Finding Our Way

March 22nd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 12:20-33

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From Limestone, Maine, to Churubusco, New York, to the shores of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, today sap is boiling.  Forty gallons of Maple sap for every gallon of syrup, boiled in the steamy hot house of March, with delicious doughnuts alongside.  The fire is stoked, steaming, warm, and beautiful.  We warm our hands this morning on that kind of fire, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, in Scripture and Doctrine and Application.


Jesus’ fate as you know has now been sealed, just before our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately many times our lectionary lessons can be hard to follow, because they are cut away from what precedes or follows.  Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, a few verses back.  This seals his doom.  In John, it is not the cleansing of the temple that puts Jesus on the cross.  That has been done 11 chapters ago, an age in biblical time.  No, what gets him in ultimate trouble is resurrection, his power, his love, his presence, and especially his voice that brings people from one location to another, in this case out of one religion and into another, out of the synagogue and into the church, out of tradition and into gospel, out of law and into grace, out of discipline and into love.   For Lazarus, this is good.  For Jesus, not so good.  Voice can get you into trouble still.

Then Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Then Judas plots his downfall. Then Jesus rides the donkey.  Then Jesus calls the crowd, who saw what happened with Lazarus.  Then—notice—the Greeks come and ask for him (meaning, all the nations, meaning, all the unreligious, meaning the future of the planet).  Then Jesus prays for glorification, meaning crucifixion.  The cross is the turning point between past and future, death and life, miscommunication and understanding.  It is glory in John.  Even the ever so human quaking prayer of Jesus in the garden, ‘LET THIS CUP PASS FROM ME’ is gone in John.  What, shall I ask to be saved?  No, I have come for just this purpose, this HOUR (again, like glory, in John, HOUR is a code word for cross).

The Greeks, THE GREEKS precede the religious, like the harlots preceding the Pharisees in the other earlier Gospels.  “We would see Jesus” they say.  What happens is different.  They see, but more, they hear Him.  They hear a compelling voice.  They hear and heed a compelling voice, for which they have no other manner of description than to use words like heavenly and thunderous.   This is a highly charged, very meaningful passage, if very short, as R. Bultmann might have reminded us.  We are Greeks, ourselves, that is, not raised within Judaism, so our access to Jesus, and its depiction here, are crucial.

They, the Greeks, and we, also Gentiles, come to Jesus by way of the apostles, Philip and Andrew (not Peter and Andrew, Philip and Andrew—John has Peter on a pretty short leash all along).  That is, we come to life through a set of traditions, but the traditions themselves are not the life itself.   We have to translate the traditions into insights for effective living, if they are to allow access to life.

Then, the matter of what this closeness to Jesus means is considered.  And what is it?  It is not a heightened religious experience.  It is not a mystical reverie.  It is not an emotional cataclysm.   It is service.  One finds Him in service with and to Him.  One knows Him walking alongside him.  One gains access to him by loving Him and in Him loving others.  In His service there is freedom, even perfect freedom.  Service, step by step, and day by day, finally gives way to and leads to death, the rounding and finishing of life.  Have we together found our path, our shared ways of service?  Are we walking in the light?

With angel voices and thunder and a prophecy of being lifted up, the community of the beloved disciple sees, again, in retrospect, as we do each Holy Week and Easter, the paradox of victory in defeat, of life in death, of love conquering the ‘ruler of this world’.  The ruler of this world is not a reference to God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The phrase is ARCHON TOU KOSMOU, the ruler of this world, the demigod who in gnostic thought mistakenly and haphazardly created the world.  Jesus casts out the archon, the ruler of this world, and so can be offered to and understood by Greeks tinged with a hint or more than hint of Gnosticism.  I guess you could interpret this passage without reference to Gnosticism, but just how would you do that?   The service of love renders insipid and impotent the ruler of this world and all his minions.  Service in love is eternal, eternal in the heavens.

(Puzzling, though, is the phrase, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’.  What is this?  The second glory is the cross.  But the first?  Simply an assertion that the God of the future is also the God of the past?  I do not, all these years later, I do not quite understand it.)

At all events, in the community of the beloved disciple, people have found a way, much truth and new life.  A voice, heavenly and thunderous, has spoken to them, a voice given ‘for their sake’.   As last week, the judgment once reserved for the end of time or for the eternal realms, or for both, has come, is now.  The bottom line or cash value of resurrection is speech, the possibility of saying something that can be heard, of saying some saving that can ‘savingly’ be heard.  While not limited to preaching in the narrow, and certainly not limited to an ecclesiastical voice, still judgment and salvation, in the here and now, by this Gospel, and this chapter of this Gospel are a dire matter, a crucial matter of hearing and speaking.


It is then, as we move from Scripture to Doctrine, surely to speaking and preaching in the ministry of Jonathan Edwards to which we turn.  Each Lent from the Marsh pulpit we engage a Calvinist interlocutor, this year Edwards of Northampton Massachusetts, 1703-1758.

Jonathan Edwards preached the beauty of God, or God as ‘perfect beauty’.  In our time when the true and the good tend to outweigh the beautiful in preaching, this may be a healthy recollection.   He made full use of the psychology and science of his day, of Locke and Newton.  In our day when only sporadic connections between faith and science, preaching and Darwin and Einstein occur, this may be a fruitful reminder.   Edwards provided that rare combination, ‘an ability to reason metaphysically about human nature in subtle philosophical terms alongside a deep commitment to evangelism and church renewal (D. Brainard, ‘Princeton’, 294).   That is he could no more affirm philosophy without faith than he could countenance faith without philosophy.  Head and heart he distinguished from one another but did not oppose to one another.  I find this personally a welcome encouragement, along a trail that sometimes seems a bit lonely.  Jonathan Edwards, in concert with John Calvin, and to a full degree in concert with the great traditions of the church, understood the purpose of life to be found in seeking God’s glory.  So, a daily question would be, ‘Can I do this, or say this, or desire this to the glory of God?’  If I read him and his interpreters properly, though, Edwards did lean a little more fully toward the affections:  ‘feeling and sense make up the more profound level of human experience’ (here Edwards, W James, J Wesley, and S Kierkegaard, among others, agree).  We need most the beauty of holiness, that is, and ‘spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of the heart of that spiritual beauty’ (‘Princeton’, 113).  For our year long inquiry about spirit, we may take here from him the confidence that ‘ the Holy Spirit makes possible a new, sensible knowledge’ (ibid, 69).  Its consequence, a stout reminder to us:  ‘love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.  I find that a fair summary of Christianity.  To sum up, in the words of John Smith, ‘God wants out of the depths of his love to have in the creation a being capable of appreciating the beauty, the ‘excellency’ and the splendor of the divine Gloria as it appears in the creation.” (171)

Edwards spent his life speaking, and writing to prepare for speaking, and publishing both his thoughts and his senses.  He stands as a bulwark against any capitulation of the pulpit in the church to anything short of divine ‘excellency’, glory, beauty, and love.


We go to Stockbridge MA, the location of Edward’s last pulpit, sometimes for a night or two.  It helps us to find our way.

In these Lenten sermons, talking with Edwards in light of the Gospel in Scripture, we have moved from Scripture to Doctrine to (as now) Application.   Edwards’s evocation of the beauty of creation, and his Johannine efforts in voice and speech, readily take us straightway to the issues of our lives.  Day by day, we are finding our way.

Fyodor Dostoevsky gives dear Alyosha one of our verses, as his signature in The Brothers Karamazov:  ‘except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.  In service, we are finding our way.

The little, daily death of service, the service of Christ, and the responsive service in Christ, is that which finally bears fruit.   We shall wonder on our way home about the performative adequacy of our service in Him.

For instance, the full humanity of gay people and current discrimination against them in the United Methodist church, of which from this pulpit we have spoken numerous times, continues to engage our service.

With some courage several church leaders this year published a book of divergent views regarding Christian faith and homosexuality in United Methodism, titled FINDING OUR WAY.   With respect for these writers, several of whom I know personally, and a couple of whom I count as real friends, and one of whom you have heard from this pulpit not so many years ago, I present a book review, attached to the print form of this sermon, and available on my blog, and also in copy form in our office today, along with a few copies of the book reviewed, and copies of a resolution that I have submitted which has approved for consideration in my home conference, Upper New York.

With respect, and out of love, I differ with most of what is written in FINDING OUR WAY. The review will give the details.  But the singular heart of that difference is the gospel itself.  Our gospel reading today, taking its place within the full gospel of John, and thereby within the eternal day of grace in Jesus Christ, celebrates the liberality of the gospel, the good news of a Father’s house in which there are many rooms.   A page over from our lectionary reading—they have to be read in context—we have the announcement, ‘in my Father’s house there are many rooms’.  This is the liberality of the gospel of grace, freedom, pardon, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy and love.   Many rooms.  One for the sisters, cousins and aunts of John Wesley, we hope.  But others for Mahatma Ghandi, Anwar Sadat, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Pope John 23, and, yes, John Calvin.  There is no traction, no space in such a gospel for bigotry on the basis of status, class, race, gender, embodiment or orientation.  Many rooms.

After naming the rooms, in John 14, the Johannine Jesus goes on to say that he is Way, Truth and Life.  That is, wherever there is a way, wherever there is truth, and wherever there is life, there He is.  So no one comes to the Father except through a way that in truth leads to life.  And wherever anyone truly finds that way and truth and life, there and then they have found, or been found by Jesus Christ. We used to sing, growing up, give me ‘land lots of land beneath the starry skies above’.  That is a musical setting, it could be, for the liberality of today’s gospel.  In finding our way, the rest of the Bible can help us, and teach us, too. Jesus could teach us in Matthew 25, about caring for the least.  Paul could teach us in Galatians 3, about the end of social distinctions.  John could teach us, as he does today in John 12, and also later in John 14, about the priority of love.  That is, as we continue to pray and work for the acceptance and full affirmation of sexual minorities in our time and in our churches, we do so listening to and for the gospel.

Again, today, you will be puzzled that there is no ethical teaching in John, no moral exhortation, no sermon the mount or sermon on the plain.  None.  With one exception:  ‘love one another, as I have loved you’.

I grew up among people whom I think of when I go to the quiet mountains of Stockbridge, MA whence Jonathan Edwards was banished in about 1750. It is about half way home, I guess.  They were practical people.  They loved God by loving the things of God.  The loved Nature.  They loved Work.  They loved other people.  They loved OTHER people, people down on luck, different, in the minority, outside, excluded.  They loved Country.  They loved Church.  They loved Family.  At their best, their love was as high as Mt Marcy, and as deep as Seneca Lake, and as shimmering as Glimmer Glass, and as powerful as Niagara, and as steady as the Hudson, and as wide as Ontario and all outdoors.  They knew from harsh experience the brevity of life, the horror of loss in death, the stinging pain of grief.  They trusted the giver of life to give eternal life, and then tried to live eternal life here and now, in service.  I see them, these loving people, many now dead.   Instinctively they eschewed exclusion, owing to a dim memory of their own times of being excluded.  I wonder over time if we could see our way clear to do the same?


In a few weeks, most of the sugar season will end, the fires will be banked until another March, the snow will partly melt, the sap become syrup will be shaped into candies, and bottled and sold.   Some churches, poor by worldly standards, poor by urban standards, will hold a spring supper—the most delicious of foods—ham and beef and everything you can want or imagine.  For dessert they will bring you a bowl of snow, your victory over what you have battled all winter, now served up to you, to the victor go the spoils, you now Lord for a moment of nature and winter.  A hot pitcher of steaming syrup someone will pour upon the snow, and it will crackle and congeal and become a heavenly sweetness, and you will enjoy a foretaste of spring, as, we hope, on Sunday, in Scripture and Doctrine and Application, you savor a foretaste of heaven.

Attached the addenda promised above:

Book Review

Book Review:  Finding Our Way:  Love and Law in the United Methodist Church.  Rueben P. Job, Neil M. Alexander, eds. (Nashville:  Abingdon, 2014)

I move in five steps here:  summary, overview, review, conference\discussion, and concluding thoughts.

