The Welcome Table: Welcoming the Unwelcomed

January 19th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 14: 15-24

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The Parable of the Great Banquet

When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

To Dean Robert Hill, in his absence, and the fine chapel assistants and staff of Marsh Chapel; to you, the Marsh Chapel congregation and our radio listeners, and especially to the faculty, students and staff of Boston University, I am indeed delighted to be here again on this special Sunday in which we celebrate the living legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Had he lived, he would have been 85 years-old on this past Wednesday.

Introduction and Elaboration of Thesis

Our Gospel text is about a table conversation between Jesus and a rich and influential man of the cloth. Jesus had been invited not so much because the pleasure of his company was sincerely desired, but so that he could be watched by the cynical and critical eyes of his enemies. They wanted to see him break the rules in some word or act of religious and moral impropriety. In response to his host’s table blessing, “Blessed is he who shall break bread in the Kingdom of God”, Jesus relates the story of the Great Banquet which you have heard in the reading this morning.

In the parable, a certain man prepared a huge feast and invited all the people who are on his regular guest lists: his friends, the socialites, the fat cats and the play- makers, but they all for some reason or another made paltry excuses and did not come. So when the servant returned and reported this to his master, the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant to ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” The second and third invitations are different in respect to degree, each was more expansive than the other—from the streets and alleys of the town to the rural roads and country lanes—the servant’s orders were to compel them to come to the banquet. Welcoming the unwelcomed to the feast involved radical hospitality (and it still does).

The Welcome Table Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.—William Faulkner, Light in August

As we gather on this very special Sunday, dedicated to the memory of our greatest alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought it appropriate to pause and reflect on the place of memory and its power to evoke presences; ghosts, if you will, who beckon us, nudge us and demand of us that we take up their quarrel with the foe. All around us and within us, we are surrounded by memories that seek habitation in our lives, our speech and actions. It was Dean Howard Thurman who often said from this pulpit, “We died but you who live must do a harder thing than dying is. . .You must think and ghosts will drive you on.”1

During the holidays, I was struck by the powerful symbol of the Table. The times at the Table with family, friends and food were filled with moments of joy and of sadness— but precious memories, nonetheless, that I cherish because they help me to believe. I had plenty of memories. There were memories of my mother busy in the small kitchen in Chicago preparing for the big meal of ham, turkey and dressing, candied yams, greens, macaroni and cheese, cakes and pies. Ours was not the idyllic Christmas of John Boy on the Walton Farm or Beaver and Wally at the Cleaver dinner table, rather it was the gathering of my sisters, brother and brother-in-laws, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends who would drop by for good food and fellowship. Everybody was from Mississippi or one of the southern places from which people had come in search of “the warmth of other suns”. They had long memories of families gathering together at the Table. It was a Table where everyone was welcome and it really didn’t matter whether you were related or in the family’s circle of friends, if you showed up, you got fed. We knew then about the meaning of the Welcome Table–it meant radical hospitality for the least of these.

I think that we are forgetting (or have forgotten) that The Welcome Table is part of a great American tradition. Maybe once upon time, we, as African Americans, took it so seriously because we knew something about not being welcomed—not being welcomed in certain establishments, certain schools, certain neighborhoods, certain parties, around certain people—even certain churches and cemeteries. We knew what it meant to be unwelcome, so we worked hard at preparing a table that was big enough to welcome all. That’s why the old enslaved Africans, who had been relegated to the margins of anonymity and profanity, would gather way down in their brush arbor meetings and while working in the fields, and sing a song about The Welcome Table:

I’m going to sit at the welcome table Yes, I’m going to sit at the welcome table One of these days, hallelujah I’m going to sit at the welcome table Sit at the welcome table one of these days, one of these days I’m going to feast on milk and honey… I’m going to tell God how you treat me… All God’s children gonna sit together… I’m going to sit at the welcome table..3

Kennedy, King, Mandela and Obama and the Welcome Table

These “black and unknown bards” knew that while the Welcome Table was part of the great eschatological hope of African Americans, it was also costly. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Sunday, I want us to remember people who paid the price for all of us to come to the Table. There are so many heroes and sheroes whose memories visit us from the past 50 years. Both 1963 and 1964 were powerful moments which shaped the legal, moral and spiritual landscape of the United States of America forever. I want to lift up the names of Medgar Evers (field secretary NAACP, murdered June 12, 1963); Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair (the 4 little girls who died in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963); and the 3 civil rights workers, Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E Chaney (murdered June 21, 1964 and found two months later in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi)—all martyred in the struggle for justice in this country. They made possible the Welcome Table through radical hospitality. Now they implore us to join them at the Table. Longfellow wrote:

There are more guests at table than the hosts Invited; the illuminated hall Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts, As silent as the pictures on the wall.2

In late November of the past year, the nation was busy remembering the erudite and handsome, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, who was assassinated 50 years ago. Although some were suspicious of his politics and cautious embrace of the civil rights movement, in almost every African American home of the sixties his picture was on the wall alongside Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. His picture was there in commemoration not so much for his brilliance and commitment to civil rights—-but because of his absence. Although some felt he came kicking and screaming, he made room for us at the Welcome Table. So, we treated him as family.

