On Beginning a Conversation

September 4th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:25-33

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*On Beginning a Conversation:  

A Psalm, 100

*On Beginning a Conversation:

A Prayer

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

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

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

Be our North Star, our compass, sextant

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

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

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

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

For those on the bridge—wisdom

For those learning the ropes—patience

For those working the in the rigging—a light heart

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

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

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


*On Beginning a Conversation:

Questions at the border (4):  What is your name? Where are you from?  Where are you headed?  Do you have anything to declare?

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Read

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

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

For like our gospel lesson today, they and this University, have been interested in what makes a person human, in what makes a human be human, in what lies not outside, but inside, not in measurement but in meaning, not in the visible but in the soulful, not in making a living, only, but in making a life, fully.

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Gaining Soul

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

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes.

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

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Mortality


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

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

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die”.



“You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


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

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

“Why”, I asked.

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


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

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

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

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Scripture

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

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


*On Beginning A Conversation:  Spirit

Class of 2020:  we are here with you because we are here for you (repeat).  We have come from many regions of the world and many ranges of your past experience in order to be present here, to share your presence, and our presence with you.  Here with you, we are here for you.

And yet, quite soon, we will not be present, at least some  of us.  The airplane will taxy down the runway, the gas tank will be filled, and we will be off, absent, or present in thought and care but not in flesh and bone.   We will need to give you over, and to give over your commitment to, your delight in,  and your wonder at each other, to…Another Presence,  God’s Presence.  God’s presence, spirit, or, as the reading for today names it, God’s Abiding in us.  As will you, day by day, so will we need to trust in…Another Presence.  

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

In Love.  Love is the attentive gift of time, as in the course of a lifetime of marriage.  In Love.

In Joy.  Joy is happy embrace—physical, mental, spiritual, soulful—morning and evening.  In Joy.

In Peace.  Peace is the gift—all these are pure gifts of God—of real listening, listening with a full smile and a glad heart.  In Peace.

In Patience.  A marriage needs persistence, the accelerator, and patience, the break, to make it over the mountains and through the deserts, and across the great plains of life.  Said the Buddha:  patience is self-compassion which gives you equanimity.  In Patience.

In Kindness.  Kindness is the long distance run, the gift of a gracious long distance perspective, known in part in the openness to forgiveness.  In Kindness.

In Goodness.  Real Goodness bursts forth in generosity.  You only have what you give away, and you only truly possess what you have the grace and freedom to offer to someone else.  What you give is what you have.  In Goodness.

In Faith.  Faith is a gift, like all other signs of abiding love.  Faith is the capacity to withstand what and when we cannot understand (repeat).  When you face struggle, challenge, difficulty, may this gift be yours by divine grace.  In Faith.

In Gentleness.  Tea, sunset, backrub, quiet, handholding, prayer, worship.  In Gentleness.

In Self-Control.  Self-Control, a gift of God’s Presence, guides you to work through any and all labors:  in care for family and extended family;  in stewardship of precious material wealth, never plentiful but always sufficient; in sensitivity in intimacy, sexuality, in preparing for an unforeseen future;  in the building of community (you both have great natural gifts and capacities for friendship, as is evident today)—yes religious community, but also neighborhood, town, school, city, and a culture gradually amenable to faith.  In Self-Control.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

Into Another Presence, into Another’s Presence, we, your families, loved ones, and friends, now send you, married, from this day forward.  With Ruth may you say: ‘Wither thou goest I will go, wither thou lodgest I will lodge, they people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’

*On Beginning a Conversation:  2 Creeds


Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

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

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

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A Special Guest

August 28th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:1, 7-13

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We have a special guest with us today.  He has made his way into our midst, through a long and arduous journey. Our guest over a great expanse, has come our way.  Because his presence has come at significant expense in time, labor and effort, and because his presence is precious to us, in ways both known and unknown, both speak-able and unspeakable, we pause to honor him.

Many thousands of miles separate us from his homeland.  In fact to travel here, he travels over land and sea, over continent and sub-continent, over mountain and valley and hill and molehill.  The very fact alone that we have him here is cause for delight, wonder, celebration, reverence, awe and joy.  Many hundreds of years separate us from his family of origin, from the time and times of his time.  To travel here he has to engage in a sort of time travel, like that involved in every day, in every hour, in every moment, in every memory and in every hope.  Here is the future:  ah, it has slipped into the present.  Here is the present:  ah, it has slipped into the past.  Here is the past:  ah, it has slipped into memory.  Here is memory:  ah, it has been lost, or reborn in hope.

Peer into his eyes for a moment, eyes aware of a numinous divine humility.  Our visitor awaits your recognition.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Can one acquire humility without enduring humiliation? It is a serious question.  Discomfort, we ignore.  Pain, we obey.

Our visitor emerges from the strange world of the Bible.  In these weeks, in case we might have tried to avoid the mysterium tremendum, in worship, we have had the lava flow of Hebrews to terrify us, the ringing prophetic voice like no other in Jeremiah to rivet us, the heart wringing prayer of David in the Psalms to stop us in our tracks.  Our visitor emerges from this kind of strange world—Hebrews, Jeremiah, Psalms—the strange world of the Bible.  Strange. The Bible is very different, up to and including its most distinctive different difference, the Gospel of John.

Yes, wee have a special guest with us today.  He has made his way into our midst, through a long and arduous journey.  Because his presence has come at significant expense in time, labor and effort, and because his presence is precious to us, in ways both known and unknown, both speak-able and unspeakable, we pause to honor him.

Our guest began life as a story told perhaps among shepherds and wanderers.  His is the kind of story beloved of the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the lame.  His is the kind of story beloved by you, at 3am, with troubles.  His is the kind of story audible to the mortal, the sick, those in need, and those beyond help in need.   Our guest brings a Sunday story.  Six days shalt thou avoid your impending death and your ongoing fragility and your endless fault lines, but the seventh shall be a Sabbath unto the Lord.

Allow me to present him to you, if you will.  You may greet him with a Methodist handshake.  He already knows you, as the Bible knows us where and when we know ourselves not, as God knows us, though we were to know ourselves not at all—what sweet truth!   That is, you need no introduction to you.  He knows you.  But allow me to present him to you, perhaps for the first time, but more likely for the first time in a long time.  Isn’t it happy to have such a guest today?

In his younger days, he was a story told along the highways and byways of life.  It may be that he was a Palestinian.  The fifty by one hundred and fifty mile rectangle of ancient Judea was probably his home in his growing up days, though as for that, we cannot be entirely sure.   As a story goes, he is an old one, from the time of his youth until today.   Remember we piped to you but you did not dance, we wailed to you but you did not weep?  That account earlier in the gospel of children playing games in the marketplace, one group wanting to play the game called ‘weddings’ the other wanting to play the game called ‘funerals’?  Pipes?  Wails?   Of course life is much more than weddings and funerals, isn’t it? Or is it?  Our guest was in the mix of these sorts of stories and games and reposts and conversations and imaginative utterances.

