May 21

University Baccalaureate 2023

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to hear just the Baccalaureate Address

Graduates of the class of 2023, as we gather, we celebrate your success, we honor our esteemed, excellent University leadership, we welcome your parents and friends, and we pause, briefly with you, to ponder the meaning of it all.  (Usually, I have the responsibility to speak to the Baccalaureate guest, and among other things gently but clearly remind them that they have just 15 minutes for the Baccalaureate Address.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and I feel their pain, only 15 minutes.  The wheels of justice grind slow but exceedingly fine!) So let me ask you to consider, briefly, three aspects of this high, holy moment, your graduation, all three of which are embedded in this Marsh Chapel, and embedded in the meaning of your study here. Learning. Virtue. Piety.  Life-Long Learning. Social Virtue. Transformational Piety. 

We have at Boston University a strange, superstitious tradition regarding the seal embedded in front of Marsh Chapel, which by legend is not to be stood upon prior to completion of courses, on pain, threat or supposition that one such misstep will block one’s progress toward graduation itself, or at least delay the degree, somehow.  

For a few minutes at this Baccalaureate 2023, let me upend my own, and perhaps your own, puzzlement, even disregard, for this tradition. Just for a moment.  For like a lot of strange traditions, this one about not stepping on the seal may have, oddly, a point.  For the seal has upon it three exacting words, words to live by, not just for a bit of life, but for the whole of life.  Potent words.  Words with electricity, juice, in them.  Words, three words, not to be treated lightly, tread upon, scuffed, sauntered over, mistreated, marked or mocked with disdain.  Words, three words, fit to carry for the memory of Commencement, the beginning of the road away from school. Words, three words with which not just to make a living, but also to make a life.  You and I do not believe in ghosts.  Yet…we have our own reasons, over time, to accord some measure of respect, respectful agnosticism, but respect nonetheless to the uncanny, to the numinous, to the strange, to the elusive, even when such are produced for us out of an odd legend.  For life is haunted by things we don’t see, things we don’t understand, things we cannot control.  Scripture and tradition acknowledge this—from the Midas touch to Lot’s wife.  

Here are three divine words, lasting truths, immutable markers of what matters, lasts and counts.  In the vigor of youth, and in the tempestuous vitality of young life, somehow, it may be, our students are on to something.  They are teaching us, and themselves.  They are chary of, wary of, disdain for the true, the good and beautiful, in places of the heart, of the soul, of the subconscious.  In good Shaker tradition, the heart follows the hand, their heart follows their feet.  Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.  In three words.  

The first of these is learning. That means life-long learning.  As you entered the Chapel, above the portal, there is the sculpture of Mr. John Wesley, whose Methodist movement gave BU birth in 1839, and who sang, ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combine, truth and love for all to see’. A kind of early One BU. He was devoted to learning, life-long learning, as have been many of our guests here, over these years. In 2018 John Lewis (of blessed memory), Anthony Fauci, Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto (mayor of San Juan) all reminded us of this, both in speech and in example. They embodied the civil rights movement, the challenges in Puerto Rico (remember the former president’s graceless remarks about Puerto Rico that year?), and the importance of science in health (though we could not yet see the pandemic coming, nor Dr. Fauci’s central leadership through it).  Experience is the greatest teacher, especially when it causes us to learn through disappointment, but also when it causes us to learn through generosity.   

Disappointment teaches us lessons that success cannot fathom.  Faith mainly comes from trouble. Mr. Wesley and his early band of Methodists learned to ‘watch over one another in love’, because life is so shot through with disappointment.  Wesley was 200 years after Shakespeare, but he would have known the aching hurts recorded in those monumental plays and poems. You read Shakespeare at some point at BU, and so recall his 66th Sonnet, awash in disappointment:  

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,  

As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly–doctor-like–controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone. 

 We learn through experience, including the experience of grace, the grace, say, to overcome disappointment.  That is faith, whether in secular or religious attire. 

 Likewise, we learn too through giving.  You only have what you can give away, what you have the freedom and power to give away.  You only truly possess what you have the liberty to give away. 

 So, 200 years after Shakespeare, along came John Wesley, teaching a tithing generosity, Mr. John Wesley who greets us at the door, coming and going.  

