March 31

Resurrection Family

By Marsh Chapel

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On Easter we receive and are received by a new resurrection family, the family of Jesus, crucified and risen. 

Ponder this resurrection family, reaching from Mary to you, from Mary’s heart in the garden, to yours in the pew.

Your resurrection family is a heart-to-heart hearth, an I and Thou fellowship. We know Jesus now through his cousins become ours by faith. Resurrection is, if nothing else, relational, personal, familiar.

Mary in the garden, John 20, shows us so. You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart. Known by name. Through historical mist, through mysterious tradition, through numinous utterance, through biblical legend, through the possibility of impossibility, through the impenetrable imponderable, given to the least, Mary. Mary: wayward, female, alone, poor, powerless… loving…Mary Magdalene, come to the garden alone.

From Mary to the 12, from the 12 to the 500, from the 500 to the least of the apostles, from Paul to Rome and the church and the gentiles and me and you and even all the mere Methodists fleeing from the wrath to come. 

From Mary to Marilynne Robinson, to Raymond Brown, to Ernest Fremont Tittle, to your mother, to Nancy Marsh Hartmann, to Marcel Proust to Charles Webb to you.  My spiritual nourishment comes from reading, from faithful stories of struggle from our laity, and from worship, all of it, every smidgin of it—organ, hymn, choir, anthem, reading, sermon, prayer, sacrament all. It’s all I need.  It’s all we need,


Charles Webb, who reshaped and reframed our second hymn, was the longtime organist at the Bloomington Indiana First UMC, and Professor at the School of Music at IU.  An editor of our hymnal, he worked to improve the musical harmonies, and the musical cadences of the revival tradition hymns, a fairly large piece of work as the frequency of his name in the hymnal attests.  I met him, once, when preaching in Bloomington.  In his nineties now, he enjoys visits from his former pastor and our dear friend, and sometime summer preacher, Dr. Philip Amerson. We mortals face loss, misfortune, disaster, death.  But we also see the glow that comes, say, in the nineties, when one’s hour in the sun is coming to an end. We also hear the power of the spoken word, in conversation, in State of the Union, in Sunday sermon.  And we also recall William James, My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.


On Easter we receive and are received by a new resurrection family, the family of Jesus, crucified and risen. 

Hear Marilynne Robinson, our guest at BU last year, and perhaps again next year: One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded… What should we call the presiding intelligence that orchestrates the decision to speak as a moment requires?  What governs the inflections that make any utterance unmistakably the words of one speaker in this whole language-saturated world? 120 (Our) theology is compelled and enthralled by an overwhelming awareness of the grandeur of God …heaven’s essence…is that it is inconceivable in the world’s terms, another order of experience…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder… (Death of Adam 221-229)


On Easter we receive and are received by a new resurrection family, the family of Jesus, crucified and risen. 

I washed up on the shores of Union Theological Seminary in 1976, clumsily paying the cabbie double what I owed for the short ride from Grand Central to Grant’s Tomb, and, in retrospect, largely clueless about what was around me and before me.  I had been raised in a Methodist parsonage, attended MYF Sunday by Sunday, worked three summers running a waterfront at a Methodist Camp (no drownings of record), and been graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, a small Methodist college for small Methodists.  Yet I knew very little about the Bible.  In short order the strange world of the Bible, and its mystery, its complexity, its strange, strange, strangeness captivated me, mesmerized and embraced me.

My advisor, a rumpled world famous Roman Catholic Biblical Theologian, from whom we have heard this Lent, invited me to meet with him, and proceeded over three years to guide, teach, and encourage me, far beyond any evidence I could give at the time of the value of his investment in time, forgiveness and attention.  He daily wore a worn black suit and clerical collar.  On our first meeting, at the end he said, ‘Mr.  Hill, Dr Cyril Richardson is teaching this fall a course on the Early Christian Writers.  He is excellent.  Normally his course is reserved for second year students.  But if you can somehow get a seat in the course, take it.  I just don’t know how long we will have him here at Union.  He spent last year at home in England.’  Brown was so right.  It was an outstanding course, taught with high excellence, under the booming British stentorian voice of the world’s preeminent Patristics scholar. ‘Today we shall consider St. Athanasius, who makes Paul Tillich look like a pup, a rain-soaked puppy’.  He had a love-hate relationship with my beloved Tillich.  The course had 12 lectures.  Richardson gave 10.  Between 10 and 12, he died.  At his funeral, a memorial Richardson himself had composed for a friend was read:  Richardson said most of us do not fear death, but fear the death of our loved ones and death of our dreams.  What a priceless resurrection gift, fifty years ago, to study under him, thanks to a member of the resurrection family, to my advisor, Raymond Brown.

Brown was glad enough to see my enthrallment with the Bible.  But a year or so later, he looked through the piles of courses taken, and in plan, mostly Bible.  He said, ‘Mr. Hill.  You are going into pastoral ministry, are you not?’  ‘Well, yes’, I said, ‘I mean I think so I hope so, if they will have me’. ‘Well’ Brown said, ‘I am glad for all these Biblical courses you are taking, including those with me, but don’t you think you might want to take a course in Psychology and Religion?  You are going to be a pastor, are you not? Ann Ulanov teaches some good courses in this area.’  So, well, I did.  And it was hard, hard for me, psychology and religion.  Not the content, but the, the, well, the depth.  It was bracing.  And good and right. What a priceless resurrection gift, fifty years ago, to study under her, thanks to my advisor, Raymond Brown.

At noon or so, I would cross Broadway to Teachers’ College (think John Dewey), to swim in their reasonably adequate pool.  Coming out I often crossed paths with Dr. Brown, who celebrated the noon mass at Corpus Christi church on 121st street.  You remember that Thomas Merton a generation earlier had an apocalyptic conversion experience it that same little church.  There was Fr. Brown at 1pm, in the same rumpled black suit and collar, carrying a brief case back across the street to his seminary office.  He taught on the west side of Broadway, and he preached on the east side of Broadway.  Week by week.  As a Methodist I should have known, but didn’t at that time, the incarnation Brown gave to Mr. Wesley’s beautiful hymn, the music under the words, and the words under the words, of our Boston University motto about learning, virtue and piety: Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combine, truth and love (for all to see). What a priceless resurrection gift, fifty years ago, to study under my advisor, Raymond Brown.


         On Easter we receive and are received by a new resurrection family, the family of Jesus, crucified and risen. 

I have never seen or met Jesus.  I never heard him speak, nor embraced or was embraced by him in person.  I know him through the resurrection family.  I know his resurrection through the family cluster and family systems of those who did know him, unto and through the cross and resurrection.  Mary is preeminent.

         In the same vein, I never did meet Ernest Fremont Tittle.  I never heard him preach, nor in his lifetime ever attended his Evanston First UMC, the largest in our denomination at the time of his death in 1960.  I read about him, but never greeted him.  But I know him, keenly through the company of his lineage, his part of the resurrection family.  I preached once in his venerable pulpit in 2010…including to the Garrett class of 1950, whom I embarrassingly and mistakenly, though not without some reason, greeted as the class of 1850!

         Like my namesake Allan Knight Chalmers, and unlike me, Tittle was an outspoken pacifist through the whole second world war, from the highest of pulpits inthe mid-west.  Fearless.  For three decades he preached to Chicago, to the country and to the world.  On Sunday evenings he gathered a steady fellowship of graduate students for dinner, to talk about faith and life, death and resurrection.  I never saw him, never shook his hand, never viewed his youth or age.  I was not present at his death.  But his life was and is alive to me.   Alive through the family of the resurrection, through those who as young adults worshipped with him and dined with him and prayed with him.  They had everything in common.  They were distinctively vital, active, liberal Christian Methodists.  I give you Dr. Robert V. Smith, chaplain at Colgate, a Garrett graduate, and protégé of Tittle, whose example from Hamilton NY kept alive for me and many others the importance of university preaching, campus ministry, and theological education.  His growling voice enunciated resurrection in the spirit of Tittle. For he had enjoyed Sunday dinners with Tittle.  Smith worshipped here at Marsh Chapel some years ago. I give you Professor Roland Wolseley, Professor of African American Journalism at Syracuse University, a beloved faithful liberal pacifist, lay leader and parishioner in our Syracuse NY Erwin UMC.  His editorial ear and kindness evoked kindness in the spirit of Tittle. He had Sunday dinners with Tittle.  I give you Ruth Lippitt, the leading heart and mind in our Rochester Asbury First UMC, who stood up and stood out and stood for faith and hope and love.  She and her husband David met at Sunday dinner with Tittle, and her unwavering courage evoked resurrection in the shadow of Tittle.  I give you Dr. Christopher Evans, of Boston University, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Tittle, during his work at Garrett, and whose steady example in learning, virtue and piety reclaim by familial resurrection the daily example of Tittle.  Hamilton, Syracuse, Rochester, Boston.  These did not know each other, never met, but with so many others share a common familial resemblance, a family resurrection.

On Easter we receive and are received by a new resurrection family, the family of Jesus, crucified and risen!  Sursum Corda! Lift up your hearts!




If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

And we do

If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

And we do

If we believe that divine love lasts

And we do

If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

And we do

If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

And we do

If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

And we do

If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

And we do

If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

And we do

If we believe that God has loved us personally

And we do

If we believe in God

And we do



Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

And we do

Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death

And we do

Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection

And we do

Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone

And we do

Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality

And we do

Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never in vain

And we do

Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life 

And we do

Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally

And we do

Then we shall trust that we shall rest protected in God’s embrace

And we do

Then we shall trust in God

And we do.

