November 1st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 11:32-44

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Whether or not a technological society will entirely overwhelm a doxological culture is up to us.

You have no choice whether or not to participate in the technological society.  You have some choice whether or not to participate in the nourishment of a doxological culture.  You are presented, by grace, this All Saints’ Day, with an abiding question:  doxa or techne?  Techne alone? Or doxatechne, prayer cautioning skill, praise denying work, the stealth emergence of a doxological culture within and underneath a technological society?

Take an hour a day.  Take a day a week.  Take a week a quarter.  Take a quarter a year.  For…doxa…doxology…DOXOLOGY!  Doxa is the human art of being artfully human.

To become human, over time, costs, requires deficit spending to replenish dire deficits in relationship, tradition, and health.  Although these deficits are shockingly, notoriously profound on college campuses, which tend to deaden relationship, ignore tradition, and warp health, they are by no means collegiate deficits alone.  They are cultural deficits—relationship, tradition, health—and they are deficits in your life today, and in mine.

Our saints, the community of saints about us, whisper reminders.  You need friendship: your computer will never kiss you.  You need tradition:  your little story is hardly a story at all without connection to a big story or two.  You need health:  mens sana in corpore sano.


One of our students recently said, interpreting the Gospel of John, and its famous introduction, ‘In the beginning was the word’:  Sometimes I hear my self introduction (student, divinity, future pastor), but the feeling beyond the words is gone.  I want that feeling in the words.

So our fourth Gospel presents Jesus saying of his disciples:  ‘I call you friends’.  Friendship is a mystery, a great deep.  It may be true that some have more capacity for friendship than others, but all have a friendship-shaped cavity in the heart, awaiting fulfillment.  How poorly we in the ministry of the Word have done, over time, to speak a kind word for friendship!  And for the time friendship requires.  And for the courage friendship entails.  And for the prayerful thought friendship demands.  And for the willingness as a friend to risk the friendship for the sake of the friend.

Note the arts of friendship:  introduction, attention, courtesy, invitation, and the grace to step aside.  Who teaches you these habits of mind, heart, and being?  No one.  You learn them, if at all, by way of example from others.  Ponder this week one , in your earthly life to date, who has best befriended you.

Martin Buber:  “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being… Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity…Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.”

Our Gospel, John 11, affirms the resurrection in relationship.  The Gospel of John turns on Lazarus.  Jesus’ crucifixion, in John, is triggered, not by the cleansing of a temple, but by Jesus raising of his friend, for whom he wept, from the dead, his friend, whom he loved, from the dead.   ‘A new relationship I give you, that you love one another’:  here is the resurrection in John.

Psalm 139

O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!


Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;

thou discernest my thoughts from afar.


Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,

and art acquainted with all my ways.


Even before a word is on my tongue,

lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.


Thou dost beset me behind and before,

and layest thy hand upon me.


Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is high, I cannot attain it.


Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?


If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!


If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,


even there thy hand shall lead me,

and thy right hand shall hold me.


If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,

and the light about me be night,”


even the darkness is not dark to thee,

the night is bright as the day;

for darkness is as light with thee.


One of our students said recently, interpreting the Gospel of John, and its famous revelation, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’:   Sometimes we let our precious truth get in the way of the life of our precious neighbor.  Jesus is not about truth and ends but about life and means.  

J Pelikan:  tradition is the living faith of dead people; traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.   An All Saints’ Day epigram if ever there was one…

In practice, tradition is a bridge connecting memory and hope.  You have a memory of Halloween that, in the outliving of your present, reaches in hope to a future you cannot see and certainly cannot define.  In the carving of a pumpkin, with a certain grimace, in a certain way, there is bridge shaped that spans the chasm between the memory, your memory, of the dead, and the hope, your hope, for the living.

Hence, in Isaiah 25, the Lord, one hopes, will bring upon the mountain the heavenly feast, wherein tears are taken away and death is no more and—most significantly—disgrace is erased.  As the grave swallows us, so, in time, will the grave itself be swallowed:  here is our hope, and here is that hope in sumptuous memory.

A friend recently sent a reminder, a bridge from past to future, of Paul Tillich’s teaching on prayer (our Marsh theme this year): God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,

the world and those who dwell therein;


for he has founded it upon the seas,

and established it upon the rivers.


Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?


He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to what is false,

and does not swear deceitfully.


He will receive blessing from the Lord,

and vindication from the God of his salvation.


Such is the generation of those who seek him,

who seek the face of the God of Jacob.[a]Selah


One of our students said recently, interpreting the Gospel of John, ‘we are called to witness and wonder:  to care and celebrate our part in the web of life’ .

Your mental, physical, and personal health are not someone else’s job.  For 10-20% of us, broadly speaking, health in all dimensions requires an attentive discipline regarding addictive substances.

Sherry Turkle: We expect more from technology and less from each other…We heal ourselves by giving others what we most need (ALONE TOGETHER).

Today in NYC there are 58,000 living in shelters, 40% of whom are children.  Our story in Boston is similar.

We await the apocalypse poetically depicted in Revelation 21.  Our health is connected to such a hope, such a prospect.  And the prospect is so faithful and so true, that the seer may in fact simply ‘write it down’ (21:5).

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;


but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.


He is like a tree

planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.


We have no choice, to some measure, about techne.  (Listen again to the Marsh Chapel sermons on Jacques Ellul, eminent Calvinist, some winters ago.)  If you have a job, you will have an email address.  If you are of a certain generation the still dews of social media will drop upon you until all your strivings cease.  If you are investing capital, and aim to make a profit, you will purchase in technology.  If you practice medicine, now, every examination will involve three faces:  your patient, you, and your computer.  If you work for a large corporation, university, or government agency, your life, periodically, will be upended, or worse, with a change of software and hardware, so beware.  

You have the faith of Jesus Christ, though, with which to choose doxa, or a little measure of meaning in doxatechne.  Let us live the Gospel!

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

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Son of David

October 25th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:46-52

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The Bible is largely about failure and defeat.