Most Americans of that era had a deep respect and abiding reverence for the office of president. I am not so sure now. The dangerous incivility and racist innuendoes hurled at President Obama convince me that though seasons have changed, still most Americans find it easier to revere our fallen heroes than to honor and believe in the possibility of the present ones.

On August 28th of this year, my wife and I joined the throng of thousands who returned to the Lincoln Memorial, this site of memory, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While sitting there, I could not help but reflect on the progress that we have made towards the realization of that dream, but also on how far we still must go “if America is to become a great nation” as King so eloquently proclaimed. I was trying to believe. While we sat there in the shadow of the Great Emancipator, there were signs and banners calling attention to the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayon Martin, a seventeen year old teenager in Sanford, Florida. President Obama’s remarks that “Trayvon could have been me thirty-five years ago” came as a source of encouragement for many mass protests of righteous indignation and cries for justice from citizens around the nation. On the other hand, many felt that he had inserted the proverbial race-card into an already volatile situation of fractured race relations in this country. Some conservative pundits blamed him for acting as the “Racist-in-Chief” while some critics within the black community felt that he said too little, too late—that his statement was like “pre-sweetened Kool-Aid” suggesting that it was palliative, at best, and failed to address the deep structural issues at stake for the poor and black and hopeless masses who needed his engaged and embodied leadership in this case and others.

One has to ask why this continued public harassment of President Barack Hussein Obama which appears to be intensifying as Supreme Court rulings carefully and effectively began to dismantle the hard-fought gains of the Civil Rights Movement (the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action) in the year of the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech.3 Is it because there are some people in this country who are afraid of the Welcome Table?

I visited family over the holidays and in the home of my sister there was a picture on the wall next to Martin and Malcolm X. It is the dignified portrait of Nelson Mandela. He was not made in America, yet he helps me to believe. He was a beautiful man with a soft smile and deep humanity. When I was at Morehouse College, each summer, I led a delegation of students sponsored by Oprah Winfrey to South Africa to study ethical leadership within the context of the South African democratization process. After a visit to Robben Island, the prison facility where Mandela spent most of his 27 years incarcerated, one of the students wrote in his diary:

The impact was strongest when I stood directly in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell, number five in the B section, which was reserved for political prisoners. Sections A and C housed criminal prisoners. What affected me most was to hear how these prisoners were actually treated. It was heart-breaking to look at the cement floor where Mr. Mandela slept without a cot or anything for cushion. It was enormously troubling to look at the five-gallon bucket that Mr. Mandela had to use for a bathroom because there was no toilet in his cell. Who can imagine having to smell something like that two feet away from you all night long until the following morning when you were allowed to empty and clean your waste bucket?4

We cannot help but resonate with this student’s feelings as he observed Mr. Mandela’s inhumane circumstances, but we also marvel at the deep humanity of this man who forced an apartheid government to open up the Welcome Table and who emerged as the first black president of South Africa and statesman to the world. Madiba teaches us that:

Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.5

Today, I would like to place another picture on the wall this morning. It is a picture of my colleague, Professor Kathe Darr, Chair of the Faculty Council, who has made a commitment to expand the Welcome Table at Boston University. She is joined by the President and Provost in this commitment to diversity. Let us pray that in this year when we celebrate the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, that we place more pictures on the wall.

Opening up The Welcome Table: Welcoming the Unwelcomed

I often wonder what it will take to produce a new generation of leaders who understand the power and the cost of radical hospitality and who are willing to build on the great vision of a beloved community. What might it mean to become servants of justice and truth in this place that is haunted by the memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Barbara Jordan, Anna Howard Shaw, Walter Muelder and Samuel DeWitt Proctor and so many others, who like ghosts, drive us on? Echoing Frederick Douglass, King often said, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”6 Ah, there it is! Co-workers with God! An old-fashioned, unsophisticated theological assumption that has no empirical warrant and backing? Maybe . . . but it got the job done. I think it still will.

Ours is a daunting challenge, but if we are truly committed to welcoming the unwelcome here at Boston University and elsewhere, we must join the long and hallowed chorus of brave women and men and boys and girls who have dared to make room for others at the Table. King called these principled actors who are willing to risk life and limb through nonviolent creative social change, “transformed nonconformists.”

Summary and Closing

In closing, parables can be tricky—the Parable of the Great Banquet does not tell us how much work and how hard it is to welcome the unwelcomed—to expand the guest lists and to restructure the rooms so that “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” can come in.

First, welcoming the unwelcomed involves courage—the courage to change. According to Martin Luther King, Jr. it begins with a transformation in consciousness— a revolution of values and priorities. It implies a re-orientation of values and priorities, it requires a readjustment of our worldview, it requires a rearrangement of the personal and social furniture in our living rooms—more than that it requires a type of courage, a kind of resistance, a steadfastness to go in spite of the resistance. It says, “Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and God will strengthen your heart.”

