The Bach Experience

September 27th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

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Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

Alumni Weekend itself is a two level drama, a stereoptic, bifocal collision of past and present, of hope and fear, of what we expect on the one hand, and what we experience on the other, expectation and experience never quite becoming equivalents.

On Alumni Weekend you walk past a classroom where you heard something new. As was once said by a famous baseball player, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again’. You see a teacher’s office where you learned the hard news about a midterm result. You pass by a tree under which you hugged or kissed your then boyfriend or girlfriend.   Your memory is quickened by the spatial, locational power of a sunset on a river, or a trolley bell ringing, or the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. You watch and you see.

As Yogi Berra also said, ‘You can observe a lot just by watching’.

But all these memories are held in a new way, in a second level recollection, that of today as today looks at yesterday.   You enter a restaurant and where others simply see a television, you see a television on which you watched and heard 7th BU President John Silber interviewed in 1980 on 60 minutes by Mike Wallace. You look out over Nickerson field while others watch soccer, and you remember a football game. (Oops…). You sit in Marsh Chapel as the sermon meanders on toward its inevitable conclusion, or what you hope will be its proximate conclusion, but you hear some other voice once uttered here, or a song once sung here, or a prayer once dropped with a full heart into the prayer request box.

Three honored alumni yesterday spoke in this manner. ‘BU became my passport’. ‘At BU I grew up’. ‘Here I was taught that the authority of the highest idea should prevail over the idea of the highest authority’. (Not who has the idea, but what idea is best; not power but truth.)

Time and space are not quite as absolute in determination of our being as sometimes we think. It helps to have a bifocal, stereoptic vision, a two level drama, of sorts.

That is the nature of the New Testament, shot through from Matthew to Revelation with apocalyptic language and imagery. Our Holy Scripture, both Holy and Scripture, is both heaven and earth.   It is both sacred and secular, at the same time, both divine and human. Its Word walks with human feet and sings with divine voice. Its word faces earth: Syria—200,000 dead, 4 million refugees, 7 million dislocated. Its word sings with a divine voice: each one of these is a child of the living God.

(By the way, the apocalyptic warnings of Mark 9 are not to be taken literally. We know this. We know about hyperbole. Even the convoluted hyperbole of a famous ballplayer describing a once favorite restaurant: ‘Nobody goes there any more—it’s too crowded’. Let us pause one good moment to recognize that, and why, we do not understand the Bible as utterly inerrant and divine. The Bible is inspired and so inspires us, and is our first point of reflection, prototypical but not archetypical—first but not exclusive in the church’s long history of the search for truth. These verses, harsh and judgmental, need careful interpretation. So Matthew cuts half of them, in his use of Mark 20 years afterward. So Luke cuts all of them in his use of Mark 25 years later. Even Mark himself shifts the weight from fear to hope, even in this passage, as he wrestles to interpret what he has inherited, from whatever source: be salt, have peace among yourselves, who is not against us is for us.)

So it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music, that begins its life as an ornament of secular gaiety, that began its life as music by which to feast and dance and revel. It began as joy. And then it was transformed, so that ‘our joy could be complete’ (Jn 15:11).

Charles Wesley wrote hymns, many of which we still sing, and found the music, the melodies and harmonies, in the sung music of his day, did he not? St John of the Cross, the greatest of Spanish mystics, whose poetry strikes the heart to this day, composed his lyrics with the help of Italian, pastoral love poetry, did he not? The author of the Song of Solomon, who wrote a torrid, fierce, erotic ballad of human of love, would perhaps have been bemused to see how quickly Judaism made of it by analogy the love of God for the covenant people, and how quickly Christianity by analogy made of it the love of Christ for his church, we she not?

In our time, wherein the attempt to embrace the secular with the sacred, to express a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith, to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, has become so marginal, pitiable, nearly a lost cause, of a sudden, this Sunday, Come Sunday, we have Bach’s secular music magically, alchemically made sacred, in this beautiful 18 minute poem. For all our fears, of heaven and of earth, it does ring out a note of hope, does it not?

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen today, we who remember St. Augustine’s proverb, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage’?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Dean Hill.

(Dr. Jarrett)

Dean Hill….

This year at Marsh Chapel, our annual cantata series surveys Bach’s musical-sermons for Easter, beginning today with Cantata 66: ‘Rejoice, you hearts, fade away, you sorrows.’ Our cantata dates from Bach’s first year as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a period of remarkable industry and accomplishment. Bach’s greatest achievement in those weeks was surely the composition and first performance of the St John Passion heard just days before the cantata we perform this morning. For Easter Sunday morning that year, Bach revived an earlier work – Christ lag in Todes Banden, which we will perform later in this series. For Easter Monday, he again drew on earlier material, written in 1718 for the birthday celebrations of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. With a reordering of movements, the addition of a final chorale, and fitted with a new text, the resultant cantata marks the splendor of Easter with great joy, dance, and, as we shall see, no shortage of the human dialectic – hope and fear.

Bach’s text was the story of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus from the 24th chapter of Luke. As you’ll recall, the story depicts some fairly thick-headed disciples, in shock over the fate of their Jesus rebellion, and still grief-stricken from his betrayal and ultimate demise. Only when the traveler breaks bread with them do they realize he is their risen Lord.

Marsh Chapel congregants have come to understand that the cantatas, just like sermons, follow a structure, not just musically – choruses, recitatives, arias, and chorales – but also theologically: from opening an chorus of praise and joy, to more explicit exegesis from soloists, moving toward reflection on the human condition both personal and corporate. Typically, the cantata concludes with a four-part chorale setting attaching the newly composed music to cherished and beloved hymns of the faith.

The key element of the older cantata from 1718 was a dialog of two allegorical characters, Bliss and Fame. For Easter Monday 1724, these characters became Fear and Hope. And in their material, we find the central human predicament – a willing spirit, thwarted by the will of the flesh; a spiritual aspiration weighed down by a human frailty; the promise of redemption tinged by doubts that we are unworthy. Or as in Mark 9, we wish to be salt, but have we lost our saltiness?

As you listen this morning, note the joy of the opening movement a bright dance in a triple meter. Caste as a large-scale da capo chorus, the middle section sung by alto and bass foreshadows the theme of anxiety and fear, heard poignantly in descending chromatics. In the bass aria – the most direct nod to the Emmaus story – listen for the lighting bolts of string arpeggios at the words, “Jesus appears”. And as the alto and tenor sing their dialogue, observe the remarkable layering of these voices and their texts at the same time – truly reflecting our own complicated condition. In the final duet, listen for the spirited violin obbligato, played today by our concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill. It’s as if the violin is the voice of the Refiner’s Fire, enflaming our hearts towards Love’s fiery-hue. The final chorale, though exultant with threefold Alleluias, concludes with a solemn Kyrie eleison, as if to say, “Look up from the Grave, but stay fixed on the Cross.”

After the atonement and self-reflection of Lenten and Holy Week observances, only the radiance of the Risen Lord can redeem. The tomb is empty, the stone is rolled away. Will my faith be strong enough to roll the stone of my own heart away? Can Christ restore my saltiness? Or will my fear outshine my hope?

Rejoice, you hearts, fade away, you sorrows, the Savior lives and rules within you. You can drive away mourning, fear, anxious despair. The Savior revives his spiritual kingdom. Alleluia!

Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

Hope indeed has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are. And courage to see that they do not remain as they are (Augustine of Hippo).

Our collegium, and our choir, and our congregation offer out into the unseen world around a dynamic dialogue, of heaven and earth, of sacred and secular, of divine and human.

It has become quite difficult to do so.   A Christ against Culture fits easily and well with a popular Christianity, Bible drenched, which rejects the world around. Harder it is to think, speak and sing of a Christ in Culture, a Christ transforming Culture. So slips away the religious commitment. So also, from the side of the society, there grows an unwillingness to admit of the value of propositions that are not verifiable but may well be true. Harder and harder it is to say ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’, or ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity’. Or, as today, ‘have peace among yourselves…who is not against us is for us’

Yet here these are today, interwoven. As we hear at the end of the cantata, fear and hope, both so deeply human, sing around and around each other. As we hear in the Scripture—who is not against us is for us; be at peace with one another.

