Calvin for Lent: Exit or Voice

March 9th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 4: 1-11

Romans 5: 12-19

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7

(Philippians 1: 19ff.)

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            Over pasta last summer, a hot July night, six of us of long friendship ate and talked.  Our dear friend Anita has been for decades a committed lay reader in her summer church.  She has taken pride in her work, praying and practicing for her lector role, recruiting others, and helping in worship.  With spaghetti and wine and the warmth of long relationship we nodded and supped.  But something had happened.  The old pastor left.  A new one came.  He was, sadly, rude and belligerent with his helpers.  Not just once, or twice.

Said Anita:  “What should I do?  I love to read, and I love my lector team.  But his behavior I cannot abide.  I have talked to him.  He rebuffs me.  If I stay, I endure and even collude in his misbehavior, but I will still have my voice in church and with the committee.  If I leave, I exit from what I love and also leave behind any influence I might have to help, support or protect others.  I am loyal to my church, but I am ready to go.  What should I do?’

Hours, days and months are actually shot through with this form of dilemma in choice.  Exit or leave?  A famous study forty years ago laid out for economists the dimensions of the dilemma.  (Albert O. Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)  But such a condition goes well beyond the marketplace.

Exit is as old the exit from the Garden of Eden.  Voice is as old as the dominical voice of Christ resisting temptation.  Exit and voice: how do the Scriptures frame such living choice?

Our lessons from Holy Scripture this morning propound the moral and mortal limits of life in sin and death.  As does every Sunday benediction, sung or spoken, Genesis 2 and Romans 5 and Matthew 4, directly remind you:  your life is brief and messy.

The ancient myth, beginning in the garden of paradise and moving to the east of Eden, entwines fragility and fragmentation, existence and estrangement, sin and death.   The tree of the knowledge of good and evil provides the symbolic substance, the serpent provides the symbolic occasion, and the fig leaves provides the symbolic covering of the entanglement of sin and death, shame and loss.   The strange world of the Bible—not strange in the sense of odd or wrong but strange in the sense of numinous and monumental—accosts us today with a ringing reminder of suffering and death.

Others may put these verses in different frames (a pan-religious frame (Joseph Campbell), or in a salvation history frame (G Von Rad), or in a tradition historical frame (Rudolph Bultmann), or in a literary religious frame (Diana Eck)).   For us in worship, though, these words are holy writ.  They function as words with divine import for human living.  They remind us of moral and mortal limits to life in sin and death, suffering and death.  They set before us the perilous multiple choices of life in a certain realistic context, as we shall see in a moment with regard to the choices, hourly and daily, between exit and voice.

The deep, hard cold of a real old time religion winter season, like ours here in 2014, befits our Holy Scriptures today.  It is bracing to feel the full wind and cold of winter.  We are thus reminded, perhaps even made mellow and melancholy, no bad thing, by the stern icy reminder of morality and mortality, sin and death.

This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant.  It is fitting that we begin with Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

Our passage from Romans 5 gives us Paul’s own apocalyptic rendering of the themes of sin and death.  We should be careful to recognize that the words are the same here as in Genesis 2 and 3, but the meanings are different.  For Paul both sin and death are spheres of influence, orbs of control, dominions and principalities and powers.  His apocalyptic worldview makes a changed use of the inherited terms from Genesis.  Likewise his philosophical mode is quite different from the narrative structures in Genesis 2 and 3.  The freedom found in Christ smashes the controls of the orbs of sin and death, for Paul.

So Calvin writes, about this passage: To sin is to be corrupt.  The natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, although it does not produce its fruits immediately, is still sin before God, and deserves his punishment…Grace means the pure goodness of God, or his unmerited love, of which He has given us a proof in Christ, in order to relieve our misery. You did hear the Apostle say that this grace was given to all men.  That sounds fairly universalistic to most readers.  All.  Yet Calvin says otherwise:  Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all…not all receive him. (Commentaries, loc.cit.)

            Like that wind you felt on the Esplanade the other day, these sentences from Geneva in 1540 or so have their purposes.  They posit that we are not in possession of grace as much as we are in need of grace.   Grace is the gift of God sorely needed by the people of God.  130,000 dead in Syria.  A four year old pummeled to death in New England.  A mother driving into the surf with her children in Daytona Beach.  Construct your own list, following a good reading of the Sunday newspaper.  A cold, sober realism is found both in Romans 5, on Calvin’s reading, and in the daily reports of suffering, near and far.

Our passage from Matthew 4 connects with Adam and Christ along the trail of temptation, from the garden of Eden to the wilderness of Palestine.  This gospel, a teacher’s gospel, makes sure to begin with the harder news, that even Christ himself was tempted to make improper use of freedom.  In Calvin’s view, every form of temptation comes with a divine purpose, a gracious protection, and a form of grace to be received:  The temptations that strike us are not fortuitous, or the turn of Satan’s whim, without God’s permission, but that the Spirit of God presides in all our trials, that our faith may be the better tried.  So we may take our sure hope that God, who is the supreme Master of the ring, will not be unmindful of us, or fail to succor our weaknesses, as He sees we are unequal to them. (Commentaries, loc. cit.)

In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf.   A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable:  “Himself was his own battleground, the scene of his own vanquishment and the mausoleum of his own defeat’ …’aint only one thing worse than not being alive and that’s shame’…”they learn only through violent suffering, with words written in human blood”…”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.



            How shall we use our human freedom faithfully in the light of the divine freedom known to us in Christ?


Exit or voice or resignation?  Fight or flight or play dead?

Your roommate smokes for breakfast, drugs for lunch, drinks for dinner.  Do you leave—him, school or both?  Do you confront—‘one of us is crazy and I think it’s you’?  Do you grin and bear it?


Your faculty has taken a new direction, that is, a wrong turn.  For well- intentioned reasons, they have exchanged birthright for pottage.  Do you politic, agitate, criticize, and combat in what may well be a losing cause?  Do you call a friend who has wanted you to come to Brown or NYU for a long time anyway, and prepare to exit?  Or do you close your door, grade your papers and play a little more golf?


Your brother is about to marry the wrong woman.  He is impressionable and she is impressive—an empress if you will.  Do you shout a warning and then risk never speaking to him again?  Do you reason, consult, have lunch, empathize and appeal to the better angels of his nature?  Do you throw up your hands, send an early shower gift, and bite your tongue?