Second, welcoming the unwelcome will require a sense of justice. Justice as fairness—a level playing field. If we are going to invite others to the Table, we will need to change the menu, change the rules of etiquette, restructure the dining room and change the seating arrangements. We will need to make room for folks at the Table who do not look like us, talk like us, dress like us, love like us and pray like us. It means ultimately, that we must learn to share power. For the religious among us, it will require repentance, confession and conversion. For some Christians, this will be especially hard.

Finally, we must practice compassion for the least of these. Who are the least of these? They are the ones whom we do not see, whom we seldom even think about except when in our hurried pace, we pass them on the street or see them behind bars or lying in their own blood on the evening news. One has to ask how is it that in a nation of so much wealth and prosperity, we are witnessing more and more poverty, mis- education, mass incarceration of the black, brown and poor, the left-out and the left behind?

Who are who are the least of these? They are your sisters and your brothers locked in poverty and locked out of a future of hope and possibility. Dare we see the face of our brothers and sisters from whom we are estranged and find our own faces?

We need not look far to see what is at stake in this call to radical hospitality. It is not enough to be gentle, civil and progressive—these are fine personal attributes, but ultimately we are called to put some skin in the game, to stand up and join the creative forces that call us to justice and peace-making in this world. Leaders in this century are called to be more than charitable actors who respond to the needs of individuals; they must be willing to stand at the intersection where worlds collide and create communities of justice and compassion. Who dares to stand in the absent spaces and places left by King and others and suffer with strangers? Who dares to welcome the Unwelcomed to the Table?



1 From Howard Thurman’s meditation in memory of Jim Reeb in the issue of The Liberal Context (Spring 1965) a paraphrase from Hermann Hagedorn’s The Boy in Armor, “Because you would not think we had to die : . . . .We died. And there you stand no step advanced.”

2 “Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

3 In 1964 Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241). The provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing.

4 Walter Earl Fluker, Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community (Fortress, 2009)166.

5 Richard Lovelace, “To Althea, From Prison” (1642)

6Douglass actually said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857. See more at: douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress#sthash.fLNNA0p9.dpuf Accessed, 19 January 2014.


~The Rev. Dr. Walter Fluker

MLK, Jr. Professor for Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology

Revive, Renew, Respond

January 12th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Good morning, I want to especially extend my gratitude to Dean Robert Alan Hill for the opportunity to preach this morning, from such a historic and meaningful pulpit. I also want to send lots of love and thanks to all the Marsh Chapel staff for supporting me, encouraging me, and growing with me in my first year of working in marsh Chapel as the chaplain for International Students. And I also want to thank all of you, in the pews before me, and in the radio listenership, for journeying with me on my maiden voyage of preaching Marsh Chapel. While I have preached many times before, each pulpit brings something new, and I am happy to share these next few moments in relationship with you.


**Please pray with me:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be compassionate and acceptable in your sight. Amen.



According to a Gallop poll, the top 3 New Years Resolutions in 2014 were as follows: 1. lose weight/get fit. (no surprise there) 2. get organized. 3. save more/spend less. While I have long since given up hope on holding fast to a new years resolution for a whole year-my resolutions in the past have not made it past the month, let alone the year; I find myself falling pray to these same notions each January as we begin a new year with new resolves and goals. Just this past week, you can ask my poor husband Carson, I felt the urge to move around every single piece of furniture in my apartment, to renew the space and to get more organized. As human beings, renewal is a crucial part of our existence, we are constantly trying to re-create ourselves, find new meaning, and develop new goals. When we are renewed, we are often revived, which hopefully will lead us to respond.


Epiphany: On the Christian Liturgical Calendar, we have entered into a time of Epiphany. As Rev. Soren Hessler noted last Sunday in his sermon, Epiphany occurred this past Monday, when we imagined and remembered the magi traveling far and wide to find a baby in a manger, and in a whirlwind moment of realization they are struck with the knowledge that this is no ordinary child-but the Christ, god among us. This is the Magi’s epiphany.   In one of my favorite movies, the 1993 film, ‘Hook’, it retells a story of an adult peter pan returning to Neverland to save his children. A Character in this movie is a bumbling pirate, a first mate named Mr. Smee. Mr. Smee has a similar moment to these Magi when he realizes something crucial about the plot. He shouts to Captain Hook: “I’ve just had an apostrophe!”  Hook responds, “I think you mean an epiphany, Mr. Smee.” Smee says “Lightning has just struck my brain.” Hook retorts, “Well, that must hurt.”

While comical, there is something honest in this statement. Sometimes this season of Epiphany strikes us suddenly that we scramble to figure out what to do. During Advent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the manger; and during the upcoming season of Lent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the cross; and we often overlook the importance of this transition period that is Epiphany. Epiphany is truly a gift. We are given a mere 7 Sundays, just shy of 2 months, to explore the early life and ministry of Jesus.

While studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, I had a Systematic Theology professor who told us one day as we were studying the early church creeds, that in the Nicene Creed- while it states so much about the make-up spiritually and physically of Christ and beautifully tells the tale of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, all we see of Jesus’ life in ministry in the Nicene Creed is a comma. A grammatical comma.  As many of you are familiar, part of the creed states:


“For us and for our salvation

He came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man (COMMA),

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

He suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

In accordance with the Scriptures…. (etc etc).”


Epiphany is for us an expansion of that comma. A chance to renew our common faith by reflecting on Jesus’ servant ministry and finding ways to respond with compassionate hearts likewise.


Baptism Sunday: It is then no coincidence that the Revised Common lectionary pairs this first Sunday of Epiphany with Christ’s Baptism. In fact, on the wider Christian calendar this Sunday is more commonly known as “Christ’s Baptism Sunday.” We enter into a new season liturgically, just as Jesus enters into his new ministry. In the book of Matthew, this baptismal scene between Jesus and John is a marker of the beginning of Christ’s teaching, healing, loving ministry. Baptism has long been associated with renewal and Jesus seeks out John to be renewed by this ritual cleansing in the river Jordan.


But something strange happens as Jesus approaches John to be baptized; John initially refuses, recognizing that Jesus is the superior in ministry, and instead John requests to be baptized by Jesus instead. The situation is, in a word, awkward. I heard a sermon once from a great preacher titled “The problem of baptism” and he cited this moment as being awkward, messy, problematic. We still struggle with baptism in many ways today, 2,000 years later- even as the ritual has been practiced in various forms in the Christian church for years and years-we still approach the topic cautiously. With Jesus and John it was ‘who should baptize who’, but in our current context we often hear debates on ‘infant baptism verses adult baptism’, ‘anointment or no anointment’, ‘immersion, or a sprinkling’, and so on and so forth.  The gist is: baptism has always been a bit messy. But there is real truth and beauty to this very statement. To be renewed through the waters of baptism does not mean that your life becomes perfect, pure, or you are set on a straightforward path of faithfulness. In the past, we have often associate the renewal of baptism with perfection-with becoming whole and having all the answers.

But the so called ‘problem’ with baptism is that when you come up from the water, whether a baby or adult, whether sprinkled or immersed-you are renewed into a beautiful mess. You begin a long and complicated journey of learning who God is, what it means to live faithfully, how to exist in community, how to grow into your Christian identity. Even after Jesus baptism he acquires some bumbling disciples who mess up a lot, and he enters into a complex life of ministry-which is sometimes difficult, problematic, and awkward. But it is still a renewal-and your renewal into this messy Christian life is complex but so worthwhile. This renewal is rewarding, and full of surprises, but that does not always mean that it will be easy, or perfect, or pure. Like Smee’s epiphany-renewal sometimes hurts.


A few years ago, as a newly ordained minister, I spent a portion of my year serving as a volunteer for the World Service Corps, a non profit organization that sends volunteers into foreign service to help people in need and learn about culture. I lived with a spear fisherman and his family in New Caledonia, a tiny tropical island between Tahiti and New Zealand. There, I learned to eat fish for breakfast lunch and dinner every day, I presided over my first communion table, and spent most of my time establishing an after school program for local under-privileged children that still continues today. The island as a whole spoke a variation of French and local Melanesian languages.

When I first arrived, I had very, very basic understanding of French and could do no more than order a ham sandwich, but even sometimes my pronunciation was so bad I sometimes got chicken. Thus, during my first few weeks of running this after school program we played a lot of  ‘red light, green light’-because it only required my knowledge of 3 french words: lumiere rouge, and lumiere vert. We would open up our school program by playing red light green light with the children on a little strip of land, which was mixture of gravel and rough grass behind the facility.  At one point, a little boy, no more than 4 years old ran so hard that he slipped and fell onto the gravel and scraped up his knee. He started to scream and cry and wail, and the other children were startled and backed away.

I scooped him up quickly and took him inside, I cleaned him up and got a Band-Aid for his knee, but he was still weeping so violently. I tried talking to him, “where does it hurt”, “are you ok?” “what do you need”, trying to figure out what else I could do to help him. But the language barrier was steep, and my pitiful French was getting us no where. His eyes full of tears, he just looked up at me and continued to wail. I gave up on the words, and moved towards him and just wrapped him up in my arms, kissed him on the head, on the cheeks, on his scraped knee and hugged him tight. Almost immediately, he stopped crying. I was bewildered. Astonished, I let go of him, and he smiled, looked up at me and said: “All new”.  I think he meant all better, or good as new. But ‘All new” made sense to me too. What started out as an uncomfortable, stressful, awkward moment turned into a beautiful renewal. The beautiful mess of living a faithful life leads to these incredible epiphany moments of renewal.