Maybe, among other things, this is why the current Papal visit has made such a resounding though perhaps only partly articulated impact. Here is a religious voice, speaking in the halls of government. Here is a sacred person, addressing the nations as united, in the United Nations. Here is a representation of the Holy, riding the streets of the most secular of cities. Not the church mumbling its prayers behind closed doors; not the culture, its government and its authority and its society, stumbling ahead with its decisions apart from a final horizon. But sacred and secular singing together.

Maybe, among other things, this is why there are still a few University pulpits, whose calling it is to remember and to remind that the point of education is helping people. What makes this University unique is its capacity to harness learning to help people. Education is meant to help people. Period.

That is. One one hand, it is good to know as Einstein showed that gravity is a manifestation of the curvature in space-time resulting from the presence of matter and energy. On the other hand, it is great to see that insight and others like it making space, in new inventions and discoveries, for safety, for progress, for care, for health. Helping people.

Just for a moment. A heavenly hope embracing an earthly fear, both real, both true. Just for a moment, this morning, prayer, soul, eternity, faith, heaven, judgment, salvation, love, God.

I truly fear the darkness of the grave\I do not fear the darkness of the grave

I lament my Savior is now torn from me\I hope that my Savior is not torn from me

RAH: I truly fear the darkness of the grave\SAJ: I do not fear the darkness of the grave

RAH: I lament my Savior is now torn from me\SAJ: I hope that my Savior is not torn from me

This music, this Scripture, this day, this week, this life, just now, they do give you a sense, for all our fears, that hope survives and may just prevail. After all, did not Mr. Berra also say, ‘it ain’t over ‘til its over’?

A colleague and friend, Rev. Rick Black, said this week: ‘When people hear us they should think, Things are not as bad as we think they are, and these folks are helping to make things better.

Herein perhaps we find the valence of the dominical sayings,

He that is not against us is for us. He that is not against us is for us.


Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.

Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.

-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.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Tradition of Principled Resistance

September 20th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:  30-37

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As the songwriter says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

Michael Deng was the son of two immigrant Chinese parents.  He worked hard to enter Baruch College in NYC.  In order to find some support at the largely commuter college, he signed up for a fraternity.   The fraternity was attractive to Michael and others because it offered friendships, a sense of community, some solidarity over against the rest of culture, and the prospect of mutual support through the rigors of college life.  Community, meaning, belonging, empowerment.

Michael’s photo shows a bright-eyed young man, smiling, eager, energetic.

He died on December 9, 2013, outside a rented house in Pennsylvania.  The house looked like a fraternity house.  The brothers went there to haze new members.  Michael was blindfolded, forced to wear and sand loaded backpack, lifted and dropped on his head, and ‘speared’ by a classmate running at him full tilt with his head down.  The ritual was called the Glass Ceiling, a reference to constraints against advancement for Asians in America, something the fraternity apparently wanted to challenge.  An icy back yard, a snowy evening, a cold night—and an unintended, tragic, loss.

According to one account, Deng drew the ire of others because he ‘resisted’.  He realized, too late, that what was happening was wrong, dangerous, and perhaps potentially fatal.  So he resisted, and thereby became the focal point of heightened abuse.  No reporting, yet, has identified how many others may have been spared, or saved, due to his resistance, and, tragically, the necessary attention given to his unconscious state, his labored breathing, his bruised torso, and, finally, his death.  No reporting, yet, has placed this incident quite fully in the fuller narrative of the rigors and perils of American student life.  But most notably, no reporting, yet, has tried to understand Michael’s last moments, his decision to resist, his resistance—bringing his demise and perhaps sparing others some measure of hurt—within a tradition of principled resistance.  

Sometimes you follow a story, as clearly I have this one.  It has bothered me, hounded me, for many days, for a variety of relatively easily named reasons.  And I have wondered about its meaning.  Stephen Weinberg famously wrote that ‘the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more its seems pointless.’  Comprehensible. Pointless.  It is a serious ‘point’.  Yet comprehension requires the mind, alone.  We deem pointless what seems pointless, though, as a choice.  It is if you think it is.  Pointless.  It is if you choose to live like it is.  Pointless.  There is a dualism of decision haunting this world, not just in the pages of Scripture, but also upon every day.

At the very end, it seems, from what little we comprehend, that Michael Deng made a choice to resist.  He pointedly and in a tragically costly moment decided to fight back, to object, to refuse, to resist.  And there, in that moment just now, in light shadow, in a whisper, in a ghostly echo, one may sense, we may choose to sense, just a measure of meaning in the heart of an otherwise awful and pointless story.

That is where you come in, this morning.  Yours is a tradition of resistance, and you have that tradition to offer.  In fact, you have offered moments of entrance to the tradition of principled resistance for a month.  In a kindly way, of course.  One Sunday, you gave the conclusion to a summer national preacher series on ‘The Beloved Community”.  Come, you said, join with Thurman and King and us.  One Sunday, you hosted a Matriculation gathering.  Come, you said, ‘read, take and read, read’, join with Augustine of Hippo and us.  One Sunday, you marked Labor Day with the Lord’s Supper, and a opened a year long theological overture to prayer.  Come, you said, join with Jesus, the crucified, and the church and us.  One Sunday, you celebrated International Sunday, and extended a particular Methodist handshake to students and others from abroad.  Come, you said, join with Wisdom, wisdom that offers power to withstand what we cannot understand, and Luther and Pope Francis and us.  Next Sunday, you will open our musical year, beautiful it promises to be, with a full morning bathed in beauty, bathed in musical experience.  Come, you say, and join with choristers and orchestra, and learn from Bach how to meditate upon the cross and resurrection, and wing with us.  

For those, perhaps few, with eyes to see, and ears to hear, you offered the shelter of a particular tradition.

The Gospel of Mark, read more than preached these weeks, announces, affirms, and extols this tradition.  For Mark is written with the cross in mind, and is written, at least in part, to make sure earlier Christians, the community of faith, fully understood the call to resistance.  Jesus is raised from the dead. Yes.  But.  Life in him means bearing a cross, bearing up under suffering, and resistance all that cheapens life ‘in this adulterous and sinful generation’.

So, early in Mark 7, you heard Jesus teaching resistance to falsehood, to lips that move but hearts that lie.

Then, later in that chapter, you heard the gentile woman resist Jesus’ exclusion of her—‘even the dogs get crumbs’ she said—and Jesus’ own reversal, his inclusion of her, his healing of her daughter.

And, in Mark 8, you heard the hallmark word of resistance, which the church placed on Jesus’ lips, ‘If any man would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.  What does it profit a man to gain the whole world lose his soul, his life?’

Like today, in Mark 9, you just heard resistance to heavy-handed leadership proclaimed in the affirmation of servant leadership, and resistance to the tides of disenchantment proclaimed in the figure of childlike innocence.  Would you lead?  Then serve.  Would you love?  Then hold a child.

Your tradition is one of principled resistance.   On Sunday morning in worship at 11am you resist the temptation to sleep the day away.  On Sunday evening in worship at 6:30pm you resist the anonymity of student life with the offer of a beautiful oasis, dinner and eucharist.  On Wednesday morning in worship at 11:10, with the School of Theology, you resist the separation of learning and vital piety.  On Wednesday eveningat 5:15pm in worship, in the Episcopal eucharist, you resist the midweek Christological amnesia that can emerge in a post Christian culture, in an secular University, in a sprawling big city.  On Thursday noon, served communion on Marsh Plaza, you resist the temptation to forget God, to forget love, to forget faith, to forget the humanity of your neighbor.  In all, some 300 gather in these services, a mere 1% of the number of students at BU, but a witness, salt an light, a reminder of your tradition of principled resistance.

I say at funerals, perhaps like that offered Michael Deng, ‘one who has loved, one who has been loved, is never lost’.  Maybe I should add, ‘one who has resisted, who has lived the tradition of principled resistance, is never lost’.

Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come Sunday, come this Sunday.

This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own.  Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve refusal and resistance:  refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend.  Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.  

With all your heart you may want to refuse, to refuse.  An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order.  Your heart may say:  This is not me, not right, not good. Resistance always costs.  Resistance means sacrifice.  Resistance hurts.  The slings and arrow of fortune’s discontent draw blood.  Resistance, refusal.  Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living?  Dare ask:  Does God evoke and use refusal?  Does Christ, God’s everlasting Yes–in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes–Does Christ desire resistance and refusal?

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in trouble.  You enjoy the story, I know.  Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death.  Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.