  1. Summary:  After a personal introductory frame from Job and Alexander, seven UMC general superintendents offer 10-20 page statements about Methodism and gay people, following which Job concludes with a call to prayer.  Two write directly about the full humanity of gay people, one in affirmation (Talbert) and one in denial (Yambasu).  Three offer administrative worries (Palmer—the discipline must be upheld),  (Lowry—the center cannot hold),  (Carter—the connection needs support).  Two offer mildly inclusive reflections on recent conference level experience (Ward, Wenner).
  1. Overview:  The most striking feature of this collection is its nearly complete lack of  theological reflection, biblical interpretation, and homiletical assessment.  Does the gospel offer grace, freedom, love, acceptance, pardon, and hope to sexual minorities or not?  Does the gospel disdain silent or spoken bigotry against sexual minorities or not?  Where do the Scriptures (John 14, Galatians 3, Ecclesiastes, Amos 5), or  the tradition (Bristol, Appomatox, Seneca Falls), or human reason (diagnostic library,  psychological research,) and experience (case studies and stories of gay children harmed by religious bigotry) intersect with these chapters?  Hardly at all, granted occasional interjections, more from Talbert and Carter than others.    One major exception is the attention Lowry pays to Acts 15 (and so Galatians 2, which he somehow neglects), the Jerusalem Conference.   He is right to do so.   His reading of the passages however is exactly the full opposite of their meaning  (see, for example, J. L. Martyn, Anchor Bible Commentary, Galatians, among many others).  Lowry argues that the point of the Jerusalem Conference was order.  It was not.  It was freedom, the freedom for which Christ sets free.  Other than our own current debate the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15, Gal. 2) is the historical high water mark of religious interest in detailed sexual debate—circumcision then, gay love now.   In the Bible, Paul leaves behind tradition for gospel and Peter accedes.   (Freedom not order.)  The uncircumcised are the recipients of the gospel (then) as are gay people (today).  Lowry:  ‘the famous debate at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a debate over order, the doctrinal discipline of the church’ (74).  No.  No it is not.  In choosing to leave behind religious order, textual rigidity and an inherited holiness code in order to preach the gospel to the ‘genitally unclean’, men who were not circumcised on the eighth day, the church decided that gospel ever trumps tradition, and grace ever trumps order.  It is the perfect biblical citation for this debate, only Lowry reads it upside down.  We will not ever ‘find our (administrative) way’ until and unless we first reflect theologically, interpret biblically, and assess homiletically.  In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male or female.  Nor gay nor straight.  Are gay people people or not?  5/5 or 3/5 human?  (We have a bad habit in this country, of finding ways to fractionalize the marginalized.)

We baptize, confirm, commune, forgive and bury gay people.  We somehow cannot find our way to marry or ordain them?   We baptize, confirm, commune, marry, ordain, forgive and bury those who have undergone surgical abortion, and offer the same to those who oppose abortion.  Can we not live ‘in all things charity’?

  1. Review:  Palmer’s distinction to affirm ‘uphold’ more than ‘enforce’ (his assigned theme), in interpretation of the book of discipline has some merit and more grace, and reflects his own sincere, irenic temperament.  Ward does honor the ‘brave witness’ of a lesbian couple who suffered the bigotry of the Mississippi conference to bear witness to their love for each other.  Talbert has said and done the right thing, well prior to this collection, and his essay is the truest of the seven.  He and his African colleague are the only two who directly state what they personally think regarding the full humanity of gay people.   (Carter rightly affirms that every person is created in God’s image, and laments theological incoherence.)
  1. Conference (that is, Discussion): Carter.  Carter calculates (perhaps accurately, but there is no documentation) that small progressive jurisdictions (we could read here, ‘northern’ could we not?) have more presence, voice, vote and leadership on boards and agencies than do larger and more moderate (we are meant to read here, ‘southern’, are we not?) jurisdictions.  Talbert.  Talbert simply and categorically states that the discriminatory language about gays in our church is wrong and cannot claim allegiance, loyalty or support.  The UMC today provides ‘liturgical resources for pastors who may choose to use facilities of congregations to bless animals, fowls, inanimate objects, and more.  Are not our LGBT sisters and brothers of sacred worth like all God’s creatures’? (37)  Yambasu.  Yambasu equates homosexuality with promiscuity, sexual slavery, and adultery, describes the Bible as infallible, and places the denigration of gay people on par with the venerable inheritance of the ten commandments (87).   The voice, or at least a voice, of Methodism in Africa.  To the extent that his view represents African Methodism, it is a communicative benefit to have his remarkable and disappointing perspective stated in the raw.   Lowry.  Lowry implores us to keep covenant with one another, as he stated in a recent interview, ‘covenant is Old Testament 101’.  Many would respond that the question is not whether to keep covenant, but in and about what to keep covenant.  If the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, requires the affirmation of the full humanity of gay people and the full rejection of bigotry against sexual minorities in the name of scriptural authority, then the point of covenant is mutually to commit to that gospel.  Covenant on behalf of rules of discipline that deny the gospel is false covenant.  In the recent interview Lowry admits that a substantial USA UMC majority now affirms same gender marriage and ordination for gay people; he speaks wisely and protectively of the guaranteed appointment; he deplores the waste of resources in time and money which are going into this ongoing debacle.  Wenner concludes: “I pray and work for a future where we will find ways to embrace diversity on many issues, including human sexuality, allowing us to think differently.  Perhaps we may even be able to live with different answers concerning clergy who live in faithful and loving homosexual partnerships and those who choose to conduct same-gender marriages.”

Thoughts:  1. The Book of Discipline affirms a moderate pro-choice position regarding abortion.  But when it comes to marriage and ordination, we do not exclude those who practice surgical abortion, nor those who reject such practice.  We have a position as a church.  But we allow for differences in practice, practices that both agree with and conflict with our stated position.  We do not deny ardent pro-life preachers ordination because they refuse to practice or affirm others to practice abortion.  Nor do we exclude from ordination women who have had abortions or men who have provided pastoral help to others in the course of such a procedure.  If we can find a way to live together, regarding marriage and ordination, when it comes to abortion, we should be able to do so regarding homosexuality.  2. The first task of an interpreter is to honor and affirm the texts interpreted.  In this case, rightly, our general superintendents, interpreters of the book of discipline, affirm the value of the book to be interpreted.   Once the general conference has passed off a version of the discipline for another four years, it falls to the bishops, along with others to interpret and apply it.   It may help our leaders to rehearse again some of the basic modes of interpretation of texts, biblical texts and others, taught and learned years earlier.  Most passages, including your favorite scriptural passage, parable, story, psalm or teaching, allow more than one faithful reading.  There may for sure be out of bounds readings, but multiple legitimate ones, too.   Simply on a non-literalist hermeneutic, diversity of readings of the discipline itself should be expected.   So the dozen affirmations in the discipline of the requirement of pastoral care for gay people may rightly be read as a requirement for pastoral ministry for gay people who are getting married or discerning vocations.  Gay marriage and ordination may be understood as not only permissible, but required, to the fulfillment of these paragraphs. 3. We further do admit that while all abhor war, some are pacifist and some are not and all are part of the UMC.  Why we can allow latitude regarding issues of life and death, abortion and warfare, but not regarding love and marriage, is a mystery and truly says much about the remains of the mind of the church (UMC). 4. Marriage:  UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a.  (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.  The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.  So.  Do we mean this?  Are we going to ‘enforce’ as Br. Palmer says ‘enforce the discipline’?  Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right and responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple.  There is no shading here, no hem or haw.  The pastor decides.   After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules.  No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different.  Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister.  “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”.  Not the General Conference.  Not the General Superintendent.  Not the District Superintendent.  Not the Charge Conference.  The pastor. As it should be.

Resolution Concerning the General Conference and Homosexuality

WHEREAS, according to The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and,

WHEREAS, two “agree to disagree” proposals were soundly defeated during separate votes by the nearly 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference in Tampa, FL, therefore keeping the current discriminatory disciplinary language, and

WHEREAS, One defeated 2012 proposal would have changed the Book of Discipline simply to say that gays and lesbians are “people of sacred worth” and that church members “differ about whether homosexual practices (are) contrary to the will of God” and,

WHEREAS, at least 15 regional Annual Conferences have rejected the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and

WHEREAS, 35 states now allow gay marriage, and the United Methodist Book of Discipline (para. 340 2a.3a) states that the decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” and

WHEREAS, “one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends” (Kinnaman, David, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith), and

WHEREAS, many United Methodists in the United States, as well as persons from other countries, acknowledge that the church is divided on this issue but feel that current discriminatory disciplinary language is harmful not only to the groups that it attacks but to the future of the church, as such language is alienating to both present and future members, and

WHEREAS, a resolution very similar to this one was presented and passed by the North Carolina Conference in 2013,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Upper New York Conference of 2015, gathered in Syracuse, NY, implore the 2016 General Conference to change the language used in The Social Principles, and to affirm the place of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) members within the church, including access both to marriage and to ordination.

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

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Religious Affections

March 15th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 3:14-21

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Our newspaper reported this week about a man who built an igloo out of the snow mountain on his front lawn.   The mounds of snow, several feet high and deep and wide, offered him an architectural opportunity.  Remembering his growing up years, he built igloo.  (He grew up, the paper said, in upstate New York.)  His igloo included four rooms.  His wife decorated the rooms with art-work and the window sills, open to the elements, with candles.  He was photographed and looked happy with his work.  It may have been that he recalled in the excavation some part of his growing up years, the habits he had acquired at an early age.

“It is no small matter whether one habit or the other is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.” (repeat).

This is the voice of Jonathan Edwards, with whom we converse, to some measure, in these Lenten sermons.   Real religion involves religious affections, or so Edwards taught.  Give some consideration this morning to your own religious affections.  Your experience.  Your dispositions, inclinations, predilections, and affections.

Just before our gospel reading, Nicodemus, thrice mentioned in John, has departed.   You remember his interview with Jesus.  He asks about being born again.  He asks about resurrection life.  He asks about spirit.  In the nighttime interview, Jesus answers him:  You must be born anew.  Your religion, your religious affection, counts on this.  Our gospel today takes the same theme further.

God is love.  (Or Love is God.) Eternal life is trust in God who is love.  The doorway to eternal life is trust.  We learn this in our experience.  This trust is a gift, God’s gift.  With open hands we receive the gift of God.   We do not achieve or earn or create this trust.  It is given to us.  The gift comes wrapped, belief and trust and faith and knowledge come gift wrapped in meaning, belonging, empowerment—in the beloved community.

To make sure the hearer and reader of his gospel get the full measure of his point, the author of John uses a great old word, Judgment.  KRISIS in Greek.  You hear our own word, CRISIS, there.  Until John, more or less, Judgment was reserved for the end of time, the eschaton, the apocalypse.  John, as is resonantly clear here, says something different.  Judgment is not at the end of time.  Judgment is now.  Judgment does not await the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, or the millennial reign, or wars and rumors of wars, or signs of the times.  No.  The critical moment is now.  John has replaced speculation with spirit.  John has replaced eschaton with eternal life.  John has replaced Armageddon with the artistry of every day.  John has courageously left behind that to which most of the rest of the New Testament still clings.  John has replaced then with now.  What courage!  The upshot of this change, as recorded in our Scripture today, is the near apotheosis of experience.  And as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, Who He is (Schweitzer).

In other words, the ancient near eastern apocalyptic, of heaven and end of time judgment, still present in various religious traditions, as we have tragic and sorrowful occasion to see in our own time and struggles with violence, is replaced.  In your experience.  This is the judgment.  The light has come into the world.

As my grandmother used to ask, ‘Are you walking in the light?’

Likewise, we notice that the letter to the Ephesians, written by a student of Paul, makes a complementary affirmation.  By grace you are saved through faith (he writes this twice, or an editor has added a second rendering).  The phrase, both in its repetition and in its cadence, seems clearly to be a prized inheritance for the Ephesians.  God is loving you into love and freeing you into freedom.  God first loved us.  You are not made whole by your doing.  You are God’s beloved, and so are made whole, made healthy, made well, ‘perfected’.   Both in our successes and in our failures, we truly depend upon a daily, weekly hearing of this promise and warning.  In our experience, we are given to trust God.  Our response in actions will then forever be overshadowed by real love, by God’s love.


The Marsh pulpit in this decade has conversed come Lent with Calvinism, a sibling tradition, different in emphasis from our own, but one deeply embedded in the long history of New England.  My joy in learning more this winter about Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758, a contemporary of John Wesley, I have shared only to encourage you to know something about him, too.  If in Northampton MA, you could visit his old haunts.  If reading about our American history, you could appreciate him through the critical and criticized masterpiece of Perry Miller.  If meditating you could re-focus in faith by recalling his emphasis on beauty, on excellence, on grace.  A University pulpit, like any, strives weekly to preach the gospel, as Augustine noted, ‘to teach, to delight, and to persuade’.   In slight measure, our duty here may accentuate, at least come Lent, and its seasonal discipline of disciplines, the first, to teach.

Today, as a doctrinal consequence upon our Holy Scripture, we shall simply, or singularly, approach Edward’s consideration of experience, what he called the ‘religious affections’.   He made his most careful study in this area, after the Great Awakening of 1740.  The evangelistic success of his preaching in Northampton, which brought George Whitefield to the farm country of western Massachusetts, strangely caused him consternation.   He had occasion to question his own success.  That is, he wondered just how truly religious some of the newly acquired affections were, in North Hampton and beyond.  I find that in itself a remarkable, even heroic, spiritual move—to find in your success an occasion for self-criticism.