 This morning we gather up in prayer the experiences of four years and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace. 

 This morning we embrace the graduates of 2023, as you commence with the rest of life, and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace. 

 This morning we open ourselves to the world around us, and pledge ourselves to live not only in this world but also, and more so, for this world, for this world in a spirit of grace and peace. Horace Mann: “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” 

 John Wesley was the founder of Methodism, the religious tradition that gave birth to Boston University in 1839. His motto: Do all the good you can. The words are simple:  that is significant.  The language is universal:  that is significant. The tone is thankful:  that is significant.  The phrasing is memorable:  that is significantWords fit for use morning by morning, day by day, year by year, all in a lifetime:  that too is significant.   

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can. 

Do all the good you can. 

 Learning, lifelong learning. 

The second of the three words embedded in the central, haunted Plaza seal, the occult and subconscious dark backdrop of life (life as Hobbes said that is solitary, nasty, brutish and short) the second of these words is virtue.  That means social virtue.  That means common, civic, communal virtue.  Your class has known the importance of shared, national virtue, which was needed to overcome a raging pandemic which impacted every one of you, every one of us.  Your class lived through the raging furies of January 6, 2021 which had the potential to impact every one of you, every one of us.  Your class lived through the surges of isolation, anxiety and depression, which continue to challenge us. 

Well, we have a second permanent guest in Marsh Chapel a fellow who knew much about this.  He is in the back corner, on the pulpit side, up in stained glass.  Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln.  He is reminder that virtue is the bedrock of shared, national, social, cultural life.  Real leaders have virtue. Virtue is not optional in a nation’s leadership.  Shun mendacity. We may differ about the size and scope of a budget, or the most apt programs in foreign affairs.  But we cannot differ about telling the truth, about personal virtue, about lies, including big lies.  Personal virtue, especially in leaders, is the basis for national virtue.  Class of 2023, in warning, we say:  do not be fooled, here.  A house divided against itself, on this, cannot stand.   

Remember who you are and whose you are.  Listen to the few paragraphs of Lincoln’s greatest words.  Listen for the anaphora in the beginning, and the epistrophe at the end. Listen to the gravity and realism, but listen also, out of a dark corner and hour, for the hope. 

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

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

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

Both history and mystery are at the heart of a regard for virtue, and at the heart of any real college education.  

Virtue, social virtue.  

The third of these three words is perhaps the strangest to our ears, but maybe the most important.  It is piety. That means transformational piety.  This year Jonathan Eig has published Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Perilous Power of Respectability). King lived to transform.  Real piety is transformative. The piety here, the faith here, in your BU old bones, is transformational, not just personal, but transformational piety. 

My dad was born in the same year as King, and was here as a student at the same time.  My dad was raised by a single mom, with no dad at home.  But not all of our parents are natural parents.  Some are relational parents.  He met a teacher, a homiletics teacher, here at BU, who became such, a relational not natural parent, and so when their first child was born, they gave him the middle name, ‘Allan’, after that teacher, Allan Knight Chalmers.  He is the rascal speaking to you now.  None of us got here alone.  Others helped, others practiced a transformational piety.  Thank one, two or three of them today, if you have a chance.  

There is no greater voice, near or far, of transformational piety, than that voice celebrated in the heart of our plaza.  For your meditation, here are selected epigrams from your fellow BU alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   

When it gets dark enough you can see the stars. 

 Say that I was a drum major for justice, for peace, for righteousness.  

 Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

 Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. 

 I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. 

 The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. 

 I have a dream that one day my four children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

 ‘You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’  Have some dreams, even if, as Nina Tassler told us in 2016, you have to edit your dreams.  It would be great to have some of the children of King—Rafael Warnock, Deval Patrick, Marilynne Robinson, Barack Obama–here in autumn 2025 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Marsh Chapel.  May we find the grace to seek and serve his cause of justice in the years to come. 

 A story, one of transformational piety, which King repeatedly told, is of Marian Anderson. She was awarded an honorary degree here at Boston University in 1960, a black opera singer, whose voice was perhaps the greatest of all in the last century.  But it was her mother who made it possible:  I remember when Marian was growing up, and I was working in a kitchen till my hands were all but parched, my eyebrows all but scalded. I was working there to make it possible for my daughter to get an education. 