For Naboth, refusal came more dear.  Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one.  He asked for the land.  Naboth refused.  He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice.  Naboth refused.  Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue.  Naboth refused.  And Ahab went whimpering to bed.  Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head.  Refusal can either cost you a king’s friendship, or your head, or both.

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book.  Refusing to worship Caesar?  Names jeeringly attached to Rome–beast, satan, whore?  Resistance to the more established synagogue?        

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor?  Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together?  Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled refusal, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift.  A tradition of principled resistance.

Several summers ago an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home.  The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: “We are raising a generation of hooligans.”

Pummelled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right.  Yet she resists!  You may recognize her, now.

This was Rosa Parks.  A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world.  For some reason, she refused to move.  Bus stopped.  Police came.  Crowd gathered.  Anger, shouting.  The Montgomery bus boycott began.  A tradition of principled resistance–this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

The prophets of old knew this.  They spoke about God’s unbending holiness.  They spoke about God’s own refusal to set a divine seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power.  They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering.  They spoke about God’s justice, critical of every established power.  They refused.  Here it is:  “Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression.” (Brueggeman).

My son had only one request for a gift one year.  He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat–$59.95”   Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman.  And I inflicted a story on my son, as parents do.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman.  Kinshasha, Zaire.  November 2.  Ali predicted:  “The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed.”  60,000 cheering fans, shouting, “Ali Bu Mal Ye”, which antiseptically translated means, “Go get him”.

Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6.  Forman 25, young, strong, powerful.  Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton.  Ali: 32, guile fitness and will.  After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered.  3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd:  “He don’t hurt me much”.  5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated.  Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes!  Ali, later:  “The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter”.  Then, 8th round:  “Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion’s hardest blows suddenly in the next instant he springs forward and brought Forman down.  Down the strong man went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the resistance of evil, the binding of evil.  It’s not pleasant.  Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion.  But there is an eighth round coming!  There is an eighth round coming!

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth.  God is at work, in part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali’s rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man.  The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 30 years of blows to the midsection.  God’s spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement.  But the eighth round is still coming…

A tradition of principled resistance.

I can imagine an objection or two.

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far:  some refusal is Godly, but some is not.  Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish.  Agreed…But we speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are.  Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by enduring body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play.  Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance.  But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so.  Most resistance is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded.  Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows.  Most real principled resistance is very ordinary.

Prayer is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. (Our theme, for this year). Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good.  Choosing carefully is primarily a form of spiritual resistance:  “We live in a society that primarily starves our soul…we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul…but…if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don’t see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly.” (Moore) Tithing is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone.  Education is primarily a form of spiritual refusal to view the world as pointless, as in our BU School of Public Health which right now, this month, resists HIV in 37 million, resists the denial that health care is a right, resists kidney disease in 20,000 in Central America, resists the danger of alcohol for 20 years olds, resists the 32,000 deaths from bullets annually in America (Dean Sandro Galea, in presentation, 9/18/15, Boston)

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta.  He did everything he could.  Finally he sent them a note:  If you do not submit at once I will invade your country.  If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight.  If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground.  The Spartans sent back this one word reply; “if”. (laconic).

You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance.

You might want to remember that.  On a cold night when some activity seems not quite right, and you need to summon a courage to resist.  On a day when a choice in vocation arrives, unannounced, and you need to summon a kind of confidence to resist turning aside.  On an evening when you know the driver has had too much to drink, and you need to ask to be let out of the car.  On a weekend when you see something and need to say something.

On the other hand, you may not need this word right now.  But you may want to remember it, especially if you are young.  For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment.  You may need to draw on the tradition of principled refusal, principled resistance..

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to resist.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

    and confidently waiting, come what may,

    We know that God is with us night and morning

    And never fails to greet us each new day.”

-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.

Living With Wisdom

September 13th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:24-37

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Good Morning! It is a pleasure to speak to you once again from the pulpit of  Marsh Chapel. I want to thank Dean Hill and the rest of the Marsh Chapel staff for their support and encouragement as I have taken on my new role as Interim  University Chaplain for International Students. As many of you know, I’ve served as the Lutheran Chaplain here at Marsh for the past three years, and all I can say is that the sermon you are about to hear may be my least Lutheran sermon at Marsh as I’m preaching on an apocryphal text (those books that Martin Luther outright rejected from the Protestant Bible) and I’ll be quoting the Pope.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my new position is that there is a definite learning curve. Even though I’ve worked here for the last three years, taking on more responsibility and having a broader presence to the BU community comes with learning new names, navigating new systems, and finding new ways of relating to a population of the student body that itself is quite diverse. After all, “International” basically means anyone not from the United States, a globe’s worth of culture, tradition, and faiths to relate with and welcome. (I promise it sounds more intense than it actually is, though!) But let’s think about the reverse of this, an international student coming to a completely new culture, expected to not only to seek education, but also to grow as an individual and somehow “fit into” what maybe a very different context. Learning facts and figures in class may be the easiest part of this! Cultural wisdom can be elusive. Expectations of students in the U.S. differ wildly from those in other countries. Social interactions are defined by different standards in the U.S. And even just speaking in a language that is not native to you can feel like a terrifying experience. But fear not.  Fortunately, there are plenty of resources at BU which are designed specifically for International Students to help them get acclimated, to have a place to feel comfortable, and to find ways to meet new people. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m one of those resources.)

Additionally, every year, BU Today, the daily e-news source for the university complies a “Words of Wisdom” video for the incoming class. The wisdom comes from the previous year’s graduating class, offering advise and guidance on those every day things that you won’t necessarily learn in the classroom or at orientation.

Here’s some of what was offered to this year’s class:

On meeting new people:

“One of the first things you should do at BU is make some friends…Pretty much everyone’s in the same boat you are. Everyone wants to make friends. Everyone’s terribly alone.”

“If you see somebody that just looks interesting, just say “hi!” They might become your best friend.”

On new eating habits:

“The freshman fifteen is absolutely real.”

“There’s a lot of stuff you can grab from the dining halls. There’s a lot of cookies. There’s a lot of brownies. Don’t be tempted to touch all that.”

On abbreviations:

“So, when you come on campus, you’re probably going to notice that we love our abbreviations here at BU.”

“Acronyms. Learn acronyms really quickly.”

“Whether it be COM, CAS, GSU, SHA, HTC, and what is SAO?”

“By the way it’s CAS not cas. That’s a pretty important one.”

On being an adult:

“Get used to doing laundry on your own and also do it often, because people will notice if you don’t. And you don’t want to be that person.”

“I think that no matter how grown up you feel in college, always talk to your parents. Always just tell them “Hey, what’s up? This is what’s happening.” Whenever they hear your voice, I’m sure they’re just like “Yes! They called me!””

Now, I intentionally selected some of the funnier words of wisdom from this video, but you get the point. These are things that you can only glean from experience. Or from someone who’s had more experience. But they’re important to know in order to be successful as a student here at BU. And much of this wisdom can be carried forward into life after BU – being a responsible adult who is healthy, clean, respectful of others, and has a community with which one can relate. Wisdom is more than just knowledge. While the University administration hopes that students acquire knowledge while they’re here, we also hope that students’ experiences and interactions with others will lead them to wisdom. Wisdom is not just facts and figures. It’s experiential. It’s dynamic. It comes from interactions and experiences. It can be passed from one person to another, but sometimes is best when it is developed internally. We generally think that wisdom is attached to age – the older you are, the wiser you become. Now this may not be true in all cases, but the logic behind it stands to good reason. The longer you have been alive, the more experiences you have had which have enabled you to learn about which are the best choices (sometimes by making the wrong choice the first time around). This can lead you on a path that enables greater clarity into the ways people interact, how the world works, and the best ways to apply the knowledge that you’ve acquired. Some cultures revere their elder members because of the wisdom they possess – their life experience is seen as valuable for future generations. But wisdom from those who come before us is only as valuable as the amount of attention we’re willing to give it.

Wisdom is relational – it allows us to form connections with others by sharing our experiences – don’t you feel closer to those students I quoted earlier, maybe because you somehow relate with the advice they were giving? Or who among us cannot think of someone – a parent, an older sibling, a friend – who has shared their wisdom with us to help us become who we are today? Because of its relational nature, wisdom necessitates a certain way of approaching the world and other people. It requires us to seek it out by processing our experiences in a way that will educate us into the future. We must be aware to live with Wisdom. It surrounds us, but has to be sought out. Wisdom is pervasive, but we must take it in of our own accord. It does not just hit us over the head in an obvious way. We must

do some work to be intentional about our development into wise people.