Its stories and letters and teachings record ways people have lived with defeat.  This makes the Bible difficult for us to understand.  For we as a people have run and swatted and laughed our way past learning the language of failure.  We don’t admit to it.  We won’t accept it.  We do not countenance it.  So sermons, this one and others, which are fumbling footnotes to the Scripture, hit us from the side if they hit us at all.

But by grace, it is the resurrected Christ who addresses us in the preaching of the church, in the announcement of the gospel.  The passages of the Gospel allow us safe passage to the Gospel because Jesus is present to us.“In all the sayings of Jesus which were reported, he speaks who is recognized in faith and worship as Messiah and Lord, and who, as the proclamation makes known his works and hands on his sayings, is actually present for the church.” (Bultmann, HST, 348).

Our blind beggar, ‘Bar Timeaus’, shouts out an unexpected nametag for Jesus.  ‘Son of David’.   To call Jesus such is to remember…failure…to remember…difficulty…to remember warnings unheeded from long ago…to remember David you have to remember Saul and to remember Saul you have to remember Samuel.

Bartimaeus calls Jesus by the name of David—David the personification of hope, of millennial portent, of national pride, of the chance to get things right.  Son of David!  He throws of his garment—maybe a sign of baptism—and comes naked to see if there is another chance for him.   Here is another in Mark’s ‘book of secret epiphanies’ (Dibelius\Bultmann).  His ‘faith has made him well’, a saying and a truth most precious to Martin Luther, whose Reformation we remember today, Luther who forever splintered the unity of the church into pieces, fragments, for the sake of the Gospel:  faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. (M Luther, introduction to Romans).

Our Gospel seldom uses the title, ‘Son of David’, in order that Jesus not be mistaken for the hoped for national Messiah, the hoped for political conqueror, the hoped for restorer of Israel.  Jesus is known by failure and defeat.   But the name of David also carries the reminder, with Samuel, of surprise, of a second chance, of another chance, of new beginnings.  

You remember Samuel’s story in 1 Samuel 15:34ff. read a moment ago.  Samuel didn’t want to be a prophet, but he got saddled with the job anyway.  He didn’t want anything to do with kings, but he had to pick one.

The people wanted a King, just like we at our worst always long for some imperial president, some imperious presence on which or on whom we may cast our concerns.  Then we don’t have to live with our own freedom our own birthright from YHWH  I AM THAT I AM, the Sinai God  of freedom.  We are free, though often we choose to misuse or underuse our liberty.

Samuel revered the God of freedom and the Godly freedom in each person.  In fact he revered the people’s freedom more than they themselves did.  So much so that he helped them choose, even when  he knew they chose in error.  You want a king?  You shall have a king….. and much trouble.

So, Saul, trouble, came and went. Leadership is everything.   I mean:  leadership is everything.  But leadership is not dictatorship.  Authority is not domination.  Integrity is not willfulness.  Leadership, authority, integrity—they become real when they revere the God of freedom and the freedom of each person.  Leadership increases personal freedom for all.   

So Samuel, who knew about freedom and leadership, and who could have shouted “I told you so” to the children of Israel, instead went to Ramah, that place you remember from Christmas, of wailing and loud lamentation, and he wailed and lamented:

Why O God have you made my people a group focused on difference and not the common good? Why should there be a few rich and many poor?  Why should our tongues carry words about death? Why should our distinguishing characteristics be so undistinguished? Are we forever to love appearance above reality, image above heart?

O my God, are we never to see your peace upon the earth, your gracious splendor among our people, your kingdom of love?

So, we may imagine, in a hot dusty cave near Qumran, Samuel wept.  And wept.  And muled and puked and wept.  He cried in his beer.  He cried in his soup.  You get the picture.  Until, at last, he stopped.

And as so often happens, once he stopped his weeping, his self-concern, a marvelous thing happened.   God gave another chance.  He said, “Samuel you old coot, codger, geet—get up and head over to Bethlehem and see Jesse.  I’m going to give another chance.”Off Samuel went to the house of Jesse, in Bethlehem.  

We worship a God of second chances, of new starts, of  make up exams, of  I for give you, of  surprise opportunities.  In a way, in Christ, God has simply become Another Chance.

Early on Sunday morning, we pray before worship We wonder about the congregation and the community.  We think of people.  Some giving birth and anxious. Some breaking up and anxious.  Some struggling to stay together, and anxious. Some aging and anxious.  Some ill and anxious.  Like Samuel, we have our hurts.  

Up Samuel goes to see what God will do.  God tells him that there will be a new King, of God’s own choosing, out of the family of Jesse, who had seven sons.  

Samuel sees the first son, and thinks—yes, this must be the one, right name, right place, right pedigree, right education.  But, again, something strange happens.  Samuel, given to hearing voices, hears a voice.  God says,  “easy big fellow, easy.  Don’t look at the appearance.  Forget the outside.  Don’t be misled by the image.  Look inside.” All that glitters is not gold. You can be a saint abroad and a devil at home. Cleanse the inside of the cup. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

We see the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, Samuel still has the seven sons on interview.  

Job title:  King of Israel

Profile:   Perfect leader

Responsibilities:  Bring salvation, justice, and peace.

Salary and benefits:  commensurate with experience.

But he remembers:  look on the heart.  ELIAB. No. ABINADAB.  No. SHAMMAH. No.  And so on.  Seven no’s.

It is tough to live in between.  Like many who are here today can testify.  Samuel would have loved to have settled things early.  But he remembered the God of Another Chance, and trusted and waited, and hoped.  Anybody can make a decision.  It takes real courage to be indecisive.  Anybody can decide.  It takes guts to wait.  Anybody can judge by appearance.  But God looks on the heart.

Mark and the early Christians knew this perhaps better than anything else.  They knew about being in between.  Maybe that’s why, providentially, their letters and writings have become our Bible.  We are always a bit in between, and we need the confidence, daily, of Another Chance.  The earliest Christians, Paul’s city Christians, Mark’s Roman community, were very much in between.   They were often what the sociologists call status-inconsistent, like Paul himself.   A Jew, yet a Roman citizen.  Educated, yet a tent-maker.  So they were too:  Women, yet rich.  Artisans, yet slaves.  They knew about being in-between.