Another important guide for us during this epiphany season is the prophet Isaiah. In today’s lesson Isaiah addresses the people of Israel and calls them forth to be revived. Often when we are seeking renewal, trying to change and become newer and better, we find revival-a new sense of sustainment, a new call or purpose. In Isaiah 42, Israel is facing an identity crisis. They have been exiled, tortured, abandoned, homeless, starved, and much worse. They are coming out of the hard times and slowly edging there way into the good times-but they aren’t sure who they are anymore; the people of Israel struggled to find a sense of purpose, a sense of call. Isaiah, in a prophetic song calls out to them to become servants of peace. They are given a new identity to bring forth light to the nations, to bring forth justice, and teaching without burning a wick or breaking a reed. Israel is a revived in a renewed identity to become examples of peace and justice in the world.


In the Matthew passage, as we all know, John does finally consent to baptize Jesus. Jesus affirms that it is righteous for John to baptize him. And as Jesus comes out of the River Jordan, renewed, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends and a voice from heaven states, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. The people present, including John himself, feel revived in there faith. Much like the Israelites, they are given a new identity. They have a new purpose to become bearers of that good news of that peace and to follow Jesus and his ministry throughout their days.


Once Israel has been renewed and revived, once Jesus has come up from the baptismal waters renewed and revived, both respond in acts of humility, acts of service and acts of compassion. Jesus leaves the River Jordan and goes to begin a ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching. Israel following these prophetic songs from Isaiah, becomes a peaceful people sharing the joy of the Lord with all of those around them.

We have a lot of guideposts in our society when we look in the world that show us what it means to RESPOND. For me, one of those guide posts is Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer was a great theologian and peace activist in the 1930’s-1960’s. Schweitzer was constantly looking for new and active avenues for peace; he even worked closely with Albert Einstein to find ways to stop nuclear warfare. Albert Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his work.  When he got off at the train station in Switzerland to receive his award, he was overwhelmingly met by a great crowd of people. Reporters swarmed him with cameras and questions.  Noted officials, politicians, and admirers all stepped forward to shake his hand and speak with him. He stood on the platform smiling, and held up his finger and said “Please, excuse me, I only need one moment”.  He walked over to the edge of the train station where an elderly woman was struggling with her two large suitcases. He picked them up for her and carried them across the platforms until she found her train and helped her stow them before returning to the crowd and apologizing for his delay. A reporter who was there wrote in his article, “that was the first time I ever really saw a sermon walking.” Albert Schweitzer, in that moment and through much of his life-chose to respond.


As we move through this season of Epiphany, and through the New Year beginning this month, my challenge to you is that you take your moments of renewal and of revival and respond to the world around you.

Israel seeks renewal and begs the prophet Isaiah for a song, in this prophet’s song Israel is revived and called to be a people of peace and justice. Israel responds by living out lives of compassion, conducting acts of peace, and offering justice to all. Jesus seeks renewal at the waters of river Jordan and in the arms of John the Baptist. In his baptism, he is revived into the servant teacher, minister, and prophet that we have come to know. Jesus leaves the Jordan ready to respond to the needs of the world around him. He heals the hurting, uplifts the broken, frees the captive, and loves the needy. We have a chance to make Christ’s life more than a comma this year-we can actively care for the hungry, support the broken, work for the justice and freedom of captives, share peace with those in conflict, and share love and compassion with every single person who comes into our life this year.

We have been renewed through our baptism, through reflecting on Jesus’ baptism today and by coming into the natural renewal of a New Year. We have been revived in living through this beautiful mess of Christian life and in walking alongside Jesus as he teaches, preaches, and blesses us through this season of Epiphany. Let us take these gifts of renewal and revival and respond to the world around us.



I was privileged just a couple weeks ago to participate in a Christmas eve noon service in this very chapel. We lit all of the advent candles, sang some of my favorite Christmas hymns, and celebrated the imminent coming of Christ’s birth with the Eucharist. In closing, Dean Hill read a poem titled ‘The Work of Christmas’ by Howard Thurman. The poem goes:


When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among siblings,
To make music in the heart.


My friends, the kings and the princes have gone home and the shepherds are back with there flock. But Christ has been baptized and is moving forward in love to offer ministry and healing to all. Israel has been called to be a servant people of peace and prophetic joy. The work of Christmas has begun for us. As we journey into this new year, and into this new season of Epiphany, let us also be called into our season of renewal with a sense to Respond.

Through Christ we are renewed, through our faithful life in loving community we are revived, and in the work of Christmas we can respond. This is our epiphany. Amen.

~The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf,

University Chaplain for International Students





Nicene Creed translation taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

“Messing People Up”, sermon by Rev. Dr. Alison Boden, Princeton University. January 11th, 2009.

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7, by Rev. Dr. Amy Oden. January 5th, 2014.

Commentarys used for Research: New Interpreters Bible Series, World Commentary Bible Series, New Oxford Bible Commentary, Harper Collins Study Bible Notes, and Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Wisdom and the Incarnate

January 5th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Good morning. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!


It is always a great honor and privilege to be invited to greet you from this pulpit. Jen and I have been a part of this community at Marsh Chapel for more than five years now, and I am continually delighted and awed by the work and ministry of this place. I am truly grateful to Dean Hill for the opportunity to be with you this morning and for seeing fit to continue both Jen and I on the staff these past several years.


