Christ the King

November 23rd, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Ezekiel 34:11-16

Psalm 100

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

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Today is the Sunday known as “Christ the King”.  It’s the last Sunday of the Christian Liturgical Year.  Next Sunday begins a new church year. It’s the first Sunday in Advent, when we begin to wait for and celebrate the fact that Christ the King began with us as a baby.  But today, Christ is with us in his full maturity as he comes into his own as King, with glory, with power, and with judgment.

Jesus was a Jew.  His followers sometimes hailed him as “Son of David”, and both he and the lectionary compilers of today’s scriptures connected him to the tradition of the Shepherd/King.  We are probably most familiar with this tradition through David’s 23rd Psalm.  And in our Psalm today, God is our Creator, and our Shepherd, worthy of our praise and thanksgiving because God’s steadfast love and faithfulness endure forever.  The Shepherd/King tradition is also here in Ezekiel, who portrays God the Shepherd as the true King, the King who rescues, reunites, cares for, and protects the people – the true King over against the false kings, who have scattered the people and brought them to ruin and captivity in the Babylonian exile.  God the Shepherd is the one true King who judges not only those outside but those inside the flock.  And God will set up a permanent Shepherd in David, one who will feed the people and be their leader under God.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus is both King and Shepherd, as he separates and judges between those who have done what he has done and those who have not done what he has done.  Judgment as well as care and protection are within the mandate of the Shepherd/King, and judgment can be very harsh indeed against those who are fat and strong at the expense of the weak and injured, against those who do not recognize the King in his people.  It is a Last Judgment, in fact, with the choices we make today having eternal consequences.

Well, we who have been knocking around in the Christian faith for a while know all this.  We know it well enough that we have no excuse not to escape the eternal fire; we know that we are not to take advantage of the weak and injured, we know we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner. We know it all.  And, quite frankly, it’s November, and it’s dark and it’s cold, and those of us with bears in the gene pool just want to sleep.  Many folks have some kind of major deadline in the next two weeks, and midterm projects and papers are running right up to finals.  And while “the holidays” can be fun, the fun can often be hard to get to in the crush of activities and expectations, in the trepidations about costs and housecleaning, in the unknown as to whether Aunt Sue the conservative and Uncle Joe the liberal will still speak to one another at dinner.  To say nothing … to say nothing … of the upcoming Ferguson grand jury decision.  It can be a challenge to promote peace and goodwill when our response to “How are you?” is automatically “I’m Fine.”, and “I’m Fine.” really means “I’m Freaked Out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Exhausted.”  Right now there don’t seem to be many good pastures and certainly not any lying down in them.

Now I grew up in a British constitutional-monarchist family, and I still keep some track of Wills and Kate and Baby George.  I  appreciate sheep for the wool they provide my knitting and thus I appreciate the shepherds who take care of them. But I don’t see many hereditary rulers or shepherds on Commonwealth Avenue, and if I did it’s a pretty sure bet that most of the rulers would not consider the “least of these” the members of their family.  And what Shepherd in his or her right mind would destroy the fat strong sheep and keep the weak and injured as the mainstays of the flock?  Christ the King is a very strange monarch, and Christ the Shepherd makes no sense at all.

So what are we daylight-saving-timed, democratic, urban, living-in-New Englanders to make of all this?  What are we as the congregation listening over the radio, webcast, and podcast to make of all this?

Well, we’re the sheep.  We’re the people.  We are (forgive me for this) the sheeple.  That means we are the fat ones who batten on the scattered, lost, weak, and injured, even if only through the complexities and complicities of our lives — and, we are also the scattered, lost, weak, and injured ourselves.  That means we are the ones who cry “Lord, Lord” and then do not do what the Lord does – and, we are also the ones who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoner.  How we end up in the Judgment depends on where the majority of our choices come down, and most of all to whom we finally give our allegiance.  If we as members of the flock first trust in God’s provision of nourishment, rest, and healing, and then we choose to help the Shepherd strengthen all of the Flock; if we as disciples choose to help the Monarch care for all the members of the family as we have been cared for; if our allegiance is finally to God through Christ in whatever form God through Christ is found:  Ruler, Shepherd, baby, teacher, then we move from being sheeple to become the Church.

And that, says the author of Ephesians, is where we have it all.  We become a Spirit-anointed community in which we are not alone, where we have hope, a glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of Christ’s power at work in and through us.  For as the Church we become Christ’s body, we become his fullness that fills everything, we become through the Spirit part of a cooperative  interbeing between Christ the head and we the body, an interbeing that even in November can bring the presence of God, the provision of God, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, to each other and to the world.

Christ the Shepherd.  Christ the King.  Maybe.  But certainly the one to whom as Christians we pledge our allegiance, certainly the one who with the Godhead and the Spirit protects us, cares for us, provides for us at our deepest levels so that we are able to do the work we are called to do as his disciples – and maybe we can even be able to stay awake and move with peace and goodwill through deadlines, midterms and finals, and the holidays.  We know it all.  Even if some of the images are strange to our form of governance and where we live, the choice is always under the mercy and love of God, the choice is always ours.  When we choose to pay attention to the wisdom, knowledge, and power for good we have in the Spirit as God’s Church, when we claim these gifts in faith, then we can begin to recover our courage, our creativity, our individual and communal energy, then we can begin to find ways that will help us to nurture peace and goodwill between us and God, between us and ourselves, between us and our neighbors, and between us and creation.

So how can we best pay attention and claim our wisdom, knowledge, and power for good?  Well, in a few days it will be Thanksgiving.  A secular Federal holiday, as it happens, but just as Charles Wesley asked, so to speak,  “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?’, so he used secular tunes for Methodist hymns, we would not be the first to see the gifts of God in the secular turned to the purposes of worship.  Thanksgiving is in fact a major traditional form of worship and praise:  it’s found in many if not all faith traditions; and it is certainly a mainstay for Christians.  To join in the spirit of this Thursday holiday/holyday, to look around us and acknowledge the gifts we have been given, to claim them in faith with gratitude — all this is to put ourselves in the middle of God’s love, abundance, and provisions for our need, whether they are the wisdom, knowledge, and power for good we have as the Church, or the smile of a loved one, a delicious meal, a favorite tree or an animal companion, even the slow but steadfast stirrings of justice and peace.  In thanksgiving there is no fear, no anger, no discouragement; in thanksgiving there is no freaking out, insecurity, neuroticism, or exhaustion:  in thanksgiving there is only the happiness and wonder of the world and its riches.

So this Thursday, we might be a bit more intentional about our attitude of gratitude, to God and to others:  for instance, we could be very specific and detailed about the people and things for which we are grateful and why we are grateful for them; we could perhaps expand our notion of what we are grateful for; we might allow other people to be grateful for us; we might, greatly daring, speak aloud our gratitude to those people and about those things for which we are thankful; we might decide to make thanksgiving a more regular practice in our lives beyond this Thursday.  For it is when we pay attention to and claim in faith the gifts of God with thanksgiving that we can truly say, when asked about how we are, “We’re fine.”  Fine in the original senses of the word:  high-quality, first-rate, magnificent, exceptional, splendid.  Just fine.

Thanks be to God.


-Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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November 16th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Micah 6:6-8

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

Matthew 25:14-30

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Preface: Five and Dime

If you have some change in your pocket come with me for a minute.   We are going into the village green five and ten cent store, to see what we can see.   Don’t you love this little store?  For fifty years—even more—the shop has somehow survived, meeting the essential impermanent desires of the day.   Here you buy pencils and notebooks for school, a scarf in the winter, a squirt gun in the spring, a yo-yo for summer, and come autumn again, something to wear at Halloween.  John Wesley said his English people were “a nation of shopkeepers”.  So in some regions, the small business, farm, store still provide economic backbone.  The same scents and smells linger here, from so long ago:  a mixture of newsprint and bubblegum and paint and perfume.   The uncovered tongue and groove wooden floor creeks in the same odd placesFor so many years this store was the stage on which its owner performed.  He wore a handlebar mustache, bright white hair, a stunning smile, and cackled with a child’s laugh.   He looked like the wizard of oz.  Years later, when I sat next to him as a fellow, visiting Rotarian, he looked the same—the wizard of oz.   His little world of tiny transactions, most of the purchases made by people who had to reach up to the counter, on tiptoe, somehow kept his soul lit.   Of all people, I guess, he could have had the most reason to doubt his role.  His customers were few and supported only by weekly allowances.  The transactions involved pennies and dimes.  The days were long, the hours demanding.  But the sun streaming through his clean window touched most often a smiling, happy face.   I can remember handing over some little coin in exchange for some little trinket.   In that little sunlight, over the exchange of impermanent capital for impermanent goods, somehow, there lingered a graceful, mysterious, spirited, permanence, too.  Maybe that is what made the wizard so happy.
When our son Chris was 6 years old, we went to the same store to buy birthday candles and a fishing pole.  Chris also saw some candy.  I turned to pick up the NY Times, and saw Chris reach up to the counter with his purchase.  The wizard stood gleaming and ready.   Then Chris took out his wallet and stared up.  He fished in the little pouch, and found his coin.  Then the wizard looked at Chris, and Chris looked at the wizard.   The old eyes darkened with delighted understanding, and the handlebar mustache twitched and the wrinkled hand reached forward.  And Chris held his ground and waited, fingering the coin, for that eternal moment that hangs between childhood and maturity.  There they stood, matador and bull, boxer and champion, batter and pitcher, wizard and boy.   As he had for decades, the shop-owner patiently paused. At last out came the coin. The deal was struck. 

Talents.  Talents invested, exchanged, used, given.  Well done thou good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful over a little.  We will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of the master.

I count it as a true, holy moment, as is any first experience, and especially any first experience of impermanence.   Sic transit gloria mundi.

Once we begin to reckon with the impermanence of this life, so much paper and candy and seasonal needs, there comes another longing.  For an experience of God.  There arises in the heart, a longing for an experience of God, for the lapping light of the morning to touch the cheek, for the full permanence of …grace, love, heaven…to enter our boyish, girlish, childish, or childlike life.

People come to church for an experience of God.  You would be surprised to know how hard, even in the ministry, it can be to keep this truth in view.  Men and women come to church, longing for an experience of divine love.

A place where the longing of the heart can be fed, that “desire of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow.”

1.     A Prophetic Approach to Impermanence

The same longing we have tried to witness in the crowded aisles of the village green five and dime also pulses through the deep places of the Scripture.   Blessed are those who hunger and thirst.  Micah Ben Imlah did hunger and thirst, too.  In the pain and tenderness of too much loving, he wondered how, if at all, such an experience could be his.

With what shall I come before the Lord?

What shall I do?   Whom should I love?  How should I walk?

Amid the piles and aisles of impermanent, seasonal goods, where an experience of lasting love?

A path toward the permanent, this is what Micah desires.  In the uses of his resources, Micah believes, there lies hidden the potential for an opening into an experience of God.  Underneath that apparently chaotic impermanence, there lies the potential for an opening into the experience of God.   Micah advises us not to get too comfortable.

