One and All

January 3rd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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John 1:1-5, 9-13

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Happy New Year!  and welcome to this second Sunday of the Christmas season here at Marsh Chapel.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus for many reasons, and our scriptures this morning give us one reason in particular.  For it is not just as individuals that Jesus Emmanuel comes to us; he comes to us also as individuals in community; indeed, he comes to form us as individuals into a community, the community of the church, his heart and mind, ears and eyes, hands and feet still at work in the world.

Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work to build and restore community did not

begin with Jesus’ entry into the world.  It has been a constant in God’s relationship with humanity.  Jeremiah writes from exile in Egypt, while the rest of Israel is exiled and captive in Babylon.  This breaking apart of the community of Israel is a consequence of their choices and the choices of others.  Israel has chosen to break the covenant they had agreed to with God, and they also suffer global forces beyond their control as the Babylonians choose to expand their empire.

But Jeremiah keeps the vision of a restoration beyond exile.  God promises the fulfillment of this vision, a vision of an Israel brought back together from dispersal, a vision of homecoming and of a new covenant that will not be broken.  In spite of seemingly overwhelming forces against its happening, God will reunite the community.  And this reunification will be marked by dancing, merriment, abundance, and joy.  

The author of Ephesians writes out of a conflict within the new and growing Christian movement.  Jews and Gentiles have long been separated by law and culture.  Now they find it a challenge to integrate into this new inclusive community of church.  The author of Ephesians reminds them that they are united in Christ.  Because of that unity there are divine benefits as a present reality in the church’s life.  God provides forgiveness, wisdom, and spiritual power. Through the Holy Spirit God also provides an inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.  Thus the church is a Spirit-filled community that brings the presence, power, and peace of God not just into its own life, but also into the life of the world.

The Psalmist glorifies God for three great blessings.  The first is the security God provides through inheritors, peace, and abundance.  The second is the creative word of God in creation.  And the third is the coming of God’s creative word to the community of Israel in the precepts that will form them as a unique people.

The author of the Gospel of John also lifts up God’s creative Word, in the person of Jesus, who is a gift to those who receive him and believe in him.  Jesus the Word here is a social being:  with God and as God he creates all things.  He comes into the world in flesh to live in creation among human beings.  He experiences rejection as well as belief.  To those who do believe in him, he gives power to become the community of the inheritors of God.

So these are four of the ways God forms us as individuals in community, as individuals into community.  One is the renewal of covenant and homecoming.  Another is the transformation of conflict.  A third is the giving of security and precepts for a unique identity.  And the fourth is the empowerment of the community to become the presence of God in the world.  So our individual belief and relationship with God is important in itself, and, its purpose is to incorporate us into a community that will act as God’s people in the world.

Now this may sound simple, but it isn’t easy.  With all the trouble in the world and our exhausting busyness, there is great temptation to cocoon and isolate ourselves with escapism and numbing out.  There are also many people, groups, corporations, and governments, including some of our own, that have vested interests in our isolation, and in the fear and sense of powerlessness that accompany it.

For instance, there is very little in the mainstream media that encourages us in our work for the kindom.  A steady diet of “If it bleeds it leads.” does not nourish us in love, power, or hope.  We have to be intentional to find the good news of God’s presence at work in the world.

There are also calls to other allegiances who claim to be sources of power.  I was at the movies last week, and an ad for an international computer corporation came on.  The computer corporation shall not actually be named, but let’s call it Corporation X.  Its ad showed happy and energetic people using the corporation’s products.  The end statement was “Corporation X empowers people to change the world.”  Now from a Christian perspective, a more accurate statement might be, “God empowers people to change the world, and then they use some of the tools sold by Corporation X to do some of the work.” It’s perhaps a subtle distinction, and, it’s a type of distinction that needs to be made more often.  Otherwise we give over our intrinsic power to act as the people of God to some other allegiance or entity with another agenda entirely.

Likewise the rhetoric of part of the current presidential debates, full of wall-building and carpet bombing, ignores the fact that at least some of the people to be walled out and carpet bombed are our sisters and brothers in the community of the Church, or at the very least are our neighbors who we are to love as ourselves.

Perhaps most challenging of all, in an individualistic culture such as ours, is to have the courage and conviction to step out of our individual concerns, out of our preoccupation with “My God”, and out of our fear of the stranger,  so that we can become truly God’s people.  Our greatest challenges are our own:  our remaining racism, our exclusion of LGBTQ persons and women from the full life of the church, our remaining consumerism instead of stewardship, our incivility toward those who disagree with us.  All these are things that keep us as a collection of individuals going in different directions, instead of being the beloved community united to assist the power and presence of God in the world.

We celebrate the coming of Christ because in him we see real assistance in the isolation of our lives.  God’s own self is a Trinity, one God in holy community, Source and Emmanuel and Spirit.  It is that God who invites us into the divine life of perichoresis, the divine life of dancing in partnership with God and with one another.  And in that dancing we are deeply loved and understood and renewed as individuals and communities, loved and understood and renewed by and because of the God who is with us.  

We also celebrate the coming of Christ because he begins with us as a baby.  Mother Teresa said that it is important to do small things with great love, and what we do in community does not have to be huge and exhausting.  The God who begins with us in baby steps will not mind if we begin our projects of love and justice the same way.  And for God to begin with us as a baby means that God trusts us.  God trusts us:  to protect, to nurture, to help grow, to bring to maturity in ourselves and our church community, and to rejoice in the presence of God-with-us, as we then embody the presence of Christ in the world.

In this new year we are invited to see beyond ourselves as individuals to see ourselves as part of the community of God’s people, and to encourage ourselves in that identity.  Where is God at work?  Where is the good news?  Where are we called to support that, or even blaze a trail?  We do not need to be afraid.  We are able to get up and be and be doing.  Because we are not alone.  The coming of Christ to one of us is the uniting in Christ of all of us in the community of God’s people, that community whose work and joy is to bring hope and new life to the life of the world.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory in the name of Jesus Emmanuel and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Merry Christmas!

–Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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A New Year Outlook

December 27th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2:41-52

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About ten years ago, a friend of mine and I spent Saturday afternoons, winter and spring 2006, visiting members of our church.  He drove, I navigated, we sipped Diet Dr. Pepper.  We used a map.  We went to call on church members who had not yet had the opportunity to make a pledge to our capital campaign.  The building it supported was mostly up, the pledges were mostly in, but we lacked a certain percentage.  The trustees, being trustees, along with the rest of us, rightly wanted to see 100% completion and participation.  All manner of mailings, some e-mailings, pulpit appeals, and phone calling were to no avail. So, we went out in the eastern suburbs of Monroe County NY, to make some doorstep, unannounced, cold call home visits.  

I remember beautiful homes, and young families, and happy greetings, and a real willingness to listen, and a desire to give. After all, these young families would most benefit from the investment other generations were making in their future.  I also remember asking my friend and driver Bob why some of these homes, large and lovely, apparently had little or no furniture.  He could give the price of the homes, close to market, about 1/3 the cost of similar property in eastern New England.  This impressed me.  But, I asked, where is the furniture?  Well, he tried to explain, some of these families have taken out as much mortgage as they could, knowing (he raised an eye brow), knowing that the value would continue to go up, and up. It was generally understood to be the wise, prudent thing to do, though, of course, it was a matter of interpretation. They would get the furniture next year.  

The memories flooded in while we watched recently the film THE BIG SHORT.  Now I see.  Now I see what I saw but I had no full way to see what I saw or fully to interpret what I saw, almost 10 years ago. How you see depends on how you interpret what you see.  Just over the horizon from winter 2006 there was about to be a great collapse, as we all now know and ruefully remember. We are still finding our interpretative way into understanding all that happened.  I can see now, pretty clearly, what Bob I think suspected, but did not say.  Our friends were truly very ready to give, but they at that point had no means to do so.  

Interpretation matters.  Two days after Christmas, and the feast of our Lord’s birth, and one day after the feast of Stephen, and remembrance of his death as the first Christian martyr, perhaps we could pause, step back, and look, as he have now and then before, at our mode of interpretation.  Not of markets and economics today, but of truth, of faith, of Gospel, of life. We take a New Year outlook.  As we pray together in the New Year, what will be our outlook?  As Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, at least as Luke reports, what shall our own outlook toward wisdom be, not 2006, but 2016?


To begin. Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its psalmic depths.  #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange turns.  Samuel comes to mind.  You love proverbial wisdom.  ‘One person sharpens another like iron sharpens iron’ comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His growing in stature today comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith.  Around our common table today in worship, we share this reliance and this love.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel.  A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings, as in today’s duets, and for the reading of scripture.  On the other side of the globe, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture.  Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by your love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too.  The B I B L E, yes that,s the book for me.  In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But the Bible has a story, too, as James Sanders used to say.  And at points, it is errant.  Not inerrant, but errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to re-mythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples.  The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  Today’s passage from Luke 2 is an idealized memory. of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted.  It looks back sixty years. It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class this winter I might buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.


You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.  Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.  