As the Apostle says:

In between the Body and the Lord

In between Sight and Faith

In between Home and Away

In between Judgment and Love

In between Crazy and Sane

In between One and All

In between Self and Others

In between Death and Resurrection

In between Old and New

In between Appearance and Heart

When you’re in between you know the joy of Another Chance.   God sees the heart, and sees past appearances.  The heart of a nation, or the heart of a person.

Well, dear old Samuel, is about ready to throw in the towel.  He has been through all the sons of Jesse, and has not found the new king.  He has found a lot of old king once removed, but nothing new.  He is packing up his ephod and girding his loins and otherwise getting ready to shove off, when, again, something strange happens.  

We worship the God of Another Chance.

If nothing else this morning, hear the Gospel.

Today is another chance for your family.

This week is another chance for you work.

This fall is another chance for our church.

This year is another chance for our city.

This decade is another chance for our country.

Where there is life, there is hope.

God in Christ is Another Chance.

Realism and Idealism are not alternatives.  Either you have both, or you have neither:  witness Isaiah 60, John 3, 2 Cor 5, and the Sermon on the Mount.  There is still time.  As the crusty Yankee said, when asked, “Have you lived in Boston all your life?”   “Not yet”.

I Believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  And in Another Chance, God’s only Son Our Lord ANOTHER CHANCE!  To stand in God’s presence.  To learn to help others.  To have a meaningful life.  Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem…Samuel, turned as he was going, and looked at Jesse and said, “are these all your sons”?  

Jesse got that sheepish look we all get when the truth starts to come out.  Well, yes and no.  I mean these are all the grown ones, the ones who are worth looking at.  “You mean there is Another Chance?” said Samuel so excited he dropped his staff and ungirded his loins and lost his ephod.  “Well there’s the little guy, but we left him to tend the sheep.”  

Bring him.

And they brought David up and he was little and young and ruddy and handsome and beautiful, but mostly he had the right heart.  A heart of songs and courage.  A heart of love and strength.  A real person.  A real person.  Another Chance.  Like the Tibetan Buddhists hunting for three years in the outback of the universe to find  the Dali Lama.  Like the birth of Jesus, also of Bethlehem.  Like the moment your child came into the world.  Like every single outburst and outcropping and intrusion and explosion and invasion of the NEW CREATION—there was David, Another Chance.  And Samuel, old superannuated Samuel could see what none of the young turks could see—the heart.  And Samuel wept, this time for joy, and said, “THIS IS THE ONE”.  Hire him.

We worship Another Chance God.

Beloved, you are not last chance, anxious people:  You are God’s people

R. Niebuhr wrote, praising Christ Another Chance:  “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.  Therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or good or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.  Therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.  Therefore we must be saved by love.”

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

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

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Prayerful Leadership

October 18th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:35-45

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We come upon our forebears, our spiritual parents of long ago, at an awkward and unappealing moment.  They are haggling, arguing, engaged in a bit of religious one-up-man-ship.  James and John are seeking power, authority, and places of honor.  It is sad to come upon those whom otherwise you respect, at such an awkward and unappealing moment.

There are dangers in religion, hence the need now and then for a reformation or two.  Superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.  Pride, sloth, falsehood.  But another is this one:  religious rivalry.    Apparently in the emerging church of Mark’s day, in say 70ad, rivalry lived.  So the Gospel depicts a memory of James and John, the sons of thunder, asking an impolite question, and misunderstanding the journey of faith.

You need not take the word of today’s preacher about the awkwardness and lack of appeal in this portrait.   When Matthew and Luke, some twenty years later, wrote their gospels, in 85ad or so, they gave the passage a haircut, and a bath, and some perfume.  Luke eliminated the passage entirely, and Matthew took off the disciples’ lips the religious rivalry we hear today.

But there is—is there not?—something also helpful in all this.  It is in a way encouraging to know that even the great ‘sons of thunder’, even the disciples of old, even the church of old, even our spiritual parents, as well as our earthly parents, are utterly human beings, being human as they were and are.   That is encouraging.  They made some mistakes.  They needed some corrective conversation.  At points they too misunderstood the costs of life, faith, discipleship and growth.  As embarrassing as is the passage, perhaps Luke and Matthew missed something when not including it.   Some of the most endearing and enduring qualities of our loved ones are, sometimes, not too far away from their utterly human qualities, even their failings.  That too is helpful to recall.  My dad, who died five years ago, smoked a pipe for most of his life, clearly a failing I guess, now that we are more aware of the dangers of tobacco.  Yet what I would not give for a few moments just to sit and enjoy that typical, personal failing with him.  To be surrounded by an unmistakable aroma and a cloud of smoke.  It was so ‘him’.  Enjoy your parents while you have them, for all their foibles.  For they are such utterly human beings, being human as they are.

‘Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you’, said the Apostle.

To the question of power and authority raised by the disciples, Jesus makes His reply.  Real leadership is prayerful, servant leadership. The way of faith, when it comes across the inevitable, and necessary landscape of power, breathes with prayer.  It is mindful, careful, soulful, prayerful.  It is simple.  It is communal.  It is humble.

I wonder as parents, and future parents, and as children and former children, whether you will hear this gospel and live it?  It is a respectful question, but a serious one.  Given your walking in faith, how will you handle the power you are given?  Given your journey in faith, will yours be prayerful leadership?


Is there not an existential simplicity in prayerful leadership?  We use often today the word ‘transparent’.  I am not sure we are always very transparent about what ‘transparent’ means for us.  In some measure, though, it conveys a sense of integrity, of openness or honesty.  

Mark wants to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, miss the point.  The point?  There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, without humility, none without suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job (of whom we read earlier), none without a pastoral heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make.  