As a Palestinian, spoken in Aramaic, our guest found his way to Jesus, or to someone close to Jesus, or to Luke, or to someone close to Luke (by then translated if that is the case, into simple—koine—Greek).   You see he has quite a pedigree (Lk 11:43, 20:46).  What an honor for us to have him here.   (Note:  if I were presenting to you a human guest who is 2000 years old, who has traveled from the ancient Middle East to us in our modern experience of the ongoing middleeastification of American life, who has consorted with Jesus and Luke and all, who has been a compinche, compadre, companion to Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich and Georgia Harkness and Mother Teresa and Mother Olga and your Momma and mine, who has been spoken and spoken of since before Polycarp was a pup—would you not be astounded?)  We venerate the venerable, in worship:  ringing out for us are sturdy words, millennia old.

Greet him please.  Our guest is our Gospel reading, an ancient manuscript.   We rightly stand, at his reading in the service, to honor him.   In worship, he stands among us, VERBUM DEI, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, St Luke, Chapter 14, vss. 7-11, though before his life in ministry he was simply an ordinary businessman, walking the dusty trails of Bethlehem and Nazareth and Capernaum and Jerusalem.   He is the everlasting account of a wedding banquet, which, like all social moments, is one full of both treasure and treachery, a feast to which you—YOU!!!—have been invited.

Peer into his eyes for a moment.  Our visitor awaits your recognition.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Can one acquire humility without enduring humiliation? It is a serious question.  Discomfort, we ignore.  Pain, we obey.   The preaching of the gospel is the utterance of the word of faith in the hope, and in the trust, that such a word may become, by God’s grace, an intervening word, a saving word, a word that enters and changes the course of life.   Can humility so conveyed and so acquired protect us from humiliation, learning the hard way, learning from experience?

You may be curious about our guest’s features, temperament, personality, and resume.  His extended family includes a hero from Proverbs: Claim not honor in the presence of the King, Nor stand in the place of great men; it is better for you to be told, ‘Come up hither’, than to be humbled before a noble (25:6).   The question of whether you are seated ‘below the salt’ or not abides.  His face is present also in Luke 18: 14 (everyone who…) and Matthew 23: 12 (everyone who…) and James 4: 6 (God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble).  He has a second cousin or two in Luke’ ‘sermon on the plain’ (Lk.  6).   His is a familiar face, one you recognize even though you cannot place it immediately:  Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  Our guest has many colleagues in traditional Jewish wisdom literature, and shares its characteristics of artistic language, hyperbole, paradox, metaphor, and (here) similitude.  Our guest is not really a parable, though Luke kindly affirms him so.  He is a simple tale, with a proverbially twist.  The story he tells warns about humility, in the mode of a wedding feast.  The twist, at the end, announces a turning in the world, from high to low and low to high.  And here, he shows his true colors.  He is an introduction to the Christ of God.  Luke 14: 7 intimates, whispers, a reverence for the divine humility, the hiddenness, silence, absence of God.

Luke has included, here, a wisdom saying fit to the voice of Jesus. To honor others, to count others in higher esteem, to give credit where credit is due, to develop a capacity for wonder and vulnerability and self-mockery, to take ourselves lightly that we may fly like the angels, to acquire a capacity for humility—such a process of development in life, here, in this wisdom saying, fit to the voice of Jesus, is offered us as a way of life, of health, of salvation, of peace.

Peer into his eyes for a moment.  Our visitor awaits your recognition.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Can one acquire humility without enduring humiliation? (repeat) It is a serious question.  Discomfort, we ignore.  Pain, we obey.

For us, as part of a national culture now careening toward and into an apotheosis of hubris, the similitude of Luke 14 hits home.  The way of the long future is along the path of humility.  But we get tired of humility, because it is a tiring and tiresome talent to hone.  We get tired, and if we get scared when we get tired, if a portion of fear is laden into a potion, poisonous potion, of pride, and if that fear potion is potent enough to carry us, we forget who we are.  We forget Emma Lazarus and prefer demagoguery.  We forget Lincoln and support nativism.  We forget King and accept narcissism.  We forget Jesus the crucified and cleave to the cry of triumphalism, out of fear and out of exhaustion and out of amnesia.  We forget the advice of the author of Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.  We turn aside from the prophetic voice of Jeremiah, Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Can we acquire a modicum of humility, that measure we will minimally need as a people, without enduring humiliation?  Can we learn without learning the hard way?  Can we see the pending consequences through the lenses of humility, without needing, in order to learn, a full experience of humiliation?  Or, as so often in history, will we need to drink the bitter cup of full cultural and national humiliation, in order for humility to return?  I would like to be optimistic… Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way.  To learn what?  Pride goeth before a fall.

For us as individuals, who have known more than our share, as our guest reminds us, more than our share of elbowing our way to the head of the table, the similitude of Luke 14 hits home.  Narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leads to life, and few there be who go therein.  We all, one way or another, get born on third base and think we hit a triple.  We all see a turtle on top of a fence post and think he got there by climbing.  We all preach our version of the sermon, Humility and How I Achieved It.  We all have one set of arithmetic for our own deeds and misdeeds and another for others, one abacus for our own intentions and another for those of others.  We all can stand a little and more than a little house cleaning when it comes to the rooms marked off by what we think we did when we didn’t and what we think we didn’t when we did.  There is, that is, still a place in the pilgrim faithful heart, for the quiet Yankee voice of self-criticism. There is still a value in the teacher who began every class bowing to the students, not knowing what range of genius might already be present.  H R Niebuhr in the evening hunted up a student whom he had chastised in the morning, asking forgiveness.  Can we learn without learning the hard way?  Can we see the pending consequences through the lenses of humility, without needing, in order to learn, a full experience of humiliation?  Or, as so often in history, will we need to drink the bitter cup of full personal humiliation, in order for humility to return?  I would like to be optimistic… Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way.  To learn what?  Pride goeth before a fall.

Mahatma Ghandi, whose favorite Christian hymn we have just sung, in sandals and Sari, walked four miles a day, among all his people.  He knew the English court, the banks of the Thames, the style and rhythms of British life, but went home.  Ghandi reminded us that for the hungry God will present, if at all, in bread.  To listen to the hurt in others, to pause before the hidden courage of others, to accept the grace to celebrate the good in others, to spot the one thing needful in the need of others—herein, behold, a humility, a divine humility—today’s special guest.   Shakespeare:  There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will. (He) ‘who came not to be served but to serve’…who today occupies the supreme place in history…to whom has been given the name that is above every name’. (So E F Tittle, Commentary on Luke 155).

Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom

Lead Thou me on

The night is dark and I am far from home

Lead Thou me on

Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see

The distant scene, one step enough for me

So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still

Will lead me on

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent till

The night is gone

And with the morn, those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost a while

Sursum Corda:  Lift up your hearts!  Great this Lord’s Day a Special Guest, Luke 14: 7, and shake his hand: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Lukan Horizon

August 21st, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

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Come summer in the north, we are closer in some ways to nature, than we are otherwise.   You may be listening this morning, toes in the surf or sand, or high up a mountain trail, or along a lakeshore, or in the back lawn, coffee in hand.   We need the summer to survive the winter.  You are wise to embrace it.

In the evening hour, with a tenebrous cool after a long, hot day, you may have, this summer, looked out on a horizon, blue and pink and moving.   The day has a beginning at sunrise, and an end at sunset.  To know the day you need to know both, as to know a person you need some information regarding whence and more regarding wither.   To know people, and to know a people, the far horizon, tenebrous at dusk, is keenly, crucially meaningful.  Quo vadis?  Where are you headed?  Dime a donde andas, y te dire quien eres.

A question for those to be married:  where will you be ten years from today?  A question for those to matriculate:  to what end is your education?  A question for those entering retirement:  are there now different shores on which to land?  A question for those newly diagnosed, suddenly alone, shorn of routine, anxious about the unseen:  what is the ‘telos’, the point, the soul forming meaning of your disappointment, dislocation, or departure?  Our gospel affirms lasting meaning in life.

In particular, the Gospel of Luke paints a compassionate horizon.  The third gospel has a passion for compassion. In a broad compassion Luke locates our ultimate destination.

The National Preacher Series

Today concludes the tenth year of our annual Marsh Chapel Summer National Preacher Series.  Our intention has been to bring the best preachers—the best whether or not the best known—to address, either in some indirect or in some more linear fashion, a shared theme.  Listen again, on the website to some of our past sermons.  Consider ‘the Gifts of Summer’ in 2007, including the missionary witness of Mark and Lynn Baker.  Hear again (now) Bishop Mike McKee on the Call to Ministry in 2008.  Pick any of the ten sermons on Darwin and Faith from 2009, say that of Wesley Wildman.  Receive the Gospel from (now) Bishop Ken Carter, on the theme of Grace in 2010.  Hear Rev. Dr. Robin Olson on student ministry in 2011, or enjoy again the venerable voice of our saintly (now)deceased friend and neighbor, Professor Peter Gomes, earlier that year.  Learn about New Testament Apocalyptic, say with Dr. David Jacobsen, in 2012.  Enjoy the Peter Falk like voice of Dean Snyder, so wise and true, on Hope in the Church, 2013.   Reckon with Professor Jonathan Walton, summer 2014, on Emerging Adulthood.  Or reflect again on the Beloved Community, from last summer 2015, with the Rev. Dr. Regina Walton.  Our is a University Pulpit, and with your aid, support and engagement we shall continue to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.

The Summer Series 2016

Your 2016 series made some news earlier this summer. Our local reporter, Mr. Richard Barlow of BU Today wrote about the 2016 series:

The series kicks off Sunday, July 3, with the first of seven sermons on Luke’s Gospel and its central theme of compassion. The Lukan Horizon, as the series is named, seeks “to remember the compassion—the passion for compassion—in the person of Jesus the Christ,” says…dean of Marsh Chapel. The Gospel stresses humanitarianism and forgiveness; it’s the only one of the four Gospels with the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and it is full of sympathetic portrayals of women.

This message… contrasts with the “less than appealing and frankly appalling conditions of some parts of our culture that have been revealed in some ranges of (our recent experience).”

The compassion motif also echoes several recent Commencement addresses, Hill says, including the Baccalaureate talk this spring by Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (CAS’79, Hon.’16), who called on BU graduates to “embrace the cause of humanity with optimism and enthusiasm.” (BU Today, June 2016).  (We could quickly add the magnificent speech given this spring at the Boston University Humphrey Scholars graduation program May 9, 2016 by Hubert Humphrey’s niece, Dr. Ann Howard Tristani, who quoted her uncle’s famous 1948 spell binding Philadelphia aspeech: ‘There will be no hedging, no watering down, of the instruments and the principles of the civil rights program.  My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say we are 172 years late…To those who say this bill is an infringement on state’s rights, I say the time has arrived in America.  The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow states rights and walk forthrightly intot he bright sunshine of human rights.’  It is both stunning and tragic to recognize how much of what he addressed then is still with us this great, but troubled land, in today’s issues of urban violence and its state level address, in affordable health care usage (or not) state by state, in the lasting not just lingering formative power of slavery in the making of American Capitalism, in the willingness or lack thereof of those who have much, to provide for others who have little, in the use of a word like ‘liberty’ to mean its opposite, its very denial to tens of millions of poor children.  

Luke 13: Gospel and Tradition

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

What do we find?  

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark.  An example is the memory of our passage today, Luke 13.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark.  But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need.  In fact, we are summoned and ordered to do so, and not free not to do so.  Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service.  Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere.  The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, where we find ourselves this morning, are all his.  Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward.  We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories.  Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say?  

This will take us the rest of the fall and more to more fully unravel.  We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one traditional episode at a time.  Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth.   First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose, or better said, divine meaning, in history—on this more in a moment.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way.  The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion.  Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.  Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’.  That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.   It is this feature of Luke, the Lukan Horizon, the Lukan passion for compassion, upon which our preaching has centered this summer.  So we are taught:  know history, think for yourself, love the church, have compassion.

Compassion in interreligious dialogue framed and formed the sermon by Br. Lawrence Whitney on July 3: ‘ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and causes us to recognize one another’. Compassion for those at the margins of society, including those who have suffered in this year’s tragic killings of various sorts and in various places, inspired the sermon of Chaplain Jessica Chicka on July 10: ‘the Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear’.  Compassion for those searching for meaning, and a direct challenge to find such in spiritual inwardness, self-discipline, and struggle gave the heart to Dean Lawrence Carter’s July 17 address.  Compassion for those of  ‘another flock’ gave wings to his July 24 acclamation—the witness of Ghandi, the voice of King, the advice of Thurman, the wisdom of Buddhism, the mothering of Hinduism and the stark reminder:  it is not Christian belief but its realization that finally matters.  Not belief but realization! Compassion and concern for our shared home, our natural habitat—a worthy and frequent theme in this pulpit—empowered Dr. Davies’ homily on July 31:  dominion is not domination, both optimists and pessimists can at least be meliorists, our children’s children will ask questions of or to us, about how we have cared for our environment.  Compassion of a substantial, material, physical, even financial kind—‘forgive us our debts’ carried the burden of the Communion Homily on August 7.  And last Sunday, beginning and ending with Tutu, probing the power of relational rather than authoritarian power, finding examples in hospitality near and far, the Rev. Susan Shafer, in the heat of the day, interpreted a tough passage from Luke and memorable line from our Vice President:  ‘the world needs from us not the example of our power, but the power of our example’.   It happens, perhaps providentially, but certainly in a timely way, that our lectionary readings this year hail from Luke.  Toward what horizon are we hiking?  Onto what shore do we hope to land?  By what compass and map, what star, what conscience call, what soulful spirit shall we be guided?  ‘Quo vadis?’  Whither?  Where are you headed?   Is yours, at twilight, a compassionate horizon?

