden, a large four-door sedan careened down the hill, turned sideways, nearly flipped, and smashed into the guard rail, just feet from our dining room.  Out stumbled three natives of the subcontinent of India.  Waiting for a truck, they sat with us, and ate a little and drank some tea.  ‘They look like the three wise men”, Jan whispered.  Dark, darker, and darkest—Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. It takes a while to get a truck on Christmas Eve.  When he did arrive, the driver gave evidence of Christmas cheer.  He was a jolly, happy soul.  ‘They look like wise men from the east’ he said.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the globe—the 6 billion siblings on 7 continents and myriad tongues—the globe.  The Wise Men 3, bowing before the Christ.


In 1983, on Christmas Eve day, in the drafty living room of the Burke NY parsonage, an hour south of Montreal, with two children asleep for nap, and one on the way to his birth seven months later, we stood beside the baby grand piano for a wedding.  A farm hand and his girlfriend, living up the road in a trailer, with the minister’s wife as witness, musician, caterer, and greeter, took their vows after carols and before cookies.  As the rings were exchanged the two ostensibly napping children peered out from the stairwell.   Leaving, he gave me four dollars.  They were going for lunch to celebrate at the Cherry Knoll diner.   They had nothing, and they had everything.  It was a sort of Norman Rockwell scene—and aren’t these all?  Rockwell has finally come into his artistic kingdom, this year, 2013, at last honored as real artist.  But that Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime reminder of the mystery of marriage against a background of rural life—farm work, cattle, livestock, milking, the good earth—farm life.  Mary and Joseph and the utter mystery of birth.


In 1988, 25 years ago this weekend, we left our children by the piano with a sitter, and went by foot, through the snow, to see the Syracuse Orangemen play basketball.  The game was interrupted with the stark announcement of a new tragedy, the crash of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie Scotland.  Neighbors of ours, students, and other students from other schools perished in what in retrospect was a harsh harbinger of further such acts of violence to come in 1995 and 1998 and 2001 and 2013.  I looked again at the Christmas sermon preached later that week, an offering drenched in sorrow.   SU Chancellor Melvin Eggers I believe never really recovered from the crash.  Maybe none of us has.  Twelve years later, dropping our son off for college at Ohio Wesleyan, I chanced to meet a man with deeply sunken eyes, who, as it happened, was the head of SU study abroad that year.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a warning about the way the world would change in the decades to follow, and a call to gentleness in an age of violence.  Rachel is still weeping for her children.


In 1992, we wrapped presents beside the piano, to give to a father and children on Dell Street, in the Westcott Street neighborhood,  assigned to our church by the rescue mission.  The dad we knew as a pizza deliverer.  The 6 year old was in our son’s class.  Both were names Stanley Grobsmith, senior and junior.  Our son had been to a birthday party in their very modest home.  We had left him off for an hour or two.  Dad brought his three children to worship, sitting in the back pew, those weeks near Christmas.  He was a boxer, a single father.   That winter he was arrested for murder—I pass over the gruesome details—and hung himself in jail.   We were committed to city ministry, to work with the urban poor, to rebuilding a city church, to teaching in city schools.  But we were chagrined to realize the danger we had placed our son in.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, bone chilling reminder of violent evil—murderous, wild, ever present, harsh, sinful wrong—violent evil.   Herod on the hunt, from whom the wise fled, going home by another way.


In 2005, on Christmas Day, and following 5 Rochester Christmas Eve services and 1 Christmas morning, Jan and I stopped up the street to visit Lucille Burke.   She had been in surgery mid-week, and now was home, we were told.  A round faced, elderly, Bible studying, daughter of a Methodist minister, she would stop sometimes and listen to the piano lessons in our living room.  I saw Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels on her shelf.  With wide eyes—hers and ours—she told us her hospital experience.  On the day of surgery, she heard her name called, prepared herself in body and spirit, lipstick and prayer, and saw the stretcher coming.  It came right to her room and then went right on by, to the room next door, inhabited by a non responsive patient.  They took her in place of Lucille, even though Lucille rang bells and waved and called out.  Fortunately, before the wrong knee was replaced, someone saw the confused woman’s wrist band, and brought her back, and took Lucille up for surgery.  That Christmas morning we offered a prayer of thanks and talked about malpractice.  I thought, walking home, about the rarity of physicians’ malpractice and how at most its effects last one lifetime.  I also thought about metaphysical malpractice, bad theology as opposed to bad surgery, and recognized it lasts three generations at least.  That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, sobering reminder of metaphysical malpractice, and its multi-generational endurance.  Sober John the Baptist, winnowing fork in hand, separating theological wheat from spiritual chaff.  More on this in the sermon coming January 26, 2014.


At Christmas we are reminded to learn with the Shepherds about the poor, with the Magi about the globe, with Mary and Joseph about the mystery of marriage,  with Rachel about weeping, with Herod about violence, and with John the Baptist about metaphysical malpractice.  We learn from our own experience.  We learn in our own experience.  Christmas is about incarnation, about divine presence, about the word made flesh, about spirit in life.  We learn from our own experience, as, one Christmas, Albert Schweitzer did say:


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


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

Gentle Christmas

December 22nd, 2013 by lwhitney

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The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.

We can live in a new way.

“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do.  This is a day of new beginnings.  Our God is making all things new”.

You can continue to live in the old way.

Or you can live a different life, beginning today.


Paul’s Christmas Gospel

Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He introduces himself this morning, to the Romans and to us, in our first lesson. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth.  Or of birth.   Of Christmas, he says only:  “born of a woman, born under the law”.  (Gal. 4: 4 When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons)  A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.

Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church.  Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season:  Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.

In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached our reading from Matthew 1: 18-25, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum.  How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and a complicated birth?  How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in women?  How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s calling, vocation, blessing and authority?

More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with the multiple nursery scenes found in the first three gospels?

You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth.  All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment.  What do we know about it?

And Paul?

How can men–how could Paul–possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth?  Especially when this birth is not just birth but–Incarnation?

Paul has had a hard ride for the past 50 years.  In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed.  In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of gradual acceptance of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed.  In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years.  From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.

Which brings us to Christmas 2013 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”!  Hear his self-introduction from Romans today and behold:  Paul understands the Gentle Christmas Gospel.  Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in another of his letters, his earliest, 1 Thessalonians 2:7

I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to spank out a claim on you.  If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody.  Even me, even you.  Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns.  Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside.  Especially if all this imagery—shepherds, kings, Mary, Herod, the Baptist—does not appeal to you, and you feel a bit on the outside.  Actually, in the main, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.

In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel.  It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!

This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same.

The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul.  From Pharisee to freedom fighter.  From inquisitor to preacher.  From religion to faith.  From law to gospel.  He was been given the “wings of the morning”.  There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.

Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”.  Gentle?  Paul?  Apparently so, at least now and then.    And then, “nurse”.  The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethescopes, or medications.  It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid.  We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”.  The word, ηπιον, means wet nurse or nursing mother.  The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning.  Paul is staggeringly clear, however.  He describes himself as like a wet-nurse!  Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving.  As in, nursing a child.

I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing.  If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!

A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:

Here is conversion in great might.  It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”.  But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid.  Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ. (IBD loc cit)

Yet Clarke climbs only half the mountain.  Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast.  What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way!  That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.

Paul probably did not know the account in our reading from Matthew 1 today, with its picture of Mary and Jesus, or its siblings in the other gospels.  He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives.  I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity.

But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.


Your Christmas Gospel

And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices.  Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes.  Yours can too.

Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.

Yours can too.  You can live in a new way.  You can.