Part of the attraction for me to Marsh Chapel over these years has been its truly ecumenical approach to chaplaincy and religious life. Of course we are rooted in the Methodist tradition which gave birth to the university, and both Jen and I, like the dean, are United Methodist clergy, but the ministry staff represents a broad spectrum of denominations and communities: American Baptist, Community of Christ, Episcopal, Lindisfarne, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist. We each come from different religious communities but we are united in our purpose of journeying with students as they explore faith, grow in knowledge, and commit to service in the greater community. Certainly we don’t always agree on the finer details of theology and doctrine (that’s why we have both wine and grape juice at Communion today and each week it is celebrated here in the nave), but the spirit of ecumenical cooperation for a greater good pervades the work of this place.


This intentional ecumenism is made manifest in a variety of ways. This morning, the wine and grape juice are perhaps the most tangible of examples, but every week you will notice that the bulletin welcomes you to an “interdenominational service of worship.” The liturgy itself is a blend of traditions. For example, it is not a United Methodist service, nor is it an Episcopal service, but you will find elements of both traditions in the rhythms of the service. Few other places would you hear the Agnus Dei along side a United Methodist setting of the Great Thanksgiving for Communion. Marsh Chapel is both a religious community and a teaching community. It lifts up the best things that our various traditions have to offer, both in liturgy and music, and offers them in regular service to the university community. Hospitality to all, regardless of faith-tradition, sexual orientation, economic status, physical ability, or political view becomes both an important expression of the ecumenical cooperation of the chapel and a constant reminder of how we are to work together in ministry in support of students (and all people) on life’s journey.


Hospitality comes in many forms. For many people, a regular rhythm of worship, including a lesson from the Hebrew Bible and/or a New Testament epistle, a Psalm, and a Gospel lesson makes the liturgy accessible – folks know what to expect from week to week. Well, I might have turned that regular rhythm on its ear this just a bit this morning, but I think I had a good reason to do so. I noticed more than one puzzled face in the nave this morning as we were reading the lessons. Sirach? Wisdom of Solomon? Where is the Psalm? Isn’t today Epiphany? Where is the wise men narrative?


For many years, Marsh Chapel has followed the Revised Common Lectionary. It is the standard set of Bible readings used by a vast majority of mainline Protestants here in North America, the UK, and Australia. In the 1980s, representatives from a variety of liturgically-minded denominations gathered to formulate a lectionary, a cycle of readings, based on the three-year lectionary developed by the Second Vatican Council for the Roman Catholic Church. That “Common Lectionary” was revised in 1993, and has since been adopted for use by more than 30 denominations. While its use in local contexts is optional in many of these denominations, as it is in my own United Methodist Church, it is one way in which a local religious community may be united with others around the world each week, reading the same scriptures and reflecting on similar themes. At Marsh Chapel its use is again an expression of our ecumenical spirit.


The RCL recognizes today as the Second Sunday after Christmas, a liturgical Sunday, which only exists in the calendar year when Christmas falls on particular days of the week. December 25, 2013, happened to be a Wednesday, so we are in luck in 2014. Last year we had no second Sunday after Christmas! Unique liturgical Sundays which do not always occur in a particular year, like today’s Second Sunday after Christmas, play host to a variety of more obscure, sometimes Apocryphal or deuterocanonical, readings. Often, these readings never enter the Sunday morning liturgy, for one of several reasons. Some churches, especially Protestant communities in which Luther’s canon is exclusively used in worship simply elect never to use the Apocryphal and deuterocanonical texts which are always listed as “alternate” or supplemental readings. Or, as is more often the case, local communities will celebrate holidays which generally fall on a weekday on the nearest Sunday, effectively eliminating liturgical days like today. Most United Methodist Churches designate the first Sunday in January as Epiphany Sunday because there are no regular weekday services.


And Epiphany is most certainly important. It heralds the kingship of Christ and recognizes God’s manifestation among us as a human being. On Epiphany, we hear from the Gospel of Matthew of wise men coming from the east asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had come to pay him homage and sought Herod’s guidance in finding the child. Eventually, they found Jesus with Mary and they knelt down and paid him homage, opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When I was a child I always liked playing the role of one of the kings in the Christmas play, not really because I got to wear a funny outfit and a really cool crown but because those playing the role of the kings often got to reprise the role for a brief reenactment of the visit of the magi on Epiphany Sunday two weeks after Christmas. As eager as I was for the annual reenactment, I must confess that I never really understood the importance of the wise men’s visit, and I also wondered why there were no wise women.


Not until seminary did I realize that for centuries, the church recognized those travelers from the East as the first to recognize Jesus’s power and authority on Earth, and the role I had played several times as a child was one of remembering this first recognition by people of God’s presence with us on Earth in human flesh. I didn’t see that in the annual retelling of the Christmas story, and I wonder how many others have missed this too. Maybe we are too focused on whether the 6-year old draped in purple sheets is going to trip on his merry journey to visit the baby Jesus, or maybe the theological consequences of a patriarchal authority structure assumed in the words of the Matthew narrative overshadow the specialness of the recognition of Christ as God with us.