Do.   We may learn to use our resources for the making of justice.

Love.  We may come to love what cannot be seen, mercy, and then to use what can be seen, money, rather than loving what can be seen and using what cannot be seen.

Walk.  Because our transactions, most days, involve bills and not coins, we, unlike the shopkeeper, we are more tempted to take ourselves overly seriously.

 2.     Paul and Impermanence

In this same vein, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches us again today about impermanence.  Is this not a glorious and a liberating word?    In treating a matter of moral discernment among the wayward Corinthians, Paul asserts the impermanence of this world.  His blessed words are as strange for us as they are healthy to hear.

Paul advises us not to get too comfortable.   Marriage, death, birth, work, life, all—these Paul asserts are themselves impermanent goods, seasonal items in the aisles of life’s five and dime.  Good, holy, important, and, at last…impermanent.   Let those who buy do so as those who have no goods.  Let them recall that first experience, reaching up to the counter, of impermanence.   Let us treat our goods not in the form of this world, which is passing away, but in the form of the world to come

Here is a great blessing, for those with ears to hear.   Within the land of impermanence, there is the possibility of an experience of God.  It is for that experience… that touch of the divine hand upon the hand of the child of God… for which goods and seasonal items and crowded aisles and everything from five and dimes to great corporations exist.

When we give, we open the possibility of experiences of God, not necessarily for ourselves directly, although that may be, but more often indirectly for others.   Giving and generosity bless us because they open up the opportunity for an experience of God.

 3.     Impermanence Today

Now it is the autumn of the year.  November 2014.  Over six weeks, worthy causes and needy organizations will reach out to donors, generous supporters.  Some are here and some are listening this very morning.  Women and men are thinking about talents, about the coin in the pocket, and considering year-end giving.

Of course we strongly encourage your ongoing support of Marsh Chapel.  But many of you listening on the radio have your own churches.  You may be driving home from worship, listening to us.  You may be at home or at work this morning, listening.  And you have a church home, a church family, a church that needs your support.  I think prayerfully about you and your churches today.  I think about the good people in those churches.  I want to say an encouraging word about your giving to your church.

Every church is an adventurous ride on the tide of generosity.  You have no tax base in the church, like those which support schools.  You have no product to barter, like those that support businesses.  You live and die on the free choices, every fall,  that raise a tide of giving.  I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if the churches could not fund ministry?  What would happen to efforts with children and older folks, mission and outreach, staff and buildings, worship and music?

Every fall the churches wait for the tide, like surfers.  They crouch along the board, out beyond the San Diego Bay.  The sun is high, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the day is fine.  They feel the tide rising, and here it comes!  They stand, and put toes out on the board.  They hang ten.   And the tide rises, every year.  Thanks to freely chosen gifts.  Thanks to you.  Sometimes the tide is low, and we drift a little.  Sometimes the tide is high, and we spin.   The uncertainty that is the sign of real freedom for the giver and the gift is that warm and vivifying wind that feeds us.

Faithful people year in and year out generously, happily support the work of faith.  One is an elderly man, gracious and loving, who learned at an early age to tithe.  One is a fiercely able Trustee, who cares for the property and investments of the church, but who has a big heart for the poor in Honduras.  One is a woman who has prayed mission into life, and has had the grace to live with surprising answers to prayer, answers other than what she expected. They for and they come from experiences of God.

4. Taught to Give

What is lasting and good in my life has come from the church of Christ.  Name and identity in baptism.  Faith in confirmation.  Community in eucharist.  Wife and family in marriage.  Work, and vocation, in ordination.  Saving forgiveness in moments of  pardon.  Hope for heaven in the gospel of Christ.

Whatsoever has any permanence for me comes from the church.

So…I guess I would be lost in the fall without a chance to preach a Stewardship sermon.

I am here, really, out of a formation, long before adulthood,  in the midst of people who knew that the form of this world was passing away.  The superintendents who remembered to bring Christmas gifts, the military chaplainswho sat at the dining room table—they did so with an existential reserve, a freedom from the impermanence of this world, a joyful and sober sense that the form of this world is passing away.  “Don’t get too comfortable” they seemed to say in deed as well as word.  They modeled an existential itinerancy that is far more important the mechanical one we know too well in which, as we say, Bishops appoint—and disappoint. The ministers who came and sang hymns in our homes, who laughed at and with each other, and who prayed for the salvation of the world—they dealt with the world as if they had no dealings with it.  The people in our churches, churches supported then and now by the tithing of retired school teachers, who cared about the world and about the next generation—they knew the impermanence of the world around, and the brevity of our time here.  They tithed, and so what remains of our church remains.

Those who raised us, who could have had many more the goods of this passing world, lived with an aplomb, a grace, a savoir faire that better than any sermon interpreted 1 Corinthians 7.  Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning.  The discipline of the Methodists—this is your birthright, your legacy, your history, Marsh Chapel—comes from this presentiment about impermanence.

In our raising, you could have the courage to live on less, to itinerate at the direction, if not the whim of a superintendent, to pull up stakes and make new friends, to know the hurt and the excitement of a gypsie life.  How did they do this?  Because they believed in their bones that what lasts is not the various goods and seasonal items of the five and dime, but the touch of the wizard’s hand.  That gracious experience of God that comes in and through the impermanent cacaphony of life, and is primed by giving.

I wonder if we are ready to open the world up to experiences of God?

People come to church for an experience of God.  Giving is one doorway to such an experience.

5. An Experience of God

It is great blessing, that giving opens opportunities for experiences of God.  They come in God’s time and they come over time and they come to others.  But giving gives the chance for such an experience.

A while ago I had a wedding.  It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year.  The service was wonderful.  The organist played a version of “Love Divine” with bells that rounded off the service to perfection.  I was proud to be a part of it.  Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, upstate NY, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

Near Alexandria Bay?

“In Alexandria Bay.”

Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement (who is Jan’s grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled.  I wondered what I had said to upset her.  This is the “joy” of the ministry–you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable!  You make small talk and women cry!

“No”, she said, “you don’t understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college.  Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me….”

By now we were both emotional.

What does that have to do with me?

“I learned a few years ago that your wife’s grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons!  His gift formed my life!

What are you doing today?

“I am the director of music for a Methodist church near Albany.  The bride grew up in my youth choir.  Music is my life.”

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened:  I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away.   The hidden blessing of generosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God.  Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead.  His wife Anstress is long dead.  But after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world

Coda: A Midnight Prayer

Sometime later tonight, especially if the sky is clear and if the stars come out, I am going to walk out onto the esplanade.   The moonlight glistening on the frosted riverbank, the sound of squirrels scurrying with nuts to store, the smell of the dampened leaves, the taste of crisp autumn—the season of accountability—touching the tongue, hands clasped against the cold—now beneath a gleaming North Star it is time to offer a prayer.  I wonder if you would pray this with me sometime later tonight:

Dear God

                  Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.

                  I am going to give away 10% of what I earn.  I am nervous about doing it.  I need your help.  I want to tithe, but the coin seems to stick inside the wallet somehow. I want to give but the counter top seems so high up.  I want to invest my talent in life by faith with hope but this is something new and I am nervous.  So I need your help.  Dear God.  Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.


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

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

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The Bach Experience

November 9th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:31-46

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The Bach Experience

It was always YF; never MYF. Calling it MYF, or Methodist Youth Fellowship, failed to recognize the fullness of the denominational identity of the United Methodist Church, which resulted from a merger between the Methodist Church USA and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Carl and Judy Rife came to us at Hughes United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland from the EUB side of the family tree. Carl is a United Methodist elder, while Judy’s ministry could only have been diminished by ordination.

Judy was one of our YF counselors, and in preparation for our annual Youth Service one year, she led us in a more profound exegesis of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats than any seminary curriculum could hope to achieve. When did we see you sick? We made tray favors for patients at Sibly Hospital. When did we visit you in prison? We visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When did we see you hungry or thirsty? We served meals at Shepherd’s Table homeless services. When did we see you a stranger? We visited disabled neighbors in the affordable housing unit the church had built next door. When did we see you naked? We made quilts from scraps of our own clothes. Consider for a moment the spiritual fortitude of a woman who could teach more than two dozen suburbanite adolescents to appreciate the tradition of quilt-making, encourage us to participate in that tradition as a lived expression of faith, and inspire us to continue to live into the meaning of that act more than a decade and a half later.

Judy died on October 20th in York, Pennsylvania with Carl faithfully by her side as she breathed her last. She lived, in so many ways, a life of righteousness as depicted in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, and she died, I am confident, with something like the opening chorale of today’s Bach cantata on her lips: “Jesus, you who powerfully rescued my soul, be now, O God, my refuge.”

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.

Like our readings for today, our cantata is rather, well, dark: bitter death; the devil’s dark pit; the anguish of the soul; the ill and erring; the leprosy of sin; blood that cancels guilt; wounds, nails, crown, grave; sin and death assail. Bach’s Augustinian Lutheranism can seem quite foreign to contemporary religious sensibilities. The cantata’s text is a stark reminder that faith is serious business, a matter of life and death, that faith addresses the grievously painful situation of blood guilt, and that faith places us in the existential situation of judgment under threat of eternal damnation. There but for the grace of God, say Augustine, Luther, and Bach, go we all.

The very terminology of blood, guilt, sin, anguish, and judgment press back against the proclivities of late modern religious consciousness toward what might be called, and has been called, moral therapeutic deism.[1] Moral therapeutic deism believes that God exists, created the world, and watches over human life; that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair; that the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself; that God is not particularly involved in our lives; and that good people go to heaven when they die. Of course, this caricature of Christianity is subject to the same critique that H. Richard Niebuhr leveled against the Social Gospel movement in the mid-twentieth century for believing that “a God without wrath brought [humanity] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[2] For moral therapeutic deism, there is little reason to take religion seriously, and thus to pay much attention to it. Religion in this vein is as Karl Marx described, the opium of the people.

Not so for Bach, or his theological predecessors, Luther and Augustine. For them, faith is intimate and works its way into our deepest vulnerabilities. It is there then, in our inmost selves, that we meet God, and where God’s presence with us is experienced as grace.

Lord, I believe, help my weakness,
Let me never despair;
You, You can make me stronger,
when sin and death assail me.

Such pietism, of course, must be careful, tending as it does to promise more than it can deliver. Even in a state of grace, we are, at times, yet given to despair. But without allowing for the seriousness of the religious claim for the deepest and often darkest parts of ourselves, what hope could there be in our times of despair?

Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about the hope Bach offers us in today’s cantata.

Thank you, Brother Larry. Today we present Cantata 78 – ‘Jesu, der du meine Seele’ or Jesus, by whom my soul. Written in September of 1724, our cantata dates from Bach’s second year as cantor of the Thomas Church in Leipzig, where his duties included weekly composition of a cantata for the Sunday liturgy. Bach’s texts that day were lessons from Galatians Chapter 5 urging Christians from the ways of the flesh to live in the spirit, and from Luke Chapter 11, in which Jesus heals the ten lepers. As is often the case, Bach draws poetic and musical inspiration from a familiar 17th century chorale tune, in this case Johann Rist’s 1641 Jesu, der du meine Seele. The text calls us to pin our sins on the cross with Jesus using particularly direct Passion imagery. As with Paul’s letter, there is no escaping the depravity of the flesh for Augustine, Luther, or with Bach.