It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile.  It is the way of love for those who are not lovely.  It is the way of the love of enemies.  It is the way of forbearance.  It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness.  It is the way of prayer for those who persecute.  It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children.  Gentle as a nurse…

In a year of violence past, we may be ready to hear this.  After Newtown.  After Marathon Monday.  After Syria.  After a long train and strain of losses, more personal and private.

Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way.  Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.

If Paul can “get it”, all can.  This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart.  The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  Hearing by the word of God.

We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence.   But this is Christmas.   With Matthew we may marvel at the mystery of Christ.  With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.

We can live in a new way.  The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.


Three Applications

First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community.  In a year that included Newtown and Marathon Monday, we can afford to listen to the strange language of the Bible, and of Paul.  I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove.  We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all.  We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time.  As Inman says, in the novel Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”.  Collisions are virtually inevitable.  But they can be softened.

My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened.  Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached:  in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless.  Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established. 

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable.  Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way.  A little dull as a solution you will say?  Yet there is some truth in this view.

Second.  More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice.  I saw recently 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus.  They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

         He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.

         And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

         And all flesh shall see it together.

         Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)

         Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!        

So they receive Christ.  Here is a door held.  There is a criticism softened.  Here is a preparation made.  There is a courtesy extended.  Here is a listening ear.  There is a gesture of welcome.

As we follow our course let us not become coarse.

I remember a Christmas more than thiry years ago, when we lived in NYC.  Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play.  One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly.  She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience:  “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.

At our best, Marsh Chapel and this community both set a fine example of acculturated gentility.  (That is a compliment, by the way.  Just so you know.)  It is not just what you do that counts, it is how you do it.

At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”.  Men and women both.   I can be even more personal.  The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister.  It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care.  Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other.  Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist.  Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough.  But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids.  That means time spent.  That means some tolerance for untidiness.  That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness.  That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical.  That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect.  Life is messy.  Community life is particular messy.  That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant.  That means risking getting bitten.  That means burping and wiping and holding.  And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of now young life!  That sounds like hard work!  Manger work.  Nursery work.  New Creation work.

Third.  Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse.  Someone wrote, mimicking, yes, Paul, in 1 Cor 13:

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that  I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.  Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.


A Time to Choose 

This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart.  “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”.  Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.

Are you ready to live in a new way?

For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard.  So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing.  There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah.  No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger.  “A smoking cradle”, said Karl Barth, is all we have of Christmas.   How about you?  Are you ready for Christmas, for a gentle Christmas?

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

The Bach Experience

December 8th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 3: 1-13

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Dean Hill:


Before Jesus there was John, before the Christ there was the Baptist.  Jesus was a disciple of John.  John prepared the way for Jesus.  As we listen with word and music, perhaps we can ponder the power of precursors.


Before Christmas there is Advent, before the incarnation is the anticipation.  The feast of Christmas comes after the penitence of Advent.  The joy of birth comes after the anxiety of expectation.  As we listen with word and music, today let us ponder the power of precursors.


Before tradition there is event, before understanding there is experience.   The rolling voice of the Baptist is the event through which we each year pass in order to come to our understanding of Christmas.  The joy of the feast comes after the murky dark water of the Jordan river, and the towering ferocity of John, in camel’s hair eating locusts.


Before Matthew there was Mark, before teaching there was preaching, before catechesis there was kerygma.  Matthew is an interpreter of Mark.  Mark is the model for Matthew.  As we listen with word and music, perhaps we can ponder the power of precursors.


We might want to pause a moment to greet Matthew in a personal way.  He will be our gospel guide for 51 weeks, walking alongside us as we climb the mountain of existence.   He is not eating locusts and honey nor wearing camel’s hair and sandals, though his attire is both strange and ancient.


His is a difficult introduction to make.  “The difficulty is rather the character of the Gospel itself—a Greek Gospel, using Greek sources, written for a predominantly Gentile church, at a time when the tradition had become mixed with legend, and when the ethical teaching of Jesus was being reinterpreted to apply to new situations and codified into a new law…It cannot have been written by an eye witness.  It is a compendium of church tradition, artistically edited, not the personal observations of a participant” (IBD 242)

The outline of Jesus’ life in Matthew is like that in Mark.  Galilee.  Jerusalem.  Country. City.  Small. Large. (A good pattern for the trajectory of much ministry).

Matthew has added a collection of teachings to Mark (but just added it to situations already known to Mark).  He also adds legendary material (infancy narratives).

As in Mark, Jesus is a teacher and healer. Geography and scenery are the same.  Are there two sibling gospels and three synoptics?

He combines Mark’s chronological and geographical outline, with lots of new material, so that we have a real catechism, sometimes seen as five different sections.  Matthew likes the number 7.  He exhibits a lot of ecclesiastical piety.

Matthew comes from Jewish rabbinic circles.  And a Christianizing of the portrait of the disciples. ‘The reference to the fulfillment of prophecy which pervades the whole book and derives from the author’s theological as well as his apologetic anti-Jewish interest’. (R Bultmann, HSG, 381) He raises the stature of Jesus into the divine.

“His prose differs from that of Plato to approximately the extent that the English in the news columns of a well written daily differs from that of Shakespeare and the King James Version” (IBD, op cit, 239).

Our passage prepares us for worship, for the singing of God’s praises, for glory to God in the highest.  Is this not, Dr Jarrett, our reason for hearing this Bach this Sunday?


Dr. Jarrett: TBA


Dean Hill:

We ponder the power of precursors, in days during which around the globe we ponder the influence of Nelson Mandela.

You will at some point sense a nudge to join in this parade.  Some will do so by listening on the internet.  Some will do so by tuning in via radio.  Some will do so by coming to 735 Commonwealth Avenue.  Next Sunday with Lessons and Carols would be a good one to do so, and to bring a friend.

It is a privilege and weekly joy to see this community of faith gathering at 11am on Sunday.  A student, bagel in hand, trundles up the stairs.  A couple who have driven from an hour to the west find an aisle seat, then following worship have lunch and do one city thing each week.  A husband and wife, catholic and protestant, join us for two services, this one at 11am—then a break—and catholic mass at 12:30.  A young couple with tiny tots finds the energy and discipline to bring the family for worship and study.  An older man, alone some of the week, becomes a part of an empowering community.

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder.  Sunday at 11am, one way or another, is the way back to wonder.  To hear something that is beautiful.  To see someone who is good.  To hear some word which is true.  These are the seeds of wonder.

Then, from here on Sunday, you may find your way elsewhere during the week.  To audit a class on Lincoln on Monday.  To hear a panel of 12 interfaith students on Tuesday.  To watch the basketball team on Wednesday.  To hear a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls on Thursday.  To attend  the Shakespeare Project on Friday.  To take in a concert on Saturday.   Friends, your life of faith in worship can be centered at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and for your fellowship, education and service you may swim through the whole University!   I do not know—anywhere—a better way to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.  I do not know a better way to nurture the soul and so to grow great hearted future leaders.  And we do need such…

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ

December 1st, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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

A Thanksgiving Medley

November 24th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 23:33-43

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         It is hard to think about Thanksgiving and not think of food in general and turkey in particular.  So attentive are we to the meal itself that the Thanksgiving prayer we offer becomes an afterthought, unless carefully we pause to think about a prayerful recipe for a real thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley of nourishment both for body and for soul. The meal, the turkey, we leave to you.  But here, in sermonic guise, we offer a recipe for the prayer on Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley, a recipe, that is, for a thanksgiving prayer.


