A Thanksgiving Medley

November 24th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 23:33-43

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         It is hard to think about Thanksgiving and not think of food in general and turkey in particular.  So attentive are we to the meal itself that the Thanksgiving prayer we offer becomes an afterthought, unless carefully we pause to think about a prayerful recipe for a real thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley of nourishment both for body and for soul. The meal, the turkey, we leave to you.  But here, in sermonic guise, we offer a recipe for the prayer on Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley, a recipe, that is, for a thanksgiving prayer.


First, clean. To start, you might clean the outside of the prayer.  Pluck its feathers. Wash its torso.  Get rid of the fluff that does not feed anyway.  Especially this year perhaps we can dispense with the note of pride, of self-congratulation that so easily enters the heart.  ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, liars, or even like this publican here’.  Jesus directly proscribed such prayer.  Pluck and clean and here is what you find.  Most of who we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  Our genetic makeup.  Our history.  Our natural surroundings.  Our upbringing.  Our humors and talents.  Our religious tradition or lack thereof.  For all our vaunted independence, we depend, utterly depend, truly depend, we are deeply dependent for what counts:  for life, for forgiveness, for eternal life.  For all our vaunted enterprise, we have relied on others, and we have been shaped by others.  Is there a better city in North American in which to remember that than Boston?  As a city, as a people, as a nation, as a church, we are the creatures of the courage of others, who in one sense or another gave the last full measure of devotion.  Who are we kidding anyway?  Most of what we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  As my friend says, ‘if you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he did not get there on his own’.


The Psalmist knew this.  ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for hehas looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.


Paul of Tarsus also knew this.  “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.”


This is why the patterns of gratitude, day and week and month and year and all are so important to the soul.  Good for you.  You find a daily way to say a word of thanks or write a note of thanks to someone, somewhere, somehow.  Good for you.  You find a way to worship on Sunday, to bestir yourself and enter a community of faith, shoulder to shoulder with other unfeathered bi-peds, so that, if nothing else, in public you may say ‘thank you’—to God, to life, to others.  Good for you.  You find a way once a month to be in service, in mission.  Ministry is service.  Today our students and others gather at noon to pack meals for hungry children.  Tomorrow you may send off an extra thanksgiving check to the Philippines.  Good for you.  You find a rhythm, year by year, for arranging your finances to match hour values.  You give.  You give by percentage.  You tithe.  You make a plan and plan your giving and give by your plan.  Good for you.  You think hard and long about what your will, your end of life giving will be, and so model that dimension of spirituality for your children and others.  Maybe your estate itself will include a tithe.  Good for you.  A daily note, a weekly worship, a monthly service, a yearly gift, a concluding bequest—these are patterns of gratitude that shape the soul and heal the earth.  Good for you.  Be generous of spirit, like Abraham Joshua Heschel:

         Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

God is than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.  Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.


To give thanks means first to pluck the bird’s less generous, more self centered, less magnanimous feathers, one at a time.


Second, season.  Cleansed, our prayer is ready for a little seasoning.  Personal seasoning.  Real gratitude is real personal.  Prayer is intimate.  Prayer is personal.  Like a sermon.  Utterly personal.  Like a photograph.  Utterly personal.  A prayer of thanks is thanks for what makes a personal difference.  For a friend sent along by life’s surging current.  For a spouse met.  For a child.  For a child saved from death in a car accident.  For a lawsuit avoided or weathered.  For an assault survived. For a family fence mended.  For a vocation.  For a vacation.  For an exciting new job.  For breath, for breadth, for board.


The eternal flame, which Jacqueline B Kennedy imagined atop the president’s grave, is a flickering reminder to us all of what his tragically foreshortened life gave our common life.  I hope this holiday season that you will keep a sort of eternal flame flickering atop your life as well.  Our span of life, threescore and ten, upon this earth, is starkly brief.  Yet each soul carries an eternal flame, a lasting marrow, a heavenly destiny, a personal dimension.  You have an angelic prospectus.  You want to live, to speak, to choose, to act, to do—and especially to pray—with a recollection of eternity.  Under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis.  Mrs. Kennedy, in the days following her husband’s murder 50 years ago, found the grace to send a handwritten note of condolence to the wife of a Dallas policeman who had also been killed in those same hours, by the same gunman.  There is an eternal flame flickering in such an act, in such a kindness, partly because it so personal.  “Others may not understand what you are going through” it seems to say, “but I surely do”.


We went north toward Montreal in 1981 to serve two little churches with two little children and too little money.  We went to Montreal in order to study for a PhD so that one day we could come to Boston and teach in the school of theology and preach in Marsh Chapel and offer pastoral care to an academic community of 40,000.  Be glad for what you do not have, for it is the doorway into what you will have.  That summer of 1981 we were given a car, and old red Ford Mustang convertible, anno domini 1973.  A real boat, v8, white top, black interior, and rust to the horizon.  Said the donor:  ‘it will last you 6 months.  Leave it in a field’.  It lasted 10 years.  It was such a thoughtful and such helpful gift—the right thing at the right time in the right way—that no words could ever convey our gratitude (Hart on gift).  No formal note—“Dear Aunt Esther, in life’s many vicissitudes it is so important to be made mindful of those who help…blah, blah, blah…’ No. Thanksgiving is a personal shout, a cry from the heart:  Thank You!


Alice Walker appeared on late night television a while ago.  She said two stunning things.  ‘At middle age’, she said, ‘I am learning to slow down so that whatever life intends for me will have an easier time catching up’.  Then, after minutes of complements for Nelson Mandela, and what he did for South Africa, she reflected:  ‘of course, he is a great leader, but the point is that each one of us is to be our own great leader’.  Personal. Personal. Very personal.

This is why our friends are so deeply, lastingly meaningful to us.  Our north country friend Max Coots wrote one Thanksgiving:


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”



A sermon does not conclude the preaching for the week.  A sermon begins the preaching for the week.  The point of a sermon is found in your active, personal articulation of faith.  In a journal.  In public speaking.  In a simple devotional at a meeting.  In the shower.  And, this Thursday, in a thanksgiving prayer.  Sit down ahead of time and right it out.  Make it personal.  Season it so.  Season it properly.  Find your tongue.  Season it personally.


Third, cook.  Cook the prayer.  Cook it in experiences of adversity. Let the adverse experiences of life make our prayer and our soul tender.  If nothing else, our own hurts make us more empathetic to others. One of my forebears in the ministry, long ago used this line and it has stuck.  It is nothing to remember a line for thirty years, when it is a real sentence: ‘Let the heat of adversity make us tender’.  Sometimes nothing else will.  This is a difficult point.  When I heard my friend utter the line, because I knew his experience, I wept.  There is no way finally to understand, let alone justify, the heat of life at its worst.  But we can pray that such adverse experience will humanize us, that such heat will make us tender.


Let the bird cook, simmer.  Cooking makes the bird tender.  Life’s heat can make us tender too, if we will allow the time and heat and patience to hold us.


Think again of Paul.  ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us.’  Think again today of Christ, the Redeemer, who himself entered the darkest sphere of suffering, mocked as a common criminal but carrying through the cross, and the crosses of all life, a remembrance of paradise.


In the radio congregation today, and in the visible congregation today, there are many who know this well.  You have graciously preached this sermon in your own lives.  You have faced adversity and so become spiritually sensitive.  You have felt physical pain but have learned redemptively to manage your suffering.  You have suffered loss and survived.  You have managed suffering redemptively.  You have worn the ancient clothing:  ‘afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; and you do not lose heart, for though the outer nature is wasting away, the inner nature is being renewed every day’.  For all the heat, your Thanksgiving prayer this year will be most tender and most sweet.


Here is a Thanksgiving medley, a recipe for a prayer at Thanksgiving.  Clean it.  Season it. Cook it.  Cleanse it of pride.  Season it in person.  And allow the heat of adversity to make it tender.


It was this recipe that my BU religious life leaders on Wednesday perceived in Dean Howard Thurman’s exemplary prayer:


Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!


I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood…

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.


I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day…


All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

(Dear God), in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.


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

New Frontier

November 17th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 21: 5-19; 2 Thess. 3: 6-13; Isaiah 65: 17-25

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1. Ford

In the Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit, you will find a remarkable assortment of Amerabilia.  Would you like to see Ford’s first automobile?  Its tiny little black wooden self greets you.  Do you remember the Edsel?  Here is one.  Have you spent time over the years in a Howard Johnsons—not recently, I know, but once on a time?  Here are signs for the restaurant and the ice cream and the motel.  Do you own a map of the country that features Route 66?  You will want one after this tour.  Did you ever see one of those amphibious cars, both auto and boat, with drive shaft and propellers?  The museum has one in baby blue.  What is it about that 57 Chevy?  One two tone, green and cream, greets you.


I did not plan to be personally moved in the car museum and was not moved.  Until the end.  At the end there is a procession of presidential automobiles, sort of Motor Force One, you could say.  One that TR used and with him Woodrow Wilson.  FDR had a great black one.  And Eisenhower, too.  I think they were all Lincolns.  Most of the detail, though, I forgot as I came to the 1963 version.  Now topped, not convertible.  Now bulletproof, not open.  Now shined, black and immobile, not dusty and scuffed and moving past a grassy knoll.  But right there, right blessed there.

A fine, long, black 1963 Lincoln Continental, the very best of American engineering, on the best of American roads, in the best of American cities, carried the best of American leaders…to his death.


What do you recall of November 22, 1963, almost exactly 50 years ago?

2. November

These gray days, late autumn days, with shifting light and shadow—they carry an uncanny significance.  Something in them.  Something in the naked tree limbs, grasping empty gray.  Something in the crisp air, foretaste of winter to come.  Something in the constant twilight.  Something of a cosmic sacrality lurks behind the dark maple limbs of November.


The naked limbs also recall the violent death of a young president.  Television and modern American violence have grown up together over forty years.   Our childhood introduction to violence.  To gun violence.  (It is striking that our current national conversation about gun violence makes so little reference to this formative, symbolic moment, involving a single shooter and a single rifle).  Women and men of one generation know where they were on November 22, 1963 at 2:00pm, like those of another generation recall December 7, 1941, and those of yet another will recall September 11, 2001.  They remember the hour the message came, the people who delivered the word, the reactions of family members, the atmosphere of the day, the hidden meanings, unspoken words, portents of the future which all were somehow connected to the dark maple limbs of that November.  One remembers:  the flag covered casket, borne by a simple wagon, drawn by a team of horses; crowds of mourners; women’s black hats; men’s fedoras; children waving; school flags at half mast; bewilderment, anger, fear, grief.  An English teacher recites Whitman’s then 100 year old eulogy for Abraham Lincoln:


O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won

Exult O shores and ring O bells

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies

Fallen cold and dead.


3. Scripture

Preliminarily, Jesus first reminds us that we all face judgment, an accounting, a reckoning.  This is not news.  Life itself spells this out for us.  Old age, dusk, autumn, November—we know in our bones about accounting time.  Harvest, report cards, evaluations, income tax—we know in our experience about judgment.  Jesus calmly reminds us that life includes reckoning.  Here he says nothing by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations.  He tells us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives.  Preliminarily, Jesus second connects judgment with relationship not religion, with human relations not religious experience.  In this judgment, heightened religious experience counts not at all.  It is actual living, not religious experience, which is judged.  Service—not music not retreats not fellowship not ecstacy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us.  But service, for which the nourishment is meant.  We have in our denomination a January Sunday known as Human Relations Sunday.  But I always wonder, what Sunday is not one such?