But the theological and, thereby, musical trajectory of the cantata moves the Christian through a cycle of eagerness to cleave to the cross, the power of Christ’s redeeming blood, and the assurance of Christ as our breast plate in a world where Satan lurks to thwart our every thought and deed.

In the opening movement, Bach’s depicts the poignancy of the passion, the deep, deep love of Jesus, our long-suffering – all — as an extended Passacaglia. Not just a formal unifying structure, this recurring tune is laden with all the pathos necessary to depict our frail human condition and the urgency of the need for redemption. As the tune is passed through the instruments and the voices in nearly thirty iterations, Rist’s chorale tune is heard in the soaring voices of the sopranos, doubled by flute and horn. As the text describes the vigor with which Christ rescues our anguished souls, the music, too, becomes more active and urgent, yet all within the framework of the prevailing ground bass. In the end, Bach achieves astonishing scope of idea and musical transformation in one of the most well-known of all Bach’s chorale fantasias.

The corpus of the cantata moves the Christian from earnest, eagerness to follow in Jesus’s steps – listen for the pizzicato of the double bass as the soprano and alto tread in each other’s musical steps – to the redeeming ‘sprinkling’ of the blood of Christ depicted by the elegant flute solo with tenor soloist – to the ultimate offering of not just our sin, but also our whole heart as we, too, take up the cross to live the Gospel in the world. Listen for the wisdom of the baritone and the full, confident stride of the redeemed whose soul is stilled by faith the promise of sweet eternity.

Thank you Dr. Jarrett.

In two weeks, Dr. Jarrett, Dean Hill and I will travel to San Diego with members of the Marsh Chapel Choir where we will meet up with members of the Bach Collegium San Diego to bring the Bach Experience, now in its eighth season here at Marsh Chapel, to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  There we will present Cantata 77, Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, “You shall love the Lord your God.”  That cantata, presented here at Marsh Chapel in February of 2013, is less dark but no less serious, treating the relationship between law and grace in conversation with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We invite your prayerful, and if so moved material, support of this expanding voice of the Bach Experience and Marsh Chapel.

The question addressed in Cantata 77 is how we are to live in light of the grace of God in us. The question for today’s cantata, Cantata 78, is what God’s grace does in us that we might live at all. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today, preached in the glorious music of Bach, is that the grace of God in us transforms sin, death, guilt, despair, and anguish to blessing so that we might say,

I will trust in Your goodness,
until I joyfully see
You, Lord Jesus, after the battle
in sweet eternity.

Listen. Learn. Love. The Bach Experience for you. Amen.

- Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+, University Chaplain for Community Life & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

[1] Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina. Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1959: 193.

The Marsh Spirit

November 2nd, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:1-12

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My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walked the sodden pasture lane…

…Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost

For All the Saints

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of our sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort.

Yours is a living spirit of recollection.  Of memory, history, remembrance, recollection.

September:  Inquiry.  October:  Hymnody.  November:  Recollection.


A Multitude that no one could count

Out of ordeal to springs of living water.

Not everything that is meaningful is measurable.

How do you measure a full heart?

How do you weigh a soul?

Prayer.  Faith.  Hope. Love.

1 John

Children of God

Dislocation and grace.  Disappointment and freedom. Departure and love.


The Lord redeems.

Redemption.  An economic and a spiritual meaning.

To redeem: to buy back.  To get back.  To pay off.  To set free by paying a ransom.  E Baptist, The Have Has Not Been Told.  To set free.  To make amends.  To make worthwhile.

Debt and regret.

Be careful, Commonwealth about funding common life on the basis and backs of debt and regret.

In the summer we live near a grand institution devoted to gaming.   Young eyes, poor homes, older people.  Those at the dawn, twilight, and shadows of life.

Is this the best we can do?


The saints:  poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted.

Someone.  Silent recollection.  Organ moment.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.  Presence. Longevity. Heart.  Every opening.  Physically seen by half the population.  Silber Way:  Is there any other?  Photonics:  How should I know?

Robert Frost

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets. Edward Thomas (d. 1917, France) on North of Boston:  ‘This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive.  It speaks, and it is poetry.”  They had one year of friendship, to walk the sodden pasture lanes of England.

Walked, not walks (in the poem)

Truth instinctively apprehended not intellectually grasped.


Yes, thanksgiving, and yes, real presence, but also remembrance.

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

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Religion on Campus

October 26th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 22:34-46

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Love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:35)


A. A Sociological Perspective:  Safety on Campus

Our siblings at the Bossey Institute in Switzerland focus weekly on Bible, Church, and World, while we do the same here at Marsh Chapel, as lenses upon the love of neighbor.  With our theme today we take them in reverse order, World, Church, Bible.

Religion on campus today is blessed with sociological, ecclesiological and theological opportunities, on a grand scale.  To all three of these blessings we will return during the rest of the year, for more detailed attention.  Today’s sermon is meant as a map of the whole territory, religion on campus, in three dimensions, social and communal and spiritual, on behalf of this marvelous Marsh community, for whom Jesus is our ‘beacon not our boundary’.


First, in the very present, with increasing attention, our nation has recognized a pervasive malady within student life and culture, certainly not limited to any one college or city, a callous disregard for the safety of women.  This is not a women’s problem, this is a men’s problem and a community problem. In this past year, appalling renditions of campus life have gradually brought about a ‘raised consciousness’ (a phrase whose currency we owe to the women’s movement of a generation ago).  Read again the March (Caitlin Flanagan) Atlantic article on fraternity life.  Look once more, if you can endure it, at the New York Times early August account of assault and rape in Geneva, NY, at Hobart William Smith.  Peruse the various columns on acquisition and education, excellence and sheep, like that of William Deresiewicz. Assess the attention last week to Harvard’s administrative change, and the objections of their law school faculty.  Sift through carefully the daily details of what young adults recount of their own experience.  A young friend this week related the chilling experience of being chased for blocks in the early evening on a well-lit street, through no fault of her own.  One student at Columbia now carries, cross-like, day-by-day, from class to class, the mattress on which an assault occurred some months ago.  Groups of students readily volunteer to help.  No campus across this land is free from the responsibility and the opportunity of facing and addressing, in real time, the issue of safety on campus.

Unlike many other problems—tornados, cancer, mortality—these are problems that need not occur and have both consequences and cures.  One reads that 20% of college women are harassed, attacked or assaulted during their student years.  That is going to change.  That has to change.  That will change, if only because those funding college tuition payments over time will make sure it does.

The voice of religious life (history, community and leadership) has everything to offer to this dilemma.  Where there are still religious voices to be heard, on campus, where that is there are still pulpits, on campus, (a mere fraction of the number a generation ago, a tiny fraction of that two generations ago) religion has been consistently, faithfully and aggressively engaged with issues of safety on campus, in concert with many good people and leaders across campuses like this one.

At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will continue to provide sacred space that is a safe place. Come Sunday, in worship wherein we remember that life is lived before God, and that our experience rests in the presence of ultimate reality.  And on weekdays, by employing and deploying sexual and other minorities in ministry and for ministry—the Inner Strength Choir, the LGBTQ work, and all manner of life affirming and spiritual enriching groups, events and programs. Spend a Friday evening with the Seventh Day Adventist student group and you will feel and see this in action.  Learning, yes, but also virtue and also piety.  Knowing, yes, but also doing and also being.  Mind, yes, but also heart and also soul.

A few years ago I met with a group of theologians at Yale.  At dinner, a highly accomplished professor approached. ‘I picked up that you work with religious groups.  What can you tell me about Intervarsity?’  His question carried a nervous apprehension.  I replied that they were a campus group, more conservative than I, and my tradition, but reliable and experienced.  ‘Why do you ask?’ I responded.  ‘Well, my daughter goes to that group here at Yale.  She was raised a Presbyterian.”  I asked why she chose Intervarsity:  ‘did she like the bible study, or the leader?’  ‘Oh, no’, he answered. ‘I think she just was looking for a group her age who were not drinking every night’.


At Marsh Chapel, while we have breath, we will also continue to uphold a vision of a beloved community among women and men on campus.  A beloved community, and nothing short of it!

A while ago someone asked why religious leaders on campus weren’t saying more about campus safety.   It took most of what little self-control I have not to blurt out: ‘where have you been?  Are you interested in these things?  Really? Then why aren’t you in church with us on Sunday?  If you were, you would see, hear and know just steadily we have done so.  So if you are really interested in a beloved community of women and men on campus, then I expect to see you in church on Sunday.  Put your body where your mouth is!  Come to Marsh Chapel.

Here is a community of faith living weekly in the shadow of a monument to Martin Luther King.  His dream is greatly deferred, we confess.  But the dream lives, we affirm.  The dream of a beloved community, including such a community among women and men on campus.

Here you might be greeted by an African American woman from Atlanta, like one of our former ushers, Jennifer Williams, now researching her PhD dissertation in urban planning at the University of Michigan, with a winter in South Africa.  Here you might be greeted by an Asian man like Maadiah Wang, one of our former ushers, now in business in Toronto, who was baptized by immersion on Easter Eve, on the side lawn here, last spring.  Here you might be greeted by Dominique Cheung, one of our former ushers, a BU graduate who taught for a year in Taiwan, and who has now returned this fall for a Masters degree in Education, and is an usher again, an usher both former and current. Go ushers!

Here you might find a friend like mine who guided me to a column by Emma Green, Atlantic, 11/14:  Americans born after 1980 are less likely to identify with a religion.  But.  Religious people report more satisfaction with their love lives and sex lives.  Church\service attendance protects healthy people against death.  College grads born in the 1970’s are more likely than non-grads of the same age to identify with a particular faith.  Maybe there’s something about contemporary campus life that maes people more, not less, likely to gravitate toward traditional institutions—or maybe college grads have simply learned that religion is pretty good for you.

Here you might catch a glimpse of what love can be, neighbor to neighbor, what loving kindness, chivalry, honor, care can be.  We still teach Shakespeare at Boston University:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.  Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.[1]

In sociology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

B. An Ecclesiological Perspective:  Love and Law

Second, religion on campus has an opportunity with regard to religion off campus, an ecclesiological rather than a sociological responsibility, one of church rather than college.   That is, the voices of religion on campus can provide a hopefully humble but also historically nuanced counterbalance to contemporary church vision and leadership.