Edwards, good Puritan he, made two lists of twelve signs each, one a list of false signs of religious affection, and one a list of true.

In an earlier version of the sermon I had these ready to give to you.  You may be relieved to know that what follows is a summary instead.

Edwards distrusts appearances, when it comes to religion, with good Protestant and Biblical warrant, as you recognize.  He distrusts, you may be surprised to hear, given his fatherhood of the Great Awakening:  emotion, eagerness, excitement, biblical literacy, volubility, comfort, religious effort, self-confidence, verbosity, elocution, and impact on others.  This list he offered after, not before, the great religious upswing, known the world over, of 1740.  The fullness of love can actually be counterfeited, he judged (or maybe, he saw with his own eyes).

Today we might say:  religion is not a good thing, or not necessarily a good thing.  Religion is like the weather, and theology in that way like meteorology.  It can be good.  But.  If it causes the brother to stumble…If the Sabbath is not made for man…If the inside of the cup is not cleansed…If all that glitters is not gold…If, with Cervantes and the Quixote, appearance threatens reality, then religion is not good.  Many great troubles today are religious, from Ferguson to Tikrit to Gaza to our own home and our own town.

Rather, this quintessential Yankee Puritan Calvinist trusts reality, not appearance:  the divine source, the nature (insert Love) of God, holiness and beauty, intellectual understanding, humility, self-criticism, gentleness, tenderness, harmony—in short, whatever is Christ-like.  He lived through the aftermath of two cycles of religious fervor, out in Northampton, and came out with a balance of wisdom like that of a serpent as well as innocence like that of a dove.

Today we might say:  when you go to pray, enter your closet, and shut the door, and if you fast, wash your face and smile, and be not a saint abroad but a devil at home.   Prefer a tithing Christian to a born again Christian every time.

Edwards, then, puts a major daily question before us about religious affections, and about religious experience: what here is appearance and what here is reality?


Moving, in good Puritan form, from Scripture, through Doctrine, to Application:  how shall we apply this to our own life today?

On one hand, we might look at the modes of representation, of appearance, that intend or pretend to connect us in reality.

For all our vaunted IT, are we any closer to IThou?  IT or IThou?  Not only for our soon to return undergraduates, but seriously for them, as well as for all of us, the question of this relationship looms.  Daily.  How much do the newer technologies aid us in the timeless challenge of becoming fully human?

The Buddhist says:  Wherever you are, be there.

Are we?  Are we ever truly anywhere anymore?  Are we ever unplugged to sufficient measure that we can relate to one another, to self, to world, to God?

Are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to look at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?  Is there still a way through the snow pile to an igloo?

The world does not revolve around my inbox, or yours.

This is good news—wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  And it is good sense.  And even good business.  One writer noted: ‘Every business person, regardless of national origin, is more likely to transact business with a colleague or counterpart he has worked and socialized with.’  Real commerce happens in real time, among real people, who really know and like and want to work with each other.

Does e-mail and its cousins help make and keep human life fully human? Consider the mode:  No voice or face, nor body, nor personhood, nor privacy, nor life?  Who—really—beyond 15 minutes a day—wants to communicate, or live, this way?  To say nothing of the practice of ministry.  How do we approach I/Thou in the reign of I/T?

How do we  conjure and remember the  wisdom of Martin Buber?

“Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its ” content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou…

The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being…

On the other hand, we might look at our more intimate relationships.  Five times this year we have spoken from this pulpit about safety on campus for women.  We shall continue to do so, so that Marsh Chapel, with partners near and far, will continue to be a sacred space that is a safe place.  The bifurcation of appearance and reality endemic to cyber culture—think Yik Yak—has consequences in many directions, one of which is the peril of losing the muscle and habit of interpersonal conversation, discourse, and—affection.  It takes practice to learn to listen well and deeply.  It takes time to develop the vocabulary and tongue to speak from the heart.  It takes live experience, living engagement to see and hear others as multi-dimensional not one dimensional beings, real people not appearances.  All of us, older and younger, continue to learn and grow, and over time, a new and healthier national and collegiate culture will emerge.

A recent review of the documentary, The Hunting Grounds, by Ty Burr, raises the same point, in its conclusion:  Emotional intimacy can be found everywhere online while vanishing from the physical world.  The (movie) does a fine and fierce job of portraying campus sexual assault as a national disease.  It never dares to suggest that it’s a symptom. (BG G6 3/13/15).

Nietzsche famously argued that if God is dead everything is allowed.  With a wisp of John 2, and faith and trust and belief still in the air, like a harbinger of a spring not quite here, we might put it otherwise, and in a positive mode.  If the language of worship, of divine love and a responsive human love, can be learned and lifted and shared, then there is a capacity, a cultural capacity, a cultural syntax and grammar and spelling that gradually can offer an alternative to our current malaise.  Affection, real emotional intimacy in word and deed, might find its wellsprings in Religious Affections, real emotional intimacy in word and deed:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.


Because God made the stars to shine.  Because God made the ivy twine.  Because God made the ocean blue.  Because God made you, that’s why I love you.

With joy, right here, in these years, we have seen young life become new life, as we have in some beautiful weddings this winter.  This happens in college. One of the sources of healing on campus is worship.   Against all odds, in the Hunting Grounds, it may just be the one thing needful.  One who knows in experience the love of God has then the heart with which to love another.  And the language.  And the sensitivity.  And the humanity.  And the capacity.  The capacity to defeat rapacity.

Hear the Gospel!  Scripture:  Your experience counts.  Doctrine: Reality not appearance is at the core of religious affections.  Application:  Balance IT and IThou, and let your affections be formed and informed by your religious affections.

“It is no small matter whether one habit or the other is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.”

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

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

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Sweet Chariot

March 8th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 2:13-22

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In (or near) the year 850 bc, Elijah, the prophet, stood against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  He alone stood against 450.  The enemy prophets called on Baal to bring fire.  Baal did not.  But Yahweh did, at Elijah’s imprecation.  Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing.  Or he is inside.  Or he is on a journey.  Or he is asleep—he needs to wake up.  Maybe he does not hear well.  Try again.  Elijah also announced the end of a great drought.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 820, Elijah went up a high mountain, not unlike that on which Jesus stood some weeks ago in Mark, and listened for God.  He heard God.  Not in fire, or smoke, or whirlwind, or techno wizardry, or techno frenzy.  For God was not there.  But in a still small voice.  In silence, the silence before hearing and speech. In conscience.  In mind and will. The Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire—a still, small voice.   On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 800bc Elijah, the troubler of Israel, saw King Ahab, through his wife, Jezebel, take the garden of a poor man, Naboth, and kill Naboth in the process.  I will give you a better vineyard for it.   But Naboth did not want another, but his own.  And Ahab sulked, vexed and sullen, and lay down on his bed, and turned his face, and would eat no food.  But Naboth held onto his vineyard.  But Jezebel said, ‘Do you govern Israel?  Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful.  I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.  But Naboth resisted her, too.  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.  And Jezebel said, go and take Naboth’s vineyard, for he is dead.  But Elijah confronted the king.  Have you killed and taken?  Then I tell you—In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.  Elijah, the troubler of Israel.  It is one thing to desire another’s property, and another to take it by force.  Elijah held a mirror before the country that wanted such a king, and the influence of such a queen.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 30ad, Elijah’s spirit awakened Peter, who went up a high mountain, with Jesus, to see Him changed.  Elijah brought reason and morality to the religion Moses founded.  Lent is meant to remind us of the priority of worship.  Find a way to get to worship.  Worship brings the insight of personal need, lifted in prayer.  Worship brings the insight of another’s hurt, lifted in communal, singing, four part harmonic hymns.  Worship brings the insight of clarity, a word fitly spoken, lifted in the sermon.  Worship brings the insight of choosing, the choice of faith, not thrill but will, lifted in the invitations, to devotion, discipline, dedication.  Worship brings the insight of loyalty, of heart, lifted every Sunday in the offering of gifts and tithes.  Elijah brought hope, prophetic hope, into the tradition and minds of his people.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1735, the spirit of Elijah rested on the New England community of North Hampton, and the ministry of a Puritan divine, Jonathan Edwards, our Calvinist interlocutor this Lent.  Edwards saw the divine light shining in the human soul.  Edwards saw that the material universe exists in God’s mind.  Edwards saw faith in the willingness of saints to be damned for the glory of God.  Edwards saw religious affections, inclinations, dispositions, all gifts of God in faith, the love of God that kindles joy, hope, trust, peace and ‘a sense of the heart’.  Edwards saw the centrality of the experience of faith: a person may know that honey is sweet, but no one can know what sweet means until they taste the honey.  Edwards saw that ‘God delights properly in the devotions, graces, and good works of his saints.’  Jonathan Elijah Edwards, our New England precursor, walked along the Connecticut River, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1865, in our nation’s capital, the spirit of Elijah touched the tongue of Abraham Lincoln.  Months and days before Lincoln died, Lincoln cried out, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in.  Real cost, real costs, occasion our very freedom to gather in community for worship this morning.   The same spirit, of 850bc, that presence, that quickened consciousness, that affection, that devotion, that inclination were present with Lincoln, and are with us today.  You have the brute fact of the brute creation.  You have too the spirit.

In the year 1951, the spirit of Elijah rested in the mind of Ray Bradbury.  He wrote a book, Fahrenheit 451 (this is the temperature at which paper burns), an eschatological prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading, the end of memory.  The novel ends along a river.  Montag finds himself with hoboes around a campfire, along the river bank.  He is surprised to find that fire, the mode of book destruction he has resisted, can ‘give as well as take, warm and well as burn’.   He waits in the shadows.  The men around the fire summon him out of the dark, and take him in.  He learns that each one of them has committed some book to memory.  One is living Plato’s Republic.  One is the work of Thomas Hardy.  One has memorized several of the plays of Shakespeare.  Byron, Machiavelli, Tom Paine, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—all these are carried in the minds of hoboes, walking libraries, the remaining memory of the art of the race.  “What have you to offer?” they ask Montag.  “Parts of Ecclesiastes and of the Revelation to St. John”, he replies.  In 2015, an age that has eschewed reading for scanning, books for blogs, google for memory, and earning for knowing, Elijah Bradbury’s word resonates.  On the way out from the river Jordan.

In the year 1959, down in the southern third of Alabama, the spirit of Elijah rested on the mind of Harper Lee.  She wrote a book, a great book, a book great because it changed people’s minds and hearts.  Like Augustine’s Confessions.  Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Like The Diary of Anne Frank.  Like Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Like what Tom Hanks tried to do with Philadelphia.  The prophet’s magic mantel, which divides the river Jordan, pierces the heart.   Lee’s pastor, our friend, Thomas Lane Butts, spoke of her to me some years ago.  All on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1965, in early March, the spirit of Elijah walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  John Lewis was there, ‘not angry, but full of righteous indignation’, as he said.  Through the history, offices and gifts of Boston University we sat next to him over dinner three years ago.  He wanted to be a preacher, growing up: I would come home and preach to the chickens, he remembered. If nothing else, perhaps 50 years hence we could remember that real change is real hard but comes in real time when people really work at it, on the ground, in personal conversation, then in small groups, with gifted leadership.  Down on the way from the River Jordan.

In the winter of the year 2015, Elijah, the spirit of Elijah brooded over the face of New England snow fields.  The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   But also.  The sore memory muscles wrestling with the horror and mayhem—needless and cruel—of  Marathon 2013.  The blizzard of feeling and thought inevitably brought by a current courtroom trial to the surface.  The rush of anger alongside the search for the better angels of one’s nature.  You may not daily recognize Elijah.  But he is present.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.  (People have such odd reasons for avoiding worship.)  On the way forward from the river Jordan.  Elijah: elusive spirit, mysterious ghost, the divine present absence, personified.