First, clean. To start, you might clean the outside of the prayer.  Pluck its feathers. Wash its torso.  Get rid of the fluff that does not feed anyway.  Especially this year perhaps we can dispense with the note of pride, of self-congratulation that so easily enters the heart.  ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, liars, or even like this publican here’.  Jesus directly proscribed such prayer.  Pluck and clean and here is what you find.  Most of who we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  Our genetic makeup.  Our history.  Our natural surroundings.  Our upbringing.  Our humors and talents.  Our religious tradition or lack thereof.  For all our vaunted independence, we depend, utterly depend, truly depend, we are deeply dependent for what counts:  for life, for forgiveness, for eternal life.  For all our vaunted enterprise, we have relied on others, and we have been shaped by others.  Is there a better city in North American in which to remember that than Boston?  As a city, as a people, as a nation, as a church, we are the creatures of the courage of others, who in one sense or another gave the last full measure of devotion.  Who are we kidding anyway?  Most of what we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  As my friend says, ‘if you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he did not get there on his own’.


The Psalmist knew this.  ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for hehas looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.


Paul of Tarsus also knew this.  “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.”


This is why the patterns of gratitude, day and week and month and year and all are so important to the soul.  Good for you.  You find a daily way to say a word of thanks or write a note of thanks to someone, somewhere, somehow.  Good for you.  You find a way to worship on Sunday, to bestir yourself and enter a community of faith, shoulder to shoulder with other unfeathered bi-peds, so that, if nothing else, in public you may say ‘thank you’—to God, to life, to others.  Good for you.  You find a way once a month to be in service, in mission.  Ministry is service.  Today our students and others gather at noon to pack meals for hungry children.  Tomorrow you may send off an extra thanksgiving check to the Philippines.  Good for you.  You find a rhythm, year by year, for arranging your finances to match hour values.  You give.  You give by percentage.  You tithe.  You make a plan and plan your giving and give by your plan.  Good for you.  You think hard and long about what your will, your end of life giving will be, and so model that dimension of spirituality for your children and others.  Maybe your estate itself will include a tithe.  Good for you.  A daily note, a weekly worship, a monthly service, a yearly gift, a concluding bequest—these are patterns of gratitude that shape the soul and heal the earth.  Good for you.  Be generous of spirit, like Abraham Joshua Heschel:

         Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

God is than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.  Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.


To give thanks means first to pluck the bird’s less generous, more self centered, less magnanimous feathers, one at a time.


Second, season.  Cleansed, our prayer is ready for a little seasoning.  Personal seasoning.  Real gratitude is real personal.  Prayer is intimate.  Prayer is personal.  Like a sermon.  Utterly personal.  Like a photograph.  Utterly personal.  A prayer of thanks is thanks for what makes a personal difference.  For a friend sent along by life’s surging current.  For a spouse met.  For a child.  For a child saved from death in a car accident.  For a lawsuit avoided or weathered.  For an assault survived. For a family fence mended.  For a vocation.  For a vacation.  For an exciting new job.  For breath, for breadth, for board.


The eternal flame, which Jacqueline B Kennedy imagined atop the president’s grave, is a flickering reminder to us all of what his tragically foreshortened life gave our common life.  I hope this holiday season that you will keep a sort of eternal flame flickering atop your life as well.  Our span of life, threescore and ten, upon this earth, is starkly brief.  Yet each soul carries an eternal flame, a lasting marrow, a heavenly destiny, a personal dimension.  You have an angelic prospectus.  You want to live, to speak, to choose, to act, to do—and especially to pray—with a recollection of eternity.  Under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis.  Mrs. Kennedy, in the days following her husband’s murder 50 years ago, found the grace to send a handwritten note of condolence to the wife of a Dallas policeman who had also been killed in those same hours, by the same gunman.  There is an eternal flame flickering in such an act, in such a kindness, partly because it so personal.  “Others may not understand what you are going through” it seems to say, “but I surely do”.


We went north toward Montreal in 1981 to serve two little churches with two little children and too little money.  We went to Montreal in order to study for a PhD so that one day we could come to Boston and teach in the school of theology and preach in Marsh Chapel and offer pastoral care to an academic community of 40,000.  Be glad for what you do not have, for it is the doorway into what you will have.  That summer of 1981 we were given a car, and old red Ford Mustang convertible, anno domini 1973.  A real boat, v8, white top, black interior, and rust to the horizon.  Said the donor:  ‘it will last you 6 months.  Leave it in a field’.  It lasted 10 years.  It was such a thoughtful and such helpful gift—the right thing at the right time in the right way—that no words could ever convey our gratitude (Hart on gift).  No formal note—“Dear Aunt Esther, in life’s many vicissitudes it is so important to be made mindful of those who help…blah, blah, blah…’ No. Thanksgiving is a personal shout, a cry from the heart:  Thank You!


Alice Walker appeared on late night television a while ago.  She said two stunning things.  ‘At middle age’, she said, ‘I am learning to slow down so that whatever life intends for me will have an easier time catching up’.  Then, after minutes of complements for Nelson Mandela, and what he did for South Africa, she reflected:  ‘of course, he is a great leader, but the point is that each one of us is to be our own great leader’.  Personal. Personal. Very personal.

This is why our friends are so deeply, lastingly meaningful to us.  Our north country friend Max Coots wrote one Thanksgiving:


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”



A sermon does not conclude the preaching for the week.  A sermon begins the preaching for the week.  The point of a sermon is found in your active, personal articulation of faith.  In a journal.  In public speaking.  In a simple devotional at a meeting.  In the shower.  And, this Thursday, in a thanksgiving prayer.  Sit down ahead of time and right it out.  Make it personal.  Season it so.  Season it properly.  Find your tongue.  Season it personally.


Third, cook.  Cook the prayer.  Cook it in experiences of adversity. Let the adverse experiences of life make our prayer and our soul tender.  If nothing else, our own hurts make us more empathetic to others. One of my forebears in the ministry, long ago used this line and it has stuck.  It is nothing to remember a line for thirty years, when it is a real sentence: ‘Let the heat of adversity make us tender’.  Sometimes nothing else will.  This is a difficult point.  When I heard my friend utter the line, because I knew his experience, I wept.  There is no way finally to understand, let alone justify, the heat of life at its worst.  But we can pray that such adverse experience will humanize us, that such heat will make us tender.


Let the bird cook, simmer.  Cooking makes the bird tender.  Life’s heat can make us tender too, if we will allow the time and heat and patience to hold us.


Think again of Paul.  ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us.’  Think again today of Christ, the Redeemer, who himself entered the darkest sphere of suffering, mocked as a common criminal but carrying through the cross, and the crosses of all life, a remembrance of paradise.


In the radio congregation today, and in the visible congregation today, there are many who know this well.  You have graciously preached this sermon in your own lives.  You have faced adversity and so become spiritually sensitive.  You have felt physical pain but have learned redemptively to manage your suffering.  You have suffered loss and survived.  You have managed suffering redemptively.  You have worn the ancient clothing:  ‘afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; and you do not lose heart, for though the outer nature is wasting away, the inner nature is being renewed every day’.  For all the heat, your Thanksgiving prayer this year will be most tender and most sweet.


Here is a Thanksgiving medley, a recipe for a prayer at Thanksgiving.  Clean it.  Season it. Cook it.  Cleanse it of pride.  Season it in person.  And allow the heat of adversity to make it tender.


It was this recipe that my BU religious life leaders on Wednesday perceived in Dean Howard Thurman’s exemplary prayer:


Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

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


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

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood…

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

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


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

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

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

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


I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

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

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

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

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

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

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

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

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

Could inspire and God could command.