You are a major world super power.  With limited success you have partially pacified a resentful Middle Eastern Muslim nation.  Now what?  Do you exit, stage left, leaving behind a decade of warfare, tens of thousands dead, tribal hatreds still much in evidence, and hope for the best?  Do you stay, increase your footprint and military presence, give voice to the rights and needs of children, women, non-muslims and others?  Or do you practice a little benign neglect, and put your energy into health care, immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, Chinese economics, and the next election?


How much for exit and how much for voice?  How much for flight and how much for fight?  And, then, when do you just pull your turtle head back into the shell and play dead?


In 54 ad Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, in a verse with subterranean links to Genesis and Matthew, exit and voice, wrestled with the same angel\demon.


On one hand, he wrote, ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain. Yet which I shall choose I cannot telI.’ (Phil. 1: 21). For once his regular apocalyptic eschatology, the horizontal primitive hope of the day of the Lord, which he fully expects to see in the flesh, gives way to a simple, vertical, Greek, gnostic eschatology, an immediate translation to glory.  Troubles, trouble in the churches it may be, spark Paul’s momentary exit strategy, his longing to  ‘depart and be with Christ’.


On the other hand, he considered, ‘To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account’.  I am for you, so I should be with you.  It is better for you that I am here.  We can add:  to raise my voice, to lift my voice, to write my letters, to preach my Gospel, to have influence into the next generation.  Paul longs for exit.  Paul lives for voice.


How much for exit?   How much for voice?  How much protestant exit?  How much catholic loyalty?  How much reformation?  How much counter-reformation?  How much pulpit?  How much table?  How much discontinuity?  How much continuity?  How much new world?  How much old world?


On these spiritual balances  hang the cure of our souls.  Needless to say, there is not an answer, no formulaic response, no ‘one size fits all’, no ethical Procrustean bed.  Another Pauline verse beckons:  ‘only let each one be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Rom 8:44).  We could, in faith, though, at least carry away from Lent 1 some shared understandings as people of faith.


We understand that on a daily if not hourly basis, we are choosing, by the freedom of the will, between exit and voice.  To have voice means to have to stay.  To exit means to give up voice.  To exit may be your statement, your voice, within a certain context, but it is, then, your valediction, your swan song.  On the other hand, your voice may be your exit, but it is then a prophetic utterance, with all the continuing costs attested in the 4 greater and 12 lesser prophecies of our Hebrew scripture.   Or you could just sit this one out, take a siesta.


We understand that most decisions involve some admixture, some balance—neither Webster only or Calhoun, only; but the shadow of Henry Clay, the great compromiser.


We understand that where we place our physical self, our body, where we place our standard on the field of battle, our social location, makes a difference.  Starting with showing up for worship, to speak with our neighbors, to sing the hymns of faith, to utter our prayers, to attend to the Word.


We understand, too, that whatever voice we lift, even the muted voice of silent witness, has a hearing, makes a difference, marks our faith, and influences the faith of others.


Exit?  Voice?


Over forty years, in painful relationship to my beloved Methodist Church, I with others have struggled about exit and voice.  Many of my friends, colleagues, students, and companions have chosen exit, one way or another.  In some limited ways, I have, too.  These are faithful people making hard decisions.  I honor the cradle Methodist who chooses Episcopal orders, the Methodist seminarian who reluctantly becomes a Congregationalist, the gen-x and millennial cohorts leaving us behind


I stay.  I stay to raise my voice, and to reject giving my orders, my position, my influence, and, over time multiple generations of pastoral leadership, to a currently afro centric general church.  I stay because I believe that over time, around the world, under the influence of a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe, the mighty scourge of homophobia will be rejected by a body that in its singing voice and reasonable mind—in its spiritual bones—lives the gospel of freedom, grace, love, acceptance, kindness, and forgiveness.  Over time, Methodists will not want to harm 9 year old gay children.


But.  This response is generational.  It will take longer than my limited life time for this change fully to come.  This response is global.  It will require a change of heart, over time, in African Methodists.  This response is gritty.  It will mean underground railways to marry gays and deploy ordained gays.  It will mean prayer and withholding apportionment dollars.  It will mean seasoned, genuine response in many settings:  charge, annual, jurisdictional, global and intergalactic conferences.  It will mean upomone—longsuffering, longsuffering, longsuffering.  It will involve political love.


(Political love, active love in institutional life, is a crucial, necessary feature of realistic faithfulness.

Political love is political because it occurs by intention within the city community.  Political love is love because it is divinely gracious—an incursive addition to life.

Love listens and remembers.  Love compliments with sincerity and pointed limitation.  Love watches for another’s unspoken longing.  Love uncovers festering injustice.  Love shows up, attends, responds, and then invites.

This political love accepts the requirement of alliance, even alliance with opposition, without neglecting friendships, or forgetting the beauty of friendship.)

Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.


Exit or voice?  You be the judge.

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

One Means of Grace

March 2nd, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 17: 1-9

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            Walk with me for a moment, if you will.  You are saintly souls, so you will smoothly saunter along.   Our seminarians want to think about the way they walk, through the town of their service.  People can tell a lot about you by the way you walk.  Is she approachable? Always in a hurry? Open to interruption (ministry is interruption)?  Able to kick up leaves or snow?  You as a community know how to saunter.  You do.


Our walk is the journey of faith.  Faith is a gift.  The gift is the gift of a journey, of travel, of motion and movement and progress and regress.  It may be that in a lifetime we create more problems than we solve.   Who is to say?  Yet we do learn, step by step, whether in progress or not, whether in fruitfulness, or not.  After failure, after defeat, you can always ask yourself, or another:  ‘what did you learn from that’?  ‘For all that hurt, what did you learn?’  That can be as healing as anything, for those with whom you walk.


Ahead of us on the trail—just take a moment to lift the gaze and train the eyes—we can see or foresee some trail markers ahead.   You will come walking, sauntering, the saints of God to feast on the holiness of God, down the aisle in a moment for One Means of Grace.  You foresee Holy Communion.  You will walk further and later this week into the forty days of Lent, starting Wednesday.  You foresee preparation, discipline, study, fasting, come Lent.


You see out more than a month, and just at the end of Lent, too, another marker.  A return, one year later, to Boylston Street.  A return, step by step, a year later, to Marathon Monday.  A return, just about Easter, to the horrific violence, the unspeakable and damnable bombing of our New England family picnic.  A return to the death of Lu Lingzi, our BU student.  We are preparing services and vigils and gatherings, including at 10am Monday April 21, here.  Hold those hurt in prayer, those hurting in prayer, those who helped in prayer, those healing in prayer.