If, in your work, you have shown humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart.  You are not far from the leadership kingdom of heaven…

The intonation of glory is a clue that we are reading from years after Golgotha.  The stark reference to the cup of sorrow bears a memory of Golgotha.  The knowing, counter knowing of the question about baptism, and its portents reveals the hurt of Golgotha.   The shadow of grief that darkens this discourse is the shadow of the Cross of Christ. And the final phrase is unmistakable in its reference:  to give his life as a ransom for many. The Christian community, we ourselves included, may not ever be unclear about the potential abuse of power.  That particular portal to blindness has been nailed, nailed shut.

I remind you of the Shaker community.  In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?

Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.

Who taught you about authority?

There is an authority that is visible in every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon.  Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found a simplicity, a way to live with abandon. Is there not an existential simplicity in prayerful leadership?  


Is there not a regard for community in prayerful leadership?  For simplicity, alone, has its limits.  What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander.  Protection of sheep means communal opposition to the wolf.  Machiavelli had a point or two.  Niebuhr bears reading still.  To acquire and then to use power in real life often involves more than love, or less than love.  Any community involves endless contention and intractable difference.

Our Gospel clearly addresses power and authority within the community of faith.  It less clearly addresses power and authority outside of that community.  ‘First..,among you’.   How are we to offer prayerful leadership in community?

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age.  I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.

I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a once popular book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great.” Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies (and universities) that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse.  A plow horse not a show horse.

A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.

Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Canada on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra. I forget the sermon, but I remember the hymnals.

Who taught you about power? Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.

Who taught you about leadership? Is there not a regard for community in prayerful leadership?


Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership? “The basic inability of the disciples to grasp or accept Jesus’ concept of messiahship or its corollary, suffering discipleship, becomes reflected more and more in their total relationship to Jesus.  The conflict over the correct interpretation of messiahship widens into a general conflict and misunderstanding in almost every area of their relationship

A few years ago Charles Rice of Drew spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel.  Then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again.  A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her…

Rice had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.  Including pretense and presumption and position.  Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady service.

Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.  Steady, sincere, suffering service. Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership? Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership?


For our gospel today, Mark 10:45, accosts us in this very way:

Can you drink the cup that I drink?  Whoever wants to be great shall be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first shall be the slave of all.  The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Parents, Students, Community, Listeners:  Can you drink that cup?  It is a respectful question, but a serious one.

Sursum Corda:  Things are not quite always as they seem, says the gospel.  There is more than a little difference between appearance and reality, says the gospel.  Real leaders serve others, says the gospel.  Ambition unfettered will not lead to happiness, says the gospel.  A true life is not always an easy one, says the gospel.  The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, says the gospel.   There is a mystery at the heart of life, says the gospel. 

And that mystery is Jesus Christ, and him crucified, one whose life, true life, is poured out like a ransom paid to free others. 

Underneath the tiny things lurk the great things.  A mystery, a ransom paid, a life laid up and laid out and laid down, lurking, waiting, present, like a breath, the eternal great things, hidden under the unlikely blankets of the littlest things.  Your calling to faith may be brewing…Under a desire for simplicity.  Under a love of community.  Under a feeling of hope, a longing for justice and a decision for humility.  And all through the cacophony of a noisy world, a hint, a glimmer, an echo, a breath, a prayer, and such a prayer as becomes prayerful leadership.

-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.

Praying for and with the Religious Other

October 11th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:17-31

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Good morning.

It is always good to be in this space, and I am especially grateful to Bob Hill for the opportunity to stand in the pulpit today. This fall, as Jen and I continue work on our dissertations, we enter our seventh year on the staff here at Marsh Chapel. In these years, Marsh has been our spiritual home, and the Sunday morning liturgy has been the service grounding the rhythm of our weekly lives.

In October of last year, I accepted a position as the administrator for the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education – CIRCLE – the interreligious initiative of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School which brings together rabbinical students and seminarians along with Muslim community leaders to cultivate authentic relationships across lines of difference and to live into caring for the world together. At its core, CIRCLE facilitates real relationships across religious and theological divides and seeks to transform religious education and religious leadership in the 21st century through this mutual encounter. The basis of the work is both eloquently simple and extraordinarily bold – take students from two neighboring educational institutions; create intentional opportunities for those students to interact, learn, and explore together throughout their studies; and ultimately change the culture of both institutions, and perhaps the trajectory of graduate theological education itself.

My work at Marsh Chapel had already helped me encounter the power in working across intra-religious difference. The Christian staff here over the last several years has included folks from more than a dozen Christian denominations and communities, and in that time I have grown to be a better United Methodist because I have learned about personal piety from Roman Catholic colleagues, the depth and importance of liturgy from my Anglican and Episcopalian friends, and the importance of speaking truth to power from a Southern Baptist minister-to-be.

In 2013, the World Council of Churches General Assembly invited young people from around the globe to gather to think about what formation in religious leadership can and should look like in the 21st century. As we learned the stories of one another, an Arab man living in war-torn Gaza, a Korean woman seeking a voice and place in South Korea, a Kenyan woman struggling to find the means to feed the orphaned children of her neighborhood, we discussed how religious leadership in the new millennium must move beyond cultivating community within one’s own tradition to loving and working across lines of religious difference for the sake of the world’s least and lost, poor and marginalized.

Our gospel passage today contains one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” As a university chapel community, largely-well-educated, attached to a premier research university, and benefiting from its education and social location, we ought rightly to wrestle with the consequences of these words of Jesus recounted in the Marcan text today. As a recent home-owner, I ponder that verse regularly (and I should); however, its full exegesis on a Sunday morning waits for another day.

My interest this morning is in Mark 10:29-30:

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

We still hear in this passage that following Jesus is hard, and that in following Jesus we give up and lose things along the way, sometimes even family, but the good news of this text is that in following Jesus we find new family. While the church understands itself to be a family, and in baptism we are reminded that we are incorporated into a Christian family that transcends space and time, the new family we find in following the will of God through Jesus is not limited to followers of Jesus. “For God all things are possible:” When we do the work of God, as we seek to love God and neighbor, we encounter new sisters and brothers, mothers and children who are also on that same journey of doing the work of God. In following Jesus, our new family may come to include those whom we would least expect.