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


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

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

(Dear God), in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.


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

New Frontier

November 17th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 21: 5-19; 2 Thess. 3: 6-13; Isaiah 65: 17-25

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1. Ford

In the Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit, you will find a remarkable assortment of Amerabilia.  Would you like to see Ford’s first automobile?  Its tiny little black wooden self greets you.  Do you remember the Edsel?  Here is one.  Have you spent time over the years in a Howard Johnsons—not recently, I know, but once on a time?  Here are signs for the restaurant and the ice cream and the motel.  Do you own a map of the country that features Route 66?  You will want one after this tour.  Did you ever see one of those amphibious cars, both auto and boat, with drive shaft and propellers?  The museum has one in baby blue.  What is it about that 57 Chevy?  One two tone, green and cream, greets you.


I did not plan to be personally moved in the car museum and was not moved.  Until the end.  At the end there is a procession of presidential automobiles, sort of Motor Force One, you could say.  One that TR used and with him Woodrow Wilson.  FDR had a great black one.  And Eisenhower, too.  I think they were all Lincolns.  Most of the detail, though, I forgot as I came to the 1963 version.  Now topped, not convertible.  Now bulletproof, not open.  Now shined, black and immobile, not dusty and scuffed and moving past a grassy knoll.  But right there, right blessed there.

A fine, long, black 1963 Lincoln Continental, the very best of American engineering, on the best of American roads, in the best of American cities, carried the best of American leaders…to his death.


What do you recall of November 22, 1963, almost exactly 50 years ago?

2. November

These gray days, late autumn days, with shifting light and shadow—they carry an uncanny significance.  Something in them.  Something in the naked tree limbs, grasping empty gray.  Something in the crisp air, foretaste of winter to come.  Something in the constant twilight.  Something of a cosmic sacrality lurks behind the dark maple limbs of November.


The naked limbs also recall the violent death of a young president.  Television and modern American violence have grown up together over forty years.   Our childhood introduction to violence.  To gun violence.  (It is striking that our current national conversation about gun violence makes so little reference to this formative, symbolic moment, involving a single shooter and a single rifle).  Women and men of one generation know where they were on November 22, 1963 at 2:00pm, like those of another generation recall December 7, 1941, and those of yet another will recall September 11, 2001.  They remember the hour the message came, the people who delivered the word, the reactions of family members, the atmosphere of the day, the hidden meanings, unspoken words, portents of the future which all were somehow connected to the dark maple limbs of that November.  One remembers:  the flag covered casket, borne by a simple wagon, drawn by a team of horses; crowds of mourners; women’s black hats; men’s fedoras; children waving; school flags at half mast; bewilderment, anger, fear, grief.  An English teacher recites Whitman’s then 100 year old eulogy for Abraham Lincoln:


O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won

Exult O shores and ring O bells

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies

Fallen cold and dead.


3. Scripture

Preliminarily, Jesus first reminds us that we all face judgment, an accounting, a reckoning.  This is not news.  Life itself spells this out for us.  Old age, dusk, autumn, November—we know in our bones about accounting time.  Harvest, report cards, evaluations, income tax—we know in our experience about judgment.  Jesus calmly reminds us that life includes reckoning.  Here he says nothing by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations.  He tells us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives.  Preliminarily, Jesus second connects judgment with relationship not religion, with human relations not religious experience.  In this judgment, heightened religious experience counts not at all.  It is actual living, not religious experience, which is judged.  Service—not music not retreats not fellowship not ecstacy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us.  But service, for which the nourishment is meant.  We have in our denomination a January Sunday known as Human Relations Sunday.  But I always wonder, what Sunday is not one such?


So, the deutero-pauline admonishment, 2 Thess., to avoid false apocalyptic (that the resurrection has already occurred) and so to honor work, and of the dignity of work.  So, the Isaian hope of sword become plowshares, the iron of violence become the iron of piece.  So, the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. So the Lukan small apocalypse, with its clear as a bell warning to live each day preparing for judgment, to live each day as if it were your last.  So the Lukan condemnation of religion (ie the temple) ‘a place where abuse is masked by piety’ (S Ringe).  Here are signs of finality and judgment:  natural disaster, false speech, warfare, political chaos.  They are in standard apocalyptic form, a recital of history (what the church has endured in the second half of the first century) placed in predictive, forecasted form (what the scholars call vaticinuum ex eventu).  We are not promised the gifts of success or even safety, but only of endurance in faith: ‘by your endurance you will gain your lives’.


That is, all times are end times, and every day is the last.  One who loses a parent or sibling knows this.  One who receives calamitous unexpected news knows this.  One who sees a beloved institution ruined by feckless, mendacious, predatory, malfeasant leadership knows this


4. Lincoln

We also today are hours from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, itself a poem shot through with awareness of all manner of endings.  A kind of homecoming, a release from violence, is what Abraham Lincoln proposed in his short masterpiece, 150 years ago, in Gettysburg.


What do you recall about November 19, 1863, nearly 150 years ago today.  Words matter more than deeds.  The saving task is to remember the right ones, like these, 272 words, 10 lines, 2 minutes:


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

5. Violence


Fifty years later I know that many of you can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew  home, “came home to roost”.  The violence in which America was born now haunts the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Violence.  Pioneer violence against native peoples.  Plantation owner violence against owned slaves.  Armed violence in the struggle over the Union.  The violence of class on class and capital on labor.  The lesson of the Kennedy assassination was and is that the violence in which America was born lives on, and will turn its wrath on future generations.  His violent death was a moment of apocalyptic judgment upon a nation with a family history of violence.  Every one of the possible perpetrators of the act itself represent systemic violence.  The violence of Cuban American conflict.  The violence of the cold war.  The violence of the world and underworld.  Our culture is awash in violent rhetoric, violent attitude, violent action.    Once the horror of violence hits home, a new frontier can open before us.   Where sin abounds, grace overabounds.  Once aware of the horror of violence which clearly we are, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not (truly the thing we have to fear is fear itself and its capacity to take our thanksgiving, our native generosity from us), then we may with renewed vigor look out onto a new frontier.  This is the new frontier of peace.


Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:


Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears the same.


God is greater than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.


When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.


God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.

Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.


6. Border

This same moment faces us as a nation, as a people and as a church.  We have been stung by violence too.  We can respond with further violence.  Or we can begin to ‘go home’ day by day, to suffer the daily shame and dishonor which all violence finally bequeaths, and, in Christ, as Calvin would say ‘in the school of Christ’, learn to practice the things that make for peace.  Living daily with the bruises and damage of yesterday’s rapacity takes the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is the cross, alone, that carries the power for such laborious, long march of mercy.  In the cross we discover a love that casts out fear.  And fear is our greatest, most fearsome obstacle to the new frontier of peace.  When we come toward a new frontier we naturally have fear.


Once a day for most of three years, and once a month for another eight, I crossed the border into Canada.  The border questions are those before us in every hour, are they not?  What is your name?  Where are you from?  Where are you headed?Do you have anything to declare.  Eyes and ears await your response in ever room entered, every email received, every meeting attended.  Who are you?  What is your story?  Do you have anything to say?


One very cold winter day, in the middle of a clean snowfall, I skidded down north toward Huntingdon Quebec.  It was about 5am, and it was as dark as the dark side of the moon.  I drove slowly to stay on the road.  I was anxious. Then ahead at an intersection I saw a great truck paused and blinking.  In the snow I pulled alongside the cab and looked up at the driver.  He looked fearful.  He squinted and asked “Ou est le frontiere?” (Where is the border).  I summoned what little French I could, put on my bravest accent and began to reply.  But before I had cobbled together two sentences he, listening to my inflection, burst in:  “oh, good lord, you’re an American, I can tell, you speak English!”  Sometimes we have fears at the border of the known and unknown that vanish at the crossing, and entering the new frontier means coming home.