There is something, one step two step, something of heart beating as we walk along, lub dub, lub dub, the beating of the heart as we beat along the path in the journey of faith.




            Take one step.  You are coming into One Means of Grace, which it the holy meal of Christ, the Eucharist.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.  Eucharist is thanksgiving.   As the years pass, the gospel of Transfiguration becomes so dear, does it not?  In a lingering moment, a poetical beauty, the three disciples without Andrew, high on a mountain, are entranced, enthralled, enchanted.  They worship.  They truly worship.  They give thanks and worship God, bowing to Moses (law) Elijah (prophets) and Jesus (grace).  Love—how can you not?—the painting Matthew does:  a face of sunshine, a deference (‘if you wish’), a bright cloud, falling on the face, filling with awe, the vision.


Follow the trail of this text, Matthew 17.  Its seedbed is in Exodus 24, by the way.  Its roots are in Mark 9, which Matthew has appended and amended.  It has its own beauty, right here right now.  It is preached upon, early, in 2 Peter.  The gospel itself steps along, moves along, makes progress.


The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  To a friend last week:  “I am aware of the increased attention to Calvin and Calvinism, even in newspapers (N.Y. Times, others).  I believe the attention is in part due to the overall substantial theological material therein, and in part to what you allude to below, which is the gracious grandeur of the creator behind the creation, so emphasized in Calvin.  It is striking to me that Calvin, working in the beauty of the Alps, and Robinson, growing up in the beauty of the Rockies, have a kindred sense of the mountainous greatness of God.”   Pause just a moment on the mountain.


When you come to worship you place yourself in earshot of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  To be thankful, Eucharist.  To give thanks, Eucharist.  To sing a song of thanksgiving, Eucharist.


Opposition:  Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time.




            Take another step. You are coming into One Means of Grace, which is the holy meal of Christ, in remembrance.  This do in remembrance of me.  To remember and to recall are not the same things, but memory and recollection are cousins, at least.  Do you ever have conversations with loved ones who are now ‘in a greater light and on a farther shore’?  The bath of baptism and the meal of communion, simple gifts, remind us of who we are and whose we are.


There is here bread for the journey.  But some of that nourishment is found not in the meal but in the mind.  You are walking now, or soon, up the sawdust trail that is our center aisle, or imagining that walk from your breakfast nook, your front seat, your living room, or your desk.  This One Means of Grace reminds you of your best, own most, truly faithful self.  Such a reminder can be blinding, joyous, painful, and costly.  Your social location does truly matter.


Boston University invited students and others to apply to run the Marathon, this year, in memory of our student, Lu Lingzi.  200 applications came for 7 spots, a process well ordered by our Dean of Students office.  Some of us read through the applications in order to select 7.  They are private so they are not quoted, here.  But moving?  Emotional? Wonderful? Real?  All, and more.  This do in remembrance of me.  All 200 wanted to lace their sneakers and don their running togs and endure the 27.3 miles—to remember.  In a way, these worthy applications were themselves sacramental.  This do in remembrance of me.  In our congregation we have others who are running, this year especially in remembrance.


Such kindness, such reverence, remind us who we have set out, and sauntered on, to be.   Good people can differ about real and big things, people of faith can see things in varieties of ways.  There are many ways of keeping faith.  Yet, when one hears the call to exact the death penalty, even for such heinous and miserable violence a year ago, one wonders, in remembrance.  This is not really about two brothers, one dead and one heading to trial, is it?  This is really about us, about you and me, about what kind of community we are, and want to be.   Taking life as a way of protecting life—is this who we want to be?  Opposing killing by killing—is this who we want to see when we stand in the mirror of judgment?   You may well feel the real and raw urge for vengeance.  Who would not feel some at least of this?  But who are we?  This is about us, about the people of Boston, and who we most want to be.  It is something to think about on the long walk, the journey of faith, from Eucharist to Lent to Easter to the marathon.




Take a third step. You are coming into One Means of Grace, which is the holy meal of Christ, in real presence.  In, with and under the humble elements of bread and wine, changing nothing and changing everything, we are met in presence. ‘You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.  2 Peter is the latest document in the New Testament, written in the name of Peter more than 100 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth (Jude is its second chapter!).  The tradition and memory of the Transfiguration lives on, and lives on well, here.  We need not fear the dark.  We need not fear death.  Death is not like a candle snuffed, but like a lamp turned down because the dawn has come.  Eliot poetized that we humans are ‘fear in a handful of dust’ and so we are, full of anxiety—existential anxiety, survivors anxiety, performance anxiety, emotional anxiety.  Into fear and anxiety intrudes a sense of presence.  For your journey of faith, take along a hymn of thanksgiving, take along a word of remembrance, but take along as well a sense of presence.  For all the forms and understandings of disenchantment around us, there lingers, here and now, a sense of presence.   Presence is all about.  Immediacy.  Inwardness.  Experience.


We are coming to communion.  My grandmother, born in 1893, spent five decades as communion steward of her little Methodist church.  Four times a year she filled tiny shot glasses and carved small bread cubes, juggling the trays into church, and waiting anxiously through the hour to see whether she had prepared sufficient elements.  I do not remember her remembering to me a single communion homily, by the way, though she will have heard more than fifty years’ worth.


At communion I remember her.  I am thankful for her.  I sense her presence.


After graduating from Smith College she went to teach school in Tivoli NY, a little town on the Hudson River, east shore.  There later she met my grandfather, in a boarding house for single teachers and others, run by his mother.  His first wife died very young.  One cold winter day—it may have been 100 years ago this winter—she skated on the fully frozen Hudson (rarely so fully frozen), from Tivoli down (south) to Poughkeepsie, 14 miles.  Then she skated back, 14 miles.  Here she is, a young woman, free of the farm, teaching German, meeting young men, falling in love, and skating 28 miles on the rarely so frozen Hudson River.  I see her lacing her skates, in the bright cold air.  I imagine her arranging her coat and cap and scarf and mittens.  I watch her push off, across the clear smooth ice, like that on the Charles this morning.

She pauses, mid skate, looking up into the blue tinted evergreens on the shore line, smiling, happy, free.  All the wonderful Olympic skating of Sochi pales by comparison.  She skates in the Presence.  A real presence, in, with and under all else.


At communion I remember her.  I am thankful for her.  I sense her presence.  She embodies what the greats have taught:


Tillich: ‘such a degree of entanglement between worldly wisdom and divine revelation that culture is considered the form of religion and religion as culture’s depths’

Kelsey: ‘God actively relates to us to create us, to draw us to eschatological consummation, and to reconcile us when we have become estranged from God’

Neville:  Live the Ultimates.   Be Just.  Develop Wholeness.  Be Compassionate.  Accomplish Something.  Be Grateful.  Honor the universality of value in anything that has form.  To be is to have value.