As a United Methodist, experience plays an essential role in interpreting and navigating Scripture. Were it not for my work at CIRCLE and the relationships forged there, I would have trouble knowing or sharing the Good News I now hear in Mark 3:32-35 – “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” – and again in today’s text, Mark 10:29-30, we are reminded that through following Jesus we find family not just in the future eschatological promise of resurrection, not just within the four walls of our chapel nave, but in “whoever does the will of God.”

I want to share a story I was introduced to by my colleague Rabbi Or Rose, just a few days after I started my job at CIRCLE. He and Celene Ibrahim, two of CIRCLE’s co-directors, were presenting on a panel about multifaith college chaplaincy at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard as part of the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs. Or related a reflection of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – better known as Reb Zalman – about his time at Boston University, and I immediately knew I had a lot to learn about being a good and “trustworthy” Christian from from this Rabbi.

I relate these words from Reb Zalman’s 2012 memoir, My Life in Jewish Renewal [pages 88-92]:

In the spring of 1955, I was finally ready to embark on educational training to become a B’nai B’rith Hillel rabbi. Ever since Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and I visited Boston University in our first campus outreach for Chabad in the late forties, I had yearned to work in this capacity. It seemed to offer its staff wonderful, creative Jewish opportunities in an intellectual milieu. From Hillel’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., I learned that my smicha (rabbinic ordination) plus a master’s degree would be my entry ticket for a campus position. So I enrolled in Boston University’s pastoral counseling program. Its starting date lay a few months ahead in September, but I needed to complete several preparatory psychology courses during the summer. If all went well, I might eventually be able to earn my doctorate: that was my dream.

Boston University had an excellent academic reputation, but it certainly wasn’t nearby: it was two hours each way from my home in New Bedford. Leaving that first day at 5 a.m., I arrived with enough time to daven morning prayers as I had planned. But where? At that hour, everything on the Charles River campus was closed, except Marsh Chapel at 735 Commonwealth Avenue…

I went inside expectantly, but the ornate main chapel featured wooden statues of Jesus and the four Evangelists. I didn’t feel comfortable even thinking about davening there, so I headed downstairs to the smaller chapel. A cross was prominently displayed above the pulpit – again, not the place for me. Walking over to a small side room, the Daniel Marsh memorabilia room, I put on my tallit and t’fillin; facing east toward Jerusalem, I recited morning prayers and then I took my breakfast. Right after, at 8 a.m., I went to the first of my classes and drove back in the afternoon to New Bedford to teach Hebrew school.

I repeated this routine for several days, when one morning a middle-aged black man peeked inside the downstairs side room where I was davening. “Is there a reason why you don’t pray in the chapel?” I mumbled something about the symbols. To my surprise, the man warmly replied, “When you come back tomorrow, see if you don’t feel more comfortable,” and smiled enigmatically.

The next day, I entered Marsh Chapel and was quite curious about what I would find. In the downstairs chapel, a large white candle was burning, and the Bible on the lectern was open to Psalm 139:7, which says, “Whither shall I flee from thy Presence?” The large cross was no longer where it was the day before but rested on its side against a wall. Feeling very grateful to the janitor, I did my davening right there. When I finished, I replaced the cross in its regular position and turned the Bible to Psalm 100, the thanksgiving psalm – “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to Him, bless His name!” And so, the downstairs chapel became my prayer place from that morning onward…

Soon it was time for me to plan my spring course schedule. A catalogue course titled “Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” caught my eye. Ever since my teenage years in Antwerp, I had been fascinated by the subject of inner growth and studied it avidly with my Hasidic mentors in Brooklyn. However, this time the instructor would be no Hasidic rabbi but Minister Howard Thurman, dean of Marsh Chapel. Although the topic certainly intrigued me, the catalogue indicated that the course would involve “labs,” experimental class activities.

Deep down in my guts I felt anxious about entrusting my soul to a “Christian” – knowing that they all want to convert Jews. Was he open enough to allow me to learn spiritual disciplines and resources to make me a better Jew? AS a pulpit rabbi for several years, I had learned enough to know that such methods require ample trust to be effective, and to do that I wanted to make sure that Minister Thurman was trustworthy – that is, that he wouldn’t try to convert me to Christianity.

At the time, his name meant nothing to me, though he was already famous as a leading theologian and descent of southern slaves…

After making an appointment through Dean Thurman’s secretary, I appeared at his office and knocked on the door. To my amazement, Minister Thurman was none other than the kindly black man whom I had misperceived as the building’s janitor!

Talking over coffee with the dean, I explained that I really wanted to take his course and learn from his experiential methods. But I also confessed that “I’m not sure if my anchor chains are long enough” to relinquish self-control and allow him (a non-Jew) to guide me spiritually. With a pensive expression, he put down his coffee mug. His graceful hands went back and forth, as though mirroring my dilemma. Finally, Howard Thurman looked right at me and said, “Don’t you trust Ruach Hakodesh [holy spirit]?

To hear a non-Jew speak these Hebrew words so eloquently shattered my composure. As though yanked on an invisible chain, I immediately stood up and hurried out of the dean’s office without offering even a word of thanks or good-bye.

It was a profound challenge: Am I a Jew because God wants me to be Jew, or am I a Jew without reference to God? I agonized over my decision for three weeks, and committing myself to be led by God, I registered for Dean Thurman’s course.

“Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” was a tremendous learning experience for me… Under Howard Thurman’s able tutelage, we experimented with a variety of spiritual techniques, including guided meditation. In one memorable exercise, our class was instructed to translate an experience of one sense into another: for example, we would read a biblical psalm several times and then listen to a beautiful meditative Bach composition – in order to “hear” the psalm’s meaning in the sounds of music. In this way, we refined our senses and became better able to experience the divine around us. Beginning the first lab with the reading of Psalm 139, we reflected on it to Bach’s melody. When afterward Thurman played a recording of Max Bruch’s orchestral composition of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer sung on Yom Kippur, I allowed myself to relax. During the course I visited Thurman frequently during office hours to discuss my practice.