Wisdom is also a pretty awesome female symbol in the Bible who isn’t necessarily talked about extensively. She is Justice. She is Righteousness. She is Equity. She is in all things. She guides humanity (for those who choose to follow her). To have full knowledge of Wisdom is to be the closest one can be to God. In today’s readings, particularly the reading from Proverbs and the Psalm reading from Wisdom of Solomon, we hear two somewhat contrasting versions of the biblical description of Wisdom. In the Proverbs selection, the Woman Wisdom is a prophet. She is crying out to the people who fail to see and take in her essence to become closer to the will of God. She bemoans the foolish who fail to heed her warnings and listen to her thoughts. She goes so far as to laugh and mock those who foolishly rejected her while they experience panic, calamities, and distress. This Wisdom is rooted in a fear of God, of God’s power, a very common notion in the Hebrew texts. We’re often uncomfortable with these kinds of texts which paint a picture of a violent, sometimes vengeful God whose believers act purely out of fear. I would disagree, in our context today, that our wisdom necessarily must come out of fear of God. Instead it should come out of a desire to make connections with others, addressing wrongs in the world, establishing justice, and seeking out righteousness.

In Wisdom of Solomon we have a gentler, almost enamored, description of Wisdom. The Woman Wisdom here is a righteous and beautiful expression of God’s eternal light. Evil cannot prevail against her. She is goodness and light. The author, depicted as King Solomon in the text, in other parts of the book announces his desire to wed Wisdom in order to be the closest to God he can be. But like the description in Proverbs, Woman Wisdom is omnipresent. She is accessible to all, but one must have a certain desire and drive for her to access her. It is an on-going relationship wisdom seeks, not an initial flirtation.

These descriptions are opposite sides of the same coin. Wisdom is beautiful and strong, full of goodness and light, but the results of rejecting her can lead to suffering. Wisdom is a transmitter of the will of God, but rejecting her will ultimately lead to negative consequences. Wisdom and God have a symbiotic relationship. God creates Wisdom, but wisdom exists with God and enables God’s action in the world. As the text states, she is “a spotless mirror of the working of God, an image of his goodness.” Biblical scholars refer to Wisdom and God’s relationship as “hypostasis” – in which Wisdom acts as and on behalf of God, but is not equated with God.   In Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-23, just before the passage we read today, the author


“There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.”

These descriptions could easily be swapped to describe God. Wisdom is the means by which all of creation is ordered and coheres. Wisdom is a changing and transforming entity, found permeating all of life. While ever-present, we must choose to acknowledge Wisdom and engage with her – she will not force herself on us. But if we choose to reject wisdom, then we choose to reject God’s will in the world.

In Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, “Laudato Si” or “Praised Be,” his main focus is on the Catholic Church’s response to climate change as a justice issue that not only concerns the wellbeing of the Earth, but also as a justice issue for the poor and oppressed. I highly recommend reading it – it is very well written and accessible for both theologians and laypeople alike.  In addition to a rousing call to the global populace to recognize the need for action around this issue, the Pope also deals with the idea of wisdom as necessary for building community to face the challenges of today and into the future. He states:

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. “

The Pope points out a new way that wisdom has been obscured in our, now global, society. While we have increased our connections, we have decreased the quality in those connections, and actually created distractions from what true wisdom really is. We have access to data and information, knowledge, really, but we lack the wisdom we need to effectively address the challenges that climate change will create environmentally, socially, and economically.

Our present world experiences so much pain, alienation, struggle, and conflict that we often fail to see how wisdom could ever shine through to lead us forward into a new way of being, into a global community. Syrian refugees seek asylum from a tumultuous civil war and political situation in the face of closed borders. U.S. citizens are denied rights and in some cases their ability to live because of their race, who they love, or how they identify. Global climate change is creating droughts in some areas, flooding in others, endangering those who do not have financial or technical means to combat it and also crippling national economies. These problems seem so large that we feel helpless, we bury our heads, we pretend it’s not happening, we say “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Or “That doesn’t affect me directly, so I don’t necessarily need to do anything about it.” Or “It’s easier to keep living my life the way I live it. I can’t devote time to fixing these enormous problems.”

Prophetic Wisdom is calling out to us, standing on our street corners, imploring us to see her and process her ways. In ignoring or denying that we have anything to do with the global struggles that happen every day, we also deny opportunities for becoming part of the solution. However, it’s not too late for us to seek out and live with wisdom.  Just like it seems that pain and struggle pervade so much of our shared global life, beyond them is wisdom from our experiences and those who have come before us which can guide us to face these challenges. Maybe the wisdom we have is not a one to one match with the challenges we face today, but that’s the cool thing about wisdom: when people bring the bits of wisdom they have from their own experiences and share them with each other, in a deep, relational way, new wisdom forms. New ways of seeing the world. New ways of seeking justice. New problem-solving tactics.

At BU, we’re lucky. We’re in a place of privilege, studying everything from neuroscience to medieval literature. We come from places as close as Brookline to as far as Beijing. Our community is a global place, allowing for so many conversations across ages, cultures, religions, sexuality, gender, and economic backgrounds. There are immense possibilities for new and creative wisdom to shine through to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.  So yes, we can share wisdom about how to be a successful student and adult while at college, but we can also share the wisdom we’ve developed by taking the knowledge that we have and applying it to our lives. There are glimmers of these wise conversations happening all over campus – at the Howard Thurman Center, here in Marsh Chapel, in the classroom…but we must be intentional in seeking them out. Our congregation is also a great resource for these kinds of conversations. We have folks of various ages, backgrounds, and cultures who can all share their wisdom with each other. I invite you to do just that. Today, after our service, we will have our weekly coffee hour in the Marsh Room in the lower level. This is a great opportunity to chat with someone you don’t know, meet someone who is different than you, make a new friend. And we have lots of international-themed snacks to help nourish your body while you nourish your mind. We must invite Wisdom into our lives, live with her, and not expect that she will appear to us without our concerted effort.

In conclusion, let’s return to our “Words of Wisdom” from the class of 2015. We started by talking about the difficulties of being a new or international student on a campus such as BU, but this time, I want you to think about these words of wisdom and how they might apply to your life:

“Definitely focus on academics, but understand that a lot of your personal growth is going to happen outside of the classroom.”

“So many people have so many different perspectives and ideas and it’s important to kind of take that in and internalize it and kind of make it your own too.”

“Enjoy the time that you do have here because it goes dang fast.”


–Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students ad Interim

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Senses of Prayer

September 6th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:24-37

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Be opened.  Ephphatha.  Be opened.

Jesus’ utterance today, in the swirl of two strange stories,

commands an opening of the senses, a new opening of the senses in prayer.

Today the Gospel asks you about your soul, about your inner life, about


Prayer is a kind of shadow boxing, the struggle of the soul for

one’s own life, over against all the forces outside arranged against us.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in Gift from the Sea, “Every

person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year,

some part of each week, and of each day.”

Prayer is the possibility of an inner life, of communion with

God—whether in the graveyard, the library, the symphony hall, the art

gallery, the study, the beach.  Or, in church.

A sanctuary is a place to be quiet, in order to reconstitute our

real life:  “the very best prayers are but vain repetitions, if they are not the

language of the heart.” (J Wesley)

The soul, personal or collective, is boxing with its shadow in


Before the firelight of a hard decision, as your soul sees its

shadow lengthen into something like fear

Before the blue haze of the computer glass, as your soul sees its

shadow lengthen into something like listlessness—acedia

Before the searching, searing floodlight of clear and painful

memory, as your soul sees its shadow lengthen into something like hatred

Prayer is one great battle, your soul locked shadow boxing in

combat with what maims and harms life.

What are the senses of prayer?


Prayer tunes out many of the frequencies of this world.  Prayer

is deaf as a post, stone deaf to the text beep, to the telephone, to the radio, to

the world around.

One older, beloved hospital patient, who had only one working

ear, found peace and healing at a fine medical facility by lying with his good

ear straight down, planted firmly in bedding, muffled in the starchy pillows.

He turned a deaf ear to the orderlies and nurses and heavy constant

dehumanizing noise.  Prayer is like Beethoven at the end.  So in prayer, if

you will steal away, you will hear another music.