For instance, as only one example, and turning to our own situation and heritage here at Marsh Chapel, there has been an historic, creative tension between the preaching leadership and the administrative management of the Methodist church, dating back at least to Peter Cartwright and his tangles with various presiding elders.  Both are important, both spirit and structure. Our ministry at Marsh this year emphasizes spirit, but structure has its role, importance and place.  Today, however, with most of the preachers in many Methodist conferences now lacking full education, and lacking ordination with consequent guarantee of appointment, the balance of power has shifted dramatically in the last generation.  Those whose primary weekly commitment is to interpreting the scripture are outweighed by those whose primary annual commitment is to upholding the discipline.  The gospel trumpeted in Scripture and tradition, freedom and grace and love, for all, including especially those in minority, including sexual minorities, is overshadowed by the rules and constraints re-voted every four years.  University pulpits, the few that remain, bear a significant responsibility to model dimensions of humility, integrity and courage (along with those healthy, strong churches whose northeastern voices you heard a summer ago, from New York, Washington, Rochester, and Boston).   As Lou Martyn said, we are free here to set heaven is a little higher.  So we need to take responsibility to lead, along the fewer strong, stable pulpits across the land.   We have the advantage of resources in interpretation, in memory, in thought, and in reflection that can be of some use, in this particular time.


One illustration.   Ministry is now denied to gay people in Methodism.  Ordination, that is.  But think about this for a minute, in a University chapel.  We have spent more than a generation re-learning that ministry belongs not to the ordained, alone, but to the baptized.  Entrance into ministry does not begin with the bishop laying on hands, at ordination.  Entrance into ministry begins with the pastor laying on hands, in baptism.  99% of ministry is conferred in the sacrament of baptism, and 1% in the sacramental rite of ordination.  Those who really would consistently exclude gay women and men from ministry should never have allowed the church to baptize or confirm or commune gay people. That would have been more fully effective and consistent bigotry.  But in baptism– the barn door has been opened, and no amount of shutting it will ever work!  Gay people are baptized, and therefore are already in ministry! It is a short way from denying orders to denying baptism.

Christopher Morse, my theology professor, and a Methodist minister from Virginia, told us once at dinner about a humorous baptismal moment.  Forty years ago you baptized every infant in the northern half of the county, no matter what county, on Palm Sunday.  38 baptisms in a row.  He moved down the line, seizing the children one at a time.  ‘What name shall be given this child?’  John.  Mary. George.  Pinundress.  A French couple, just learning English, presented the child.  So, ‘Pinundress, I baptize…’  A distraught father came up later to show Christopher the pin on the dress, on which the name had been clearly written, ‘pin on dress!’  We are not so hasty now.  We have spent a good deal of time on the prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace of God in baptism.  All the baptized are all in ministry.  Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight.  But it is our religious opportunity, on campus, freely and safely to think about these things, with humility but also with honesty.


Another illustration.  The rules in Methodism explicitly state that the pastor alone is to decide whose marriage will be solemnized, ‘in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the church’.  No local committee decides.  No vote of session.  No poll of the community or neighborhood.  No family habit of a patriarchal auction of a daughter to an opposing family.  No.  The pastor shall decide.  There is an accrued wisdom in this, the leaving of these lasting decisions to those in the local situations, in the contexts in which they are to be lived out.  Would you want a General Conference every four years voting on a list of those to be married in Boston, those to be allowed to marry in Los Angeles, those types of people fit for matrimony in Wisconsin?  Surely not.  That is why the primary directive in the discipline leaves such to the discretion of the pastor.

Marriage:  UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a.  (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.  The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.  So.  Do we mean this?  Are we going to ‘enforce’ as one general superintendent in the book, FINDING OUR WAY, ‘enforce the discipline’?  Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple.  There is no shading here, no hem or haw.  The pastor decides.   After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules.  No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different.  State law 50 years ago to prohibit interracial marriage was widely ignored by Methodist clergy, who performed interracial marriages in states prohibiting such.  Not to marry a gay couple is now to contradict the laws of 30+ states who protect the right of gay people to marry.  Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister.  “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”.  Not the General Conference.  Not the General Superintendent.  Not the District Superintendent.  Not the Charge Conference.  The pastor. And that is as it should be.  Thanks be to God.

In ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

C.  A Theological Perspective:  Freedom to Dream

Third, religion on campus has a theological chance, a spiritual opening, the opportunity and freedom to dream, both regarding creation and regarding redemption.


That is, the remaining significant campus pulpits (Marsh, Harvard, Duke, and just a few others) have the spiritual opportunity to challenge and engage thought forms in college and culture, including some forms of popular atheism and agnosticism, and introduce them, for example, to some religious forms of atheism and agnosticism.  Leslie Weatherhead did this already sixty years ago with sermons collected as THE CHRISTIAN AGNOSTIC.  Edward O. Wilson this fall wrote:  “Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.”  But the contrary is true as well:  “Love is the one thing that makes otherwise bad people do good things”.

The asperity with which the Holy Scripture summarizes creation is only matched by the asperity which the creeds of the Church summarize creation.  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Period.  ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’. Period.  Scripture and creed say what reason and experience know:  we have the brute fact of the brute creation.  Period.  The rest of the Holy Scripture, all 65.9 other books, and the rest of the creed, the long second paragraph and the shorter third, go on from there.  The love of God comes accompanied by faith and hope.  Creation is the occasion of love but does not occasion love, does not occasion faith in love, and does not occasion a hope for a loving future.  God is Love is more about the second person of the Trinity, the Christ of God, than about the first person of the Trinity, the creation of God, more Fairest Lord Jesus than For the Beauty of the Earth. Love is in the Second Person of the Trinity.


When invited to come to Marsh Chapel, I looked back on the great dreamers, the voices, influential and real, that had formed me.   My father-in-law, who built a Wesley Foundation from the ground up in the 1960’s in Oswego, NY.  My dad, who served a college town church and helped create an ecumenical form of college ministry, UMHE, in the same decade. My mother and mother in law, who in those years hosted and graced endless fellowship meals for nervous pre-seminarians, bruised freedom riders, troubled conscientious objectors, chastened veterans, and their various boyfriends and girlfriends.  Our friend, the Chaplain at Colgate, RV Smith, whose presence and courage, in hard years, were sustained by MOTIVE magazine.  William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Williams, and then at Yale, before becoming our pastor at Riverside Church in NYC in the 1970’s.   Coffin’s preaching ministry, in New York and at Columbia and through Union, continues to be a large part of my model for work here at Marsh, in Boston and at Boston University and through the School of Theology.  Peter Gomes, both colleague and mentor, who succeeded at Harvard, as he famously said, by being ‘ubiquitous’.  The years and losses have mounted up in equal measure for religion on campus.  There are but 1 for every 5 to 10 pulpits now on campus that there were 50 years ago.  But we are here.  You are here.  Where there is life there is hope.

All of these fine ministers, for all of their substantial theological differences, when it came to spiritual theology, shared a freedom to dream.  In fact, far beyond their own limited spheres, they kept dreams alive, in decades of confusion, and kept preaching alive, in years when across the land there was, in Amos’s fine phrase, ‘a famine of the word’.  They read Paul Tillich and made his ‘depth’ available to others.  We can do the same, here, with the great theological minds of our time, some of whom are close at hand.

The Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano said recently, “I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years.”  And I have felt the same, preaching or trying to preach the same sermon for the past 45 years.  I preach love.  God’s love.  Love is God.  All of us are better when we are loved.  Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.  Love God, love neighbor—so the Bible says, today.

Religion on campus can give future leaders, secular and religious, a sense of possibility, imagination, freedom and breadth in the theopoetics of God talk.  Those who attend worship at Marsh Chapel over four years as undergraduates, that is, will have also virtually acquired much of the vocabulary and content of the first year of graduate study in theology—biblical, historical, philosophical, and pastoral theology.  At no extra charge!  What a bargain!

We shall give King the last word:

“Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship.  Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return….   When one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him.  And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.  I think this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘love your enemies.’  I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people.  Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights.  But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.”[i]   

If a student, your question is, where are you found on Sunday morning?  If faculty, that one, plus a second, where are you on the weekends, when pedagogy gives way to life?  If an administrator, both the former, plus a third, how have you planned in finance and leadership for the growth of a beloved community?  And if a community member all three of those, plus this one:  are you with us or not?  We need you.  We have not a person, hour or dollar to spare.

In theology, as in sociology and ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon, not our boundary.

Jesus, the very thought of thee

With sweetness fills the breast

But sweeter far thy face to see

And in thy presence rest


Jesus our only joy be thou

As thou our prize wilt be

Jesus be thou our glory now

And through eternity

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” in A Testament of Hope, ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco:  Harper, 1991), pp. 46-7.  Washington notes how King relies expressly on Nygren in his depiction of agape and also amplifies what he finds, p. 16.  For an interpretation of King’s account of love, see James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm and America:  A Dream or a Nightmare ((Maryknoll:  Orbis, 1991), e.g., pp. 120-150.

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

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The Things That Are God’s

October 19th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 22:15-22

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We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?  We are not told.  There is no live interview from the heavenly conference room.  There is no point-by-point bulletin, with details promised at 11pm.  There is no footnote, or explanatory second conversation.  We are left on our own by our Lord to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.   We are given a fair and good amount of freedom in doing so.

In conscience, do you wonder about ‘the things that are God’s’?

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  (In the Gospel of Thomas, [110ad?] a bit yet later than Matthew [85ad?] who is a bit yet later than Mark [70ad?] who is a good bit later than whatever Jesus might actually have said [30ad?], the Lord adds, ‘and give to me the things that are mine’!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine (GT, logion 100).

Matthew, true to form, intensifies the bitterness of Jesus toward Pharisees, of church toward synagogue, of Christian to Jew.  He hikes up entrap (Mark) to entangle.  He is ‘aware of their malice’.  To the question, ‘why put me to the test’ he adds, for good measure, ‘you hypocrites’.   His Jesus demands not just a coin, but  ‘(all) the money for the tax’.

Through the year, from this pulpit, we have tried continuously to trace the moves Matthew makes in 85ad away from what Mark, his source, had written in 70ad.  Mostly, we want to be crystal clear about the way the gospel changes, with the setting, changes with the occasion, changes, with the time and season and year.  New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

A standard reading of the passage is that the Herodians (supporters of Herod who is the Simon Legree of Rome in the cotton fields of Palestine) would want the tax paid to Caesar whereas the Pharisees (the French Resistance of Palestine against the Third Reich of Rome) would want resistance to payment of the tax.  Jesus is caught.   If he agrees with the Herodians, the people will kill him.  If he agrees with the Pharisees, the Romans will kill him.

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and these words were inscribed on his tombstone.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul?

The Starry Heavens Above:  Spirit

            Wonder.  Without wonder your God is too large.  Wonder at the small things, for they are the things of God.

1. Wonder marvels that small things make a big difference.

The boat motor idled well and even carried the pontoon boat forward, but at a snail’s pace.  All boats disappoint just like all dogs bite.   The summer on our lake is a series of boat breakdowns.  I wondered:  old age finally taking the motor?  Carburetor?  Choke?  Throttle wires?  I am no mechanic.  This usually means taking the boat out of the water and towing it 30 miles for repairs.  The motor casing came off easily.  In a few minutes, it was apparent even to a non-mechanic that a single connection, throttle to gas line, had slipped undone.  Just as easily, without tools, it was reconnected.  The motor purred.   Small things, little things, can make a big difference.