Several years passed, and when one of my sons was close to bar mitzvah, I introduced him to Dean Thurman and asked the minister to bless us both. For an instant he seemed surprised, then wordlessly prayed while placing a hand on our shoulders. This profound experience has stayed with me intensely for over fifty years. Decades later, I was moved to learn that Thurman long remembered this soulful encounter between us. In an unpublished part of his autobiography titled With Head and Heart, he wrote, “I’d never been in a position like that before, where the fact of being in the instrumentality of a blessing was so personal and intimate and exclusive. It was not like saying a blessing with a group at a moment of some sort of celebration, but here was the celebration of a common religious experience and a friendship and an affection that existed between two men, each of whom came from a radically different tradition but had met in that zone in which there is no name or label. And standing there I bowed and I prayed. I do not recall any words that were said, but what I do recall is the intensity of the religious experience in that moment, and the transcendent and yet penetrating look in his face when I opened my eyes and found that he from his kneeling position was looking up in my face.”

Now Thurman’s writings had been a vital part of my seminary experience, and he was even required reading in preparation for my own ordination this past summer, but I realized I didn’t really know Thurman or appreciate what his legacy meant to me or Marsh Chapel until I encountered a rabbi who loved Thurman.

So about a month ago, Bob Hill and I were sitting on a park bench behind the College of Arts and Sciences building chatting about the consequences of taking seriously three significant creeds spoken at the chapel regularly: 1) We believe that the Sunday morning liturgy is the heart and heartbeat of a Christian religious community. 2) We believe that we communicate the core values of our faith through liturgy. 3) We believe that we are called by the gospel to be in authentic community with the religious other. That conversation became the genesis of this morning’s liturgy.

Two years ago, Marsh Chapel took the bold move of hiring the first full-time university chaplain for international students in the country. Through that position my friend, the Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, became the university’s de facto multifaith chaplain, at least for the international student community. Her hire was a one way of living into the chapel’s commitment to “be on a journey with students no matter where they come from or where they are going.” Brittany reacquainted the chapel community with practices of hospitality as we extended a warm hand of welcome to students from a variety of religious traditions at various activities through each week of the academic year. Brittany cultivated communities of intentional interaction across cultural and religious differences, and that work continues.

Celene Ibrahim, one of CIRCLE’s co-directors and the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University, noted this week with enthusiasm that her job is to get people of different faiths “to bump into each other.” We cannot find new sisters and brothers, parents and children if we don’t really, truly engage them. How do we then “bump into the religious other” on a Sunday morning?

At Marsh Chapel, our theme for the year is prayer. You’ll notice that the title of the sermon today references this theme. How are we to pray for or with the religious other? Experience and Thurman both tell me we cannot pray for and we especially cannot pray with the “other” if we don’t know the other, and in coming to know the other, we may find that they are not really the “other” at all, they are in fact our sister or our brother, or a mother or a daughter on the journey of faith.

Bob Hill is fond of reminding us that Thurman was one hundred years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Thurman didn’t use words to pray with his Jewish brothers, and I am not here to suggest a way to find those words today, but I do want invite you to meaningfully “bump into” a new brother or sister in your life this week and learn something new.

Over the course of our many months working together, I’ve “bumped into” Celene a lot. We share office space both that Andover Newton and at Hebrew College, and I’ve learned she prays, a lot. In fact, she probably prays more each day than I do in a week. I didn’t really know about personal piety until I got to know a Muslim who took her faith seriously.

So, as a way to begin this process of bumping into new brothers and sisters on the journey, I have invited two colleagues to share wisdom from their traditions in the language of their traditions as we close today: Benjamin Barer, the Editorial Director of State of Formation, CIRCLE’s online platform for connecting emerging religious and ethical leaders, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College reminds us of the wisdom in Psalm 90 today and my colleague Shehla Zakaullah, the coordinator of the CIRCLE residential community and alumna of Boston University, offers a reading from the Quran [Q. 49:10-13].

When we hear a sister share from the Quran’s teaching on family, how do we hear the Gospel lesson from Mark differently? When we hear a Jewish brother meditate on the words of the Psalm in light of the pain and suffering of a faith community over hundreds and thousands of years, how do we hear the words from Mark differently?

Psalm 90 in Hebrew

Quran 49:10-13 in Arabic and then in English:

The believers are siblings; so make peace between your siblings, and revere God, such that you receive mercy. / O you who believe! Let not one people deride another; it may be that they are better than them. Let not women deride other women; it may be that they are better than them.  And do not defame yourselves or insult one another with nicknames; how evil is the iniquitous name after [your] having believed! And whosoever does not repent they are the wrongdoers.  / O you who believe!  Shun much conjecture. Indeed, so conjecture is a sin.  And do not spy upon one another, nor backbite one another. Would any of you desire to eat the flesh of a sibling?  You would abhor it.  And revere God. Truly God is Relenting, Merciful.  /  O humankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.  Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you.  Truly God is Knowing Aware.[1]

As Christians, we are not alone in seeking new sisters and brothers in faith, nor are we alone in our commitment to caring for the lost and the least. Our reasons for seeking one another out as friends and “new family” in God are different and complex, but a similar call resonates throughout our traditions.

Think about inviting the neighbor who observes dietary restrictions you don’t to dinner sometime soon. Learn why their food practices are important and meaningful to them. Have a real conversation about how to provide genuine hospitality. Come to know one another by learning of each other’s deep love of God, and in the encounter find the family you are promised in the gospel lesson today.

As we experience the beauty of each other’s traditions, may we know one another as sisters and brothers, sibling believers who seek to do the will of God, and as the Psalmist writes:

Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!


[1] Adapted by Celene Ibrahim from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, to be released by Harper Collins Publishers in November 2015.


-The Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership and Development

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


The Languages of Prayer

October 4th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:2-16

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‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

So, Abraham Heschel, whose mighty labors to interpret the Hebrew Prophets were drenched themselves in tears—the joyful tears of adoration, the bitter tears of confession, the heartfelt tears of thanksgiving, the worried tears of supplication.