For instance, the linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls below and falls before the Gospel of grace and freedom.  In Methodism, 2016, the church’s own tradition, the very preaching of the gospel itself, and the rendering of theological truth–well before any moral, or ethical, or societal debate—includes the full affirmation of the full humanity of gay people.  Tradition expands to make way for the gospel.  So, over time, equality triumphs over exclusion.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a spring study I would have the group re-read Walter Wink’s old little pamphlet The Bible and Homosexuality for some perspective on tradition and scripture and  change.


You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning.  You love the life of the mind.  You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things, and to grow in wisdom and stature, as Jesus did, according to our gospel today..

A word of caution is in order.  Reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety (repeat).  More than anything else, learning, to last, must finally be rooted in loving.   Jesus grew, in Luke 2.  The more he learned, the more he taught.  He embodies inquiry for us today.  Inquiry!

The universe is 15 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

I might have my fellowship group re-read this New Year Francis Collins, the Language of God.  He can teach us to reason together.  

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  In the end, falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.  Nothing human is foreign to us.


You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too.  Samuel, in looking forward, expects to learn from experience, and joyful experience at that. We know joy.  Joy seizes us.  Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things.  You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

Sometimes, after a decade, looking into and upon experience, we can see things better.  Our failures teach us, both as individuals, and in community.  We learn in our experience the happiness and centrality of giving (yes, there is a year end stewardship nudge here (☺)).  We learn also that, you know, you can do too much for people sometimes.  That is part of the limit purpose of the tithe (yes, again, there is a year end notion at play here (☺)).  

You can trust your experience.  That is part of the meaning of Incarnation.  From a friend, this week, came a gift that sings love of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, rightly interpreted, in the voice of one Cardinal John Francis Dearden of Detroit, and quoted in Pope Francis’ very recent Christmas message.  Dearden’s prayer sings out the song of incarnate love.  His is our last word today, as we take a New Year outlook, and remember that interpretation matters:

Every now and then it helps us to take a step back

and to see things from a distance.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is also beyond our visions.

In our lives, we manage to achieve only a small part

of the marvellous plan that is God’s work.

Nothing that we do is complete,

which is to say that the Kingdom is greater than ourselves.

No statement says everything that can be said.

No prayer completely expresses the faith.

No Creed brings perfection.

No pastoral visit solves every problem.

No programme fully accomplishes the mission of the Church.

No goal or purpose ever reaches completion.

This is what it is about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that others will watch over them.

We lay the foundations of something that will develop.

We add the yeast which will multiply our possibilities.

We cannot do everything,

yet it is liberating to begin.

This gives us the strength to do something and to do it well.

It may remain incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.

It is an opportunity for the grace of God to enter

and to do the rest.

It may be that we will never see its completion,

but that is the difference between the master and the labourer.

We are labourers, not master builders,

servants, not the Messiah.

We are prophets of a future that does not belong to us.

Hear the gospel, you prophets of a future that does not belong to you! And, Happy New Year.

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Doubt and Faith at Christmas

December 20th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 1:39-45

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He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy. (Auden)

There are two shades of Christmas and both are blessed.  

The search for truth and the gift of grace are both blessed.  Elisabeth and Mary; John and Jesus; the true and the good; both and all are blessed, in Luke’s Gospel, by God’s healing of the world in Christ, who is both holy and lowly.

There are two trails to Christmas.  That of doubt, and that of faith.

In this morning’s Gospel, following earlier separate scenes, the two stories come together—John and Jesus, Prophet and Pastor, Doubt and Faith, two sorts of Christmas—John soon to be out by the river, Jesus soon to be in his Father’s house.

At a recent Christmas party a soon to graduate theological student talked about returning to her home in the south central part of the country, and her impending interview before her board of ministry.  What will they ask you?  About the documentary hypothesis, or the second aorist, or the synoptic problem, or the teleological suspension of the ethical, or the art of preaching?  No, they will ask me “Why did you go to Boston?”  Her reply might be:  ‘Because at Boston University I can search for truth and affirm God’s grace, I can combine the necessity of doubt with the promise of faith’.  Hers would be a Christmas answer.  Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

Evidence?  Spiritual things?  Truth? Grace?  Doubt? Faith?

  1. Christmas Doubt

First, doubt.  One dimension of Christmas begins with the search for truth, and, therefore, with the real experience of doubt.  For today, then, a full look at violence, greed and silence.

Facts are stubborn things.  Take a hike with me, down by the river. One Christmas Sunday, late modern or post-Christian, commences at the river, let us say at the head of the Charles.  A riverfront Christmas, for which John the Baptist was given lung and voice, that perhaps of the cultural congregation, even late modern and post-Christian, listens in the dark for the truth.  On the radio, say?  

  1. Violence

A pause at the Charles.  To begin.

The world looks nothing like Christmas.  

We are so anxious and fearful of what has become of our fragile planet that we burrow into feverish work, feverish drink, feverish sex, feverish exchange—getting and spending.  No, come this Christmas Sunday, one does not see the Word made flesh fully abroad.  And lurking down deep in the psyche, and the collective unconscious is the worried fear, the prospect of single nuclear weapon, somewhere, somehow, in the wrong, violent hand.

That sort of anxiety makes even strong people inclined toward demagoguery, belittling, bullying simplicity, in the rhetoric of culture, politics, religion, and life.  That anxiety makes us forget the importance of institutions, and the health, and the well-being and the care of institutions—whether a marriage, a family, a business, a college, a company, or a country.  Process matters.  Due process matters, greatly.  Proven experience counts.  Excellent proven experience counts, greatly.  Mocking the institution one aspires to lead does real damage.  ‘A successful campaign against nihilism will have to resist nihilism itself’. (NYRB, 12/15).  It will be a shame if it takes the current generation of twenty-somethings half a lifetime to learn this.  (As apparently it has taken their parents.)  Traction in history requires institutions, and they require leadership that speaks with honest transparency, builds genial trust, and thereby waters the earth with goodwill, goodwill, goodwill (a Lukan Christmas term) in institutional form.

Or look again at the United States of America, anno domini 2015.  Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino.  Ours is an age drenched in violence.  Ours is a culture steeped in violence.  And ours is a country born in violence.  Not the violence of the first setters, only, nor the violence of the revolution, mainly.  Whence American taste for violence and its home ownership of 300,000,000 guns?  We cut our teeth on the violence of slavery.  Racism and gun violence are our tragic twins in this land.  We learned the need of violence—how?  4 million people don’t choose to stay in leg irons on their own.  They have to be kept there.  And how?  Violence.  The violence of the whip, of the lash, of the pistol, of the rifle, of the hound, of the lynching tree, and of ways of justifying, speaking of the reasonable need for, such violence.   While you never or hardly ever hear it, gun violence and racism go hand in hand, twins, the ghostly daughters of our birth as a country.  Read Faulkner or Genesis.  This violent world looks nothing like Christmas.

  1. Greed

A pause along the Esplanade, say at the Arthur Fiedler statue. To continue.  A place to honor music, the height of the invisible.  It is a good thing that Arthur is so sturdy, for the ‘invisible’ faces steady headwinds and even cross winds in our time. The pervasive materialism, endless exurban expansion, and mindless consumption of a people hurtling down a highway focused on the speedometer and blind to the road ahead, are a long way from Christmas.  From every corner we are encouraged to shop.  To buy!  But… to give?  Both would strengthen the economy, but in different ways.  One leans toward commodity and the other toward community.  It may be, one thinks, along the river, that Immanuel—the college, or the doctrine, or the hope—have gone, left for a far country.  As Vahanian said of ‘God’ 50 years ago, the symbols of faith have grown cold for the culture.  Has such a fate of symbolic anachronism now permanently infected Christmas?  Is the whole symbol set, from angels to straw and all between, become, simply, a once told tale?  We know that symbols die.  Sometimes from neglect, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from both.  It is hard to find evidence that the poor manger has much traction to shape a culture any longer.  Whither wonder, morality, generosity? Greed is a long way from Christmas.

  1. Silence

A pause at the Concert Shell.  To listen.  Here is my friend awash in grief for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a spouse.  Here is he, years later, still caught in the flow and ebb of that sorrow beyond sorrow.  It is an empty time for this concert stage, and its empty loss, and lack, is one that many know better than any other truth.  To hear the improbable predictions of Isaiah, about streams in a desert, is to this ear, just now, at the shoreline of the absurd.

When to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things

And to yield with a grace to reason

And to bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season? (Frost)

And from the hurt comes doubt. Having in the churches exchanged much of our capacity in philosophical theology for a saltier but lighter mix of personal narratives and identity politics, we find ourselves scrambling a bit to respond to first level questions about evidence, about suffering, about creation, about content, about God.  Like the earliest Christians, thinkers today do not fear the charge of a-theism.  Nor should they. The search for truth, by the presence of John the Baptist, down by the river is blessed at Christmas.  Nihil humanum:  nothing human is foreign to us.

Emptiness unabated is a long way from Christmas.

Here then is one Christmas trail and tale:  a search for truth and an experience of doubt. The honesty and the courage of this account need naming:  violence, greed, silence.


Although… A pause, perhaps now at night, with the light shimmering on the Charles, to wonder…

In your doubt.  Just how sure are you?  In the moonlight, with a shimmering.  Lights and a light wind and the faint call of carolers.  And…Other?  Mystery?  Spirit?  The Luminous Numinous?  A little faith tracks the trail of every doubt, and sometimes, come Christmas, even causes us to doubt our doubt.