On March 8 of 2015, the spirit of prophet Elijah hovered in the nave of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.   The chapel has given, to you and others, over many decades—beauty, grace, preachment, music, recollection.  Some here have found God, and some here have been found by God.  Marsh—a gift.  And so you have responded.  By listening on the radio—good.  By joining us one Sunday—good.  By giving to and through this ministry—good.  By inviting someone to listen, too.  By inviting someone to come with you.  Good.  By dreaming of an even more permanent place, and even stronger witness, and even more vibrant voice at Marsh.  One of you may choose to endow the deanship of this chapel.  Good.  Elijah awaits us.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 20??, I apologize, I have mislaid the exact date, the prophet Elijah will be on my doorstep, and knocking on your door.  Perhaps at midnight.  Maybe at noon day.  Possibly at dawn.  Or in the wee hours of the morning.   The eschatological prophet, the prophet of the last things, the one invited by Peter to a booth with Jesus, Elijah, the prophet of God, will make a pastoral visit.  In the last hour of my life, and yours.  There will be the river Jordan.  There will be a mantel slapped on the water.  There will be a parting of the ways.  There will be a step forward.  There will be a chariot, a sweet chariot, a swinging sweet chariot, a firey, swinging, sweet chariot.  There will be a presence.  Could it be that the weeks of cascade, the days of Nevada, the snow and snow and snow of our 2015 New England winter of discontent should carry an evocation, a query, a reminder, a call, premonition, a measuring, a warning, a promise?  Most of what we spend our time on, and our money, doesn’t matter at all.  It is the spirit that giveth life.

In the year to come, sometime, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit will usher us toward only the book of Harper Lee, a surprise and an adventure.  In this newly discovered book, I understand, Scout is grown up, and Atticus Finch is old, and the setting is not the depression but the early civil rights movement.  We know whence Scout emerged.  Maybe we will re-read Mockingbird.  One of my predecessors in Rochester was a southerner, Andrew Turnipseeed, a friend of Dr King’s.  At Turnipseed’s funeral TL Butts preached:

“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene.  Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man.  She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people.  The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered.  It is over.  Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door.  Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?”  She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle.  Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes:  “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.”  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard.

Here is one way to live.  Elijah’s way.  The spirit way.  The way of confidence born of obedience.  The way of the journey of faith, the obedience of faith.  In this way, we live with the trust to see things through.  To cross over.  To cross the river.  To trust our past.  To  trust our experience.  To trust the spirit.  To trust our Elisha’s, our friends and successors.  To trust that in some way spiritually similar to Elijah at Jordan, a sweet chariot awaits.

A chariot of promise.  A chariot of freedom.  A chariot of hope.  A chariot of deliverance.  A chariot of salvation.  A chariot of heaven.  A chariot to carry us home.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Marsh Spirit

March 1st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 8:31-38

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‘Because it is Hard’

Rigor.  The Marsh Spirit is a rigorous one.

A visitor today to the cradle of liberty, the home of the bean and the cod, coming by air will walk underneath a bright portico at Logan Airport, adorned with the countenance of a familiar President, whose term of office was tragically foreshortened.   He is pictured pointing out a rocket on the launch pad.   You cannot help but pause. John F Kennedy.  Boston Airport.  A new frontier.  A profile in courage.  (To boldly go where no one has gone before, a phrase we recall this weekend especially.) An entrance into a new place.  A New England place.  Like the Gospel itself, a new space, a newness of life. The familiar Presidential Boston voice simply says:  ‘We do not choose to go to the moon because it is easy to do so.  We choose to go to the moon because it is hard.’ (It recalls OWHolmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference…)

The Marsh Spirit, your way of being, visible and virtual both, embraces challenge, with rigor.

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue, wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture.  Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Rigor is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life, and Secularity.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture, in this winter of our discontent.

We salute, by the way, in this most rigorous winter, those among us who have with most rigor endured the winter.  The UPS woman climbing a snowdrift.  The janitor plowing at 4am.  The childcare worker arriving early and leaving late.  The man brewing coffee after 3 hours on the T.  All have been inundated by the same amount of snow, but not all have struggled the same amount with the snow.

But in earshot of the Gospel, a question looms.

What if the real ice of 2015, the actual storm and snow of this winter of 2015, the existential blizzard of this season where not meteorological but theological, not weather but whether or not, not snow and ice but thinking twice, not nature but grace?

What if the snow is the easy part?  What if the real storm falling upon us is nihilism, nihilism sweetened by hedonism?  What if our challenge is not meteorological but theological, not natural but cultural, not material but existential, not physical but spiritual?

Scripture: Paul and Mark

In the midwinter of 1979 Jan at sixth months pregnant became very ill with an ovarian cyst.  The physician in NYC told me that he was not sure either—child or mother—would survive, but the surgery was not optional.  Both survived, and we moved suddenly away from school to church, to find our way into ministry and life.

That spring, commuting to finish courses, I met my teacher Lou Martyn in the Union Seminary Quadrangle.  He handed me a book as gift, one of John Knox’s books on the early church (Knox of 20century not of the sixteenth).  I cherish the gift now forty years old, which became a kind of sign for the future, then altogether unforeseen.

I returned this week to Knox on Romans.  To hear what he did hear, here. Like my later teacher NT Wright, Knox took on the hard passages, including this one from Romans.

I marvel at the beauty and mystery of this section of Romans 4, on which Rev. Fleming Rutledge preaches so bravely here last spring:  ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (resurrection first, then creation).  Hoping against hope.  (such an odd phrase)

I marvel at the phrase, ‘hope against hope’.  I marvel at its assertion of a hopeless hope, of hope with no prospect, no rationale, no ready support.

I marvel that faith is faith, your faith is your faith, when it is what you are left with, all you are left with, like two young people awaiting surgery, or like an older poet awaiting death.

I marvel that faith is reckoned as righteousness, that what stands up in hope against hope is the faith of Abraham.  Abraham before circumcision, Abraham the father of multitudes not just the religious, Abraham the father then of believers everywhere.  No one can keep the whole law.  Every life includes failure, error, mistake, and misjudgment.  All of us stand in need of grace, pardon, forgiveness.

I marvel at the ordering here of resurrection first and creation second, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Do you notice?  For Paul here resurrection comes first, then creation, not in a temporal but in an existential sense. Resurrection is the grounding of creation, the grounding of the ground of being.  When Paul writes of God, he writes first of the God who raises the dead, and only second of the God who creates.  I marvel at this.  Even if Paul has somewhat altered the original meaning of Genesis (Knox: This story of Abraham suits the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews, with his somewhat different idea of faith, better perhaps than the purpose of Paul).  The father of faith relies on humble trust in God’s mercy and power, as distinguished from reliance on good works. Hope against hope.  To continue to have hope though it seems baseless.

And with this welcoming word, Paul can sing and soar in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that.  We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Mark sounds similar:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the for sake of the gospel, will save it.

You recognize that this is the voice of an early preacher, whose words Mark has placed in retrospect upon the lips of Jesus.   We see Jesus looking back through the cross, as did Mark.  We hear Jesus through the din of the passion, as did Mark.  We know Jesus through the rigor of trying to follow after him, even if we are long way behind, as did Mark.

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


What if our cultural storm is as much a challenge as our natural one has been?  What if the real snowstorm is this:  our cultural languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise (repeat)?  What if the real ice and wind are in an invisible nihilism, not just the nihilism of academic and student life, but a blowing ice wind of nada…a sense that nothing matters, a sense that nothing counts, a sense that nothing lasts, a sense that nothing is real, a sense that no one is for real (repeat)?  At its worst, academic and student life can become a nihilism, a nihilism sweetened, if that is the word, by hedonism.  But students and teachers come from homes and families, like everybody else, and their culture, this culture, is only a dim reflection of a larger one, a subset within subsets.

The Marsh pulpit brings into duet mind and heart, the academic and the religious, the university and the church, knowledge and piety.   We are not alone in this, or at least, not quite alone just yet.  So, come Lent, each year we lift up a conversation partner for our preaching, one out of a different tradition from our own, one out of the Calvinist tradition, so embedded in New England.   So in other years, Marilynn Robinson, Jacques Ellul, Atonement Doctrine, Karl Barth, Himself (John Calvin), and this year Jonathan Edwards.

The Calvinist emphasis on divine freedom and divine predestination and divine creation and divine scripture are different emphases than those within Methodism on human freedom and human will and human history and human interpretation of scripture, by tradition and reason and experience.  But we learn most from our adversaries, our conflicts and our mistakes.  So, come Lent, we wrestle with others, like Edwards.

Edwards is remembered, for instance, for a fine sentence, a rigorous one at that: Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.  Yet his hourly eschatology, Johannine in shape (‘the hour is coming and now is’), like the favorite phrase of our dear and recently departed professor and colleague David Carr, ‘our present future’, has a much deeper root in the mind of Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest native theologian.  It is rooted in his glorious understanding of grace, and the proper response to grace, his glorious vision of beauty, and the proper life in response to beauty.

Today we will simply remember his painful denouement in ministry.  He preached for thirty years from his grandfather Stoddard’s strong Northampton pulpit, and lit the fires of the great awakening there.  But he departed from his grandfather’s decision about holy communion, and that cost him his pulpit.  Edwards began to require a confession of faith, an examination for church affirmation of faith and membership, and thus access to the Lord’s table.  For this decision, His congregation and the larger church threw him out.  He spent the last years of his life in ministry to a few farmers and many native American in Stockbridge MA—not the big church you see on the main street there, by the way, but a little chapel in west Stockbridge.   He was an outcast at the end, perhaps the greatest theological mind in our history.   In his last year he agreed to take on the Presidency of a small college in New Jersey, Princeton by name, and straightway died in his first month of smallpox.

Is Holy Communion, to paraphrase Pope Francis, to be understood as a reward for the perfect or medicine for the weak?

One of the statutes—this may sound odd to you—of one brand of practical theology so called today, is that for theology truly to be theology it must be utterly divorced from the life of the church.   As we begin, with Edwards, we note that his work arose exclusively within the experience of pastoral life, the demands of weekly preaching, and the rigor, the rigor of ministry on what was then the western front.

Rigor, he knew.


Friends, look about you.  Look around.  Listen.  All around you hear voices calling you to new life, rigorous life.  See and hear what is even more blessed than hours of video games, even more enjoyable than another tour of Facebook, even more beautiful than surfing the interweb (☺) even more serious than cyber-culture.


Many of you heard such a voice in the choir’s heroic singing last evening of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’.  I pity any who did not hear the singular power and powerful beauty of the music.  Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice unto him with righteousness.

Tower of Learning

Or just look around you for a moment.  It is cast in stone, in the architecture of Marsh Chapel, so like the Pittsburgh buildings, Heinz Chapel and the Tower of Learning, completed ten years before the beginning of plans for Marsh Chapel in Boston.  Daniel Marsh was from Pittsburgh.  We learn by imitation.  He was imitating what he saw and remembered. Pitt Tower of Learning:  They shall find wisdom here and faith – in steel and stone – in character and thought – they shall find beauty – adventure – and moments of high victory.


Or consider this week’s Boston University production of WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school.   Some years ago she wrote one play.   It was a success.  She was asked to write more, but she demurred.  ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade.  I have all I want to do with these young minds here.  One play is enough’.

Hers is about death and life, a sort of commentary on Romans, and on Romans 4.   The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program.  At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course.  Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care.  ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say.  ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.  Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma?  It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point.  For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Boston University’s Judy Braha gave a sterling, rigorous performance of Vivian Bearing at death, here on Tremont Street in Boston this past week:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest academic men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death.

Bob Dylan

Or think of Christopher Ricks of Boston University, after years of labor, who now has  published 960 pages of Bob Dylan’s poetry, the lyrics to his decades of songs.   I wonder how long it took?  You might want to read it in the Library since it weighs 13.5 pounds, is 13 inches square and three inches thick (NYRB 2/19/15).

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody ever thinks too much

About desolation row

Sometimes we have to hear something more than once.   I noticed for the first time this winter how the triads of the fruit of the spirit, in Galatians 5: 22, fall out in rhythmic cadence, one and two and three beat, step, syllable:  1. Love, Joy, Peace.  2. Patience, Kindness, Goodness.  3. Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control.

Rigor.  Yours is a rigorous spirit, Marsh Chapel.

Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Hope in the Wilderness

February 22nd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:9-15

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A Prayer for Boston from the Reverend James Martin, Jesuit priest, author, and editor: Almighty God, who made the green grass on the Fenway, the blue waters of Dorchester Bay and the tan sands on the Cape, we have a simple prayer: Enough with the snow already. Whatever mysterious point you’re making about endurance, or patience or your own awesome power, we get it: we’ve endured, we’re plenty patient and we get that you can do the snow thing. And we know that you know the old joke (since you know everything) about how if the Pilgrims landed in Florida first this part of the country would never have been settled, ha ha, but we love it here. We love the spring, especially on Boston Common. We love the Fall, especially in the suburbs. And we love the summer, especially on Cape Cod, on Cape Anne and on the South Shore. We love all those beautiful parts of your world. But we’ve had it with the snow. I mean, have you looked out my window? So we’d like to ask you to stop sending us the snow. And, just to be clear, when we say snow we also mean freezing rain, sleet, black ice, any kind of flurries and that new creation of yours thundersnow, We promise we’ll be good during Lent, we’ll be kind to one another, and won’t ask for another thing, at least until the Red Sox start to play. Amen.