7. Peace


Jesus empowers us in the way beyond violence.  Elsewhere in Scripture he gives us five very practical commands.


Here are five forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, for those crossing into a new frontier, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest, most vulnerable, members of the church and the human family.


  1. Find a way to sit quietly with those who are imprisoned.  Including those imprisoned by fear, pride, ideology, personality, accident, circumstance.  Go and sit with them and listen.


  1. Find a way to heal sickness.  Health is too important to leave to physicians only.  You go and heal.  Assess what habits have brought you health and share them.  Salvation is health.


  1. Find a way to cover the naked.  Those who are exposed, open to harm, exposed to scorn and mocking and criticism.  Go and put some clothing on them, some encouragement, some humor, some honor.


  1. Find a way to befriend strangers.  Strangers need welcome, friendship.  Until you have been one, maybe you don’t know.  Watch for the stranger and offer hospitality.


  1. Find a way to offer food and drink, not to those who have already plenty of both, but those who have parched throats and empty stomachs.  How we would love to take pitchers of faith and loaves of hope and batches of love to all of the people in our county who hunger for them!



These are the things that make for peace.  These are the signposts on the long road home from violence.  These are the gospeljudgment words.  A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.


8. Kennedy

One summer we visited Hyannisport, and there walked around the Kennedy memorial.  It is a moving experience.  The harbor is laden with beautiful sailboats.  The monument is handsome.  Across the round deck of the memorial there is chiseled a sentence quotation:  “I believe that American should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”.  At his best, Kennedy appealed to our honor not to our security:  “not a set of promises but a set of challenges”.  It is our honor and our willingness to sacrifice which will mitigate violence:  “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.  It is our stamina which will take us to the new frontier of peace:  “to bear the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulatiion”.


Much of what Kennedy planned has been achieved.  Communism is dead.  Nuclear weaponry is largely under control.  Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good.  Basic civil rights have largely been achieved.  Latin America is open to us.  A man has landed on the moon.


But violence, ah violence, violence remains.  Gun violence, ah gun violence, gun violence remains.  The scourge of our generation.


So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace.  Let us sing the song of peace, with Isaiah and David and 2 Paul and Jesus.  Let us sing the hymn of peace, with Lincoln and Whitman and Heschel and Kennedy. And let us be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to face down the fear that violence brings, and to cross into a new frontier.  A new frontier of peace…


It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave.  It is wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  The world shall be His footstool and the soul of wrong His slave.  Our God is marching on…

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


Faith. Healing. II

November 10th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

James 5:14-16; Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21; Luke 5:17-26

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We are coming to the end of the year, the end of the secular year on December 31st, and the end of the Christian liturgical year on November 30.  However we mark it, this year has been a year of great challenge.  Many of us still have thorns in our flesh: still, none of us are getting any younger; our personal challenges may still be with us or may even have increased.  This year it is not just the personal pain we may feel in the challenges to our health, wealth, work, or personal relationships; this year has brought great pain for others and for the world as well, griefs so large, so complex we can hardly name them, or bear to acknowledge them, or recognize the effects they have on us.  Here in Boston, the Marathon bombings and their shock in an historic event on a lovely day, the lockdown of a major American metropolitan area, the deaths that included two of Boston University’s own and folks that lived in our community’s neighborhoods.  All this against a continuing backdrop:  the so-called “natural” disasters, most recently the typhoon in the Philippines with its incredible strength and destruction; the accelerating threat of extinction of species including our own, some species also valued by humans but all precious in God’s creation; the complexities and complicities of our lives, often without our knowledge or consent, in human-trafficking and modern-day slavery, and in the career to endless war; the continued attempts to exclude LGBTQ people from full inclusion in religious and civic life.  Insert your own particulars here.

There have been many calls for the need for healing over the last year; there have been fewer proposals as to how that healing might come about.  And while there were indeed many poignant moments during the Red Sox Rolling Rally, we cannot always count on a series win for

healing, either individual or communal. … Go Celtics!

When I told folks that I would be preaching on this Gospel text from Luke, a number of them said to me, “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”   This is in part due to the creative enterprise of the men, who knock apart someone’s roof to let the paralyzed man down to the floor, all the while shedding debris on him, the crowd, and Jesus.  And the rest is due to the fact that this is a Gospel healing story, with some unique features that are indeed good news in a quest for healing.

For one, Jesus’ reaction is notable:  “When he saw their faith”, he speaks to the paralytic, with words of forgiveness and healing.  Many of Jesus’ healings took place, not at the request of those who were sick themselves, but of others who brought their sick to Jesus to be healed.  Here Jesus acknowledges it is not just the faith of the paralytic,  if we can even assume here that he has faith, but it is also the faith, the expectancy and trust of the bearers themselves, so great that they break through a roof, that helps to bring about the healing.

Also, Jesus does not immediately heal the paralytic physically.  Instead, the first thing he says to the paralytic is, “Your sins are forgiven.”  And then he apparently doesn’t say anything, as if that were enough, as if that were the healing that needed to happen, not the healing of the man’s paralysis.  Sin apparently has to do with lack of well-being.  Now we want to be careful here.  Jesus never associates illness or physical condition with God’s punishment, and he does not always give forgiveness of sins to a sick person.  And, as here, he does also often says to a person that their sins are forgiven as a preliminary to healing.  Now some of my friends call me a semanticist, one who is concerned for the meaning of words generally and in context.  It’s a title I’m proud to carry, as I think that there is not nearly enough definition of terms in the life of faith.  Particularly as we consider the word “sin”.  It’s so often limited by fear and ignorance to who and how we love, or to anything remotely related to a good time especially when it is had by “other” people.  So in line with the definition of many scholars and fellow clergy, for the purposes of this sermon “sin” is anything that separates us:  from God, from our “own-most” selves, and from our neighbor, neighbor broadly defined as the person sitting next to us wherever we are this morning all the way to the whole of creation.  Looked at in this way, sin, our own sins and sins of others, does have a direct bearing on our health of every kind:  physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational.  Our own Chapel Associate Jennifer Quigley has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the choices we make to find ourselves or to lose ourselves.   And if we lose our selves how can we be whole?  Likewise our own Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the dangers of fracking. And if we ignore or allow the poisoning of our land and our water and our air, how can we be whole?  The Psalmist in Psalm 32 acknowledges that his unconfessed sin wastes away his body, and only with confession and forgiveness comes relief.  Sometimes confession of sin is the first step to being whole, to name what is not well with us and be able to let it go, so that we can begin to ask how we might mend.

Next, the scribes and the Pharisees are horrified by Jesus’ forgiveness:  “Who can forgive sins but God alone!”  We remember that the Pharisees are influential layfolk who are very concerned about the strict observance of both the written religious law and its interpretation in oral tradition.  We remember that the scribes are specialists in the study of the religious law – elsewhere Luke calls them “lawyers”.  They have come from all over the country to see and listen to Jesus, and now with this outrageous statement these important people accuse him of blasphemy.  And then Jesus asks a question:  “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, or to say “Stand up and walk”?  And then he heals the paralytic, as a sign, that he has the authority to forgive sins.