One day somebody asked Marian Anderson in later years, “Miss Anderson, what has been the happiest moment of your life?  Singing in Carnegie Hall? Performing for the Kings and Queens of Europe?  When Toscanini said a voice like yours come only once in a century.  No…No…No…And she looked up and said (smiling) quietly, “The happiest moment in my life was the moment I could say, “Mother, you can stop working now.” Marian Anderson realized that she was where she was because somebody helped her to get there. (MLKing, “A Knock at Midnight”).   And somebody helped you too. 

Piety, transformative piety.  

Learning. Virtue. Piety.  Personal. National. Global. Lifelong. Social. Transformative. They are your words, now, now that you have crossed the seal, your words chiseled in the stone of Marsh Chapel, your words, embodied in the beauty of this chapel, with Wesley and Lincoln and King.  Nod to Mr. Wesley, President Lincoln, and Dr. King, in sculpture and window and monument, as you depart.  But class of 2023, carry them in memory, not for a day, but for a lifetime.  

Let love be genuine 

Hate what is evil 

Hold fast to what is good 

Love one another with mutual affection 

Outdo one another in showing honor 

Never lag in zeal 

Be ardent in spirit 

Serve the Lord 

Rejoice in your hope 

Be patient in tribulation 

Be constant in prayer 

Contribute to the needs of the saints 

Practice hospitality 

 Class of 2023:  Bon Voyage! 


-The Boston University 2023 Baccalaureate speaker was The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel

May 14

This I Believe 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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John 14:15–21

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Text of the reflections is unavailable at this time.

May 7

Communion Meditation- May 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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John 14:1-14

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This morning we think of our students, as classes end and exams begin, and especially our seniors, with whom we gather up in prayer the experiences of four years and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace. 

This morning we embrace the graduates of 2023, who began in 2019, as they commence with the rest of life, and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace. 

This morning we open ourselves to the world around us, and pledge ourselves to live not only in this world but also, and more so, for this world, for this world in a spirit of grace and peace. Speaking of grace, this morning we offer you a prayer, a grace, written by John Wesley. Wesley was the founder of Methodism, the religious tradition that gave birth to Boston University in 1839.   

His grace exemplifies that tradition: 

The words are simple:  that is significant 

The language is universal:  that is significant 

The tone is thankful:  that is significant 

The phrasing is memorable:  that is significant 

It is a prayer fit for use morning by morning, day by day, year by year, all in a lifetime:  that too is significant: 

 Gracious Giver of all good 

Thee we thank for rest and food 

Grant that all we do or say 

May in thy service be, this day 

Next week, our honored ‘This I Believe’ speakers will continue this tradition, in a spirit of grace and peace:  Allison Brown, Madison Boboltz, Hannah Hathaway,  Allison Imbacuan, Marian Karam Diaz—congratulations! 

This morning we think of our congregation, our community of faith, brought together by the gospel, and its preaching, by the gospel, and its sacrament, by the gospel and its resurrection mystery. 

We are children of those who shared with us the gifts of wonder, morality and generosity.  In mystery. 

John is a mystery.  It is odd that John has no record of the Last Supper, in his account of the passion. It is odd that John demotes Peter from his regular central role. It is odd that the gospel carries no remembrance of parables. It is odd that hardly anything of the standard ministry of Jesus, usual gospel fare, appears here. It is odd that the humanity of Jesus has virtually disappeared into the bright eternal light of his form in John, “God striding upon the earth”. It is odd that the New Testament would include a Gospel so fully at odds with its three synoptic cousins. Cousins, not siblings. It is odd that John, by the main, has no use for the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Where would the church be without birth to cleanse and guilt to absolve? It is odd that the Gospel we read today is shaped around seven stunning miracles, and four impenetrable chapters of teaching. It is odd that a Gospel so wildly different from the rest of those in the Bible should have made the cut, and been included. If you think having Ecclesiastes—which rejects, contradicts and humiliates much of the rest of the Hebrew Scripture—included there is a strange thing, then multiply that odd presence by 20 or 50 and you have a sense of how different is John. Nor in church nor in academia have we yet begun to account for the radical freedom and difference of this nonconforming gospel. It is odd. 

What remains, as we consider our church, our chapel, our community, our common table?  

A testimony to the power of relationship remains. John 14 sets aside predictions, instructions, and demonstrations, found here in the other gospels. Here relationship, relationship alone, remains. The relationship of Father and Son. The relationship of departed and devoted. The relationship of doubter and disciple. The relationship of community and pastor. The relationship of faith and works. The relationship of Jesus and his own.  

Things that really matter are ultimately relational, whether that relationship is with others, with self, or with God. Our friends give
us ourselves. Our instincts give us ourselves. Our sense of presence gives us ourselves. So this morning let me directly ask you to think about your close relationships, your work relationships, and your relationship to God. In these relationships you may overhear the humming, mysterious allure of service.   

Your relational gits, Marsh Chapel community, and your communal duties are significant and challenging.  They include needs, plans and hopes, all part of our shared communal duties: 

Needs: Boston University needs from Marsh Chapel, Religious Life (5) 

* Sunday Worship Excellence, *All University Events Ceremonial Leadership, *Pastoral Care at Death, *Religious Life Ministry, Program and Oversight, *University ‘Identity’, in History and Hope 

Plans:  Marsh Chapel and Religious Life Strategic Plan 2023 Summary (5) 

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.  Our use of President Merlin’s epigram means city as the global city, and service as worship and work.   Our foci guiding this envisioned mission are voice, vocation, and volume.  As in other iterations of our strategic plan (2006, 2009, 2012, 2017), we take our lead from the new, refreshed Boston University Plan, especially its own five-fold foci:  academics, research, globality, diversity, community. 

Hopes:  75th Marsh Chapel Dedication Anniversary (‘25) Goals (5, 200, 100, 1, 4) 

 $5M deanship endowment completed.  200. 200 students in worship.  100.  100,000 weekly contacts (building use, worship, newsletter, website, radio listenership, internet listenership, pastoral contact, other).  1.  One annual BU Religious Life Day (perhaps climate related). 4. Infrastructure advances (Live Stream; Digital Ministry; Organ; Elevator etc.).

These needs, plans and hopes involve us all, including those listening from afar.   


This morning with glad hearts we think of the three children to be baptized just following our service today.  Please stay and join us in the chancel, after our greeting in the narthex.  Bring along a hymnal.  We will speak then of baptism, a sacrament… 

We will remember an ancient, beautiful teaching, the Didache, which word simply means teaching, composed in the early second century, it may be, a younger cousin of the gospels of John and Matthew: 

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to everyone who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give. 

This morning we think of this season, Eastertide, the season of resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus is more than resuscitation. The witness of the church, of this church too, is that God has decisively acted in history by Christ to forgive sin and to vanquish death. Nor is Christ's being raised a form of healing, only, or translation, only, like the experiences of Lazarus or Elijah. No, this is the first fruit of the new creation, the beginning of the new age, whose outpost is the church. God's invasion, beachhead, incursion into history, the divine d-day is announced today 

It is in this vein, 60 years after the first Easter, that our fourth Gospel writer preaches. All the aforementioned, bodily resurrection, he receives and assumes. But he has other fish to fry, morally spiritual fish to fry. For the author of John, the accounts today of absence and presence have become moral stories. Directions for some to believe and go home, for others to recognize and say something. There is a "finesse" to venerable memory that, in its delicate lightness, touches truth more truly than younger recollection. Johns shows us some of this kind of "finesse". Some historians avoid an historic, that is bodily, or mystically vocal resurrection, because they focus on causation. Resurrection is not a historical category in the general sense. Philosophers, sociologists, scientists, cannot fathom resurrection, because it challenges the basic categories of their work. Which it does. Many others, avoid resurrection for another reason, the primary reason for the rejection of the Gospel in any case. Resurrection creates responsibility. If we are all merely creatures of biology, sociology and history, conditions over which we have no control and upon which we have no influence, then we are not free and therefore we are not responsible. We are not subjects. There is a reassuring side to this thought. While we receive no praise, we also avoid any blame. Nothing much changes anyway. Our conditions cause our behavior. "I really do not want to go to church because I know at some point somebody will ask me to do something."  