The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

March 24

Breath of Life

By Marsh Chapel

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It is not so long ago that we greeted Jesus at his nativity, humming carols at home and lighting candles of hope in winter windows.  It is not so long ago that we witnessed his growth in wisdom and stature, in the knowledge and love of God, while as a teenager he taught in the temple.  It is not so long ago that this mighty young man Jesus stooped, fully human, for baptism in the surging river Jordan, the river of death and life.  It is not so long ago that we saw him take up his ministry among us, preaching and teaching and healing.  It is not so long ago that with Peter and James and John we saw him ascend the Mountain of the Transfiguration.  With him, we have hiked this Lent, step by step.

Even beset as we are by climate, Ukraine, Gaza, political chaos and all manner of personal challenge, come Sunday we are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers from enslavement to fear. From separation anxiety, survival anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety about anxiety. The good news carries us home, to the far side of fear.  It breathes into us yet again the breath of life

In New England we do not often enough recall the Boston sages, like Holmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference..


Life, the breath of life, a passionate thing.  With passion, today Paul writes, alone in prison. His own missionary work, as we can overhear from the length of Philippians, is under revision and redirection by others who claim he has failed in certain key areas. His own personal future is more than cloudy, including the possibility of death, and again, his ruminations in Philippians bear this out. He acclaims deliverance for the captives, you and me, a saving drumbeat along the river of life, breathing the breath of life. He has a sight line to the far side of fear.

And, note, he is unafraid, this Apostle to the Gentiles, to quote his opponents.

Philippians 2 sounds like a Gnostic hymn. Paul may have lifted and used it, because his hearers know it and because it suits his message. It is a plundering of the Egyptians, a use of the cultural language of the day to convey great tidings of good news. You need not fear. You need not fear. God has broken in upon our fear, and invaded this life with liberation to live fully and lastingly! God’s beachhead is the cross. The cross is the presence of God in suffering. The cross is the love of God in suffering. The cross is the power of God in suffering, to free the captives—to free every human being—from fear.

I wonder if we can recapture, by the imagination, Paul’s decision to recite for himself and for his correspondents, a hymn to the faithful love of God that carries us over, to the far side of fear. Here is Paul.  Here is the outspoken leader of a religious movement charged with atheism, with rejecting the gods of the empire. Here he is alone in prison. Here he affirms what can only be affirmed by faith, the victory of the invisible over the visible, of God beyond the many gods, of Christ the failed messiah over the cross of his failure. He does so in measured, nearly serene tones.

His attention is captured by the servant Christ, here so like the figure in Isaiah. To be a human being, for Paul, is to be captive under the control of malignant powers, to live in a world in which the human being has too often fallen prey to powers that are aligned and arranged against what is truly human. Yet, as one himself immersed in fear, Paul, seized by Christ, is set to singing in his prison cell. Maybe today, given our fears, we may hear something of his happy news. Meditate this Palm Sunday on what in the past has brought you strength, what brings you home, what breathes life, brings the breath of life.

In New England we do not often enough recall the Boston Poets like Whittier:


I know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise

Assured alone that life and death God’s mercy underlies

And so, beside the silent sea

I wait the muffled oar

No harm from Him can come to me

On ocean or on shore

I know not where His islands lift

Their fronded palms in air

I only know I cannot drift

Beyond His love and care


It is not so long ago that we greeting Jesus at his nativity, humming carols at home and lighting candles of hope in winter windows. And now it is time to come down from Galilee and to face Jerusalem, to take the full measure of this Man, the Son of Man, and to have the courage to let Him take our full measure, too.  The crisp air and vistas of the north country have fed our souls.  But now it is time to head home, and turn our face to Jerusalem.

The road home can tax the traveler.  It reminds us of earlier homecomings.

Odysseus walking the last few miles to Thebes.  Socrates walking to the center of Athens and the cup of hemlock.  Richard the Lionhearted sailing the English Channel, heading home.  A prodigal son, scuffling up the last mile of country road toward a dreaded homecoming.  You, returning at last to whatever you have long avoided, wandering as you have in the Galilee of the rest of life.  For at last, there is the road home.

What was Jesus’ state of mind, what was on his mind and heart, as he entered the Holy City?

It is perilous, even arrogant, at this late date and from this great distance, to try to imagine Jesus’ state of mind as he descends the Mountain and enters the City.

Albert Schweitzer, before he went of to heal the jungle sick, showed convincingly how inevitably errant are all such attempts. For we paint our own inner lives into the life of Jesus, when so we try to see what cannot be seen in Scripture.  Still, particularly at this point in his journey, on Palm Sunday, at the entrance into the Holy City, and on the threshold of his own death, we are haunted, (are we not?) by the desire to see what Jesus saw and feel what he felt and sense what he did sense, coming home.

Now Jesus is walking down into the city, down off the mountain, and down into the heart of his destiny.  He is going to his grave.  He has the breath of life, but only for a moment. Like you and me.

Some of the Gospel today, as Jesus heads home, is too true to be good.  For He is not at home, not at home, in a world of injustice, abuse, violence, and death.  For him, in such a benighted world, there is really no place like home.

Jesus is heading home. As are we all, though, it seems sometimes to be a conspiratorially well-kept secret.  We all are walking down the Lenten mountain and into our lasting, our last future.  Every one of us is mortal.  We are going home.  We might want to balance our attention to identity with our awareness of mortality. We might want to balance our attention to identity with our awareness of mortality.

Here are two possible but unverifiable sentiments in Jesus’ heart and mind as he enters the city. 

On one hand, it may be, he looks back upon his ministry and feels that he is homeless. He has found no lasting nest on earth, no lasting crib, no lasting domicile.   He has found opposition and rejection.  He has encountered misunderstanding and criticism.  To a harsh world he has brought a gentle manner.  To a wolfish world he has brought the labor of love.  To a selfish community he has brought the summons to service.  To an inconsistent dozen disciples, he has brought the steady presence of peace.   He has not found a home, no home for Jesus, descending the Mount of Olives.   He has even said of himself, “foxes have their holes, and birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

And those of us who have been shot out of the saddle, riding for a righteous cause, as we dust ourselves off and bind our wounds, we do so in the best of company, in the company of the crucified, for whom, on this green earth, as yet, there is no place like home.   Today you may feel shot right out of the saddle.  But let me ask you something.  What other saddle would have rather ridden?  Some losing causes are worth support even in defeat.  I would rather be shot out of the right saddle than to canter comfortably all the live long day in the wrong one.  So, dust off, bind the wound, and get ready to ride again.

On the other hand, it may be, Jesus looks forward to his passion and feels that he is going home.  He is not yet home, but going home. He has the breath of life, yet, briefly.  He has come and now he must go.  He tarries for a while, but he is going home.  There is something else alive in this homeless homecoming.  Frederick Buechner compares the feeling of faith to the feeling homesickness, that longing for the feeling of home.  Faith is a heartfelt longing for the comforts of home.

Only the greatest of the Gospels, that of John, fully and resoundingly displays this sentiment.  But it is present, muted, in Mark as well.  Jesus must endure the cross, just as we inevitably must endure tragedy, accident, betrayal, injustice, failure and death.    We have the finest of company, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, when we endure life’s damaging darkness.

Some have lost loved ones to death, this past year.  Some of lost beloved institutions to death, this past year.  Some have lost beloved dreams to death, this past year.  Jesus walks beside you.  Jesus walks beside you. In fact, this is his peculiarly chosen path, his way, his way of the cross.  All of the passion, all of the passion music of Lent, all of it, all the way to the cross itself, acclaims, in passion, the compassion of God in Christ our Lord.  God has a passion for compassion.  God has a passion for compassion.   So Jesus looks forward—does he not?—to the completion of his mission, to the last word in the soliloquy, to the transition to glory.  Again, only John has fully held this diamond.  Only he sees the cross as glory, without remainder.  Only he has Jesus say, on the cross, “it is completed”.  But Mark too senses Jesus’ homesickness at his homeless homecoming.  His longing for God.  And we sense it too, because we feel it, too.

Jesus on Palm Sunday, both homeless and going home.

Some of the Gospel today, as Jesus heads home, seems too good to be true.  This greatest of passionate tragedies, the cross of Christ our Lord, is the passageway, strangely, wonderfully, to our heavenly home.  He dies as we die.  And we die with Him.  We all die.  We are not even temporarily immortal.  Yet, attendant upon this road down the mountain and into the city, there resounds, softly at first, a carol of grace, a carol of love, a carol for all, like we, who are going home.   And we are.  Going home.  As my friend said, ‘we may tarry here awhile, but we are going home’

This homesickness, this spirited sense that home is over the next street, up the winding trail to the cross, this hunger for home, this is what Paul meant elsewhere:  this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. 


So let us lift up our hearts. While we have breath, breath by breath, let us praise God with the very breath of life.

To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.

Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. (Let us carry ourselves in belief).

Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers us to withstand what we cannot understand.

Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.

Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.

Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.

Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.

Let us remember that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi‐colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life, the Breath of Life, that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

March 17

Raymond Brown Writing

By Marsh Chapel

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John 12:20–33

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Some years ago, in the aisle of a darkened sanctuary, and following a dark re-enactment of the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday (think three dozen parishioners dressed as Roman soldiers and carrying torches, roles for some of the disciples, one member each year selected to carry the cross and place and stand it on the front law, usually with a light or not so light snow falling), a ten-year old, guided by his mother, came forward along the shadowed side aisle of the nave and asked, of the Jesus so depicted, ‘What did he do that was so wrong?’ ‘What did he do that was so wrong?’ A child’s way to ask, ‘What was the linchpin for the move to the cross?’