When we think of healing, we often think of “cure”, and we often limit our thinking to physical cure, of an illness or a condition.  But in the Greek, to heal  can also mean to save, and/or to make whole.  In English as well, our words for health, salvation, and wholeness come from the same root.  The word “wholeness” in particular derives from the word “holism”, which does not mean a compartmentalized or disassociated view of human life and nature, but means the organic or functional relationship between parts of a whole.  Jesus’ healings of the physical witness to God’s intention to restore wholeness to all people and to all creation.  They testify to the spiritual power of God on which the kin-dom is built and on which we can build our lives.  But even in these testimonies physical healing is only one part of what is going on, and — dare we say it in a culture obsessed with physical perfection – it is not necessarily the most important part.  If it comes, well and good and glorify God.  And, just as notably sins are forgiven, Jesus’ authority in the Spirit is established, the man is restored to God and to his family and friends rejoicing, and everyone, even the formerly horrified scribes and Pharisees, glorify God.

Here we are reminded also of Matthew, also known as Levi, a tax collector under the Empire’s  occupation and so considered a traitor, who had no physical condition but was recognized for who he could be by Jesus,  and then accepted the call to become a disciple.  We are reminded too of the woman with the alabaster jar, who had no physical condition but had her sins forgiven and her grief comforted and was recognized by Jesus for her great love.  Healing encompasses the whole person:  body, mind, emotions, spirit, and relationships.  Which indeed is easier:  to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”, or to say, “Stand up and walk.”?  Which indeed is the greater miracle: to be restored to physical health, or to be able to kick a habit or addiction, or forgive a relative or friend, or transform a conflict, or be in right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbor on land and in water and in air?  Jesus offers not just a cure, the cessation of symptoms or condition, but the opportunity to be whole, to be truly healed in any and all aspects of our lives.

Jesus entrusted his disciples with this ministry as well.  In both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, both from the same author, Jesus’ disciples are seen to have the same power to heal as he did, and the early church assumed that healing was part of their community life.  A specific practice has come down to us in our text from James: the one who is ill, who is not whole, should call for the elders, the leaders in the church, and have them pray in faith, in expectancy and trust.  Those prayers of faith will raise up the one who is not whole, and again, sins will be forgiven.  Church members are to confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that all may be made whole persons in right relationship.  Like the men in the story who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus, so we bring one another to the healing power of God.  John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, referred to our being “stewards of grace” to one another in such practices, practices that he called “means of grace”, those practices in which we remind each other of the power of God at work in our lives through the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus, so that we are able to be continually moving toward a state of wholeness, of right relationship.

It is true.  We do need healing, after this year certainly, but also at many points in our lives; perhaps, given the times in which we live, at all times.  The church has formalized this practice so that both “elders” or “leaders” and those who request prayer for healing are stewards of grace for one another.

That is why, in the new church year, we will experiment, to restore this practice outlined in James here at Marsh Chapel.  On the first Communion Sunday of each liturgical season, we will offer two healing stations during the Communion, one each just under these first windows, so that after partaking of Communion, any of us who feel so moved may come, say what concern we have for our own healing, be joined in the concern in a brief prayer, only after giving permission receive a gentle laying on of hands on or just above the shoulder, only after giving permission be anointed with oil on the forehead, and be blessed.  In this way, we too will be stewards of grace for one another.

We are offering this practice with Communion, as Communion is our clearest affirmation of the presence of God in our midst.  It is where the confession and forgiveness of sins that we are offered every week are underscored by God’s nourishment of us in bread and wine, underscored by God’s empowerment of us by the outpouring of the Spirit.  It is where the congregational recognition of our common life encourages us to bring our individual needs to God with faith, with expectancy and trust that God’s will is for our good in all aspects of our lives.

This is an experiment, in the sense that our initial practice will be time-limited to the first Communion service of each new liturgical season, for this next church year.  Don’t worry about keeping track of the dates – we’ll keep you posted and the first time will be the first Sunday of the new church year, Advent I on December 1.  There will also be ways to evaluate our practice:  there will probably be surveys – short surveys — but also as we welcome your emailed and written responses and your conversational observations.  This practice is also offered with the clear understanding and thanksgiving that there are many ways of healing given to us by God:  the fields of medical, surgical, mental, emotional, and relational  health, the arts, the work of justice, the work of peace.  This spiritual practice is intended to work with these other gifts, to promote the whole health of the whole person.

To pray for healing is not us trying to change God’s mind.  It is to put ourselves in a place of cooperation with God so that the Spirit can work in us toward the wholeness in all aspects of our lives that God intends.  We invite your prayers for this ministry, in trust and expectation, and, dearly beloved, the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  Glory to God.  Amen.

~Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Saints of God

November 3rd, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 6 and Ephesians 1

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Religious Saint in China

Saints of God are all around us.  You are they.  You.   In Chicago last week I saw one, a dear old friend, former Minister of First UMC Evanston, former Acadmic Dean at Claremont.  I later that week came across a sermon of his.

Emory Purcell wrote, “When I was a child, there were often missionaries or evangelists staying with us. One I remember most fondly was Mary Schlosser. About fifty years of age then, she had been a missionary in China for many years.

All of us have heard stories of how missionaries forced native people to give up their culture and become westerners; how missionaries were tools of capitalistic colonialism. Some were indeed. But not Mary Schlosser. All she talked about were, not her converts, but the boys and girls in her school in China: how bright and eager and loving they were. She had high hopes for each of them and had arranged for some of them to go abroad to prestigious universities to study. She knew that one day they were going to make significant contributions to their people.

Now, you never read about Mary Schlosser in Time. As a young woman she had had a promising career ahead of her. The call to China persuaded her to pour out her life there. After I knew her, Mary Schlosser spent many years in a communist prison camp in China and died shortly after her release.

I did read about Mary Schlosser a few years ago. A group of dissident students from China had been interviewed by a religious news editor. They talked about the missionaries who had taught their parents at a school in Kaifung. Among the names remembered were Clara Leffingwell and Mary Schlosser.

I have a sense that Mary Schlosser’s resurrected life is only beginning. It is love, finally, that surpasses money and power; and overcomes tragedy. Mary Schlosser poured out her life in love for her boys and girls. Through her love, broken as it was, God’s love poured through more and more to life down through the generations.

The thing I remember about Mary Schlosser is her radiance. Was she happy? I don’t know. It is, in fact, an irrelevant question. Mary was radiant. In her enthusiasm and in the greatness of her soul, the sun shown on us. This is our hope.

Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said:

“Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”

Over the years I have been privileged to know many people who are rich the way Mary Schosser was rich. Sunday school and public school teachers – parents and young people – bosses and workers. People who have poured out their lives in love so that God’s love can bring life.

I want to suggest that is what has actually made (America) great: not all the things we have to be happy; but, rather, the generous people who pick up the cross of human need-people whose radiant lives testify to life beyond the cross.”

Epistle and Gospel

Friends, beloved of Marsh Chapel and the airwaves:  The saints of God have been well acquainted with impediments to the language of love.  The saints of God have manifold experience of the resistance in experience to the reign of love.  The saints of God know, through and through, the multiple discouragements to the path of love.

One is the very question of the capacity of speech to ignite a decision, of any kind, for a new alternative, of any sort.   Every day, every week brings a new wave of words not fitly spoken, of deeds not fruitfully done, of sentiments not charitably rendered.   Is preaching an anachronism?  Or teaching?  Or earnest discourse of any kind?  Doubt about language itself is itself an impediment to learning the language of love.