Our out cottage, a broken down old fishing camp, built probably on weekends by one guy with tools, a six pack and a rod and reel, has a pump.  On that well and pump depend cooking, eating, cleaning washing, showers and other forms of relief.  It is outside, so subject to weather and other beings.  The pump stopped one afternoon.  I am no plumber, but I know a good one.  We called him.  You worry when your family needs water and you have no way to provide it.  A new pump?  Line problems?  Dry well? What is wrong?  But it was something very little.  Ants had found their way into the electric box and broken the connection.  Two minutes of expert attention, ants erased, problem solved.  Small little things can make a big difference.

The dock itself is new, partly brand new.  The dock is our island into the lake, our portal into boating, our entrance into swimming, our bridge into fishing, our outpost of land in water.   It is just a wonderful territory in itself.  But in order to get from the hillside down onto the dock, a makeshift staircase is required.  It is fraction of the size of the dock, a farthing compared to a pound.  It is a humble set of six stairs in wood reaching out onto the magisterial dock.  Without the stairs, though, the dock is useless.  All the weight, all the space, all the expanse, all the expense of the four piece dock lies permanently adrift from the mainland without the simple steps.  Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of much, much greater things.

2. Wonder remembers the little things with lasting consequences.  Children begin to get hearts of wisdom in learning this.

Back from the fishing camp, and a warm water pumped shower there, now out on the dock beneath the stairs, ready to board the boat for a motor powered rid, our 7 year old granddaughter caught something in her younger brother’s rhetoric.  Brother said, “Eric said to me yesterday that he would take me tubing behind his boat today’.  Sister said, “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant.”  There is short, short way from birdie to bogie, from right to almost right, from what is said to what is meant.  To be able to hear that difference is a spiritual gift, a small, little, powerful, spiritual gift.  “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant!”  Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of real understanding.

It is a Sabbath reminder for us.  Little things can change the world. Remember when someone said something to you that intervened, helped, saved.  Sometimes the best medicine is whatever gives you the courage to take one more step forward.  You have the mind, heart, faith and voice to speak such an intervening word this week.  Will it make any difference?  Small, little things, make a difference.

Wonder keeps us from making God too large.

The Moral Law Within:  Soul

Conscience.  Without conscience your God is too small.

Without wonder your God is too large.  Without God conscience your God is too small.

Conscience is the beating heart of truth and justice.  Conscience is the soul of soul.  Let your conscience be your guide, for conscience is soul, conscience is one of the things of God.  Conscience reminds that the kingdom of heaven is not a present state of mind but a coming state of affairs.

1. Conscience recoils at the horror of injustice.

Peterboro is one of the poor, small towns with rich histories that dot the upstate landscape.  Like Seneca Falls, known for the birth of the women’s movement.  Like Palmyra, known for the birth of Mormonism.  Like Oneida, known for the birth of a communitarian utopianism which itself gave birth to the children of stirpiculture there.  Like New Lebanon, known for the birth of the Shaker community.  Like Fort Stanwix and Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Poughkeepsie, where the American Revolution was saved in thwarting British advance.  Like Fulton, which with Robert Fulton gave birth to the steamboat.  Like the long winding stretch of water forming the remains of the Erie Canal, Albany to Buffalo, the opening the west to commerce.  Like Lake Placid of Olympic fame, the retreat, home and burial place of the cloud-splitter himself, John Brown, who in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, and from his gallows pulpit did ignite the civil war, to free the slaves.  Like Orwell and Redfield, tiny northern towns, know home to Unity Acres, a ministry with the poor, and the places of origin for the Berrigan brothers, radical catholic peace activists over the last 50 years.  Like Onondaga Lake, the center of the Iroquois confederacy—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later Tuscarora, and the legend of Hiawatha.  Like the gloriously beautiful Finger Lakes, known as the ‘burned over district’ of religious fervor following the second great awakening.  Like Corning, Rome, Oneida, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Schenectady known for the birth of industrial development in glass, firearms, silver, film, salt, steel, and electricity.   Like Rochester, known for Frederick Douglass and his abolitionist paper, the North Star.  Like Syracuse, known for world wide leadership in the creation and development of air conditioning.  The Southern states owe a great debt to Rochester and Syracuse, for the two things that make current southern growth possible at all, civil right and air conditioning.  Peterboro is one of these now poor, small towns with rich histories.

Peterboro was founded by Gerrit Smith.  Smith was an ardent abolitionist with a trust fund.  He spent his father’s money to buy land southeast of Syracuse, along the high ridge at the northern end of the Allegheny plateau.  He used the land to provide safe dwellings for free slaves, who came up from the south in dark, crossing various rivers, Susquehanna, Genesee, Delaware, with dogs barking and slavers chasing, and the occasional Harriet Tubman as guide, armed with prayer and a pistol.  The tracts he gave to these people of misfortune and found fortune are still farmed today, and in some few cases by the familial descendants of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist largesse.  He also built an almshouse, a kind of hospital for the poor, in Eaton NY, nearby Peterboro, which as an 8 year old I remember entering as my father made a pastoral call on a dying man there.  It has long since closed.  The Methodist church in Peterboro, the remains thereof, includes people of color who are of the lineage of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist generosity.   It is rare more colorful hue in the pew than one finds in other upstate churches.

That is, there is much good, of good conscience, in the length and breadth, the history and legacy of Upstate New York.  That is, there is much good in the very village, the little town of Peterboro, a poor hamlet with a rich history.

Yet on July 8 at 7pm a tornado took the lives of four people in and near Peterboro, NY.   A four–month old little girl and her 35 year old mother died when their mobile home was crushed in the wind.  The local paper carried photographs of them both, two beautiful pictures on the front page.  Two others died, an elderly woman, and also the male partner of a female oncologist in the region.

Tornados are rare in New York, some ten or so per year, almost all minor and inconsequential.   Tornados are unknown, or had been, in this part of the upstate region, as Governor Cuomo said in his remarks about the tragedy, and the new normal in radical weather events.

Why do such things happen?  Why?

2. Conscience recoils at the violence and accident in nature and history.

During that tornado week, other cyclones hit.  A fine young woman gave birth to a baby daughter with a whole in her heart.  A salt of the earth carpenter, a laboring gentleman, had to clean of the car door against which his older brother had shot himself after years of financial difficulty and depression.  A 60-year-old saintly woman, who has given her life to pre school children and the Methodist church, in equal measure, was told she would need chemotherapy for the rest of her life.  A father of four, a recovering alcoholic, grandfather of nine, community leader and faithful soul discovered he has esophageal cancer.   We do not mention global rates of infant mortality, especially in the first month of life, statistics that have not improved at all in our time.   We do not mention 180,000 civilian dead in Syria, surpassing the number slain in Iraq.  We do not mention the hundreds of Palestinians killed without a single Israeli death, in the mini war of the same fortnight.  Just to say, that during that tornado week, scores of other cyclones, microbursts, wind blasts of various types and size did touch ground, in the heart of human lives.  From May 2012 to May 2013 we buried 13 BU students.

Why?  Why do such things happen?

We do not know why these things happen.  We know in our experience of random hurt the biblical truth in Jesus’ teaching that rain falls on just and the unjust alike.  We know in our experience of horrible, unspeakable tragedy the biblical reference to the tower of Siloam that fell killing dozens who were no better nor worse than those spared.  We know in our experience the falsehood of Job’s friends and counselors who in mistake and error tried to explain to Job his misery, which they had not themselves suffered.  We know in our experience of sin, death, meaninglessness the gut cry of Jesus in debate, ‘none is good but God, and in the garden, ‘let this cup pass from me’, and on the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’.

And in our experience, we confess, we find if far easier to discount in size, scope, measure and meaning the pain of others than we do to discount our own.  For instance.  How often have I thought, and heard, in some arguments, ‘things in this world would be different if men bore children and knew the pain of childbirth’. 6 to 3 votes in the Supreme Court can on this score be quite revealing. We do not know why these things happen, and we are prone to discount others’ lacerations by comparison with our own.  How many of us wish we had Syrian passports, Iraqi citizenship, or Ukrainian bank accounts this morning?

Conscience keeps us from making God too small.


            My wife Jan drove home, that is, on July 8 at 7pm, heading to our summer house, coming with 7 miles of Peterboro at the tornado hour.  She has never seen a darker sky, she says.  And if she had not gotten home?  That is, if our family were now living with the tornado tragedy and loss inflicted on others?  I would be of great gratitude, at a minimum, to find myself surrounded, as this morning, by a company of women and men, honest about hurt, graceful in grief, dignified in the hour of death, and loving in the face of meaningless, inexplicable, unintelligible laceration.  But I know I would harbor, for the long stretch of healing it would take, a white hot anger at the injustice of such a loss.

We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’.  What are they?   Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within?  Wonder and conscience?  Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul, things of God.


I believe in God.  I believe in the creative divine power that unleashed the universe.  I believe that no one has ever seen God.  I believe in the potential for a purposeful existence by faith, the faithfulness of God in Christ in my case.  I believe that even the darkest moment and harshest experience is held, included, embraced and redeemed in the divine love, as a mystery and as a hope.

I believe in freedom.  I do not believe that God has a plan for every single life, free of human freedom.  I do not believe that God has a map quest route for your life, nor that God sends tornados to chew up poor towns with rich histories, nor that God brutally executes young mothers and little children living in mobile homes.  I do not believe that everything has a purpose, that everything is beautiful in its own way, that we will understand it better by and by, or that all experience is directly, divinely, precisely ordered.  Who would worship a God like that?

I believe in love.  The gospel is the gospel of freedom, of grace, of love, of pardon, of forgiveness, of acceptance, of healing, and of hope.  I believe all of us are better when we are loved by others and when we connect in faith with divine love.   For me, the statement, God is Love, is about the second not the first person of the Trinity. For those looking today for a more formally exacting or exacting theological position, my heart felt regrets and condolences.

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

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The Long Wait

October 12th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 25:1-13

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Trimmed Lamps

            The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life is a long wait.

Our gospel has made use of a story known elsewhere in antiquity (Bultmann, HST, loc.cit).  The power of the wedding, as you know from other parts of Holy Scripture, stood at the very pinnacle of experience and religious teaching, in antiquity.   Here the gospel writer has appended a (very noble) encouragement to watchfulness, to a parable re-arranged near the end of the first century of the common era.

Our more trustworthy manuscripts include the bride, too, ‘ten maidens…went to meet the bridegroom and the bride’.   In fact, nowhere in antiquity do maidens await the bridegroom.  They await the bride.  That is why we call them bridesmaids.  They attend the bride, and especially in the great exultation of the translation from home to home, from parents to spouse, like the sun rising from the eastern heavens, daily, the bridegroom with the bride runs the course with joy.