Recognizing this theological problem, the editors of Women’s Uncommon Prayers, have imagined an alternative narrative for the magi story entitled “Three Wise Women”:


“If there had been three wise women, would the Epiphany story have been different? You bet it would! They would have asked for directions, arrived early, delivered the baby, cleaned the table, cooked the dinner, and brought practical gifts. God bless wise women!”


Today’s Scripture lessons from the Wisdom tradition provide an alternate vision and language for God made flesh. Our Gospel lesson recognizes the incarnation of God among us and the power vested in Christ. In this first chapter of John, Christ is named as Word, Light, the one through whom all things came into being, full of grace and truth. John concretizes the abstract in the form of Jesus, God incarnate, Word made flesh. There is a certain fondness for John’s gospel at the Chapel; its poetry enchants us; its mystery envelops us. It echoes the beauty of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and the multitude of ways in which God’s Word is encountered. But discussions of God’s Word and Wisdom are not limited to the wisdom literature.


Throughout the Hebrew Scripture, God’s Word is God’s creative, immanent, acting force in the world. In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks creation into being. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so.” The Psalms praise God’s creative Word: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).  Isaiah writes of God’s Word, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).


The Hebrew canon also observes God’s Word as wisdom, especially contained in the sapiential books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. The wisdom tradition found in these texts teaches about God and virtue. God’s Word, or wisdom, is often found in the abstract in these texts. In the Song of Songs, we encounter God as lover of our souls, in the discourse of a prince and his bride. In Proverbs, we encounter maxims and admonitions interspersed with metaphor, truth conveyed in the abstract.


The reading appointed for today from Sirach is no different. Wisdom itself is personified as a woman dwelling among the Hebrew people and ministering to them, an acknowledgement that God’s Word works through and among the people. The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon again extols the deeds of God’s Wisdom, personified as woman, working through the Hebrew people over time.


In John’s gospel we have God’s Word, God’s presence, in each of these many encounters of God retold throughout Scripture bound into the being of Christ: from creation to the crossing of the Red Sea, from a lover’s description of hair like a flock of goats and cheeks like halves of a pomegranate to the proverb that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”


Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word is beautiful beyond description. It works outside patriarchal structures, pervades relationships, inspires literature, and is in relationship to us through Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel, we encounter Christ as the incarnate Word, the Word of Wisdom.


We may be more familiar with the theological metaphor that Jesus is Word, but the theological metaphor that God is Wisdom, Sophia, wise-woman is just as scriptural and deeply true.


Without incorporating the knowledge of God’s Word and Wisdom found throughout scripture, but especially in the wisdom literature of today’s lectionary reading, Epiphany only announces a king with great power, not also God as patient teacher, passionate friend, and eternal companion. The lectionary brings to the fore the fullness of Scripture. This Second Sunday after Christmas is meant to prepare us to hear the story of the magi. We encounter God’s Word as divine Wisdom. She dwells among us, befriends us, inspires us. That same Word and Wisdom is the Divine born into the world on Christmas day. It is the same Word the magi pay homage to, and it is the same Word we know in relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the same Word wise women such as Renita Weems, Mary Daley, Emilie Towns, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Katie Cannon, Dolores Williams, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have been bringing to us for decades.


What does it mean that God’s Word, which has covered the earth like a mist, dwelt in the highest heavens, and been seated in the pillar of cloud, walks among us in Jesus of Nazareth? Yes, in Jesus is awe, power, and glory. But we also know that God’s patient wisdom, passionate fire, and gentle teaching are also who Jesus is. So often Epiphany and the story of the visit of the magi are used to herald Jesus’s kingship and future rule over all things. But perhaps, the magi were also there celebrating God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word, encountered directly in an individual human being. That same Word which steadied Moses’s hands as the Red Sea parted was now a child, a child worthy of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


We do not often think of God’s Word guiding the Israelites across the Red Sea, far less do we envision a Woman steadying Moses’s hands as the sea begins to part. But our texts today challenge us to encounter God’s Word in Christ in new ways. The visit of the wise men to Jesus was an acknowledgement that something truly extraordinary was happening in the world through Jesus.


Today is a communion Sunday for us here at Marsh. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper each first Sunday of the month. We remember Jesus dining with friends, giving thanks over bread and cup, and offering the bread and cup as tangible signs of participation in the new covenant. Just as something truly extraordinary happened in Christ’s incarnation, we recognize something extraordinary happens in the Eucharist. Christ is present in the fellowship of sharing the bread and the cup. God is incarnate in the sacrament.


Each time Communion is celebrated at Marsh Chapel anyone who seeks to be in closer relationship with Christ is invited to receive the sacrament, to encounter Christ. Yes, the sacraments are just as mysterious as the best of Hebrew wisdom literature, but just as the abstraction of the literature points to something very real and true, so do the sacraments convey a very real encounter with God. Perhaps today you may not see the hand which steadied Moses over the Red Sea, but perhaps you may feel Christ’s passion to be in relationship with you, just as a lover longs for her mate. God is working in the Sacrament, in ways beyond our Words.