The song of the soul

The chance for an inner life

The language of the heart

Ears to hear THE REAL YOU, your own-most self



Remember Job, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your

heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are

on earth, therefor let your words be few.”


Prayer has different taste buds.  An inner life makes room and

has a taste for even what is sour and bitter.  No sweet tooth for prayer, but an

openness to hurt, to empathy.  Such an unlikely taste in taste.

In prayer we can taste the grief of a husband’s death.

In prayer we can taste the anger over a co-worker’s cancer.

In prayer we can taste the emptiness at a mother’s passing.

In prayer we can taste the fury in conflicts of vision.

In prayer we can taste the ashes of defeat, which salt us all.

In prayer we can taste the sting of adolescent and adult

mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  No one is good at everything.

In prayer we can approach the sense of violation another carries

after vandalism, literal or spiritual.

In prayer we can taste the awful bitterness of lament.

So central, then, in worship, are the psalms, for they are, simply

said, of two types:  thanksgiving, or lament, thanksgiving, or lament.  To

them we return every Lord’s Day.


There is the smell of the desert in prayer, the arid and heated

dryness of the desert.

Some of you have traveled to Israel.  Do you remember going

to Qumran at the Dead Sea?  Down in the Dead Sea valley, 1000ft below sea

level, did you see the remains of that ancient Essene community, 100

degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  Do you recall the scent of the desert—a

land stark, lonely, without any potable water, without any green, not a sign

of life.  Wind, sand, stars, heat.

Why in the decades before Jesus lived, would 100 men come to

the desert?  Why, they had that scent of prayer.  They smelled the difference.

They came to prayer, in secret, to the Almighty God who sees in secret.

They came to enter the closet of Palestine, and to shut the door.  They knew

about boxing with the soul’s shadow.  They knew that life is short.  They

came to struggle in mortal combat for the possibility of an inner life.  They

craved that “purity of intention without which none of our outward actions

are holy” (J Wesley).  There is such a thing as inward holiness.  God’s heart

is open to you there.  There is such a thing as inward holiness.  Prayer is its


Inward holiness prompts you right now to find and hold a

particular moment in worship, as God’s approach to you, and your response.

Mine is the hymn.  Hers is the prayer.  His is the sermon.  Theirs is the

offering.  In coming to worship we pray for, we anticipate, an experience of

the genuine.  Of beauty, truth and goodness in music, word, and prayer.


To be touched at the heart is to be forgiven.

The heart of prayer is forgiveness.  The point of prayer is

forgiveness.  The goal of prayer is forgiveness.  Yes there is much

else—entreaty, expostulation, confession, thanksgiving, recollection, praise,

adoration, meditation, intercession.  Still, the heart of prayer for the

followers of Jesus is forgiveness.  Jesus prayed, according to Matthew, at the

critical moments—in the wilderness, in teaching, in the garden of

Gethsemane, on the the cross—“Father, forgive them for they know not

what they do.”

Do you seek forgiveness?

Are you earnestly awaiting its touch?

Are you adept at its arts and ways?

Do you pray for it?

In specific cases?

Among nations and groups as well as persons?

In rumination this summer I wondered about the two phrases,

‘Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5: 44).  It

had never occurred to me before that they might, perhaps should, be read in

apposition.  Here is how you love your enemies:  you pray for them.


Did you ever wonder why now and then in the prophet Isaiah

there is the comment about seeing and yet not seeing?  There is a kind of

blind sight that is all too common to us.

Some years ago, we buried a man of faith and of sight.  He was

a photographer.  In his last year he wrote out what the sight sense of prayer

can be.  For those of us who see and see and yet do not perceive, this is a


“A photographer’s function is to see so clearly that others will

see the work that they have not noticed previously.  By analogy with guide

dogs for the blind, we can think of photographers as seeing-eye people.  We

are helping people that don’t see much.  Unfortunately, that’s most people,

because we don’t pay attention and see clearly much of the time.  We can

get a lot of help from photography, which doesn’t censor reality as much as

our unaided minds do, and forces us to focus.

“Practicing the art of seeing should become a habit in all of us.

In that practice, I soon learned that there is beauty in almost everything if we

only will look… In order to see God’s work, humans have to make

themselves “see” the detail in creation, to become aware of the fact that God

is truly around us all the time.”

It takes a practiced blindness to the rush and blur of the way we

live to sense the sight of prayer.

Perhaps this is why, at the end of his faithful, shared life, Oliver

Sacks wrote about Sabbath, and about his memories of Sabbath.  His mother

exchanging her surgeon’s attire to make gefilte fish.  The ritual candles.  The

fresh clothes.  The silver wine cup.  The chants and blessings.  ‘The

observance of the Sabbath’—he quotes Robert John—‘is extremely

beautiful…It is not a question of improving society, it is about improving

one’s own quality of life’. (NYT 8/16/15)

Call to Prayer


A Deaf Ear to Dehumanizing Noise

A Touch of the Heart in Forgiveness

There are Senses of Prayer

The Arid Scent of Inner Holiness

A Taste for Empathy and Lament

A Sight that sees the details

Be opened.  Ephpatha. May our lives be opened to the senses of prayer.

-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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Take and Read

August 30th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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

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

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

Be our North Star, our compass, sextant

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

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

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

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

For those on the bridge—wisdom

For those learning the ropes—patience

For those working the in the rigging—a light heart

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

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

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


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

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

For like our gospel lesson today, they and this University, have been interested in what makes a person human, in what makes a human be human, in what lies not outside, but inside, not in measurement but in meaning, not in the visible but in the soulful, not in making a living, only, but in making a life, fully.   Our gospel lesson today from Mark 7 is about the inside.  Set aside the details.  Set aside the religious conflict about kosher laws as Christianity moved out from Judaism.  Set aside the cups, pots, and kettles.   Set aside the ancient language that depicts what is evil.  Licentiousness is not a word we use a lot, however present the reality to which it points.   The inside.  The passage is about the priority of what is inside, about the priority of the heart, about the priority of the soul, about the commandment of God which ever trumps tradition. Gospel ever trumps tradition.

You hear echoes of other verses.  One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God…Cleanse the inside of the cup….What will it profit to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul?…Enter in at the narrow gate…

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

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes. 

Take and read.  You read.

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

Take and read.

Our focus this year at Marsh Chapel is prayer.  Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.  An hour a day, a day a week, a week a quarter, a quarter a year.  8am, Friday, school break, summer.  But prayer is mostly resistance.  Resistance to what harms the inside, to what eclipses the soul, to what makes us less than human.  Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to earn your degree, as you will want to do with all life’s future earnings, in a way that leads to life.  In a soulful way.  In a hearty way.  In a healthy way.

Here is what we mean.  For a moment, we will take an imaginary walk, along with my colleagues Ms. Jaimie Dingus and Ms. Kasey Shultz.  We will set out and walk down the Esplanade, enjoying the sights of sailing and sculling.   When we come to the statue of Arthur Fiedler we will stop, and read, perhaps a passage from Chaim Potok.  In ‘My Name is Asher Lev, the young artist recalls a moment with his father.  The artist is six years old.  A bird has died and lies along the curb.


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

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

        “Why did it die?”

        “Everything that lives must die”.


        “You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


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

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

        “Why”, I asked.

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


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


        Then we will walk a little farther, stopping for a moment in the Public Garden, as lovely a common space as there is.  We see Commonwealth Avenue, what Winston Churchill called the loveliest street in America.  We notice and name the flowers, enjoy the shade, perhaps take a boat ride.   Then we open a volume of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins:


    We are not far from the Public Library.  We enter, and go up the stairs.  We notice the civil war remembrances.  We look at the frieze that includes the Hebrew prophets.  John Updike came regularly to this great reading room—to read, and then, to write.   We pull up a chair for a moment.  At hand is a copy of David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character.


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

    The day is bright and cool—beautiful autumn in New England.  We choose the path along the Emerald Necklace, an unusual place to stroll, to saunter—saunter, a saintly walk.  A bench beckons.  We sit.  A Boston surgeon’s book is in our bag, Being Mortal.  We stretch and read his meditation upon medicine and meaning in the twilight of life.  


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

    Take and read:  an awareness of wonder may greet you on the Esplanade, an awareness of beauty in the Public Garden, an awareness of virtue in the Library, an awareness of mortality by the Emerald Necklace.    So that when you return to campus, you may take a seat for a moment in Marsh Chapel, under the window of St. Augustine, just here, who amid tears, misery and lamentation reclaimed his own soul by reading:

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

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

Take and read…

Take and read.