M Robinson: ‘Our civilization believed for a long time in God and the soul and sin and salvation, assuming, whatever else, that meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world (Adam, 84).  We hope to acquire rather than to achieve.  We still believe in the seriousness of being human, while we have lost the means of acknowledging this belief.  We are spiritual agoraphobes.’



            William Sloane Coffin offered his generation ways of thinking and living One Means of Grace.  With happiness we may call one another to the walk, the journey of faith in remembering his wisdom (from the Faces on Faith series)

Faith:  faith is being grasped by the power of love.

Safety:  God provides minimum protection and maximum support.

Adversity:  We learn most from adversity.

Sin:  Sin is a state of being.  When the triangle of love, GOD SELF NEIGHBOR, is sundered, there is sin.

Guilt:  Guilt is the last stronghold of pride.

Will:  The rational mind is not match for the irrational will.

Mercy:  There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

Justice:  Pastoral concern for the rich must match prophetic concern for the poor.

Love:  The religious norm is love.

Trouble:  It is what is known and unspoken that causes the most trouble.

Truth:  Faith gives the strength to confront unpleasant truth.

Journey:  Faith puts you on the road.  Hope keeps you on the road.  Love is the end of the road.

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

The Bach Experience

February 23rd, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Brother Lawrence Whitney:


First: confession.  Second: glorification.  Third: belief.

Here, at last, we turn with Bach in the movement of the Mass to belief.  “Credo…” “I believe…”

“Br. Larry, I’m not sure I believe in hell anymore,” a student stated with no small hint of trepidation.  “So?” I asked in reply.  “Br. Larry, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally down with Jesus,” another student remarked, “I’m just not sure he’s the only way to God.”  “Should you be?” I inquired.  “Br. Larry, how can I believe in an almighty God who let my friend die like that?”  After a period of silence I wondered aloud, “After such a tragedy, can any of us believe in such a God?  Should we?”

There is an underlying concern in these inquiries.  This is the reason to bring them to a chaplain, even one who refuses to give a straight answer.  The concern is what impact these beliefs, at odds with received tradition, might have on the salvation of those who hold them.  If I believe the wrong things, can I be saved?

This reduction of salvation to doctrinal conviction is not classical Christianity but rather a modern phenomenon.  It is a result of the encounter of Christianity with particular forms of Enlightenment rationalism, admittedly itself an evolution of Protestant thinking.  Ironically, Christianity as right belief in this way takes a pernicious turn toward humanistic works righteousness.  It insists that salvation is achieved by intellectual assent and not in the first instance by the grace of God.  Frequently it turns to idolatry by turning the bible, and belief therein, into the gatekeeper of heaven.  As the slogan goes, “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  This is Christianity become Biblianity, in spite of Paul’s injunction that “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

If this misplaced emphasis on belief were limited to the Protestant Christians from whom it arose it would be bad enough.  Alas, given the ways in which belief-oriented Christianity has become a taken-for-granted stream in the American conscious, it has become the predominant paradigm for interpreting all religious orientations in our pluralistic society.

As we speak, the United States Supreme Court is in the process of hearing several religion cases. One regards prayer in legislative sessions.  Two regard the right of corporations to deny birth control coverage on the basis of the religious beliefs of their owners.  If their decisions in these cases follow their track record, and we should expect they will, it is likely the Court will err.  The errors will not be on the basis of jurisprudence, but rather on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of religion as belief at the very foundation of American jurisprudence.  In spite of the fact that there are no Protestants left on the Supreme Court, it is likely that all of the justices will prove themselves Protestant by proxy in making decisions based on a particular Protestant understanding of religion as belief.

Given the transitions in the field of religious studies over the past fifty years, it is unlikely that any undergraduate religion major could graduate without a thorough understanding that belief is but one aspect of religion, and a minor one in many traditions.  Little wonder, then, that Secretary of State John Kerry said, “if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

Religion reduced to belief is dangerous.  Assertions of belief are ways of delineating in-group, out-group boundaries.  Right now, Arizona awaits the signature of their governor on legislation that would allow religion as belief to be cited as grounds for denying services to gay and lesbian couples.  Beliefs become justifications for standing your ground against those who believe else or otherwise.  For most of human history, the function of religion was in fact to just so delineate groups from one another.  In the Axial Age, however, figures such as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus, among many others, were instrumental in the transformation of religion toward a universality that transcends difference.  And so it is that Jesus rejects any justification of “Stand Your Ground:” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

This is not to say that belief has no place in religion at all.  The “Credo” in its proper context in the Mass setting is an excellent example of belief within the wider framework of the practices of religion.  The “Credo” is sung, that is, it is embodied in the voices of the choir, the tintinnabulations of the orchestra, and the gestures of the conductor.  It is the belief of individuals who belong to a community and to God.  It is belief enacted, not belief intellected.  Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about what we believe with Bach this morning.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

In October we began our journey in this great cathedral of music, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, entering first the narthex with the supplicant Kyrie. In December we joined the mighty congregation in the nave in the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Today we come to the Cathedral crossing – where the tenets of the faith are taught, affirmed and observed.

Written late in Bach’s life, the Credo is an unparalleled compendium of compositional style and skill. Marsh Chapel congregants are now well familiar with Bach’s interest in symmetrical structures and architectures. The nine movements of the Credo unfold in such a way that the Crucifixus text comes as the centerpiece with Et incarnates est and et resurrexit on either side. These three movements, the crux of the faith, form the central portion of this grand Credo setting. On either side, Bach sets extended portions of text for arias – first a soprano/alto duet and later a baritone solo. The first depicts the three in one nature of God. You’ll hear the alto melody as an extension and mirror of the soprano, interweaving and informing one another, as if to depict being of one substance of the father.

The capstones of the Credo are two pairs of choruses. Each set begins with a movement proving Bach’s skill and interest in the old 16th century style of a Renaissance motet. These two movements – ‘Credo in unum Deum’ and ‘Confiteor’ –draw their compositional model from Gregorian Chant melodies. Both movements yield in spectacular display to music in the high Baroque style with trumpets, timpani and full-on display of Bach’s unmatched mastery of the contrapuntal style.