Well, I said, or perhaps mumbled, something about blasphemy and something about treason.  In the dark, the young man followed little of it, but the darkness he understood.  I tried to say that the Jews found him blasphemous and dangerously so, the Romans found him treasonous and dangerously so.  (Remember:  the Romans crucified Jesus, for they alone held that power of capital punishment, not the Jews, not the Jews, but the Romans crucified him.) I don’t think the ten-year-old heard very much of what I clumsily said.  But the darkness of that nave and of the acted out cross with 80 participants, that darkness he got. And the darkness of the Lenten mystery remained, and remains.  It remains today.  What indeed did he do that was so wrong?  Here and herein abides the darkness of Lent, the darkness of Holy Week coming, the darkness of unfathomable mortality, the darkness of unwanted illness, the darkness of the quiet crying of the soul at 4am, the darkness of Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov, the darkness of the lasting inability to forgive, the darkness of impending sickness and death which will not be defeated, the darkness of having to live out life all alone, the darkness of doubt in any meaning or sense thereof, the darkness of the best of people being treated with the worst of life, to die a hero’s death, said Sherman, and have your named misspelled in the papers.

John 12: 20-33

Jesus’ fate as you know has now been sealed, just before our Gospel reading, in the preceding 11th chapter.  Unfortunately, many times our lectionary lessons can be hard to follow, because they are cut away from what precedes or follows.  Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, a few verses back.  This seals his doom.  In John, it is not the cleansing of the temple that puts Jesus on the cross.  That has been done 11 chapters ago, an age in biblical time.  No, what gets him in ultimate trouble is resurrection, his power, his love, his presence, and especially his voice that brings people from one location to another, in this case out of one religion and into another, out of the synagogue and into the church, out of tradition and into gospel, out of law and into grace, out of discipline and into love.   For Lazarus, this is good.  For Jesus, not so good.  Voice can get you into trouble still. (Try preaching for a living…)

Then Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Then Judas plots his downfall. Then Jesus rides the donkey.  Then Jesus calls the crowd, who saw what happened with Lazarus.  Then—notice—the Greeks come and ask for him (meaning, all the nations, meaning, all the unreligious, meaning the future of the planet).  And his voice is still what the planet needs:  in warming, in warfare, in collateral death, in historical political ignorance, in the abiding Covid shades of isolation and loneliness and anxiety and depression and our forgetfulness about communion, about common life, about conversation, about smiles and greetings and nods and a willingness to return to gathering and fellowship an a common life and a common good.  Then Jesus prays for glorification, meaning crucifixion.  The cross is the turning point between past and future, death and life, miscommunication and understanding.  It is glory in John.  Even the ever so human quaking prayer of Jesus in the garden, ‘LET THIS CUP PASS FROM ME’ is gone in John.  What, shall I ask to be saved?  No, I have come for just this purpose, this HOUR (again, like glory, in John, HOUR is a code word for cross).

The Greeks, THE GREEKS precede the religious, like the harlots preceding the Pharisees in the other earlier Gospels.  “We would see Jesus” they say.  What happens is different.  They see, but more, they hear Him.  They hear a compelling voice.  They hear and heed a compelling voice, for which they have no other manner of description than to use words like heavenly and thunderous.   This is a highly charged, very meaningful passage, if very short, as R. Bultmann might have reminded us.  We are Greeks, ourselves, that is, not raised within Judaism, so our access to Jesus, and its depiction here, are crucial.  At the last minute, we too are included.

They, the Greeks, and we, also Gentiles, come to Jesus by way of the apostles, Philip and Andrew (not Peter and Andrew, Philip and Andrew—John has Peter on a pretty short leash all along).  That is, we come to life through a set of traditions, but the traditions themselves are not the life itself.   We have to translate the traditions into insights for effective living, if they are to allow access to life. We have to translate the traditions into insights for effective living, if they are to allow access to life.

Then, the matter of what this closeness to Jesus means is considered.  And what is it?  It is not a heightened religious experience.  It is not a mystical reverie.  It is not an emotional cataclysm.   It is service.  One finds Him in service with and to Him.  One knows Him walking alongside him.  One gains access to him by loving Him and in Him loving others.  In His service there is freedom, even perfect freedom.  Service, step by step, and day by day, finally gives way to and leads to death, the rounding and finishing of life.  Have we together found our path, our shared ways of service?  Are we walking in the light?

With angel voices and thunder and a prophecy of being lifted up, the community of the beloved disciple sees, again, in retrospect, as we do each Holy Week and Easter, the paradox of victory in defeat, of life in death, of love conquering the ‘ruler of this world’.  The ruler of this world is not a reference to God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The phrase is ARCHON TOU KOSMOU, the ruler of this world, the demigod who in gnostic thought mistakenly and haphazardly created the world.  Jesus casts out the archon, the ruler of this world, and so can be offered to and understood by Greeks tinged with a hint or more than hint of Gnosticism.  I guess you could interpret this passage without reference to Gnosticism, but just how would you do that? I guess you could interpret this passage without reference to Gnosticism, but just how would you do that?     The service of love renders insipid and impotent the ruler of this world and all his minions.  Service in love is eternal, eternal in the heavens.

(Puzzling, though, is the phrase, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’.  What is this?  The second glory is the cross.  But the first?  Simply an assertion that the God of the future is also the God of the past?  I do not, all these years later, I do not quite understand it.)

At all events, in the community of the beloved disciple, people have found a way, much truth and new life.  A voice, heavenly and thunderous, has spoken to them, a voice given ‘for their sake’.   As last week, the judgment once reserved for the end of time or for the eternal realms, or for both, has come, is now.  The bottom line or cash value of resurrection is speech, the possibility of saying something that can be heard, of saying something saving that can ‘savingly’ be heard.  While not limited to preaching in the narrow, and certainly not limited to an ecclesiastical voice, still judgment and salvation, in the here and now, by this Gospel, and this chapter of this Gospel are a dire matter, a crucial matter of hearing and speaking.  It is the marrow of wisdom, speaking of which…


Most of us most of the time need more reminder than instruction. So say each of these twice every morning…


Faith is not a prize to achieve but a gift to receive. 


The gospel is not about success and failure but about death and resurrection.


Cultural, racial and religious divisions are hard and real, today, and in first century Palestine. They must be faced and addressed.


Sometimes the divine voice is and has to be harsh, like when a Father warns his son not to touch a hot stove. 


Food matters, really matters, and so, as in the sacrament is at the heart of our faith and faithfulness.


Love brings happiness as those four young men from Liverpool reminded us: all you need us love. Love is the way to happiness.


You can listen to 799 services on podcast, starting with August 2008. You can listen for 47 days and 7 hours straight. Ideal requirement for STH students. 


Sometimes an anthem can and will interpret the Gospel for the day, alongside the sermon.


Love includes. Faith does not exclude. Hope includes. Love, faith and hope are like worship at Marsh Chapel. All are included.


Nostalgia can block out curiosity. Nostalgia can eclipse curiosity.  (R Walton).


Brown Writing


My teacher of blessed memory, Raymond Brown, taught that we could trust the spirit. ‘Since we hold through faith that the Holy Spirit was at work in that growth (of the early church) and since there was real continuity from the first stage to the last, there is no real difficulty with the affirmation that Christ founded the church’. (Senior, 202)


My teacher of blessed memory, Raymond Brown, taught that we could trust the spirit, the Gospels were the result of evolutionary development in the early church with their roots in the life of Jesus and his mission but their content and tone influenced by the preaching of the early community and ultimately set in writing through the composition of the evangelists in the context of their communities (Senior, 204).


My teacher of blessed memory, Raymond Brown, taught that we could trust the spirit.  So he was not too worried about Protestants like me would did not share his affirmations of the celibacy of the priesthood, the sacrifice of the mass, the infallibility of the pope, or the sub-ordination of women.  He was willing to take and live one day at a time, one epoch at a time, one generation at a time.

My teacher of blessed memory, Raymond Brown, taught that we could trust the spirit. What is key is the recognition of the right of the Spirit-guided teaching authority of the church to develop and articulate anew Christian doctrine.  Perhaps more than any other aspect of modern biblical scholarship and modern biblical theology, this understanding of the legitimate development of doctrine, moving in harmony with but also moving beyond the express formulations of the New Testament, guided Brown’s exegetical work and, at the same time, was a point of consternation for his critics (Senior, 229).

My teacher of blessed memory, Raymond Brown, taught that we could trust the spirit.  There is something so lastingly true, good and beautiful, in and within the viva voce experience of teaching and learning, something so glad hearted and loving at its best.  And it is happening right on our doorstep, right on the grounds near and far of Marsh Chapel.  What a privilege to be a part of such a centuries deep form of living and, to name this in the Johannine sense, a centuries deep form of service.



To end, even in the darkness, there is the promise of light.  As Dr King said, ‘when it gets dark enough—you can see the stars’. On Monday morning our Marsh Senior staff gathers for the weekly staff meeting, always beginning with devotions.  Recently one of our number brought a reflection on hope, that carried, rightly, darker and lighter hues.  The prayerful presentation ended with a suggestion that, even when hope seems a long way off, there remains what he, quoting another called, the power of ‘persistent possibility’.  That kind of persistent possibility, and holding onto that possibility, may just be what we need, what you and I may need, to gather ourselves and receive the benediction, and take another week-long walk in faith.  After all, as Martin Luther taught us, ‘faith is a walk in the dark’.

March 10

Raymond Brown Teaching

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3:14–21

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For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 


Just before our gospel reading, Nicodemus, thrice mentioned in John, has departed.   You remember his interview with Jesus.  He asks about being born again.  He asks about resurrection life.  He asks about spirit.  In the nighttime interview, Jesus answers him:  You must be born anew.  Your religion, your religious health, counts on this.  Our gospel today takes the same theme further.

Saith the Scripture: God is love.  (Or Love is God.) Eternal life is trust in God who is love.  The doorway to eternal life is trust.  We learn this in our experience.  This trust is a gift, God’s gift.  With open hands we receive the gift of God.   We do not achieve or earn or create this trust.  It is given to us.  The gift comes wrapped, belief and trust and faith and knowledge come gift wrapped in meaning, belonging, empowerment—in the beloved community.

To make sure the hearer and reader of his gospel get the full measure of his point, the author of John uses a great old word, Judgment.  KRISIS in Greek.  You hear our own word, CRISIS, there.  Until John, more or less, Judgment was reserved for the end of time, the eschaton, the apocalypse.  John, as is resonantly clear here, says something different.  Judgment is not at the end of time.  Judgment is now.  Judgment does not await the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, or the millennial reign, or wars and rumors of wars, or signs of the times.  No.  The critical moment is now.  John has replaced speculation with spirit.  John has replaced eschaton with eternal life.  John has replaced Armageddon with the artistry of every day.  John has courageously left behind that to which most of the rest of the New Testament still clings.  John has replaced then with now.  Then with NOW. What courage!  The upshot of this change, as recorded in our Scripture today, is the near apotheosis of our lived experience. It is what we have, all we have, to go on. And as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, Who He is (Schweitzer).

In other words, the ancient near eastern apocalyptic, of heaven and end of time judgment, still present in various religious traditions (and in much of the rest of the New Testament) as we have tragic and sorrowful occasion to see in our own time and struggles with violence, is replaced.  In your experience.  This is the judgment.  The light has come into the world.

As my grandmother used to ask, ‘Are you walking in the light?’  Walter Fluker, our friend and neighbor and colleague, said the same every day.  Are you? ‘Are you walking in the light?’ 

Likewise, we notice that the letter to the Ephesians, written by a student of Paul, makes a complementary affirmation.  By grace you are saved through faith (he writes this twice, or an editor has added a second rendering).  The phrase, both in its repetition and in its cadence, seems clearly to be a prized inheritance for the Ephesians.  God is loving you into love and freeing you into freedom.  God first loved us.  You are not made whole by your doing.  You are God’s beloved, and so are made whole, made healthy, made well, ‘perfected’.   Both in our successes and in our failures, we truly depend upon a daily, weekly hearing of this promise and warning.  Hence the centrality, the enormous importance of Sunday worship. In our experience, we are given to trust God.  Our response in actions will then forever be overshadowed by real love, by God’s love.

Then look at Numbers.  You will remember that Moses stuttered.  Moses had a speech impediment.  But sometimes people so afflicted become the greatest of speakers, the greatest of rhetoricians, the greatest of eloquent preachers.  We were reminded of this in the redolent, powerful State of the Union address last Thursday.  There is a radical power in speech, an un-uprootable power in speech. There is, still, for our electronic gadgetry, an abiding outlasting power in the spoken word.  And the truth will out, the truth comes out, over time, over time, over time. So, Moses prayed for the people.

Our Sunday hour of worship is meant to carry us backward, meant to carry us down deep, meant to remind us of what matters, counts, lasts and works.  The single word for meaning, in faith, is grace.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 


Which brings us to the Gospel, that today of St. John 3, which features Jesus in mortal combat over all of these. You are veteran listeners to and readers of the Gospel.  You have paid attention and you have done your reading.  So, you know how the Gospel of John flows.  Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the Samaritan well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stere-optic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and brings resurrection and life.

He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger.  He brings the ministry of the church out of the slough of despond.  Speaking of the church, of ministry, of congregations, of communities, of denominations, of organized religion (although, to be playful, as a Methodist I am not interested in organized religion, but in WELL organized religion), yes, there are a lot of things wrong.  But there are a lot of things right, too.  The Jesus of the Gospel of John commands us to hear so. That is: in all, He brings the dead to life.  Jesus brings the dead to life.  The dead to life.

This Lent we honor Fr. Raymond Brown, the preeminent Roman Catholic Biblical Scholar of the 20th century.  He was a pastor, a scholar and teacher, and he had his own personal ways of teaching.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 

Brown Teaching

Although I had been raised in a Methodist parsonage, had attended weekly MYF gatherings, had worked for three years at a Methodist church camp running their waterfront (no drownings), and been graduated from a small Methodist college for small Methodists, nonetheless on arrival in Seminary, I had very little knowledge of or grasp of the Bible.  That changed, rather suddenly and with intensity, under the tutelage of Fr. Raymond Brown, then a young middle-aged professor, and his colleagues (Martyn, Koenig, Shephard, and Landes).  It really changed in full because of the fascination I immediately sensed and felt in the strange world of the Bible.  I took every course I could.

Now Raymond Brown was my advisor.  We met a couple of times a year, and looked at the courses I might take. My first semester he said, You know Cyril Richardson is teaching his course on Early Christian Writers (Patristics) this fall.  It is usually a second-year course, but if you can get a seat you should take it this year.  I just don’t know how long we will have him here teaching, and he is excellent.  Richardson, indeed excellent, gave 11 of his twelve lectures, and died the day before the 12th.  What a gift Brown gave me, by a slight thoughtful word of advice.  Later on, he saw the pile up of Biblical courses I was choosing and, though a biblical scholar, said, Mr. Hill, you are going into pastoral ministry.  Don’t you think you should have some courses in counseling and in psychology of religion?  Well, again, he guided me with reason and care.  For all his rightly celebrated scholarship, he had and took the time to offer some practical ministerial advice, to me, and I am sure to many.

He taught.

‘His main objective was to demonstrate the positive contribution of historical-critical biblical methods in support of traditional church teaching’. (102)

‘A hallmark of all of Brown’s publications was his desire not to overlook the pastoral impact of his books and articles, even the most academic ones’ (153).

He argued: ‘I contend that in a divided Christianity, instead of reading the Bible to assure ourselves that we are right, we would do better to read it to discover where we have not been listening.’ (REB), (180).

‘Brown was also convinced that the problems created by later interpretation of John should not be addressed by editing offensive words or passages out of the New Testament…but rather, by informed teaching and preaching about the Johannine text and by condemnation of Christian anti-Semitism’. (194).

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 


In all this, there is before us a Lenten caution, a Lenten warning. A nominal belief is not much better than no faith at all.  Not a nominal belief in God, but an active awareness of God is born of the Spirit.  The Spirit creates an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing your thinking and deciding.  The Holy Spirit, God with us, is at work today, to refresh your heart and to quicken your life and to banish your fear.

Spirit is calling us today to move on from a nominal belief in God to the faith of a new birth, an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our movements and our attitude.  Such a rebirth, the wind of God inspires. ‘Let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are re-fashioned and made new (people), though the way he does this is hidden from us’ (Calvin).

The Gospel of John is calling to you.  At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith.  To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith?  Nicodemus thought that until he saw he was wrong. The woman at the well said so, until she, her own-most self, was revealed.  Those feasting on fish and loaves learned something else. Those in harsh debate with Jesus did as well. The man born blind, given sight, thought maybe all he would have was his illness and the pool of Bethsaida:  not so. And Lazarus, to top it all, was dead, down in the catacomb, four days.  Then came a voice like no other: Lazarus! Come out! The Gospel of John is calling to you. At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith. To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith? Take a step up.

The writer of our majestic, spiritual Fourth Gospel has turned to the earlier Testament, and alighted on a strange magical account of Moses making magic in the wilderness.  He compares, he analogizes.  Like the serpent on the pole in the wilderness, so Jesus on the cross on Golgotha.  And then the majestic, spiritual word, the word of grace. A word about God, about love, about cosmos, about giving, about believing, about death and about life.  It is the gospel, in nuce.  God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  Hear the good news: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  And over time, over time?  Truth and light merge.  The doing of the truth and the seeing of the light merge. 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 

March 3

Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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By grace we are gathered together, here, come Sunday, for meditation and communion together.  It is a high moment, a rare privilege, an unfathomable gift, a moment of grace. It is a high moment, a rare privilege, an unfathomable gift, a moment of grace.

Our own individual lives, and our personal lives caught entangled in the tragedies of the globe around, our being and being together, are, for a brief moment, one holy hour, touched, touched, touched by, well, the grace of God.  This touch will not erase, eliminate or conclude the dimensions of dreaded death about us—loss in family, illness near or very near, slaughter and retreat in Ukraine, hunger and hatred in Gaza, expanding chaos in our own American political, social and cultural life—or the evanescent but present, lingering awareness of our very mortality. But, still the touch, as we meditate at communion, may, strangely, personally, help us, give us hope, give us stamina, give us strength, give us the chance to rise and live and face another day.


John and Lent

Our lesson from the fourth gospel gives us a stylized memory, in and through which we prepare.

The long weeks of patience, wandering, and wilderness which form our yearly Lenten pilgrimage prepare us.

Notice that John has rearranged the furniture of the gospel. He has placed the temple cleansing at the outset of the story.  He decided to make a change.

We become who we are by daring to decide. We discover the power of imagination by daring to find the courage to decide.  Choose.  Choose!

Matthew, Mark and Luke, the gospels other than John, mark Jesus’ downfall at the temple. As he attacks inherited religion, as he cleanses the temple, his doom is sealed. In John, it is the resurrection of Lazarus, long chapters later, which seals his fate. But John too sees the power of decision in Jesus’ appearance in the temple. In fact, in the second chapter, today in our hearing—have we heard?--John opened chapter two with Cana, and the promise of incarnation enshrined in that wedding, and closes with the temple, and the forecast of the cross, the hour, the word, which is his abiding interest. Jesus is himself the temple which others will destroy. Here, he gives his new view of the future, not to be awaited somewhere in the clouds. It is taking place now in the life and destiny of Jesus. All throughout, throughout his life, and throughout your own, there is the struggle, this struggle, his struggle, for truth and grace. This is Jesus’ struggle. And it is your struggle too. He becomes himself, his own most self not his almost self, in dealing with decision, in this today’s decision to affront and confront inherited religion.

Faith is finding the courage to choose. Faith is dealing with decision.
Memory is our aid here. Remember Proust comparing ‘the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other… the golden gate of imagination’ (RTP, 401). Memory feeds imagination. Faith is finding the power, receiving the power to choose, to reflect on choosing, to take responsibility for the choice, to learn with choosing, and to address the consequences of choice. Dealing with decision means dealing too with regret and failure. This too is faith in action. Listen again to the regret in Yeats’ poem…

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort…
Observant old men know it well

This year, in our worship, intermittently when not reading Mark, we will scale a far greater promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find a life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination. Yes, choosing diversity and equity and inclusion. Yes, and also, choosing unity and justice and love. More personally, this Gospel helps those who struggle with dislocation and disappointment and departure.  Is that you?

Now the Passover of the Jews was near.  There are three Passovers in John, not just one.  This is where the notion of Jesus’ three-year ministry comes from.  These feasts may be more symbolic than chronological.  This cleansing of the temple, here, is a moment of identity, for Jesus, and for his followers.  And so, for you and me.  In the other Gospels, it is the cleansing of the temple that takes Jesus to the cross.  Not here.  That comes with the raising of Lazarus nine chapters later.  Jesus begins his ministry, today, here in the temple, where in Matthew, Mark and Luke, he ends his ministry.  John makes the end the beginning and the beginning the end.  Earlier, in this chapter, the changing of water into wine is meant to symbolize that the old is over, and something completely new has come.  It is hard to hear, to read, the Gospel of John, and not shiver, and not quiver.

To Be

You have come here this morning in order to lead a life of faith, to lead a Christian life, to lead a life worthy of God.

So, you recognize the need, for time.  Especially for time, a sacred, discreet hour, every Lord’s Day, for worship.  For quiet, for meditation, for prayer.  For faith—the joy of faith, the language of faith, the community of faith, the communion of faith, the gift of faith.  Faith needs practice.  You cannot learn a language without practice.  You cannot play a sport well without practice.  You cannot master a musical instrument without practice.  It takes time.  Time it is said heals all wounds. But that is not fully true.  Time does not heal all wounds, though all wounds benefit from the healing in time.  As human beings, stretching to feel the reach of being human, we want and need to have the time for such.  Sunday at 11am in a church pew, alongside a community family, within a sacred space, in the hearing of holy writ, in the promise of the mystery of sacrament, that is a place and time and way in which to revere time, and to make time reverent.  A long time ago, in a benediction at the end of Sunday worship, I caught the eye of a friend.  Sixty years old, or so, she raised alone a needy son, while working full time at the neighborhood University.  The next Tuesday, without any warning, she suddenly died.  The precious hour of worship, and the little sentence of benediction, good word, have stayed present to me, in force, ever since.  We have one day at a time, no more, no less.

You have come here this morning in order to lead a life of faith, to lead a Christian life, to lead a life worthy of God.

So, you recognize the need for talent, for the right use of talent.  We read, some 800 of you daily, what has emerged now at Marsh Chapel as a significant means of grace, our electronically conveyed daily devotions.  We listen to the voices of our community, so varied and hopeful they are, in these brief writings.  Our colleague Alec Vaughn reminded us of this, in his passage on Thomas Merton.  Merton said that to be a saint is to be your own best self, your own true self, your own-most self.  Thurman said the same, don’t cut against the grain of your own wood.  And this means attending to the things, not only the things that make for a living, but that the things that make for a life.  You have seen people who showed you the way.  The mechanic who spent Saturdays teaching children carpentry.  The dentist who found time to sing in the choir.  The chemical engineer who made committee work an art form.  The retiree who conjured up a fishing derby for kids who had little.  The teacher who really came alive running a soup kitchen.  The insurance man who reluctantly became a scoutmaster.  Some of your personal talent is rightly expended in your work, your job.  And some is not.  Using that sum is the sum of the rest of parts of service.

You have come here this morning in order to lead a life of faith, to lead a Christian life, to lead a life worthy of God.

So, you recognize the need for treasure, for the use of means, of wealth, of money for the common good.  Said Wesley, gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.  He who lived his adult life on 60 pounds sterling a year, and took to the street in the evenings appealing for funds for the poor.  The New England traditions of industry and frugality endure, to some limited measure, and that is good.  Every Sunday in worship we lay gifts on the altar.  It is a moment, symbolic and spiritual, that reminds us all that you only have what you have the power and freedom to give away, that you only finally possess what you have given to somebody else.  Possession is generosity, and generosity is possession.  Today alongside our present congregation there will be people by livestream seeing the lifting of those collection plates, on a communion Sunday, from 26 states, from 11 other countries, from near and far and very far.  A writer in Alaska, a poet in Texas, an academic in Rhode Island, a dozen households on Cape Cod, a man in Dublin Ireland, a teacher in London, a third grader in Albany.  And you and me, here and now. The moment of worship lingers in the imagination of the listener, near or far. From you, in your liturgical practice, others are teaching and learning about, well, about giving.  Thank you for your example.  You try to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combine, truth and love for all to see.

The path of faith is found along the walkways of time, talent and treasure, the investment of time in worship, the gift of talent in service, and the offering of treasure in community.  Lift up your hearts!




Near the cross! O Lamb of God,

Bring its scenes before me

Help me walk from day to day

With its shadow o’er me

In the cross, in the cross

Be my glory ever

Till my raptured soul shall find

Rest beyond the river

February 25

Raymond Brown Ordained

By Marsh Chapel

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In this Marsh Chapel pulpit, from 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition, so important to the first 200 years in New England.  With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), John Calvin himself, (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013) (whom with gladness we shall greet in the flesh here at Boston University April 11, please come), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin) (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), summarized with the help of Paul of Tarsus (2016).

For the next decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England.  That is, in this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turned left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we have preached with, and learned from the Roman Catholic tradition, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen (2017) Thomas Merton (2018) John of the Cross (2019), Teresa of Avila (2020),  St Patrick (2021), and Dorothy Day (2022), and Augustine of Hippo (2023).  In future years, it may be Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, or others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.

Speaking of Vatican II, this year, 2024, we engage the work of Fr. Raymond Brown, the pre-eminent Catholic New Testament Scholar of the 20th century.  The openings in life, culture, ecumenism, and ecclesial leadership that emerged from 1962-1965 directly coincided with his own excellent biblical scholarship, and gave voice to those within Catholicism, like Brown, who were champions of historical critical study, not unlike what had been achieved in Protestant biblical studies from the time of the enlightenment.  Brown was my advisor for three years at the Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York, from 1976-1979, a chore he accomplished with glad heart and over against much to be desired from his advisee, headwinds of ignorance, diffidence, inattention and sloth.    These are three ‘teaching’ sermons.  Augustine judged that sermons should ‘teach, delight, and persuade’.  Well, this Lent we shall have to hope that by teaching, the sermons carry also some delight and persuasion.  It is further hoped that those engaged the dance of teaching and learning, professors and students both of our community, may find something gracious and affirming here.


In the midwinter of 1979 Jan at sixth months pregnant became very ill with an ovarian cyst.  The physician in NYC told me that he was not sure either—child or mother—would survive, but the surgery was not optional.  By the grace of God, both survived, and we moved suddenly away from school to church, to find our way into ministry and life.

That spring, commuting to finish courses, I met my teacher Lou Martyn in the Union Seminary Quadrangle.  He handed me a book as gift, one of John Knox’s books on the early church (Knox of 20century not of the sixteenth).  I cherish the gift now forty years old, which became a kind of sign for the future, then altogether unforeseen.  My advisor, Raymond Brown, gave me no book of this sort, but he gave me, well, The Good Book, he gave me a fascination with the Bible, a love of the Bible, and intrigue in the Bible, a respect and regard for the Bible, and a way of understanding it not only in the sense of what it once meant, but also in the sense of what it now means.

I returned this week to John Knox on Romans.  To hear what he did hear, here. Like my later teacher NT Wright, Knox took on the hard passages, including this one from Romans.  Like his successor, Raymond Brown, he took on hard passages.

For the students here or listening today, note where your mind is quickened by another’s teaching, where your spirit is enlivened by another’s mentorship, where your life is molded by another’s voice.  This week, happily, David Brooks so remembered Isaiah Berlin, though Brooks mistakenly used the word pluralism about Berlin, when the truer.   word is liberalism.

I marvel at the beauty and mystery of this section of Romans 4, ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (resurrection first, then creation).  Hoping against hope.  (such an odd phrase)

I marvel at the phrase, ‘hope against hope’.  I marvel at its assertion of a hopeless hope, of hope with no prospect, no rationale, no ready support.  Less hope for than hope in.  Less hope for than hope in.

I marvel that faith is faith, your faith is your faith, when it is what you are left with, all you are left with, like two young people awaiting surgery, or like an older poet awaiting death.

I marvel that faith is reckoned as righteousness, that what stands up in hope against hope is the faith of Abraham.  Abraham before circumcision, Abraham the father of multitudes not just the religious, Abraham the father then of believers everywhere.  No one can keep the whole law.  Every life includes failure, error, mistake, and misjudgment.  All of us stand in need of grace, pardon, forgiveness.

I marvel at the ordering here of resurrection first and creation second, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Do you notice?  For Paul here resurrection comes first, then creation, not in a temporal but in an existential sense. Resurrection is the grounding of creation, the grounding of the ground of being.  When Paul writes of God, he writes first of the God who raises the dead, and only second of the God who creates.  I marvel at this.  Even if Paul has somewhat altered the original meaning of Genesis (Knox: This story of Abraham suits the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews, with his somewhat different idea of faith, better perhaps than the purpose of Paul).  The father of faith relies on humble trust in God’s mercy and power, as distinguished from reliance on good works. Hope against hope.  To continue to have hope though it seems baseless.

And with this welcoming word, Paul can sing and soar in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that.  We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that 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 which has been given to us.

Mark sounds similar:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the for sake of the gospel, will save it.

You recognize that this is the voice of an early preacher, whose words Mark has placed in retrospect upon the lips of Jesus.   We see Jesus looking back through the cross, as did Mark.  We hear Jesus through the din of the passion, as did Mark.  We know Jesus through the rigor of trying to follow after him, even if we are long way behind, as did Mark.

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’  and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389



These Lent 2024 sermons rely, for details of Fr. Brown’s life, upon the recent, excellent biography of Brown by Donald Senior. 

Donald Senior reveals the unpretentious brilliance of Raymond Brown (1928-1998,  in the context of turbulent times in Catholicism.  He portrays a complex man of prodigious learning for whom scholarship and church life were mutually enriching.  Senior shows us a priest with a rich network of friends and a deep life of faith who nonetheless was burdened by harassment from right-wing critics.  His book traces the path by which Vatican officials came to embrace new modes of biblical scholarship; he describes the significance of this scholarship for the church, and for enhanced relationship with Protestants and Jews.  As one privileged to have known Raymond E. Brown, I highly recommend this book for the witness it bears to one of the most important teachers of the twentieth century—whose legacy continues to inspire.  (Mary Boys, Union).


Fr. Raymond Brown was without doubt a central figure in the development of twentieth-century Catholic biblical scholarship.  Combining rigorous historical criticism of Scripture with devotion to the church’s teachings, he produced highly respected works of meticulous scholarship sensitive to their theological implications.  Senior’s intellectual biography carefully reviews Brown’s scholarly accomplishments while tracing the history of his influential academic career and recording the controversies within Catholic circles engendered by his embrace of critical methods.  Anyone interested in the development of Catholic biblical scholarship since Vatican II will welcome this biography of, as Senior says, ‘the most well-known and most appreciated Catholic teacher of the Bible of his generation’ (Harold Attridge, Yale).


Fr. Raymond Brown was during his lifetime the leading biblical scholar\exegete in the United States.  His books were reviewed by the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  He helped save what could be saved of the Roman Catholic diocesan priesthood.  His thesis on how the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the extra chapter in John (chapter 21) all fit together is probably the boldest and most brilliant and satisfying thesis by any American scholar in the field of New Testament studies since the founding of the republic (Benedict Thomas Viviano, Fribourg).

Some few here or listening will remember our remembrance of Thomas Merton in 2018. Within those, some far fewer still may remember that while a student at Columbia, Merton came to a moment of deep conversion, during a service of worship and mass at Corpus Christi parish on 121st street in Manhattan.  Thirty years after that inspired moment along Broadway in NYC, several times a week one could see Raymond Brown emerging after noon from that same church, Corpus Cristi (across the street from Union Theological Seminary, and a block away from Jewish Theological Seminary, and by a turn west on 122 street, a block and a half away from Grant’s Tomb.  (Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?()).  Brown led worship and celebrated the noon mass there for many years, emerging in his black suit and clerical collar, robe and stole in hand, to return to this UTS office, research, teaching and leadership.  It was an embodied reminder of that for which we strive here at Marsh Chapel, in the words of Charles Wesley, to ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness, combine, truth and love let all men see’. It was an embodied reminder of that for which we strive here across the 47,000 souls, 18 deanships, 3 campuses and nigh 200 year history, born in Methodism, in three words:  learning, virtue, piety…learning, virtue, piety…learning, virtue, piety.



Speaking of February and speaking of Lent, in this spirit, to close, we remember our own Howard Thurman this month, who said, ‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities.  He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them. (JATD, 99)

February 18

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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The Bach Experience

February 18, 2024

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals and then prays at some length. Including today in the wilderness.  Lent begins in the wilderness. What did Jesus pray? And how? And for how long? Was his prayer attendant upon his healings? Or caught up only with his pending decision to itinerate? Where was this that he went? What did he wear? Did he kneel? Is this history or theology in Mark 1?

There is a strong argument to be made that we really know very little about Jesus, including about how he prayed, how he struggled in the wilderness. James Sanders once gave us a list of 8 things we could know about Jesus, one of which was that he died on a cross, and the others of which were not much more startling.  Norman Perrin said, “This material had a long history of transmission, use and interpretation in the early Christian communities, and when it reached the hand of Mark any element of historical reminiscence had long been lost…The Gospel of Mark is narrative proclamation.” Yet this scholarly sobriety hardly slakes our curious spiritual thirst.  We long to see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly.  Day by Day.  So, we want to know…

We want to know about Jesus, as much as we can. When you love someone, you want to know them, root and branch, hook, line and sinker. Every Christian at every time has known this desire. We listen for, and to Him, today.  We listen for his word, to his word, today.  His is a saving word, even in the hands of very human, very fallible preachers, congregations, churches, denominations and religions.

As one great scholar and dear friend has carefully argued (T. Weeden, Mark: Traditions in Conflict), Mark—not Jesus now, nor the early church now, but Mark—has an axe to grind.  Ted, my predecessor in our Rochester church, his 17 years preceding our 11, died this year.  How we shall miss him.  His work remains, carries on, though.  Here it is. Jesus was powerful but crucified. Christian life will involve glory–but also pain. Jesus was not only a wonder worker whom demons could celebrate or denigrate.  He also became a Messiah who disappointed, disappointed, his disciples, to the point of their, to the point of Peter’s, choosing betrayal. Jesus died on a cross, toward which he chooses to itinerate. Like all humans, Christians suffer, at least to some degree. Mark may want firmly to teach his generation that hurt is, tragically, a part of the walk of faith. Nero’s persecution may lie in the background. The Jewish war may lie in the foreground. A strongly competitive version of a glory gospel may lie in the background. Regardless, this gospel is about resolute discipleship. To be a Christian means to know how, and why, when you must, to pull up our socks.  To be resolute.

For this, this morning, we have some good news. We have ancient, good company in Mark. The writer’s community finds themselves at the beginning of the eighth decade AD faced with a crisis of faith. Forty years have passed since Easter morning. The eschatological age has not dawned…the joys of the kingdom are still only dreams…Mark’s church is beset by suffering…The focus of his spiritual reflection is the on the struggling, even suffering life of Jesus (Weeden, Mark: Traditions in Conflict, 159).

Some by example show us this. There have been some heroes and heroines among us, making the case for resolute discipleship, in what they say and how they live. One such, who comes to mind come February, who comes to mind come February, and come Lent, is Marian Wright Edelman, now 84 years old.  She must pray. She must. Otherwise, how would she have the discipline to stay on the trail for children for so many years, so many decades? She wrote once to and for her students:

“I want to convey a vision to you today, as you (move) into an ethically polluted nation in a world where instant sex without responsibility, instant gratification without effort, instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving, and hoarding rather than sharing are the frequent messages and signals of our mass media popular culture and political life.”

In other words, this particular walk, in faith, your personal walk of faith, means that you will not always be appreciated. This walk means that you will be required to be kind to those who do not afford you the same courtesy. This walk means that you will daily get nametags thrust upon you that are misspellings. You may die a hero’s death and have your name misspelled in the paper. Jesus’ in Mark 1 begins in the wilderness, and his beginning has one single outcome: a resolve to take a hard path.

Cantata (Scott)

Speaking of February and speaking of Lent, We remember our own Howard Thurman this month, who said, ‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities.  He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them. (JATD, 99)

Beloved, as the music and its beauty this day overtake us, how will you live out the deep river truths? How will you combat daily, hourly, the remaining even growing desocialization flowing out of Covid still?  People became desocialized during Covid.  Nor is the church, nor are church people exempt here. How will you live down life’s opposition, however you understand it?  Have you truly intuited the brevity of life?  Have you really absorbed the capacity we have as humans to harm others?  Have you faced the dualism of decision that is the marrow of every Sunday, every prayer, every sermon, every service?  Are you ready to make a break for it?  Are you ready to discover freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation and love in departure?  Are you set to place one hand in that of The Spirit and the other in that of the Presence?

May it be so, and so, we pray, a wilderness prayer:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest, our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

February 11

Transfigured Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Of a sudden our lessons from St. Mark, for some weeks about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, are interrupted, even upended, by the unexpected insertion of today’s gospel, the account of the high mountain, the wild and windy mount of the Transfiguration. We are taken up higher, we are guided to a promontory, to a peak, to a place of vision, of vista, of mystery, of presence, elusive but nonetheless powerful presence.  This is our seasonal way, one would say, of keeping perspective, of allowing the high calling in faith, with hope, for love, not to be clouded or overshadowed by lower lights.   And this is why, come Sunday, we come to church.  For you, for us, the ordered public worship of Almighty God upon the Lord’s Day is not a matter of indifference.  It is a matter of attention to the meaning of life, the high calling of living a transfigured life, a transfigured life.  Frost…

It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

For the month of February, broadly across American culture, there has come to be a healthy attention to Black History, a shared if quite variously engaged cultural project, a good thing. Especially it is a good thing within a time that has found media generated ways to normalize the abnormal, in politics but also in other things, to normalize forms of rhetoric and behavior, in national leadership, that prior 2016 were adjudged abhorrent and immoral, not normal.  There is of course a media financial incentive.  With humility and pride both, let us recall, we have at Marsh Chapel our owned lived history.  My dad graduated from BUSTH in 1956, preceded a year by Martin Luther King, become Dr. King 1955.