Take and Read!

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

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

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

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

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Chariot of Fire

August 23rd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 6:56-69

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For a year we have embraced spirit.  Listen again to the prayer response in a moment.  Spirit. Presence. Awareness.  Conscious embrace.  St. Mark revealed Spirit.  Jonathan Edwards preached Spirit.  The Beloved Community awaits Spirit.  The Gospel of John adores, prioritizes, lifts the Spirit.  Our word 2015 has been Spirit.

Today, to conclude, we bring a familiar story and a spiritual question.  The story is that of Elijah.  The question is that of your legacy.

The story.

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, we saw this winter, 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 90ad, our Gospel today acclaimed Spirit.   Notice the theme of ascent in the Fourth Gospel, through and through.  You notice here that John turns the tables on flesh.  All chapter 6, you are expected to recall, accounted for feeding, the feeding of 5,000.  2 fish and five loaves and all satisfied.  Or was it five fish and two loaves and all satisfied?  Then ancient discourse upon the food that perishes, and the One who is the bread of life.  Then, too, more traditional language, in chapter 6, we are expected to remember, about ‘the last day’, about bread of life, about flesh given for the life of the world, about ‘munching’ the flesh of the Son of Man, and then our passage, starting, ‘my flesh is food indeed’.   And then?  All, come John 6: 56-69, all the above is set aside, abrogated, trumped.  By…Spirit.  No not flesh, no not bread, no not eating, no not muching, no not tradition, no not table, no not eucharist.  ‘See the Son of Man ascending’, LIKE ELIJAH LIKE ELIJAH LIKE ELIJAH.  ‘It is the Spirit that giveth life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.’  There is no last supper in John.  Yes, 1 Cor. 11.  Yes, the pastoral epistles, TTT.  Yes, the Synoptics MML.  But not John.  He prefers the actual service of foot-washing, and eliminates the Eucharistic meal, supplanting it with—Spirit.  There is no last supper in John because for John the supper does not last (repeat).  Your words will long outlive your deeds. What you say and the way you say it have much longer life than what you do.  Odd as that may seem.  What lasts?  Spirit.  What ascends?  Spirit.  Elijah, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1735, we saw this winter, 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 1965, we recalled this year,  in early March, 50 years later, 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.

In the year of spirit, 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 summer of 2015, the spirit and voice of the prophet Elijah echoed here.   We together ruminated about ‘beloved community’, whose root is the Gospel of John, whose trunk is Bostonian Josiah Royce, and whose branches include the hope of Martin Luther King.   David Romanik had some homiletical advice:  Larry Whitney gave some ecclesiastical advice: the beloved community is not easy.   Chapin Garner added a warning, not ‘your God is too small’, but ‘your God is too tame’.  Bob Hill added footnotes on intimations in social history and influences of personal faith.  Regina Walton taught us to ‘abide’, and pointed out that we are branches, tangled, not potted plants, aloof.  And Brittany Longsdorf ended with a poetic hymn to love.  In a phrase, what shall we hold from this summer?  Beloved Community.  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 summer of 2015, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit  ushered us toward a new 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’, including its spiritual conculsion.  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.  In Spirit.  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.  So, Elijah’s story.

Now, the question.

Yes, to end, we promised a question.  A story, Elijah’s.  A question,  yours.

Elijah leaves Elisha a double portion of his spirit?  What do you hope to pass on?  What do you hope to leave behind?  What legacy is yours?  You are 22 and you have been to college and you have 15 year old sister heading that way?  Any advice?  You are a young parent watching your toddlers toddle.  What do you want to give them that they will never lose?  You are a grandparent, and you have some things you would like to bequethe.  What are they, and what will you give in management, money and material to make it happen?  It is the spirit question, the Elijah question, the community question, and it is yours.  For me, the answer is simple.  I want to pass on the possibility of preaching, of a word fitly spoken, of a saving intervening word,  Spirit in speech, for the next generations.  As the chariot approaches, what do you want to leave behind?

And here it comes…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.

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green

And was the Holy of Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen…

I shall not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land

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

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Breakfast on the Beach

August 16th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 21:4-19

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The text is not available for this sermon.

–Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, Multifaith Chaplain, Bates College, Lewiston ME

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Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton on The Beloved Community

August 9th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 15:1-8

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I’m very happy to be back with you at Marsh Chapel, and greetings to you also who are listening on the radio. Our theme this summer is the Beloved Community, so it’s a little funny to begin with a story about a hermit, but that is what I’m going to do. This story comes from my favorite religious psychologists, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century. It’s called “The Angry Brother and the Water Jug.”

“A brother was a [monk in a monastery] and was often moved to anger so he said to himself, ‘I will leave and go live by myself, and, because I won’t have anything to do with anyone and will be at peace, my passion will cease.’ So he left and lived in a cave by himself. One day he filled a small jug with water and put it on the ground and all of a sudden it fell over. He picked it up and filled it a second time and again it fell over. Then he filled it a third time and it fell over. Enraged, he grabbed hold of the jug and broke it. When he came to himself, he knew he had been mocked by the [Evil One] and said, ‘I’ve left and gone to live by myself, and even here, I’ve been defeated. Therefore, I will return to the [monastery]. There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.’ And he got up, and returned.” [Tim Vivian, ed. Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Cistercian Publications, 2008, p. 190-191]

The desert fathers and mothers were a quirky bunch, but I love them. With just a few words and a few key details, their stories express so much about the human quest to know the divine. Brevity and clarity. Would that preachers had these gifts as well! But they elude so many of us in the pulpit.

The monk in this story thinks at first that his brothers are getting in the way of his spiritual development. He has a quick temper, and in community he has a lot of other people to exercise it on. Much better, the thinks, to live alone, with no annoying fellow monks around. Then he’ll make some real progress. Of course he realizes, after he smashes the innocent water-jug, that it is not his fellow monks who are the problem, but himself. Community, he’s come to understand, is not a stumbling block after all: it is a training ground, a school of virtues, a school of love.

This is a sermon in two parts: the first is about Christian community, and why we should bother with it. And the second part names three qualities of beloved communities as I see them.

When Jesus in John’s gospel talks about beloved community, he uses the word “abide.” Jesus says in John 15, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

“Abide” is now archaic; except for the movie The Big Lebowski. We don’t say, “Abide here in the car while I run into Starbucks.” (pause) “Abide by the law” is one of the only current uses of the word. Some other contemporary translations of the Bible use “remain in my love” instead. But there is reason to retain “abide” apart from the poetry of it. None of the synonyms for “abide” fully capture the state of being that Jesus is describing. It can mean “remain,” or “stay,” but it also has shades of waiting and expectance, waiting in this state of love until Jesus comes again, to “dwell,” (another archaic word) in Christ’s love. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, translates this verse as “Make yourself at home in my love.” He is connecting “abide” to another word to which it is related, “abode.” (The place where you abide.)

    God welcomes us into God’s love, and this love is our shelter. But Jesus, in asking his disciples to abide in his love and to keep his commandment to love one another, is using a poetic word to ask them to do something extremely difficult. The abode that he is inviting them in to has many other guests all trying to make themselves at home as well.

To abide in Christ’s love requires something from us. It is not just a cozy meeting of like-minded individuals. It is hard work. All of us trying to make ourselves at home in God’s love; we bump elbows sometimes.

That is part of the appeal of being what is commonly called “spiritual but not religious.” Or as it is sometimes abbreviated, SBNR. One can be SBNR without any kind of community. Or, SBNR community can be fluid and without much accountability, like a yoga class. One advantage of finding God in watching a sunset, or on a mountaintop, instead of at church is that, well, you don’t have to deal with anyone else on the mountaintop! It’s just you and the view.

But the story of the Angry Brother and the Water Jug challenges the SBNR view of things. “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.” Getting away from it all spiritually will only get us so far.

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. Actually I think of her as my former employer, since I used to work as a docent in her house when I was in college in Western Mass.  She famously wrote, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church/I keep it staying at home/With a bobolink for a chorister/And an orchard for a dome.” Beautiful lines. Deeply true for her, since she loved nature with all her heart, and really hated going to church. Actually if there had been radio church in Dickinson’s day, I think she probably would have tuned in, if only for the hymns.