For the performer – and we hope for the listener – Bach’s music impels these texts to leap from the page. As Luther wrote, “The Notes makes the texts live.” And as Br. Larry reminds us today, Bach’s music calls us to a belief re-imagined, a belief quickened, revitalized, and transformed. This is a Credo of cosmic utterance, new realities and possibilities of faith far beyond the sum of the parts.

Brother Lawrence Whitney:

Dearly beloved, what we believe with Bach this morning is the living and breathing of the life of faith.  The words are ancient, the spirit is fresh.  Believe then in God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Amen.

make haste slowly

February 16th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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The sermon text is unavailable at this time.

~Ms. Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate


February 9th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Ephesians 4: 1-7

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Robert McAfee Brown


One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…


It is hard if not impossible for many of us, who studied at the feet of Professor Robert McAfee Brown, to hear these words spoken with anything other than his own excitement, spirit, and love.


Over time you will sift out for yourselves, at whatever age, the teachers who have not only informed but have formed you.  Information is good.  Transformation is really good.   In that spirit it is hard to hear Ephesians 4 and to face the fact that our teacher Robert McAfee Brown is not here any longer to recite the passage.


We washed up on the venerable shore of Union Theological Seminary in the autumn of 1976, there to stay for the better part of three years.  Dr. Brown came and left in the same time period, three short years.   He was a Union man.  He said, often, ‘you can always tell the Union people’.  He meant by that the emphasis in life not only on a deep personal faith but also on an active social involvement.  We here would quote Mr. Wesley, ‘there is no holiness save social holiness’, and add, ‘you can always tell the Boston people’.


President Shriver somehow convinced the Browns, Bob and Sydney, to come back from the sunny west coast to their alma mater, Union, where 2o years earlier they had come of age with Tillich, Niebuhr, Knox, Terrien, Heschel, Fosdick, Steimle, Scherer and all.  Perhaps they felt they owed it to their forebears.  The match lasted only briefly, but for those of us there in the same brevity, it was a brief shining moment.  A transformational moment


The first Christmas, in what was to become a series of jovial parties, Robert McAfee Brown brought a stack of telegrams sent ostensibly from the North Pole.  They played on ‘Claus’, one being a commendation of Union for affirming the ongoing ‘claus struggle’—workers of the world unite.


One spring he preached at the wedding of friends in James chapel, citing Jeremiah and ‘the old paths’.  Strikingly, for that setting and those days, and much to my appreciation, he warned the couple that many things they could share with others, but not the most intimate things–‘dining room but not bedroom’ was the way he put it.  I can hear the sermon as if it were given this morning.


The next autumn he invited about 10 couples to have dinner with him and his wife Sydney in their apartment along Riverside Drive.   The Browns had invited also as their guest a relatively young Jewish scholar, recently connected to Boston University, but living and working also in New York.  Brown was to provide later a new and moving introduction to a short book many of us have used and reused in teaching over decades.  The book:  NIGHT.  The scholar:  Elie Wiesel.


You see how information pales before transformation, how life stands out from work, how hospitality invades ingenuity.  You see all too easily what homiletically the sermon is up to.   You are, or will be, many of you, teachers and preachers still in 2060, but remembering perhaps the influence of Brown, born in 1920.  Kierkegaard was right about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  Mark that.  We want to connect you, a generation behind us, with others, a generation ahead.  The past is not dead, it is not even past.


Robert McAfee Brown is a model for many because he was an unapologetic generalist, in the forest of specialists.   For him the fun of the university is the universal part.  Oh, he had many specialties, over the year:  theology, church history, world religions, liberation theologies, and others.


But Brown was a model because he continued to evolve, change and grow year in and out, decade by decade.  He would celebrate the life of this University if he were here.  He would attend the annual honored University Lecture, participate in the University Faculty, celebrate at University Commencement, Baccalaureate, Matriculation, attend University Chapel worship on Sunday, and read BU Today, day by day.


I see him walking the quadrangle.  I peer at him in the refectory.  I hand him in memory a book he has requested from the library stacks.   I admire still their happy marriage, which lit and warmed and brightened just by manner of being, happy.  I rue the lasting awfulness of death that takes such a life out of life–at least this life.  I am grateful for the wealth of teachers and teaching I was given, whose full merit I could not appreciate, and whose full measure, I have not taken even to this day.


His wife Sydney Thomson Brown wrote:  “Grounded in the traditional, the traditional never contained him.” (Memoir, 121).


The Ecumenical Revolution


At last, in the final year, there was a place in a class with Professor Brown.   It was titled for one of his other specialties, and one of his books, THE ECUMENICAL REVOLUTION.  Brown had been a protestant observer, in some ways THE protestant observer, at Vatican II.   For the rest of his life, he exuded the spirit and theme of that remarkable Council: aggiornamento.


Now,  Boston.  Over the last several months we have faithfully, culturally remembered other anniversaries: I Have a Dream, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the death of JFK, and even this week the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.   What have we remembered about Vatican II? James Carroll did write a compelling column in the fall, and a few others have done similar things.  But in the main?  We have missed the anniversary.


A thunderous silence somehow has hidden, this year, a great anniversary.  A celebration that should have already begun.  A festival!  Yet, I have not heard or read a single word of it.  Vatican II?  Of this celebration, I hear nothing.  Somebody needs to be throwing a party, a thirty year birthday party, a festival!  So, rather than curse the media darkness–a not unenjoyable pastime–I today light one candle, one birthday candle.


One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…


These years mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, 1962-1965.  In the fall of 1965, Pope John the 23rd’s great three year meeting came to an end.  So much went off-track in the 1960′s that we sometimes throw out the baby with the bath water in our generational sifting.  We forget people and moments of genuine courage.


One Lord, One faith, One baptism…


Pope John 23, that happy, rotund, gracious, thankful Italian pastor, had an inspiration late one night in 1959.  From the corners of the earth, he would gather church leaders, including non-catholics, to meditate on Paul’s teaching about “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”.  The Council opened in the autumn 1962 and ended in the autumn 1965.  The Bishop of Rome felt that the time had come for “aggiornamento”.  A renewal.  An updating.  Change.  Times were changing, and the church, he felt, would need to change with them.  And yes, my teacher, Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian, attended and wrote the best available summary of the council, The Ecumenical Revolution.


Venerable, conserving, religious, beloved institutions can change to serve the present age.  If you wonder whether anyone, anyway can ever bring renewal, updating…change (ooh…) then I see this birthday candle lit today.  We remember R. M. Brown’s stories about John 23 and recall that fifty years ago a then 700 million member venerable, conservative, religious, beloved church—threw the windows open!