All along the river of doubt there is a shimmering something alongside…  Mystery.  Being.  Spirit.  All the cultured doubt of a late modern, post Christian culture, still, does not erase what is just beyond saying, knowing, and hearing.  Doubt is shadowed by faith.

  1. Christmas Faith

Second, faith. Another sort of Christmas begins with the gift of faith.  A full hearing for wonder, and care, and peace.

Your Christmas trail may be ecclesiastical and not cultural, indoors and not outdoors, by candlelight and not moonlight.

You may be a cradle Christian at Christmas, or a cradle Christmas Christian.  Then your trail would move not along the river, but along the rail.

  1. Wonder (in the Silence)

A pause at the Gospel, in church.  To think.  Now inside, not outside.  Now at the rail, not at the river.  Now with Mary and Jesus, though hearing still Elizabeth and John.

All failure, folly and horror bracketed, for the moment, there is the start of this trail in carols of the English tradition, and in candles to evoke the numinous, and in word and sacrament to mirror heaven. Every year, come Christmas Eve, as at no other time of year, there is an awareness of lasting life.  The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder, as Chesterton never tired of saying.  It is the imagination, that quality of heart and mind so necessary to being human, which quickens again, here at the rail.  Step ahead, just a moment, as sometimes we do, to read the Gospel, moving the page itself into the heart of the church.

Wonder still appears on the candlelit faces uplifted at midnight worship.  Good deeds, selfless and real, emanate still from hearts, homes, and communities of faith.  Generosity, both of spirit and of wallet, emerges again in December.  My Jewish friend’s daughter, steady and staunch in her own faith, nonetheless just loves to go to her neighbor’s house to decorate the Christmas tree:  lights, ornaments, tinsel, all.

Now the passage read from Luke for this Sunday prepares us for the very birth of Christ.  Here is Elizabeth, the mother of the one on the river, and Mary, the mother of the one at the rail.  There are two kinds of Christmas, that of John and that of Jesus, both blessed.  One in the cold light of reason, and one in the warm heart of love.  Both are good, both needed.   Even in utero, according to this Lukan narration, John the Baptist is aware of, we might say prophetically aware of, the unborn Messiah.  But there is a palpable portent of possibility shot through all of this strange reading. We shall honor by acceptance its strange, numinous portent, pregnant with potential for the future.  The Gospel creates its own audience, in the audience of its announcement. Grace renders a sense of imagination, that quiet surrender of the self to the spirit of God.  

  1. Care (amid greed)

A pause at the lesson.  To continue.

The earlier prophecy from Micah recalled David, born in Bethlehem, and was taken by primitive Christianity as a prediction of the Christ.  The whole of the book of Micah realistically portrays the limits of human goodness.  And yet, the image of the shepherd stays with us, and stands out.  Many of our churches are over programmed and under pastored.   A shepherd leads by example.  Here is care:  in the giving of money.  Here is care:  in taking the cloak as well, and going the second mile.  Here is care:  waking in the morning with hope, and praying into the night with hope.  Here is care:  investing in what can cross the bridges of difference.  Here is care:  the ability to see one’s own hurt and suffering, to some degree, as part of a larger labor pain, the birth of the future.

  1. Peace (in a time of Violence)

A pause, too, at the Epistle, the letter to the Hebrews, and its early portent, even at Christmas, of the sorrow and struggle to come. To conclude. Suffering produces endurance.  But God, in Christ, has acted to heal and cleanse.  In faith, we have a way forward, even in the face of other ways forward that do not seem to go forward.  Every day we can live a changed life.  Peace come through peace makers.

In our own lives let us, in faith, eschew any first strikes, on the cheek, or on the character, or on the person.

In our own lives let us eschew any self-full, unilateral action that is not cognizant of circumstance.

In our own lives let us free ourselves, personally, from acting in overweening ways, in ways that use people and love things, rather than loving things and using people (Augustine).

In our own lives let us learn patiently to plan, to foresee, with forbearance, and so practice Niebuhr’s ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.

Here is a Christmas faith.  In church, gospel, lesson and letter, we may surely affirm the gifts of faith at Christmas:  wonder in silence, care amid greed, peace in a time of violence.


And yet.  Lest faith curdle to blind faith, and the gift of faith into the  wrapping of fideism, we may take the test of reason, a pinch of doubt, with us too.  ‘Test the spirits’, says the Scripture (1 Thess. 5: 22). While Luke surely means to place Jesus above John (cf. R Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 333ff.), and that without a doubt, Luke nonetheless makes full space for both kinds of Christmas.


There are two shades of Christmas.  One of Elizabeth and one of Mary, one of John and one of Jesus, one of river, and one of rail. Yours may be one tinged by faith, though full of doubt.  Yours may be one tinged by doubt, though robust in faith.  Both are blessed, both the true and the good.

We might add, though, if your Christmas is of the indoor variety, take a walk in the moonlight; and if your Christmas is of the outdoor variety, come in to the beauty of the sanctuary at night.  It takes a poet to get this middle voice, this reflexive, this nuanced announcement in the right key.  So, Auden:

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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

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

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A Life of Prayer

December 6th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 3:1-6

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Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited back to the Cornell community, Ithaca NY, with whom we were in ministry 35 years ago.  The church there celebrated their 100th birthday, the anniversary of a community whose preachers had included John R Mott, some future deans and presidents of various schools, the husband of Pearl Buck, a former Cornell Sage Chapel Dean, and others.  Sometimes they got saddled with inexperienced young pastors, as well.  

This community, called the Forest Home Chapel, in Ithaca, models one future route for northern and extended northern Methodism, in three dimensions.  The church is liberal, a reconciling congregation, something of a given, given its history.  The church is well led, and prizes ministerial excellence with strong preaching, now offered by the Rev. Rebecca Dolch, a preacher of the first water.  The church is low overhead—no debt, modest building, adequate manse, and voluminous volunteer activity.  Theirs is the future–escaping fundamentalism, poor un-ordained leadership, and old, creaking, massive building structure.  In fact, they are a precursor, one route, one model for what will remain in the northeast in our tradition.

After the service, about 100 of us enjoyed a meal and memories.  Jan remembered serving as an interim director of the Nursery School there, for which three mornings her husband had childcare responsibilities.  He would sometimes show up, she recalled, coming over from the parsonage next door, and asking ‘what do I do now?’

As happens, that memory triggered the following:  here in Marsh Chapel, Boston, in 2010, I received a phone call from the New York Times.  That is not a daily occurrence.  ‘Were you the minister in Ithaca in 1980?’  Who wants to know, I asked.  ‘Was there a child care program in your church?’  I referred the reporter to the response given moments before.  ‘We have a senatorial candidate, a republican in Illinois, a Cornell graduate, who claims a background in early childhood education, and when pressed identified the program in your church as his employer.  The current director looked through records and found no evidence, but gave us your name’.  I will be sure to thank her, I replied.  ‘But what did you say was the candidate’s name?’  Mark Kirk.  I could give no evidence against or for his employment there, ‘possible but not likely’ I said in response.  So my sole offering, to date, to the New York Times, is the fairly lame phrase ‘possible but not likely’ or something similar.  (☺)

This week you learned of a vote on gun control in the US Senate in which just one, just one member of Senator Kirk’s party crossed the line to vote to strengthen gun controls.  That was Senator Mark Kirk himself.  I can imagine that his choice took some courage.  In that, he is precursor.  A precursor goes ahead, and has powerful influence on the future.  Kirk is one.  Maybe that Cornell education moved him.  Maybe he did work with kids in the church basement.  Maybe he heard something, inside or outside of worship, which stayed with him.  Maybe he remembered the primary precursor to the gospel, John the Baptist.

Lukan Baptist

Dressed in camel’s hair, with a diet of locusts and honey (though Luke omits to dress and feed him as Mark so does), John the Baptist is the precursor to Jesus.  You cannot get to Christmas without Advent.  You cannot come to Bethlehem except by way of the Jordan.  You cannot celebrate grace without hearing first the prophetic voice (though it is also good to be reminded that the prophetic is a part of the gospel but not the heart of the gospel (repeat)).  Every year, right now, the Baptist, out in the dark cold miserable mud-soaked Jordan River, stops us.  He stops you.  He says the one prayerful word of the precursor, the prophetic word: ‘Prepare’.  Then he calls the whole people to prayer:  to repentance for pervasive sin; to acceptance of pardon as the way out of evil and hurt; to assurance of grace.

Prayer is what comes before the rest, like Sunday morning is meant to come before the rest (of the week).  Are you getting off on the right foot week by week?

John the Baptist would want to know.  Look carefully at what Luke says about him.  See the Lukan Baptist, different from John the Baptist in Mark.   Mark, 20 years before, begins his gospel with the Baptist.  The gospel opens, ‘the voice of one…’  Not Luke.  Luke wants John put in particular context, 20 years later.  

(We want to hear the gospel in the gospels.  Luke says something different from what he borrowed out of Mark.  That should give us confidence, as we preach, to take the gospel in hand, and apply it to our own condition, our own time, as, well, the first gospel writers all did.)