Today’s Gospel, it happens, presents this theme under the cloud of smoke and pillar of fire of a familiar, pan Gospel, episode, Jesus’ compassionate willingness to heal on the Sabbath, to judge the Sabbath by its human or humanizing effect, to forever trump tradition with gospel, and to make religion necessarily subject to judgment in the categories of pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry and hypocrisy.  Is religion a good thing?  It can be.  Is the weather a good thing?  It can be.  It depends.

In our passage from St. Luke chapter 13, the Gospel writer has sharply implanted his own emphasis, on compassion.  The similar Sabbath passages are in Mark 2, Matthew 12, and John 5.   Luke explicitly heightens Jesus’ authority by placing him in the synagogue, in the synagogue teaching, and in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath.  Luke changes the gender of the afflicted person, from male to female.  Luke quantifies the hurt, to 18 years of suffering. Luke accentuates the verbal condemnation, ‘hypocrites’.  Luke connects the healed one to Abraham, and amplifies the size of Jesus’ legal victory, shaming adversaries and causing rejoicing by all.  Clearly, this is a story that has developed, that has lived a while, that has been marinating in the sauce of the church’s own growth, advance, and expanse.  Sadly, there is here the hint, the glimpse, the clear though far-off hymn, that hails—triumphalism.  Not Jesus the minority view rabbi, arguing uphill against a majoritarian Torah tribe, but rather Jesus the conqueror, the great debater, the winner of arguments about Torah.  We might do well to re-hear and rehearse Elie Wiesel’s lecture on this from 5 years ago.

The Far Horizon

One final note about Luke today.   The gospel itself, and its sibling book the Acts of the Apostles, written also by Luke,  make heavy use of a short, Greek verb.  The three letters, delta-epsilon-iota—not a fraternity or sorority as far as I know—mean simply ‘it is necessary, it is needful, it was necessary, it was needful’.   For St. Luke there is a necessity at work in the church’s expanding involvement within the culture around, and hence its need for story as legend, for leadership in unity from Peter to Paul, for organizational forms, bedrock heroes, and ways of thinking about others, and others within others.  Yet Luke’s spirit is one of compassion.  His theology is determinist to some degree.  He sees purpose, necessity, even fate if you will, behind most trees, and behind many bushes.  You may not see things that way, as many in late modernity do not.  In interpretation, you will then perhaps need to hear Luke’s song of necessity transposed into the key of meaning.  Purpose in the sense of meaning, not in the sense of destiny.   Not so much ‘God has a purpose for your life’ as ‘God has life for your purposes’.   

At Marsh Chapel we have the privilege to solemnize weddings on a regular basis, especially come summer.  You need summer to survive winter, here in the north.  There is grace in every wedding.  There is unspoken, volcanic power in the hearing and speaking of the vows in every wedding.  There is real change, which is real hard, heralded in every wedding.  A privilege—what a privilege—to be present at the creation, nay the new creation, of such a moment.  In a play otherwise precious and beautiful, Thornton Wilder had his dour New England minister say, as he prepared to marry Emily and George, speaking of his wedding experience, ‘Once in a thousand times it is interesting.’  That is the very opposite of my experience.  Over 40 years at 20-25 weddings a year on average, I have not reached, but may be closing in on his number.  Every one in the thousand was not just interesting but unutterably so.  A while ago we married one couple, who were standouts in spirit and soul.  Their four parents rose to greet them after the vows.  Her parents, the mother from Japan and the father from England.   His, the mother from India and the father from Italy.   Buddhist, Methodist, Hindu, Catholic.  Sometimes it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams.  And then you go to a wedding, and, as every other time in a thousand, it is not only interesting, but unutterably so.  This world can work.  It may take a little compassion.  But it can work.

Which brings us back to the very beginning.  Your purposes.  Your horizon.  Your outlook, perspective, your end point and its hope.  The offer of the Third Gospel, the horizon in Luke, is the possibility of a life of faith, girded in compassion.  Will such a life be ours?

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

More:  Will you consider—it is offered with love and care—perhaps reconsider, maybe accept an invitation to lead a faithful life?  To practice—nay, realize—the Christian faith?  To walk steadily toward a horizon of compassion–a Lukan Horizon?

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

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Power by Example

August 14th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:49-56

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Heart’s Treasure

August 7th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:32-40

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Last Sunday we worshipped in a Baptist Church, the Mother Church of Colgate University, in Hamilton, NY.   The pews, windows, edifice, organ, and structures have not overly changed in fifty years.  The kindness, grace, joy, reverence, humility, and care of the congregation roundly resemble those from decades ago.   It is a rare chance, a gift of some significant dimension, to be welcomed into a community of faith, come Sunday, particularly when such opportunities each year, given one’s vocation, are limited.  The Baptists welcomed us, mere Methodists, as they have regularly in the summer in the past in the Spirit.

It should be noted that the welcome required the welcome of six children/grandchildren as well, who happily explored the pews, hummed the hymns, joined in the children’s moment and, with some sharp exceptions, impeded not the liturgy of the day.  It takes courage to open your doors in a Baptist church, or any, come Sunday, not really knowing what sort of Methodist others might descend upon you,  a baker’s dozen with their kids.  

The children are immersed in summer, with its changed schedules, alternating child-care systems, and various other forms of mayhem.  They are busy with 8 year-old things, and the things of childhood, wonderfully overheard in their jokes.  You know these, but maybe you have forgotten.  What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence? What is the biggest pencil in the world (or biggest boss or biggest ant)?  Why is six afraid of seven?  And endless ‘your momma’ jests.  See me following worship if you have forgotten these.  Those who care for children, such a noble and beautiful career and calling, deserve our salutes, particularly come summer.  Thank you.  Thank you Aunt Millie.  Thank you Uncle Fred.  Thank you in the day care.  Thank you at home child care.  Thank you Mom.  Thank you Dad.  Thank you Gramma.  And thank you for those who agree to work at summer camp, especially church camp.

The bell tolled, as it does on the hour, every hour, in that small town.  We sang familiar hymns—Crown Him, Seek Ye First, O Zion Haste.  We heard the interpretation of the Scripture from a venerable pulpit known to Harry Emerson Fosdick, Adam Clayton Powell and Colgate students beginning in 1819. (Colgate that began with ’13 dollars, 13 men, and 13 prayers’.)