One Lord, One faith, One Baptism.  One God and Creator of us all who is above all and through all and in all!


Aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change–can even come to big institutions, even churches, with the right leadership.


John 23 championed principles of change:  constant reformation, study of the Bible, collegiality, religious freedom, the role of the laity, diversity, ecumenism, dialogue, and mission.


Here is the good news, from Ephesians, and from the portly Bishop of Rome, 1964:  the church can change, and in so doing, can gain its life by losing it.

The pronouncement of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the lasting ultimate victory of substance over form!


After all, Ephesians 4: 1-7 was written by a student of St. Paul, as the early church was moving from diversity to unity, and finding its way toward an ecumenical shape, at the end of the first century.


I’m waiting for an invitation from somebody to attend a party!  I hear nothing. As Gabriel Vahanian said at the time of those courageous council leaders, “the Catholics have become the real Protestants today.”


Three applications—serve, listen, change.


One Lord


First.  With all Christians, we serve one Lord. Aggiornamento today should mean for us, the freedom to serve.


An old documentary film depicts Mother Teresa visiting the tenderloin, red-light district of San Francisco.  Teresa and three other Sisters of Mercy are shown touring one of the houses in this area, which they have bought to use as a haven for battered women.  The contractor, who has recently renovated the beautiful 19th century great house, proudly guides the Saint of Calcutta through American opulence.  He shows her the great hall, the carpeted rooms, the fine draperies, the posted beds, the ample lighting, the mirrors.  He hopes she will admire the repairs to the porcelain in the baths.  He has donated some of his labor and is clearly honored to be with this great woman.  During the tour, Teresa says nothing, jotting a few notes.


As they return to the front door, the contractor asks Mother Teresa whether she will need anything else.  The film focuses on her face, as she gives a quiet response.  She thanks him for his work.  She compliments the beauty of the house.  She expresses admiration for such finery.  Then she says:  “the mattresses can stay.  Everything else must go:  the drapes, the mirrors, the beds, everything.” The contractor takes notes to undo his handy work, but cannot resist asking the saint at the end: “Mother, Why?”  “Because, we are here for people.  We cannot let any distraction interfere with our connection to these for whom Christ died.  What matters is their healing, their life.  We must not let anything get between us.  We’ll keep the mattresses.”


Pope John Paul II once said: “You need courage to follow Christ…especially when you recognize that so much of our dominant culture is a culture of flight from God…”  And Pope Francis:  ‘who am I to judge?’


Paul Baumann:  “In the emerging struggle against the spiritually stultifying effects of technological society, Protestants and Catholics need to join forces.”


Service can unite where doctrine divides.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  Let your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.


One Faith


Second, with all Christians we hold one faith.  Aggiornamento today should mean for us the freedom to listen to others’ journeys.


One summer we shared a late Sunday dinner, with two very close friends, children of Vatican II, Catholics from the north country.  It was a good dinner.  Fish, potatoes, sunset, candles, and the quiet rosy warmth of friendship.  When dusk comes, what do you have anyway, but your faith and your friends?  Over dessert, we talked religion, which often we do.  Coffee and dessert came, but the real end of the conversation eluded us.  I wanted to know what worship meant for my friend.  It was important to me, and maybe for that reason, I at last could hear her response.  I had entered that prized moment when one suspends disbelief.  What of the mass, the weekly eucharist, the liturgy?  “I just feel so thankful”, she said.  “I go to communion and I just feel so thankful.”  In a quiet voice, with a full heart, she spoke God’s truth.


What a joy to see windows opened, and saving renewal occur.  We know this well on a personal level, and hear it in each others’ stories.


In therapy, a man has the hurt of 20 years exposed to the healing light of acceptance.  A clean wind blows upon his heart.


In surgery, a woman has the disease of a decade removed through the light of skilled hands.  A clean wind blows upon her body.


In work, a man has the opportunity to fail, and does fail, and has his real calling suddenly exposed through the light of grace.  A clean wind blows upon his life.


In marriage, a couple finally faces the truth:  this is not going to work without some change.  The anger of so many fitful nights is exposed.  A clean wind blows upon their future.


Aggiornamento is real hard.   And real good.


In fact, this year, our musicians are leading us home.  Piece by piece they are presenting the Bach B Minor Mass.  John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on Bach ‘like other biographers, ponders whether the work is Lutheran or Catholic…If Bach had lived longer it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass…There he might have confirmed the Catholic nature of the whole…Bach’s music sets in order what life cannot’ (G Stauffer, NYRB, 2/20/14, 25).


 One Baptism


Third, with all Christians we share one Baptism.  Aggiornamento for us should mean the freedom to change our minds.


After fifty years, I think the church of John the 23rd still has some things to teach us all, especially bout Christ transforming culture–that is Augustine of Hippo.  About feeling thankful. About the physical body, and respect for the body.   About the Body of Christ, the church.   About natural and moral law.


And so I light a birthday candle today.  I am so thankful that I grew up in a time of aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change.


So I was advised by Raymond Brown, S.J., for eleven years was served by a Roman Catholic secretary, have shared countless weddings and funerals, enjoy the opportunity to teach, still, in a Jesuit school, am grateful for BU Professor Jay Corrin’s new book on liberal English Catholics in the 1960’s, and enjoy the fellowship of many traditions in the Boston Ministers’ Club. Without the Catholics in my life I would have been much less of a Protestant!


You know, life is a smorgasbord, and some of us are going hungry.  I mean, others, different others, can teach us, show us, and help us.  But we have to have the courage to think again, think twice, and change the mind.


I think of those who have given up their churches for the sake of the larger church.  The leaders in Canada in 1925 who gave up the name Methodist and became part of the United Church.  The leaders of the EUB in this country who gave up their name and history to become part of the United Methodist church.  I remember my dean and friend, playfully asking, in one letter:  “Is God a Methodist?”  Maybe if we are really thankful for what counts we will become freer about what counts a little less.  We may be able to move out of our religious families of origin with a little more ease.


“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”


We have a number of listeners to our broadcast in Albany, NY.  The downtown churches there, some five of them or so, share the challenges of urban ministry, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist.  Older buildings, smaller congregations, aging roofing, uncertain boilers, many empty pews.  Twice each summer, though, and three times again during the year, all five come together in one sanctuary:  the place is full, the hymns are sung well, the fellowship is warm.  You wonder whether what they are doing now and then might well be done every week, and not just in Albany?


One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.