So, why has the writer eliminated the bride?  He does so to make the parable fit the church’s biggest spiritual disappointment, keenly and painfully suffered by 90ad.  Christ was risen from the dead which must mean the end of time which must mean his return in power and glory which must mean the soon and very soon parousia, the coming of the Lord.  But 30ad became 50ad and 50ad became 70ad and 70ad became 90ad.  And the bridegroom (here shorn of bride clearly a figure of Christ) delays.

The original parable is not about awaiting the return of Christ, more about this later in the great and glorious gospel of John, but about living through a long wait. The maidens, the bridesmaids, some prepared and some not, all have to wait.  And it is a long wait.  And that is just the point.

You may think of a woman waiting to give birth.  You may think of a population, long enslaved, waiting for justice to roll down like waters.  You may think of a war torn region, the setting for endless decades of mayhem and war and violence, waiting for the dawn of peace.   You may think of a doctoral student waiting for that final report, the dissertation is finished.  You may think of a denomination waiting the wisdom to affirm the full humanity of gay people now recognized across nearly three dozen states.  You may think of those afflicted and infected with a deadly virus awaiting a vaccine for healing.  You may think of a man hoping for a job and daily awaiting a letter.  You may think of a physician attending a patient suffering from a mental illness, hoping against hope for a delayed cure.  You may think of a lonely woman, a tithing Christian, waiting for a pastor to leave off further libraries and degrees and come to her church, and come to her house, and make a visit, and say a prayer.

Whether or not the full range of doctrine and teaching in Christianity convinces you, surely, at least at this point, you would admit its congruence with your experience.  Faith and life both are a long wait.

How shall we trim our lamps for the wait?  The parable moves quickly to the importance of preparation.  A little patience?  A little persistence?  Oil for the lamps during the long wait.

Patience and Persistence

Patience.  The patience of Job.  Patience is a virtue. Love, joy, peace, patience.  Patient in suffering.

Persistence.  Persistent prayer.  Persistence as insistence.  To exist is to persist. Labor omnia vincit.  The persistence of Paul.

The life of faith, the spiritual life, carries us down into the caverns of experience.  Our steadiness in faith, our reliance on faith, are most clear to us when everything else is murky, misty, dark and dank.  Faith is only faith when it is all you have left.

Two registers of the spiritual life, the life of faith, down in the declivities and caves of time, are patience and persistence.   Over the course of a week, or a year, or a lifetime, one needs both.  You need both.  You need both the passive receptivity of patience and the active resistance of persistence.

One is the brake pedal.  That is patience.  You are careening down hill.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your profession are going south.  You need a way to put a foot on the brakes, to slow the decline, to ease the demise.  Patience can help you to do that.  One day at a time.  Sleep on it.  Things will look better in the morning.  Patience is your way of managing the rolling ride down hill.

The other is the accelerator, the gas peddle.  That is persistence.  You are looking uphill.  The climb is before you and the incline daunting.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your profession are all in the balance, nothing is for sure, nothing is taken for granted.  You can rest, but later.  Now you need to put the peddle to the metal and climb the hill.  Slow and steady wins the day.  Keep on keeping on.  One step at a time.  Persistence is your way of empowering the grinding ride up hill.

Both patience and persistence are underrated virtues.  They shy away from the lime light.  They don’t do well in the bright light.  But for your faith to quicken and to continue, you will need both patience and persistence.  For sustenance, energy, endurance in the long wait, you and I need both.

Some of you are more naturally patient.  Make sure you practice persistence too.  Some of you are more naturally persistent.  Make sure you practice patience too.

The care of children requires and elicits endless patience.  Patience to rock.  Patience to feed.  Patience to listen.  Patience to play.  Patience to teach.  Patience to watch.  Patience to repeat.  Patience simply to live alongside a slowly developing person, personality, personhood.  Someone let you grow up, after all.  The patience you received will need to become a part of the patience you conceive and retrieve and give.  A part of our fast forward work culture can use the brake peddle, the quiet pause, the important lack of doing, that is the patience of the cure of souls in general, and the care of children in particular.   Honor, celebrate the hours and stamina given to breakfast cleanup, to snack and nap time, to bathing, to the settling of squabbles, the cleanup of messes, the endurance of crying, the midnight coddling—all and so much more that require the patience of parenting.

Learning any language, at any time, is a demanding enterprise.  The language of faith—the grammar of trust, the syntax of belief, the spelling of practice—is no different.  Children blessed in patient care to learn to speak, and then also to learn to speak in a language of faith, are given the gift of life.  To know from childhood the power of love.  To know from childhood the example of forgiveness.  To know from childhood the posture of hope.  To know from childhood the virtue of patience.  If you learn the language early, taking it as your mother tongue, and imbibing it with your mother’s milk, you have it all your life.  A hymn to hum.  A verse to remember.  A prayer to use.  A psalm to recite.  A story to tell.

You certainly learn to speak another language in mid-life.  People do so all the time.  That too requires patience, both for listener and for speaker.  It may involve a difference in pronunciation, an accent.

In the summer we cared for four of our five grandchildren over several days.  The older three one afternoon went with their grandmother, the fourth having been left for a nap with her grandfather.  She awoke after a couple of hours, not overly pleased to find out who had been assigned as her temporary guardian, or captor.  But she allowed herself to be held, to be given the chance slowly to wake up, to see the blue in sky and lake, and to let the breeze of mid summer caress face and hands, hair and skin.  She could sit, and wait.  She only needed a patience, a patient presence.

Sometimes though, in the life of faith, in the spiritual life, you need more gas and less brake, more persistence than patience.

We will offer one immediate example, literally present to Marsh Chapel today, and figuratively present in many, many settings.

Dr. Doug Reeves, in his blog CHANGELEADERS, has something to offer you, first for those finishing a PhD, and second, more broadly, for all.  His particular advice applies, well and broadly.   Patience is a virtue.  But so is persistence.  He offers the wisdom of persistence, in five forms:

(Top Five Tips for Finishing Your Dissertation by Doug Reeves)

1)  Call your advisor.  The top reason that doctoral students are stuck is neither their overwhelming literature review nor their complex research methodologies.  It’s failure to communicate with their advisor.  Pick up the phone, drop by the office, or as a last resort, e-mail.  Make personal contact with the person who will most influence your ability to finish your doctorate…

2)  Read exemplary dissertations.  Although this is your first dissertation, your committee has been through this exercise many times.  Ask them to give you the title and author of the best dissertation they have ever seen.  It may be their own, and it’s never a bad idea to read the publications of your advisor and committee members.  Exemplary dissertations give you the clearest possible idea of the substance and style that your committee expects of you.

3)  Create a cohort.  Boston College dramatically increased the completion rate of their doctoral program when they created small groups of four or five students who meet regularly with one another, sharing research, emotional support, and intellectual engagement.  If your university does not provide such a cohort, then create your own.  Find like-minded colleagues who are committed to walking across the stage on the same date as you will, commit to weekly meetings, and share a one-page summary of just one article or book that you have reviewed that week.  Ideally, the group will have complementary strengths – perhaps one with expertise in quantitative methods and another with a focus on qualitative methods. 

4)  Forget perfection.  There is a technical academic term for the perfect dissertation – it is called “unfinished.”  You are doing important work, and while you should not tolerate sloppy research, you must forgive yourself for imperfections.  You will think of many reasons that your research could be better.  You could have a larger sample size; you could use a more contemporary analytical technique; you could add fifty more citations to your literature review.  The list never ends.  As my advisor told me many years ago, “this is not your last piece of research, it’s your first piece of research, so get it finished.” 

5)  The 45-minute rule.  Don’t wait for the sabbatical, vacation, weekend, or free day.  The vast majority of dissertation writers are working professionals who have many demands on their time, so the key to finishing is not waiting for the illusory gift of free time, but rather the work-a-day chore of finishing a paragraph, an article, or a quick synthesis – something that you can do in 45 minutes.  One of the best ways to give yourself 45 minutes of uninterrupted time is to turn off e-mail – not forever, not even for a full day, but for just 45 minutes.  You will be amazed at what just 45 minutes of focused energy will provide for you.

How remarkably, with just a little here again there again revision, these points about persistence may fit your own and very long wait!


            The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life, as in the story, is simply a long wait.  It is a long wait, and that is just the point.   The primitive Christian church endured such a lengthy wait through nearly seven decades , prior to the Gospel of John and the new commandment, to love, the new gift, of spirit, the new hope, of truth making free, the new gospel dimension, really, of an hour coming that, somehow, now, is.

Here is an invitation.

You may benefit, should you seek patience and persistence, from consort with a community born in patience (that is, suffering) and persistence (that is, endurance.  Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  Why?  Because of the Love of God that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

You may of course sally forth on your own.  Many do.  Most do, it may be.  But how are you going to know the power of persistence without immersion in a persistent community of faith?  How are you going to gain the capacity of patience without involvement in a patient community of faith?  How are you going to go up the hills and down the hills of life without some, genuine, comraderie along the trail, some consanguinity on the hike, some compassion amid the passion of the heat of the day?  Life is hard enough, the wait is long enough, without some church family to love and some church home to enjoy and some church community of faith with whom to keep faith.  Especially for children as they grow.  Especially for adults trying to ferret out some meaning in life.  Especially for the more elderly, wise but lonely, having much to offer but not much mobility with which to offer it.  It gladdens me when one or another, elsewhere or here, finds a seat in the community of patient persistence, of persistent patience.

Need we even pause to add that such a fellowship, of faith working through love, could never have given itself birth, and could never have sustained itself by merely inventive imaginative activity, and could never have conjoured for itself the sustainable energies uphill and downhill, patience and persistence?  Such fellowship, sustenance, and energy come from the divine presence, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Love of God, the transcript in time of God in eternity, whose own lasting love through the long wait, marked on the cross, is, finally, all we have, and all we need.

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

The Marsh Spirit

October 5th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21

Philippians 3

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Praise:  Max Miller


Today:  American Cancer Society Fighting to End Breast Cancer

Classical Music, Methodist Hymnody

Max Miller 2013

Praise:  Psalm 17

Marsh Nave Greetings

Marsh Nave Echoes

Word and Music:  Bible and Hymnal

Vancouver 1983

Out of Poverty: Industry and Frugality

Life Together:  Invitation, Compassion, Vocation, Aspiration


Passion:  Earl Marlatt


Passion for Compassion

Earl Marlatt 1934, Sermon centered curriculum: B,H,S,P theology
First Serving of Faith

Bill Murray

Passion:  Religion and Vengeance in Mt 21

We are not exempt:  Krister Stendahl

Pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy

BU Graduate students take a church

Weddings in Barns

Thanksgiving and Christmas on the Frozen River

George Kirk Marlowe Trout River 1982


Personality:  Susanna Wesley


Should be in a window: 20 Children

Love Divine:  Are We Lovers Anymore?

You are the Gospel others read and hear and see

Personality:  Paul:  Press On

Conversion comes from the heart

L Cohen:  Ring the Bells that still can ring

Marital Benedictions

Communion Liturgy




Marital Benedictions


Good Morning.  Good Morning

Sleep Well?  Not too bad.

Have a good one.  You too.

Be careful.  I will

How was it?  Not bad.