You and I may have offered some variation of that prayer to God in the last month, especially last week when the weather prohibited us from meeting here in person.  Last Sunday I worshipped from my home office, on the second floor of my house that overlooks the street.  Wind wailing, snow blowing, I wrapped my blanket a little more tightly around me as I heard the steam heat rattling through the radiator, in sync with the wind whipping the windows in front of me.  Across the street a neighbor opened her window and slowly stretched out a broom to knock down heavy and thick icicles from the gutters, fearful of the prolonged strain on the house’s structure.  Perhaps for many of you, the roads to 735 Commonwealth Avenue were impassable, the routine journey to worship in the presence of a known community too risky to attempt.  Perhaps you too, sat, listened, and worshipped from your armchair, the melodic voices of the choir competing with the shrill wind and thundering snow plows.  Perhaps you also found comfort in the familiar voices, hymns, and word despite the white wilderness engulfing you.

In Boston this winter we have endured our own kind of wilderness.  Pummeled with storm after storm, snow rising to unbelievable heights, commuting whether by foot, car, bike or public transit nearly impossible, Bostonians somehow manage to continue onward day after day, week after week.  Two weeks ago on a Monday morning, my partner and I headed to the driveway yet again to shovel.  I started to pile the snow on the already higher than me snow piles on either side of the driveway, and I suddenly stopped, exacerbated and said, “This isn’t going to work.  There’s just no more room.”  Finally I decided to take the snow, one shovel load at a time, and carry it across the street to a smaller snowbank.  It took us double the time, but slow and steady was the only way to go at this point.  Here in Boston, we’ve needed to be a little more creative, a little more patient, a little more flexible, and a little more forgiving in order to brave these long winter days and nights.  We chip, chip, chip away at the icy block at the end of the driveway strongly built by the snow plow because we know we will make it out of the white wilderness soon.  Our hope rests in the promise of new life, warmth, sunshine, and green grass.  Our hope rests in the promise of spring.  You and I in Boston are insiders to this journey, and through a shared wilderness to find a common hope, we as Bostonians make the long trek together.

As outsiders in Mark’s gospel today, we see from beyond the moment at hand.  We are provided a glimpse into a very personal account of Jesus’ baptism – a voice from heaven projecting, the Spirit descending, and Jesus emerging.  Mother, son, and Spirit – the Trinity comes together for one snapshot moment breaking through the daily life on the river banks of the Jordan as if the world stood still for one quiet, perfect moment.  Jesus saw the heavens torn open; Jesus felt the Spirit fall down upon him; and Jesus heard his mother’s voice from above.  Nowhere does Mark say others witnessed Jesus’ personal encounters with the spirit and God.  Instead, Jesus’ baptismal experience was uniquely his own, and whatever happened in the brief moment between Jesus and the Spirit following his baptism, we don’t know except to simply say, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Mark’s wilderness is described in one short sentence in which an almost comical scene is set up.  Jesus is with Satan, the wild beasts, and angels.  It’s as if the red horned devil is sitting on his left shoulder and the white haloed angel on his right, both tugging at the human desires and impulses tucked deeply within the heart.  The devil whispers maliciously in Jesus’ ear, “ Nothing you can do will make a difference; you have a good life with a good family, so why would you risk that security and stability; nobody will listen to you; be comfortable and let someone else take this on.”  The angel letting out a long sigh simply repeats the familiar words to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Comical images aside, something resonates deeply within us when we think of being God’s beloved with whom she is well pleased.  These words echo the Genesis account of being created in God’s own image and the psalmist’s poetic prayer, who knew himself to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.  Each of us yearns for God’s love, desires to feel valued, and desperately seeks hope, the hope only found in God.

As outsiders, we don’t know the rainy wilderness through which the prophet Noah journeyed to dry land.  Like Jesus, he spent forty days away from the familiar. In a wilderness of water and rain, claustrophobia and confusion, darkness and despair Noah chose to put his trust in God despite the ridicule from those who scoffed at his building a gigantic arc. Noah clung to hope and endured the wilderness that eventually ended with a new promise of peace from God symbolized by the vibrant rainbow that stretched from generation to generation for all of humankind, all animals, and all plant life over the entire earth.  The covenant initiated by God in Genesis reached far and wide to the re-establishment of that same covenant through Jesus Christ from wilderness to wilderness, from Genesis to Gospel, from Noah to Jesus, from prophet to good news incarnate, faithful to constant, hopeful to hope filled, and pioneer to leader.

Sarah Kate Ellis, a modern day pioneer and President of GLAAD with two A’s, a queer rights organization, recently asked, “Where are the hearts and minds of Americans?”  Her question stemmed from the recent marriage equality victories in opposition to the increasing hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk, especially by prominent political and religious figures.  Ellis’ hope is that marriage is looked at as “the benchmark and not just the finish line,” since laws, while good and necessary, don’t change attitudes or biases.  After several polls geared toward answering her question about Americans’ hearts and minds, the responses were troubling.  About a third of respondents said they would feel unsettled if their child’s physician or teacher identified as LGB or T, and they would also feel uncomfortable seeing same sex couples holding hands.  Almost half said they would be uncomfortable bringing a child to a same sex wedding.   Even more disheartening, a public Religion Research Institute survey from a little over a year ago found that over half of respondents claimed sex between two men or two women is morally wrong.  Understandably polls are an imperfect science for data collection, but looking beyond the flaws, it’s evident the hearts and minds of many Americans aren’t in sync with their queer sisters and brothers.

With more and more states declaring the unconstitutionality of banning lesbians and gays from marriage equality, it is no surprise a strong and harsh backlash is upon us.  Alabama recently rejoiced in the most recent triumph of justice in which the Supreme Court chose not to block a ruling by a federal judge who recently declared the Alabama’s marriage restrictions as unconstitutional.  Sadly, not all those in Alabama joined in the celebration.  In angry defiance, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the State Supreme Court chose to defy federal law by commanding authorities to block the marriages, determined to resist marriage equality for all of Alabama’s citizens and encourage discrimination.  His actions have caused confusion and chaos for authorities and those seeking marriage, essentially dividing the state between those in favor and those against.  In response, Nicholas Kristoff in his New York Times opinion column recently asked “Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, God screwed up?”

How vast is the wilderness, how long, how wide, how deep that causes us to wonder if God screwed up, made a mistake, or regrets a part of her creation.  Even though you and I may know that we are God’s beloved, let us not forget the deeply personal journeys of many, where the glimmer of hope is too often dimmed by the heavy burdens of oppression and discrimination, by injustice and hate, by ex-communication and abandonment. Communal or personal the wildernesses seem unending and blinding, weary individuals pushing onward with silent cries of “help” meant for any who might listen or be willing to hear.  

Asking for help is a needed practice.  It’s too often portrayed as giving in or showing weakness.  In a society where we are taught to be strong and independent, help isn’t a word that comes naturally to us.  Yet, everyone needs help sometimes, like a woman who emailed me last week.  In one of her classes, a quiz was given in order to discover what implicit biases each person might have.  Pleased, she didn’t discover too much bias towards several groups of people, but results relating to one group in particular concerned her.  The bias she held towards LGBT folk worried her since she firmly believes in being full of Christ’s love and expressing that love to all people equally.  In an attempt to confront her biases and learn more about a community in which she hasn’t been immersed or knows very little, she reached out to me for help.  Her heartfelt honesty in writing and pushing the send button for this email combined with her self-reflective humility brought about a renewed and needed hope deep inside of me.  If one person could swiftly attempt to change biases in order to love more truly as God loves, who’s to say we all can’t take the time and energy for probing self-reflection as well.

Lent is meant to be a time for self-reflection and humility.  With Ash Wednesday behind us, our Lenten journey has begun, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, fight temptation, listen for God’s quiet voice, remember we are beloved, and seek hope.  We, too, fight temptations like Jesus – the red devil pulling at our human desires and the white angel tugging at the Spirit’s convictions placed on our hearts.  Lent is no different than any other season in this regard – temptations always abound, wildernesses come and go, and the snow falls every winter.  Yet Lent is unique in that it offers space carved out specifically for repentance, humility, and hope.   Lent is a time in which folks take on a practice or give up a bad habit in order to be more reflective, penitent, forgiving, and mindful of Jesus’ journey to the cross for our sake. In the still quiet place what will you find?  In the hushed silence to what is God calling you to do?

Looking back to Sarah Kate Ellis, the pioneer who is concerned with the hearts and minds of Americans, we recognize the hope she seeks, anticipates, and offers.  Though discouraging poll results, hurtful words thrown back and forth between religious leaders, hateful votes and bills approved by politicians, and continual violence, Ellis, encouraged by the progress the country has made, has a vision for what more good awaits.  What is her solution to changing the poll results and reaching hearts and minds other than waiting, through the passing of time? She wants to see more from the people who are wholly comfortable with gays to be more open about it, and in her words, to be more “evangelical” about it. Share the good news with others; be more open about the truth; and be the hope that marginalized communities so desperately need. It is interesting and noteworthy that Ellis uses the term “evangelical” – a word with Christian roots, that is associated with zeal and passion in proclaiming the good news of the gospel and the hope that’s found there.

In true evangelical fashion Jesus emerged from the wilderness, proclaiming good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Mark’s gospel offers no transition from the wilderness to the proclamation showing an urgency to Jesus’ ministry.  From quiet solitude to boisterous community, Jesus hit the ground running.  Triumphantly he fled the wilderness, escaping the temptations and loneliness to live out the hope he knew to be true inside of himself.  From personal to public Jesus took what he experienced at his baptism to enter the wilderness with humility and vulnerability and finally emerged to proclaim good news, offer renewed hope, and challenge the broken and destructive cycles around him.

While we can’t enter Jesus’ own personal wilderness, this Lenten season is a time to reflect on what wildernesses are around us through which we are wandering as insiders, those wildernesses that to us are deeply personal.  We are reminded of our mortality, sinfulness, and humanity as we hear once again that we are dust and will return to dust.  Symbolizing repentance on Ash Wednesday, the ashes stay with us through the day on our foreheads, a public display of the personal conviction.  These ashes stay with us the forty days of Lent – not visibly for all to see, but instead they are marked on our hearts.  The Lenten journey is only what we make of it if embraced as a time of self reflection, humility, and penitence.  The choice is ours whether to set aside quiet solitude during these next forty days.  In the still quiet place what will you find?  When the heart is opened to God, to what will you be called to do?

The temptation for all of us is to ignore the call to serve, to stand, to speak out, to challenge, to step out of our boundaries, and to help those in need.  The temptation is to believe God screwed up.  The temptation is to leave others stranded in the wilderness especially those with which we are outsiders, not offering a hand or the time to better understand another’s struggles.  The temptation is to keep our biases tucked away without working to let them go.  The temptation is to not ask for help or hear the cries from others.  The temptation is to lose hope or deny others hope.  The temptation is to believe the lies that we are not beloved or to tell those lies to others with whom God is so very well pleased.  The temptation is to temper the gospel, squash the good news, and put out the fires of the evangelical pioneers.

The wilderness is a place where we can take stock of our hearts and minds, choosing either to seek hope or despair.  Whether to find solace in indifference or determination.  Deciding to be a little more creative for the good of all people or only a few.  Allowing ourselves to be flexible in our thinking or rigid in our narrow beliefs.  Asking for help, offering help, or denying help.  Are you the one lending a hand, or a shovel, or a snowblower for the neighbor in need this winter?  Are you reaching out and using your voice for those marginalized, those wandering in the desert?  The wilderness has different meanings for different people yet we are all seeking the same hope in God fulfilled by Christ.

When faced with a choice, Jesus chose to accept the calling from God to offer his life to others and God in the service of those around him.  May we be mindful of his journey to the cross this Lenten season and may we seek hope in the wilderness.  As God’s beloved may we proclaim the hope of Christ through the wilderness.  May our prayer be this Lenten season, to align our hearts and minds to that of God’s loving will in the service of others.  Amen.

-Reverend Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate for LGBTQ & UCC Ministry

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

High Peaks

February 15th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 9:2-9

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Whence Saving Insight?

When and how does a moment of insight come?  What are the steps up along the mountain trails, the high peaks of life that give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter has just heard our Lord’s ageless command:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.”  Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs.  He sees what cannot be seen.  And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a gun-totting nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick’s verse, “rich in things and poor in soul”?

Today’s Gospel offers us a mountain view, clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness.  It’s five step program was inspired by Josiah Royce’s little Boston book of 1912, The Sources of Religious Insight.

In earshot of insight on the mountain of transfiguration…Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…and take, Come Sunday, a divergent road.  Insight is born in worship.

Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need.  Careful, step carefully here.  Here you recognize your mortality.  “It is a great life, but few of us get out alive.”  We truly do not know the hurts and needs others face.  Every heart has secret sorrows.  Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know.  Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread.  Here—step lightly—you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow.  One called this “the feeling of absolute dependence”.  Here we are confessional.  We say, “Hello.  My name is John Smith and I am an alchoholic.”  We say, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”  We say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.

The first time I was left alone with our first child, to give her mother a night out.  She had been the most pleasant of children, happy and bright, sleeping through the night.  She hardly cried.  But that hot August night, at the very moment the door closed and the car drove off, she began to wail.  Not to whimper or weep, but to wail and shriek and scream.  Five, twenty five, fifty minutes.  I was really shaken, terrified, angry and frustrated,  at my wit’s end, and probably at the edge of some irrational behavior.  Over the din of the howling daughter, I heard the doorbell.  In came our church’s lay leader, Bernice Danks, a veteran nurse and teacher of nurses at Cornell who wordlessly took the child and somehow the howling ceased.  “Oh, I like to make a few house visits a week.  It’s a little routine of mine…You know I tell my nursing students that we call the things that are most important, ‘routine’…and I came by the parsonage and for some reason I decided to stop.  I hope you don’t mind the intrusion…What a pleasant baby she is!”

Maybe in this winter of our snowy discontent, we who are more ambulatory, as we skitter through the snow, will realize how my friend Tim in a wheelchair confronts the drifts, and especially the iced, choked, formidable street corners.  Insight comes through an experience of personal need.

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, “will you visit from house to house?”  Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality.  We recognize personal need with every Sunday, at an Marsh Chapel with gusto, in confession and kyrie, cry for forgiveness.

Insight Over the River of Others’ Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another’s hurt.  Here, we’ll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other’s burdens like canoes carried in tandem.  A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another’s plight, and feel it in your heart.  Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others’ hurt.  It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others.   Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives.  Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, “so that’s what is like to be you…”

The social gospel tradition, theological and political,(Douglass, Anthony, Gladden, Rauschenbusch and others) may be criticized as a “johnny one note” presentation.  But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is one to pick.  Jesus means freedom.  Real religion is never very far from justice.  To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Men, listen to the women about whom you care, as they describe being pulled over on the highway in a winter night.  With red lights flashing…sirens wailing…car door thudding…a tall male figure in uniform and wide brimmed hat…a revolver in the belt… “May I see your license please?”…Men, listen to women.

Majority, listen to the minority describe the feeling of being stopped on the front porch step, at night, after a long day of menial work, and questioned, with Ferguson and Staten Island and other scenes in memory. Do you remember the New York tragedy of some years ago?  With the lights flashing and the uniforms and hats and, when you reach for your wallet some one yells.”Gun!”.  41 bullets later a tragedy—unintended to be sure—has occurred.  Not a gun but a wallet.  Such a tragedy for all.  But maybe such tragedy can begin to help all to gain insight, to begin to feel what others feel.  Majority, listen to minorities.

Insight comes through the life long common song that recognizes another’s hurt.

In February of the year 2015, perhaps, Elijah, a chair left open for him guarding a shoveled parking spot in south Boston, the spirit of Elijah that is, broods over the face of New England snow fields.   The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   You may not daily see Elijah.  But his spirit is present, in the stamina, perseverance and goodness of a good, prayerful, New England people.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, in four part harmony, to recognize that we are all in this together, especially on a Snow Day.

Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason.  “Come let us reason together” says the Psalmist.  God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to think through our use of freedom.  While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement—at home, at work, in church, in the community.  We say, “try to be reasonable”.  And reason often prevails.  If you ever doubt the power of reason to bring insight, remember the words of the Psalmist, and the voices of great minds through the ages.  Josiah Royce’s Sources of Religious Insight, is itself a gem of such reasoned discourse.  Come let us reason together…

Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you.  Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly.  Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices.  The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required.  The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

It takes something like this capacity to reason together to develop a healthy marriage.  On this snowbound weekend two beautiful couples, one yesterday and one this afternoon, take their vows right here in the nave of the chapel.  One couple met in the undergraduate BU class of 2006.  The other are post-docs, one from England and one from France.  (Welcome to Boston!) For better, for worse…To love and to cherish.  Well, to find a way to reason together.

Our BU assistant vice president of the Office of Marketing and Communications and executive editor of BU Today, Art Jahnke, kindly asked about the service and sermon this morning.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word (we hope) fitly spoken, as in, right now.

Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will.  Look before you leap.  We are here ever closer to the mountaintop.  Real insight comes in a moment of decision.  Some say we learn to choose.  But our experience is that we learn by choosing.  Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the “logotherapy” around this one conviction:  we grow by deciding.  Choose.  You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run.  Choose.  Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed.  Choose.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only.  First, faith is a decision.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.”

As Kierkegaard put it, “either\or”… Either God or not.  Decide.  Either you see God in Christ or not.  Decide.  Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not.  Decide.  Either every day is a chance for love or not.  Decide.  Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not.  Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You share with me a desire to honor those who have chosen to help us today.  Our choir and musicians, somehow present and accounted for.  Our support staff, Tim who shoveled out the plaza, and David who cleaned and warmed the sanctuary, and both who have come to worship! The dedicated choices over decades by Boston University, to support this broadcast, and WBUR to carry this broadcast, and our engineer Eddie to manage the broadcast, and our ushers in the back, our readers in the front, and all manner of friends in between.  Thank you.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation—to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit.  There.  Take a breath.  Up here, the air is rarified.  Up here, you may have a moment of clarity.  For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry.  Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience.  On the contrary!  Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will.  Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice.  Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose.Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty.  Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres

And real loyalty is magnanimous.  Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty.  At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own.  Maybe especially then.  US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee.  It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition.  We were once known for this kind of chivalry, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty.  I overheard this kind of chivalry from a local football player this week, a burly formerly bearded lineman, who said, “They played better than we did.”

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference.  Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements.  Loyalty has a magnanimous depth that honors others’ divergent loyalties.

One of the strangest turns in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 15.  After Paul has reached the very summit of our faith, and sings of the resurrection in such heavenly tones, then, immediately, he turns to—do you remember?—the collection!  A matter of loyalty.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

High Peaks

Several years ago, we worshipped in the tiniest church in our area.  A little Adirondack chapel, at the end of the trail, high up in the northern mountains.  Beyond Owl’s Head, and Chasm Falls and Wolf Pond, there is the summit of Mountainview, with its chapel and pump organ and wooden pews and simple pulpit, and humble service, still though a service like this one or any — a chance for saving insight as we recognize personal need, others’ hurts, the power of reason, the importance of will, the force of loyalty—in the prayer of confession, the music of community, the preaching of the Word, the invitation to decision, and the loyal offering of gifts.

This Lent:  Let insight abound on the curvaceous slopes of personal need!  Let insight abound on the majestic mountains of social holiness!  Let insight abound on the prodigious cliffs of reason and will!  Let insight abound on the purple mountain summit of loyalty—from every mountainview, let insight abound!  So that, to paraphrase the spiritual, we might sing, insight at last, insight at last, thank God Almighty, we have saving insight at last!

Somehow we were deluded to think that worship is optional.  Many things are optional.  For those, however, who desire to see life as human and keep life human, worship is essential, essential, essential to insight, essential to the insight that keeps life human.  How can we be human without seeing our own frailty, without knowing another’s pain, without learning to reason together, without the courage to decide, without the love of loyalty?  So let us improve in Lent.

Let us worship God together.  As you are doing, do so more and more.

Let us make it our earnest desire to worship God each Lord’s Day.

Let us make preparation for our ordered worship in daily prayer and reading.

Let us sing lustily, as Wesley taught, and pray with energy, and listen with care.

Let us do as OW Holmes regularly did with every sermon, ill or well though the sermon was:  “I applied it to myself”.

Let us shake off our timidity and seize every opportunity to include others, friend and neighbor and relative in worship.

Let us savor the memory of Sunday all week long—humming familiar verses, reciting familiar phrases, chewing on various themes.

Let us expect and experience of love, of presence, of God.

Let us enter silence with grace and song with freedom.

Let us prepare to worship, Lent 2015.

To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God

To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God

To Open the Heart to the Love of God

To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God

Words at the Kyrie Eleison

Confession in Snow:  2/15/15

Our Kyrie Eleison, and prayer of confession, are meant to open us to transformed, changed perspectives, to greet this as a day of new beginnings, to help us to think in a different way.  For example:  what if the Bible had been written in snowy New England rather than in the sunny Near East?


And God separated the snow banks from the snow banks, those from under the firmament, from those over the firmament, and God called the firmament heaven.  And there was evening and morning, a second day.

And Abraham took his huskies to drink by the frozen lake, and there met Rebecca, who came to break the ice and draw water.  And he said, “Pray, put down your pick ax and let me drink from the icy flow”.

And Pharaoh’s daughter saw a sled come by downhill, in which there was wrapped in a snowsuit, a little boy, named Moses.  Pharaoh’s daughter took him home, and warmed him by the fire.

After the children of Israel had skated across the frozen Blue Sea,  and Pharaoh’s army was in close pursuit, the Lord God sent a heat wave that melted the ice and Pharaoh, and his chariots and his army plunged down into the briny deep.

By the icicles of Babylon we sat down and wept as our tormentors said to us, sing to us one of the songs of Zion.

Save me O God!  For the avalanche has cascaded upon me…I have fallen into deep drifts and the snow sweeps over me.

Many snow drifts cannot bury love, neither can blizzards smother it.

Let Justice roll down like an avalanche, and righteousness as an unending blizzard.

I baptize you with snow, but One is coming who will baptize you with fire

Except a man be born of snow and the spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

God sends his snow upon the just and the unjust alike

The wise man built his house upon the rock.  The snow fell, and the blizzard came and the lake effect wind blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it was built upon the rock.

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

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The Bach Experience

February 8th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1: 29-39

Psalm 147: 1-11

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Reverend Hill

There come wintery episodes in the course of a snow battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become frozen, snowed in.

You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.

Over the years I have grown frustrated by my own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.  When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something so bone marrow close to my own life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith.  And he also I think was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language.  Anyway, you by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that I am lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…I can make my way…I can find a handhold or foothold…I can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here we want to underscore Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Dr Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Jarrett

BWV 1 was written for Sunday, March 1725. By it’s date, it concludes Bach’s Second Yearly Cycle (Jahrgang) of cantatas written for liturgical purposes in Leipzig. Following the pattern of many from that second cycle, the piece is named for and draws inspiration from a great chorale tune, in this instance, one by Philip Nicolai ‘Wie schön leuchtet’ — we Methodist sing this chorale as #247 ‘O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright’. The tune is featured prominently in long high notes in the soprano throughout the first movement in one of Bach’s most opulent Chorale Fantasias. The final chorale is the same tune as well.

Liturgically and theologically, March 25, 1725 presented Bach and the clergy with a rarity: the movable feast, Palm Sunday, coincided with a fixed feast, the Annunciation of Mary. Officially, BWV 1 is listed as for the Annunciation of Mary, though there is good ‘King’ language through the piece. In general, the cantata’s text and music celebrate Christ’s coming both as King entering Jerusalem, and with ‘eastern opulence’ of the anticipated birth of the King. Pairs of violins, English horns, and French horn contribute to this opulence and richness of texture in a cantata so highly regarded that the first publishers of Bach’s collected works listed this as BWV 1 in the initial volume of the Bach-Gesellschaft.

It is unbridled in joy and praise, heard in hearty dance rhythms befitting the celebration of the coming and the entrance of the King….

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Reverend Hill

Given the wintery snares, cold air illness, icy night terrors, and snow bound disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of our lessons, particularly our psalm, one of the great trusting hymns of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning.  Beauty can heal.

Our psalmist, our singer is a person of simple faith.  We could make many complaints about this hymn and its singer.  He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world.  He has a way of implying that trust, or belief, are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses, and we know to be untrue.  He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside.  He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future.  He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be.  As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of psalm 147 fails.  He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith.  He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet… for those who have walked past a February graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world at war, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song:  “the Lord heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.

Our writer is not a philosopher.  He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker.  He has one interest:  getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home.  So he does not worry about the small stuff.  In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is a bit desperate.  His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump.  You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed.  Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk?  You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith?  Our writer is at that point, the point of decision.  Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need.  Fear not’  The Lord is not interested in ‘the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner’. Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, every one be convinced in his own mind.