So, Luke has a history that precedes the precursor.  This history, an orderly one, tells of the conjoint mysterious births of John and Jesus.  This history, an orderly one, gives singing voice to Zechariah (whose psalm we used today) and Mary (two weeks hence).  This history, an orderly one, acknowledges the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.  This history, an orderly one, honors Joseph, and paints like El Greco shepherds in the firelight of the ‘smoking cradle’ (Barth).  This history, an orderly one, makes a little space for the childhood of Jesus, in woe and weal both, circumcision, presentation, growth in wisdom, and temple teaching.  Then, only, does Luke allow the Baptist to appear.  But even here, it is the orderly history that prevails: 15 years, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, unpronounceable regions,  eminently forgettable tetrarchs and priesthoods (‘a six-fold synchronism’, as Bultmann wryly remarks (HST, 362)).   Luke is making sure Jesus has his feet firmly planted in history, both of secular Empire and sacred Temple and an orderly history at that.   So, for us, our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.  More on this in a moment.

Prayer as Precursor

Our year at Marsh Chapel is given over to the theme of prayer, to the life of prayer, and we have spoken about what prayer is, and is meant to be for us.  But in the crusty spirit of the prophetic Baptist here in Luke, we might also want bluntly to say what prayer is not.  Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless, not rote or impersonal.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes work personal.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.

Our Boston University Personalist Borden Parker Bowne wrote (in 1910!) as our friend Mark Davies reminded us this month,

There is a fancy that prayer alone is the great instrument of success.  This overlooks the true nature of prayer, and also the conditional form of human progress.  In all matters which God has made to depend on human action, that is not prayer, but irreverent impertinence, which pours itself out in verbal petition while neglecting to use the means which lie in our power.  To appoint a day of fasting and prayer to ward of cholera, while allowing the streets and houses and water-supply to reek with filth and all manner of insanitary abomination, would be more like blasphemy than prayer.  A farmer, lying on his back in the shade, while his fields remain unplowed and unsown, cannot truly pray for harvest.  In all cases where our activity is demanded works is a necessary part of prayer, or rather it is the form which true prayer necessarily takes one…Heaven’s ear is deaf to easy verbal petitions.  It is not until the whole soul is engaged that we can be said to pray.  Prayer in its purest essence is found in all action toward the desired object.  It is the pouring out of the whole soul, not only in word, but in act as well, for the attainment of what we seek (Bowne, The Essence of Religion)

Prayer is not a substitute for work.

Likewise, Paul Tillich wrote (in 1960!), as our congregant Dr. Kris Kahle in New Haven Connecticut reminded us this fall,

God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Prayer is not a magical contradiction of the laws of nature or the movement of history.

Likewise, three days ago in this sanctuary we celebrated the life of Professor Abner Eliezer Shimony of Boston University.  He had been both a Professor of Physics and a Professor of Philosophy.  My, oh my! The music and memories of the day reflected a life of prayer, of mindfulness, embracing both physics and metaphysics, evoked these words from and about him:

Ideas matter and there is a deep beauty in pursuing them…The sense of wonder is the basis of learning…With Thucydides we need to ‘restore the sacred olive groves’…He worked both toward a peaceful coexistence of quantum mechanics and special relativity, and toward an understanding of the deepest secrets of the universe, to enhance a sense of wonder about the world, and sensitivity to the facts of the world.  Einstein and Whithead, science and spirit.

And a sense of humor:  ‘the reasons for studying Latin are many and good—but not easy to remember’ (☺).

Prayer is not mindless.

Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes the worker mindful.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.  I ask you, seriously and respectfully:  is yours a life of prayer? Do you let the waking hour be a waking hour, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead? Do you let Sunday be Sunday, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?  Do you let Advent be Advent, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?


It is in this spirit that Paul can write, ‘I am confident of this, that he would began a good work among you will bring it to completion’.  His words, prayerful words, are themselves precursors.   We come to church this morning drenched in sorrows, in the wake of terror east and west, Paris and California, and elsewhere.  We wonder how in the world honestly to face religious extremism and fully to stand beside our brothers and sisters of different faiths.  Some of us will gather tomorrow night at 6pm in the GSU to address just this issue.  We wonder how in the world to keep moving forward toward a public health cure for gun violence, when so little forward motion seems to occur, and the same blank stares and empty phrases follow yet another sordid, evil, awful slaughter.  Some of us will gather Wednesday evening at 7:30pm on December 9 at First Church Boston on Marlborough Street to address just this issue.   Nor are these the only issues of our time.  

In the gospel, we remain hopeful.  Real change is real hard but it happens in real time when people really work at it.  This is Paul’s commonwealth of the gospel, partnership of the gospel—weakly rendered in our NRSV as ‘sharing’.  My goodness.  ‘Sharing’  ‘Sharing’ is not the half of it.  It is Work!  Commonwealth! Partnership! Koinonia! You can if you think you can.   For example, we can move toward reduction in gun violence in our time, and this hour of sacrament and sermon, is itself a prayerful precursor to it.

I have seen change, good change, in these past few years.  I see unemployment rates now low.  I see two wars ended, with continued foreceful attention to containment abroad and protection at home (repeat last phrase).  I see the Gulf of Mexico cleaned.  I see Massachusetts style health care spreading out across the country.  I see Ebola defeated.  I see deliberation and détente with Iran.  I see civil rights for gay and lesbian people.  I see a global summit on climate change.  I see two vibrant Boston marathons since 2013, and another coming.  I see a growing awareness of the limits and perils of some newer technologies.  I see more and better conversation about race and injustice (it does matter what monuments you have on your campus plaza and lawn, and it helps to know their histories).   I see optimistic 20 year olds who just have never heard that it couldn’t be done.  It can be done.  Yes it can.  It just takes prayer as a precursor, and a prayerful human precursor or two.  Like that one lone Senator for Illinois, who got his start working in Methodist child care program—or did he?—high above Cayuga’s waters, who stepped up and stepped forward and stepped ahead.  Senator Mark Kirk did something, and as his former pastor—or was I?—I should be able to do something too.  Our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.

My grandmother in her eighties had a sign on her kitchen door.  It was her kind of prayer.  ‘Do one thing.  There.  You’ve done one thing’.  Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

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

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

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A Lukan Horizon

November 29th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 21:25-36

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Jesus meets us today in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next twelve months. On this first Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.

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

What do we find? Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients. First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, Luke 21. Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases. This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew. An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service. Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’. Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward. We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say? This will take us the year and more to unravel. We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one apocalyptic pronouncement at a time. Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that. Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history. Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds. The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church. Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Now Look again at Luke 21. It is a traditional Christian apocalyptic teaching, which Luke has faithfully transported into his gospel. It is not its mere presence, but its particular interpretation in Luke that we watch for this morning.

Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur. All were mistaken. Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope. Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed. It is early Christian mythology. (As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us. But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is not the gospel.)

It did not happen. What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen. The end did not come. And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts some years ago, did not make it so. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.

Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through. Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope. So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, to serve the present age.

Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so. Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘so, be alert at all times, praying ’. Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in later verses: you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared. But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found later still, in the Gospel of John.

Luke knows the tradition of apocalyptic teaching from Mark 13, and makes space for it here. But he turns apocalyptic into action. He puts eschatology to work in the service of ethics. Its import, all this fiery symbolism, language and imagery, is in the last verse, ‘be alert at all times, praying’. The life of faith is the life of developing, expanding, creative responsibility, of responsibility taken. Action, not apocalypse. Ethics, not eschatology. Here, Luke’s own engagement in history will help us.

Stacy Schiff wrote eloquently, recently, about the Salem witch trials, but ended with a warning like that of Luke:

We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take the satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. (NYRB, 12/3/15, p.23)

Of course, we are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture? Nor are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.

We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—out onto a far-off apocalyptic falsehood, in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life: negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through (repeat).

Here is our freedom. Pray daily for the hope of the world. Think creatively about the hope of the world. Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope.

One of my heroes in life and work is Ernest Fremont Tittle. Dr. Christopher Evans of Boston University wrote his PhD dissertation about Tittle. A close friend of mine, now deceased, was the husband of Tittle’s long time secretary. Robert Moats Miller wrote his biography (How Shall They Hear Without a Preacher?). Tittle preached in Chicago (First Church Evanston), during the depression and the Second World War. He died in his early sixties, at his desk, while working on a commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Tittle was arguably the greatest Methodist preacher of his time, a traditional Protestant and an unwavering champion of social justice. Since we are following Luke in worship this year to come, Tittle and his own comments upon the third Gospel have been much on my mind. For the record, and as may be interesting to you, I excerpt a passages from that commentary, a typically homiletical paragraph about persistence (Luke 18:1-8):

There is a special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leaders like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, and Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence. 

I find it somehow heartening to hear, across the decades, the strong voices of Tittle and others who have walked many of the same paths we now walk. Today we face serious global challenges to peace and justice. May the very difficulties inherent in these challenges cause us to develop the moral fiber and spiritual resilience of our brother from Evanston and so many others like him.