I’m sorry.  Not to worry.

I apologize.  No problem

Please forgive me.  I forgive you.

I don’t understand.  Let me say it another way.

Do you agree?  Not really.

Could we talk about it? We could talk about it.

How much does it cost?  I don’t remember.

Does it hurt?  Not so much.

Do you?  I do.

Will you?  I will.

Do you promise? Yes, I promise.

Thank you.  You’re welcome.

Thanks.  You’re welcome.

I love you.  I love you.

Good night.  Good night.


Marsh Greetings and Echoes


Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:


The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you


The Chapel’s sixty-year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you


The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you


The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you


The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.



Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…


All the good you can…


The two so long disjoined…


Heart of the city, service of the city…


Learning, virtue, piety…


Good friends all…


Hope of the world…


Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…


Common ground…


Content of character…

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

The Bach Experience

September 28th, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21:23-32

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We are entering a new year, whether with the academics at matriculation, or with those following this season’s autumnal sports, or with the hikers and campers as fall arrives.  Our Holy Scripture and our Cantata this morning both offer us insight for a new day.

In particular, those of you who may find yourself outside of the religious traditions around you, or the tradition, if any, in which you were raised, may be heartened to hear the music and word this morning.

Our community of faith at Marsh Chapel, Boston University, shares with other such communities, far and near, an alertness to the meaning in beginnings.  Jesus shall be my everything.  Jesus shall remain my beginning.  Jesus is my light of joy.  So the duet affirms in just a few moments.  Beginnings remain.  The start of something new stays with us long after the newness has been spent.  We recognize the power of new beginnings.

Look at the few days of this week and weekend.

Thursday, hundreds of students and other gathered within the Jewish community to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish new year.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings were deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in the return of the year’s opening.

Saturday, many hundreds of students and others gathered for feasting and dancing at the celebration of Raas Lela, the seasonal and communal recognition of what is new this autumn.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings were deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in the return of the year’s opening.

Boston University is proud to host the largest Hindu student association in the country.  Their yearly Saturday evening festival provides a colorful, fervent, rhythmic opening to the rest of the year.  The dance and the meal seem to pray, as does our cantata: bless all faithful teachers, bless hearers of the word, may peace and loyalty kiss each other, thus we would live this entire year in blessing.

This evening, this Sunday evening, yet another several hundred students and others will gather to share a common meal, a common table, a common reading, a common address, a community of fellowship.  The event is the feast of Eid, in which our Muslim community completes Ramadan and enters the year following those days of discipline.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings will be deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in a sort of return to the year’s opening.  Let us complete the year to the praise of the divine name.  So the meal suggests, as the cantata affirms.

All of these events this year will have been located in the same space, in the same week, in the same University, on the same street.  They happened and will have happened in the very same room.  In engaging difference, in embracing alterity, we do well not to minimize the variations present.  We also do well to recognize the common hope present.  Community emerges from diversity when diversity is longing for unity.  Without that common hope there will be no common faith and then over time no common ground.

In addition, the Christian community will be gathered for worship, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel and across the airwaves, and later in through the afternoon and week for other Christian services—three Catholic masses, an Evening Ecumenical Sunday Eucharist, prayer and devotion preceding the Inner Strength Gospel Choir practice, a Monday evening Orthodox communion, a Wednesday evening ecumenical and Episcopal Evening Prayer, a school of theology service, a moment of Thursday silent prayer, a Common Ground Thursday communion service, and other services, all located here in the Chapel.  Next Sunday afternoon we will celebrate at 2pm the baptism of Nathan Hutchison-Jones, one of several infants baptized this year.  It is an hour of new beginnings as well.  Beginnings remain.  Beginnings reverberate.  Beginnings resound through time and space.  And every dawn, every morning awakening, is one such new beginning.  How seriously, studiously, and curiously, famously wondered Howard Thurman, have taken our moment of waking from slumber, morning by morning?

Keep a list this week of beginnings, new year celebrations of different kinds.  A first paper submitted.  A first date enjoyed.  A first real conversation in friendship.  A first blistering failure.  A first day on the job.  A first ache in the bones to hint at the advent of autumn in life.  A first handshake.  A first argument.  A first genuine disappointment.  Whatever ‘years’ begin in the next week, take a moment to savor them or at least to consider them.  You can do so with confidence, as we hear in a moment: His good Spirit, which shows me the path to Life, guides and leads me upon a level road, therefore I begin this year in Jesus’ name.

Dr. Jarrett, you have been our guide to the heart of the music brought us by choir and collegium, over these past several years.  How best should we listen, receive, give ear to word and music this morning?

Bach (Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett)

Thank you, Dean Hill. Today’s cantata was first performed on New Year’s Day in January of 1724 for the Feast of the Circumcision and the Naming of Jesus. It may seem an odd choice for the end of September, but the text of the cantata celebrates the start of the new year, and contains all the hopes for God’s blessings and guidance in new endeavors. It seemed particular appropriate for the new beginnings all around us. In particular this morning, we welcome our newest choir members, and four new Choral Scholars, two of whom – Ethan De Puy and Kim Leeds —  sing their first solos in our Bach Experience this morning.

Just as our Gospel lesson from Matthew 21 finds Jesus in the temple teaching, the Luke 2 lesson that occasioned this cantata finds Jesus in the temple just eight days after his birth for the celebration of his official naming. It is a moment of great joy and promise, and Bach provides music full of fanfare and flourish.

Like so many of Bach’s opening choral movements, Psalms of praise are used to ring in the new year: Sing to the Lord a new song; The company of Saints shall praise Him; Praise him with drums and dances; Praise him with strings and pipes, and finally, All that hath breath, praise ye the Lord, Alleluia. Scored for full festival forces with three trumpets and timpani, three oboes and the usual complement of strings, Bach engages the full range of the concerted style. The opening movement is cast in three contrasting sections. The central text, ‘All that hath breath, praise the Lord’,  is treated contrapuntally as a fugue, but offset from the outer sections by grand unison statements from Luther’s setting of the Te Deum, ‘Lord God, we praise you’ and later, ‘Lord God, we thank you.’

The second movement introduces the three soloists in personal and contemporary petitions. And with the choir’s interjections of the Luther Te Deum texts, the movement serves as an extension of the opening chorus. There are two arias in today’s cantata. The first, sung by alto soloist Kim Leeds, is an elegant dance-like movement for strings with characteristics of the polonaise. After a recitative seeking God’s guidance in the new year through the Jesus’s name, tenor Ethan De Puy and DJ Matsko sing a duet, again in spirited dance rhythms. Listen for the outline of the melody in the opening solo played by Ben Fox on the Oboe d’amore.  Bach dresses up the otherwise mundane chorale tune with trumpet and timpani flourishes, rounding out a festive work brimming with hope and expectation.

And if I may be permitted, Dean Hill, on behalf of the musicians, we wish to offer you and the Marsh community our sincerest thanks for supporting our continued study of the fifth evangelist and his astonishing repertoire. Over the years, we have taught, explored, and performed more than 30 cantatas, with regular performances of the St John and St Matthew Passions. Last year’s survey of the B Minor Mass kept us on the mountain-top from September to April. As we begin the eighth year of the Bach Experience, please know how truly grateful we are for your support.


This is a day of new beginnings.  As by potential at least is every day, and every Lord’s Day.  Now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of salvation.

Our love of Holy Scripture impels us to listen, again, just a bit more closely, to the new beginning announced in Matthew 21.

One portion of our passage explores the perennial religious issue of authority.  The pages of the New Testament themselves were composed and collected in no small measure as a way of exploring authority.  ‘By what authority?’ is the question Jesus parries with another question which puts his interrogators on the horns of a dilemma.  When something new is on the horizon, this question invariably arises.  In a new year setting, a day of new beginnings, when something big and new is in the offing, it may be worth asking:  On whose authority shall weighty and consequential decisions be taken?  It is at least worth thinking about: by what authority?

Another portion of our passage tells of two sons and the opportunity to work the vineyard.  It is easy for us to hear the acclaim reserved for the first, who goes ahead and does the work, and to hear the criticism of the one who pays lip service to the stewardship of the vineyard, but goes another way.   For Matthew, at least, here, at least, the surprising gospel is that those not attired in the formal clothing of faith, those even who are engaged in the most secular and ancient of professions, seize the day, and take up the labor and tend the vineyard.  Not the membership list, but the prospect list.   Not the clergy, but the laity. Not those at the center, but those on the periphery.  Not the nominally present, but the actually absent.  Not those who have cleaned the outside of the cup, but those who have had the inside washed and laundered and pressed and put to service.  Not those who say a comfortable yes, but those who say an honest no, yet whose lives say yes, when others’ lives say no.  Here, at least, to the extent one understands the phrase, one hears an initial encouraging word for those who may be ‘spiritual but not religious’.   The vineyard awaits those who will tend it.  This perhaps is what John Wesley meant to say as he preached, ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’.

Paul says it clearly:  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

It may be that on reflection, the first son had a vision of what such a vineyard could look like over time, what such an unusual kind of labor could feel like over time, what such a new start to a new year in a new way could become over time.  It may be that on reflection you will have a vision of what such a vineyard, God’s garden, could look like over time, with a little effort, what such an unusual kind of labor, faith working through love, could feel like over time, and what such a new start to a sober and loving life this autumn Sunday could become over time.  If so, you may silently whisper, walking or driving home, Lord God we praise you, since you with this new year send us new fortune and new blessing and still think upon us in grace.

- The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Remembering Robert Hamill

September 21st, 2014 by Marsh Chapel

Matthew 20:1-14

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Our sermon today remembers Dean Robert Hamill and reflects upon the Matthean gospel of divine generosity.  The latter ennobled the former, and the former exuded the latter.

Robert Hamill served in his last ministerial appointment as the Dean of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, from 1965 until his death in 1975.   During his tenure, here, the University and the country were convulsed in the throes of struggles over civil rights, over racial relations, over war and opposition to war, and over the authority of those governing and the responsibility of those governed.  He was third in the line of six deans here, alongside a number of others who served in interim capacities.   He was a Methodist minister.  He was a preacher. He was a teacher and author.  And his first name was Robert.  In short, he was fully qualified for the position (J).

Dr. Hamill came here following a long and distinguished ministry in the mid west, including work on campuses and in college communities.  He wrote regularly for MOTIVE magazine.  He helped Howard Thurman in the last years of Thurman’s ministry here, without much recognition in that era.  He had the task of following an iconic figure, filling big shoes, and carrying forward the work of Marsh Chapel in a turbulent time.  He died of cancer on the job.


Meanwhile, now, in Matthew 20, in the vineyard, our parable represents the ‘undifferentiated rewards of the Kingdom of God’. (Bultmann) The parable affirms divine generosity, and inscrutable divine goodness and generosity.  Its point:  behold the divine generosity, do not begrudge the divine generosity.