I remember a Day Care center where I used to see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of daycare toddlers.   This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger.  When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith.  Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find along the way.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

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


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

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

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The Marsh Spirit

February 1st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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One:  Black History Month

First.  Those listening from afar might want to know that Old Man Winter visited Boston this week.   Those of you in Paris, Buenos Aires, San Diego, Tokyo, Beijing, London, Charlotte, Buffalo, and Miami who have connected with the Marsh Spirit in liturgy, music and homily, and support us from afar, might want to know that we have had a blizzard here.  On Tuesday, in the thick of it, I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, grateful for the hard work of BU staff who kept roads and sidewalks and the Marsh Plaza clear.  I saw, but then thought I was mistaken, that our new coffee shop across from CAS appeared to be open.  It was!  Then I knew the truth of the wisdom saying that essential and emergency services in Boston include the police, the hospitals, the fire department—and Dunkin Donuts (☺).

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue,  wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan, even secular spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture, but Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Secularity  is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life.  And today, the Secular.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture.

It is in the ordinary, the extraordinary ordinary of early February, in the ordinary of Capernaum, the ordinary of the synagogue, the ordinary of teaching and learning—that of a sudden, it can be, there is amazement, and healing, and trust.  What is this—the Markan secret unfolds.  Capernaum—at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee—of the gentiles, those coming to faith.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure–Challenge and change—a costly discipleship.  Fame spreading now, but a fickle crowd and a fickle fate await—the crucified Christ. A maniac healed—apocalpytic encounter.  (Remember the 5 fingers of the Markan gospel).

Voices come in many tones.  Sandy F Ray.  Gardner Taylor.  James Forbes.  Edgar Evans Crawford.  Howard Thurman.  Sojourner Truth.  Harriet Tubman.  And some closer to us in time and space, some closer to home.  Nikki Giovanni gave us creation in January.  February is Black History Month.

Some deep winters ago later, Jan and I drove with a few others down to the Eastern shore of Maryland.  We went there to attend the funeral services for our friend, and Bishop, Violet Fisher’s father, William Henry Fisher, who at age 87 had died early on a Sunday morning, after he had gone over to his church to turn up the heat and ready the sanctuary for worship.  It was important for our congregation to be represented in bodily support of our Bishop, whom we love.  But it was more important, for Jan and for me, to be with a friend, at the time of leave-taking.  After all, all the other departures of life, with their laughter and tears and valedictions, foreshadow the final departure.  So the benediction closing our weekly hour of worship.

We traveled easily following our map and directions.   Because I had a sense that we could do even better than the given directions, I took some alternate routes on the Peninsula.  In fact, these alterations, mid-course corrections, did not make the trip down any shorter.  We were not altogether lost.  Certainly not disoriented enough to actually stop and ask directions.  Nothing of that sort.  Just an hour or two of further sightseeing.  Anyway, since we had already gone out of our way on the way down, I just followed the directions home.  Jan slept, and as the sun set, it fully dawned on me just how much our dear friend had left behind to be in ministry with us. Not all the stories of Black History Month are played out on a global stage The scene from Mark is an idealized one.  Yet, over time, the Voice still calls to command, and, over time, people of faith summon the courage to leave, to change, to turn.  To leave the south for the north.  To leave home for others.  To leave family for ministry.  To leave dad for the joy of service.  To leave the energetic black church for the earnest white church.  To leave the lengthy eclectic worship for formal, liturgical order.  To leave familiar foods and sounds and rhythms and sights for a colder clime.  To leave, to leave.  “Immediately they left their nets”.  How lightly we weigh others’ sacrifice.  It takes courage, a gift of faith, to turn and move, and itinerate.   It is isn’t only the globally known people who make a difference.  My colleague Phil Amerson reminded me this week of the line in Middlemarch:  Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great.  It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”  In ministry we remember to honor the hidden lives and remember the unvisited graves.

Two:  Presidents’ Day

Second.  Paul exhorts his feisty Corinthians to watch for what causes another to stumble.  ‘If it causes my brother to stumble, I shall not do it.’  He makes an even broader claim.  The point of life is not to know but to be known.   One is known by God in love, and that is the point, not to know but to be known.   We know a lot.  But when it comes to life, to the big things of life, to sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness, we have to go on faith not on sight, and if we think we know we do not know.   Our recollection of the guiding Presidents in deep winter Lincoln and Washington, who had to step out with faith, brings a dim reflection of the truth in holy, ancient writ.  Washington freezing at Valley Forge.  1777. Lincoln shot in the Ford theater. 1865.  One God from whom and one Lord through whom.  We are trying, every trying, to keep a sense of cultural humility, in and through the strains of history.  February is the month of the Presidents, as well as Black History Month.  These two may be distinguished without being set in opposition.  We honor those who served and so built our country.

As the 1991 Gulf War began, we were meeting on Sunday nights, moving from apartment to apartment, with a group of graduate students.  I remember very little about this fellowship, from more than 20 years ago, other than its convivial spirit, its population by forestry students—know as ‘stumpies’—and it production over time of several marriages.  It also produced the single most unusual love “poem” I have heard, which came in the aftermath of a summons to leave.  Keith met Amy in this group.  They were both stumpies and both competitive lumberjacks and both very bright and very attractive young people.  One night Keith was extolling the glories of ‘his girl’, to a few of us—her beauty, diligence, kindness, spirit.  She came from a large family farm near Cooperstown and he from a similar farm in Medina.  Keith offered his love poem, reminding us that they had met in the lumberjacking competition.  With eyes glazed over, voice low and loving, with heart pouding, to all the rest he added:  “and she is also a great lumberjack…and man can she chop!”

I had their wedding in Hartwick Seminary some years later.  I think of the two of them as two of the finest young people that the Empire State has produced.  Like the early church, I remember almost nothing of detail, expect the word, “chop”.  A pungent saying, like, “fishers of men”.  In those winter months of 1991, Keith bade farewell to us, as a member of the Air Reserve.  He was summoned and he summoned the courage to serve. I honor even revere his courage to turn, to change, to leeave.  You and I know that many others today, some from our own extended family, have also summoned that kind of courage.   In ministry, we recognize the crucial importance of face to face groups.

Three:  Groundhog Day

Third.  The Book of Deuteronomy, the second law, or the second rehearsal of the law contains very little that  has not already been written in the other Books of Moses.  Hence ‘deutero’.  At the heart of our reading there is embedded a firm conviction of the possibility of speaking and hearing.  Something can be said, and something can be heard.  We carry some seasoned doubt in our time about this.  There is after all so much said and so much to hear.  We are awash in endless, cacophonous information.  But here, as in the gospel of Mark, the ancient writer rings a bell, sings a song, tells a tale with confidence in the possibility and power of real speaking and realm hearing.  The reading ends with what we might rephrase as a clear warning not to go against your own conscience.  You trust the prophet whose words come true.  And your voice, day by day, can bring an intervening, prophetic word (Numbers 11: 29)  In ministry, we live to serve the living Word.

That afternoon of blizzard snow this week several waves of memory swept in.  We were raised in 200 inches of snow a year.  The day’s cascade and nevada brought alive the clear memory of the full liberty snow brought us, in those far off years and humble villages.   Snow brought a physical liberation to 11 year olds and others.   The freedom to hike and walk unencumbered and alone, in a cold wonderland.  The freedom, sled in hand, to go over to Library Hill, then up and down and up and down until the street lights came on.  The freedom to skate on the Swan Pond or elsewhere, to play hockey there, to glide and cut and shoot.  The freedom to build forts, tunnels, caves, hideouts in the mammoth drifts.  The freedom of play, fully alive on a Snow Day (someone should write a book about it), and partly available every winter day.  In 1966 we had something like 2 weeks off from school, in the blizzard of that year.   No one wanted to hunt you down in the bitter cold of January, so you were free, free to do what you wanted until you were frozen solid.   Then home to sit on top of the heat register and thaw out.  Groundhog Day is the best holiday of the year, and comes in the month of February.

That year spring did come, at long last, as it does most years.  Enjoy the winter.  Spring has its own rigors.  One May afternoon, with some early summer warmth and a garden about to go in, with school winding down and summer opening up, my Mother had me sit on the back stoop of our parsonage.   Spring brings change, following the freedoms of winter.

Now Bobby I want to tell you something.  Your sisters don’t know yet.  We have lived here in this house since before you really remember, and it has been a good place.  Most places are good, and most people are good, too, once they come to trust you.  That’s one thing you learn in life.  Most people are good people.

I paid as close attention as I could, given my desire to get over to the lot and play baseball.  It all seemed a little odd.

Anyway, son, I need to tell you something.   This will not sound like a good thing but it is a good thing, and believe me when I tell you it will be fine.  We are going to move.  We are going to leave this house in June.  We are moving to another town.

Now I was listening.  And now I heard words I did not fully understand.  Move.  New house.  Bishop.  Itinerant system.  Annual Conference.  And also I found I could not see very clearly.  Something was in my eyes.  My eyes were getting blurry and wet and red and I could not see too well.

But Bobby it will go fine.  I promise.  You will find new friends.  You will have a new school.  You will have your own room.  You will see.  When school starts in the fall, you will be excited to go to a big, new school.  And it will all go well.  I will be there.  Your dad and I will make sure it goes fine.  I promise.  I will need your help with your sisters and little brother.  I know you will help, won’t you?

And so it was.  The word came true, as Holy Scripture says the word of a real prophet does.  It all worked out fine.  Why some have trouble hearing the divine voice in soprano or alto tones I have never understood.  The prophet spoke and it came to pass.

We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  We are in God’s hands.  So it behooves us to share one another’s sorrows.  We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.

We believe in God:

who has created and is creating,

who has come in the true person Jesus,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others

by the Spirit.


We trust in God.


God calls us to be the Church

The Body of Christ:

to celebrate Christ’s presence,

to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.


In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

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

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

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The Courage to Turn

January 25th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:14-20

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A.    The Church Forms the Story

Do you feel like you are loosing your grip on the pigskin of life?  Do you sense that you are loosening your grasp on the football of existence?  Do you wonder if the air has gone out of you?  That you are a couple of spiritual pounds of air pressure short of divine regulation?  In a word, if I may, do you experience a little late January…deflation?  Aiming at conflation and avoiding inflation with others across the nation do you experience deflation?  Do questions keep hounding you, even after you have repeated:  ‘I don’t know.  I have told you everything I know.  No. Nope.  No Sir.  No.’ (No, no, never, never…) Are you lower than a wet, deflated, muddy, cold football in the bowels of Gillette Stadium? :-)

Well then, tune in for 20 minutes, turn on for 2100 words and hear the good news in 7 verses!  Turn to something ancient, good, holy and true:  Mark 1: 14-20.

The passage from Mark read a moment ago looks back forty years.

Mark is writing in the year 70 or so.  Jesus ministry in Galilee begins in the year 30 or so.  What is remembered across four decades?  (What do you remember about January 1975? What do you remember from forty years past?)

Very little.  Nothing about the time of year in which Peter and Andrew found the courage to turn, to leave their nets.  Nothing about the precise setting in which they chose to turn and follow.  Nothing about the manner of their discourse  with the Master.  Nothing about the reactions of families.  Nothing about the effect on the fishing business.  Nothing about what caused, in this idealized recollection, such a sudden change.  No, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, as at its middle and at its end, we hunt in vain for clear memory of Jesus.  The Gospels allude to the history of Jesus but they are not written to tell the history of events forty years past.  And, in fact, they do not.  A reading of the Gospel that tries primarily to upend the Gospels for such an alien agenda, misses the meaning of their message.

Because.  The scene before us today is an idealized memory, the memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  The story told today comes out of, is, as the wise men say, formed by, the church forty years later, shaped and formed by the church of the year 70, for reasons quite other than interest in history or biography or hagiography.  The Gospel has bigger fish to fry than the Tiberian fish of April 30ad in the nets of Aramaic speaking laborers.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the crucified.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure in faith—the church formed our text out of its own early experience.

The Gospel is not about Jesus, it is about you.

Today’s passage was formed in the life of the early church.  Somewhere in the lost past, all of the detail now worn away like the memory you do not have of what you were doing, eating, wearing, saying, fearing, praying in January of 1975, somewhere in the lost past something happened over time to bind Simon and Andrew to Jesus.  The church needed to remember this, and so, in this idealized, skeletal, and didactic way, the church did so.   What is remembered, with accuracy or without, is recalled to meet a pressing need in the fragile life of a suffering church (repeat).  If we miss this formative effect of the church on this material—the material mattered to a church struggling with the grim and glorious matter of life and death—then we miss the point.  Then the sacred Scripture becomes even for the church what it becomes in other settings—parlor game fodder, material for debate over beer and skittles.  But for us, here, the Scripture is the very Word of God.

Something frightening and powerful is at work here.