So, the deutero-pauline admonishment, 2 Thess., to avoid false apocalyptic (that the resurrection has already occurred) and so to honor work, and of the dignity of work.  So, the Isaian hope of sword become plowshares, the iron of violence become the iron of piece.  So, the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. So the Lukan small apocalypse, with its clear as a bell warning to live each day preparing for judgment, to live each day as if it were your last.  So the Lukan condemnation of religion (ie the temple) ‘a place where abuse is masked by piety’ (S Ringe).  Here are signs of finality and judgment:  natural disaster, false speech, warfare, political chaos.  They are in standard apocalyptic form, a recital of history (what the church has endured in the second half of the first century) placed in predictive, forecasted form (what the scholars call vaticinuum ex eventu).  We are not promised the gifts of success or even safety, but only of endurance in faith: ‘by your endurance you will gain your lives’.


That is, all times are end times, and every day is the last.  One who loses a parent or sibling knows this.  One who receives calamitous unexpected news knows this.  One who sees a beloved institution ruined by feckless, mendacious, predatory, malfeasant leadership knows this


4. Lincoln

We also today are hours from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, itself a poem shot through with awareness of all manner of endings.  A kind of homecoming, a release from violence, is what Abraham Lincoln proposed in his short masterpiece, 150 years ago, in Gettysburg.


What do you recall about November 19, 1863, nearly 150 years ago today.  Words matter more than deeds.  The saving task is to remember the right ones, like these, 272 words, 10 lines, 2 minutes:


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

5. Violence


Fifty years later I know that many of you can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew  home, “came home to roost”.  The violence in which America was born now haunts the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Violence.  Pioneer violence against native peoples.  Plantation owner violence against owned slaves.  Armed violence in the struggle over the Union.  The violence of class on class and capital on labor.  The lesson of the Kennedy assassination was and is that the violence in which America was born lives on, and will turn its wrath on future generations.  His violent death was a moment of apocalyptic judgment upon a nation with a family history of violence.  Every one of the possible perpetrators of the act itself represent systemic violence.  The violence of Cuban American conflict.  The violence of the cold war.  The violence of the world and underworld.  Our culture is awash in violent rhetoric, violent attitude, violent action.    Once the horror of violence hits home, a new frontier can open before us.   Where sin abounds, grace overabounds.  Once aware of the horror of violence which clearly we are, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not (truly the thing we have to fear is fear itself and its capacity to take our thanksgiving, our native generosity from us), then we may with renewed vigor look out onto a new frontier.  This is the new frontier of peace.


Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:


Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears the same.


God is greater than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.


When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.


God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.

Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.


6. Border

This same moment faces us as a nation, as a people and as a church.  We have been stung by violence too.  We can respond with further violence.  Or we can begin to ‘go home’ day by day, to suffer the daily shame and dishonor which all violence finally bequeaths, and, in Christ, as Calvin would say ‘in the school of Christ’, learn to practice the things that make for peace.  Living daily with the bruises and damage of yesterday’s rapacity takes the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is the cross, alone, that carries the power for such laborious, long march of mercy.  In the cross we discover a love that casts out fear.  And fear is our greatest, most fearsome obstacle to the new frontier of peace.  When we come toward a new frontier we naturally have fear.


Once a day for most of three years, and once a month for another eight, I crossed the border into Canada.  The border questions are those before us in every hour, are they not?  What is your name?  Where are you from?  Where are you headed?Do you have anything to declare.  Eyes and ears await your response in ever room entered, every email received, every meeting attended.  Who are you?  What is your story?  Do you have anything to say?


One very cold winter day, in the middle of a clean snowfall, I skidded down north toward Huntingdon Quebec.  It was about 5am, and it was as dark as the dark side of the moon.  I drove slowly to stay on the road.  I was anxious. Then ahead at an intersection I saw a great truck paused and blinking.  In the snow I pulled alongside the cab and looked up at the driver.  He looked fearful.  He squinted and asked “Ou est le frontiere?” (Where is the border).  I summoned what little French I could, put on my bravest accent and began to reply.  But before I had cobbled together two sentences he, listening to my inflection, burst in:  “oh, good lord, you’re an American, I can tell, you speak English!”  Sometimes we have fears at the border of the known and unknown that vanish at the crossing, and entering the new frontier means coming home.


7. Peace


Jesus empowers us in the way beyond violence.  Elsewhere in Scripture he gives us five very practical commands.


Here are five forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, for those crossing into a new frontier, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest, most vulnerable, members of the church and the human family.


  1. Find a way to sit quietly with those who are imprisoned.  Including those imprisoned by fear, pride, ideology, personality, accident, circumstance.  Go and sit with them and listen.


  1. Find a way to heal sickness.  Health is too important to leave to physicians only.  You go and heal.  Assess what habits have brought you health and share them.  Salvation is health.


  1. Find a way to cover the naked.  Those who are exposed, open to harm, exposed to scorn and mocking and criticism.  Go and put some clothing on them, some encouragement, some humor, some honor.


  1. Find a way to befriend strangers.  Strangers need welcome, friendship.  Until you have been one, maybe you don’t know.  Watch for the stranger and offer hospitality.


  1. Find a way to offer food and drink, not to those who have already plenty of both, but those who have parched throats and empty stomachs.  How we would love to take pitchers of faith and loaves of hope and batches of love to all of the people in our county who hunger for them!



These are the things that make for peace.  These are the signposts on the long road home from violence.  These are the gospeljudgment words.  A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.


8. Kennedy

One summer we visited Hyannisport, and there walked around the Kennedy memorial.  It is a moving experience.  The harbor is laden with beautiful sailboats.  The monument is handsome.  Across the round deck of the memorial there is chiseled a sentence quotation:  “I believe that American should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”.  At his best, Kennedy appealed to our honor not to our security:  “not a set of promises but a set of challenges”.  It is our honor and our willingness to sacrifice which will mitigate violence:  “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.  It is our stamina which will take us to the new frontier of peace:  “to bear the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulatiion”.


Much of what Kennedy planned has been achieved.  Communism is dead.  Nuclear weaponry is largely under control.  Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good.  Basic civil rights have largely been achieved.  Latin America is open to us.  A man has landed on the moon.


But violence, ah violence, violence remains.  Gun violence, ah gun violence, gun violence remains.  The scourge of our generation.


So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace.  Let us sing the song of peace, with Isaiah and David and 2 Paul and Jesus.  Let us sing the hymn of peace, with Lincoln and Whitman and Heschel and Kennedy. And let us be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to face down the fear that violence brings, and to cross into a new frontier.  A new frontier of peace…


It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave.  It is wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  The world shall be His footstool and the soul of wrong His slave.  Our God is marching on…

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


Faith. Healing. II

November 10th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

James 5:14-16; Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21; Luke 5:17-26

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We are coming to the end of the year, the end of the secular year on December 31st, and the end of the Christian liturgical year on November 30.  However we mark it, this year has been a year of great challenge.  Many of us still have thorns in our flesh: still, none of us are getting any younger; our personal challenges may still be with us or may even have increased.  This year it is not just the personal pain we may feel in the challenges to our health, wealth, work, or personal relationships; this year has brought great pain for others and for the world as well, griefs so large, so complex we can hardly name them, or bear to acknowledge them, or recognize the effects they have on us.  Here in Boston, the Marathon bombings and their shock in an historic event on a lovely day, the lockdown of a major American metropolitan area, the deaths that included two of Boston University’s own and folks that lived in our community’s neighborhoods.  All this against a continuing backdrop:  the so-called “natural” disasters, most recently the typhoon in the Philippines with its incredible strength and destruction; the accelerating threat of extinction of species including our own, some species also valued by humans but all precious in God’s creation; the complexities and complicities of our lives, often without our knowledge or consent, in human-trafficking and modern-day slavery, and in the career to endless war; the continued attempts to exclude LGBTQ people from full inclusion in religious and civic life.  Insert your own particulars here.

There have been many calls for the need for healing over the last year; there have been fewer proposals as to how that healing might come about.  And while there were indeed many poignant moments during the Red Sox Rolling Rally, we cannot always count on a series win for

healing, either individual or communal. … Go Celtics!

When I told folks that I would be preaching on this Gospel text from Luke, a number of them said to me, “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”   This is in part due to the creative enterprise of the men, who knock apart someone’s roof to let the paralyzed man down to the floor, all the while shedding debris on him, the crowd, and Jesus.  And the rest is due to the fact that this is a Gospel healing story, with some unique features that are indeed good news in a quest for healing.

For one, Jesus’ reaction is notable:  “When he saw their faith”, he speaks to the paralytic, with words of forgiveness and healing.  Many of Jesus’ healings took place, not at the request of those who were sick themselves, but of others who brought their sick to Jesus to be healed.  Here Jesus acknowledges it is not just the faith of the paralytic,  if we can even assume here that he has faith, but it is also the faith, the expectancy and trust of the bearers themselves, so great that they break through a roof, that helps to bring about the healing.

Also, Jesus does not immediately heal the paralytic physically.  Instead, the first thing he says to the paralytic is, “Your sins are forgiven.”  And then he apparently doesn’t say anything, as if that were enough, as if that were the healing that needed to happen, not the healing of the man’s paralysis.  Sin apparently has to do with lack of well-being.  Now we want to be careful here.  Jesus never associates illness or physical condition with God’s punishment, and he does not always give forgiveness of sins to a sick person.  And, as here, he does also often says to a person that their sins are forgiven as a preliminary to healing.  Now some of my friends call me a semanticist, one who is concerned for the meaning of words generally and in context.  It’s a title I’m proud to carry, as I think that there is not nearly enough definition of terms in the life of faith.  Particularly as we consider the word “sin”.  It’s so often limited by fear and ignorance to who and how we love, or to anything remotely related to a good time especially when it is had by “other” people.  So in line with the definition of many scholars and fellow clergy, for the purposes of this sermon “sin” is anything that separates us:  from God, from our “own-most” selves, and from our neighbor, neighbor broadly defined as the person sitting next to us wherever we are this morning all the way to the whole of creation.  Looked at in this way, sin, our own sins and sins of others, does have a direct bearing on our health of every kind:  physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational.  Our own Chapel Associate Jennifer Quigley has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the choices we make to find ourselves or to lose ourselves.   And if we lose our selves how can we be whole?  Likewise our own Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the dangers of fracking. And if we ignore or allow the poisoning of our land and our water and our air, how can we be whole?  The Psalmist in Psalm 32 acknowledges that his unconfessed sin wastes away his body, and only with confession and forgiveness comes relief.  Sometimes confession of sin is the first step to being whole, to name what is not well with us and be able to let it go, so that we can begin to ask how we might mend.

Next, the scribes and the Pharisees are horrified by Jesus’ forgiveness:  “Who can forgive sins but God alone!”  We remember that the Pharisees are influential layfolk who are very concerned about the strict observance of both the written religious law and its interpretation in oral tradition.  We remember that the scribes are specialists in the study of the religious law – elsewhere Luke calls them “lawyers”.  They have come from all over the country to see and listen to Jesus, and now with this outrageous statement these important people accuse him of blasphemy.  And then Jesus asks a question:  “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, or to say “Stand up and walk”?  And then he heals the paralytic, as a sign, that he has the authority to forgive sins.

When we think of healing, we often think of “cure”, and we often limit our thinking to physical cure, of an illness or a condition.  But in the Greek, to heal  can also mean to save, and/or to make whole.  In English as well, our words for health, salvation, and wholeness come from the same root.  The word “wholeness” in particular derives from the word “holism”, which does not mean a compartmentalized or disassociated view of human life and nature, but means the organic or functional relationship between parts of a whole.  Jesus’ healings of the physical witness to God’s intention to restore wholeness to all people and to all creation.  They testify to the spiritual power of God on which the kin-dom is built and on which we can build our lives.  But even in these testimonies physical healing is only one part of what is going on, and — dare we say it in a culture obsessed with physical perfection – it is not necessarily the most important part.  If it comes, well and good and glorify God.  And, just as notably sins are forgiven, Jesus’ authority in the Spirit is established, the man is restored to God and to his family and friends rejoicing, and everyone, even the formerly horrified scribes and Pharisees, glorify God.

Here we are reminded also of Matthew, also known as Levi, a tax collector under the Empire’s  occupation and so considered a traitor, who had no physical condition but was recognized for who he could be by Jesus,  and then accepted the call to become a disciple.  We are reminded too of the woman with the alabaster jar, who had no physical condition but had her sins forgiven and her grief comforted and was recognized by Jesus for her great love.  Healing encompasses the whole person:  body, mind, emotions, spirit, and relationships.  Which indeed is easier:  to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”, or to say, “Stand up and walk.”?  Which indeed is the greater miracle: to be restored to physical health, or to be able to kick a habit or addiction, or forgive a relative or friend, or transform a conflict, or be in right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbor on land and in water and in air?  Jesus offers not just a cure, the cessation of symptoms or condition, but the opportunity to be whole, to be truly healed in any and all aspects of our lives.

Jesus entrusted his disciples with this ministry as well.  In both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, both from the same author, Jesus’ disciples are seen to have the same power to heal as he did, and the early church assumed that healing was part of their community life.  A specific practice has come down to us in our text from James: the one who is ill, who is not whole, should call for the elders, the leaders in the church, and have them pray in faith, in expectancy and trust.  Those prayers of faith will raise up the one who is not whole, and again, sins will be forgiven.  Church members are to confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that all may be made whole persons in right relationship.  Like the men in the story who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus, so we bring one another to the healing power of God.  John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, referred to our being “stewards of grace” to one another in such practices, practices that he called “means of grace”, those practices in which we remind each other of the power of God at work in our lives through the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus, so that we are able to be continually moving toward a state of wholeness, of right relationship.

It is true.  We do need healing, after this year certainly, but also at many points in our lives; perhaps, given the times in which we live, at all times.  The church has formalized this practice so that both “elders” or “leaders” and those who request prayer for healing are stewards of grace for one another.

That is why, in the new church year, we will experiment, to restore this practice outlined in James here at Marsh Chapel.  On the first Communion Sunday of each liturgical season, we will offer two healing stations during the Communion, one each just under these first windows, so that after partaking of Communion, any of us who feel so moved may come, say what concern we have for our own healing, be joined in the concern in a brief prayer, only after giving permission receive a gentle laying on of hands on or just above the shoulder, only after giving permission be anointed with oil on the forehead, and be blessed.  In this way, we too will be stewards of grace for one another.

We are offering this practice with Communion, as Communion is our clearest affirmation of the presence of God in our midst.  It is where the confession and forgiveness of sins that we are offered every week are underscored by God’s nourishment of us in bread and wine, underscored by God’s empowerment of us by the outpouring of the Spirit.  It is where the congregational recognition of our common life encourages us to bring our individual needs to God with faith, with expectancy and trust that God’s will is for our good in all aspects of our lives.

This is an experiment, in the sense that our initial practice will be time-limited to the first Communion service of each new liturgical season, for this next church year.  Don’t worry about keeping track of the dates – we’ll keep you posted and the first time will be the first Sunday of the new church year, Advent I on December 1.  There will also be ways to evaluate our practice:  there will probably be surveys – short surveys — but also as we welcome your emailed and written responses and your conversational observations.  This practice is also offered with the clear understanding and thanksgiving that there are many ways of healing given to us by God:  the fields of medical, surgical, mental, emotional, and relational  health, the arts, the work of justice, the work of peace.  This spiritual practice is intended to work with these other gifts, to promote the whole health of the whole person.

To pray for healing is not us trying to change God’s mind.  It is to put ourselves in a place of cooperation with God so that the Spirit can work in us toward the wholeness in all aspects of our lives that God intends.  We invite your prayers for this ministry, in trust and expectation, and, dearly beloved, the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  Glory to God.  Amen.

~Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Saints of God

November 3rd, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 6 and Ephesians 1

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Religious Saint in China

Saints of God are all around us.  You are they.  You.   In Chicago last week I saw one, a dear old friend, former Minister of First UMC Evanston, former Acadmic Dean at Claremont.  I later that week came across a sermon of his.

Emory Purcell wrote, “When I was a child, there were often missionaries or evangelists staying with us. One I remember most fondly was Mary Schlosser. About fifty years of age then, she had been a missionary in China for many years.

All of us have heard stories of how missionaries forced native people to give up their culture and become westerners; how missionaries were tools of capitalistic colonialism. Some were indeed. But not Mary Schlosser. All she talked about were, not her converts, but the boys and girls in her school in China: how bright and eager and loving they were. She had high hopes for each of them and had arranged for some of them to go abroad to prestigious universities to study. She knew that one day they were going to make significant contributions to their people.

Now, you never read about Mary Schlosser in Time. As a young woman she had had a promising career ahead of her. The call to China persuaded her to pour out her life there. After I knew her, Mary Schlosser spent many years in a communist prison camp in China and died shortly after her release.

I did read about Mary Schlosser a few years ago. A group of dissident students from China had been interviewed by a religious news editor. They talked about the missionaries who had taught their parents at a school in Kaifung. Among the names remembered were Clara Leffingwell and Mary Schlosser.

I have a sense that Mary Schlosser’s resurrected life is only beginning. It is love, finally, that surpasses money and power; and overcomes tragedy. Mary Schlosser poured out her life in love for her boys and girls. Through her love, broken as it was, God’s love poured through more and more to life down through the generations.

The thing I remember about Mary Schlosser is her radiance. Was she happy? I don’t know. It is, in fact, an irrelevant question. Mary was radiant. In her enthusiasm and in the greatness of her soul, the sun shown on us. This is our hope.

Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said:

“Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”

Over the years I have been privileged to know many people who are rich the way Mary Schosser was rich. Sunday school and public school teachers – parents and young people – bosses and workers. People who have poured out their lives in love so that God’s love can bring life.

I want to suggest that is what has actually made (America) great: not all the things we have to be happy; but, rather, the generous people who pick up the cross of human need-people whose radiant lives testify to life beyond the cross.”

Epistle and Gospel

Friends, beloved of Marsh Chapel and the airwaves:  The saints of God have been well acquainted with impediments to the language of love.  The saints of God have manifold experience of the resistance in experience to the reign of love.  The saints of God know, through and through, the multiple discouragements to the path of love.

One is the very question of the capacity of speech to ignite a decision, of any kind, for a new alternative, of any sort.   Every day, every week brings a new wave of words not fitly spoken, of deeds not fruitfully done, of sentiments not charitably rendered.   Is preaching an anachronism?  Or teaching?  Or earnest discourse of any kind?  Doubt about language itself is itself an impediment to learning the language of love.

Another is the relatively modest response, by cultural comparisons at any rate, to the lived forms of love, imperfectly represented in families, in churches, in movements and missions.   There is a kind of discouraging but inevitable comparison, truth to tell, that lurks behind the mammoth celebration of a World Series victory.  We know what it feels like to celebrate, and to celebrate a clear victory.  It feels great.  But the victories which make us feel great, are not so great themselves.   We have a way of cheering a run, a home run, a grand slam.   But we are not as fully aligned with, or inclined toward, the generations-long struggles that might bring a truly wonderful victory over—you name it.  What we do celebrate somehow eclipses what we could celebrate.

Nevertheless.  I believe in the power of love, and in the language of love, and in the power of the language of love.  I believe you do too.  You are saints of God.  Love is the way forward, and in the end is the only way forward.  Love is the way the world gets better, and in the end is the only measure of the world getting better.  Love is the transfiguration of imagination, the integration of variation, the modification of attenuation, the multiplication of aspiration.  Love never ends.  Love is God.  The Bible records these sentences, in 1 Corinthians and in 1 John.  Love never ends.  Love is God.

Our choir sang love like angels on Monday in NYC.  They entered the city, put on the city as a robe, as a new suit of clothes, offered with grace the musical grace of God, paused for applause, and disrobed, returning the clothing of the city on departure.   Into noise they brought music.  Into cacophony they brought symphony.  Into streets lined with garbage they brought order, charity, magnanimity, generosity.  Into the lingering horror of 9/11, whose victims were treated in George Washington’s pew before which they sang, they brought the beauty of holiness, the grace and goodness and love of lovely good and gracious music—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus.   I felt:  you young people are too good for this world, or at least for parts of it.  Love lifted us, that afternoon.  Love, sung out by saints of God.

The student of Paul who probably wrote Ephesians cuts into our souls with a gleaming phrase.  ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  He has about him a church that has lived now for some decades beyond Jesus of Nazareth.  So, three reflections on inheritance.  So, the seal of the Spirit.  So (rightly rendered) your faith in\toward all the saints, or your faithfulness in\toward them, and the inheritance bequeathed by them.  So, the name that is above every name.  So, the church, the body of Christ. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  Saints of God have such eyes.

Especially here our teacher offers us something beautifully saving in this epistle.  There is a spatial dimension to salvation.  One is caught up by a certain community, along the lines of a certain map, in the embrace of a certain spiritual geography.  You will feel it, perhaps coming down the sawdust trail of the aisle in Marsh Chapel, for communion.  You are not alone.  The saints of God are with you, around you. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.

Boston is taking stock this week, taking stock of a year of mayhem and marvel both.  It is too soon, well too soon, for us yet to absorb the sounds and sights of 2013.  For this we shall need not only the eyes of the heart, but the ears of the heart as well.  To hear the explosions as they did ricochet down Boylston Street.  To hear the sirens racing at night down Commonwealth.  But also to hear the cracks of bats that sent balls and outfielders tumbling into the outfields and into the bull pen and into the stands.  And to hear the surge of joy, the shared happiness, lifted in a choral shout at the long end of many games.  Boston is taking stock, this week, taking stock of this year gone by, wherein again we have been taught by experience to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.

Jesus in St Luke utters both blessing and woe.  There is a leveling coming in God’s time.  The last shall be first, the first last.  From worst to first.  In God’s time which we cannot understand.  We have only the yearning of the heart, the eyes of the heart, and the examples of the saints to go by.  But lifelong loss of limb, horrific harm to innocent women and men, calls up for us a longing for resurrection, a yearning, visible in the eyes of the heart, for restoration.  In God’s time we look forward to what we can never see in our time.  In our bones we know that the leveling of justice is the path to love.  Valleys exalted, hills made low.  The Republican Governor of Ohio this week expressed the same sentiment.  The poor have suffered enough.  Wealth carries responsibility with it.  All should be fed at the Lord’s table.  Laugh and celebrate, but a leveling is coming, in God’s time.   Above earth’s lamentations, there is divine restoration, if only to start in the eyes of the heart.  Saints of God see with enlightened eyes, eyes of the heart.

Secular Saint in Syracuse

Some of you know I was home in Syracuse a few weeks ago.  Theirs is an historically Methodist though now largely secular college, like ours.   But all the secularity, all the un-religion, all the modernity in the world, in the end, does not occlude the enlightenment of the eyes of the heart.  Love lives.  The saints of God, religious and unreligious, observant and secular, theist and a-theist, churchly and cultural, share these eyes, a seeing with the heart (wouldn’t that make a good book title?).  You should read the commencement address, by George Saunders, given at Syracuse University last spring.  Here is its marrow:

One useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

Here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.  (But not kindly).

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Someday I hope to meet Mr. George Saunders, one of the saints of God.  Until then, I will take up his cause, and ask you to do so too.  Robert Cummings Neville wrote (2001):  “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.” (Symbols of Jesus, xviii).  Are you walking in the light?  Are you loving your neighbor?  As you would have others do for you, do you do so for them?  Are you seeing with the eyes of the heart?

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

The Bach Experience

October 27th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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Ms Chicka:

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

As the Chapel associate for Lutheran Ministry, and a two (hopefully three) time alumnae, and a former musician, it is a great honor to be in the pulpit on Alumni Weekend, Reformation Sunday, and during our Bach series. After all, Bach was a Lutheran, even if the piece today is a Catholic Mass.

I’d like to share a personal achievement with all of you. Two weeks ago, I posted a Facebook status about forgoing the gym to eat an apple cider donut. That status received 51 likes. 51! That’s the most likes I think I’ve ever gotten on a single status update. It was a proud day in social media for me. As many of us in the congregation, I utilize Facebook and Twitter to update my friends, family, and acquaintances with the exciting, confusing, joyful, upsetting, and sometimes mundane aspects of my life. And I look to see what my other friends are up to, liking and commenting on their daily adventures and mishaps, keeping me connected with people I would’ve otherwise forgotten or lost touch with had it not been for social media.

I am at the elder end of Generation Y, the Millennial Generation.  A generation that has been able to engage with thoughts and ideas from all over the world through the internet. A generation that is accustomed to screens, would rather text than talk, and is not afraid to share information with others. A generation that is often referred to as the “Me” generation because of how frequently we reflect upon ourselves, and often what we expect for ourselves from society. A generation that can carefully craft and edit their lives to alter how others perceive them online. As a generalization, we are not well known for our humility or our privacy.

The Pharisee in the Parable today’s Gospel is an exemplar of orthopraxy – he does everything he is supposed to, and sometimes even more, like fasting twice a week. Can you imagine what his status updates would look like? His prayers are thankful, but they fail to show any sense of humility. In addition, he degrades those whom he perceives as sinners in his prayers of gratitude, setting himself up as one who should be exalted for his behavior. If he were truly humble before God, he would be able to relate and emphasize with the needs of those who are “sinners,” seeing them as human beings who deserve respect and may actually need his assistance, instead of setting himself apart from them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, exemplifies humility. He does not boast about his accomplishments or his status, he only asks for God’s mercy. He is an example of a marginalized member of the Jewish community perceived as a traitor because of his association with the Roman Empire. He is not expected to act in a humble manner, but in doing so in this parable emphasizes the importance of a humble attitude. Jesus uses the examples of the Pharisee and the tax collector to warn the disciples against becoming too full of themselves.

Much like the Pharisee, we have no problem patting ourselves on the back. To further our egoism, we anticipate those red notification balloons that let us know our friends “like” our statuses, or that we’ve been retweeted, or favorited.  We like, no, we crave attention from others. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of the book, Being Alone Together, points out that our self-identity has become so closely tied with our online identity, that we’ve fallen into the trap of “I share, therefore I am.”[1] She explains that we don’t feel like we’re living unless we’re sharing our lives through some other media. We also have the ability to self-edit in an online world, meaning that we can shape the way others see us – leading others to never truly know our real selves if they only encounter us online. As a fellow alum of Boston University, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would say, we suffer from the “Drum Major Instinct,” “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”[2] It’s just that today we have more opportunities to gain this recognition and receive feedback from others that let us know we are as important as we hope and think.

Humility, coming from the Greek word “humus” meaning ground or dirt, lowers one’s self importance. It is a challenging virtue to cultivate, especially in a society that encourages selling yourself and enables some of our deepest desires for recognition through immediate gratification systems, like social networking. Additionally, we’re told that as individuals we are responsible for our own futures, making it difficult to see that help from others and selflessly helping others is essential if we’re going to make it through our lives. We are relational beings and to refuse to recognize the other is to fail to fully live into our human existence.

Religious life has a special way of emphasizing the need for humility, especially before God. In worship, we set aside a time in which we humble ourselves before God – during the confession. Dr. Jarrett – how does today’s piece tie in with this idea of humility?

Dr. Jarrett:

Well Jessica, all these answers will be revealed in the first volume of my forth-coming book Humility: And I How I Achieved It.

Joking aside, I’m delighted to spend a moment with you to explore our musical sermon of the day. First I should say that any encounter with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is as humbling as thrilling a prospect to any musician. Today, we present the first of four installments in our Bach Experience Series on his greatest masterpiece The Mass in B Minor. Long hailed as the ‘greatest piece of music of all time’, the B Minor Mass is something of a Holy Grail for musicians and music-lovers. In its pages, we find music’s apogee, a musical Everest and from these heights, we find that perspective only gained from awareness of the ultimate.

But let’s back up just a moment. Today we hear the entryway in this great musical cathedral – the Kyrie, with its three movements. Through its sounds, we are struck by the solemnity, the grandeur, the urgency, and the humbling scope of God’s mercy. And, in the second movement, as we implore Christ’s mercy, we find assurance of pardon in the ease and bounty of God’s redeeming grace through Christ Jesus. Cast as a duet for two sopranos, sung today by Carey Shunskis and Emily Culler, the joy, variety, and contentment of life’s sojourn through Christ’s mercy practically leaps from the score. The lovely (and dare I say Human) Christe, is book-ended by two grand and noble Kyries. Here is where Bach teaches us about his kind of humility.

With the possible exception of a Beethoven, I can hardly think of a bolder composer than Johann Sebastian Bach. As with Beethoven, we are aware of the presence of extraordinary genius. And though we may not be able to articulate the reason, the music of both composers has the capacity to embolden the listener, to encourage vitality in our living, to inspire a zeal for humanity, in the way that only music can. But the music of Bach pushes a little farther for me. Bach reveals our possibility, who we know we can be.

A year or two ago, President Clinton spoke down the street at Symphony Hall. And one of his themes was that of ‘Framework’. In his context, our system of government, our social contract, our order of society creates a ‘framework’ by which we can excel at citizenry. And when this breaks down, we lose our model, our framework, to serve and help one another.

For Bach, the empowering framework is form. He might have said, the framework for Love is the Law – or rather, the Law is fulfilled by the Love of Christ. And Love is fulfilled best when informed by the Law. You see, Bach’s shows us how to live, how to express, how to engage, how to be joyful, how to be thankful, but the key to that freedom is found only in humbling ones-self before the source of that grace. If we lose sight of our source – God’s communing grace – we diminish our possibility to make a difference. The Dean exhorts us often to live fully as an engaged people, people of salt and light. Bach provides a path for us, fully authentic, fully committed, forged and humbled by the framework of God’s redeeming love.

Ms. Chicka:

It is important for us to humble ourselves before God, recounting what we have done and what we have left undone. How we’ve supported others, and how we’ve left others down. However, we must claim a balance between our humility and our pride. We can still be confident in ourselves, but we must temper that confidence with self-awareness. We can be proud, but we must temper that pride with modesty. Humility does not mean that we must always be meek and subservient to others, but that we recognize that there are appropriate times to do both.

This sermon would be incomplete without mentioning Martin Luther. It is Reformation Sunday, after all. The great reformer led the way for many Protestant movements by questioning whether the Church’s practices truly reflected God’s will or were corrupted by human desire. Luther is not particularly known for his humility, but he valued humility as one of the foremost virtues of Christianity. Humility enables us to serve God in the best way possible. It allows us to serve our neighbor in a way that our neighbor deserves to be served: not for our own benefit, but out of love and the needs of the other. In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther reminds his readers that in having faith in Christ and receiving the grace of God, one becomes a “little Christ,” whose actions should seek to serve others. Our faith enables us to receive the grace of God and frees us to choose to serve others as Christ served us.[3] It is only through the recognition of the self in relationship with God that one can find a sense of contentment that removes egoism and promotes humility, opening the individual into deeper relationship and fellowship with others.

MLK, Jr. agrees with Luther’s idea. He states that our Drum Major instinct is best used in serving others. By possessing a heart that is filled with the grace of God, our desire to be “the drum major” is found in God, through our Christian love and devotion toward others. It is a self-less love that attempts to improve life for others not because one is coerced into doing so, but because one recognizes the value and worth of that other human being and his or her right to live in a just and loving world.

I’ve been pretty hard on my generation up until now in this sermon, but I’d like to close with some good news. Although we are called “generation ME” we are also called the “Civic-minded generation.”[4] These two labels do not seem to go together, but increasingly, individuals in my generation are concerned about the status of others as well as themselves. Participation in community service organizations, volunteering, and vocalization on social issues are hallmarks of our generation. Our worldview has been shaped by major events – 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic meltdown, and most poignantly for those of us here in Boston, the Marathon Bombings last April.

Our reliance on technology not only allows us to express ourselves, but it allows us to see ourselves on the global landscape – having the opportunity to interact and react to global issues from our laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Social media enables us to maintain connections, and in times of crisis, make sure our community is safe and that those who need assistance can find it. We are more connected than ever, and in some cases, more willing to help than ever.  Serving others through volunteerism and activism requires a sense of humility in order for it to work. One must be willing to listen to the needs of another in order to truly serve them.  BU is a great example of service-minded individuals, as 4600 volunteers participated in over 100,000 hours of community service last year alone.[5] And even today, the Servant Team of Marsh Chapel is exemplifying this desire to serve others through their drive for goods for the homeless that will be assembled into “We Care” packages right here in the Chapel this afternoon.

So a call to action for my generation: let’s make our legacy known as the Civic-minded Generation, not Generation Me. I’m not saying that we have to completely give up on the self-reporting we do in social media, but perhaps we should pare it down and instead use these platforms as means to spread awareness. We need to strike the appropriate balance between our online lives and our real lives, making sure that these two not only align, but enable us to maintain our humility. We can only truly make connections with others at a basic level if we see them as people, not just names or pictures on a screen. We can only ensure the health of our communities by being willing to be open to others. It is only through humbly listening to and interacting with our brothers and sisters that we have the opportunity to learn and grow into a community of “little Christs.” Amen.


~Ms. Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate

~Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

[1] Bill Moyers, “Sherry Turkle on Being Alone Together,” TV segment, Moyers & Company, PBS, Aired October 20, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013 http://billmoyers.com/segment/sherry-turkle-on-being-alone-together/

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon, delivered February 4, 1968, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/

[3] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Henry Wace and C. A. Buchheim, First Principles of the Reformation, London: John Murray, 1883. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp

[4] Sharon Jayson, “Generation Y Gets Involved,” USA Today, October 24, 2006. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-10-23-gen-next-cover_x.htm

[5] Boston University Community Service Center, “Mission and History,” Accessed October 20, 2013 http://www.bu.edu/csc/about/mission-and-history/

Rules of Engagement

October 20th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

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I am a parent today. Yes I stand in this pulpit as a Pastor whose head and heart have been claimed for years by the joy of ministry with young adults.   But, today, the title I claim is MOM. I am here for Parents’ Weekend, and I welcome members of my parent posse who have travelled across the country to spend some time on campus with our sons and daughters.  Dean Hill tells me that this day is special because we have been granted visitation rights. Welcome to campus, parents.

If you’ve had a conversation with me for longer than 5 minutes this fall, you know that my son is a freshman here at BU. All right, let’s be honest, it’s probably more like 2 minutes into our meeting. OK, you have to tell the truth from the pulpit- it’s been a message of my heart emblazoned in neon on my sleeve for the world to see. “My son is a freshman here!” I’m kind of a proud Mom, who is very close to her son, who’s had a hard time letting him go – I  know –go ahead and laugh- I am letting go all the way from my work place here at 735 Comm Ave across the street to his residence at 700 Comm Ave.

As a chaplain I’ve led many events over the years for parents dropping their kids off at college.  But there is a profoundly different experience when it is your own child…… I am a parent today. Did I mention that?  Has it been 2 minutes into our conversation?

I’ve been rereading some of my higher education books on college transitions, specifically passages for parents. I haven’t read so many parenting books since the infancy years. But I am honoring this unique time of transition. And trying to get it right on my end.  Our lesson from Jeremiah today has a pithy proverb about first generations not getting it right for the next generation.  Jeremiah admonishes that “the parents ate the sour grapes, and the children got a stomachache.”  I thought- parents – we can do better than that.  And Jeremiah thinks so too- he envisions a day when an individual’s actions will have consequences for that person.  You eat a bad apple, and you get the stomachache. Mistakes of the elders need not be passed on as problems for the children. Of course it goes both ways, and we have not a little bit of attitude in a couple verses from our Psalter toady- – did you note the line when a young writer says – “I understand more than the aged.” Just an FYI: I wouldn’t recommend students quoting that one to your parents over lunch today.

Since we parents really are trying to get it right, let’s name a place of origin for us.  I quote from my Fall Canonical literature: Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years “We all know intellectually that this is a time for our children to separate and assert their own independence.  But long after they have become taller or stronger than we are, our primal protective feelings are easily unleashed.  We carry images in our heads of the curly haired toddler, the gap-toothed 6 year old, and times when a hug could make their world all better.  The mature, rational part of us wants them to solve their own problems and believes they can- but another part of us wants to stay connected, be in control, protect them from any pain they will have to face.”  End quote.

When our son announced to us, complete with drumroll, that he was choosing BU from the 10 schools at his horizon, we were thrilled. Not the midwest college we thought he might choose, some 12 hours from home- but 9 miles, we were ecstatic.  ….My husband and I love this university, having met here, both earning our first graduate degrees here, both now working here on campus.

Our highly literate son could read the excitement in our faces.  He even read that chapter in our minds, that went something like “maybe the nest won’t be so empty with our youngest living a block away from our offices.”  Our son then presented us with a carefully premeditated, bullet pointed speech that he coined his “Rules of Engagement” for attending BU.

Our biblical scholars will recognize that These Rules are apodictic in nature- all the lovely thou shalt not commandments. MOM, You will not greet me with your usual outgoing enthusiasm.  No unsolicited hugging.  If we pass by one another on Comm Ave, you may greet me with restraint, IF I have first acknowledged you.  This acknowledgement will be in the form of a nod of the head, perhaps a smile. No Acknowledgement, no greeting.

If we see each other in the GSU, and you are looking for a table at which to eat lunch, and I give said acknowledgement, you may come over just to say hello, even to my group of friends, but NO “honey how are you, I miss you, I love you” talk.  Communications will be occasional texts and phone calls, and I will be home for Thanksgiving.

I thought for a moment and said, “So, you want us to pretend you‘re in college in Ohio.”

“Exactly!”  was his reply.

My son is here in the sanctuary today. My son, who has been raised by 2 United Methodist clergy parents, is a PK squared.  My son, who has been the object of many a sermon illustration in many a church. My son, whose classroom building shares a Plaza with this chapel. My son, who shares DNA with a BU Chapel Associate and a Professor.  So my gift to my beloved, amazing, wonderful son is that I will let him be anonymous.  But I have to call him something, so I’ve been calling him HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED . “You know who” is in the house today.

Now, “You Know Who” grew up book by book with Harry Potter and the Hogwarts posse.  YOU KNOW WHO is a reference to Lord Voldemort himself, the source of all evil and fear and chaos in the world.  This is where the pseudonym loses some of its utility, because my son is not the Dark Lord. But it’s the best I’ve got. Students, you gotta trust us, we parents are doing the best we can to let go and to set you free for like Robert Browning we know that “the best is yet to be.”

So, ‘You know who,” while I applaud your disengagement from your parents, I have 3 Rules of Engagement of my own I would like to share today.  Without “thou shalt not”

  1. Look Up.         2. Get Lost              3. Be Unrecognizable.

Look Up. In my first parish there was a framed Norman Rockwell print, that featured St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Avenue in NY -  a gothic revival beauty of a church. Numerous Urban pedestrians are passing by the church, each downcast, slumped over in cement gazing routine.  Not a one is looking up. The rector is outside on steps in full vestment, and he has just posted his sermon title on the church sign entitled  “Lift Up Thine Eyes!”  You can sense both his Jeremiad admonition, What are you doing ,people, and his Jeremiah vision for life that could be lived so much more abundantly.

Dean Howard Thurman, who served this Chapel 1953-65, stands on the steps of Marsh Chapel 24 -7, calling out “Come Alive! Figure out what makes you come alive and go do it!”  Lift Up thine Eyes. Look Up around you. That will help you to look deep to the hunger within you.  Look up. look in. That sounds a little bit like Albus Dumbledore wisdom, what do you think You Know Who?

Look up! Yes, the Mom here does want to mention, please look both ways when crossing Comm Ave- 57 bus, BU shuttle, cars, taxis, T, bikes, students on skate boards, not so smart pedestrians glued to smart phones .

LOOK Up. Be attentive to your splendor. Live mindfully.  With intentionality put down your virtual world so that you may live into the incarnational world of God’s people right here, right now.

When my generation went to college we were exhorted to do this newfangled  thing called Study Abroad. For this globally connected generation, in a post- modern flattened world, I have no doubt that you are engaging the world.  But I exhort you to engage the person right next to you.

Sharon Daloz Parks who writes about emerging adulthood and faith, notes that young people are hungry for “hearth places.”   Hearth places are places where people linger with one another, with invitation to pause, to reflect, to be. They offer an exquisite balance of stability and motion. They are places of contemplation- defined by Quaker Douglas Steere as “A continual condition of prayerful sensitivity to what is going on.”  Be attentive to what is going on. This can be in a Marsh Chapel fellowship meal when you discover that inquiring minds really belong in this place, on your dorm floor when your friends throw you a surprise 18th birthday party , when you look up on your walk to class and smile at everyone you meet.

Hearth times can happen on the T in serendipitous conversation with a fellow sojourner , at a meal in the Dining Hall when you open your table up to greet a student from another country, studying another discipline, and Common Ground morphs from a phrase of Howard Thurman to a discovery of your heart.

This is where we parents must nuance one of previous Rules of Engagement we taught you in grade school,  notably “Stranger Danger.” You know how to be smart and safe, but our faith urges us to engage the stranger in our midst  – in addition to your 1,452 Facebook friends.  Did you know that in class of 2017, right here on campus, there are students from 66 different countries? Look Up.

Daloz Parks says that the “hunger for hearth-sized conversations persists, and it can be ignored only at the cost of a malnourished life.” Eat well at the banquet of BU community! Be attentive to the Splendor along Commonwealth Avenue.

Rule #2 for He Who Shall Not be Named and all our beloved students.  Get Lost. Sometimes we need to get lost on purpose, sometimes we just need to stop the ego car and admit that we need directions.

Now, this is going to sound counter-intuitive to this GPS dependent generation.  Where a satellite can talk to the gadget in your palm and your friend Siri can guide you wherever you want to go.  Our wisest spiritual guides tell us that pilgrims on adventures get lost a lot of the time- so we best value the process, not just the destination.  When  you are lost and must rely daily on the kindness of strangers.

In our worship life this fall we’ve been travelling through exile with Jeremiah. . .Displacement.  Separation from home. Dislocation. Life on a foreign avenue.  Following political defeat, Jeremiah travels with Judah from home field advantage of Jerusalem to refugee life in Babylonia.   At first there is the shock and lament of arrival in a new place. Then last week Jeremiah recognized that the Babylonian exile would last a long time –so he advised folks settle in- to build houses and plant vines, to thrive, even to do their part to benefit the welfare of the foreign city in which they now live.

Students, you are not here because you are lost, or exiled. You are here by privileged choice to study at this fine University. But what student has not felt the burning loneliness of banishment from all that is familiar, or the paralysis of fear during these midterm evaluations.  Am I good enough? Can I do this? Confessed or not, there is a moment of longing for the cocoon of unconditional love at home.     It’s not only OK to be lost, it’s a condition of our humanity.  To deny our moments of exile is to deny our moments of restoration.  And here’s the lavish joy of life. My colleague the Rev. Jen Quigley expressed it beautifully when she preached that “Grace is the serendipitous moment of being found.”

Sometimes it’s good to Get lost on purpose. Spend a day away from your determined efficient production, and wander.  Wander to the shoreline with Dean Hill, wander through neighborhoods of Boston, wander into colleges other than your own, wander beyond your syllabus and get lost in the thrill of an idea. Chase a footnote down its rabbit warren of antecedents until you look up at the clock and an hour has passed.  It’ll probably have nothing to do with the thesis of your current project- but it may lead you to the very thesis of your life. To Vocation. Get lost in what you love.

Over the years I’ve led numerous Alternative Spring Break trips for service and vocational exploration.  At each trip’s orientation I name that it will be a week of “intentional dislocation.”  We are purposefully leaving what is known and comfortable, in order to see ourselves in a new way, to become a joy-filled Christian community in that long fun van ride.   We must separate from homefield advantage so we may be fully open to the communities we will serve.  Kenda Creasy Dean calls it the place of “creative disequilibrium,” a liminal principle of the Gospel – that the reality of being off kilter may precipitate growth and transformation.

Getting Lost is like Falling in Love.  You are lost and you are found. Fall in love on purpose. Listen to this short poem by Ignatian priest Fr. Pedro Arrupe:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.


Look Up, Get Lost, and my final Rule of Engagement:

Be Unrecognizable

When You Know Who went off to FYSOP community service the week before classes, he was still 17.  I had to fill out special BU Rules of Engagement forms to surrender my minor’s care to the University, including my own cell number.  There was a slight miscommunication and apparently my number was confused with YOU KNOW WHOs number.  I started to get texts that week. They didn’t sound like messages that my son would write to me. “Hey DUDE, meet at the Plaza at 10 tonight to start our night out.”  I wanted to write back “Hey Dude, I’m the Mom; I’m headed to bed at 10.”  But instead I wrote, ”I believe you want You Know Who’s number. Here it is. Text him.”

After about 3 messages from my Dude friend- who was so very friendly and polite- I thought we had it nicely worked out. Until the second week of classes and I got a text that read,  “I’m on the Quidditch Team, I’m a chaser,  I am a member of Dumbledore’s Army, and  I have 2 interviews for staff writing positions.”  Oh great, it’s Dude again. Who is this person writing me???? Until I studied the number, and realized this indeed this was HE Who Must not be Named.  Unrecognizable to me in two weeks.  Fabulous!

Students, Reinvent yourself.  Or as a friend of mine, Nora Bradbury-Haehl writes in her new book called the Freshman Survival Guide,  “Shed you skin, not your skeleton.”      Do something so different that your parents have to google it to figure out what you’re up to.    I had to Google “chaser” (it’s a quiddtich position)  and I did some research to learn that “Boston University Dumbledore’s Army is a chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance. We will harness our love for Harry Potter to bring about change in the Boston community through volunteering and fundraising.”  Wow.  I love it!

Finally, Jeremiah dreams of a day when we are transformed from the inside out. When our hearts are strangely warmed, and our new lives of justice and joy are practically unrecognizable . Jeremiah gives us these famous words -“The days are surely coming when I will make a new  covenant… I will put my law within them, and I will etch it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

Beloved students, this is our deepest and most important dream for your engagement.  That the love and grace of God will be so close to you that it is tattooed  on your heart.  That you will be in relationship with this God in Christ who accompanies you through exile and into homeland.

Friends, Be careful crossing the street. Thank you for visitation rights.  And, Fall in love with God, it will make all the difference.


~The Reverend Dr. Robin Olson, Chapel Associate

An Ocean View

October 13th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Psalm 107:23

Jeremiah 29, 2 Timothy 2, Luke 17

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We stood upon a promontory, at the ocean’s edge, this late spring past, south of Portsmouth.  A slight sea breeze lifted spirits, and kites, and moistened the morning air.  Below, hunting among the seaweed, the rocks, the sand, hunting for clams and crabs and fish, we watched an elementary school class at play.  Blue shirted boys, yellow bloused girls, teachers free in the sun to walk and talk, and the steady ocean wind around enveloped us on the continent’s eastern doorstep.  The wind blew in the memory of a verse.


Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters.  They see the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea (Ps 107:23).

Today we pause.  Ours is a restful sermon, today.  We are ready, come Columbus Day weekend, across the campus and country, for a spiritual siesta, a personal paseo, a moment along the ocean for Sabbath rest.  He leadeth me beside the still waters…

That spring seaside day, one boy was fixing a kite.  Red haired, freckled, pensive, enthralled.  Then he looked up and out and east, out and across the great deep.  Now 7 soon 17 soon 47 soon 87:  there he looked out and east and waited as the wind wrapped him in quiet.  For a moment, an early summer moment, outside class, alongside surf, beside friends, for a moment, he took an ocean view.  We do too, at least we should.  Today, with him, for a moment, we pause ‘to see the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep’.  Look.  Look east and into the sea breeze.  Let the salt fill your lungs.  Let the waves lap your toes.  Let the blue sky and the blue sea widen your eyes.  Let the roar of the surf give rhythm for your eyes, your heart—your blues.  An ocean view.  What do you see?  An ocean view is a view of beauty and goodness and truth.



Do you see beauty?  “Who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters’ (Ps 104:3).  This week we recognized and celebrated the Higgs Boson.  We recall, especially in such a week, that over 15 billion years have now passed since ‘the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep’ (Gen: 1:2).  The blue on blue line at the horizon sky on sea, sea on sky, air on water, water on air, oxygen on hydrogen, hydrogen on oxygen, light on life, life on light.  Hurricanal terror lies beyond that horizon.  Tidal crests powerful to destroy may there arise.  ‘Leviathan’—shark, octopus, whale, all—there dwells.  The beauty is terrific, to be sure.  Captain Ahab’s eye, hunting the great white whale, limping upon a leg lost, crazed by the fury at the horizons of death and life—his eye too is ours.  Our ocean view, to be true, views the entire ocean, its present blue horizontal perfection and its wild, violent, creative-destructive, hurricanal power.  Beauty is not entirely subsumed under placidity.   Sometimes, as Jeremiah admitted, you have to accept and improve upon what is not good but given:  ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jer. 29:7).   Sometimes the historical redress to wrong you seek is still some years hence.   In some beauty there is a time to embrace, and in some there is a time to refrain from embracing—to run for cover, if you can.  On that spring morning—see!—a gull drifting on the waves, a ship listing starboard in the sun, a fish jumping—clap!, a swimmer in the great salt sea.  Job:  ‘he has planted the circumference of the earth’.  Beauty, pure and powerful, there is in an ocean view.


In Le Recherche des Temps Perdue, M Proust  has given us written beauty, set inland in Paris and then at Balbec by the sea.   The beauty he sees encompasses both.  Proust can see the ocean and its beauty in the fields by which he drives, but also can see the beauty of the fields in the ocean he loves.  He wrote: The contrast that used then to strike me so forcibly between the country drives that I took with Mme. De Villeparisis and this proximity, fluid, inaccessible, mythological, of the Eternal Ocean, no longer existed for me.  And there were days now when, on the contrary, the sea itself seemed almost rural.  A tug, of which one could see only the funnel, was smoking in the distance like a factory amid fields while alone against the horizon a convex patch of white, sketched there doubtless by a sail…made one think of the sunlit wall of some isolated building, an hospital or a school…all this upon stormy days made the ocean a thing as varied, as solid, as broken, as populous, as civilized as the earth with its carriage roads over which I used to travel…

Behold, beauty.


Do you see goodness?  Walk slowly, down to the water’s edge.  ‘He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkenss’ (Ps 104:9).  The mighty ocean provokes human courage.  ‘They that go down to the sea in ships”.   The account of the lepers healed, wherein only one returns thanks, is St. Luke’s way of painting the portrait of such goodness.  Goodness in creation and life.  Goodness in redemption and healing.  Goodness in sanctification and thanksgiving:  ‘Rise and go your way.  Your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17: 19).   Gratitude is the attitude best suited to faith, and life, and eternity.   Gratitude brings a responsive human creativity, responding to the divine.  There is a responsive human redemption, responding to the divine.  There is a responsive human holiness, responding to the divine.  Leif Erickson, in a sloop, paddling from Iceland to Greenland to New Scotland.  Christopher Columbus, the Nina and Pinta and Santa Maria at sail, our namesake this weekend, coming ashore from three little boats.  Magellan rounding the tip of South America.  Captain Cook circling Hawaii.  The Gloucester fishermen whose names sit ensconced in their statue on the coast.  The four chaplains, painted and framed into our window here at Marsh Chapel, a rabbi, a priest, and two ministers, who gave their life jackets, and so their lives, to others in the Atlantic in 1944 .


The tide comes in and the tide goes out.  Real change for real good is real hard.  It comes by increments.  Alice Munro’s Canadian stories, honored this week, exhibit the progress of love.  The progress of love.  It comes by increments.  Some of Jim Crow died in the Civil War, but not all.  Some of Jim Crow died in Reconstruction, but not all.  Some died with Voting Rights Act, but not all.  Some of Jim Crow is running scared in the face of expanded health care for the poor in the south, but there will be some left, even after this.  The Social Security Act of 1935, remember, excluded farm workers and domestics.   Real change for real good is real hard.  It comes by increments, like the glory of the morning on the wave.   Bit by bit, wave by wave.


But it comes.  JFK:  “I believe that America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor”.  An ocean view is a long view.  An ocean view is along view when it comes to the potential for goodness.  The struggle, the wrestling, for the good is not progressive only, successful only, victorious only.  There is regression, amnesia, selfishness, sloth.  Ebb.  Flow. Undertow.  All.  Hume:  “Man is a fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant.  It is only by tradition and organization that anything decent can be gotten out of him”.  If a Norseman though in the 13th century or so could sail a rowboat to America…lf an Italian sea captain sailing under a Spanish flag could boldly sail where no one since Erickson had sailed before…If we can land a man on the moon…Goodness has as much of a shot as evil.  Bill McGibben is alive and well.  Holding the horizon in view and sailing for the north star by night will give us guidance.  Micah:  ‘God will again have compassion on us.  God will tread out our iniquities under foot.  He will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.’  Good.  Goodness.  Across the tides of time.  In an ocean view.

Behold, goodness.


Do you see the truth?  Hold the sextant, true, true north.  Measure by the stars.  Others have sailed this circumference before.  The variations of the sea coast are a warning.  Walk the beach.  Students!  Once a month, in your time in Boston, get to the ocean.  Sand and mud.  Craggy rocks.  Cliffs.  Inlets and outlets.  The detritus of seaweed, barnacles, shells, mollusks, driftwood, shells and stones and pebbles and sand.  All higgledy piggledy, at sixes and sevens, messy, disordered, quirky, oblique, out of alignment.  Sand gives way to marsh.  Marsh to wetland.  Wetland to stone and cliff.  Cliff walk to tide, ebb and flow and undertow.  We are not in Kansas anymore, as a great American, Dorothy Gale, once said.  On an ocean view, life is not all rectangles, all flat, all squares.  Nor is truth all rectangles, all flat, all squares, all right angles.  ‘New occasions teach new duties.  Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. Truth is messy, like the seacoast.  One must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of variegated, seaside, truth. Listen again to a part of our morning’s epistle:  I am suffering and wearing fetters, like a criminal.  But the word of God is not fettered…If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; but if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself…Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:8ff). Sometimes the fetters themselves bespeak the truth of freedom.  John Lewis wrote that he finally felt free when he was placed in jail in Nashville in 1960, in the struggle for civil rights.


Allow if you will a penultimate, pastoral word.  It is six months since Marathon Monday.  I know we are Boston Strong.  But we are also Boston Healing.   Life has ebb and flow to it.  And undertow.  There is more than meets the eye in life.   Sometimes, in grief, sometimes, in trauma, sometimes, in loss, the real work comes later, later on, five months later.  Many there are, right here, ready to help.  An ocean view may help.  Remember Thurman:  the ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior.  The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance.  Death would be a small thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace. Take the sweep of that natural embrace with you, this Lord’s Day, as with the benediction at the close of service, we mark together again both our fallibility and our mortality.

Behold, truth.


And in application,  a personal coda, for the day’s restful, seaside homily, about the view from Portsmouth, from Balbec, from Cape Cod, from the shoreline:


Our summer pilgrimage to Spain this year included the ocean view from the shorelines of Mallorca.  On Mallorca we had an interview with the ghost of Frederik Chopin and the spirit of George Sand.  At every turn on those beautiful Ballearics one enjoys an ocean view.  We carried that ocean vista with us in a return visit and retrospective journey to the haunts of college study in Segovia.  The spiritual offering, the ocean view, of my Spain, just the lovely enjoyed part, can be summarized in two gorgeous Spanish nouns:  siesta and paseo.

Siesta.  At noon in Segovia, still, though the grace is receding in Madrid, all activity (work, study, commerce, all) ceases.  At noon, one returns home, after a half-day of work, home to family, home to food, home to conversation, home to relief from heat, work, boss, responsibility, home to a massive, savory meal of wine, pasta, vegetables, wine, lamb, soup, rice, wine and pastry.  After said repast, all go to sleep.  It is 1:30pm and 100 degrees Farenheit. It is time to beat a hasty retreat from mad dogs, Englishmen, and the noon day sun.  The common decision to leave behind ‘getting and spending in which we lay waste our powers’ is a radical cut into life, a separation, an existential liberation.  Where finally do you find life?  How much in work and how much in love?


Paseo.   Shops in Segovia reopen at 4pm and work recommences then.  Somewhat grudgingly, the labor force returns in force.  But by 7:30pm or so, the ‘tiendas estan cerradas’.  And then, throughout the town, the population enters into an evening parade, a daily stroll, the ‘paseo’.  The walk.  The evening walk. Chopin, maybe following his paseo and ocean view, said: ‘I came to stay in a wonderful cloister, in the most beautiful place in the world’. The common decision to leave behind ‘getting and spending in which we lay waste our powers’ is a radical cut into life, a separation, an existential liberation.  Where finally do you find life?  How much in work and how much in love?  And given all we have been given, are we not for a moment ready to turn and give thanks to the Giver of every good and healing gift?


A nap and a walk and an ocean view, a reminder in gratitude of the beautiful, good, and true. Beginning with Whittier, we shall end with Tennyson.



Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.

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

Coastal Grace

October 6th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 17: 5-10

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Dean Hart once reminded us:  Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.


In a Chinese restaurant at 110th street and Broadway, April 1978, George Todd hired us to work at the World Council of Churches in Geneva Switzerland. “Heat, light, running water—that is what I need, basic support work”, he barked.  His favorite verse was from 1 Peter 5:  ‘be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour’.  He usually smiled having recited the verse.


George had been one of the founders of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, 20 years earlier.  You want to know something about that lightning crash experiment in urban ministry, all things material in common, service to and with the poor, Acts 2:44, Presbyterians and others, at 110th on the other side of   from our Chinese lunch.  Thence he took several jobs, finally in the office of urban and industrial mission for the World Council.  He, and later we, lunched there with Paolo Freire, Emilio Castro, Philip Potter, Connie Parvey.  Jan was more useful to him than I, as it happens, for they needed music and piano in the mid-week worship service, held Wednesdays in that beautiful, hopeful, open space.  He later confessed that he really hired young people, then, not so much for help but to plant seeds of goodwill for the future of the church, the future of the ministry, the future of the WCC.  Something like our hidden strategy for staffing at Marsh Chapel.  It worked.  I mention him, I honor him, this morning, 35 years later.  And I still mourn the tragic death of his son, Sam.


This year Marsh Chapel expands our mission, a heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city, explicitly to span the globe.  Our broadcast worship service, a if not the leading University Ecumenical Protestant weekly worship service in music, liturgy and homily in the world spans the globe.  Our new chaplain for international students, Rev. Longsdorf, the first position of its kind in the country, spans the globe.  Her students baked the bread for this morning’s eucharist. Our vocational offspring—Brian Hall in the middle east, David Romanik in Texas, Rebecca in South Africa—span the globe.  Our paraments, chosen by Rev Dr Olson, help us recall the global character of our vocational offspring.  Our emerging partnerships with the University of Tokyo, the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, and, yes, a UCC church in Miami Beach, span the globe.  (That is the thing about Miami Beach:  it is so close to the USA that you almost feel like you are in the country.)  Yours, yes, is a mission in global community.  But mainly in another way:  yours is the announcement of a coastal grace.  A coastal grace:  freedom, peace, and love, from sea to shining sea.  John Dewey wrote about a common faith.  Howard Thurman preached about a common ground.  You are announcing a common hope, from sea to shining sea.  A coastal grace.  And you don’t have to travel the globe to live a coastal grace.  As my friend says, ‘I don’t have to drink the whole ocean to know that is salty’.


Now.  I have a bone to pick with our undergraduates.  A month ago you affirmed, I believe, you promised, I think, to get to the coast, to walk the beach, once a month during your time in Boston.  You promised.  Didn’t you?  I think so.  Even if it is just a T ride to Revere: go.  See the horizon.  Feel the salt breeze.  Listen to the ocean and its roar.  Many of you will never, never be so close to the coast, again.  I guess, because I am a fresh water fish myself, I am unfairly passionate about it.  You know, some people live in Buffalo, and never have seen Niagara Falls.  Some people live in the Dakotas and never have seen the Black Hills.   Some people live in Spain and have never tasted Rioja.  Some people live in Kenmore Square and have never seen the Red Sox.  And George Todd lived for a decade in Geneva, even visited Gruyere, I was with him, but never learned to like cheese.   Go east, as far as you can.  Walk down to the harbor, take a boat to Provincetown or Salem, while you can.   Behold a coastal grace.  While walking, memorize a psalm or two, like my favorite as it was Thurman’s, 139.


This land—yours and mine—desperately needs the vision, the memory, the perspective, and the world-view of the shoreline.  ‘The greater the ocean of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”, once said Ralph Sockman, OWU graduate in theater arts.  A coastal grace.  Here is beauty:  the blue on blue line at the horizon, sky on sea, sea on sky, air on water, water on air, oxygen on hydrogen, hydrogen on oxygen, light on life, life on light.  Here is goodness:  if Norsemen in the 13th century could a sail a rowboat to this continent, there is potential, possibility, for us too.  Here is truth:  craggy truth, messy truth, quirky, oblique out of alignment truth.  Here the land is not set out all in squares, the roads make no sense, except to follow the coast, things are not at right angles.  There is difference, there is wetland, stone, cliff, ebb, flow, mist, all.  And danger, dangers.  See the Gloucester memorial:  “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters.  They saw the deeps of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.”  Your moral imagination, much needed today, in church and society, with which to address endless contention and intractable difference, will develop, will mature, in earshot of the tide.  Not all issues fall out in 90 degree patterns, like cornfields in Iowa.  The fresh water voices—I am such a fish remember—need the ocean spray, the salt breeze, the coastal grace that heightens a recognition of variety, yet along the great shoreline, the mighty horizon of hope, of beauty, truth and goodness, of hope.  A common hope.


With others in communities around the globe, we gather at the Lord’s Table this morning.  It is fitting the ‘wings of the morning, and the uttermost parts of the sea’—the coastal grace illumined in our favorite psalm—is balanced, as now we come to Table, with the reading from Luke 17.  Your field work is not a substitute for your domestic duties, the gospel affirms.  Your evangelism and outreach are not a substitute for your congregational tasks, the gospel affirms.  Your horizon of hope and coastal grace are not in place of serving at table.   Hope all you want, become a great leader of institution or three, good for you:  all of it is no substitute for service in the Lord’s house.  People have such shaky reasons for not going to church.   You are to wait at the Lord’s table.  To pray.  To read.  To go to church.  To tithe.  To invite someone else, once a week or once a month, to join you.  To make sure all God’s children, all, are fed.  Your service to the University as a chaplain or dean or professor is not a substitute for your service to God by serving your neighbor.  You have domestic work to do.  Right here.  Come Sunday.  Here, to remember some word that is true, in the joy of faith when grace is present.  Here to greet someone who is good, in the joy of faith when grace is present. Here to hear something that is beautiful, in the joy of faith when grace is present.  We walk past Sunday morning with a yawn and think we have all the time in the world.  Not so.  I celebrate your field work, your professional prowess, your vocational success, your straight A’s so far.  They are not a substitute for your soul.  ‘Le couer a sais raison que le raison n’comprende pas’. Timothy says much the same:  yours is not a spirit of cowardice, but of power and love and self-discipline (interesting trio), and the promise is the very promise of life. And by the way, you don’t get a ransom for just doing your job—‘so you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘we are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done’.  You don’t get to demand a ransom just for doing your job! (J)


When our work with George Todd ended in Geneva, we came back to New York.  George sent us back with some domestic duties.  A basket of them.  (He carried his office around in plastic and paper bags, two or three together, brimming with books and papers).  He said that he had learned in East Harlem that shoe leather was the most important part of ministry.  Visit the people.  Visit the people. Visit the people.   That office in Switzerland dealt with world leaders who made requests.  The month we were leaving one came from the Rev. Canaan Banana in Africa.  I leave his story and biography, and what they say about Africa and Methodism, for another day and another sermon.  In 1978 he had learned that his name was mentioned in a new book, Remarkable Names of Real People.  Could someone get him a copy?  So we got of the plane at JFK and the next day or so went down to 5th Ave and 18th street, where there was a big bookstore.  And sure enough, there was a new book of the title identified.  And many remarkable names.  Cardinal Sin (Archbishop of Manila).  Memory Lane.  Shanda Lear.  I. O. Silver.  A. Moron.  Groaner Digger (an undertaker).  Preserved Fish (of New Bedford).  Dr. Blood (an internist).  Mrs. Toothacre (whose husband was a dentist).  Nita Bath.  Buncha Love.  Katz Meow.  Evan Keel.  Horace and Boris Moros (twins).  Solomon Gomorrah.  Never Fail.  And, page 77, Rev. Canaan Banana.


Friends, it is a big world.  There are varieties within diversities within pluralities within multiplicities.  Our country has a motto:  e pluribus unum.  Our New Testament shows us that in earliest Christianity diversity preceded unity.  There are many ways of keeping faith.  Many ways there are to keep faith.  As that most liberal Gospel, of John, teaches:  in my Father’s house there are many rooms…wherever there is a way, a little truth, a bit of life…there I AM. And there are many names by which faith is named.  Including yours.  The author of 2 Timothy remembers Eunice and Lois, by name.  The book of life includes remarkable names of real people.  Like you.  We need maybe to remember that when we decide we want to box out some of the differences, and box out some who are different.


This is where a monthly walk along the seacoast can help.  A big sky.  A long shore line.  A rolling tide.  An infinite horizon.  A wind, like the breath of God.   A chance to look out!  To look up!  To look long!  To look high!


I last saw George in 1983, along the seacoast in Vancouver.  There was a big tent set up on a cliff, in the sunshine.  I was late getting there.  My Uncle David Laventhol, then editor of Newsday and creator of a New York Newday—‘truth, justice, and the comics’, had gotten me a press pass to attend.  This was a General Assembly of the World Council of Churches.  Philip Potter was set to preach.  I had to stand in the back, under the drip line of the tent.   On that coast, that day, people of faith from the world over stood to sing.  But it wasn’t the singing of the words, it was the people singing the words that carried the grace:  ‘In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth.  In Him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find.  His service is the golden chord close binding humankind.’


Jesus is our beacon not our boundary!  He is not ours to measure, but gives the measure himself of all things, and to us, ‘not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace’.


O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me…


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


Spiritual Imagination in College

September 29th, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 16: 19-30

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In college—and indeed in life, all of life—a moment of quickened spiritual imagination is at hand.


One such may enliven you today, in the ancient story of Lazarus and Dives, a harsh, a tough, a dark tale.


Let me ask you a question.  Do you want to do well, or do you want to do good?


Here is a fresh-woman, from another country, not sure whether to stay in school, watching the strange behaviors of classmates enjoying their own well-being, and not aware let alone concerned about global hurts and doing good.


Here is a young man studying theology and wondering what his future in the world will be and what his future in the church will be and whether in one or the other he will be doing well or doing good.


Here is a newly wed couple emerging from the film, ‘the Butler’, jolted by the reminder of deep racial animosities, and wondering about a balance, for the rest of life of achievement and service, of acquisition and generosity, of being well and being good.


Here is a woman whose neighbor, just a boy, was killed in April and she wonders what good in the end it is to do well, and what doing well means in the shadow of such a day.


Here is a man who has done well, a successful businessman, who lingers in the shadows of the church, listening on the radio, longing for some fuller something, and disappointed in the ministry of the church, so focused as he thinks on being right rather than on doing good.


Do you want to do well?  Do you want to do good?  And if rightly you surmise that some balance of the two is what you seek, how in such seeking will you find?


Through this summer and fall it has been the career of St. Luke to probe your spiritual imagination, at the intersection of well and good.  The gospel, at least as read if not as preached though we hope too as preached, has been circling you, surrounding you, out to capture you with pointed parables and probing questions.  You have every right to be alert.  Listen to Luke…


With the dust of the Jericho Road swirling, your spiritual imagination hears, ‘Who do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among thieves’?


With tears on the fatherly cheeks abounding, your spiritual imagination hears, ‘This my son is found.  Should I not have celebrated his return?”


With a green visor in front of you, your spiritual imagination hears, ‘What shall I do?  I am too weak to dig and too ashamed to beg?’


With a full barn waiting, your spiritual imagination will hear, ‘These possessions, now whose will they be?”


With a field of flowers fluttering, your spiritual imagination hears, “Which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his life”?


With fear and anger floating forward, your spiritual imagination hears, “Do you think I have come to bring peace?”


With coins jangling in the pocket, your spiritual imagination hears, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”


And were not 10 healed—where are they?  And what a Zaccheus given—half his estate?  And would I not say to the servant, ‘your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties’?


The parables of the Gospel According to St. Luke, these holy words and holy reminders of the holy One, the Son of God, are tapping, tapping at your spiritual imagination…And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me filled with fantastic terrors never felt before

The parables of Jesus, the gospel of Luke, the books of the New Testament, the witness of the church, the saints of God, the preaching of the church, the ministry of Marsh Chapel and this sermon itself are hunting for your soul, are searching for your soul, are chasing you, are pursuing you—to ignite your spiritual imagination.


Soon, like Lazarus, you will be dead.  Soon, like Dives, I will be dead.   Time flies?  Ah no. Time stays.  We go.  What you are going to do, as Jesus said to Judas, do quickly.  Your incessant quest to do well will not go well unless you do good, too.


Here is Lazarus, whose name means ‘God heals’.   He has had no earthly blessing, no purple robe, no fine linen, no sumptuous meal every day.  Here is the rich man, traditionally known as Dives, from the Latin for ‘rich’.  He has known no earthly bane, sores, hunger, dog bites.  This old, old story, probably predating the Christian era, perhaps coming up out of Egpyt, is out to get us, to quicken the spiritual imagination.


The parable accosts us with a stark forecast of death, proximate and personal, as does the benediction in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.


The parable accosts us with a ringing reminder of the irreversibility of time, the permanent loss of time past, as does the sung Kyrie in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.

The parable accosts us with a plain, unvarnished harsh admonishment about economic justice—the divine economy in which those who have much have not too much and those who have little have not too little—as does the offertory, offering and offertory prayer in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.


The parable accosts us with a direct assault on the soul, on the human soul, on your soul and mine, as does the sermon in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.


The parable means to awaken your spiritual imagination.


Do you want to do well or do you want to do good?  Granted that the answer is ‘both’, then where is the balance, where the bridge, where the dialectic, where the dialogue between the two.  Can we do well by doing good?  Is there a way to do good on the basis of doing well?  If you have not done well at all your capacity to do good will be limited and if you do no good what is it to have done well?


There are two ways to be wealthy:  have a lot of money or have very few needs.


At age 19, I was taught how to help sail a sail boat, a ‘Flying Dutchman’.  The elderly lawyer whose boat it was, due to age and to a compromised leg, needed someone to crew for him.  I knew nothing about sailing and must have endlessly frustrated him as I learned.  His world—a yacht club, the boat, different clothing and cars and refreshments than I had know in a parsonage growing up—was all new to me.  Gradually we improved along the ten mile inland lake.  We even started coming in ahead of dead last on the Saturday races.   The lawyer by the way had done well but he had also done a lot of good, including in his tutelage of me.   One day when we had mastered the mainsail, down and up, and had mastered the jib, up and down, and the wind was full in our back and the sun bright and hot he shouted:   ‘now for the spinnaker’.    That third sail made us fly.  It depended on the set up of the other two and a good wind from the stern.  But it was the addition that made all the rest ‘sail’.


I think some of our institutions, when they have done well with two sails, might want to think about doing good by putting up the third, by directly doing good without intention of gain.  I think some of our colleges, when they have done well with two sails, might want to do good by putting up a third, a kind of spiritual spinnaker, by directly helping others without intention of gain.  I think some of our professionals, who have done well with in life, mainsail and jib, might want to do good by putting up a kind of spiritual spinnaker, by directly helping others without benefit of gain.  I think some of our bright students, who have done well, from SAT to MCAT to LSAT, might want to do some good by putting up that third sail to catch the full wind of the full spirit of the full presence of God.


Even in college you may find a moment when a word spoken, like this parable, quickens, enlives, saves, heals and makes your spiritual imagination whole.  This—right now—may be that moment.  Right now.



Or, the maturation of your spiritual imagination may come later, as you read, study and grow.

You are in college.  You are here to read.  “Take and read.”

Hunt for the quiet places.  Find yourself in front of the sculpture of Arthur Fiedler, on a bench.  Sit farther along the river, as the sun sets.  Make permanent friends with the quiet pews of Marsh Chapel and the hidden crannies of the library.  Locate that 2am diner like the one at breakfast that helped Fred Craddock become a preacher.  Find the Public Library reading room, a beautiful spot. When others are at war with the administration, you read.  When others are cursing their professors, you read.  When others are finding fault with faculty hairstyles, you read.  Learn with to “sanctify ambition, not crucify it” (A Pierson).  A close distinction in a careful reading of life.  Learn with Hildegard of Bingham to “become one’s ownmost”.  Learn with 19th century Methodism the lasting danger of poor financial planning.  Learn the merits of disciplined sacramental observance.  All this and more, you can read in the books of your teachers in this finest of Methodist schools.  Read what you want, what you need, when you want, as you need.

And what relationship shall the reader have to the read?  Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts?  Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king?  What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered?  In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth?  Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth?  Or one truth among many?  Or primus inter pares?  Or an anachronism altogether?    How then do you read?


Misreading intelligence can land a nation in the soup of a civil war.  Misreading tests can land a patient in the wrong surgical suite.  Misreading accounts payable can land a business in bankruptcy.  Misreading a traffic signal can land you in the ditch.  Most of these have healing solutions available within one generation.  Spiritual misreading lasts for several generations.  It takes three of four generations to bring correction to a sincere or not so authentic spiritual misreading.  Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act.

Here is an October Saturday in the sun.  Read in the city! Take, Read.  Read along with those who also rose to preaching amid the ruins of the church. You rise, books in tow, and walk the Emerald Necklace.  You walk.  At Emmanuel College you read a new book on.  Bunker HillYou walk.  At the Riverway you read A Bavevich, The Limits of Power.  You walk.  At Jamaica Pond you read  M Proust,  The Remembrance of Things Past.   Then you read Vaclev Havel, on almost anything.  But perhaps this fall you read his thoughts on suicide…sentinels… You walk, and you lunch.  After lunch you read H Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.  Boston is your campus.  Then, resting at Jamaica Pond, you pull out a chapter from the Confessions of St. Augustine.

Augustine did well for a long time—eminent scholar, teacher of rhetoric, African philosopher, admirer of Ambrose.  As a student he did very well.  His Confessions is the primer, the original, the prototype for student life ever since, from 400ce until today.  But like Dives, though sooner, Augustine found his spiritual imagination was kindled…

Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree–how I know not–and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

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

Do you want to do well or do you want to do good?  The gospel addresses you, addresses your spiritual imagination, today.

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


Spiritual Health in Change

September 22nd, 2013 by Marsh Chapel

Luke 16: 1-13

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Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable.  There is no easy interpretation for this parable.  Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know.  Why is his master happy to be cheated?  We cannot say.  Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell.  What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend (“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations”? )We do not see.  What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs?  Little at all, except that they all deal with money.  How did this story make it into Luke’s travel narrative?  It is not clear.  Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)  Perhaps!  And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate, to be found in our reading today? The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news: Faith gives spiritual health in the midst of change, including the transition into college life.


1. Mysterious Presence

Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst.  We can announce his presence today, again today.  He is among us:  dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust.  So, strangely, is He among us.


Strangely his voice addresses us.  You may mistake is strange presence for absence.  Then a voice you have not heard for 50 years, since Vatican II arises.  You open the newspaper, as perhaps you did on Friday, to read the statement of the Bishop of Rome, Francis: It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time…We have to find a new balance, otherwise (we will lose) the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel…When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? The church is the home of all…We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our own mediocrity (NYT, 9/20/13)


For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him.  In the strange world of the Bible.  In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church.  Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life.  Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, “L’Etranger”, “The Stranger”.


Contrary to some preaching, even televised and popular preaching today, his presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political.  He draws us, lures us, and enchants us.  So he sets us free.


For St. Luke in chapters 9 to 19 has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”.  We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church.  We are making a trip to the promised land.  We are headed in a certain direction.  With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey.  Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread.  There they became the slaves of Pharaoh.  But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness.  He brought them the ten commandments.  At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey.  In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed.  They even built a temple, and chose a King.  Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong.  Although the prophets did warn them, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc.  On these hundreds of years of history depends the cry of Jeremiah, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people.” (9:1)  Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.  Faith heals, manages, handles the hardest of change.


Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the maelstrom of wild, unexpected change and economic crisis.  On the road, the journey of faith, the Gospel of Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses, the issue of money.  Remember how Luke traces the Gospel.  Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor.  John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward.  Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed.  Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’.  Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?”  Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions.  And, by the way, great ready in conclusion, to meet Lazarus and Dives.  Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a community and as a community of faith and as individuals.


2. Personal Application


But you may wonder whether this parable speaks to you, especially if you are in financial calamity.  Along Luke’s Jerusalem road, Jesus has a healing word to say about possessions, money, and wealth.


To me it is clear that the chief communal issue before Luke’s (Antioch?) congregation was the management of wealth.  This means that they had money.  This also means that they did not immediately throw it away.  This further means that they reasoned that the apocalypse of the end was not so very near that no financial planning was necessary.  This additionally means, as Luke’s writing shows, that they were trying to learn to become prudent, astute, imaginative, shrewd, clever, insightful, accountable, enterpreneurial managers.  So they are reminded, in argument from less to more:  “Keep faith in the little things, to be ready for the big ones.”  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  “Be faithful with money, which belongs to God, so that you will become faithful in soul, which belongs to you.”  A stitch in time saves nine.  “Do your pre-season training with possessions, so that you will be ready for the regular gridiron season of the spirit.”  Look before you leap.  Be penny wise, not pound foolish.


In other words, “use possessions so as to gain, not to lose, your future” (Craddock).    Be creative.  “For all the dangers of possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God” (Ringe).  Remember that you are a manager of someone else’s accounts, an absentee landlord who has a claim.  And go ahead, be clever.  Be creative and loyal, but if you have to choose—be creative.


In other words, whether you are 18 or 98, attention to, stewardship of, care for resources matters, and matters greatly.

3. The Gospel of the Dishonest Manager


The deeper truth in this passage, though, is simply that faith heals and handles change.  Faith carries the power to master the vicissitudes of change.   Ultimately, this parable cannot be interpreted along moral, or economic, or even political lines.  So read, it makes no real sense.  Luke has gone ahead to read the parable so, in part, by appending the four proverbs about fiduciary fidelity.  We have honored his teaching.  But the parable itself says something else.  Like the mystery of Christ itself, the story is not moral but mystical, not theoretical but theological, not law but grace.  It is good news.


The good news is that faith heals and handles change.


A man gets the pink slip, and leaves under suspicion, with the sheriff on the way.  He is looking at doing time. He is on the lamb. He is headed for jail, prison, the lockup, the pokey, hoosegow, calaboose, the slammer, the joint, the tank, in stir, goin’ up the river, doin’ time, in the brig, the gray bar hotel, the big house, the can.  (Isn’t language wonderful?  As the steel magnolias said, “accessorize—it’s the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom”.  I would add speech.)  He is not a moral exemplar. But just as his ingenuity handles the sudden change in his circumstance, so the powerful grace of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, handles the constant change of life.


Faith manages change, masters change.   So Paul can shout, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20).  The faith of Jesus Christ, working heteronomously through life, handles change.  Faith is nimble, not flatfooted; agile not stolid; creative not programmed; shrewd not complacent; quick not quiescent; fast not slow.


Notice what my favorite accountant does not do.  He does not only, merely, just, pray, go to temple, seek ministerial counsel, bellyache, celebrate his victimhood, join the choir, or leave it all up to Jesus.  He does not say, ‘let Go let God’.   He does not claim that God has done this to him.  In fact, the faith here acclaimed has no religious clothing at all. No, he does none of that. Rather, he responds, shrewdly.  He finds the faith to handle change, and lives the faith that handles change.  Change is real hard, and real good.  Like life, like love, like faith, like…any of the things of God.  I think back, with the joy of faith when grace is present, to all the times I have seen spiritual health emerge, as faith handled and healed change.


Last week, around September 11, I could not help think of the way people responded on that fateful autumn day, 12 years ago. In August I had driven across the George Washington Bridge, filled with emotions still present, a dozen years later I think of a young father and others on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  Somehow, amid sudden and calamitous change, they found the courage to act in a way that, at least in part, handled change.  They even had the presence of mind to call home first.  Faith handles change.


I could not help think of the men in New York who carried a person in a wheelchair down dozens of flights of stairs.  Faith handles change. Faith handles change. The faith of Jesus Christ, our salvation, does not fear to change, nor does faith fear change.  Faith manages change.


I think of all the meetings I have attended in the last three decades.  You know, there is a grace and beauty to meetings, at their best.  You can see this ordinary grace at work in most group, staff, university, church, community meetings, where faith is called upon to handle change.


It makes you wonder whether there is collectively an unforeseen, creative, shrewd response to our changed circumstance as a people, now contemplating our response to Syria.  How to meet violence with patient justice…hmmm…in the trust that faith handles change.  This is the faith of Jesus Christ, apart from which all else is sin.


Returning to Boston after the summer, walking on Boylston Street, I could not help but think of the women and men, on April 15, who found the faith, as first responders, as innocent bystanders, as people on the scene at the finish line of the Marathon, who found faith that brought healing to radical, horrific change.  I think I saw some of your there.


Watching students, particularly freshmen, navigate the waters of student life, I cannot help think of the ways, with help and faith and encouragement, that so many have found healing ways, faithful ways, to handle the change, to find spiritual health as college begins.  On the crowded noontime paseo along Commonwealth I think I hear some whispering:  I will study hard.  I will say no when I need to.  I will take a daily walk in Boston and monthly trip to the ocean.  I will explore the world around me.  I will have some fun along the way.  I will invest in the joy of making lasting, lifelong friends.  You can remember this week:  Faith heals, faith heals by handling change.


Keep this portrait of the shrewd manager in your wallet, especially for the days your wallet is empty.  Especially for those days when your heart is heavy, your spirit is sour, your souls is sagging.  This accountant meets the report of his mismanagement, itself possibly false, with calm.  He does not try to change the world, or this news.  He raises the basic question with courage:  “what shall I do?”  He thinks creatively, acts entrepreneurially, communicates astutely, relates cleverly, strategizes shrewdly…and lands on his feet.   When times change, he does too.


And Jesus commends him, I guess.


And Luke commends him, I guess.


And even his old boss commends him, I guess.


You can’t help but love the guy…


Oh:  And I have no idea what verse 9 means.


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