The question of just how and where God acts in Communion has become a significant issue in recent months, even being featured in the Wall Street Journal. This summer, I was invited to participate in a consultation convened by The United Methodist Church on the subject of online communion. While no one would limit God’s ability to work in any circumstance, it has been the historic position of the church that communion is an incarnational act occurring in a specific place and time where we invite God to be present with us as a gathered community. The chapel continues to affirm this position and gladly offers to extend the celebration of the sacrament into the homes of those who are unable to participate in the liturgy in the chapel nave this day through the presence of our staff (or our clergy partners) throughout the upcoming week. Should you be listening and desire to receive and cannot attend the chapel service, or your local church, please contact us at or via the various other methods on our website, and we will be sure that the sacrament is made available to you.


Much of the Wisdom guiding the conversation regarding the sacrament and the eventual decision by our council of bishops to place a temporary moratorium on all online sacramental practice came from ecumenical partners outside The United Methodist Church. While the ecumenical movement often challenges us to see God and the church in new ways, ecumenical partners can also serve the role of the gentle teacher of Proverbs, admonishing us in our errors.


As we celebrate today the Wisdom of God incarnate in Christ and Christ incarnate in communion, I also give thanks for divine Wisdom which pervades the work of ecumenical cooperation.


I had the privilege of being present for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea, two months ago. God’s Wisdom still pervades the lumbering bureaucratic giant, which is the WCC. No, the Council has not realized equal representation among women and men at the assembly. Neither has it realized a proportionate percentage of Christians from the global South on its Central Committee, but God’s Word is heard and experienced in daily Bible study as church leaders from across the globe gather to share reflections on Scripture from their own traditions. God’s Word is manifest in the gathering of 150 young scholars, clergy and laity, gathered to share Wisdom with one another about the intentional formation of the next generation of church leaders, attune to the increasing need for ecumenical cooperation in living the mission of the church “To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, and bring peace among peoples.”


But ecumenical cooperation really happens at the local level, when we partner with those from other traditions to bring out the best in one another. This morning in Dubuque, Iowa, St. Luke’s Singers from the local United Methodist Church have been invited to reprise Bethlehem’s Child Cantata at First Congregational United Church of Christ. The Wisdom of invitation energizes both communities and fosters further opportunities for cooperation. In this new year, I challenge you to see the Word incarnate in Christ and to search out ways to affirm God’s divine Word moving in your midst. Volunteer in an ecumenical or interfaith homeless initiative, like the Huntington New York Interfaith Homeless Initiative, where churches and synagogues open their doors providing shelter and care for those without a roof in these bitterly cold months. Invite the church down the street to join you for your spring bazaar and make it a “real” neighborhood block party. Or journey with one of the several interns here at Marsh Chapel as they seek ways to build community across denominational lines which can divide us.


As we move from this season of Christmas into the new year, may you experience the Word incarnate in Christ, receive Christ in the sacrament today, and participate in the work of God’s Word around you today and everyday. Amen.


~Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel A

Sing We Now of Christmas

December 29th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 2: 13-23

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All in a Lifetime

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


For everything there is a season

And a time for every purpose under heaven


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


To Every Denomination there is a Season


  1. A.   Calvinists


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


B.   Jesuits


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


C. Lutherans


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


D. Baptists


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

E. The Orthodox


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


F. Roman Catholics


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


G. Anglicans


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


H. Quakers


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


I.              The People Called Methodists


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


Hail the heaven born prince of peace

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Light and life to all He brings

Risen with healing in his wings

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that we no more may die

Born to raise the us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the herald angels sing!

Glory to the Newborn King!


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


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

Christmas Experience

December 24th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Gentle Christmas

December 22nd, 2013 by lwhitney

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The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.

We can live in a new way.

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

You can continue to live in the old way.

Or you can live a different life, beginning today.


Paul’s Christmas Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

And Paul?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.


Your Christmas Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three Applications

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

My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

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

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

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

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

         He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.

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

         And all flesh shall see it together.

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

         Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!        

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

As we follow our course let us not become coarse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

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

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

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

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


A Time to Choose 

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

Are you ready to live in a new way?

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

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

The Bach Experience

December 8th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 3: 1-13

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Dean Hill:


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr. Jarrett: TBA


Dean Hill:

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

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

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

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

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

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ

December 1st, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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The sermon text for today is unavailable.

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

A Thanksgiving Medley

November 24th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 23:33-43

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

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

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

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all these we give thanks.”



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

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


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

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood…

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

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


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

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

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

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


I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

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

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

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

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

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

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

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

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

Could inspire and God could command.

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


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

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

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


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

New Frontier

November 17th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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

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1. Ford

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


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

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


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

2. November

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


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


O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done

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

Exult O shores and ring O bells

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies

Fallen cold and dead.


3. Scripture

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


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


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


4. Lincoln

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


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


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

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

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

5. Violence


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


6. Border

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


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


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


7. Peace


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


8. Kennedy

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


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


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


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


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

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