Every summer for the past 15 years, I have gone to a retreat center where I can look out on a meadow and hear lots of birds, maybe even a bobolink or two, and that time apart is very important to the health of my soul. That time of awe and wonder in God’s creation has given me many wonderful gifts. But it can’t give me everything I need. The peace of the meadow refreshes me, but only for a while, until I’m stuck in traffic again. The bobolink, with its peaceful chirping, can help to give me some clarity about the parts of my life where I am falling short. But the opportunities to actually do that work of inner change require leaving the meadow. Because, in order to grow into the full stature of our exemplar, Jesus,  “There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere.”

Patient endurance is a good synonym for “abiding.” “Patiently endure in my love.” “Hang in there in my love.” It’s a process.

The New York Times pundit David Brooks in some columns and in his book The Road to Character says this:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

[David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List, The New York Times, April 11, 2015]

We Christians might call eulogy virtues “the fruit of the Spirit,” from Paul’s list in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I’m a parish priest. What I hope we are on our best days at my parish, Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, is a School for Eulogy Virtues. We are all students, and Jesus is our teacher. It’s a funny kind of school, since no one ever graduates. We don’t graduate, but we do grow. It’s an organic curriculum, the Jesus-following life.

And Jesus, our teacher, says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Stay close, Jesus says. That’s how you become more like me.

The best grapes are produced closest to the vine, where the nutrients are. That’s why the branches are pruned, so they don’t get too long. Long branches ramble away from the vine, and produce small and sour grapes.

So spiritually, we want to stay close to our energy source. Otherwise, we are just putting our sour grapes out there, into a world that has enough sourness and bitterness already.

How do we do this? How do we abide in Christ’s love, staying close to our energy source? In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, we take the vows of our baptismal covenant as the blueprint for abiding. The first set of questions is about our Christian beliefs, but then there are questions about how we are to live our lives.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” This is not easy stuff, by the way.

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

And the answer to all of these questions is, “I will, with God’s help.” Because, there needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. We answer these questions not only with our lips, but with our lives, every day. And of course we fail at them all the time, and ask God’s forgiveness, and begin again. That’s part of abiding, too—the grace of always beginning again.

Very few of us are cut out to be spiritual hermits. In community we learn from each other, and we learn about ourselves. We abide. At my parish, our abiding usually involves food, and lots of it. Abiding and constant snacks go quite well together, actually. (pause)

Jesus uses the image of vines and branches. Branches tend to be all tangled up with each other. There’s a messiness in that. Many of us would prefer it if Jesus had used houseplants as his model, each one of us in our own little self-enclosed pot. But we’re not houseplants; we’re vine branches, tangled, woven together, and sometimes in each other’s way.

Beloved communities are examples of mutual abiding. They are also places of radical welcome. That is why the story we heard from Acts, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, is a story of the Beloved Community to me. Two people in the middle of nowhere—not much of a community, on the surface. But nevertheless, a story of how we come to abide in God’s love, and one that that Christians are made, not born. Following Christ is a process of becoming. This story is from the early days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, when the disciples are learning to listen for the Holy Spirit guiding them. And Philip hears the Spirit telling him to head south on the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. Holy Spirit as GPS. The text says, “This is a wilderness road.” And as he walks along this road, he comes upon the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the Queen’s treasury. Philip hears the Eunuch reading from the scroll of Isaiah, since these are the days when everyone read aloud. And he says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Eunuch says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” This story reminds us that the Bible was just as confusing then as it is today. And it reminds us too that the Church has always been struggling with issues of sexuality and race and culture. After all, being a eunuch was hardly a lifestyle choice promoted by ancient Judaism. The eunuch had been at the Temple in Jerusalem to worship; but he likely would not have made it past the outer gates, because of his sexual difference. He was a proselyte, or maybe what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, but for cultural or ethnic reasons did not convert. In any case, he had made a very long journey to sit in the outer courtyards of the Temple. A person of great importance in his country, he would remain a second-class citizen in the Jewish faith. And yet a hunger to know the God of Israel drew him over many miles to Jerusalem.

Philip joins him in the chariot, and they continue on together, as Philip opens the scriptures to him, and tells him about Jesus, and about baptism, and about adoption as God’s children through Christ.

When they pass by some water, the Eunuch says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And so the wilderness road becomes a place of beloved community, of radical inclusivity. The eunuch goes home, no longer on the outside looking in, but a part of the whole, a member of the body of Christ.

Philip doesn’t just welcome him; he forms him in faith. He interprets the scriptures to him. He listens to him. He answers his questions and addresses his confusion. In all of this he is led by the Spirit.

Philip walks the wilderness road, but he brings all the resources of his faith with him. He is open to the Spirit and its surprises—but it is the practices that he has cultivated in synagogue and with Jesus and the disciples, of prayer, of scripture reading, of discernment—that’s what he has to offer.

We are in a moment, as people of faith, when we are called to walk the wilderness road. We are called to reach out and walk alongside new people, in new places, and to be open and adaptable in ways not imaginable before. But we won’t be very effective in all this, if we leave the resources of our tradition behind us. We won’t be effective out in the wilderness if we have left behind the practices of prayer and scripture reading and worship and discernment that nourished us within the walls of our churches. We won’t succeed with the new technology, as rapidly as it evolves, if we also don’t remain plugged in to the “old school” technology: of relationships and showing up for each other in authentic ways. We won’t succeed as faith-based activists, if we are not also faith-based contemplativists, always listening for the Spirit’s guidance. Philip’s witness to the eunuch teaches us this.

So Beloved Community is about abiding, with God and with each other, in Jesus’ name. And Beloved Community is about radical welcome, taking the tools we’ve learned in our sanctuaries, and carrying them out to the Wilderness Road.

And there’s one more thing: Beloved Community is about what we will not abide.

Martin Luther King Jr., graduate of this university, spoke about the Beloved Community as the outcome, the end result, of nonviolence. It is the fruit that grows out of this good soil.

So inherent in the Beloved Community is a continuing stance against violence and oppression in all forms. The epistle reading from 1 John reminds us of this: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Today is the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I hope to God that we are on the verge of a new Civil Rights movement in this country. There are things that we cannot abide, if we want to be the Beloved Community. If we dare to proclaim that we follow Jesus. We live in a complicated world. But there are three things that should not be complicated for us in the church. There are three things that are really no-brainers for us to get behind as American Christians of any stripe, for us to march for, and to demonstrate for, to be a force for change. Three things about which there is no excuse for our silence; we simply cannot abide them.

First: systemic racism, especially against African Americans and people of color. I believe the church is especially called to stand up to systemic racism as it is expressed in our public schools and in our criminal justice and prison systems. There are special opportunities for the witness of the church there.

Next, the peculiar institution of American gun violence. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it is this way nowhere else in the world. This epidemic, combined with the epidemic of racism in our land—you read the papers too. You know. It has to stop. We have unique opportunities as people of faith to witness against gun violence, and for peace. To change the laws. To change our culture. So many lives needlessly ripped away. But perfect love casts out fear.

Third, the destruction of the environment. It’s right there in Genesis: this world, this created order, is good, and sacred. Time is running out. We have abused our position as stewards of the earth. Jesus called us to lives of simplicity and generosity, to live in harmony with each other, resisting the forces of greed and waste.

We serve the God of love and life. In these three areas, the shadow of death is creeping over us. We serve the God of reconciliation, of resurrection, of re-creation.

There needs to be struggle and patient endurance and God’s help everywhere. And God’s help is everywhere. Indeed, that is the only way we can hope to have any impact on these issues at all. The only way. Struggle and patient endurance and calling on God’s help. That is the stuff of abiding. May God bless us, and empower us to live out this calling, together, and in Christ’s name. Amen.

–The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Rector, Grace Church, Newton, MA

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Personal Faith and the Beloved Community

August 2nd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 6:24-35

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To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Among the powers that drew us here to Boston, was the chance to labor in the shadow of Howard Thurman and to preach from the pulpit he once filled. Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel, 1953-1965.  This summer, read his autobiography,  With Head and Heart.  In the work of grieving and departing from one setting, Rochester, and entering another, Boston, I was telephoned by a friend and parishioner.  She wanted to set an appointment to talk, before we left Rochester. A saintly woman, Donna Adcock, made an appointment, a good formal appointment, to see me.  ‘A chat after church won’t do for this’, she averred. That Wednesday she brought in a poem which she had typed out from an original handscript.  Typing is an ancient technology, no longer in use, but some years ago, even, still around.  (I do not linger to define keystroke, white out, ribbon, carbon paper, or Smith Corona (not a beer, by the way)).  ‘This poem Howard Thurman your predecessor at Marsh Chapel recited in a sermon in Kansas City, my home, in 1950’, she said.  ‘I was years old, 56 years younger when that sermon changed my life.  I spent the next 50 years in ‘full time Christian service’, through the YWCA.  I heard something that summer day, in Kansas City, in 1950, that changed my life.  I want you to have this poem.  You do not need to live in New England to love it, but it does help. The fact that I heard it through Howard Thurman’s beautiful voice adds to it for me”.