Let our prayer be that of Thomas Aquinas:

Give us, O Lord,

                        steadfast hearts which no unworthy thought can drag downward

                        unconquered hearts, which no unworthy purpose can wear out

                        upright hearts, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside

                        Bestow upon us also, O Lord our God,

                        Understanding to know you

                        Diligence to seek you

                        Wisdom to find you

                        And a faithfulness that will finally embrace you

                        Through Jesus Christ our Lord.


(St. Thomas Aquinas)

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

The Means of Grace

February 2nd, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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                        John Wesley taught his poor bands of early Methodists the effectiveness of prudent means of grace, ways by which to receive the freedom, love and faithfulness of God.   By precept and example he taught fasting, abstaining from food Tuesdays and Fridays—he exercised the body, mens sana in corpore sano.  By precept and example he taught the full study of Scripture, truly trying to live as homo unius libri, a person of one book.  By precept and example he applauded Christian conference, ordinary conversation if engaged with heart and mind.  By precept and example he commended the sacraments of baptism and the lord’s supper, not endlessly quibbling about their theological nor the proper modes of celebration:  use them, use them, use them, he exhorted.  By precept and example he coveted prayer, the sitting in silence before God.   You struggle and stumble, it may be, do to lack of nourishment, unintended abstinence from grace in exercise, study, sacrament, talk, and prayer.  Find meaning this winter in the means of grace!


1. Fasting


Fasting is a way to discipline the body.  Many of you do so through regular exercise.  (Having been caused to stand for 7 minutes for the gospel as ung, you may feel your work today is done!) Several here will run the marathon April 21.  Some here will walk in the winter along the river.  A few here will walk or take the T this afternoon to the Common to skate at 1pm, our annual Ground Hog Day observance.  Yesterday here at Marsh Chapel several dozen students exercised their voice in all day choir practice.  Yesterday here at Marsh Chapel several dozen other students exercised their minds in study retreat on the theme ‘the blueprint of life’.  Let us find grace this winter in exercise.


2.  Scripture


Scripture is holy especially when pursued in holiness.  What a loss not to fall in love with Scripture, not to befriend Scripture, not to be guided by Scripture!  Read in college Plato, Shakespeare, and Bible.  Prize your time now you have it.   Listen today to Micah.


The twelve minor prophets (named) include the prophet of righteousness, Micah ben Imlah.


Since we are in the middle of some old time religion winter weather, with school children sleeping in school in Atlanta and temperatures cascading in Albany and wind sweeping the frozen plains of Arkansas, we might hearken again to the prophet Micah, whose own voice carries three thousand years later with the harsh, crisp and freezing jolt of a blizzard.


Other windswept, snow covered scriptural peaks stand at the same height as Micah 6.   Deuteronomy 6:5 stands just as tall:  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.  Leviticus 19:18 stands just as tall:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Jonah 4:2 stands just as tall:  the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Amos 5: 24 stands just as tall:  Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream.


                        Then there is our joy, our memory verse for today (and you will want it memorized):  What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?


These verses are not religious.  They are helpful to religious people.  They are beneficial to religious communities.  They are nourishing to religious sentiment.  But they are not in themselves religious.   They require no creed, save that common to all people.  They demand no cult, save the culture of the human being at her best.  They depend on no special experience, no esoteric experience, just that shared by every mortal, of three score and ten years.  They rely on no foundational history, save the history common to the planet.  These verses are not religious.  They are merely true.


Look for a minute at Micah.

Let us find grace this winter in Scripture.


3. Conversation


Luncheon awaits us, and group life, and conversation, today.   More than we regularly admit, in this brief life, conversation among friends is lastingly meaningful.   To say ‘good morning’ and really mean it.  To inquire about another’s well being and tune to the response.  To journal and record memorable phrases, odd silences, dream sequences, and the mind waking in the morning.  We greet one another in communion, and then following service to acquire the knowledge of names.  It is all right to ask more than once.  We are all more human than anything else.  For all our vaunted differences, we utterly resemble each other, as we admit and relearn in conversation.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe.

            We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

            We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

            We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

            We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

            We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

            We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Let us find grace this winter in conversation.


4. Sacrament


                        Today in community, or later in the week in pastoral visit and communion, we will receive the lord’s supper.  Two sacraments and five sacramental rites.


One such, the moment of memorial, 600 of us entered, last Saturday in remembrance of a son of Boston University, Dr. Kenneth Edelin.   The truth and love in the afternoon made of that cold day a warm sacramental gathering.  Listen to the voices of those who spoke:


Governor Patrick:  Justice is what love looks like in real life.


Rev. Liz Walker:  Truth without love is brutality.  Love without truth is sentimentality.


                        Ken Edelin:  the seamlessness between doctor and patient (or, I would say, between pastor and parishioner, minister and congregation).


                        30 standing as students who were studying medicine through his influence and support.


Barack Obama, Gloria Steinem, Jeh Johnson (later on The State of the Union address).


Charlene Hunter-Gault:  The Lord is my Shepherd


                        Arthur Ashe’s physician:  Days of Grace


                        All days are days of grace and all days of grace offer means of grace


Let us find grace this winter in sacrament.



5. Prayer


“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.



            Let us find grace this winter in prayer.


Wesley taught us prudently to use the means of grace:  exercise, scripture, conversation, sacrament, and prayer.  But let us use them, use them, use them!


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

See the Light

January 26th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 4: 13-23

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            The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…

Many of you will remember our evening Christmas Eve service, and its conclusion.   It is one of the few times, as a congregation, at which we gather in the dark.   After prayers, scripture, sermon and Eucharist, there is a pause.  The organ plays a bit, preparing the way for the singing of Silent Night.

            Stille Nacht.  Heilige Nacht

            Alles schlaft, einsem vacht…

            Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh

            Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh


The usher team douses the light in the nave.  Clergy pass a bit of flame and fire from one candle to another.  At the start there is a startling darkness.  There is a depth of darkness, a deep and empty kind of quiet.  There is a yearning, there, a longing, then, a waiting.  I ponder it, following Christmas, every year, and more so as years go by.  People who would not otherwise darken the door of a church on a sunlit Sunday, will and do stand in the dark, and sing songs in the night.  Now, what is that about?   Most of our worship is on Sunday morning, in the light.  But on Christmas Eve we sing ‘songs in the night’, as Job might have it said.  Songs in the night.