In the prayers for the day was included the Lord’s Prayer, as you would expect.  Also, by tradition, the wording was slightly different therein to the venerable usage employed here at Marsh Chapel, and elsewhere.  That is, we prayed forgiveness for debts, not trespasses.  Forgive us our debts.  And following worship, we returned home, as we say, the Baptists to their debts and the Methodists to their trespasses. (☺)  Except that there is something truly good about hearing a familiar prayer in a different mode.  These good American Baptists use a version of our shared prayer that emphasizes the substantial, material, physical nature of what is to be forgiven.  Yes, it misses the larger, varied multiplicity of the more common translation—trespasses—it is more narrow, more hedgehog than fox, say—but, for all that makes a strong point.  There is a treasure, a heart’s treasure, a treasured physicality in the grace of the gospel.  When you have to throw yourself on the mercy of the court, it is a great gift to experience that mercy present to you in all its substantial, material, physical nature.  Speaking of which:  We are coming to the Lord’s Table, to bread and cup, to thanksgiving, presence and memory, after all.  Forgive us our debts…

A Lukan Horizon on Treasure

Given the cultural prominence in America this year of the rhetoric of racial hatred, religious animosity, and rhetorical ugliness, the ‘gift’ to our time and culture from one particular candidate and now, sadly, too, his party of record which has disowned what can only be disowned, a grand, even an old party, we may be open to a reminder, a gentle one, about the heart’s treasure, about treasure in and from, from within the heart.  Life is brief, rounded by a little sleep.  What we say lasts longer than what we do.  So, damage already done, it is a travesty and a tragedy to have a beloved culture arrested and assaulted this this year by the rhetoric of demagoguery, birtherism, demagoguery, America Firstism, demagoguery, misogyny, demagoguery, racism, demagoguery, xenophobia, demagoguery, bigotry.   You perhaps remember that this candidate, given to vitriol, recalled demolishing his earlier adversary, saying, yes, that was great, I really got him, with one phrase, ‘low energy’, that phrase destroyed him, that was ‘a one day kill’.  A one day kill.  And then: words are beautiful things.  My, oh my.  And people seem to like it.  One wonders what the children in New Hampshire and Ohio and elsewhere will hear, remember, and make of this, and how they will think of their parents and grandparents, regarding this, in years to come.  ‘Grandpa, what did you say, what did you do, in 2016?’

The Gospel of Luke, a multi-layered Gospel of compassion, today takes us to a moment of preparation, and to a holy call, to a holy calling, to a holy experience, to a holy readiness, estando listo, a word for you today,  to a quickened courage even in the face of dark death, cultural and existential.  Luke has prepared us.  You know how to live.  Fear not.  Sell and give.  Hold onto what lasts.  Foxes have holes but the Son of Man no place.  A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves.   Give us this day our daily bread.  Woe to you, if you neglect justice and the love of God.  This night your soul is required of you.  So we are not entirely surprised by today’s gospel.  The way has been prepared.

Treasure is important to life.  The heart’s treasure is the importance of life.  Treasure has its place in life.  The heart’s treasure is the point of life.  Treasure makes a way for life.  The heart’s treasure is the way of life.  Eternity gracing time—here is the heart’s treasure.

Horizon and Shadow

Purses that do not grow old…treasure in the heavens that does not fail…so you also must be ready…

We are cleaning through, now, the papers and photographs in our mother’s home, since she has been moved to assisted care.  Many of you have done the same.  Which pictures do you save?  Which documents?  Which furniture?

When I was 13, my mother chastised me for something I had said to our neighbor, a woman of her own age.  The infraction itself is blessedly forgotten, but not the cure.  ‘You must go and apologize to her’, she said.  I did so, reluctantly.  But I did so, at her direction.  ‘You must tell her that you are sorry’.  I did so, not happily, but in person, up the porch, to the door, knocking and speaking.  (Later she became quite a good family friend.  In meeting the couple, my parents went to dinner in their home with others.  The host was carving a turkey, having no success.   To make light of the moment my mother said, ‘What we need is a surgeon.’   Silence followed all around followed by my father’s laughter and honest whisper:  “He is a surgeon”.  (☺) ) All the materials in our mother’s house, letters and books and yearbooks and newspaper clippings and cards and Christmas cards and photos and photo albums, all of it, and all of them, and we are still moving through them, are as nothing compared to that word—go, apologize.  Forgive us our debt.  There is a word that is substantial, material, physical.  

The heart treasures forgiveness, either given or received, because pardon comes by grace alone.   Like the gift of life, and like the promise of eternal life, forgiveness is the gift of God’s grace.   This gift we receive again this morning in Holy Communion.  Whether the forgiven is debt or trespass, the forgiveness is lasting treasure, treasure buried in a field, the imminent and immanent presence of God.

Your Treasure

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  Sometimes the forgiven is substantial, material, physical.  Even financial.

This summer, near and far, people are giving of their time, energy, talent and money to give children a week at summer camp.  

And what a gift it is!   To see a boy or girl learning to swim, learning the prone float for the first time; to see a girl or boy who has never held a fishing pole before, catch a fish or two or three; to see a boy or girl view the whole firmament at night for the first time; to see a group of young people across many divisions of background, race, gender, orientation, class, temperament and personality come to friendship; to hear prayers and songs and hymns and psalms lifted in young voices morning and evening—what a privilege, what a gift.

Our granddaughter spent her first week at camp, at a campground at which her great grandfather, her grandfather and her mother had worked long before her arrival.  A place, you might say, for the discovery of the heart’s treasure.  It is not a small thing for a nine year old to go away for a week, to sleep away at camp.  It requires levels of trust, confidence, and assurance in multiple directions.  

She went with a friend, whose family had only recently become involved in church.  Her friends parents themselves had an experience at camp.  It happened this way.  The parents went to pay their bill.  Like many, they had paid half the tuition, but had to complete their payment.  So they stood in line in front of a desk, out on a lawn, looking on a beautiful long lake.   In front them was a mother, alone.  Her turn came.  They watched as she went slowly to the desk, and stood, silent.  The camp worker waited.  The mother said nothing, but finally held out her hands, empty.  She had paid the first half, hoping to have enough to pay the second, but, as happens, pay check to pay check, something happened.  She couldn’t pay the bill.  But she had brought her daughter, hoping.  Hoping that her daughter could go to camp like others were going.  Making the drive, taking the chance, hoping against hope, that there might be a way.  Love has a hidden strength.  Or, she might have reasoned, it is a church camp, even a Methodist camp.  When you throw yourself on the mercy of the court, you just hope there is some mercy there.  She just stood, hands out, and whispered, ‘I’m sorry’.  

In a fast motion, the woman at the desk came forward, took her arm, saying, ‘This is no problem.  Just come with me.   Your daughter is going to camp this week.  You come with me.  What is your name?  Where are your from?  Do you have a home church?  We will take care of this.”

I have a lover’s quarrel sometimes with my church.  But then, sometimes, sometimes in the summer, sometimes in the simple things, sometimes there is a reminder of who we hope we are, who we think we are, who we have promised to become.   Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you know God to be a pardoning God?