The ‘little duck’ is a poem about the freedom of a duck floating on the waves, written in 1947 by Donald Babcock. Here are verses from that poem…

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic

And he is part of it

He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic

Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is

And neither do you

But he realizes it

And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it

He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.

That is religion, and the duck has it.

He has made himself part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him.

I like the little duck.

He doesn’t know much.

But he has religion.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Three years ago we hosted the memorial service for Dr. Ken Edelin.  Marsh Chapel was full.  At one point we asked the congregation to recite together the 23 Psalm.  Family and friends in the first pew did so.  Colleagues and physicians across the nave did so.  Leaders of national organizations near and far did so.  In the balcony, twenty white coated medical students together did so.  Either at that point or another in the service they stood silently together, to honor the life and faith of the deceased.  That day I met a friend a personal physician of Arthur Ashe, whose life, prowess, faithfulness and service have always so inspired me.  Read again this summer his autobiography, Days of Grace.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

In the collation following the service, Charlayne Hunter Gault introduced herself.  You will remember her, as we did, from her many and fine contributions to the News Hour, with Jim Lehrer.  She said, ‘I need to talk to you later about the 23 Psalm’.  I was so pleased to meet her, and then so worried that I had somehow offended her, that the collation time passed anxiously.  It needn’t have done.  She wanted to recall a memory.  A memory of her younger self.  At 18.  The first African American to integrate the University of Georgia.  The daughter of a Baptist minister.  Alone in a big place, a strange place, a new place.  Walking home the third night, there were taunts and threats.  The University that day had suggested she might want to go home, at least for a while.   She went into her room.  She closed the door.  She turned out the lights.  And she waited, until quiet came.  And then—it was the only thing that came to her mind—the prayer of David in Psalm 23 came to her.  And she spoke the psalm, alone, afraid, uncertain, at night.   ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.’

Sometimes words are all we have.  A regular radio listener from Rhode Island telephoned a few weeks ago.  He said, ‘sometimes words are all we have’.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

In late June from this pulpit we invited those moved to consider the possibility, to spend a Sunday worshipping in an African Methodist Episcopal Church this summer.  ‘Take with you the greetings of Marsh Chapel’, we suggested.  This sort of visit is not for everyone, and can take many forms.  It has been interesting, and encouraging, to see that this summer some of you have done so.  One friend, regular in attendance here, did so a few weeks ago.  He has a story to tell, and has made a personal connection or three.  One radio listener, virtually present by radio or podcast week by week, went further.  She is arranging a neighborhood gathering, she hopes, and hopes we can help her.  Real change is real hard but happens in real time when real people really work at it.  There is a latent goodness, a common faith a common ground and a common hope, all about us, like the ocean holding the duck, like the still waters that restore the soul.  My friends, you are bringing a personal to bear upon the emergence of a beloved community.   Look at what Robert Gates has done, in the right time in the right way, in leading the Boy Scouts of American in a new direction.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Coming to communion you come with your lost loved ones in mind and heart.  This last winter we bade farewell to a father in law, Charlie. When we receive the Lord’s Supper we do so with the communion of saints all around us.  Charlie was a lover.

He loved nature.  Garden.  Seed time. Harvest. Planting. Weeding.  Watering.  Like the parables of Jesus.  He had a green thumb.  Most plant benefitted by the touch of his hand.

He loved work.  With his hands.  Carpentry.  Also some good company in carpentry, if I remember the Bible that they had us memorize at church camp.  14 features of our cottage have known the touch of his hand.

He loved the poor and the other.  In his study group. In work with Abraham House, Retired Teachers, and Habitat for Humanity and various churches and causes.  He loved others, and I mean others.  Of other religions, other places, other races, other backgrounds, other orientations.  He loved.  Others, and they felt the touch of his hand.

He loved his country.  He was not a member of any organized political party.  His patriotism, his love of country was not only liberty and justice, but liberty and justice FOR ALL.  And with his own hands he lived that.

He loved his church.  Its committees, its pastors, its building needs, its study groups, its quirks and oddities.  Especially he loved the reading he did with others.

He loved his family, and expressed that love in rocking horses and tools given and evergreens planted and windows replaced and sincere, repeated words of love.

He touched us in the most touching of ways.

He loved God by loving the things of God, the creation of God, the tasks of God, the people of God, the church of God.

He was our ‘dad’ and we learned from him.  We all need models of personal faith, people who can show us by example the dimensions of spirituality we so desire.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called…

Some years ago, Jan and I went out onto the bay in Mallorca one Sunday. Once a year we try to go somewhere, alone, together.  In that bay a boat called the ‘Marco Polo’ will take you ten kilometers or so south, or north, dock for a half hour swim, then bring you back to port.  We embarked covered with sunscreen.

In the stern a dozen Germans were gathered, stoic, and after a while they began to sing, in German.  Sort of like our Marsh choir sings some Sundays.  Madrilenos, Catalans, Natives of Andalucia, other Spaniards, sat up front with the youth, maybe a dozen young people.  Thence much laughter.  Sort of like our Marsh Community lunch.  We sat under cover, mid-ship, with the British enfrocked in bonnets, sweaters, long stockings, sunglasses.  We sat against an open window, beautifully open to the sea in the middle of the earth.

Like a large sea gull, we bobbed along, in the summer beauty, summer sun, summer heat, summer grace and freedom and love.  An earnest relationship with work you may find in America, among Americans.  Vacation belongs to the Europeans.  A hearty relationship with vacation they have.  Anne Murrow Lindbergh, a European at heart, to paraphrase, said, ‘A vacation is a month, at least.  Take a month, at least, or don’t bother’.

Above us in the ‘Marco Polo’ was a roof covered with life jackets, an old anchor, some rope, other flotsam and jetsam.  We sat with the dour British—Spanish laughter a fore, German song aft, and watching the tide role away.  There is just something about the ocean.

A gull floated along with us.  Wind, sand, stars—ocean.  St. Exuprey.  Of a sudden, to the right appeared several feet!  Small feet, young feet.  Left foot, right foot, hay foot, straw foot.  The young had commandeered the roof, dangling their feet, kicking, drumming, jostling, lounging and lifting their feet out toward the sea in the middle of the earth.  Then, gone.  The lifeguard must have appeared.  It made me think of Paul, in Corinthians, ‘shall the head say to the feet, I have no need of thee?’  And of Isaiah, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings’.  And of Jesus, washing in humble service the feet of 12 men, disciples, whom he called ‘friends’.

Of a sudden! To the left, across the cabin, outside the other window, feet, numerous feet, numinous feet, kicking and leaning and pushing.  Young people can take the world and make it young again.  Dangling feet, dangling prepositions, dangling thoughts—you will make the world playful, youthful, happy, hopeful.  Just don’t fall overboard, but that is another sermon.

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

One of our fellow seekers of the beloved community offered this prayer, with which we conclude.

Adonai, we pray that all may come to the understanding that one person’s grief is a shared experience that we will all face, one person’s love is a love that all will someday experience, one person’s exclusion or shunning is one that we all hope never to experience. One person’s success does not in any way diminish us. Friendship with someone new does not change the friendships that are already part of us. A person being praised and appreciated does not mean that we are not, it is just not your turn, or that there are reasons why they needed those words more at that moment. Consequences of actions born of love have a way of transforming who we are. Until each human being realizes that inflicting harm to another either intentionally or unintentionally or participates in such group dynamics that do, we will not have peace on this earth. Yet when a whispered prayer reaches out to you Adonai, and you reach back to us. We have reached the center where we know that we are loved, and nothing on heaven or earth can change that. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. (TERRY BAURLEY)

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

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The Beloved Community in a Wild and Crazy World!

July 26th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 12:15-21

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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