Today our apocalyptic gospel from Luke 21, a fading late 1st century prediction of the end of time, no longer occupies, twenty centuries later, the kind of literal centrality for Christian teaching, which it did in the year 90. Even then, by Luke’s time, apocalyptic was waning. The church, beginning with the church’s formative influence on the New Testament, converted apocalyptic eschatology into ethical exhortation. Portents and predictions of wars and rumors of wars became, in the main, as they are today, words of caution and preparation, and warning. ‘Be alert…’. Be prepared. And on that basis this morning we shall render, interpret Luke 21.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Then do your most. And leave all the rest.

Be alert. Not all tragedy befalls someone else. Not all inexplicable, hurtful, senseless accident happens to other families. Not all fire burns in the next town down the line. Into each life a little rain, and more than a little rain, does fall. If every heart has secret sorrows, which every heart does, then every home harbors potential hurt, as every home does.

Two weeks ago a small gathering of undergraduate students and others considered the tragedy in Paris, and other similarly awful events, which continue to this weekend. One question was how the events of our time compare to experience and events of years and decades past. ‘Has it always been like this?’ one asked. It was a faithful question, a good and mature and faithful question, to which the various responses from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ were given.

In this student group, there emerged an ongoing sense of responsibility, a longing to take some responsibility for the shape of the future: We all have some responsibility here. You and I have responsibility. You and I have responsibility in your time and in our way to strive for the things that make for peace. You and I can make a difference. We can do so by taking the initiative to learn something about a religion or religious perspective other than our own, as we have often emphasized from this pulpit. We can do so, gazing out from the Lukan horizon, by making our own efforts to help those in need. By keeping healthy balances in life. The teaching of faith is in part an effort to help us keep things in balance. There is a point to the cultural emphases of this weekend, of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Football Sunday and Cyber Monday. But these alone will not allow us to make and keep human life human. For this gratitude will need to inspire generosity. There is a broad, deep generosity across this land. There is. Yet it takes the continuous reminder of others’ need, and our responsibility, to bring the latent to life, to make it patent and to make it potent. St. Luke, and his gospel of the compassionate Christ, encourage us so. The gathering of the church encourages us. The prayers and the hymns of the church encourage us. The teaching of the faith of the church encourages us.

D Bonhoeffer: Religion is only a garment of Christianity. When religion disappears what remains is Christ himself, in all his immediacy: In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion but something quite different, really the Lord of the world (NYRB, 12/3/15)

So let us look out from the Lukan horizon. Let us prepare ourselves spiritually for the unforeseen future. Let us be alert. Let us meet violence with patient justice. We can learn to be responsive not reactive, that is to seek patient justice. Let us inculcate in ourselves and others ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’. Let us learn the arts of disciplined endurance. I think at some low level of our collective psyche we are pushing toward this. Hence the increase in jogging, in running, in cycling, in all forms of physical endurance. At some bone level our bodies are telling us to be prepared for a long twilight struggle. Let us hold fast to he lasting commitments we have to freedom, peace, justice, and love. As Luke remembered his apocalyptic inheritance, let us remember our full religious inheritance, in the voices of those who can encourage, admonish, and advise us. That is, let us be alert at all times, praying that we may have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

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

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

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A Thanksgiving Prayer

November 22nd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 6:25-33

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World Walk

One of our contemporary journalists has decided to leave behind his usual round of assignments, and to walk around the world.

We remember Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s drive across America with his pet dog.  You may remember a similar, more post-modern drive across the outback of America by William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways.  Another such volume a few years ago was A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins.

But this fellow, Paul Salopek, is walking around the world.  He has been at it for a couple of years already.

The television camera and crew caught up with him in Eastern Europe.  He has been through four pairs of shoes.  He carries very little in his backpack:  a change of clothes and a computer.  He has some traveling buddies, part guide, part protector, part friend.  He asks people in various towns to let him stay with them.  And they do.  Then he interviews them, doing a video interview once a month.

One thing he said really struck me.  The world is a very hospitable place.  With only a few exceptions, this world is a very hospitable place.  People receive, welcome and offer you hospitality.  The world is hospitable.  Paul Salopek began walking I believe in January of 2013.  His irenic voice has a faint but real resonance, Thanksgiving 2015, as we are immersed in reports of violence around the globe.  This Sunday each year we remember to be thankful.

Being Mindful

Are we mindful of sources of gratitude?

We are not always as thoughtful as we could be, not as mindful as we should be…

Then let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the 126th Psalm…

Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the blessings of God, as sung in the beatitudes…

Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend Max Coots…

“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.”

by Reverend Max Coots

The Good Earth

Our lessons from ancient Scripture surround us with thanksgiving.  The prophet Joel attributes directly to the Lord, in a way we might not in our time, both the weal and woe of natural cycles.  Yet his spirit of thanksgiving could not be more evident, as he acclaims gratitude for the good that is given, in pasture and tree and vineyard.  Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Our psalm, very directly, also recalls a dreamlike time of plenitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder to those who use this psalm that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.  Our epistle lesson in 1 Timothy turns from nature to history, from harvest to governance.  As elsewhere in the New Testament, we find here an unsurprising thanksgiving for order.  In a prayer recently, we heard the petition that we might serve God ‘with a quiet mind’.  Not all order is godly, especially when purchased with the counterfeit currency of oppression and injustice.  But Timothy has a point, too.  A quiet and peaceable life itself requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  But it is our Gospel, today, that shines most clearly with gratitude, a beatitudinal thanksgiving prayer itself.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you. The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’.  Friday night our Inner Strength Gospel choir, fed earlier by the loving care of Marsh Chapel members Cecilia, Sandra, Jerry, Carolyn, Victoria, and Melvena, gave a compelling witness, in the heart of a week of turmoil, to thanksgiving, grateful praise.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one (Carol Zahm) remembered in the figure of her friend:

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years


All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

The Age of Violence

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today.

We have been this past week through a very dark patch.   The torrent of images from Paris, and elsewhere, threatens so to inundate as to overwhelm, and then to drown.

Under the aspect of thanksgiving, let us pause for a moment to collect our thoughts, to gird ourselves in faithful cautions.

We will want to be careful to remember that individual choices, to kill say, or to heal, say, are real, they matter, and they count, in the long run.  Some one chose to kill in Paris.  The bombs were not set by systems, or structures, but by men and women of flesh and bone.

We will want to be clear that for all the structural, systemic and acculturated sources of violence—how potent they are—it is nonetheless an irretrievable, and irremediable, individual choice, to take another’s life, and to take another’s innocent life.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, however perversely, however violently, however despicably that freedom is used.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace that speaks lightly of forgiveness for the murderer, the terrorist, the sadistic extremist.  The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, forbid it.  Those of us who heard the explosions on Boylston Street in 2013 empathize in a particular way with Paris 2015.

In helping one another, and our children, as one friend has said, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.  With a soulful abandon, with a Parisian panache, going forward, we can go forward as a ‘flaneur’ of old, to saunter, to wander, to stroll, to make our own the streets and boulevards of life.

Howard Thurman Gives Thanks

So let us be mindful this Thanksgiving, as was Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago.  His poem:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

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

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

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

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

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


I finger 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.


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

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

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

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

To reach for the highest;

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

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

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

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

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

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

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

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

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The Bach Experience

November 14th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 13:1-8

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Dr. Neville

Dr. Jarrett, Bach’s cantata, “Bleib bei uns,” or “Stay with us,” worries a very old theme, the need for light.  It is hard to think of a time when the troubles call for light more than now.  The incomprehensible violence, the tragic deaths of innocents, the rage that knows no containment, of the Paris terrorist attacks has cast the world in darkness.  They were acts of war by a regime that does not distinguish its politics from religion, though by no means are those acts of war condoned by other Muslim regimes.  Will France of necessity declare war on the Islamic State?  How can that war be fought if the Islamic State soldiers live among people whom they have conquered?  Will NATO go to the aid of France?  Will the US? How can our Middle Eastern neighbors in Europe and the US not be under suspicion? Will such suspicion turn friends into enemies?  These are political and moral problems.  But the depths of the troubles press against the limits of our very being and so these are religious problems, for all sides, including us.  Where is the light in these increasingly dark times?

The metaphor of light arises on the first page of the Bible, as the very first thing God says: “Let there be light.” And there was light.  This implies that darkness is the primordial, the aboriginal, situation.  The narrative also implies that prior to speaking, God is just part of the darkness.  Presumably God could have eliminated the darkness altogether, but instead arranged the light and darkness in the alternation of day and night.  So darkness is always with us or just around the corner.

In biblical times there was much debate among both Jews and Christians over whether God and God’s speech are one thing or two.  On the one hand, in the human analogy we ordinarily say that a speaker and the speaker’s speech are one; a human being is an agent or actor and speaking is one kind of acting.  Perhaps we can conceive of God on the analogy of such an agent, existing in some sense in the darkness before light as an agent ready and able to speak, but just not yet.  The difficulty with this analogy is that the creation of the world, beginning with light distinguished from darkness, is such a vast change that it is difficult to think of God as an agent at all without some equally primordial world to work on.  God is radically changed by becoming a speaking God whose first words create light.