I know you can’t run an economy on these terms.  I know people have to pay their bills.  I know you can’t run a business or a school or a city, or even run a church if people don’t pay their pledge.  You can’t keep a campground open very long if that is the way things go.  I got it.  I know.  But you know what?  Sometimes people need a little help.  Sometimes there needs to be a space made, an opening, a little forgiveness.  I am really proud of that church camp, Camp Casowasco, where we grew up, worked, learned, and over three summers lifeguarding chose to go into the ministry, because of the ministers we met there.  ‘Somebody let you grow up’ my parents would say.  There was room, there.  There was a place, there.  There was a forgiveness, there, not just of trespasses, whatever they are, but also, sometimes, of debt.  Forgive us our debts.   

It was the story of the bursar line, by the way, the account of a passionate moment in the lineage of faith, like that in Hebrews, the moment of a mother’s faith when faith is really faith which is when faith is all you have to go on, her faith that somehow her daughter would get a bunk and take the swim test and sing at campfire and be like the rest of the kids, it was that account that her friend’s parents recalled and retold.  ‘No problem.  We will take care of this.  Come with me.’

What is going on with us in this country, anyway?  Have we forgotten who we are?  A cultural amnesia?  A Christological amnesia?  Have we forgotten the love we had at first?  Have we forgotten how to make a place for someone left out, someone somewhat different, someone ‘other’?  Have we mixed up our heart and our treasure?  What is our heart’s treasure?  What do we stand for, when push comes to shove?  There is a reckoning coming for us, as people and as a people.

If you leave that camp ground on Owasco Lake, and drive southeast for a while, either on the road four hours or in the mind’s eye four minutes, you may come down to the Hudson River, and then right out toward the Atlantic Ocean.  There is harbor down there.  In the harbor there is a statue.  On the statue there is a statement.  It reads as follows:

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The restless refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the lost, the tempest tossed to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

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

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From Vanity to Beloved Community

July 31st, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:13-21

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Other Sheep I Have

July 24th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 11:1-13

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Christmas and Easter in July

July 17th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:38-42

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Revealing Compassion

July 10th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:25-37

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Good morning. I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak to you as a part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series focused on a Lukan Horizon, drawing out the themes of compassion and justice within the Gospel of Luke. These messages are always relevant, but seem even more pertinent in our current situation.

Who would have thought that at the beginning of this week, amidst the fireworks and barbecues and time spent with family and friends celebrating ideals like freedom, democracy, and independence, we would end the week with these great tragedies? Here we are again. Mourning loss of life again. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the violence in our world again. Again. Again. Again. I don’t have words to express my outrage and brokenness in light of recent events. In the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”   

It took me a long time to prepare for this week’s sermon. And by a long time, I mean it took me a long time to actually sit down and write. Repeatedly this week we, as a nation and members of a global society, woke up to news of violence and death from the night before in our own country. By Friday, I became afraid to check social media. The previous two days my news feed was filled with videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and accompanying lament, anger, and sorrow from my friends. It was devastating to realize that this is happening, again. Not that it has every really stopped happening. We’re just highly aware of it now because of our access to social media, phones with cameras, and live streaming. Our nation is steeped in a history of racism which perpetuates the same systemic injustice and hate toward people of color generation after generation. Friday was no different from the previous two days – I woke up to the news of 11 police officers shot, 5 of which were killed, while on patrol at a rally protesting the police shootings taking place in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Photos from earlier that evening showed police officers and protesters taking photos together – a peaceful gathering that was shattered by gunshots aimed at police officers. After weeks and weeks of horrific news and terror in our own country (Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas) and around the world (Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and yesterday in Balad), we are in crisis.

In all my grappling with the news this week, I turned to our gospel reading. I wanted a word of hope in this seemingly relentless barrage of death and destruction. What does the gospel have to offer us in this time of need? What is the good news of God given by Jesus that can help us in our lament?

Today’s gospel invites us to see and do.  We love the parable of the Good Samaritan. It exemplifies the message of Christ to us – to love God and in so doing, love our neighbors as ourselves.  It has permeated our culture so much that the term “Good Samaritan” is something that we find in news stories and even in our laws. In those contexts it means someone who helps someone else who is in a dangerous or life-threatening situation without expectation of recognition or acknowledgement. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of what is happening in this passage from Luke.

To understand the meaning of the parable, we must first truly understand the Lawyer and his position within his context. A lawyer in Jesus’ time was a religious official – the law was religious Law, the laws of the Hebrew Bible. In asking Jesus his initial question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lawyer already knew the answer…and Jesus knows that, turning the question back on him: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to him “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he is correct in his reading and understanding of the law. But the Lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. Perhaps in an attempt to trap Jesus into making a mistake, sensing that Jesus’ answer will go against Jewish teaching, the lawyer continues his questioning…”And who is my neighbor?”

The Lawyer’s concept of neighbor is limiting. In Jewish society at this time, there were boundaries constructed by rules about how one was to interact with others depending on one’s place within society. How Jewish people should interact with Gentiles and Samaritans; how women should interact with men; how priests should interact with Israelites. There were clear lines as to who you had to consider as your neighbor, and who you did not. And to act in love to someone who was on the other side of those boundaries was completely out of the question.

In Luke’s writing, Jesus often answers questions like the one posed by the Lawyer with a parable. A parable is a wonderful narrative tool because it requires the listener to actively engage in the story. It begs the question of who you identify with and why. It requires the listener to determine the moral of the story. It answers a question or resolves a situation in indirect ways, putting the onus on the listener to determine what is right and wrong. Utilizing a narrative device like this puts a “face” on the response that isn’t an abstract concept – it’s people in conceivably real life situations. An ethical dilemma.

What we often misunderstand in this story is the Lawyer’s aversion to a Samaritan. Samaritans were viewed as the lowest of the low, unclean people who had perverted Judaism by marrying outside of the culture, taking on new religious practices. That’s why labeling this parable as the “Good Samaritan” is necessary – the “good” is meant to sound like an oxymoron to the initial hearers of this story. The Lawyer would not trust a Samaritan and might not even travel into places where Samaritans were known to live, so for Jesus to set a Samaritan up as the “neighbor” in this story is anathema to the Lawyer. It is completely unexpected.

In contrast to the Samaritan, we have the priest and the Levite, men who are leaders within the Jewish faith. They avoid what they perceive to be a potentially polluting situation because of their adherence to the rules – the ritual impurity of interacting with a potentially dead body. Or maybe they’re afraid – the road described between Jerusalem and Jericho is a steep hill with twists and turns – making it ideal for robbers to hide. What if the priest and the Levite were being set up to fall into the same trap when they helped the man in the ditch? They were not willing to take that chance, for whatever reason, whether out of adherence to the rules or fear of the same thing happening to them.

The Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear. He does not think of what social convention dictates about he should interact with this person – he only sees someone in need. The Samaritan sees another person, a neighbor, someone close in proximity to him, who needs help. He is the one who has compassion, the one who shows mercy. He acts in love. He is able to put himself in the place of the person who is hurting and recognize that what is most important is his safety. He is the neighbor to the man in the ditch.    

The Lawyer recognizes that compassion is the right action – he knows that it is better to care for someone who is hurting than to avoid their pain. He tells Jesus when Jesus asks who the neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.” The Lawyer must learn from this outsider – the one whom he would have otherwise rejected – what the love of God and neighbor truly looks like. The Samaritan’s compassion reveals something far beyond what it means to be a neighbor to someone, it reveals the humanness of those that we stereotype into the other.

But the Samaritan isn’t just a rescuer. He doesn’t just take the beaten man out of immediate danger – he makes sure that the man’s wounds are cleaned and bandaged, that he has safe lodging, and that he is cared for by the innkeeper. He will come back to check in on the man’s safety and wellbeing later in the week. The Samaritan puts himself in a position of healing, of on-going care, along with the innkeeper. He doesn’t just assume that the man in the ditch will be able to find help from others, he connects him with support and comfort. He develops a relationship with him.  It’s the difference between putting a band-aid on a deep cut and expecting it to heal, and carefully cleaning it out, getting medical assistance, and ensuring its continued care.

So where do you see yourself in this story? Are you the man in the ditch? The robbers? The priest or the Levite? The Samaritan? The innkeeper? The Lawyer?

I think we all want to be the Samaritan. We know that what the Samaritan does is what God ultimately wants us to do in the face of tragedy or injustice. We all know that inside ourselves is the capacity to love each other the way God wants us to love. But sometimes our culture, our social systems, our preconceived notions stand in our way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t be the Samaritan, but in many cases we may fall short. In some cases we may be closer to the priest or the Levite. I know I am guilty of this – of occasionally seeing someone who might be in need or hurting and avoiding them because I don’t have time or I’m afraid of being taken advantage of or being made unsafe. I fail to see the people who are in need of help.

In the case of what’s going on in our country today, we have broken and bloodied bodies to account for. These bodies are not the root of the problem, however. In order to properly heal this situation, we need to address the larger systemic issues in our world that contribute to the expansion and intensity of violence between people who perceive the other to be bad, or wrong, or threatening. In a post made today on the Religion Dispatches website, theologian and ethicist Emilie Townes got to the heart of the matter:

“We must stop and look at ourselves—all of us. Take an account of how we sanction or contribute to the madness that has overtaken us—a calculating, hoarding madness that fails to take in the complexity of this nation and our world. The rising death toll and the classism, sexism, racism, heterosexist, trans-sexism, militarism, and more that fuel this disregard for human lives will not stop the violence until we decide to stop them and then act to make it so.”

What is at stake here, today, in our context, is injustice. Racial injustice. Economic injustice. LGBTQ injustice. Religious injustice. We have to acknowledge these systemic causes rather than the isolated incidents that have occurred. Systems of injustice in our country have been never really fully acknowledged or alleviated – we’ve made strides, for sure, but underneath there have continued to be forms of aggression and domination that have increased the distance between people living in the same community. We let fear dictate how we are to respond to situations of injustice – we let it overcome us and keep us from doing that which is compassionate. We skirt by on the other side of the road and shout to the man in the ditch how to get up and help himself, instead of tending to his wounds and making sure that healing is on its way.

Forms of injustice are even evident within the church. My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, continues to struggle with the challenges of systemic racism. The ELCA is the least racially diverse protestant denomination in the U.S. – a staggering 96% of our denomination claims white European heritage. There is currently a movement within the church, Decolonize Lutheranism, which aims to point out the ways that Lutheranism has in some ways held so tightly to its cultural heritage that it fails to see how exclusive it has become. How, in some cases, the theological standpoints of defining oneself as Lutheran, such as justification by faith alone being extended to all, have been superseded by assuming that everyone in the church will be of the same background. So, even sometimes as Christians we can fall short of acting like the Samaritan in this parable. We can create spaces that make others feel unwelcome, or fail to include them and their stories in our communities.

Right now is when we need God’s help the most. When we need to be reminded that love prevails over death and destruction. When we remember that God’s only son proclaimed to us the necessity of proclaiming good news to the poor, healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, and freeing the oppressed.

How can we go and do likewise? How can the Samaritan’s compassion translate to our own compassion in seeking justice? How do we translate our fears and mistrust in to love? If we turn to the advice that Paul gives the church in Colossae, we are called “to lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as (we) bear fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:10) We can start by reaching out to those around us. Just like the Samaritan, we need to see and do. Instead of seeing the injustices that have been unveiled for us and letting them continue to harm, we need to act. By making connections with people we encounter on a daily basis. By checking in with those whom we know might be hurting, just to ask them how they are doing. By listening. By standing by. By giving a hug, or holding a hand. But most importantly advocating for justice that recognizes the full humanity of all people, but most importantly those who are oppressed, whether they are Black, Latino, LGBTQ, Muslim or any of the other communities in our country who face outright discrimination and hate. We must see the people in front of us rather than get caught up in abstracted ideas about groups of people which may not even be true.

Let’s start here. Right here. In this very chapel. Let us see and act in the simplest of ways. Our neighbors are those who are in closest proximity to us – the person sitting next to you, or behind you, the people up here in the front, and those out in the narthex. Some of us know each other. Some of us don’t. Some of us have been coming for years, and some of us are visiting for the first time. But all of us are here, now, in a community of worship and fellowship, brought together by our faith. I invite you to seek out your neighbors in this building, right now, and greet them. Share God’s peace with them. Give them a smile, a handshake, if they agree to it, a hug. Take this recognition of those around you right now, and leave this building today reminded that our neighbors don’t have to look like us or even have to be someone that we know in order for us to show compassion to them. Let us remember that in every time, the peace of God is always with us, especially when we are in community with others.

May the peace of God be always with you. Let us exchange signs of God’s peace with one another. Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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Making Our Way Ritually

July 3rd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 24:13-35

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The Gospel according to Luke is very close to my heart in many ways. For example, this gospel’s author was a faithful physician; I married a faithful physician! And so, I am appreciative that our summer preacher series in Two Thousand Sixteen takes the Lucan horizon as its theme.

We are travelers, are we not, you and I? We are travelers together, making our way toward a horizon. It is a funny thing about horizons that they simultaneously serve as a point of orientation and, if focused upon too long, can serve to entirely disorient their observer. We travelers, you and I, as we make our way together, may at times stop and wonder whether we are really still on the path toward our destination. Are we still headed in the general direction of our goal, or has the horizon twisted our field of vision such that we have wandered off the road?