Prayer comes in ACTS, and its languages are the tongues of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

Our theme this year, in the life of Marsh Chapel, particularly in our preaching and teaching, is prayer. ‘Pray without ceasing’, we are taught in the 5th chapter of the earliest document in our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians. Without ceasing.

We pray in silence before our worship begins, come Sunday. Here, in this sacred hour, we set ourselves for the week to come, and set before ourselves what we hold dear, and all in which we are dearly held.

Then: Sunday evening in Eucharist, Monday noon in meditation, Wednesday morning in theological community, Wednesday evening in communion, Thursday noon over an outdoor common table, and privately, meal by meal, morning by morning, we pray.

Prayer is to sit silent before God. Prayer is to give utter attention. Prayer is to think God’s thoughts after God. Prayer, like a poem, is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ (Frost).


A language learned in prayer is that of adoration. Here is the tongue of aspiration, delight, hope, imagination, wonder and praise. In the dim-lit daily world, adoration language can be hard to hear, hard to find, for it is the exuberant utterance of ‘why not’?, of ‘how about?’, of ‘oh my’!, sentences concluding in question marks and exclamation points.

Our gospel reading, at heart, is an aspiration, a high hope about human being, human loving, and human life.

Both Jews and Greeks made welcome space for divorce, as even our text attests (‘Moses allowed…’).   The church did too, before and after our passage, 1 Cor. 7 and Matthew 19. Paul before and Matthew after also make allowance for divorce. We too, out of our experience, know fully, for the sake of the institution of marriage itself, that sometimes divorce is the only course. Here in Mark 10, though, the early church remembers, from Jesus or for us, a very high view, an aspirational hope for human love. A prayer in aspiration, that the joining of two, together, might make way for the One among the Many. That upon this earth there yet might be—real friendship, real fellowship, real love, real marriage, the reality of the union of hearts, for which we are made. For a union: a hint of the eternal, a glimpse of the divine, a glimmer of joy without shade.

All this takes time and practice. We learn to follow each other’s thoughts, but imperfectly. A month ago I bought new sneakers, but made the mistake of hanging them, in a plastic bag, where I normally hang the trash, to be taken down for disposal by the next traveler down stairs. Jan did what she normally does, and should do, taking the bag and leaving it for disposal. Off they went, those new shoes. Oops. Or so we thought, until a kind, wise custodian, sensing something not right about the bag, found them, kept them, and returned them. There is a lesson here, a moral to the story. Our aspirations take the support and help of a community to last.

So, in the same breath, and in the same paragraph, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, and the Lord of Mark’s community, adores children, and offers their innocence (not their ignorance) as aspiration. He lifts them in his arms. A little child shall lead them, the holiness of aspiration, and adoration.

Hence, in a few months we shall sing, ‘Come Let Us Adore Him’. There is a prayer, a prayer in a wonder-land. What do you adore? Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

So we sing a hymn each Sunday.

Adoration. A language of prayer.


A language learned in prayer is that of confession. Such a dialect is much needed, in our time, in our generation. Contrition, compunction, regret, and lament. “I am sorry”. “Forgive Me”.

Today our choir sings, only for the second time in public, a lovely anthem, whose three stanzas lament sin and pray for peace.

1 O God of love, O King of peace,

Make wars throughout the world to cease;

The wrath of sinful man restrain;

Give peace, O God, give peace again.


2 Remember, Lord, Thy works of old,

The wonders that our fathers told;

Remember not our sin’s dark stain,

Give peace, O God, give peace again.


3 Whom shall we trust but Thee, O Lord?

Where rest but on Thy faithful word?

None ever called on Thee in vain,

Give peace, O God, give peace again.

You probably one day suddenly realized the power of confession. Bishop James Matthews once said, in a memorable sermon, that he came to a day when he just wanted to write down in a list his most memorable shortcomings. (I was thinking of him the other day, visiting our own C Faith Richardson, who was his secretary). He wrote down his mistakes and his regrets. His regretful mistakes and his mistaken regrets. That he did, and tossed the list into the fire, and resolved to live a great good life unrestrained by what was past. “I gave the list to God and to the fire”, he said, “and I headed out into the future”. Then he added: “I’m sure you all have done the same, one way or another”. I wasn’t so sure we all had, but I basked in the confidence—in the living pardon—of his confidence in us.

We depend on this reminder of our fragility. It keeps us from becoming naïve about the fragility all around us. Especially the disguised fragility of beloved institutions. Many churches are one pastor away from demise. Some countries are one government away from demise. Our schools, halls of government, businesses, families—all these are far more fragile than they sometimes seem. They take constant tending, mending, and befriending. They take daily, careful leadership. And when over time the fabric begins to fray, devastation may ensue: see the 200,000 dead and 4 million seeking refuge and the 7 million displaced in Syria today.   They take attention to small things. ‘Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’.

So we offer confession, KYRIE ELEISON, each Sunday.

Confession. A language of prayer.


A language learned in prayer is that of thanksgiving. My friend says that all birds are either robins or non-robins. Well, the prayer book of the Bible is the Book of Psalms, and in that same oversimplified way, the psalms are either laments or thanksgivings, and there are more of the latter. So today the psalmist is ‘singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds’.

We know gratitude in hindsight. Thanksgiving is the gift of retrospective. We learn, and we grow. But as R Sockman repeated, and we now with him, ‘The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance and in presence. Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord Jesus, his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, his death upon the cross, and his radiant resurrection, our beacon and life. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in presence, an announcement of the divine presence, the real presence of God, here and now, in the humblest of forms, in bread and cup. Eucharist means thanksgiving.

Emily Dickinson had her happy moments and happy thoughts and choice, true words of thanksgiving (amid darker hues aplenty to be sure):

The Props assist the House

Until the House is built

And then the Props withdraw

And adequate, erect,

The House support itself

And cease to recollect

The Auger and the Carpenter-

Just such a retrospect

Hath the perfected Life-

A past of Plank and Nail

And slowness-then the Scaffolds drop

Affirming it a Soul.