Martin, first and last, was a preacher.  Martin Luther King’s own favorite sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life”, as Gary Dorrien reminded us (157, The Making of American Liberal Theology), was itself based on a sermon from Boston’s own Phillips Brooks.  King preached the sermon in 1954, to candidate at Dexter Avenue, and again at Perdue in 1958 before a national UCC convention, and again in 1964 in Westminster Abbey to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  As you learn, guest preaching on the circuit, what is good the first time, can often be better preached, three times or more.  The opposite also may be true.  King, following Brooks, compared life to a cube, possessing the three dimensions of length, breadth and height.  The good life flourishes when all three interact in something like a great triangle.  “At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stand other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme Infinite Person, God”.  Length means achieving personal goals, breadth comprises the concern for the well being of others, and height signifies the desire for an upward moving longing for God.

         Today’s text is about the third dimension, about height, and personally asks you whether your life exhibits this, King’s third dimension.  Height.  Hast Thou Height?  Granted your personal achievements.  Given your communal engagements.  Have you a known, or been known by, ‘a mountain view’?  In Boston, during this winter of 2024, in the speaking and hearing of Mark 9, there could hardly be a more personal, pertinent question.  On it hang hope and health, yours and mine. The dimension of height, today acclaimed in the transfigured life of Jesus, is one of the gifts which the religious communities may offer to support our common hope across the globe. To survive, personally and communally, the next year and more, we shall need this height. 

         Today we hear of the Transfiguration.  Originally a resurrection appearance account, this legend eventually was placed, by Mark, in the year 70ce, back into the life of Jesus, as a confirmation of his Messiahship, a portent of Easter, and an affirmation of Peter’s earlier confession.  Our lectionary places this passage, given symbolical and other similarities, adjacent to other Old and New Testament readings.  But the truth is that there are as many reasons to disjoin as to conjoin texts, and it is generally better to avoid more than absorb the inherited usurpation by the Newer Testament of the Older, when and if at all possible. 

Mark has brought the trumpets of universals to the occasion.  All life longs for height!  Hear the resurrection gospel!  Light. Shining. Cloud. God. Tradition. Prayer. Silence. Presence.  White…white as snow…white as no fuller on earth could bleach…white as light…dazzling white.  What arrives to Mark is a Mountain View, an announcement of God.  This is my beloved…listen…to Him…

         Mark has brought you something profoundly hopeful and healthy.  Good life has height, as well as length and breadth.  Good life has height that is a part of human experience.     For Mark, the Transfiguration is not only about divine but also about human experience, not only about a divine voice but also about human ears. Mark’s passage is about heightened human experience.  We need this view today, a day when we recall that for all the rigors and excellence of sports, there was $115B in sports gambling in the USA 2023, and 25M million more people participated in 2023 than in 2018.

         It is striking that Mark, facing similar fright as do we, witness to the destruction of the Temple, wrote otherwise, here.  (May his courage, and the courage of the other biblical writers, ever infect us.) As if to say, there is more than one witness, the cost of discipleship, Mark’s unflinching honesty about the dark, itself, strangely heightens human experience, making even transfiguration fully human, making our life open to height.

         At least ask yourself, whether your life has height?  Human height?  Has it?

         Height allows an appreciation of multiple interests, the unspoken presence in every gathering. Reason recognizes multiple interests without demonizing the interests or the interested.

         Josiah Royce: Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you.  Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly.  Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices.  The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required.  The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

         The tradition of responsible Christian liberalism, advocated at Marsh Chapel, understands and honors Mark 9.  Now those of us who initially studied theology forty years ago, heard very little of this.  We heard Neo-Orthodoxy, on the one hand.  We heard Liberation, on the other.  Both the liberationists and the Barthians are correctives to the larger liberal tradition, needed at times and good at times, but both espousing not only a responsible authority, but also a kind of authoritarianism, and both imbued with a lasting anger, which the transfiguration does not justify, as appealing as both are to the nighttime all around us. 

         The gospel offers another message.  Your life, in its struggle up the mountain, may open up, at points, to a humanly accessible mountain view, a saving human height!

Take a breath.  Up here, the air is rarified.  Up here, you may have a moment of clarity.  A transfigured life brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry.  Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience.  On the contrary!  Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will.  Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice.  Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose. Real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty.  Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres


And real loyalty is magnanimous.  Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty.  At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own.  Maybe especially then.  US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee.  My close friend, Jon Clinch’s new historical novel, The General and Julia, about Grant’s last few months of life, is a kind of homage to chivalry.  It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition.  People of faith were once known for this kind of chivalry, an appreciation of multiple interests, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty.   A football player, a burly bearded lineman, explained a defeat saying, “They played better than we did.”  Our granddaughter is a Swifty, a fan of Taylor Swift, who last week in receiving an award said, ‘the work, the work is the real reward.’  Yes.

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference.  Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements.  Loyalty has a magnanimous height that honors others’ divergent loyalties, best perhaps known in vibrant local communities, what Alistair Macintyre (Dean at CAS next door in 1972) called ‘the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained’ (LRB, 2/8/24, 17). Maybe he worshipped then at Marsh Chapel?

         In fact, if life does not retain a height dimension, life becomes a kind of death.  Without the mountain presence, the absence of the valley becomes the valley of death. I may ask you, a question.  Does your life have height?  Is the spiritual ceiling in your weekly house of sufficient stature?  How high is heaven, day to day?  Is there any place for a cloud, for brilliance, for presence, for the numinous?  Is there a room with a view?  Is there a place for special experience, even ‘special revelation’? A pastor asked a harried housewife what would make her life better, and she replied, ‘a window over the kitchen sink’.


Sometimes, as Karl Jaspers taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be opened to us in liminal moments:  change, loss, death, birth, relocation, illness, healing.  Let us remember Jaspers this Lent.

         Sometimes, as John Wesley taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be provided for us by means of grace:  a regular mealtime prayer (do you know one?), a memorized set of verses (do you have them?), a favorite hymn or two (do you hum one?), a pattern of worship (do you claim one?), a church family to love and a church home to enjoy (do you attend one?).   Personal goals, life’s length, do not come without effort.  Communal changes, life’s breadth, to not come from wishes.  Why should we think that a mountain view, a certain height, will come our way without attentive effort?  Let us remember Wesley this Lent.

Sometimes, as Ralph Harper taught us some years ago, we need the height of presence:  When I am moved by a painting or by music, by clouds

passing in a clear nigh sky, by the soughing of pines in the early spring, I

feel the distance between me and art and nature dissolve to some degree,

and I feel at ease.  I feel that what I know makes me more myself than I

knew before. This is how the saints felt about God, and I see in my own

experience elements that I share with the saints and prophets, the

philosophers and priests.”  (On Presence, 6) Let us remember presence this


Sometimes, we need to remember that you cannot cook on a cold stove.  What bakes bread is not only yeast but heat!  Let me hear you whistle!  Let me feel your body in the pew!  Let me notice you humming a hymn! Let me eat at your table and see your photographs!  Let me know your name!  Then there may come the chance for a certain height.  Let us remember this, this Lent.


‘Reality takes shape only in memory’, said Proust. In my junior year, spent abroad in Segovia, I had the good fortune to meet a friend.  We climbed the mountains of Castile together, though we never saw each other in church.  Then the week before Lent in 1975, the last year of Franco’s reign, we met each other in the plaza.  My friend was carrying, in good Castilian fashion, the Ejercicios Espiritualesof Ignatius of Loyola.  Surprised, I inquired about this reading for Lent, and participation in the visionary exercise of Loyola.  “Siempre se saca algo bueno de estas cosas” said the confirmed agnostic: “ah, one always gets something good from these things” said the passionate climber of mountains.  Another kind of mountain view…Hear the gospel: the gospel of height, the gospel of a high mountain view, the gospel of a transfigured life…and this gospel awaits you, too.

It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

February 4

Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

January 28

A New Voice

By Marsh Chapel

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Jesus greets us today in a divine, heavenly voice, which we hear…in our own experience.  His, this voice, arises in the Gospel According to St. Mark, in three modes.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  To our salvation, that is.


First, notice the lingering power of tradition.  Not traditionalism, but the forms of inherited tradition.  The new, the dominical voice whistles through the willow branches of tradition. Strangely, paradoxically, mysteriously Jesus’ voice, utterly new, addresses us out of the old.   Said J Pelikan, ‘tradition is the living faith of dead people, but traditionalism is the dead faith of living people’.

Jesus speaks.

When does he speak?  On the Sabbath.

Where does he speak?  In the synagogue.

How does he speak?  As a teacher.

All three of these aspects of his speaking are named for us, though we might have inferred two of the three from just the mention of one, or another.  They go together—holy time, holy space, holy words.  Holy time, Holy space, Holy words. The gospel means to emphasize by repetition.

There is, at the outset, a regard, a lingering respect for what has been, for what one inherits.  For tradition, though not traditionalism.  The Sabbath is the occasion.  The synagogue is the setting.  The role of teacher frames the message.

A time of rest and refreshment, Sabbath, here receives Jesus’ blessing, at least in the manner of his recognition and participation.   Sunday can be a time of Sabbath rest.  A time for sleep, for recovery, for reading, for gathering.   We are a sleep deprived people, somnambulant in a sleep deprived culture.  So, a traditional occasion, a time for retreat and renewal can feed us, if we let it.  There are none so weary as those who will not sleep…Following my sermons, some arise inspired and some awake refreshed.  Both are good outcomes.

Likewise, synagogue, a coming together, is a traditional form.  It means, a gathering together.  Blessed are the hosts, for they shall be called the cooks of God.   When you have had a hand in gathering together a gathering together, you have brushed close to something good, something godly.

The other Sunday, a cold one, I made the mistake of walking to worship without a hat.  Brr!  I put my hands over my ears.  I hurried on to come here, eager to see who would be with us in church, eager to hear a response from the listening congregation, eager to be nourished by the ministers of music, eager to be gathered into a warm, inviting, loving, embracing community.  When it is cold enough, you can really appreciate a heated church home.  

But—and you guess here the coming homiletical turn I know—there is more than one kind of cold.  Some is meteorological.  Some is theological. When it is relationally cold enough, you can really appreciate a gathering together.  When someone finds a church family to love and a church home to enjoy—when the gathering together holds—there is a holy moment.

So, too, the role of the teacher, the preacher, the rabbi.  A familiar role, a familiar social location.  It is not in some exotic form that Jesus greets his hearers today.  The form is familiar, the teacher.  We may sometimes look too far, too wide for what we most want and need, when nearby, familiarly so, our health awaits.

Sabbath, synagogue, rabbi.  Tradition.  Here Jesus is more than willing to don the raiment of inheritance, to be harnessed by the yoke of tradition.  Jeremiah recommended the old paths.  Matthew prized every jot and tittle.  We hunger for those voices that will help us translate the tradition into insights for effective living.

Some memories of college years, here, will be connected to the particular sound of our choir.  Some recollections of exams passed or nearly passed, will be held in earshot of a meal or a trip or a talk, here.  Some remembrances of things past, even of hard moments of loss or regret or disappointment, will have about them a shaft of light through stained glass, an echo of truth through scripture read, an admission of prayer needed and offered.

Our gospel today, which announces Jesus’ novel, new voice, a voice like no other notices the lingering power of tradition.

It is in the midst of this house, this lineage, this inheritance that Jesus speaks, not absent it.

His hearers are astonished.  He is not confused in their hearing with their hearing of the scribes, his usual opponents in the flow of this gospel.  They know a different voice, a new voice, when they hear it.  

But we are not told bluntly what exactly made the voice so novel.  This awaits our own hearing, in our own living.

Like last week, in the calling of the disciples, the two sets of brothers.  We are told nothing, there, about what made them move, what caused their decision, what set them free.  And this week, in the voice of teaching, we are told nothing about what made the sermon so good.  Only that it was.  Good and new.

Over time, we all finally decide what such novelty sounds like. 

Jesus new voice greets us today.

Three aspects of his voice are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  So, first, tradition.


Second, notice, and how can you help it, the centrality of confrontation.  Here there is an unclean spirit loose, loose amid the holy time and place and role.  The dominical voice calls out its nemesis.  We are straightway here in the realm of apocalyptic, cosmic apocalyptic, battle.

Our worldview is not cosmic apocalyptic confrontation.  We do not see a convulsive as one demon, of an unclean sort, challenging another Jesus demon of an authoritative sort.  We are late modern people, women and men who do not cry out in public, unless we are at a sporting event, drinking heavily, or about to call the police into a domestic dispute.  Maybe, in compensation, that is why sports and drinking and all become so central to us.

Voice sometimes involves confrontation, not just pleasant courtesies of disagreement, but genuine squaring off.  To your roommate you finally say: ‘One of us is wrong and I think it is you.’  To your boss you finally say:  ‘Look, do you want to do my work or will you let me do it?’  To your political economy (known by the way for good reason as ‘capitalism’ not ‘laborism’, because capital rules labor in capitalism) you finally say:  ‘One way or another my son needs a job.’  To your good friend, gently, you say: ‘I am sorry you feel that way.  Goodbye’.  To your spouse you say: ‘You can have me or him but not both at the same time’.  Or, ‘you need to leave that job—you can stay, or you can stay married, you pick’ To your warring world you finally shout:  ‘My son is not your cannon fodder’.

One thing I truly admired about my dad was how he easy he was around confrontation.  A man would stand up and shout and carry on at a church meeting, walk out of worship the next Sunday, or send a blistering hand written hate note to the pastor, and my dad would shrug and smile and say, ‘I like to see him get worked up.  It is worth the price of admission just to see him so angry.’  Less naturally and more slowly, I too have learned to honor and receive anger.  The Jesus of Mark 1, accosting the demonic, would understand.

Here Mark is starting his gospel, with a confrontation!  The verb here rendered ‘be silent’ (so polite) means ‘to muzzle’.  Be muzzled.  Shut your trap. (so J Marcus, Anchor Bible Commentary, loc. Cit.).  Matthew begins his public gospel with the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke begins his public gospel with the sermon in Nazareth.  John begins his public gospel with the wedding in Cana (again, Marcus).  But Mark?  He begins with demons and confrontation.

When we get angry, we get in touch with something deep inside, something not necessarily at all related to what we think we are angry about.  We are not so very far from the ‘unclean spirit’ of Mark 1.  We are complicated creatures. Blessedly complicated creatures.

You see and hear this again in the recent film ‘Freud’s Last Session’, based on the earlier Broadway play.  It includes an imagined conversation between Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist, and C. S. Lewis, the great apologist.  Bombs are falling on London.  Freud is suffering with mouth cancer.  Lewis is struggling with his young man’s sexuality. And through it all—the question of God.  Freud and Lewis confront each other. They lock horns for 90 minutes of verbal combat.  Each memorizes and delivers the equivalent of two Sunday sermons.  They square off and argue.  Good.

Lewis: ‘in pleasure God whispers, in pain God shouts’.  Freud:  ‘just why are you living with your best friend’s mother?’  Lewis:  ‘I got on my cycle an atheist, and got off a believer, all one day’.  Freud:  ‘you might want to see somebody about that’.  Lewis: ‘faith is most reasonable thing on earth’.  Freud: ‘yes, such a good God—bombs, death, disease, pain’.  Lewis: ‘I will pray for you’.  Freud:  ‘you do that’.

Yet at the very end, though Freud has turned the radio off to mute the music it carries for much of the story, and of course Lewis, for once in good Freudian fashion, has asked why the good Dr. Freud cannot listen to the music, and has given his spirited and spiritual analysis, still and yet, at the end and alone, dying and in pain, the great psychoanalyst slowly turns up the music, and Mozart rings out.

There is no resolution—how could there be in 90 minutes?  But there is confrontation that evokes something new, a new voice.

Jesus greets us today in such a voice.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit. So, Second, confrontation.  It takes the exorcising power, the new voice, finally, of love, to move us.


Third, response.  Notice the response.  ‘With authority…a new teaching…he commands…even the demons obey…his fame spread throughout the north country’.   It works.  Whatever he said, whatever he taught, it helped somebody.  We wish we knew what it was!  What verse, what chapter, what story?

Yet, there is a quieter wisdom in the silence of Scripture here, about the content of Jesus’ sermon.  If we knew, we would be tempted just to repeat rather than to rehearse.  We need to have the tradition, in the moment of confrontation, translated into insights for effective living which, in response, we can use.  That is authentic authority in the full.  If we knew that he used the 100th Psalm, we would repeat it every Sunday.  If we knew he preached on Jeremiah, we would invariably do so.  If we knew he taught specific proverbs, we would ignore the rest.  No, there is freedom in the silence of the gospel, here, a freedom to live and love in newness of life. To respond.

Freud finally turned on the music.

And you?

Perhaps you are a Christian because the best people, leading the best lives, in your experience, have been so.  I know I respond to the freedom and love I see in other people of faith, now 65 generations after the exorcism in Capernaum, and the response all across Galilee.  In other lives we have seen glimpses of what we could be and do, if only we would only straighten up and fly right.  Some of those lives are in this room.  Some are in memory.  Some are out there waiting to be introduced.  Don’t kid yourself.   Your example counts, matters, lasts, works.

Tradition and confrontation evoke a response.  The unclean spirit leaves.  The congregation murmurs.  The report goes forth.

Someone taught you.  A High School band director?  A Latin teacher in college (Agricola, agricolae…)?  A chemistry professor who lingered with you in the lab?  Who?

Nancy responded to her Latin teacher.  Bill responded to his science teacher.  Jane responded to her history teacher.  Jill responded to her family matriarch.  John responded to his theology professor.  As Carlyle Marney put it:  “Who told you who you was?”

Somehow, with four growing children and a preacher’s meager salary, my parents managed to give us all piano lessons.  My teacher was a farm wife, twenty years younger than her husband.  The distance from the barn to the house, from the manger to the piano, was very short, in both geographic and physical senses.  I feel the warmth of both those spaces, and of that tutelage today, even though those precious parsonage dollars were almost entirely wasted on me, to my regret.  I can’t play a scale, after years of lessons.  I can though appreciate the difficulty of what others do.  And there was something more, somewhere between Lewis and Freud, in those afternoon lessons, which usually began with an honest question: “Did you practice?” and a less than fully honest response: “Some”.

You know, looking back to those growing up years, that was one of the few places and times, week by week, when I was in the sole presence of a non-parental adult: honest, trustworthy, kind, caring.  Now where the farm was there is an auto dealer and a pizza parlor.  But the hay, the barn, the milking, the home, the warmth, the music, the teaching, the—may I call it friendship?-- live on.  In her forties she died of cancer, three fine children, one great marriage, several years of crops and evenings and mornings of milking, and some less than stellar piano students later.  At her funeral the minister, a BU graduate, preached this sermon: ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  That itself is many years ago, but I remember it in full.  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  You are too.  And so are you.  And so are you.

The music is playing all around us, all through us, in our triumph and in our tragedy.  We just need to respond.  To lean over, and turn the dial, and set the music free.

The Gospel According to St. Mark starts off with a new voice. When you are listening for a new voice, for a sense of reliable, authority, then hunt around a healthy bit of lost tradition,and for a courageous and cleansing moment of confrontation, and for a real and personal, public response.