Jesus’ original followers were not known as Christians but rather as “followers of the way,” followers of the way of Jesus, that is. Confucians and Daoists are followers of the way as well, followers of the Dao. Christians, Confucians, and Daoists each have various ways of harmonizing two sides of the way coin, so to speak. The first side is an internal principle expressed in human life. The second is an external norm that sets the principle and measures that life. This is to say that we make our way not only by ourselves according to our own internal principles, but we make our way with others and accord our principles to the principles of these others, and for our collective well-being.

Still, wandering off the path toward the horizon is all too easy, assuming, of course, that we were ever properly on it in the first place. We may wonder, you and I, fellow travelers, whether where we thought we were going is really at the end of the road we are on. We may wonder if it is where we should be going, anyway. We may wonder if the wonders we have been promised if we ever manage to reach that point on the horizon were not, in fact, always only an illusion. Is this the way, or should we be going some other way?

Such is the situation of two disciples, journeying together to Emmaus, in the Gospel according to Luke:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

The way of these disciples, Cleopas and another unnamed, is uncertain. Each of the evangelists had an agenda in writing their particular take on the gospel. In the case of Saint Luke, the agenda was to demonstrate the continuity of the experience of the early church with the life and ministry of Jesus. To accomplish this, Luke wrote not one book but two: the Gospel according to Luke, which tells about the life and ministry of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles, which tells about the experience of the early church. Luke was writing for gentile Christians worried about their place as Roman citizens, and about whether the ongoing story of the church remains in continuity with the way of Jesus as predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Yes, Christians can be good, upstanding Roman citizens; and yes, Christian experience is in continuity with the life and ministry of Christ. Here in the story of the disciples journeying together on the way to Emmaus, Jesus himself confirms for them that they are in fact on the way, in continuity with his own life and ministry, and in fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.

Well, we know that it is Jesus confirming for the disciples that they are indeed on the way. The disciples themselves do not know this. To them, Jesus remains a stranger. Strange, is it not, that the disciples who had invested their lives in Jesus’ ministry and teaching and service would now be unable even to recognize him? Or perhaps not so strange, given that the disciples spent the whole of Jesus ministry misunderstanding him and rather missing the point entirely. Even as the one they had called “teacher” teaches them as they walk together along the road, Jesus remains unknown. The teaching is important, but alone is insufficient to confirm for the disciples that they are indeed on the way.

So the story continues:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Teaching is important, but Jesus is made known and Jesus’ teaching is confirmed, and moreover realized, in ritual, namely, the ritual of the Eucharistic meal. It is only as Jesus performs the ritual of blessing, breaking, and giving bread that the disciples’ eyes are opened and recognition ignites. It is only in the light of this ritually encoded appearance that the teaching on the road is confirmed as authentic and true and reliable.

Ritual often gets a bad rap. Seen as reified and ossified, ritual in our late modern society is often taken as restricting liberty of conscience and freedom of the will. But just as Jeroslav Pelikan noted that tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, so too we may say that ritual is the guide to remaining on the way, while ritualism is a map to nowhere. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are eloquent on this point, and so we listen to the Liji, the Book of Rites, noting that li meaning ritual is here translated “propriety.” I welcome this morning to read the passage my dear friend and colleague Dr. Bin Song, president of the Boston University Confucian Association.


Thus propriety and righteousness are the great elements for man’s (character); it is by means of them that his speech is the expression of truth and his intercourse (with others) the promotion of harmony; they are (like) the union of the cuticle and cutis, and the binding together of the muscles and bones in strengthening (the body). They constitute the great methods by which we nourish the living, bury the dead, and serve the spirits of the departed. They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.

We suffer greatly from a lack of ritual in late modern life. Just as the disciples recognized Jesus in his enactment of the Eucharistic ritual sacrificing his own body, we recognize ourselves and one another and our shared humanity in rituals as simple as a handshake and as complex as global geopolitical diplomacy. It is in ritual that we commune and communicate; it is in ritual that we open ourselves to the power of presence and partnership. As Howard Thurman reminds us, “people, all people, belong to each other, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves.” Ritual is the medium of our knowing and trusting and belonging to one another. When it fails or when we fail to either properly enact the ritual or even bother to enact it at all, we are severely diminished and often as not destroyed. “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Today we call to mind the life and ministry of Professor Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday. Grant to him eternal rest, O God, and may light perpetual shine upon him. Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, teacher, humanitarian, journalist, author, public intellectual, Elie Wiesel suffered from perhaps the greatest abandonment of ritual recognition of our common humanity in the modern period, and went on to craft and establish and enact so many rituals to restore our common humanity. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Rather than dulling the conscience and the will, ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and allows us to recognize one another.

We have not learned this lesson. We have not learned to not only allow but to invite our selfish desires and neuroses to be restrained that we might see and know and love one another. In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common faith, why are we surprised when nine people are murdered during a bible study? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common love, why are we surprised when fifty people are murdered in a gay nightclub? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common wealth, why are we surprised when a nation decides they know better and can do better on their own? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common dignity, why are we surprised that a plan to build a two thousand mile wall between us and our neighbors has gained such political traction? “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Perhaps part of our problem is that we are afraid of ritual. We are afraid to participate in ritual. Ritual can seem arcane and impenetrable and so high that we cannot attain it. After all, does not ritual require preparation? Does it not require indoctrination into the cult of the ritual actors? Does it not require confession and repentance and absolution? Does it not require that first we go and be reconciled? Does ritual not demand that we participate with a sincere will and a sincere heart?

Actually, no. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are again eloquent on this point, and so I invite Dr. Bin Song to read again from the Liji, the Book of Rites.


Therefore the rules of propriety are for man what the yeast is for liquor. The superior man by (his use of them) becomes better and greater. The small man by his neglect of them becomes meaner and worse. Therefore the sage kings cultivated and fashioned the lever of righteousness and the ordering of ceremonial usages, in order to regulate the feelings of men. Those feelings were the field (to be cultivated by) the sage kings. They fashioned the rules of ceremony to plough it. They set forth the principles of righteousness with which to plant it. They instituted the lessons of the school to weed it. They made love the fundamental subject by which to gather all its fruits, and they employed the training in music to give repose (to the minds of learners). Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity. When it is found in anything and its relation to humanity has been discussed, the possessor of it will be strong. Humanity is the root of right, and the embodying of deferential consideration. The possessor of it is honored.

It is by participating in ritual that we become better and greater. It is by neglect of ritual that we become meaner and worse. The fruit of ritual can be summed up as love. It is not that we must become sincere in order to participate in ritual. Rather, we must participate in ritual in order to become sincere. The disciples were decidedly insincere. They did not know whether they were even still on the way, or if the way they thought they were on was really the way at all. The disciples could not recognize their own teacher and mentor and leader. They were not sincere; they were foolish and slow of heart! After participating in the ritual with Jesus, then they became sincere.

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Go and do likewise. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

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