Consider the parable (found only in Matthew). All the workers are paid the same.  As in life, so here in Scripture, there is no sure, consistent justice.  To be sure, the landowner has paid what he agreed to pay.  To be sure, hour by hour, the workers have received what they agreed to receive.  To be sure, the daily needs of all for the day to come are met, from each according to his stamina and to each according to his needs.  To be sure, the added proverb, about last becoming first and first last fits the parable awkwardly if at all.    The parable acclaims God’s bounteous generosity, not God’s impartial justice.

When a job truly fit and meant for you goes to another, on a shaky or unjust premise or process, you know the feeling of the early workers.  When an illness unearned and unexpected afflicts your loved one, you know the feeling of those working among the grapes and feeling the grapes of wrath.  When a day begins and ends as an existential illustration of Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, you know the resentment addressed in the story from Matthew 20:1-16.


On Alumni Weekend each year, we have remembered one of our forebears—like Franklin Littell or Daniel Marsh or Allan Knight Chalmers or Howard Thurman, and others.  This year, Robert Hamill.

Hamill’s time in the vineyard was long and difficult.  His years in this pulpit were long and hard years.  He did not come into his labor at evening, or even at noon, but early in the day, and did not find his rest until he found his eternal rest at the day’s end.  He worked, here, in the time my friend yesterday, a visiting alumnus, referred to as the time of ‘the troubles’. Unlike his predecessor, he did not enjoy quite as wide a range of recognition, nor quite as strong a national following, nor just as steady a range of response to his pulpit work.  Unlike those who had worked in the fifties, a time of relative peace and prosperity, his era 1965-75 was fraught with conflict, with anxiety, with discord, with strife.   A Christmas Sunday 12/24/74 sermon in his last year, whose recording was found and heard earlier this week, decries the war in Vietnam, and a bombing campaign in progress.  A 1970 sermon on racial justice and black power, preached some years earlier, became required reading for work in racial justice on campuses in the south.  An earlier book of sermons on the theme of freedom, exhibits clearly the clouds gathering all about of constraints.

In other words, Robert Hamill lived within the rhythms of some comparative difficulty and injustice.  On more than one occasion, you could perhaps surmise, he might have paused to wonder aloud, crossing Commonwealth Avenue, about the justice of it all, the unequal distribution of generosity, the unfairness of circumstance, the pain and pained crucible of disappointment.   He did not live anywhere near long enough to see that particular war ended, to see the gradual amelioration of some racial injustices, to see the still expanding circle of his great and beloved theme of freedom.  He got to work before dawn, labored through the noon day heat, and went to eternal sleep after dusk, with no retirement to enjoy, no decades of cruises and tours, no relaxed season to hold the grandchildren, no sunset years.

For instance, in October of 1970, early on a Sunday morning, 200 federal marshals, Boston Police, and FBI agents entered the chapel in which you are sitting, and arrested an AWOL Army Private whom the chapel congregation had given sanctuary.  Students keeping vigil in the nave were awakened and cleared from the aisle.  Rev Hamill later led a Sunday service of worship here that morning, broadcast on WBUR.

The fissures and fractures that were fragmenting the country as a whole, epitomized May 4 1970 at Kent State, were visible and tangible right here.  One can imagine that Hamill and his wife may well have wished that the timing of their ministry here had been other than it was.  Yet when Deda, whom I knew, (Hamill’s second wife whom he married after the death of his first wife, Hannah,) herself died two years ago, a mutual friend brought us the guest book used in those years at the Hamill residence.  What is striking is that for all the turmoil of the times, worship continued on Sunday mornings, and the Hamills regularly offered hospitality over a traditional Sunday dinner in their home.  The book contains the personal signatures of their guests, over the months and years, after church on Sunday:  Takako Shimo, James and Eunice Matthews, Robert and Pat Nelson, Walter and Martha Muelder, Robert Luccock, Max and Betty Miller, Merle Jordan, F Thomas Trotter, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, Ruth and Paul Deats, Earl Kent Brown, Joe Bassett, Edward Carroll, Marjorie Metcalf, Harrell Beck, Peter Bertocci, Joe Polak, Kathryn Silber, John Silber, Loumona Petroff, and many others.   The work in the vineyard continued, in season and out.


Let us return for a moment to Matthew.  Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, the undeniable difference between equality and justice faces us, as it did Jesus, Matthew, the Rabbis and others.  Jesus, loving the amahaaretz, the poor of the land, may have been telling the Pharisees to broaden their embrace.  Matthew, among Jews and Gentiles, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, may have been admonishing the former to honor the latter.  The Rabbis, in the same period, used the same story, but added that the later workers did in two hours what took the earlier ones all day.  Oye ve (J).

Our landowner, through Matthew’s rendering, is called an ‘OIKODESPOTES’, a person of some power.  The allegory is clear.  God is obliged to nobody.  Further, the timing of God’s grace and generosity is God’s own affair, only without prejudice either to the early or to the late.  In this way, Matthew concurs with Paul in 1 Thessalonians that the living will not precede the dead, in the hour of judgment.

Our parable does not rely on the famous passage from Exodus 16, read a moment ago.  (This is a passage you should know and know about by the way.)  Yet the acclamation of divine generosity in both is the same.  Evening comes, and morning, and in the morning there is a sweet hoar frost covering all the ground, a layer of dew under which is the ‘manna from heaven’.  ‘The bread the Lord has given you to eat”.


The steadiness, the weekly, seasonal consistency in Robert Hamill’s hospitality at table, Sunday by Sunday, continued throughout his years here.

Some here will remember that no graduation service was held at Boston University in 1970.  Here in Marsh Chapel in May, 2010 we gathered for a service of remembrance before some of those received their diplomas, forty years later, the next day.  The chapel was packed, hot, and tense. The pianist played Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Let it Be, and We Shall Overcome.  Midway into the proceedings a spirited woman stood up and interrupted the Dean’s remarks.  From the back pew she began to preach her own sermon.  Somehow, it did seem to fit the time, class and occasion.  After a bit I told her I could not hear her, and went on.  James Carroll, now a married columnist, but in 1970 the Catholic priest at BU, offered a powerful pastor meditation, remembering Hamill, the Armory, the war, and concluding as he asked:  What are we doing here tonight?  Have we not come in order to face, and thereby to let go, of a troubled time long ago?

            The recording of Hamill’s 1974 Christmas Sunday sermon includes his admonition to those listening to join him in rising on Christmas Day and before presents and fellowship and turkey dinner and all else sending a letter to the White House demanding an end to the war.  His voice is raspy but his challenge is clear, six months from death.  In his sermon book HOW FREE ARE YOU he noted:  When you get into the fight for freedom, you encounter trouble for sure.  One of the notable preachers of our time who consistently fought for free men in a free society was Dr. Ernest Fremont Tittle.  One day I asked Dr. Tittle how he handled controversial material, and he gave three rules of thumb:  ‘Be sure of your facts.  Speak the truth in love.  Then be unafraid of the consequences.’  (Freedom, 77). Hamill may have been thinking of Tittle coming toward his own last Christmas day.


Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, we have again to ponder the labor at the heart of life and the labor at the heart of faith.  Faith comes by hearing, but it is an active, ‘employed’ listening that allows for that hearing.  Faith is a gift, but is a gift like any other that requires receipt, and response, and embrace, (and a thank you note, too).  (If faith comes by hearing it help if you are in earshot.  You truly have nothing better to do for an hour on Sunday than worship.) Faith comes as a gift at the time of God’s choosing, but to labor and live in faith requires of us a steady, even fruitful, practice of faith.   Here is what Paul is driving at in his letter to the Philippians:  live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

You may have been impressed this week by Ken Burns’ ever engaging latest documentary on the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin and Eleanor.  Eleanor as an orphan was raised by drunken uncles and others in the small Hudson River village of Tivoli, a little town where my grandparents met and where my grandfather is now buried.   It happens, I learned this week, that a great aunt, Ella Lascher Coons, my mother’s aunt, with some others in Tivoli sewed Eleanor’s wedding dress.  We are that is, neither in space or time, all that very far from Tivoli and the New Deal.

All three of these iconic American leaders suffered—Theodore in childhood illness and adult defeat and early death, Eleanor in childhood loneliness and adult betrayal and isolation, Franklin in polio.  Whether they would have taken Paul’s formula as theirs, he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well, one cannot say.  There certainly is no justice to any suffering as such, and certainly not to theirs, intimately and poignantly depicted in Burns’ fine film.  Yet there is something underneath the grumbling of the workers, the hiddenness of the landowner, the various and capricious deposits of weal and woe, in the Matthean parable, in the Roosevelt lives, and, more to the point, in our very own.  Call it a different light, a refraction out of a different lens, of the divine generosity, and what happens when someone seizes—or better is seized by—that glorious, mysterious divine radiance, divine goodness, divine generosity.

There is a scene in Burns’ film inwhich the camera shows polio afflicted children swimming in the Warm Springs Florida pool.  This is the pool that finally allowed Franklin, buoyed and warmed in its water, to stand after months and years of utter torment.  The camera scans the children, playing, swimming, dunking, and laughing.  Then the camera closes in on the biggest of the children, the six foot tall future president, who is right there, soaked and joyful in the midst of them.  It was unmistakable, even at this distance of years and miles and technology, to see the glint and gleam in his eye.  The divine generosity was splashing through him and out onto all the similarly afflicted children round about.  Something happened to him, in all the injustice and unfairness and inscrutability of his hours in the existential vineyard.  Something happened that made a difference—to the poor of the depression, to the nearly conquered in Europe and Asia, to the women and people of color and otherwise abled whom Eleanor prodded him, cajoled him, and implored him to aid.  He found a part of himself able to help, really help, others similarly afflicted, and somehow that part, once raised to life, opened his life to all the rest.

I wonder about you? and me?  Has the unfailing light and love of divine generosity worked on us at all this week?  Are we better people than we were last Sunday?

John Calvin (for once) on this parable:  We may also gather that our whole life is useless and we are justly condemned of laziness until we frame our life to the command and calling of God.  From this it follows that they labor in vain who thoughtlessly take up this or that kind of life and do not wait for God’s calling.  Finally we may also infer from Christ’s words that only they are pleasing to God who work for the advantage of their brethren. (loc cit 266)


I think back, or try to think back, fifty years—a flick of the wrist, a batting of eye, no time at all.   Here is Robert Hamill, walking toward us in the memory, this Alumni weekend 2014.   He knew the labor in the vineyard.  Yet Sunday dinner he offered every week.  He knew the unheralded service in ministry during a time of tumult, a time of trouble.  Yet Sunday dinner was served every week.  He knew the unwelcome unfairness of the difficulty on his watch, the intractable conflicts therein, the lack of resolution thereof, and, to top it off, early death at an early age.  Yet Sunday dinner’s hospitality, the Hamills’ form of faithfulness, never lagged and never flagged.  Around that table, come Sunday, with china and linens and silver and meal, one feels, there was, amid all the pain of the ‘troubles’, a refraction of glory, a reflection of the divine generosity.

Somehow, knowing Robert Hamill’s labor in the vineyard, somehow I think I, and I expect we, can find the energy and courage generously to live, so generously to live, as well.

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