I remember our daughter now 34, singing Away in a Manger, at age 3, in a country church, with the sense and scent of milking present, in the dark.  I remember a front pew of visiting foreign students, in a city church at midnight, trying to make sense singing out of the Methodist hymnal, which many were holding upside down, in the dark.  I remember, a church later, a rustle, like a covey of birds taking flight, in the rows of the Sopranos and bases, near midnight, when a wedding ring was offered and receive and the deal was struck, Bass to Soprano, after an anthem sung, in the dark.  I remember your faces here in Marsh Chapel, candles lit, moving through the familiar verses of a familiar carol, a hymn somehow though sung into an utter strangeness, in the dark. Songs in the night.

It is a mystical moment.  A Nicholas of Cusa moment.  Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) would have reminded us of the importance of a learned ignorance.  He would have recalled the priority of the spiritual journey.  Cusa would have taught us about the central importance of an experience of de-centering of the executive self.  He might have seen in the dark a kind of divine presence. Cusa I think would have celebrated as a very sign of the divine your own personal trek to church that night.  And this morning.  Nicholas of Cusa may have been on your minds, or someone’s, that dark night, four weeks ago.  For Christmas Eve, candles held, is one of the few moments in community when we see the light, see the light in the dark, really sense and see the light in which we see light.  It is a nearly unique culturally affirmed moment in which we wonder about appearance and reality.  We are freed, given permission even, to stand in a dark, empty presence that envelops us, dislocates us, unnerves us, and embraces us.  I can see you holding the candle, that night.  I can hear you singing the carol, that night.  I can recall the Thurman choir in resonant, redolent voice, that night. I can remember you receiving a benediction that night.

Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light?  What were we doing here on Christmas Eve?  What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway?  We arrived by mystery, live by mystery, and leave by mystery.  A mysterium tremendum.

En una noche oscura.

            Con ansias en amores inflamadas

            O! Dichosa Ventura!

            Sali sin ser notada

            Estando ya mi casa sosegada

The gospel today illumines our darkness, lightens our darkness, in order to minimize our metaphysical mistakes, our metaphysical malpractice. Our readings today are all about light.  The Gospel recites an Isaian prophecy, read already earlier, that light will come even to the least, the last, the lost, the outcast region of Galilee, the abode of the non-religious.  Christ came for the ungodly not for the godly, says Paul in Romans.   The Gospel shows us four who saw light and left nets and became disciples.   ‘Peter and Andrew, free and grown.  James and John, young and home.’  The light of the Gospel is candle light, here and there, emerging but a long way from noonday heat, sporadic, personal—and beautiful.

1.  With Peter, light the candle of incarnation.

As Faulker said of us, ‘they learn nothing save through suffering, and understanding nothing save what is written in blood’.   We might do a bit better daily to pursue a learned ignorance. We risk harm when we mistake other things for incarnation. The gospel of Matthew affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people.  The image of God.   To restore this image we give ourselves over each day and week to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We desire the rich announcement of incarnation.   That is, we are in the people business.  We are in the grace business, not the talent business.  We are in the grace business, not the cleverness business.  Here.  For example as P Gomes wrote:

 A few years ago the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and I engaged in one of our frequent exchanges of pulpits and each of us took an old sermon across the river to preach in the other’s pulpit. It is probably no secret to you that sermons are recycled.  If the great works of Bach can be heard over and over and over again, why cannot the best offerings that we have to make? The only rule is that you don’t repeat it to the same congregation.  So Dean Thornburg came over here to Memorial Church to preach to Harvard, and I went over to Marsh Chapel to preach to Boston University.  In the business of the when we exchanged the information for our respective bulletins so that the people would know what it was we thought we were saying, we each found out what the other was preaching about. Dean Thornburg chose to give his sermon the title “God and the Know-it-all”. The sermon that I took from my pile without consultation with Bob was titled “Ordinary People”.  Someone who knew us both wondered if we were trying to insult our respective congregations on that morning, and there were some people at Boston University, sensitive souls, who rather resented the fact that the preacher of Harvard University should preach to them about ordinary people.


2.  With Andrew, light the candle of integrity.

The ongoing spiritual journey affirms integrity not just innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we hardly talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex.  Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. Our forgetfulness about the nature of life as a journey has caused good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence.  We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage.  We need a fuller conversation.  And a more theological one.  Couples marry later today than once they did.   They are far more ready for a theological consideration of love, sexuality and marriage than years before.  They can think together about the Song of Solomon.  You can travel toward integrity and holiness without innocence.  I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity.

More generally, we know the process of repentance:  to apologize, seek pardon, find restitution, and move onward.  We are often our own very worst enemies in forgetting this.  We tend to tell our biggest lies to ourselves.

3.  With James, light the candle of divine presence.

The true light that enlightens everyone…Some of that illumination, for some, may come with a mystical theology that does not  replace God with Jesus. As a Christian, I say, Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity.  The gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism.  And our sense of the mystery of life.  As Smith repeated, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.  Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking, or make others ‘surrender’ like a thief. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way– there is the Christ, wherever there is truth– there is Christ, wherever there is life– there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith himself walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today!  Decades later I read Smith’s credo:  We are in good hands, so it well behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  The mystery of God is greater than the measure of our mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life.  The greater the body of knowledge, the longer the shore line of mystery that surrounds it.

4.  With John, light the candle of generosity.

The de centering of the self, the illumination of soul, sometimes comes with real generosity, disciplined generosity.  Is there a part of your soul which, once illumined by real generosity, would illumine all the rest? The faithful life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns.

The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in generosity, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in generosity, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of non communal life receives its denial in generosity, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith.  We need the illumination of real and disciplined generosity.

How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…

Will somebody light a candle? Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light?  What were we doing here on Christmas Eve?  What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway?  Will somebody light a candle?  Sing a song in the night?  In the dark, see the light?

Silent Night, Holy Night

            Son of God, Love’s pure light

            Radiant beams from thy holy face

            With the dawn of redeeming grace

            Jesus, Lord at thy birth

            Jesus, Lord at thy birth

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

The Welcome Table: Welcoming the Unwelcomed

January 19th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 14: 15-24

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The Parable of the Great Banquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction and Elaboration of Thesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kennedy, King, Mandela and Obama and the Welcome Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening up The Welcome Table: Welcoming the Unwelcomed

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

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

Summary and Closing

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

2 “Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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

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

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

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


~The Rev. Dr. Walter Fluker

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

Revive, Renew, Respond

January 12th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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


**Please pray with me:

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



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


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

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

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


“For us and for our salvation

He came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man (COMMA),

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

He suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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



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


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

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


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

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

~The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf,

University Chaplain for International Students





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

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

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

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

Wisdom and the Incarnate

January 5th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Good morning. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


~Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel A