Contra Ecclesia: Beloved Communities

July 5th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:1-13

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The theme of our summer preacher series this year is “Beloved Community.” Coined by Josiah Royce, the concept of the beloved community was popularized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While eschewing the utopian vision of Royce, King nevertheless developed his conception of the beloved community out of the idealist philosophy of Boston Personalism in which he was formed here at Boston University.

For King, the beloved community is first and foremost a social reality. The beloved community arises from the personal commitments of individual people to the method of nonviolence enacted socially. As King said, “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” Nonviolence is the means, but “the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” The beloved community is spiritual as well as social, “it is the love of God working in the lives of [people].” The beloved community is global, or as King described it, “a great world house in which we have to live together.” And surely it is the cosmic dimension of the beloved community that King had in mind when he quoted Theodore Parker that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King fully that this vision of the beloved community would be realized and actualized socially. He was beginning the process of building a late modern sacred canopy in hopes that it would become the societal governing norm, complete with cosmic dimension, over time.

From the vantage point of 2015, some sixty years after King began to popularize the beloved community, it is hard to imagine such a global and universal ethos taking hold. Rather than a single sacred canopy, as Peter Berger himself has acknowledged, what we are experiencing in our pluralistic age is ongoing contestation of our various sacred canopies, or perhaps better, sacred tents. Rather than participating in a singular canopy, we inhabit, in our lives, various tents: the family tent, the work tent, the school tent, the neighborhood tent, the friends tent, and on and on. We inhabit each of these tents differently, fitting our individual uniqueness to the social norms governing each. These tents overlap one another at the intersection of us; that is, we are the locus of overlap for all of the tents we inhabit, even if they would never otherwise intersect and do not regularly have anything to do with one another. The sacred canopy in this sense, then, is much more like the jungle canopy, which exists only after the fact as the limbs of the trees grow to overlap one another organically.

Of course, some of the tents we inhabit are more central to our sense of self and identity than others; they are more important to us than others; they are where we find our deepest sense of belonging. The tent where you find your deepest gladness realized, where you feel you most fully belong, where you experience the greatest freedom, that tent, then, is your beloved community. Rather than a global, universal, cosmic beloved community, these beloved communities are more often intimate, vulnerable, and personal.

Theologically, what King envisioned as the beloved community resonates deeply with what the church aspires to be: global, universal, and mediator of cosmic harmony. The church aspires to be a community of universal love and belonging. It is for this reason that the church all too frequently proclaims itself to be the unique and universal context for salvation.

Alas, in living out the vocation of cultivating universal love and belonging, the church is caught on the horns of a dilemma. In order to achieve what it aspires, that is in order to become truly global and universal, the church must find ways to cope with the many particularities embodied by the human beings it desires to include. In order to do so, the church has two options. First, the church can articulate its canopy in ways so vague and abstract that it can embrace anyone. The problem with this option is that the canopy demands little and so inspires minimal allegiance, and it quickly becomes viewed as superfluous and irrelevant. Second, the church can articulate its canopy in stricter ways and insist that everyone abide by the norms it articulates. The problem with this option is that the demands of the canopy are so oppressive for some, or perhaps many, that escaping the canopy becomes preferable to suffocating under it. In sum, it is sheer hubris to claim that the experience of grace of one person, or even a subset of people, is determinative of what the experience of grace must be for everyone.

Jesus knew something of the challenge of being beloved in community, indeed in the very communities where one might most expect to find love: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Jesus taught the disciples that they too would find places that could not, or at least would not, be beloved communities for them: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” The sacred canopy of Jesus’ hometown was no place for him to be beloved; the sacred canopy he offered could not meet everyone where they were.

So too today the church is wrestling precisely on the horns of this dilemma. This has never been exemplified more clearly than in the response of too much of the church to the recent US Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right for gay and lesbian people to marry. Many churches are experiencing that the strict ways they have articulated their sacred canopies with respect to marriage are increasingly intolerable conditions for many people to inhabit. These same churches accuse the churches that have embraced gay marriage of being “wishy washy,” that is, of demanding so little that they are becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, many of these churches that take themselves to be the ultimate context of salvation have forgotten that the very terms of that salvation are their own interpretation of what God is doing. Of course, this forgetting that the sacred canopy is our own construction is precisely one of the movements of its construction that Peter Berger describes. The problem is that in forgetting we come to confuse our own human institutions with the will of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the serious Christian, set down for the first time in Christian community, is likely to bring with them a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

Just as Saint Paul thought that he knew what he needed and what would be best for him, so too we must learn once again to rely more firmly on God’s grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities of disabled persons and those who accompany them, reminds us that, “community is a terrible place, a place where our limitations and egoisms are revealed to us. When we begin to live full time with others we discover our poverty and our weakness, our inability to get on with others… our mental and emotional blocks; our affective and sexual disturbances, our frustrations and jealousies… and our hatred and desire to destroy.” Beloved community is not easy, but it is precisely by moving together through these weaknesses that the power of the beloved community is perfected.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that God is at work inspiring, encouraging, and nurturing beloved communities. Everyone deserves a beloved community. This is the gospel message that Justice Kennedy articulated in Obergefell v. Hodges: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Even when the church is unwilling to be and become a beloved community, and even when the church is unwilling to acknowledge the beloved community that folks are building together, the government must acknowledge and nurture and foster these beloved communities.

This is a challenging gospel for the church to hear: First, not everyone will find their beloved community in the church. The grace of God is at work outside the church, and often as not in spite of the church. Claims to the contrary are mere hubris, but God’s grace is sufficient because power is made perfect in weakness. Second, the grace of God is nurturing beloved communities, not beloved community. The experience of being beloved cannot be fostered in monolithic, universal, totalizing sacred canopies. Instead we need intimate tents where vulnerability and weakness may be cultivated in contexts of trust and security, because it is in weakness that power is made perfect. The church must repent of the sin of claiming that grace for one is grace for all.

Let me be clear, not all beloved communities are healthy. Dyllan Roof, the accused racist terrorist who killed nine members of a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, was nurtured in a community to feel beloved precisely by rejecting the humanity and personhood of black people. This orientation is not unrelated to his experience in church. Unequivocally, this is a perversion of what it means to be beloved. There is no grace here.

The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, calls us to return to the gospel of grace: “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace — as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

Today we gather at the table of grace to receive the grace of God whose own weakness was made absolute, and thus whose power is perfected, in the crucifixion and death of Jesus. What will you do with this grace? Go out, take nothing for your journey, and build beloved communities. Build family communities of intimacy, love, and mutual support. Build work communities of imagination, dedication, and collaboration. Build school communities of learning, virtue, and piety. Inhabit all of the communities in which you find belonging and are beloved with grace, that is, in weakness, that your power may be perfected. And may the grace of God empower you to serve as the point of intersection among these communities such that love and justice may flourish. Amen.

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

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The Unimportance of being Earnest

June 28th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 5:21-43

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Still Point

June 21st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 4: 35-41

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As we gather in worship this morning, along with countless others in countless churches across the country and beyond, our hearts and minds are brooding over the tragic slayings in Charleston, what Cornell William Brooks, President of the NAACP, who spoke from this pulpit one month ago, has aptly called ‘racist terrorism’.   We think of these nine lost lives.  We lift them and their families in prayer.  We lift their AME church, and the AME connection itself, in prayer.   We wonder just how to say something that is both honest and hopeful, both hopeful and honest.  Honesty about the storm.  Hope in the Still Point who is ‘the Teacher’, our Lord.

Others have done so before.  In Rome, about 70ad, a preacher, it may be, stood before a small group of men and women, gathered in a home or courtyard.  Though varied in aspect, they who gathered were similar, for they came from various margins, the margins of life.  Some were women.  Some were Jews.  Some were slaves and former slaves.   Some were rich, but most poor.  Some were educated, but most not.  They shared Jesus Christ, crucified.  They shared Jesus Christ, risen.  Together they had already been seized by an allegiance to him, the still point in a turning world.  They were walking in faith.  As we are.  But they were alarmed, angered, frightened and saddened.  As we are today.  They were haunted, perhaps by the memory of the Emperor Nero, who famously fiddled as Rome burned, but who found time for an Empire wide persecution of those on the margins, including the early Christians, and if legend serves, including to martyrdom both Peter and Paul.  We are not haunted by Nero.  We are though haunted by months and years and memories of violence, racism, terrorism, gun culture and untimely death.

In this borrowed upper room or small courtyard, it may be, the preacher acclaimed Jesus, whose word is Peace and whose voice says Be Still.  The raised crucified, the still point in a churning world.  The preacher, perhaps,  remembered from of old and from afar, his days on the Syrian sea, Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee.  He imagined in his sermon a night scene.  He offered in stylized memory an account of a boating mishap.  Some recollection of the book of Jonah may have stirred him.  The preacher looked straight into the hurt and heart of his storm tossed church, if you can use that word for that gathering at that time.  He could see their fear of drowning, of perishing.  He painted into his story portrait other ‘boats’, boats always a symbol of the church.  He told of Jesus sleeping.  He fixed his hearers’ anger and sadness right in the belly of the whale of the sermon: ‘we are perishing’, they cried.  We know that cry, that crie de cour.  Then he stood solemnly.   Facing all storms, offering in a prophetic spirit the very voice of Christ, he said, ‘Be still’.  And the sermon ended.  And there was a fullness.  And there was a dead calm.  A word had been spoken and heard, in resurrection time and space.  Around the Still Point, they paused, in silence.

Jesus meets us today right in the teeth of the gale, in the heart of the storm.   He speaks to us the eternal word.  Peace.  He speaks to us the saving word.  Be Still.  He is the still point in the turning, churning world.

Eliot:  ‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is’

His is a timely word, a fit word, a word fitly spoken, for us.  For  we are a people drenched in sorrow, anger, worry, and exasperation.  The boat is heaving from side to side, stem to stern, port to starboard.   Newtown, Marathon, Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, North Charleston, and McKinley.  And now this Charleston church killing, this unspeakable horror, this malevolent mixture of guns and illness and ideology and racism.

This one verse in our Gospel today that we have no problem understanding is the angry cry of Jesus’ frightened fellow travelers: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Here we are.  The storm is raging.  The winds are blowing.  The waves are swamping our little ship.  The raging tide of racism.  The towering undulation of gun availablity.  The windstorm of violence pressing upon us from all sides.  We get this today.

Like the little Roman church addressed in today’s Gospel, for whom the lakeside story, the nature imagery, the threat of drowning, the savior’s voice, the mysterious and miraculous heeded command, Be Still, were offered in the soulful, caring preaching of the early pastor, if one can use that title, we too dread drowning.

We dread drowning in a sea of guns.  We dread drowning in a tide of deeply embedded, persistent, perduring, encultured racism.  We dread drowning in a great windstorm, with waves beating upon us, and the boat half swamped as it is.  After a week like this, it is hard to know what to say, if we truly want to be both honest and hopeful.

For these nine dear Methodist souls in Charleston, praying in church, died because of a persistent, pervasive racism that covers this land like a flood tide.  They died because of a sea of guns, available to anyone, well or ill, well intended or ill intended, at any time, without any consequence, financial consequence, to the seller, the procurer, those who profit.  These nine died because of an ongoing ignorance about the pervasive continuing impacts of chattel slavery 150 years ago, impacts measurable in economic, social, educational and civic life.  These nine died because of a fiercely advocated and heavily funded broad agenda to privilege states rights over human rights, gun ownership over human survival, and individual freedom over the common good.

Charles Pierce wrote honestly this week:

What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unthinkable.” Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them.

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

We should speak of it as an attack on history, which it was. This was the church founded by Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in 1822. Vesey was convicted in a secret trial in which many of the witnesses testified after being tortured. After they hung him, a mob burned down the church he built. His sons rebuilt it. On Wednesday night, someone turned it into a slaughter pen.

Yes, at least this one verse in our Gospel today that we have no problem understanding, the angry cry of Jesus’ frightened fellow travelers: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

But the gospel does not end there.  Maybe it would be easier if it did. The Scripture brings us both honesty and hope.  The hope is harder to hear and to live.  The hope requires of us ears and minds to discipline ourselves, to prepare ourselves with a spiritual discipline against resentment, to train ourselves for the long distance run, to hope against, for hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see.

In the ancient sermon, in Rome, in 70ad, a still voice, a voice to still the storm was heard.  Can we hear that voice this morning?   Can we hear a rumor of angels?  Can we at least hear that none of this historical tragedy is inevitable?  It is not inevitable.  Because it is not, it can be changed, changed for the better, changed in the future.  You can lend your voice to that of the man who stilled the water, to that of the man who calmed the sea.  You can make a difference.

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

By pray I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil.  But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging and empowerment.  You can do this.  One of our members, a native of Charleston, asked to read a lesson today, which he did.  You can engage and support others.  You need the pew fellowship, the breathing community of different others.  If week by week you only regularly see family, co-workers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow, and which this great land, full of latent goodness, needs in practice and for practice.  But in the pew you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments.  Not your mom, not your boss, and not your golf partner.  Others–who are other.  Somehow as a people we think that we can muster the will to address communal issues on the grand scale, when so often our communal orbits of relationship are with people who are like us, are like ourselves.  This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into the Calculus without mastering multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles.  This summer our preaching series considers Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’.  But to stretch toward that Johannine, Roycean, and Kingly vision, we have to start by sitting for an hour near people who are other than we, in the presence of God.

King:  “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

By vote I do mean election-day ballots.  One of our BU administrative leaders here, when asked at year end what advice she might have for graduates of 2015 said, simply, ‘vote’.  Yes, go to the polls.  But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference.  Personal engagement.  Susan, one of our most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston died suddenly of cancer four years ago.  How we miss her.  One day we were walking together on the Esplanade.  We were talking about gun violence.  In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman.  She said, in her usual spirited voice:  ‘They know me there.  I have them on speed dial’.  She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person.  Well that may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money.  She was a great person.  We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.

By act I do mean doing something, within your sphere of influence.  Several gathered here on Marsh Plaza for a vigil on Friday noon.  Others attended other events.  A pastor gathered a multi faith service in Medford last night.  There is another at Charles Street tonight. You may have decided to attend an AME church one Sunday this summer, to be present, to be in communion.  Good.  Tell them Dean Hill sent you.  So, let us find ways to act.  There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of seemingly endless unsolvable contentions.

You can recite the litany.  300 million guns there are across the land.  The top 20% send 84% of their children to college.  The bottom 20% send 8%.  The average asset value of the majority household in this country is $110,000(car, house, savings).  The average asset value of the minority household is $9,000. The number and percentage of young men of color imprisoned, at all levels, is itself a crime.  The agenda of individual rights, like gun possession, and states rights, like denial of health care, has seized control of state house after state house across the middle of the country.  Look sometime at a photo page of elected officials in Kansas.  Yes.  Yes.  I know.  These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful.  But you know, life is full of change, even surprising change.  In her late 80’s my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door.  It read:  ‘Do one thing.  There.  You have done one thing.’  I have a voice, and I will use my voice.  You do too.  Use it.

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

A couple of weeks ago a woman in our community sent me a prayer.  Prayer is much on my mind, just now, as a form of action as well as contemplation.   It gives me some measure of hope to have received this prayer.  I asked permission to use it, with attribution, and with its honesty and hope we conclude.  Here is Terry Baurley’s prayer:

Adonai, we pray that all may come to the understanding that one person’s grief is a shared experience that we will all face, one person’s love is a love that all will someday experience, one person’s exclusion or shunning is one that we all hope never to experience. One person’s success does not in any way diminish us. Friendship with someone new does not change the friendships that are already part of us. A person being praised and appreciated does not mean that we are not, it is just not your turn, or that there are reasons why they needed those words more at that moment. Consequences of actions born of love have a way of transforming who we are. Until each human being realizes that inflicting harm to another either intentionally or unintentionally or participates in such group dynamics that do, we will not have peace on this earth. Yet when a whispered prayer reaches out to you Adonai, and you reach back to us. We have reached the center where we know that we are loved, and nothing on heaven or earth can change that. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. (TERRY BAURLEY)


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

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A Grain of Mustard Seed

June 14th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 4: 26-34

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

We have no cable TV.  We have no dish.  We have no outsized antenna.  We get what you get with today’s equivalent of rabbit ears, a free-standing antenna.  Four channels not four hundred, and hardly anything worth watching.  But we like the local news, some for content, more for delivery.  One evening the TV stopped connecting with anything.  And we worried again about another expense, task, day of home repairs.  But it happens that in the wind the antenna sometimes moves, slightly.  Just a little jiggle to the south, and all channels darken.  Which means, as you guess, that a little jiggle north brings our motley four channels back.  Small things, little things, a slight little shift can make a big difference.

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

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

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

It is a Sabbath reminder for us.  Little things can change the world.  Think about the Archduke Ferdinand.  Read about Asa Kent Jennings.  Look again at the events in Boston of 1775.  Recall the old lines:  For the want of a…nail, shoe, horse, rider, battle…Read once more Barbara Brown Taylor’s A Preaching Life.  Or return to read again Arthur Ashe’s memoir, Days of Grace.   Remember when someone said something to you that intervened, helped, saved.  Sometimes the best medicine is whatever gives you the courage to take one more step forward.  You have the mind, heart, faith and voice to speak such an intervening word this week.  You also have the mind, heart, the faith and will to hear such an intervening word this week.  Will it make any difference?  Small, little things, make a difference, and have the power of faith, like a grain of mustard seed.

A grain of mustard seed.  Our Lord meets us today within his chosen realm of discourse and rhetoric.  The realm of nature.  The realm of story or parable.  The realm of nature parable.  Notice, as a clue to the intimacy of these words and Jesus himself, the odd phrase ‘birds of the air’.  A redundancy, a connection it may be, to the Aramaic of Jesus’ own speech.  What other kinds of birds are there, anyway? He taught them nothing, without a parable.  Most of those, at least those not dealing with money and labor, are nature parables, like ours today.  Jesus has used the memorable image of the tiny mustard seed before.  ‘Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move hence to yonder place’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’.  He has used the mustard seed before.  He has used hyperbole before.  He has used parable and nature and nature parable before.  Our Lord meets us at the intersection of parable and nature today.

Faith is a little thing.   It is not as easily measured as some other things.  Faith is like a grain of mustard seed, in and through which, over a long time, great and big changes come.  You may disregard such a little thing, at least for a time.  After all, it is the smallest of all seeds.  Faith is a little thing.  Yet in the odd mysteries of secrecy and of growth, of growth in secret, of which nature and the parables of nature do remind us, in Jesus’ teaching, we are given again an intriguing hint of faith.

An old hymn, sung with sincerity, authenticity and a sense of irony, can give that kind of hint of faith, in worship.  An anthem, true and fine, offered to the praise of God, out of a different time and clime, can give that kind of hint of faith, in worship.  A strange story, of a boy become king on the credit of his ruddy cheeks and the spirit of the Lord moving, can give that kind of hint of faith, in worship.  A cascading waterfall of tumbling words in ancient writ, a warning that we walk by faith not by sight, and that outward appearance is nothing compared to the heart, and that we see no longer by flesh only or by spirit only but according to the cross of a new creation, in which the old is gone and new is come, can give that kin of hint of faith, in worship.  A friendly word on entry, a gentle greeting on departure, an example of another’s compassionate faith from another place in the pew, all can give that kind of hint of faith, in worship.  Compared to the great assemblies of the age on the screen or on the stage or in the ballpark or on the green, a little mustard seed, a tiny little seed for the future, a moment in worship, come Sunday, must seem so very small.  Yet it carries a hint of faith, which may be, some dark night, all that you need and all that you have to go on.

That difficult hour may be upon you today, or this week, or this summer.  In decision, in change, in struggle, in loss, in despair.  Faith isn’t faith, in a way, until and unless it is all you have to go on.  Jesus meets us today with a word of hope.  In a nature parable, in the chosen medium of his diction.   Watch.  Take heart.  Look.  Listen.  You matter.  You count.  You are for real.  You can do this.  You can.

That difficult hour may be upon us today, or this week or this year.   In Boston, we are still struggling through the trauma and consequences of April 2013.  How could we not?  The court verdict for the person responsible for the killings and injuries continues to reverberate in our collective conscious and unconscious.  How could it not?  In America, we are still struggling through and with shocking reminders of majority power and minority pain, sometimes bubbling to the surface of our shared consciousness by means of little things, like photos, like videos, like cell phone recordings.  How could we not?  We are not finished, but unfinished as people, and as a people.  Across the globe we are still struggling with containment of conflict emerging from religious and economic and cultural difference.  How could we not?  These and other struggles can have the capacity to freeze us in place, to keep us from moving well and forward into an unseen future, unless we are freed up, given flexibility, creativity, and hope, through a tiny measure, an abiding sense of faith.  Faith has the audacity to say ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’.

Difficult hours may be upon us today, or this week, or this summer.  In decision, in change, in struggle, in loss, in despair.  Faith isn’t faith, in a way, until and unless it is all you have to go on.  Jesus meets us today with a word of hope.  In a nature parable, in the chosen medium of his diction.   Watch.  Take heart.  Look.  Listen.  You matter.  You count.  You are for real.  You can do this.  You can make a difference for good, in what you say, in what you do, in what you choose, in where you go.  Sometimes, by the dominical saying before us today, it is the little things, these very little things, that are hints of faith, and that make, over long time, manifold difference.

A grain of mustard seed.  Sometimes a bit of the future is hidden in a little change.  In your marriage or family life, is there one small change for the better which might lead to a great harvest later on?  In your work life, is there one small change you could engineer for the better, which might lead to a great harvest later on?  In your community life, is there one small change which, by odd and untraceable influences, might make all the difference over the long haul?  In your personal life, is there one summer alteration, one slight step forward, that might with the gathering momentum of time and season, pave the way for a peace that passes understanding, a meadow into which you can go in and out and find pasture, a joy that is closer and closer to becoming complete?  Think about it.

With what may we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

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

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

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We Are Family

June 7th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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Mark 3:20-35

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“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5: 5)

Ride On

At conference, over lunch, a pastor from Buffalo told us about children at church camp.  One 9 year old in pig-tails chose horse camp last year.  I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp.  We do.  But on Monday she fell off, or was frightened or something.  She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride.  Her counselor just kept on encouraging.  Friday was the rodeo.  I guess that is horse camp graduation.  All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo.  Dawn broke on Friday, as it does.  I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo.  The girl in pig-tails put herself on the horse.  This was an old horse, not American Pharaoh. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones.  First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed.   But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes.  Then she looked up.  Then she sat up.  Then she leaned back.  Then she straightened her back.  Then she dug her knees into horse flesh.  Then she clicked her tongue.  Then she slapped the reins.  The old glue factory mare plodded along.  But the jockey beamed.  She waved to the crowd.  She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement.  She rode around the circle again.  And again.  And again.  She wouldn’t stop.  The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule.  With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think, later that day, about encouragement.  A few years ago somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day.  A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs.   The right fielder’s dad tried not to come.  He was just terrible at baseball.  First he said he had to work.  Then a trip was planned.  Then he felt ill.  But his son kept after him.  Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply lousy batter.  He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young.  Now he was bald.  And his glasses were thick, very thick.  And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch.  The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm.  His son, though, was not to be stymied.   Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death.  Anyone’s.  But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Not a breath of wind.  72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale.  It could have been San Diego.   Distraught, Dad went.  The dreaded moment came, his “ups”.  He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago.  He thought of running.  He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated.  All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.”  He took a ball, and stood tall.  “I know you can!”  He took a strike and felt a little better.  “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.”  Over the plate came a fast straight pitch.  Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base?  Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses.  He felt good.  Behind him, from right field, a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

After thirty years of losses one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals.   It is a mystery how this happened.  A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded.    They grew steadily in ability and confidence.  They failed and lost, and in this they learned.   Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too.  Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court.  It was something to behold.  The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes.  Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players.  He thanked them for their willingness to play.  He honestly commended their improvement.  He admitted how much he enjoyed their company.  Then he challenged them to rise to the post-season challenge.  They did.  He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do –be like 43”.  Be like 43.  Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.


One October my brother and I trained to run in the Washington DC Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula.  The day before I had breakfast with two dear friends, encouragers they, at the Pentagon City Ritz Carlton, infamous in another, Presidential and relational connection.  Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning.  I thought I was ready.  I was wrong.  Maybe it was the driving 40 degree rain, or maybe I was just older than I thought.  My brother finished more than an hour before I did.  I hit the wall at mile 16.   In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, cradlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards.  It was not pretty.  Somehow though, I finished.  In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters.  I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt.  It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!”   It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!”  It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!”  But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!”   The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is.  I made it to the Iwo Gima monument.  My son and I bade farewell to my brother and we drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

A Real Community

At dawn I was thinking of our President and Provost who were here a few weeks ago.  They led and read in service.  Mostly, though, they listened and watched.  Their presence encouraged us.  Then they had some kind things to say.  On email, this week, from afar we received a kind encouragement.  In a note this week, from a visitor last week, we received a kind encouragement.  They said, all the above said, in a word, “good for you.”

It takes a lot of love to build and maintain the community of faith.  A worship service doesn’t just happen by accident or magic or dream.  You build it.

It takes someone to print the bulletin.  Good for you.

It takes someone to bake the bread.  Good for you.

It takes someone to rock and hug babies.  Good for you.

It takes someone to send notes to shut-ins.  Good for you.

It takes someone to usher.  Good for you.

It takes someone to visit the ill.  Good for you.

It takes someone to write the e newsletter.  Good for you.

It takes someone to go to meetings.  Good for you.

It takes someone to speak.  Good for you.

It takes someone to listen.  Good for you.

It takes someone to help others up the stairs.  Good for you.

It takes someone to recruit someone for all the above.  Good for you.

It takes work, and a decision to role out of bed on Sunday and come.

If you think marriage is hard, try church.

A question, respectful but serious, for us:  how are we ever going to grapple together with the great, tragic and unsolved problems of our time, without real community?  How will we find the courage and strength to wrestle ahead with the Tsarnaev verdict, with the balances of security and freedom, with police protection and the protection of our urban youth, with the environment and the middle east and the distribution of wealth and education, without a restorative community of meaning, belonging and empowerment?  For all these issues, the real point of departure, this said with respect and love is this:  where are you on Sunday at 11am?

All of us serve better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar apparently and beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans, in chapter 5.  Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime.  Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter.  Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart.  This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ.  The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love:  Alexander snf the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation.  The great peaks of spirit do too:  Dionysius the Areopagite,  Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila.  Love is not for the simple, only.  Love is for the wise.  One of our dear friends, a poet, Carol, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago:  we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans:  1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless, heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive Paul’s basic terms in this central high peak, chapter 5:  faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ;  peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers and conveys and conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  So Mark 3 similarly acclaims, after its several apocalyptic terms (Beelzebub, demons, Satan, house divided, strong man, and the unclean spirit) it is the will of God, the divine love, and love’s outworking in life, that make us together, family.  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Our business here is dying.  Life is about learning to die.  Call it, with the ancient church, meditatio mortis.   How are we ever going to manage?  Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

John Knox: ‘to be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is , to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn’

It is Love alone that justifies.  Love alone that brings peace.  Love alone that provides space in grace.  Love alone that hints at glory.  Love alone that outlasts suffering.  Love alone that is stronger than death.  Love alone that stoops to reach out for the weak and lost.  Love alone that  bleeds on your behalf.  Love alone that reconciles enemies.

To our young adults, our millennial generation, so searingly formed in 9/11 and the Great Recession, we might say, love alone has the grace and power savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive.  It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die, better when we’re loved.

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

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

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

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Sweet Spirit

May 31st, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 3:1-17

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Strange Spirit

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.

Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience.  Spirit involves reason and experience.  A question for you, day by day as mortality approaches, is whether you can find the courage to trust your own experience and whether you can find the capacity to rely on your own reason.  Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available.  But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed.

We feel a measure of this spirit every year at Commencement.  Especially in one of the latest and very smallest of graduation exercises each year.   Monday last week, May 18, was a gracious sun kissed beautiful Boston day.    The morning was cool and bright, gracious and breezy, with more than a hint of salt in the sea air.  Gracious and salty, as the Bible says our speaking ought to be:  ‘let your speech be gracious, yet seasoned with salt’.

19 young women and men stood up, in Faneuil Hall here in Boston, the cradle of liberty.  They stood to take a vow, to make an oath.  And though their numbers and their simple ceremony were not as large as the great winds of pageantry on Nickerson field, or traditional liturgy in Marsh Chapel, or hooding and hand shaking in the 17 schools and colleges in the days preceding, there is something in this spirited moment, small and modest, that takes the measure of all the others.  As if, with these 19, the question is posed for all the rest, whether what we are doing is worthy, and worthy of these few.

With their loved ones all around, they promise to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States—if need be, with their lives.   In the quiet, among families and friends, there are waves of tears, waves like those lapping at the shoreline a few hundred feet away.   With reason, and in their experience, they are bearing witness to a hard decision.  So tears flow. ‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’ (A Heschel).   Every year this is the smallest but the finest moment in all the graduation ceremonies at BU.  Stumbling in tears and emotion, loved ones place shoulder boards upon the newly minted Army second lieutenants.  It is awkward to figure out how to button these shoulder boards–but the fumbling is more about water and eyes and a spirit moment.  Water and spirit. And then the photos of the 19—male and female, black and white, short and tall, gay and straight.  It is an induction utterly and fully inclusive.  And a prayer and song and a salute.  And it is beautiful, and powerful.

Nicodemus finds himself, at night, in such a spirited moment.

The Jesus of John counsels Nicodemus to be born of spirit and water, to be born from above, to be like the wind.

Wind at midnight.  Wind from the sea.  Summer wind came blowing in.  The wind blows where it wills.  Wind of God.

Nicodemus appears two other times in the Fourth Gospel, two tantalizing entries into the flow of the Gospel.   He is there to remind us of our growth in spirit.   Our understanding of Jesus’ teaching with Nicodemus, his later appearances remind us, requires the whole gospel.  Especially when it comes to spirit, strange spirit, John Spirit, Night Spirit, Sweet Spirit.

The strangest of strange outcroppings of Spirit in all of Scripture is located on the windswept steppe of John 14, the ice covered snow peak of the Bible, the haunted moonscape of planet Gospel.  Once you have ascended John to the last discourse, John 14ff, you are clearly in a strange, strange land and landscape.   The venerable preacher who originally spoke to the late first century community in Ephesus (say) if nothing else had absolute confidence in his own experience.  It lead him, and thus his church, to establish a different religion, what became later emerging Christianity.  He did not let the door hit him as he swung out. Here, Nicodemus.  Here, a Samaritan Woman.  Here, blind man healed.  Here, Lazarus—raised.  Here, Beloved Disciple.  Here, Thomas.  Here, Logos. Here, especially, Spirit, by another name.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you…These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you.  But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

Spirit in John

John had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament:  Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet.  But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned.   In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord.  He sang: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.   One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them.  No parousia.  Paraclete.

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet to admit.  My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’ emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant.  But when we get to the summit, John 14 and following, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us.

Notice that the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not.  Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies.  Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those whose memory may slip a little).  Notice that Spirit stands over against  what  John calls ‘world’ here—another dark mystery in meaning.  Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit.

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail.  The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of false but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul.  Trust your memory and when you cannot create a new memory.  The Pastoral Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure:  presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition.   We need memory.  We need structure.  Neither can hold a candle to Spirit.  That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or anything else can not ever fully offer, Paraclete provides.  By Spirit we hear the word God.  God reveals by Spirit.  God self-reveals by Spirit.  Here the stakes are very high.

Again, Raymond Brown:  This is the ultimate self-revelation of how the word of God gets translated as God.  To a community living in time and space, the Spirit of Jesus is proving the world wrong.  People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82).

Night Spirit

When we come to Nicodemus, we come with our own reason and experience, like that of the great poet Henry Vaughn.

Henry Vaughn lived from 1622 to 1695.  He fought on the Royalist side during the great war.  (Vaughn is known as one of the best followers and imitators of  George Herbert.)  In 1649, Charles I executed Oliver Cromwell.  The Church of England was disestablished and the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed.  Vaughn lived during a dark time, and his poetry evokes his time.  He recalls the great Pseudo-Dionysus and the Cloud of Unknowing.  He celebrates night and the darkness of God, in a way that connects truly to our time as well.   It is no accident that he bases this poem on Nicodemus at night.

The Night

Through that pure Virgin Shrine

That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon

That men might look and live as glow-worms shine

And face the moon:

Wise Nicodemus saw such light

As made him know his God by night.


Most blest believer he!

Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes

Thy long expected healing wings could see,

When thou didst rise,

And what can nevermore be done,

Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!


O who will tell me, where

He found thee at that dead and silent hour!

What hallowed solitary ground did bear

So rare a flower,

Within whose sacred leaves did live

The fullness of the Deity


No mercy seat of gold,

No dead and dusty Cherub, nor carved stone,

But his own living works did my Lord hold

And lodge alone;

Where trees and herbs did watch and peep

And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.


Dear night! This world’s defeat;

The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;

The day of Spirits; my soul’s calm retreat

Which none disturb!

Christ’s progress and his prayer time;

The hours to which high Heaven doth chime.


God’s silent, searching flight:

When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all

His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;

His still, soft call;

His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,

When Spirits their fair kindred catch.


Were all my loud evil days

Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark Tent,

Whose peace but by some Angel’s wing or voice

Is seldom rent;

Then I in Heaven all the long year

Would keep, and never wander here.


But living where the sun

Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire

Themselves and others, I consent and run

To every mire,

And by this world’s guiding light,

Err more than I can do by night.


There is in God (some say)

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear;

O for that night! Where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Gospel According to Elmo

May 24th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15

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Norman Rockwell could have painted the scene: Two parents and a child at the dining table, hands held, heads bowed, thanks given: for home, for family, for food. At the end of the prayer the parents say a solemn amen. Then, with gusto, verve, and vigor the child enunciates: Elmo!

Now, for most parents, this might be cause for amusement or even delight. But when one of the two parents is a priest, the thought that immediately crosses the mind is “Oh dear, what will the congregation think!?” Upon further reflection, however, there are certainly far worse models of God roaming around in human psyches than that of the soft, red, furry Sesame Street character Elmo. Perhaps this episode might even make a good sermon illustration!

To be sure, Elmo wins the sweetheart award on Sesame Street. Big Bird is anxious, Grover is inept, Cookie Monster is fixated, and Oscar the Grouch is, well, a grouch. Elmo is sweet. Elmo wants everyone to be kind to one another. Elmo asks forgiveness when responsible for something going awry. Elmo is deeply attentive to relationships and feelings and the wellbeing of everyone in the neighborhood. Elmo assiduously avoids pronouns, speaking exclusively in the third person.

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the arrival of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter and the birthday of the church. The liturgical color of the Holy Spirit is red. Is not Elmo, the red Muppet, very much the embodiment of what God the Spirit is for us? The Holy Spirit is the comforter, who reconciles and renews, and the advocate, who attends to the building up of the community of the church.

Our poor, soiled, broken world is desperately in need of such reconciliation and renewal. Our world in which a train crashes, quenching the lives of eight and derailing the lives of hundreds. Our world in which felons on Wall Street seek to impoverish instead of enrich their clients, saying that “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Our world in which radical Islamists rape women and children in the name of God in order to produce more radical Islamists. Our world in which the president of a university cannot even bear to look at, let alone shake the hand of, a graduating student because she carries a mattress. Yes, we desperately need an advocate and a comforter.

Of course, all of these situations, and the very predicament of the human condition if we are being honest with ourselves, are hardly unambiguous. Ambiguity makes the ministry of the Holy Spirit hard to discern; it makes the Gospel according to Elmo hard to apply. How, for example, are we to balance kindness with justice? How can we ask forgiveness when doing so requires admitting culpability, which could get us sued? How are we to attend to relationships, to the feelings and wellbeing of all in our community, when our own feelings and wellbeing are far from secure? How are we to speak when seemingly any word we might say will inevitably offend, hurt, or otherwise piss off someone?

Human life is ambiguous. Consider Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Michael was unarmed. Michael was black. Michael’s family said he was a good man. Michael stole cigarillos and shoved a store clerk. Michael was wrestling with an experience of the divine, and his rap lyrics revealed his struggle to reconcile an experimentum tremendum et fascinans. Consider Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Eric was unarmed. Eric was black. Eric’s friends described him as a “gentle giant” and a “neighborhood peacemaker.” Police approached Eric on suspicion of his selling loose cigarettes that had not been taxed. Eric was unable to work as a horticulturalist due to health problems. Consider Freddie Gray, who was arrested and placed in the back of a police van under the supervision of six police officers, and by the time he arrived at the police station, he was dead. Freddie was arrested for carrying a small knife. Freddie was black. Freddie was remembered at his funeral as loving, caring, and respectful. Freddie had been involved in twenty criminal court cases at the time of his death. Freddie was a childhood victim of lead poisoning. Three ambiguous lives. But if living an ambiguous life is a crime punishable by death, then who among us can be saved?

In addition to the plague of ambiguity, the human condition is also plagued by the inability to cope with ambiguity. Just as Cookie Monster fixates on cookies, we human beings fixate on the worst parts of one another and reduce each other to those parts. Much of the focus on the personal lives of Michael, Eric, and Freddie in the media fixated on their criminal pasts and the criminal circumstances that caused them to encounter the police. In most cases, these three men were reduced to being criminals. Clearly, thugs one and all, and there can be nothing ambiguous about a thug. This fixation is only exacerbated by the projection and transference of the taken-for-granted criminality of black persons onto each and every black life and black body even as white lives benefit from the projection and transference of the taken-for-granted competence, integrity, and nobility of white persons onto each and every white body. Any perceived fault, no matter how inconsequential, makes a black person a criminal, while white privilege covers a multitude of sins.

Reduced to criminality, Michael, Eric, and Freddie, among so many others, have been cast as monsters. Their faults have been taken as constitutive of their whole being. Regardless of any good they might have done in their lives, regardless of the love they might have shared with family and friends, regardless of the circumstances they may have endured, the sum total of their lives is assigned the label of monster. Now a monster is an aberration, a sign of something deeply wrong with the world. Monsters are evil. Monsters are morally deformed. Monsters do not belong, cannot belong, must never belong because their very being is incompatible with the goodness of the world and the moral order.

It is under this banner of rooting out and destroying monsters that millions of black men have been disappeared from American society. The New York Times got their reporting wrong here. They report that there are 1.5 million missing black men. Further, they report that “more than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.” The problem is not with their statistics. It is with their rhetoric. They make it sound like there is no cause for these absences or that these black men simply disappeared of their own volition. Poof!

NO! Here, for once, it is necessary and right to use the passive voice. These black men have been disappeared. They did not disappear all on their own; their disappearance was done to them. Because they were identified as monsters they were killed or incarcerated. It is convenient for us in northern North America to think that the phenomenon of “the disappeared” is a result of the metaphysical realism of Latin America. On this weekend when Oscar Romero is beatified we are attentive to the pervasive plague of disappeared persons throughout most of the twentieth century in Latin America. As it turns out, the phenomenon is home grown as well.

You too are part monster. You too have monstrous parts of yourself. We all do. Boston College philosopher Richard Kearney notes that the English words hostility and hospitality share a common root in the Latin word hostis, which in turn has the ambivalent meaning of either enemy or host. What hostility and hospitality have in common is that they are both possible responses to strangers, to others, to those we have not encountered before, to those we cannot account for, to those we do not understand. Hospitality assumes the best but is prepared for the worst whereas hostility assumes the worst and cannot comprehend anything else. We have the capacity for both, for hostility and for hospitality, within each of us.

Right now Oskar Gröning is on trial for three hundred thousand counts of accessory to murder for his activities during the Shoah, the Holocaust. This may very well be the last trial of a Holocaust-era Nazi. How is it that so many people could be convinced to participate in such cruelty, such inhumanity, such systemic evil, such gross monstrosity? It turns out that we all can. We are all susceptible to the ideas that if others are doing it, it must be okay, that if an authority is ordering it that it must be okay, that we are not the monsters, they are, and that the monstrousness of others justifies our own monstrousness in return.

The conviction that we are not in fact monsters creates the need to somehow cope with the experience of monstrosity in life. A typical human response is to create a scapegoat. In ancient Greece, a criminal or poor person was cast out of society in appeasement of natural disasters, which were taken of signs of divine displeasure. Some things never change, it seems. In ancient Israel, the sins of the Israelites were ceremonially placed on an actual goat, which was then driven out into the desert. Both cases are example of the human inability to cope with our own monstrosity and so the need to cast blame elsewhere.

Here in the city of Boston we know something about monsters. For the past five months our city has relived the monstrous actions and reactions of the 2013 Marathon Bombing. We have collectively empathized with the pain and suffering of the victims of that day, including Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi. We have explored the motivations, influences, and acts of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of thirty counts stemming from the events of that day and sentenced to death for six of them.

In the coming weeks Dean Hill will have more to say about Tsarnaev and his sentence, but today we must ask whether sentencing him to death, or even to life imprisonment without any pretense of rehabilitation, has as much to do with his being a monster as it does with our own need to insist that we are not monsters? Surely a central function of scapegoating, of shifting the locus of the monstrous, is to assure that monstrosities reside elsewhere and not with us. No, we are not monsters, we have killed all of the monsters. No, we are not monsters, we have a special place for the monsters over there. We are not monsters because we did not do anything as bad as what he did. We are good, he is evil, no ambiguity, end of story.

Do not forget, friends, that the Holy Spirit can be monstrous too. The Holy Spirit is not scaled to human life, to human interests, to human desires, to human ideas and concepts. In explaining the chaos resulting from the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, Peter identified the coming of the Holy Spirit with the words of the prophet Joel:

And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Our Psalm affirms that the creation of all things is accomplished in the sending forth of the Holy Spirit, including the creation of the Leviathan, a great sea monster often associated with Satan himself. Contrary to calling us to cast out the monsters from our midst, the Holy Spirit calls us to convert hostility to hospitality and to recognize God in the playful sporting of the Leviathan.

This vision of God as wild, capricious, and dangerous is hardly comfortable. The conversion of hostility to hospitality requires resisting some very basic human impulses in order to attend to the unruly, uncouth, disruptive, monstrous presence of God. Christian faith in fact teaches that the inability to resist the impulse to hostility is sinful, and moreover is the very sinfulness that resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion, the crucifixion of the unruly, uncouth, disruptive, monstrous incarnation of God. But we have not learned. We continue to fail to convert hostility to hospitality. We persist in the sinfulness of hostility that cannot embrace the Gospel call to kindness, forgiveness, attentiveness to relationships and the wellbeing of others.

And so on this feast of Pentecost I ask you: Shall we then also crucify the Holy Spirit? The Gospel of John promises that the Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” In spite of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we persist in sin, unrighteousness, and judgment. We continue to cast others into the totalizing category of monsters while failing to recognize our own capacity and actual practice of monstrosity. Just as human sinfulness, unrighteousness, and judgment resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus, is it unreasonable to wonder if we are not, in our persistence in hostility, participating even now in the crucifixion of the Holy Spirit?

For much of Christian history, the Holy Spirit has been identified with the church, largely on the basis of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today. Theologically, the idea is that the Holy Spirit calls the church into being to enact God’s ongoing work in the world. The problem is that too often the church becomes convinced that the logic of this theological view works in both directions such that not only does the Spirit call the church to enact the work of God, but also whatever work the church does is therefore the will of God.

Anathema! The church is just as capable of distorting, rejecting, ignoring, and even inventing what the Holy Spirit calls it to be and do as any other flawed human institution. Thankfully, quite a few people have come to realize that this is just what too many churches have done and continue to do. Just last week the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life reported that the percentage of the population who do not identify with any particular denomination has grown by over 3.5% in the past seven years, from 12.1% in 2007 to 15.8% in 2014. The hypocrisy of too many churches in claiming to know the will of God, who is a saint and who is a monster, is increasingly incredible and intolerable to many. Thanks be to God! Are these folks giving up on God? Perhaps, but I would venture to guess that it is more likely that they are giving up on the flawed human institutions that hypocritically claim to have a handle on God and attempt to tell the Holy Spirit that she may blow where she wills so long as it is through the eye of their needle. Churches too can be and sometimes are monsters.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today: the gospel according to Elmo. Do not forget that Elmo too is a monster. If you look on his Wikipedia page, under “species,” Elmo is listed as a “Sesame Street Muppet Monster.” Like the call of the Holy Spirit, the gospel according to Elmo to be kind, to forgive, to attend to relationships and the wellbeing of others, to convert hostility to hospitality, to confess that we are usually wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment, is monstrous good news. From the perspective of human brokenness, ambiguity, and inability to cope therewith, this good news must seem a monster. Shall we crucify Elmo? Shall we nail his furry little hands and furry little feet to a cross, as monstrous human sinfulness brought about the crucifixion of Jesus, whose Gospel was just as unruly, uncouth, disruptive, monstrous as Elmo’s? For my daughter’s sake, I pray we do not.

Shall we crucify the Holy Spirit? Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand and we are wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because we do not believe Jesus; about righteousness, because Christ ascended to the Father and we see him no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world is condemned. Convert your hostility to hospitality: the gospel according to Elmo, and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC +, University Chaplain for Community Life

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The Marsh Spirit

May 3rd, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 15:1-8

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The Marsh Spirit…


We are a learning community, a teaching and learning community of faith.   As branches to a vine, we attach ourselves to Way, Truth and Life, Learning, Virtue, Piety, Knowing, Doing, Being.  Notice the great teachers held with permanence in our Connick stained glass windows.  Select your favorite:  Comenius, Alexander Graham Bell, Osmon Baker, Borden Parker Bowne.  Perhaps best Augustine of Hippo, whose heart was restless until it found rest in Him.   Theological Inquiry asks about God, the nature of God, the essence of God.   Our services this year, in pursuit of spirit, have utilized a prayer response, in that spirit, written by Robert Cummings Neville.  We feted this week Ray Lee Hart, and his teaching and his scholarship.  We heard again Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty.  Learn something every day, at whatever age!  Read a book a day!  Yours is a spirit of inquiry.


We are a singing community, those who sing to pray twice, qui cantat bis orat.  As branches to a vine, we attach ourselves to Way, Truth and Life, Melody, Harmony, and Diction.  Notice the musicians about you.  Carved into the chancel wood.  And about me.  Here is Handel.  Here is Bach.  And last weekend we heard Handel.  And two weeks before, Bach.  And in between?  Gospel!  Our ISGC sang, filled the room, mid April.  I have in my possession photographs of the dinner our church matriarchs—Sandra, Cecelia, Carolyn, Melvena—served the choir before their performance.  Not just pulpit, nor just sermon, not just preaching, nor just proclamation:  yours is a musical spirit, a spirit of hymnody.  Sing when the spirit says sing! Sing lustily!  Sing with the saints of glory!  Yours is a spirit of hymnody.


We are a remembering community, a place with history, a future but also a past.  As branches to vine, we attach ourselves to Way, Truth, and Life, and Justice, Righteousness, and the better angels of our nature.   Stands down there, as I walk toward him, Abraham Lincoln.  Those who recommend slavery might try it for themselves.  Those who ignore brutality might think, try to imagine, being bound hand and foot, and thrown headlong into the back of a closed van and driven not to three but four separate places, and to arrive, at last, dead.  We began this school year with a forum on Ferguson, right here.  Autumn sermons and winter addressed the need ‘to strive on to finish the work we are in’.  We read Jesus and the Disinherited.  Our summer preacher series acclaims The Beloved Community.  We learned about business ethics from our esteemed Questrom Dean.  Many of you have commented on the blog about Ferguson, slavery, response, and the need for investment in community, particularly worshipping community, as we slog on toward freedom.  Cornell Brooks, head of the NAACP spoke here in Marsh Chapel in November.  He will speak for us again two weeks from today, Baccalaureate Sunday, right here in Marsh Chapel.  Where else would or could possibly place yourself, social location being so important, at 11am on May 17?  You will want to be here, right here!  Many things are optional.  Not worship.  Worship is not optional for the person of faith.  Come Sunday, Come!  Here.  Yours is a spirit of recollection.


We are a longsuffering, a patient community.  As branches to vine we attach ourselves to Way, Truth, and Life, Creativity, Organization, Expanding the circle of freedom.  Daniel Marsh has his own window in his own chapel.  And well he might.  It took him a generation to get to build the building his most wanted, this one.  He came in 1926.  Marsh was built in 1949—after arrival, after depression, after World War.  At last.  Labor Omnia Vincit.  Think about that, working for 25 years at last to get where you want to go.  Academic communities do tend to have lengthened cycle times, it is true.  But all of us benefit from patience.  You come for prayer before worship, and patiently sit.  You pause for postlude after worship, and patiently sit.  Friday, honoring the Hubert Humphrey scholars, we heard Humphrey’s niece speak, in ‘the Castle’, about his patience.  Hubert Humphrey.  His voice is one we need today.  ‘There will be no hedging.  We need come out of the long dark shadow of states’ rights and into the bright shining sunlight of human rights’.  That is Philadelphia, 1948.  Could someone whisper that to the nine justices in Washington today?  It is every bit as apt.  ‘People have a right to health, education, employment, protection, and a peaceful old age.’  Humphrey worked on Medicare for 20 years before its adoption in the mid sixties.  Yes, he could excoriate his opponents:  ‘uh uh, o no, go slow, veto—that is the way of our opponents’, he could rant.  But he also had patience.  To build coalitions.  To create alternative structures.  To legislate.  He worked at it.  No surprise.  He was a Minnesota Methodist, grandson of Methodist preachers.  And he lives on this campus, in the program given his name.  I mean he really lives in these scholars from all over the globe!  Yours is a spirit of patience.


We are a living community, tracing the spirit of life, in this and every new dawn.  Even when weary feet refuse to climb.  As branches to vine, we cling to life, the spirit of life, Way, Truth and Life, Children, Students, All.  It is the life of Jesus Christ, the Living One, which is our true vine, and we the branches.  James Bashford—bishop, college president, preacher, watches us from his balcony window every Sunday.  I have stood beside his in Oak Grove Cemetery, Delaware, Ohio.  A kind man.  Our commencement speaker will be Meredith Vieira.  You know of her roots in Rhode Island.  You know of her honest, happy form of journalism.  You know her face and voice.  Her celebrity.  But we think of her differently, in our family.  She is a close friend of a close friend.  Our step father, who adored her, and who has been ill, until his recent death, received, unexpectedly, a signed photograph from her, a lengthy note, a personal greeting, which stands still above his desk.  Ministry is service.  Ministry is to place oneself at the disposal of others.  Ministry is to give life by giving life, beginning with time and kindness.  Don’t you have a phone call you might make?  Don’t you have a letter you might send?  Don’t you have a visit you might offer?  Don’t you have a check you might write?  Yours is a spirit of life.


We are a secular community, tracing the sacred in and within the secular.  As branches to vine we affirm that nothing human is foreign to us, and hold onto Way, Truth, Life, Community, Fellowship, Culture.  Notice The Star of David.  In his spirit, stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue, wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture.  Christ who brings not just theological reformation but also cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community. You honor both the lectionary of the church and the lectionary of the culture.  You know that there are many ways of keeping faith, as our THIS I BELIEVE Sunday again this year will emphasize.  Our Hillel community at BU is in a season of resurgence, in part through a reconnection to the community, the society, the culture of Boston and Boston University, through its Director, David Raphael.  Yours is a spirit of secularity.


We are a rigorous community, unwilling to let the pale cast of thought completely overcome the native hue of resolution.  As branches to vine, we cling to Way, Truth and Life, Courage, Change, Heart.  One of my favorite windows is that of the four chaplains, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, who gave their life jackets and their lives that others might survive a naval tragedy in WW II.  Their tradition in chaplaincy, and in self-giving, was continued here a generation later by James Carroll.  You know him as a writer—Boston Globe columnist, esteemed novelist, historian and cultural critic.  But as he told us this week, he really came alive here at BU, and found his way here.  He left the priesthood, but not the church.  He married and raised children and grandchildren, but also stayed wedded to his faith.   He directly and valiantly opposes religious wrong, but also rejoices in religious right (though not THE religious right!).  He was our Catholic Chaplain here for six years, through 1974.  With Robert Hamill, third Marsh Chapel Dean, he brought the weekly Catholic Mass from Morse Auditorium to this nave, where it lives still today.  Couples, one Protestant and one Catholic, can come to Marsh Chapel for 11am Protestant worship and 12:30pm Catholic Mass, and be home by 2pm.   Your remember his elegant pastoral sermon here, for the class of 1970, in 2010.  With rigor he has followed in the footsteps of the Master.  And, as he reminded us, God is Compassionate Love.   You can believe in God as Compassionate Love!  You can worship at that altar.  And you do.  Yours is a spirit of rigor.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Morning Prayer

15 prayers for the class of ‘15”

May you finish your papers, wake up for your finals, and pass your courses

May you find a job when you are hunting for one, and be found by a calling when you are not (hunting for one)

May you remember your mom on Mothers’ Day, nine days from today

May you recall that there are two ways to be wealthy:  have a lot of money, or, have  very few needs.

May you honestly face death, as together we did two springs ago, and so discover the precious value of every breath, as together we also did two springs ago.

May you, with the Greeks, see in tragedy the seedbed of nobility.

May you bring a sense of purpose to days and events which lack both (sense and purpose).

May your return your overdue library books.  May you find your overdue library books.

May you with Samuel Johnson keep your friendships in good repair, with John Wesley and Mother Theresa remember the poor, with Lord Baden Powell do a good turn daily, and with Bill Coffin take yourself lightly so that you may fly, like the angels, and with Martin Luther King have a dream

May you as a generation live a common hope,  find the wisdom to design a better world, acquire the power to build a better world, and have the goodness to want a better world.

May you have a life long, rapturous, torrid love affair—with Boston, dear old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, and bring your first born child to Fenway Park, and remember the radiant happiness of this Senior Breakfast all your days.

May life be good to you, and may you be good to life.

My dear ones, my dear friends, who so resemble my own dear children, may you be safe, may you be well, may you be happy.

May it be so.

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

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Easter Remembrance

April 26th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

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John 10:11-18

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What if the power of Easter, the point of Easter is more about our past than about our future?

What if Easter, and the gospel of resurrection, means more to us about our remembrance than about our expectation, more about our recollection than our anticipation, more about whence than whither, more about what God has done than about what God will do?

You may find this an odd, or contrarian point of view.  After all, you rightly reason, the promise of Easter is the promise of new life, eternal life, resurrection life, hope, joy, and peace in Christ whom God raises from the dead.  All, seemingly, in the future.  Fair enough.  But consider, for a brief few minutes this morning, Easter remembrance.   Consider, if you will, what Easter means for what has been, what Easter means for your remembrance.

So many people can live chained to a broken remembrance, to a mistaken remembrance, to a Lenten remembrance. (Lent is good discipline, but life is not meant for Lent.  Life is meant for Easter.) So many can live caught in a bear trap of implacable memory, trauma, or hurt.  So many live haunted by ghosts of days and nights and people and harm from the past.   Easter comes around once a year to free us from the past, not in forgetfulness but in resurrection, not in a futile attempt to change the facts, but in a spiritual discipline of right remembrance.

Proust and Memory

As some of you know, in the summer of 2003 I went with a friend to a country book store, and for 25cents bought the first 1200 page half of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  About six years later I spent another quarter at the same shop for the second 1200 page half, of which I have now read 500 pages.  Proust tests memory.  He probes our habits and deceits and perspectives with regard to remembrance.  It is detailed, lively, and exhausting to read, for me, about 3 pages or so a couple of times a week.  That is plenty.  But the project itself is life long, and may take in my case a lifetime of reading.  Proust wrote:  But sometimes the future is latent in us without our knowledge and our words which we suppose to be false forecast an imminent reality (II, 31).

The author of the Gospel of John is also, and mightily, engaged in remembrance.  Imagine a home, in Ephesus, 60 years after Golgotha, at night, candle lit, with forty people present.  Prayer, singing, a shared meal, and quiet all precede a moment of speaking.  Then in remembrance, somewhere near the year 90ad, 60 years after the first Easter, a preacher stands in the room and speaks.  He speaks for Jesus.  He speaks in the Spirit.  His voice is that of the Risen One.  He says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.  And in that utterance, that prophetic utterance, a new remembrance is born.  The community of the beloved disciple determined that their original memory of Jesus was wrong, or not right enough, or not big enough to describe what He had meant for them, become for them, revealed to them.  They loved him and they remembered him and–they worshipped him.   His personal presence, I AM THE—Way, Truth, Life, Shepherd, Door, Resurrection, Bread of Life, all—gave them a new way to remember, a better, truer, clearer memory.

I wonder, this Easter tide, as you think of the Good Shepherd watching over his beloved in love, as we too are to do with each other and for each other, though not to each other, I wonder if there is some maturation in memory, your memory, emerging for you? What is back there holding you back?  What is rattling around loose in the back of your mind that needs minding, or mending? Is there something you want to leave behind, to let go?  Or something you want to restore, to reclaim, to recast?  Sometimes our hoarding of things is minor compared to our needless and useless hoarding of cluttered, disordered, mistaken memories. And sometimes our memories need a spring cleaning or two.  It is not a matter of forgetting.  It is a matter of placing things in an Easter light.

How?  In a morning quiet prayer.  In an honest chat with a trusted friend.  In a private moment of pastoral conversation.  In a more formal, planned hour of counseling, of therapy, of spiritual grief work.  In worship, come Sunday.

Martyn on Minear

Some years ago one of my teachers did so, as he remembered one of his own teachers.  He shared the memory with me in 2007.  Sometimes, when I remember to, I take it out and look it over again. This is J L Martyn preaching at Yale at the funeral of Paul Minear. (Memorial Service for Paul S. Minear, 3/24/07;A Personal Word of Thanksgiving   (J. Louis Martyn))

In Paul Minear’s testimony there was no

pious escapism from every-day life.

There was in fact a stark realism.

But it was emphatically a double realism.

A disturbing realism about the multiple forces that choke the life

out of huge numbers of God’s children,

and a daring realism about the power of God

to bless those who mourn,

and to make even the paralytic stand up and walk.


Let me give one example.

As he was teaching us to read the Bible,

he spoke to us in unforgettable terms about time.

Time was clearly a Biblical subject that fascinated Paul, and

his fascination with that subject proved to be contagious.

How are past, present, and future related to one another?


We often think about our present as the child of our past.

And to some degree the past is the generative parent of the present.

But what, then, do we actually mean,

when in churches such as this one

we speak to God in the Lord’s Prayer,

saying “Let thy kingdom come”?

Could it be that when we pray the Lord’s prayer,

with that clause —  “Let thy Kingdom come”  –

we confess the power of God’s grace in a new way?

Is God’s grace evident precisely in its coming toward us from the future?


Are we, in God’s grace, led to sense that

the ultimately determining parent of our present is not our past

but rather God’s future?   Could it be that

we bear witness to that fact when Sunday by Sunday we say to God,

“Let thy kingdom come”?


A good number of you will remember the period in which

Rudolf Bultmann was in Germany – in fact, in Europe –

the scholar who had pointed out that

the New Testament documents reflect what many moderns call

a mythological world view.


When we read the New Testament, we encounter angels

who speak and act among human beings on earth.

We hear of demons who take up residence in certain tormented people.

We find references to Satan, to principalities and powers,

and to “the god of this world” as a powerful actor in human affairs.


Recognizing these so-called mythological elements

in the New Testament,

Bultmann devised an interpretive method

that involved what was called “demythologization.”


When this highly respected colleague came from Germany to Boston,

the local Christian theologians arranged a meeting for general discussion,

and they selected one of their own number to provide

a final focus to the conversation.  That climax came, then,

when Minear said with deep respect:


“There is between us, Mr. Bultmann, much in common.

And, as is always the case, what we have in common

makes plain the major difference between us.

You have as one of your chief concerns

to demythologize the New Testament,

while I have as one of my chief concerns

that the New Testament demythologize us.”


It was a respectful comment.

It was also a telling summary,

for in Minear’s work

the New Testament does demythologize us,

doing so in part by

its Golgotha earthquake,

that is by moving the ground under our feet

in unsettling ways,

in order to open up to us a new world,

the utterly real world,

bringing, in fact, the dawn of what the Apostle calls

God’s New Creation in Christ.

We are not afterward the same.

After 35 Years

Our experience, our own experience, is what we have, and in one sense all we have.  Your experience is meant to be honored, respected, cherished, trusted, and then given over to an Easter Remembrance.

A few weeks ago, speaking of remembrance, a note came from the church we served in Ithaca NY, beginning in 1979.  They are rehearsing their history at their 100th anniversary.  The writer is a Cornell professor’s spouse, who came into the community at that time.  They are giving a vignette in worship each week, a remembrance of things past.  My own memory of those busy years of young adulthood focuses on work, worship, activities, children born, things to do and do.  In some ways, those years stand out for overly active but not necessarily fruitful service.  But her recollection, jarring, and difficult, in its difference from my own, is an Easter remembrance, and a lesson, or a warning, about what lasts, in memory:

#12, April 19:  The Chapel was served by part time ministers until its 64th year, when Bob Hill, newly graduated from seminary, served as our very first full time minister from 1979-81.   (Bob was, young, full of the most wonderful enthusiasm, rode his bike around the neighborhood (according to Sue Cotton), drew a young congregation and the Chapel thrived.)  Today he is Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.  I especially remember him for something only related to his ministry here, namely his presence at a performance of Brahm’s German Requiem, given by the Ithaca Community Chorus in 1981.  He stood quietly in the back of the concert hall, and wept when he heard these words:  “Behold, all flesh is as the grass, and all the goodliness of man is as the flower of grass.  For lo, the grass withers, and the flower decays.  Now therefore, be patient O my brethren unto the coming, the coming of the Lord.  See how the husbandman waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience, till he receive the early rain and the later rain.  So be YE patient also.”  (Elizabeth Mount)

Last night, here in Marsh Chapel, as the choir and collegium finished THEODORA with magnificent and mellifluous duets, with orchestral and choral flourishes, I thought again of that different memory, that different perspective in memory.   Just what are we doing here?  It may be, Marsh Chapel, that your presence, your standing presence, your presence in weeping and rejoicing, your musical and beautiful presence, here, in Easter Remembrance at least, is what matters, lasts, counts, and has meaning.

Easter invades our past, or our sense of the past, or our partial understanding of the past.


What is Easter and its mysterious power doing in your life this year?  Does this Easter tide bring a rearrangement in remembrance for you?  A willingness to let the Good Shepherd help you to let something go?  A recognition of a dimension in memory partly neglected?  An honesty about trauma but also about grace?  Has God’s future in the Easter gospel somehow invaded your past, and offered another reading, another angle of vision, another perspective?  A saving one?

It would not be the first time.  At Easter, Peter remembered his cowardice, but remembered it with courage, on which the church then was built.  Paul remembered his falsehood, but did so with a confidence in grace, on which the church was then built.  Mary remembered her blindness in the garden, but did so with a keen sight, on which a vision of a different kind of church then was built.  And you? And you and your remembrance?  And you like old Citizen Kane clutching his snow sled Rosebud?  Are you ready, right now, just now, in this here and now, to bask in the light of an Easter Remembrance?  Bask gently.  Emily Dickinson wrote:

By a departing light

We see acuter quite,

Than by a wick that stays.

There’s something in the flight

That clarifies the sight

And decks the rays…


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise


As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Paralyzing Paradoxes

April 19th, 2015 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 24:36b-48

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Good morning! It is such a pleasure to join you from the pulpit today, and I am so thankful to Dean Hill and the rest of the Marsh Chapel staff for this opportunity to be with you as a preacher. You may have felt slight déjà vu with the gospel reading that was just expertly read by my very own father, Rev. Raymond Hittinger. In fact, if I were a cruel preacher, I might put you all through a pop quiz as this week’s passage from Luke is SO similar to the passage read last week from the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of what we now celebrate as Easter Sunday. But in Luke’s account there are major differences. There is no Doubting Thomas as John describes. Instead all of the disciples share in doubt as well as fear. The disciples in John’s account are oddly not afraid when Jesus appears to them; they are joyful. Luke’s account actually seems more plausible. The disciples are more than just frightened by Jesus’ appearance, they are startled and terrified. And rightly so – dead things are supposed to stay dead. Despite Jesus’ allusions to the fact that he would fulfill the scriptures through his resurrection before his death, the disciples, like so many times before, just don’t understand what is going on.

Unlike in John’s account, it is not the disciples who ask to touch Jesus to better understand why he is there. Instead Jesus offers his hands and feet to the disciples, not only to see but to touch. Commentaries on this passage suggest that Jesus inviting the disciples to see his body is for them to recognize that it is him. The invitation for them to touch him is so there is no misunderstanding – this IS Jesus, embodied in front of them. He is not some other person or a Ghost, but is fully resurrected before them. He is a manifestation of a transitional period between the historical Jesus and his ministry on earth and the Christ of the future who will reign in the heavenly realm.

Even with this information, even in their joy of recognizing that this truly was Jesus who had just died two days previously, they were still in disbelief. They experienced an existential disruption by holding in tension the appearance of Jesus before them and the knowledge that he should be dead. While Jesus tries to comfort them by both eating and repeating the words that foreshadowed his death and resurrection, they still do not fully understand what will happen now and into the future. There are hints of the Jesus they once knew but also indications of the figure of Christ that is just beginning to form. They stand at the precipice of this liminal state, doubting and rejoicing at the same time.  Not knowing what to do next, Jesus must tell them what the Scriptures indicate will happen. The disciples are not actively participating until Jesus opens their minds to the Scriptures, but even this action is passive on their parts. Paralyzed in the paradox of fear and joy, the disciples cannot utter any words or contemplate what this reality means for their futures without Jesus.

We are a few days away from Earth Day – the time of year when we’re encouraged to be hyper-aware of our sustainable actions and to show that we care about the environment and the future of Earth.  Here at BU, our enthusiasm for bringing awareness to the environment and its crises is so great that Earth Day has been expanded into a series of events that extends a little over a week (Earth Week +, we call it). Earth Day and Earth Week celebrate the beautiful things about nature, encouraging us to learn about current environmental crises, and hopefully taking on sustainably minded actions. The celebration of Earth Day contains elements both of celebration and of apprehension, reminding us that as we embrace our interconnected existence with the rest of the planet, we also carry a large responsibility in acting in sustainable ways.

Perhaps the most pressing and in some cases contentious environmental issues in our global context today is climate change. Climate change, for some, is controversial. There are people who believe that it is not real, clinging to the argument that the climate change we are experiencing is only a natural phenomenon that is not influenced by human actions. Others hang on to climate change’s outdated moniker, “global warming” to describe it, giving the false assumption that every place on Earth must experience warmer temperatures for climate change to be true. I’m sure some of you experienced something like this during this past winter’s snow…I know I did: “So much for global warming, eh?” Or maybe you saw the video clip from C-SPAN of Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma on the floor of the Senate with a snowball back in February, arguing that because Washington D.C. was experiencing record cold temperatures, climate change could not be real. One should note that Senator Inhofe is also the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, meaning he is partially responsible for making decisions about how our country as a whole will respond to climate change. Or maybe you heard about how the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has banned the use of the phrases “global warming, climate change, and sea-level rise” to limit any unwanted attention brought to their projects, mostly as the Governor, Rick Scott, is also an avid climate change denier.

You might think that the easy connection to draw between these climate change doubters and today’s Gospel is obvious – both the disciples and these people share in disbelief over something that is right in front of them. You may go so far as to call these individuals doubting Thomases – people who feel that there just isn’t enough evidence to convince them that climate change is caused by human activity. But, I would argue that the denial experienced by the disciples is something radically different than the climate change denial that is currently present in our country. It’s a difference between carrying a tension of joy and terror which leads to disbelief on the part of the disciples, and a willful ignorance, or influenced interests, on the part of those who deny climate change.

The Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, has recently publicly stated that climate change denial is sinful, whether it is spurred by willful ignorance or for political gains. Sinful. Not wrong. Not ignorant. Not backward. But sinful. By those mentioned above either refusing to believe the facts that have been presented by scientists or being swayed by political interests, including the fossil fuel industry, they are committing sin. They are turning away from the severe impacts that climate change is creating around the world and failing to consider the larger impacts on nations that do not have the infrastructure available to address possible disasters on the horizon. They value economic gains and a continued status quo instead of facing the reality that we must make drastic changes in our ways of life to prevent further damage to the planet and to prepare ourselves for future changes in the climate. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. As the epistle writer of 1 John tells us “Sin is lawlessness.” Luther interprets the idea of sin as lawlessness as creating a stumbling block for one’s neighbor. It is insisting on one’s own way. It is failing to love one’s neighbor. This interpretation only serves to strengthen Bishop Jeffert Schori’s argument; in climate change deniers’ actions in pretending that climate change is not happening they are asserting their own way without consideration of those who may need the most help.

Climate change is not a belief. It is a reality. When asked to give her elevator pitch on climate change, science historian and Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes states the following:

“It’s simple. It’s basic physics and chemistry…that we have known since the 19th century. Carbon Dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that it’s relatively transparent to visible light, but relatively opaque to infrared. Or to make it even simpler; light comes in, heat gets trapped. So if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat gets trapped. And sooner or later, the earth has to warm up. That’s basic physics and there really isn’t any other possibility…That sooner or later has passed, and here we are.”


Dr. Oreskes cites that as early as the 1940’s and 50’s scientists were speculating that at some point, they weren’t sure when, this warming was going to take place. We’ve now hit that point of average global temperatures rising. The overall temperature rise then leads to changes in the Earth’s climate, creating new, and sometimes, more intense weather patterns. I won’t bore you with the complex science explanations of how climate change actually works in altering weather patterns (after all this is a sermon and not a lecture) but there is plenty of well-researched information available on the topic with which the majority (97%) of scientists affirm the reality of climate change.

However, just because we know that climate change is real does not always mean that we know the best way to handle its realities. Scientists predict that the impacts of climate change will be devastating for our global ecosystem, and those who live in the poorest nations will face the greatest challenges. Rising temperatures will not only affect weather patterns to create storms that will result in devastating consequences, but weather patterns will also affect people’s access to clean water, food production, and erosion or disappearance of land, especially in small island nations. Developed nations, such as the U.S., possess wealth and ability to potentially handle some of these situations, but developing nations, those which, in most cases, are least responsible for climate change, will likely feel the greatest impacts and have very little means to respond.

We are even starting to see some of the effects of climate change in our own context. As I mentioned before, we experienced the snowiest winter on record in Boston had and record low temperatures. California is experiencing a historic drought, which not only affects residents’ access to clean water, but also impacts the rest of the nation as California is the largest producer of much of the produce that the country relies on.

I traveled to California for a conference on climate change in February. Aside from my joy of escaping our snowy cold winter for sun and temperatures in the 70s, the realities of the drought hit me as soon as I arrived at the conference. The majority of the people attending lived in California, and the theme of the conference was “Why water is sacred,” pinpointing their experience of drought as an effect of climate change. After years of increasingly severe drought, the past year has been a tipping point to create the worst drought situations that California has ever seen. I soon had to alter most of my behaviors I take for granted here (but probably shouldn’t); taking no more than 2 minute showers (turning on the water to get wet, turning it off to soap up, turning it back on to rinse off), eliminating “wasteful flushing,” and overall being much more cognizant of my water usage with every interaction.

The first night there, in our very first session, many of us were devastated by its end. The presenter set forth such a picture of doom and dismay that it seemed pointless to even try to do anything to address climate change. Those who attended felt completely depressed – why did we bother to come to this conference to discuss how the church needs to respond to climate change if there’s no point? Often, when people encounter the projected shifts in climate and the devastating effects that we will most likely see in the next hundred years (drought, flooding, superstorms, and destructive hurricanes, to name a few) they get overwhelmed and depressed by all of this information. The systems that are at play seem too large to challenge and the solutions seem too far out of our grasp to be made into realities. We are paralyzed in our fears about the future and our abilities to create change even with the knowledge that we have gained about the problem. A paralyzing paradox of knowledge and fear. We too, like the disciples encountering the risen Jesus, are in a liminal space between the causes and effects of climate change, looking for answers to guide us forward.

We might ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Or rather, all too often we are swayed to ask “what can I do.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that question on the surface. We should be questioning our own actions, but we tend to get stuck in only looking at what we do as individuals. Our country places a great deal of emphasis on our abilities as individuals which leads to us understanding ourselves as isolated entities. Climate change, as such a large complex issue, only worsens our anxieties when we think of its challenges as something that we have to overcome as individuals. Our paralysis in the paradox of the knowledge of climate change and uncertainty about what to do next is only exacerbated by our assertion that we must do it alone.

Bill McKibben, the founder of and famed climate activist, gave a talk on climate change at BU this past week. One of the most poignant things he shared about advocacy for climate change was this, “The most important thing you can do as an individual is to not be an individual. Come together.” Facing the realities of climate change can seem less insurmountable if we join together in creating opportunities for resiliency. That’s what happened at the conference I attended in California – after the initial evening of feeling distraught, the next two days together enabled us time to have conversation and make connections with each other across denominations, regions, and even areas of interest to help each other in developing plans for our ministries to take on the burdens of climate change.

Another one of the ways that individuals have come together in a big way in the last year was the People’s Climate March that occurred in New York City on September 21, 2014. I was fortunate enough to be one of the 400,000 people in attendance for that march which flooded the streets of downtown Manhattan. The march was in response to a meeting by the United Nations’ Climate Summit of world leaders in order to show popular for action against climate change at a global level. The amazing thing about the march was how it enabled people to come together in support of climate change action from various perspectives. It showed how climate change has already impacted many of our lives, and how we’re not willing to allow global political forces to continue to ignore these realities as global citizens. Even though we may all have come from different perspectives – religious, medical, education, worker’s rights, etc. – we were all united by our desire to draw attention to climate change itself and show how all of these issues are connected to one another.

Coming together in community is not foreign to us as Christians. In fact, it is one of our primary ways of being.  We are called be brothers and sisters to one another in Christ and to serve each other in God’s love. Reflecting on today’s Gospel, the disciples are not encountering the risen Christ on their own in Luke’s account. They are a community joined together to share in this period of perplexity, and will later go on as the community of Christ to proclaim the Good News to the rest of the world. There are no individual actors among the disciples in this story – not like in John where Thomas is singled out. All of the disciples are facing the challenge of the reality of Christ together. As people of faith, we aim to seek justice and righteousness in the world for everyone, not only for ourselves. Again, turning back to the scripture from 1 John read today, “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he (Christ) is righteous.” We are called to do “what is right” in all situations, and in this case, “what is right” is to recognize the major injustices which will be created by climate change and attempt to ameliorate them as much as possible.

In what ways will doing “what is right” take shape? There are no simple answers, unfortunately. However, hope can be found in the actions of climate activists around the country and world. For example, divestment from fossil fuel industries by colleges and universities as well as denominations has recently become an important means by which activists not only draw attention to the influence of the fossil fuel industry in various political and social institutions, but also encourage investment into alternative forms of energy. Additionally, some communities are focusing on forming alternative economies, such as time banking, which bring community members together in local economies that require less reliance on fossil fuels for goods to be transported. We are capable of being resilient in the face of climate change, and people are already laying the foundation for us to join in.

If we are to effectively address the issues of climate change, then we must find ways of being in community with each other at the local level (within our church and communities) and also at the global level through recognizing the ways all of our actions are interconnected and affect others throughout the world. Making connections with others expands our abilities to understand complex issues by seeing them from multiple perspectives and enables us to share our individual talents with one another to function in a more effective manner. By accepting the realities of climate change and seeking out opportunities to work together, we can eliminate the paradox created by climate change and free ourselves from its paralyzing effects. The disciples will eventually move out of the liminal state created by their disbelief in Jesus’ presence before them by the time of his ascension. Likewise, we must move out of our liminal state of uncertainty to be empowered by our knowledge and communal capabilities to seek justice and create a better, more sustainable future.


-Ms. Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate for Lutheran Ministry

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

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