Another is the relatively modest response, by cultural comparisons at any rate, to the lived forms of love, imperfectly represented in families, in churches, in movements and missions.   There is a kind of discouraging but inevitable comparison, truth to tell, that lurks behind the mammoth celebration of a World Series victory.  We know what it feels like to celebrate, and to celebrate a clear victory.  It feels great.  But the victories which make us feel great, are not so great themselves.   We have a way of cheering a run, a home run, a grand slam.   But we are not as fully aligned with, or inclined toward, the generations-long struggles that might bring a truly wonderful victory over—you name it.  What we do celebrate somehow eclipses what we could celebrate.

Nevertheless.  I believe in the power of love, and in the language of love, and in the power of the language of love.  I believe you do too.  You are saints of God.  Love is the way forward, and in the end is the only way forward.  Love is the way the world gets better, and in the end is the only measure of the world getting better.  Love is the transfiguration of imagination, the integration of variation, the modification of attenuation, the multiplication of aspiration.  Love never ends.  Love is God.  The Bible records these sentences, in 1 Corinthians and in 1 John.  Love never ends.  Love is God.

Our choir sang love like angels on Monday in NYC.  They entered the city, put on the city as a robe, as a new suit of clothes, offered with grace the musical grace of God, paused for applause, and disrobed, returning the clothing of the city on departure.   Into noise they brought music.  Into cacophony they brought symphony.  Into streets lined with garbage they brought order, charity, magnanimity, generosity.  Into the lingering horror of 9/11, whose victims were treated in George Washington’s pew before which they sang, they brought the beauty of holiness, the grace and goodness and love of lovely good and gracious music—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus.   I felt:  you young people are too good for this world, or at least for parts of it.  Love lifted us, that afternoon.  Love, sung out by saints of God.

The student of Paul who probably wrote Ephesians cuts into our souls with a gleaming phrase.  ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  He has about him a church that has lived now for some decades beyond Jesus of Nazareth.  So, three reflections on inheritance.  So, the seal of the Spirit.  So (rightly rendered) your faith in\toward all the saints, or your faithfulness in\toward them, and the inheritance bequeathed by them.  So, the name that is above every name.  So, the church, the body of Christ. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  Saints of God have such eyes.

Especially here our teacher offers us something beautifully saving in this epistle.  There is a spatial dimension to salvation.  One is caught up by a certain community, along the lines of a certain map, in the embrace of a certain spiritual geography.  You will feel it, perhaps coming down the sawdust trail of the aisle in Marsh Chapel, for communion.  You are not alone.  The saints of God are with you, around you. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.

Boston is taking stock this week, taking stock of a year of mayhem and marvel both.  It is too soon, well too soon, for us yet to absorb the sounds and sights of 2013.  For this we shall need not only the eyes of the heart, but the ears of the heart as well.  To hear the explosions as they did ricochet down Boylston Street.  To hear the sirens racing at night down Commonwealth.  But also to hear the cracks of bats that sent balls and outfielders tumbling into the outfields and into the bull pen and into the stands.  And to hear the surge of joy, the shared happiness, lifted in a choral shout at the long end of many games.  Boston is taking stock, this week, taking stock of this year gone by, wherein again we have been taught by experience to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.

Jesus in St Luke utters both blessing and woe.  There is a leveling coming in God’s time.  The last shall be first, the first last.  From worst to first.  In God’s time which we cannot understand.  We have only the yearning of the heart, the eyes of the heart, and the examples of the saints to go by.  But lifelong loss of limb, horrific harm to innocent women and men, calls up for us a longing for resurrection, a yearning, visible in the eyes of the heart, for restoration.  In God’s time we look forward to what we can never see in our time.  In our bones we know that the leveling of justice is the path to love.  Valleys exalted, hills made low.  The Republican Governor of Ohio this week expressed the same sentiment.  The poor have suffered enough.  Wealth carries responsibility with it.  All should be fed at the Lord’s table.  Laugh and celebrate, but a leveling is coming, in God’s time.   Above earth’s lamentations, there is divine restoration, if only to start in the eyes of the heart.  Saints of God see with enlightened eyes, eyes of the heart.

Secular Saint in Syracuse

Some of you know I was home in Syracuse a few weeks ago.  Theirs is an historically Methodist though now largely secular college, like ours.   But all the secularity, all the un-religion, all the modernity in the world, in the end, does not occlude the enlightenment of the eyes of the heart.  Love lives.  The saints of God, religious and unreligious, observant and secular, theist and a-theist, churchly and cultural, share these eyes, a seeing with the heart (wouldn’t that make a good book title?).  You should read the commencement address, by George Saunders, given at Syracuse University last spring.  Here is its marrow:

One useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

Here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.  (But not kindly).

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Someday I hope to meet Mr. George Saunders, one of the saints of God.  Until then, I will take up his cause, and ask you to do so too.  Robert Cummings Neville wrote (2001):  “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.” (Symbols of Jesus, xviii).  Are you walking in the light?  Are you loving your neighbor?  As you would have others do for you, do you do so for them?  Are you seeing with the eyes of the heart?

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

The Bach Experience

October 27th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Ms Chicka:

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

As the Chapel associate for Lutheran Ministry, and a two (hopefully three) time alumnae, and a former musician, it is a great honor to be in the pulpit on Alumni Weekend, Reformation Sunday, and during our Bach series. After all, Bach was a Lutheran, even if the piece today is a Catholic Mass.

I’d like to share a personal achievement with all of you. Two weeks ago, I posted a Facebook status about forgoing the gym to eat an apple cider donut. That status received 51 likes. 51! That’s the most likes I think I’ve ever gotten on a single status update. It was a proud day in social media for me. As many of us in the congregation, I utilize Facebook and Twitter to update my friends, family, and acquaintances with the exciting, confusing, joyful, upsetting, and sometimes mundane aspects of my life. And I look to see what my other friends are up to, liking and commenting on their daily adventures and mishaps, keeping me connected with people I would’ve otherwise forgotten or lost touch with had it not been for social media.

I am at the elder end of Generation Y, the Millennial Generation.  A generation that has been able to engage with thoughts and ideas from all over the world through the internet. A generation that is accustomed to screens, would rather text than talk, and is not afraid to share information with others. A generation that is often referred to as the “Me” generation because of how frequently we reflect upon ourselves, and often what we expect for ourselves from society. A generation that can carefully craft and edit their lives to alter how others perceive them online. As a generalization, we are not well known for our humility or our privacy.

The Pharisee in the Parable today’s Gospel is an exemplar of orthopraxy – he does everything he is supposed to, and sometimes even more, like fasting twice a week. Can you imagine what his status updates would look like? His prayers are thankful, but they fail to show any sense of humility. In addition, he degrades those whom he perceives as sinners in his prayers of gratitude, setting himself up as one who should be exalted for his behavior. If he were truly humble before God, he would be able to relate and emphasize with the needs of those who are “sinners,” seeing them as human beings who deserve respect and may actually need his assistance, instead of setting himself apart from them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, exemplifies humility. He does not boast about his accomplishments or his status, he only asks for God’s mercy. He is an example of a marginalized member of the Jewish community perceived as a traitor because of his association with the Roman Empire. He is not expected to act in a humble manner, but in doing so in this parable emphasizes the importance of a humble attitude. Jesus uses the examples of the Pharisee and the tax collector to warn the disciples against becoming too full of themselves.

Much like the Pharisee, we have no problem patting ourselves on the back. To further our egoism, we anticipate those red notification balloons that let us know our friends “like” our statuses, or that we’ve been retweeted, or favorited.  We like, no, we crave attention from others. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of the book, Being Alone Together, points out that our self-identity has become so closely tied with our online identity, that we’ve fallen into the trap of “I share, therefore I am.”[1] She explains that we don’t feel like we’re living unless we’re sharing our lives through some other media. We also have the ability to self-edit in an online world, meaning that we can shape the way others see us – leading others to never truly know our real selves if they only encounter us online. As a fellow alum of Boston University, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would say, we suffer from the “Drum Major Instinct,” “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”[2] It’s just that today we have more opportunities to gain this recognition and receive feedback from others that let us know we are as important as we hope and think.