On the other hand, many people have allowed that there are two things, God not speaking prior to creation, and the divine Word that comes into being as God speaks and in fact structures the whole of creation.  This view was elaborated in the sayings of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, who affirmed that she was present with God at the creation but complained that people did not pay enough attention to her and did not live in the light of God’s creative Word, which had moral connotations.  The Prologue to the Gospel of John lays this out in a familiar way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:1-5)  According to John, Jesus was the incarnation of the original divine Word spoken by God in creation and the condition for all things created, a Word characterized as light.  The Word of God came into being as God spoke it in creation; it was phrased for human beings in the Sinai covenant, though too many people rejected it; it was present in common sense as Lady Wisdom, but too many people ignored it. So then God caused this Word to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the foundation of John’s theology, and it generally won the day in Christian theology overall.  To say that Jesus is the Light of the World, in the sense Bach’s libretto meant it, is to say that he is the embodiment of the divine Word in creation that begins by saying “Let there be light.”

Dr. Jarrett, Bach seems to buy into this identification of Jesus with the Light of creation, although in our cantata there still seems to be a troubling darkness for which the Light of Christ needs yet to cover.  Is this right?

Dr. Jarrett

The second in our series of Easter cantatas is “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” – ‘Stay with us, for evening comes.’ Scored for choirs of oboes, strings, and voices, Bleib bei uns draws both title and subject from the 24th Chapter of Luke in which Jesus appears to a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus.

As we have come to expect from Bach, the full range of human experience and emotion is everywhere explored and considered. And, as much as Bach acknowledges human frailty, the doubt of our conviction, and the daily crisis of faith, he provides clear paths for musical and theological reconciliation. Consider the Bach passion settings – in particular, the St Matthew Passion which we perform later this year in February – Bach provides an astonishingly accurate mirror of our human circumstance. He knows how each day, we become Judas, or a Peter, or a Pilate. In today’s cantata, we connect instantly with the hapless disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Stricken with grief that their leader has been tragically cut down in the events just days before in Jerusalem, their eyes remain blind to the true identity of Jesus until he breaks bread with them – a theological reminder of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

But references to the Luke 24 story remain allegorical in Bach’s 1725 cantata for the second day of Easter. Here, Bach focuses on the sadness, fear, and even anxiety at the loss of Jesus. In a sense, Bach connects us to the end of the John Passion as Jesus has been laid to rest in the tomb. With sarabande rhythms and a melancholy C Minor, the final chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ lays an elegiac garland on the heavy tomb stone. In cantata 6, the same C Minor music reveals the crisis of loss with low pulsing string parts, all of which yields to a frenetic fugue depicting both the disarray of the Jesus movement, but also our growing fear as darkness encloses.

The progression of arias begins with a courtly petition for Christ to stay longer. With alto oboe and alto singer, the entreaty is marked by both an upward ascent in the vocal line to accompany the text ‘highly praised’ and descending whole-tones to depict the encroaching darkness.

The central aria is a chorale setting, reminding us that Word and Sacrament are, indeed, the light. And the final aria, scored for tenor and strings, reminds us that the image of Christ and his passion are the surest way to avoid the pathways of sin.

The theology, of course, is that even though Jesus ascends to heaven, having fulfilled the prophesy, we are shored up by the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return. But the challenge of daily faith is very difficult without the true presence of Jesus. How will we continue? How can we remain Christ-like in our living without his daily presence? The answer is the renewal, affirmation, and cleansing purity of word and table, table and word.

Though we perform an Easter cantata today, the extraordinary need for the light of Christ to dispel the gloom and shroud of sin, calls us to an advent penitence. In the timeless words of the Psalmist: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Dr. Neville

Yet we seem to have little light for our path these days.  This is why it is so important continually to advert to those things that bear the light, even in dark times.  The sacrament of the table habituates us to gratitude and hope, even when we don’t pay it much attention.  The Word in scripture, in preaching, and of course in the founding structure of the world solicits our attention to the important things even when it is obscurely understood, mumbled, and apparently incoherent.  What are the important things in a crisis riding on blind terrorism?  To remember that our first thought about enemies is that they need to be loved by us.  To be kind always, which includes sharing the grief of those under attack.  To contain rage with disciplined moderation.  To insist, against all our darkened passions, that moral and religious judgment belongs only to God.  To understand that what little light we have allows us only fallible plans and purposes in matters of war and peace.  To wait in hope for the joy that comes in the morning when the light of creation dawns again.  Amen.

–Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University

–Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

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Artful Generosity

November 8th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 12:38-44

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Long has Mark’s poor widow summoned to us. Her mite, her mighty mite, ‘two small copper coins worth a penny’, abides with us, to disquiet even the quietest mind.

Artful generosity. Yes. But of what sort? Personal or Communal? 

Personal Generosity

First, on one hand…

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Tell me after worship or by email your earliest memory of a sermon on ‘the venerable doctrine of Christian stewardship’.

A poor mother and son (an early memory of a stewardship sermon). The son needed to see a doctor, but the mother’s work prevented her from taking him. She called the local WSCS to ask if someone would help, but heard nothing. That night she told her son that she did not know whether he would have a ride and they would have to trust God to help them. A woman came the next morning. On the way home the boy shocked her, and touched her, by asking, ‘Maam, are you God?’ Far from it, far from it, she thought, and said. ‘No. Why?’ ‘Well in our prayer last night my mom said that God would have to help me get to the doctor. And you came and got me there. So are you God?’

God helps. Or help is God. Gandhi said for God to appear to the hungry, God would have to come as bread…

I look across nine pulpits and forty years, and I see her in every town. Amy Whetzel, alone, in Ithaca, caring alone for her bed-ridden dad. Setta Moe, near Malone, a chain smoker, who went door to door to raise money for her church’s (beautiful) windows. Syracuse had Mickey Murray, whose husband died when they were forty, but who raised her family alone and still had time to run a Wednesday evening junior youth group dinner. In Rochester, Barb Steen, who by then had lost both children and her husband, and got up every morning, made a list of 5 names, and wrote or called or visited every one. Widows all. And here at Marsh, Marsha Meade, County Durham, in the north of England.

One widow at 86, drives to church on Sunday, and on the way stops to pick up some of the ‘older people’. In 1965, with tears, she spent a Kennedy silver half dollar, a precious coin given her by her own recently deceased dad, using it on the last day or so of October, after that month’s salary was worn through, so that the parsonage porch would too have pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, like all the neighbors, all part of raising four children on a preacher’s salary.

The one committee a church needs, if any, is a stewardship committee to teach, by example and service, the artful generosity that is the marrow of Christianity.   You tell me how you give, and I will tell you who you are. You tell me the contours of your painting titled ‘generosity’ and I will tell you who you are. The only permanent possession you can claim is what you have given, permanently, to another. Only your gifts are real possessions, and this is mainly true of your time. As in the existential fragment of this one hour, in public worship of God.

We went north into the wilderness, just miles from Canada, to be within driving distance of Montreal. We did not really know how we were going to manage it. On Thanksgiving Sunday, both church offices, we discovered, were filled with food, for us, for the winter. You can live off the land if the landscape includes some women and men of artful generosity.

Our son earned his first $150 dollars as a coaching assistant one summer for a Colgate University soccer camp. He put the three fifty dollar bills on his dresser. That Christmas his sister was leaving for a term in Adelaide, Australia, and as she headed out the door he put that money, his only official earnings to that point in life, in her hand. All he had.

This all of having and giving, the giving of what one has, especially in the liminal moments, is the stage on which Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, appears. Our undergraduates, at young ages, entered the dark and deep of her great play about an older poet, her younger doctor and former student, and the long shadow of illness to death. The young doctor gives all he has but it is not enough. The older nurse gives what is needed, her very self, sitting on the bed, holding the poet, caressing and caring, and reading at the end from The Runaway Bunny: ‘ I guess I’ll stay and be your bunny.’ ‘Good. Have a carrot.’

You people at Marsh Chapel are the most generous of souls. You give of your time. You share your talents. You worship God in artful generosity toward your neighbors, including your soulful use of the collection plates. As people of faith, and in particular, as faithful religious people, Christian people, Protestant people, Methodist people, you tithe, you give generously in a disciplined way, offering year by year 10% of what you receive, to others.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Yours is the spirit of the psalmist. Who longs. Whose soul longs. Who thirsts. Whose soul thirsts. Who remembers. Whose soul remembers. Who despairs. Whose soul despairs. And yet who sings. Who sings songs in the night. Who sings songs in the night. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

We heard our own Lorelei poignantly sing Psalm 42 on Friday night. In their new, and newly arranged voices, one heard again the ‘agonic’ cry of the heart, of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow.

Artful generosity is personal. It harbors a longing.

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

 Communal Generosity

Second, on the other hand…

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a condemnatory, not a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

He excoriates. He judges. He criticizes. He condemns. Look. What a miscarriage of justice. All these others, religious leaders, take and receive. Fine clothing. Public status. Glorious meals. The best seats. They—don’t miss this—devour widows’ houses.

In this tone of voice, one not of commendation but of condemnation, Jesus casts a piercing dominical eye upon the lack of artful, communal generosity. Awful! She has put in everything she had to live on! An atrocity, not only because others have not given—surely bad enough. But more-so, that she, unwisely, mistakenly, foolishly, out of a kindness that kills, has given far more than she should have done.