If you are wondering how to pray, start with a word of thanks, a thanksgiving, a generous recognition of a cause of gratitude.   You will not have far to look.

            The heavens are telling the glory of God. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom then shall I fear? God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.   Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, serve the Lord with gladness. I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence does my help come, from the Lord who made heaven and earth. O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

So we read a psalm each Sunday.

Thanksgiving. A language of prayer.


A language learned in prayer is that of supplication. We name what we need. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will open. Ask and it shall be given. Not always. Not frequently. Not in a timely way. But…

You don’t get what you don’t name as needed.

In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication. Free our land of horrid, tragic, gun violence. How will this happen? We see no easy way.

But then our minds begin to move. Gun violence is a matter of public health. You have lifted your voice in chorus with those who attack gun violence not as an issue of individual right or freedom, but as an issue of public health and safety. We have had success in other improvement to public health. Reductions in death from smoking. Reductions (some) in death from drinking. Reductions in highway deaths. Here is a different evil, so we shall need to think differently.

How shall we do so?

Maybe we shall restrict the sale of ammunition: keep and bear arms all you want, but ammunition we will lock down. Maybe we shall make those who make money on gun sales pay a stiff price for every misuse of their product. Maybe we shall hold households and home insurance responsible for mayhem that emerges from a house.

Congress regularly supports the so-called gun lobby, fearing to contradict the NRA. Oddly, though, they are mistaken about what Americans, and particularly gun owners, think about gun restrictions and gun safety. They mistake the representative voice for the people’s voice. ‘85% of Americans and 81% of gun owners favor gun show background checks, which Congress rejected…Since 1960 1.3 million Americans have died from fire arms, which amounts to 80 gun deaths a day.’ The broad swath of the American people, in harmony with the Book of Hebrews, offer prayers of supplication for an angelic deliverance. And here and there, there is change: ‘In 1970 ½ of all US homes had guns. In 2012 it is less than 1/3.’ Our tendency to conformity, our over-eager deference to authority, and our too willing adaptation to imposed roles weaken us over against these and other challenges.

In supplication, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. Hebrews:

            What is man that though art mindful of him, the Son of Man that though dost care for him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels.

            As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to them (the angels). But we do see Jesus.

So we offer our common prayer every Sunday.

Supplication. A language of prayer.


‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. ACTS in prayer.

In 1983 we hurried across an open field, arriving a little late to the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver. There was a great tent. Inside were many hundreds of leaders of the World Council of Churches. There they sang a hymn, and offered a confession, and uttered a thanksgiving, and cried out in supplication. Emilio Castro. Paolo Freire. Connie Parvey. NT Wright. Philip Potter. Another generation. Gathered in prayer. Yet their prayer is not yesterday, nor just today, but the fullness of tomorrow:

In Christ there is no east or west

In Him no south or north

But one great fellowship of love

Throughout the whole wide earth


In him now meet both east and west

In him both south and north

All Christ like souls are one in him

Throughout the whole wide earth

-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 Bach Experience

September 27th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

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Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Dean Hill.

(Dr. Jarrett)

Dean Hill….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herein perhaps we find the valence of the dominical sayings,

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


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

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

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


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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Tradition of Principled Resistance

September 20th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:  30-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tradition of principled resistance.

I can imagine an objection or two.

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

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

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

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

You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance.

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

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

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

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

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

    and confidently waiting, come what may,

    We know that God is with us night and morning

    And never fails to greet us each new day.”

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Living With Wisdom

September 13th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:24-37

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

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

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

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

On meeting new people:

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

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

On new eating habits:

“The freshman fifteen is absolutely real.”

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

On abbreviations:

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

“Acronyms. Learn acronyms really quickly.”

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

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

On being an adult:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


–Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students ad Interim

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Senses of Prayer

September 6th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:24-37

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Be opened.  Ephphatha.  Be opened.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

language of the heart.” (J Wesley)

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


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

shadow lengthen into something like fear

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

shadow lengthen into something like listlessness—acedia

Before the searching, searing floodlight of clear and painful

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

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

combat with what maims and harms life.

What are the senses of prayer?


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

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

the world around.

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

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

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

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

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

you will steal away, you will hear another music.

The song of the soul

The chance for an inner life

The language of the heart

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



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

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

on earth, therefor let your words be few.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In prayer we can taste the sting of adolescent and adult

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

In prayer we can approach the sense of violation another carries

after vandalism, literal or spiritual.

In prayer we can taste the awful bitterness of lament.

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

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

them we return every Lord’s Day.


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

dryness of the desert.

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

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

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

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

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

of life.  Wind, sand, stars, heat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Inward holiness prompts you right now to find and hold a

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

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

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

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


To be touched at the heart is to be forgiven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what they do.”

Do you seek forgiveness?

Are you earnestly awaiting its touch?

Are you adept at its arts and ways?

Do you pray for it?

In specific cases?

Among nations and groups as well as persons?

In rumination this summer I wondered about the two phrases,

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

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

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


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

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

blind sight that is all too common to us.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

our unaided minds do, and forces us to focus.

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

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

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

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

is truly around us all the time.”

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

live to sense the sight of prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call to Prayer


A Deaf Ear to Dehumanizing Noise

A Touch of the Heart in Forgiveness

There are Senses of Prayer

The Arid Scent of Inner Holiness

A Taste for Empathy and Lament

A Sight that sees the details

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

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

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

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Take and Read

August 30th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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

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

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

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

Be our North Star, our compass, sextant

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

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

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

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

For those on the bridge—wisdom

For those learning the ropes—patience

For those working the in the rigging—a light heart

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes. 

Take and read.  You read.

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

Take and read.

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

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


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

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

        “Why did it die?”

        “Everything that lives must die”.


        “You, too, Papa? And Mama?”


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

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

        “Why”, I asked.

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Take and read…

Take and read.

Take and Read!

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

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

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

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

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