What crying need does the church experience, in the years near 70ad that occasions the forming of this scarecrow text?  Why would the church want, at the very outset of the Gospel, to remember the hurt of leaving, and its requirement of the courage to turn?  Think about the hurt of leaving.  It hurts to leave.

Life in faith means difficulty.  It hurts to leave the womb.  It hurts to have those first teeth leave their gums for the daylight of dinner and dentistry. (My friend the dean of Dentistry and I introduced ourselves one evening on an elevator, to which our fellow traveler replied—“Great.  Here I am riding along with the two things I hate most, dentistry and religion!”) It hurts to watch your daughter get on the bus and leave for kindergarten. It hurts to see your son take the family car and leave for the evening with a young woman you do not know well or fully trust.  We have been around college towns all our lives: it hurts to leave your parents and go in the dorm, to carry the sweaty boxes up the stairs, to fiddle with room arrangements.  Here at BU on Labor Day, it gets to the point that I can not look at the same repeated scene: a dad and mom, hugging their boy goodbye, and leaving town.  It was a holy, frightening, powerful scene.  Like our Bible reading today. Now that we have physically left home and in are in college, say, we may need to turn, to turn our minds and hearts and souls toward the challenge of this new situation, really to turn, to leave home in spirit as well as body.  The fall term freshman year you physically leave home.  But now the snow is falling. The spring term freshman year you spiritually leave home.  You begin to fashion another part of your identity.  What an adventure!

The Bible is not about some oddball potpourrie of cluttered historical facts regarding fishing rights near Capernaum in the first century.  The Bible has bigger fish to fry.  Even regarding fish the Bible has bigger fish to fry, as Gershwin said of Jonah, which is the outreach edge, the evangelism and ecumenical high water mark of the Prophetic tradition, the inclusion even of the Ninevites:”

It ain’t necessarily so

He made his home in that fish’s abdomen—

It ain’t necessarily so

Today’s story is about turning.  The gospel gives the courage to turn.

 Somehow, in the life of the early church, leaving became an issue for attention.   How could it not?  Look at all the leave-taking in the formative early period.  Jesus leaves life.  Peter leaves Galilee.  Andrew leaves home.  Paul leaves Judaism.  The church leaves Palestine.  Every time they turned around, someone was leaving nets.  Someone was turning.  Someone was turning up, turning around, turning out, turning down, turning.  To everything there is a season—turn, turn, turn.

The church remembered or crafted this scene out a dire need to teach disciples that discipleship bears a certain cost, and a certain cast: now and then one is invited to summon the courage to turn.  The life of faith is an adventure, but an arduous one.   Faith, the gift of grace, when accepted and lived will ineluctably lead to risk.  Risk is a part of what we mean by faith. 

 B.    Mark Tells the Story

Returning to Mark for a teaching moment.  We have followed Luke in 2013 and Matthew in 2014.  Now the lectionary guides us through Mark.  Notice, as you have in other settings five personal interests, five finger prints, present in this first chapter, but carried through the length of the Gospel, which you will hear this year:

1.     A Secret

Mark’s messianic secret is a reminder to us that following the Christ means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the unforeseen future, the ready and easy for the unknown.  His is not a cozy Christ.  His Christ is One who calls upon us to summon the courage to leave. (1:24, 1:34, 3:12, 1:43, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26, 8:30, 9:9, 7:24, 9: 30, 10:48 [total 12, at least])

 2.     Galilee of the Gentiles

The interest in evangelism, out of which the Gospel is written, is imprinted upon us in this very early passage.  When you hear Galilee, think un-churched, think, outsider, think the nations, think the unreligious.  With Paul, Mark asserts that Christ had died for the ungodly.

 3.     The Cost of Discipleship

Mark reminds us that transformation begins with the courage to leave.  The moment of letting go and leaving is both awesome and agonizing.  Ask Abraham, Sarah, Moses; ask Amos, Micah or Jeremiah; ask Peter, Andrew or James; ask Paul, Silas or Barnabas.

4.     Jesus Christ, Crucified

The suffering that Jesus endured was to be a watchword and warning for the first Christians.  Mark teaches in this passage that at the very outset of the journey there is the experience of loss and bereavement that comes with leaving, changing, with turning

5.     Apocalyptic Right Side Up

In sayings like this (‘I will make you fishers of men’)—in the calling of disciples, there is a harbinger of what is to come.  Mark tries to put the Christian hope right side up, (perhaps correcting for his community, the reading today from 1 Cor. 7, a time grown short and a form passing away), culminating in the warning of Mark 13 that of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father only.

Here is the Gospel hand reaching for you in 2015—holding a secret, loving the Gentiles, counting the cost, preaching the cross, right-wising apocalyptic.

C.  We Are Invited to Live the Story

It is not just the church that formed this passage that knew about turning.  It is not just the Evangelist who tells the story of departure that knew about turning.  We too know about turning.  Leaving nets, neighbors, niceties.           It takes a courage to turn.  Students live and know this.

From 40 years ago I recall a courageous Spanish student, Guzman Garcia Arribas, who turned away from Francisco Franco and turned toward a freer life.  From 30 years ago I recall a graduate Syracuse Forestry student, Keith Parr, who turned from studies to service with his Air National Guard in the Gulf War.  From 20 years ago I recall an architecture student, Barry Jordan, who turned and traveled with us in mission to Honduras.  From 10 years ago I recall a BU undergraduate, David Romanik, who left the nets of historical study to turn to ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Last week we remembered the struggles of Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, who found the courage to turn enshrined in the best of our traditions:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents go awry

And lose the name of action

The courage to turn is the courage to lay hold, to register, to sign up, to rent to buy, to take on real weight.

To lay hold of faith, you may just have to turn.  You may have to leave the nets, or leave the nest.  To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past.  To lay hold of life we may need to summon the courage to leave.  To leave the inherited for the invisible.  To leave the general for the particular.  To leave existential drift for personal decision.  To leave the individual for the communal.  To leave renting for ownership.  To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough.  It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!)  To leave engagement for marriage.  (Where is Engagement Ohio?  Half way between Datin’ and Marryin’) To leave intimacy for pregnancy.. And that takes the courage to turn.

Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk.  As D. Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

And A. Schweitzer:  “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 words: “Follow thou 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.”

And E. Kasemann said, “Faith means a continuous exodus from established positions.”

In the exquisite recent film, The Theory of Everything, there comes a moment to turn.  Said his first wife, as she turned away from him, to Steven Hawking:  I have loved you…

It takes courage to turn–to morning prayer, to daily study, to weekly worship, to monthly giving, to yearly faithfulness.  It takes a kind of courage to turn, to get up from a dormitory bed on Sunday morning, and file past all the sleeping sleepers, and get ready, and walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and find a seat in the back of the chapel, and bow for prayer.

A courage to turn, to turn away, to turn again, to turn out, to turn up.   To take another turn:  in a relationship, in a church membership, in a roommate relationship, in an abusive relationship.  Have we the courage to turn

As a society, when shall ever find the courage to turn away from gun violence?  Again this week, in Boston, we have ample reason to ask, and ample reason to seek the courage to turn, to turn away, to turn a corner, to turn round right.   People know this.  85% of Americans agree that back ground checks should be used for purchases at gun shows.  And:  81% of gun owners agree.  When will we ever learn?  When will we ever learn?  As a people we await the courage to turn.

Today’s Gospel comes from a church that held onto a memory of departure, from the evangelist who reflected on departure, and from a recognition in our own experience that includes the courage to depart, to leave, to turn.

When true simplicity is gained

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

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

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The Embodiment of Goodness

January 18th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 1:43-51

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Many of you will remember the stories about Jesus calling his twelve disciples to follow him. As reported in this morning’s gospel reading, Philip was so impressed with meeting Jesus and being asked to join his movement that he did what any one of us would have done. In a very excited manner, he passed the word onto another namely Nathaniel saying,  “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”   

Nathaniel was not immediately impressed but responded skeptically saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a prejudiced question because the answer is implied in the question. Philip seemingly ignored the question and simply responded by saying, “Come and see,” clearly implying that after meeting Jesus he would change his mind. And, accordingly, that is what happened. Soon after meeting Jesus, Nathaniel confessed that he was the son of God; the King of Israel. Meeting the man himself had purged him of all his prejudices.

Now, we can rightly assume that many asked a similar question when they first heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. who came out of the racially segregated ghetto in Atlanta known as “Sweet Auburn.” Can anything good come out of Sweet Auburn? Or more generally, can anything good come out of America’s black ghettoes? The most convincing response is, “Come and see.”

I first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1959  in Athens, Ohio at the founding meeting of the National Christian Student Federation of North America. He was then only thirty years old and already known internationally for his successful leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That conference became a launching pad for students as they entered the decade-long struggles for moral transformation in the churches, universities, and the military industrial complex symbolized by the War in Vietnam. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Needless to say, I was happy to be part of that generation where most of us seemed to view ourselves as agents of social change.

Many asked the question then “can anything good come out of a coalition of Christian and secular students allied with the civil rights struggles of black Americans, guided by the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., the spiritual music of ancestral African slaves, and the theme song of uncertain origins,  “We Shall Overcome.” The only answer then and now was, “come and see.”

Clearly, the good in history is always ambiguous. What is good for some is not good for all. The legal, social, and political progress of the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, was good for the growth of the black middle class but not good for those millions of blacks who were left behind to stagnate in the isolated cauldrons of the nation’s inner cities. There they are identified collectively as social pariahs. They comprise disproportionate numbers of the homeless and  jobless, drug addicts and dealers, armed criminal gangs who kill and abuse one another as a way of life. Many rightly view our inner cities as war zones where no one trusts anyone and very limited resources are made available to heal the social and psychological pathologies that flourish in that environment.

Tragically, both the residents and the law enforcement officers view each other as irreconcilable enemies. That mutual disrespect has led to widespread killings of unarmed blacks by the police which in turn has given rise to a new social protest movement inspired by such tragic symbols of defeat such as “Hands up; don’t shoot;” “I can’t breathe;” and such  novel practices as  “die-ins.”   The names and images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner  Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley have become the embodied symbols of this movement’s protest against the police,. Yet, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s twitter lists 76 unarmed blacks who were killed in police custody between 1999 and 2014. That list includes nine black women. Hopefully, such names as Sharisse Francis of NY, Shantel Davis of Brooklyn, Aiyana Jones of Detroit, Tarika Wilson of Lima, Ohio, Miriam Carey of Washington, D.C. and more will gain public visibility alongside their brothers.

Let me hasten to say that numerous moral issues attend these cases of alleged police violence that cry out for public redress. Needless to say, perhaps, much needs to be done to transform an assumed war zone into a civil space of mutual respect and trust between police and citizens. In my judgment, that can only be done by eradicating poverty in our inner cities and cleansing those urban spaces of stigma. Ending poverty  was one of the unmet goals Martin Luther King, Jr. set for his first March on Washington in 1963 as well as the second March on Washington that he was planning at the time of his assassination.

Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, blacks had viewed racial discrimination and segregation as a moral, social, legal, economic, political, and spiritual problem that required a comprehensive approach for its solution. Thus, the combined force of his moral insight, academic knowledge, theological wisdom and rhetorical skill combined to convince many that the depth and breadth of the problem constituted a malignancy that would surely destroy the nation itself if it were left unchecked.

The residue of that same problem remains deeply embedded in this nation’s fabric and wholly confirmed by the experiences of all African Americans regardless of our wealth, power or social standing. We all know that we are perceived as actual or potential threats to white America’s psychological ethos that forces it into a permanent posture of self-defense.

Now, truly good actions need to be interpreted so as to reveal their moral, political and spiritual significance. That is what Dr. King did so well and why his words have become such an enduring global treasure. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Our present situation longs for a similar interpreter. Those who claim that we have no need for such are grossly mistaken.

Clearly, the cause of our present problems is the same as those Dr. King confronted. Alas, effective cures have not been found for every malignancy whether  biological or social.

Clearly, all who shun the spiritual dimension of the struggle for racial justice fail to understand the depth of the problem we face.  It is a problem deeply rooted in our nation’s spirit: one that laws alone cannot solve; that days of service alone cannot correct; that protests alone cannot cure; that education alone cannot heal; that incarceration alone cannot repair; that jobs alone cannot restore; that wars on drugs alone cannot eradicate.

As with every spiritual problem the answer lies in bringing the human spirit into conformity with the spirit of God who alone is able to usher in a new world order; one shaped by the universal principles of love and justice the embodiment of which constitutes what is truly good. Those who have seen its embodiment must do what Philip told Nathaniel to do: “Come and see.”  Such a prophet is greatly needed in our day. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied that goodness fifty years ago. Let us pray for the coming of a new embodiment of that much needed goodness in our day.

- The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Paris, Walter G. Muelder Visiting Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology

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