The community has not cared for her. As it has not for the 9 year old boy in Chicago, who carried a basketball toward his grandmother’s house this week, and was shot dead. As it has not for the poor children in the rural outbacks of this great, good country, who lack multiple forms of nourishment. (There are more poor white children in this country than any other kind, most in hidden rural hills and hollows a long way from anywhere.) As it has not for the poorest quintile of households in this country, only 8% of whose children go through college, when 84% of children in the top quintile do: SAT scores and ZIP codes match exactly. As it has not for those children who tragically have been abused by religious leaders.

Jesus’ most venomous rhetoric is reserved for religious leaders. Long robes. Best seats. Respectful greetings. Banquet honors. They devour widows’ houses. They will receive the greater condemnation.

Here, from this angle of vision, the poor widow is not an exemplar of personal generosity, but a measuring rod of communal generosity, or lack thereof.   Real religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction.

We know about corruption in religious leadership, in local, lived, and shared experience. But lest you fellow Protestants think to Lord it over other denominations on whom a ‘Spotlight’ has fallen of late—beware. We too have our troubles. Protestant churches are not exempt from the trauma of clergy misconduct. 2 of the 9 congregations I have served have had past experience of clergy misconduct.

There he sits, across the plaza and watches. The compassion of the poor widow is not matched by a communal compassion, which should be heralded by, evoked by, sponsored by, the communal, say religious, leadership.

You also have read much of Thomas Piketty’s, Capital. So you know that beyond a certain threshold capital tends to reproduce itself and accumulates exponentially (395). You understand the multiplicative and cumulative logic of capital accumulation and concentration (373). You see that while the baby boomer generation may have thought that the influence inheritance was a thing of the past, the millennial generation sees the return of its influence with a vengeance.

After Jesus, and before Mark, Paul proclaimed: let those who have much not have too much and those who have little not have too little. (2 Cor. 8). On his proposition Boston University was born, has lived, and will thrive.

It is a biblical conception. Naomi and Ruth find their way together into an uncertain future. To do so they need each other, they need the courage to change, they need a partner or two, and they need an artful generosity that is communal not just personal.

It is a biblical conception. Paul Farmer, you spoke to us this week here at BU, and stayed for five hours, five hours, to sign books for students who waited for him to do so. He told us so in Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It is a biblical conception. One of the great BU traditions is the annual University Lecture. This week Dr. James McCann took us all the way up the Blue Nile, and taught us again, along the way, about a communal, artful generosity. A hope of a globe whose climate is conditioned by generosity. A hope of a continent, Africa, whose greatest river, continues to nourish, to slake the thirst of a needy landscape. The hope, especially, of a new form of ecological science that we are calling CHANS, coupled human and natural systems (11/1/15). 

It is a biblical conception of artful generosity, this communal one. You remember Amos. You remember his warning about a ‘famine of the word’. You remember his picture of Yahweh standing to measure his people against the plumb line of justice. Against the plumb line—of justice. It is a harrowing memory.

While far less traditionally asserted, and while much less useful, in the immediate sense, for church stewardship Sundays, like this one, the harsh word of Jesus much more naturally fits the flow of Mark 10, the general spirit of the whole of Mark, the full sense of Jesus’ criticism of religious leadership, and the plain sense of the passage itself. The first voice, of commendation, is the more familiar, more common, more generally heard and used. But the second, this one, of condemnation—she put in all she had to live on!—is the truer to the passage.

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Long has Mark’s poor widow summoned to us. Her mite, her mighty mite, ‘two small copper coins worth a penny’, abides with us, to disquiet even the quietest mind.

Artful generosity. Yes.

But of what sort?

Personal or Communal?

Merciful or Just?

Individual or Societal?

Today the gospel brings us two sorts of artful generosity.

Truth to tell: we may just need them both.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


November 1st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 11:32-44

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Whether or not a technological society will entirely overwhelm a doxological culture is up to us.

You have no choice whether or not to participate in the technological society.  You have some choice whether or not to participate in the nourishment of a doxological culture.  You are presented, by grace, this All Saints’ Day, with an abiding question:  doxa or techne?  Techne alone? Or doxatechne, prayer cautioning skill, praise denying work, the stealth emergence of a doxological culture within and underneath a technological society?

Take an hour a day.  Take a day a week.  Take a week a quarter.  Take a quarter a year.  For…doxa…doxology…DOXOLOGY!  Doxa is the human art of being artfully human.

To become human, over time, costs, requires deficit spending to replenish dire deficits in relationship, tradition, and health.  Although these deficits are shockingly, notoriously profound on college campuses, which tend to deaden relationship, ignore tradition, and warp health, they are by no means collegiate deficits alone.  They are cultural deficits—relationship, tradition, health—and they are deficits in your life today, and in mine.

Our saints, the community of saints about us, whisper reminders.  You need friendship: your computer will never kiss you.  You need tradition:  your little story is hardly a story at all without connection to a big story or two.  You need health:  mens sana in corpore sano.


One of our students recently said, interpreting the Gospel of John, and its famous introduction, ‘In the beginning was the word’:  Sometimes I hear my self introduction (student, divinity, future pastor), but the feeling beyond the words is gone.  I want that feeling in the words.

So our fourth Gospel presents Jesus saying of his disciples:  ‘I call you friends’.  Friendship is a mystery, a great deep.  It may be true that some have more capacity for friendship than others, but all have a friendship-shaped cavity in the heart, awaiting fulfillment.  How poorly we in the ministry of the Word have done, over time, to speak a kind word for friendship!  And for the time friendship requires.  And for the courage friendship entails.  And for the prayerful thought friendship demands.  And for the willingness as a friend to risk the friendship for the sake of the friend.

Note the arts of friendship:  introduction, attention, courtesy, invitation, and the grace to step aside.  Who teaches you these habits of mind, heart, and being?  No one.  You learn them, if at all, by way of example from others.  Ponder this week one , in your earthly life to date, who has best befriended you.

Martin Buber:  “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being… Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity…Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.”

Our Gospel, John 11, affirms the resurrection in relationship.  The Gospel of John turns on Lazarus.  Jesus’ crucifixion, in John, is triggered, not by the cleansing of a temple, but by Jesus raising of his friend, for whom he wept, from the dead, his friend, whom he loved, from the dead.   ‘A new relationship I give you, that you love one another’:  here is the resurrection in John.

Psalm 139

O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!


Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;

thou discernest my thoughts from afar.


Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,

and art acquainted with all my ways.


Even before a word is on my tongue,

lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.


Thou dost beset me behind and before,

and layest thy hand upon me.


Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is high, I cannot attain it.


Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?


If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!


If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,


even there thy hand shall lead me,

and thy right hand shall hold me.


If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,

and the light about me be night,”


even the darkness is not dark to thee,

the night is bright as the day;

for darkness is as light with thee.


One of our students said recently, interpreting the Gospel of John, and its famous revelation, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’:   Sometimes we let our precious truth get in the way of the life of our precious neighbor.  Jesus is not about truth and ends but about life and means.  

J Pelikan:  tradition is the living faith of dead people; traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.   An All Saints’ Day epigram if ever there was one…

In practice, tradition is a bridge connecting memory and hope.  You have a memory of Halloween that, in the outliving of your present, reaches in hope to a future you cannot see and certainly cannot define.  In the carving of a pumpkin, with a certain grimace, in a certain way, there is bridge shaped that spans the chasm between the memory, your memory, of the dead, and the hope, your hope, for the living.

Hence, in Isaiah 25, the Lord, one hopes, will bring upon the mountain the heavenly feast, wherein tears are taken away and death is no more and—most significantly—disgrace is erased.  As the grave swallows us, so, in time, will the grave itself be swallowed:  here is our hope, and here is that hope in sumptuous memory.

A friend recently sent a reminder, a bridge from past to future, of Paul Tillich’s teaching on prayer (our Marsh theme this year): God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,

the world and those who dwell therein;


for he has founded it upon the seas,

and established it upon the rivers.


Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?


He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to what is false,

and does not swear deceitfully.


He will receive blessing from the Lord,

and vindication from the God of his salvation.


Such is the generation of those who seek him,

who seek the face of the God of Jacob.[a]Selah


One of our students said recently, interpreting the Gospel of John, ‘we are called to witness and wonder:  to care and celebrate our part in the web of life’ .

Your mental, physical, and personal health are not someone else’s job.  For 10-20% of us, broadly speaking, health in all dimensions requires an attentive discipline regarding addictive substances.

Sherry Turkle: We expect more from technology and less from each other…We heal ourselves by giving others what we most need (ALONE TOGETHER).

Today in NYC there are 58,000 living in shelters, 40% of whom are children.  Our story in Boston is similar.

We await the apocalypse poetically depicted in Revelation 21.  Our health is connected to such a hope, such a prospect.  And the prospect is so faithful and so true, that the seer may in fact simply ‘write it down’ (21:5).

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;


but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.


He is like a tree

planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.


We have no choice, to some measure, about techne.  (Listen again to the Marsh Chapel sermons on Jacques Ellul, eminent Calvinist, some winters ago.)  If you have a job, you will have an email address.  If you are of a certain generation the still dews of social media will drop upon you until all your strivings cease.  If you are investing capital, and aim to make a profit, you will purchase in technology.  If you practice medicine, now, every examination will involve three faces:  your patient, you, and your computer.  If you work for a large corporation, university, or government agency, your life, periodically, will be upended, or worse, with a change of software and hardware, so beware.  