Humility, coming from the Greek word “humus” meaning ground or dirt, lowers one’s self importance. It is a challenging virtue to cultivate, especially in a society that encourages selling yourself and enables some of our deepest desires for recognition through immediate gratification systems, like social networking. Additionally, we’re told that as individuals we are responsible for our own futures, making it difficult to see that help from others and selflessly helping others is essential if we’re going to make it through our lives. We are relational beings and to refuse to recognize the other is to fail to fully live into our human existence.

Religious life has a special way of emphasizing the need for humility, especially before God. In worship, we set aside a time in which we humble ourselves before God – during the confession. Dr. Jarrett – how does today’s piece tie in with this idea of humility?

Dr. Jarrett:

Well Jessica, all these answers will be revealed in the first volume of my forth-coming book Humility: And I How I Achieved It.

Joking aside, I’m delighted to spend a moment with you to explore our musical sermon of the day. First I should say that any encounter with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is as humbling as thrilling a prospect to any musician. Today, we present the first of four installments in our Bach Experience Series on his greatest masterpiece The Mass in B Minor. Long hailed as the ‘greatest piece of music of all time’, the B Minor Mass is something of a Holy Grail for musicians and music-lovers. In its pages, we find music’s apogee, a musical Everest and from these heights, we find that perspective only gained from awareness of the ultimate.

But let’s back up just a moment. Today we hear the entryway in this great musical cathedral – the Kyrie, with its three movements. Through its sounds, we are struck by the solemnity, the grandeur, the urgency, and the humbling scope of God’s mercy. And, in the second movement, as we implore Christ’s mercy, we find assurance of pardon in the ease and bounty of God’s redeeming grace through Christ Jesus. Cast as a duet for two sopranos, sung today by Carey Shunskis and Emily Culler, the joy, variety, and contentment of life’s sojourn through Christ’s mercy practically leaps from the score. The lovely (and dare I say Human) Christe, is book-ended by two grand and noble Kyries. Here is where Bach teaches us about his kind of humility.

With the possible exception of a Beethoven, I can hardly think of a bolder composer than Johann Sebastian Bach. As with Beethoven, we are aware of the presence of extraordinary genius. And though we may not be able to articulate the reason, the music of both composers has the capacity to embolden the listener, to encourage vitality in our living, to inspire a zeal for humanity, in the way that only music can. But the music of Bach pushes a little farther for me. Bach reveals our possibility, who we know we can be.

A year or two ago, President Clinton spoke down the street at Symphony Hall. And one of his themes was that of ‘Framework’. In his context, our system of government, our social contract, our order of society creates a ‘framework’ by which we can excel at citizenry. And when this breaks down, we lose our model, our framework, to serve and help one another.

For Bach, the empowering framework is form. He might have said, the framework for Love is the Law – or rather, the Law is fulfilled by the Love of Christ. And Love is fulfilled best when informed by the Law. You see, Bach’s shows us how to live, how to express, how to engage, how to be joyful, how to be thankful, but the key to that freedom is found only in humbling ones-self before the source of that grace. If we lose sight of our source – God’s communing grace – we diminish our possibility to make a difference. The Dean exhorts us often to live fully as an engaged people, people of salt and light. Bach provides a path for us, fully authentic, fully committed, forged and humbled by the framework of God’s redeeming love.

Ms. Chicka:

It is important for us to humble ourselves before God, recounting what we have done and what we have left undone. How we’ve supported others, and how we’ve left others down. However, we must claim a balance between our humility and our pride. We can still be confident in ourselves, but we must temper that confidence with self-awareness. We can be proud, but we must temper that pride with modesty. Humility does not mean that we must always be meek and subservient to others, but that we recognize that there are appropriate times to do both.

This sermon would be incomplete without mentioning Martin Luther. It is Reformation Sunday, after all. The great reformer led the way for many Protestant movements by questioning whether the Church’s practices truly reflected God’s will or were corrupted by human desire. Luther is not particularly known for his humility, but he valued humility as one of the foremost virtues of Christianity. Humility enables us to serve God in the best way possible. It allows us to serve our neighbor in a way that our neighbor deserves to be served: not for our own benefit, but out of love and the needs of the other. In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther reminds his readers that in having faith in Christ and receiving the grace of God, one becomes a “little Christ,” whose actions should seek to serve others. Our faith enables us to receive the grace of God and frees us to choose to serve others as Christ served us.[3] It is only through the recognition of the self in relationship with God that one can find a sense of contentment that removes egoism and promotes humility, opening the individual into deeper relationship and fellowship with others.

MLK, Jr. agrees with Luther’s idea. He states that our Drum Major instinct is best used in serving others. By possessing a heart that is filled with the grace of God, our desire to be “the drum major” is found in God, through our Christian love and devotion toward others. It is a self-less love that attempts to improve life for others not because one is coerced into doing so, but because one recognizes the value and worth of that other human being and his or her right to live in a just and loving world.

I’ve been pretty hard on my generation up until now in this sermon, but I’d like to close with some good news. Although we are called “generation ME” we are also called the “Civic-minded generation.”[4] These two labels do not seem to go together, but increasingly, individuals in my generation are concerned about the status of others as well as themselves. Participation in community service organizations, volunteering, and vocalization on social issues are hallmarks of our generation. Our worldview has been shaped by major events – 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic meltdown, and most poignantly for those of us here in Boston, the Marathon Bombings last April.

Our reliance on technology not only allows us to express ourselves, but it allows us to see ourselves on the global landscape – having the opportunity to interact and react to global issues from our laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Social media enables us to maintain connections, and in times of crisis, make sure our community is safe and that those who need assistance can find it. We are more connected than ever, and in some cases, more willing to help than ever.  Serving others through volunteerism and activism requires a sense of humility in order for it to work. One must be willing to listen to the needs of another in order to truly serve them.  BU is a great example of service-minded individuals, as 4600 volunteers participated in over 100,000 hours of community service last year alone.[5] And even today, the Servant Team of Marsh Chapel is exemplifying this desire to serve others through their drive for goods for the homeless that will be assembled into “We Care” packages right here in the Chapel this afternoon.

So a call to action for my generation: let’s make our legacy known as the Civic-minded Generation, not Generation Me. I’m not saying that we have to completely give up on the self-reporting we do in social media, but perhaps we should pare it down and instead use these platforms as means to spread awareness. We need to strike the appropriate balance between our online lives and our real lives, making sure that these two not only align, but enable us to maintain our humility. We can only truly make connections with others at a basic level if we see them as people, not just names or pictures on a screen. We can only ensure the health of our communities by being willing to be open to others. It is only through humbly listening to and interacting with our brothers and sisters that we have the opportunity to learn and grow into a community of “little Christs.” Amen.


~Ms. Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate

~Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

[1] Bill Moyers, “Sherry Turkle on Being Alone Together,” TV segment, Moyers & Company, PBS, Aired October 20, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon, delivered February 4, 1968, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed October 20, 2013.

[3] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Henry Wace and C. A. Buchheim, First Principles of the Reformation, London: John Murray, 1883. Accessed October 20, 2013.

[4] Sharon Jayson, “Generation Y Gets Involved,” USA Today, October 24, 2006. Accessed October 20, 2013.

[5] Boston University Community Service Center, “Mission and History,” Accessed October 20, 2013