You have the faith of Jesus Christ, though, with which to choose doxa, or a little measure of meaning in doxatechne.  Let us live the Gospel!

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

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

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Son of David

October 25th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 10:46-52

Click here to listen to the sermon only

The Bible is largely about failure and defeat.

Its stories and letters and teachings record ways people have lived with defeat.  This makes the Bible difficult for us to understand.  For we as a people have run and swatted and laughed our way past learning the language of failure.  We don’t admit to it.  We won’t accept it.  We do not countenance it.  So sermons, this one and others, which are fumbling footnotes to the Scripture, hit us from the side if they hit us at all.

But by grace, it is the resurrected Christ who addresses us in the preaching of the church, in the announcement of the gospel.  The passages of the Gospel allow us safe passage to the Gospel because Jesus is present to us.“In all the sayings of Jesus which were reported, he speaks who is recognized in faith and worship as Messiah and Lord, and who, as the proclamation makes known his works and hands on his sayings, is actually present for the church.” (Bultmann, HST, 348).

Our blind beggar, ‘Bar Timeaus’, shouts out an unexpected nametag for Jesus.  ‘Son of David’.   To call Jesus such is to remember…failure…to remember…difficulty…to remember warnings unheeded from long ago…to remember David you have to remember Saul and to remember Saul you have to remember Samuel.

Bartimaeus calls Jesus by the name of David—David the personification of hope, of millennial portent, of national pride, of the chance to get things right.  Son of David!  He throws of his garment—maybe a sign of baptism—and comes naked to see if there is another chance for him.   Here is another in Mark’s ‘book of secret epiphanies’ (Dibelius\Bultmann).  His ‘faith has made him well’, a saying and a truth most precious to Martin Luther, whose Reformation we remember today, Luther who forever splintered the unity of the church into pieces, fragments, for the sake of the Gospel:  faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. (M Luther, introduction to Romans).

Our Gospel seldom uses the title, ‘Son of David’, in order that Jesus not be mistaken for the hoped for national Messiah, the hoped for political conqueror, the hoped for restorer of Israel.  Jesus is known by failure and defeat.   But the name of David also carries the reminder, with Samuel, of surprise, of a second chance, of another chance, of new beginnings.  

You remember Samuel’s story in 1 Samuel 15:34ff. read a moment ago.  Samuel didn’t want to be a prophet, but he got saddled with the job anyway.  He didn’t want anything to do with kings, but he had to pick one.

The people wanted a King, just like we at our worst always long for some imperial president, some imperious presence on which or on whom we may cast our concerns.  Then we don’t have to live with our own freedom our own birthright from YHWH  I AM THAT I AM, the Sinai God  of freedom.  We are free, though often we choose to misuse or underuse our liberty.

Samuel revered the God of freedom and the Godly freedom in each person.  In fact he revered the people’s freedom more than they themselves did.  So much so that he helped them choose, even when  he knew they chose in error.  You want a king?  You shall have a king….. and much trouble.

So, Saul, trouble, came and went. Leadership is everything.   I mean:  leadership is everything.  But leadership is not dictatorship.  Authority is not domination.  Integrity is not willfulness.  Leadership, authority, integrity—they become real when they revere the God of freedom and the freedom of each person.  Leadership increases personal freedom for all.   

So Samuel, who knew about freedom and leadership, and who could have shouted “I told you so” to the children of Israel, instead went to Ramah, that place you remember from Christmas, of wailing and loud lamentation, and he wailed and lamented:

Why O God have you made my people a group focused on difference and not the common good? Why should there be a few rich and many poor?  Why should our tongues carry words about death? Why should our distinguishing characteristics be so undistinguished? Are we forever to love appearance above reality, image above heart?

O my God, are we never to see your peace upon the earth, your gracious splendor among our people, your kingdom of love?

So, we may imagine, in a hot dusty cave near Qumran, Samuel wept.  And wept.  And muled and puked and wept.  He cried in his beer.  He cried in his soup.  You get the picture.  Until, at last, he stopped.

And as so often happens, once he stopped his weeping, his self-concern, a marvelous thing happened.   God gave another chance.  He said, “Samuel you old coot, codger, geet—get up and head over to Bethlehem and see Jesse.  I’m going to give another chance.”Off Samuel went to the house of Jesse, in Bethlehem.  

We worship a God of second chances, of new starts, of  make up exams, of  I for give you, of  surprise opportunities.  In a way, in Christ, God has simply become Another Chance.

Early on Sunday morning, we pray before worship We wonder about the congregation and the community.  We think of people.  Some giving birth and anxious. Some breaking up and anxious.  Some struggling to stay together, and anxious. Some aging and anxious.  Some ill and anxious.  Like Samuel, we have our hurts.  

Up Samuel goes to see what God will do.  God tells him that there will be a new King, of God’s own choosing, out of the family of Jesse, who had seven sons.  

Samuel sees the first son, and thinks—yes, this must be the one, right name, right place, right pedigree, right education.  But, again, something strange happens.  Samuel, given to hearing voices, hears a voice.  God says,  “easy big fellow, easy.  Don’t look at the appearance.  Forget the outside.  Don’t be misled by the image.  Look inside.” All that glitters is not gold. You can be a saint abroad and a devil at home. Cleanse the inside of the cup. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

We see the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, Samuel still has the seven sons on interview.  

Job title:  King of Israel

Profile:   Perfect leader

Responsibilities:  Bring salvation, justice, and peace.

Salary and benefits:  commensurate with experience.

But he remembers:  look on the heart.  ELIAB. No. ABINADAB.  No. SHAMMAH. No.  And so on.  Seven no’s.

It is tough to live in between.  Like many who are here today can testify.  Samuel would have loved to have settled things early.  But he remembered the God of Another Chance, and trusted and waited, and hoped.  Anybody can make a decision.  It takes real courage to be indecisive.  Anybody can decide.  It takes guts to wait.  Anybody can judge by appearance.  But God looks on the heart.

Mark and the early Christians knew this perhaps better than anything else.  They knew about being in between.  Maybe that’s why, providentially, their letters and writings have become our Bible.  We are always a bit in between, and we need the confidence, daily, of Another Chance.  The earliest Christians, Paul’s city Christians, Mark’s Roman community, were very much in between.   They were often what the sociologists call status-inconsistent, like Paul himself.   A Jew, yet a Roman citizen.  Educated, yet a tent-maker.  So they were too:  Women, yet rich.  Artisans, yet slaves.  They knew about being in-between.

As the Apostle says:

In between the Body and the Lord

In between Sight and Faith

In between Home and Away

In between Judgment and Love

In between Crazy and Sane

In between One and All

In between Self and Others

In between Death and Resurrection

In between Old and New

In between Appearance and Heart

When you’re in between you know the joy of Another Chance.   God sees the heart, and sees past appearances.  The heart of a nation, or the heart of a person.

Well, dear old Samuel, is about ready to throw in the towel.  He has been through all the sons of Jesse, and has not found the new king.  He has found a lot of old king once removed, but nothing new.  He is packing up his ephod and girding his loins and otherwise getting ready to shove off, when, again, something strange happens.  

We worship the God of Another Chance.

If nothing else this morning, hear the Gospel.

Today is another chance for your family.

This week is another chance for you work.

This fall is another chance for our church.

This year is another chance for our city.

This decade is another chance for our country.

Where there is life, there is hope.

God in Christ is Another Chance.

Realism and Idealism are not alternatives.  Either you have both, or you have neither:  witness Isaiah 60, John 3, 2 Cor 5, and the Sermon on the Mount.  There is still time.  As the crusty Yankee said, when asked, “Have you lived in Boston all your life?”   “Not yet”.

I Believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  And in Another Chance, God’s only Son Our Lord ANOTHER CHANCE!  To stand in God’s presence.  To learn to help others.  To have a meaningful life.  Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem…Samuel, turned as he was going, and looked at Jesse and said, “are these all your sons”?  

Jesse got that sheepish look we all get when the truth starts to come out.  Well, yes and no.  I mean these are all the grown ones, the ones who are worth looking at.  “You mean there is Another Chance?” said Samuel so excited he dropped his staff and ungirded his loins and lost his ephod.  “Well there’s the little guy, but we left him to tend the sheep.”  

Bring him.

And they brought David up and he was little and young and ruddy and handsome and beautiful, but mostly he had the right heart.  A heart of songs and courage.  A heart of love and strength.  A real person.  A real person.  Another Chance.  Like the Tibetan Buddhists hunting for three years in the outback of the universe to find  the Dali Lama.  Like the birth of Jesus, also of Bethlehem.  Like the moment your child came into the world.  Like every single outburst and outcropping and intrusion and explosion and invasion of the NEW CREATION—there was David, Another Chance.  And Samuel, old superannuated Samuel could see what none of the young turks could see—the heart.  And Samuel wept, this time for joy, and said, “THIS IS THE ONE”.  Hire him.

We worship Another Chance God.

Beloved, you are not last chance, anxious people:  You are God’s people

R. Niebuhr wrote, praising Christ Another Chance:  “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.  Therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or good or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.  Therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.  Therefore we must be saved by love.”

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.