But conditions are not, necessarily, causes. Our sinful human condition is not necessarily a warrant for ongoing sin. Our mortal human condition is not ultimately an unalterable death knell. Easter means forgiveness and heaven!  

Contrary to historical determinism, in the historic teaching of the church, on resurrection, the opposite is true. God has freely acted in raising Jesus, and has thus opened the way for response. We are free to respond. And there is the rub.  

It is not, finally, we who have the power to question the resurrection. It is the resurrection that questions us.  

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." 

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." 

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

April 30

The Bach Experience- April 30, 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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John 10:1-10

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RAH:  The name of God's act is resurrection. Without it our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins, trapped, enslaved, the creatures of various conditions beyond our control or understanding that steal our freedom, and so our humanity. More. Without resurrection there is no response, because there is no responsibility at all.  But with resurrection there is joy, there is freedom, and there is response. 

John 10 today shows us the fullness of emptiness, presence in absence. John has always more than one opponent or contestant. He is fighting always on two fronts. So much for tradition, so much for culture. So much for depth, so much for breadth. So much for Judaism, so much for Gnosticism. So much for church and so much for community. So much for memory, so much for experience. John contrasts the freedom of Christ with fragile, formulaic faith. Things do not always fit into little boxes. The Hurricane winds of change, the reaches of pandemic and post pandemic, say, rearrange every manner of dwelling. 

The Gospel of John, more than any other ancient Christian writing, and in odd contrast to its prevalent misunderstanding abroad today, knew the necessity of nimble engagement of current experience, and the saving capacity to change, in the face of new circumstances.   The community of this Gospel could do so because they had experienced the Shepherd, present, ‘here’, here and now.  In distress, we hold onto divine presence, we hold onto the Shepherd– hic et nunc. Speaking, and hearing.  They found that in speaking of the Shepherd: ‘he is here’.  ‘I am…’  That is all, still, we have, the voice.  Utterance.  ‘I am…’  The ‘here’ is in the hearing.  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard, here. Come in and go out and find pasture. A resurrection moment.  

Which may bring us to the Cantata this morning, a joyful, even jolly, happy piece, befitting its Christmas birth, and also embracing our Easter rebirth.  Mark this day!  So shouts the Cantata, and so it reminds us of the precious gift that is every one day.  Dr. Jarrett, how today does the music shape, form, mold and teach us? 


SAJ:  The name of God’s act is Resurrection. And what is resurrection? Rebirth, renewal. The chance to grow. The chance to grow again. This is the Grace of God, freely given. This last Sunday of April, a gentle rain falls outside, nourishing the earth’s annual rebirth. The rain falls freely to the earth, just as God’s grace. Freely given.  

By God’s grace, woman and man were created in a garden long ago. And by God’s grace, he created them free, and free they have remained. Freed daily to choose Grace. What would you choose?  

God’s grace revealed anew in a Bethlehem manger, a second Adam: Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his Glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.  

The name of God’s act is Resurrection. Second Birth, a covenant renewed. Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Will you follow him? Will you choose God’s grace?   

Grace is the central theme of Bach’s Christmas cantata written in Weimar in 1714. “For the dawning radiance reveals itself to you as the light of grace.” 

“Let us then ever trust in Him and build upon His grace.” 

“May we ever walk in grace.” 

As with the two fronts of John’s Gospel, so too, our cantata embraces the paradox of God’s majesty clad in the humility of the manger; our Salvation born of a lowly Virgin, homage paid by the Shepherds. And in the fullness of time, our Prince of Peace, will arrive in Jerusalem not on a mighty steed, but a humble donkey. Ride on, King Jesus! “Ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die; bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take, O God, thy power and reign.” 

The name of God’s act is Resurrection. A saving Grace. A healing Grace. Freely given, that we might be freed of sin and death. Christians, etch this day in metal and marble stone. Mark this day. Mark this day, for God’s grace. Will you choose God’s grace, will you embrace it?  

How will you respond to cynicism? Negativity? Hopelessness? Fear? Will you simply acknowledge? Why not “Yes, and . . .” Choose it, yes, and proclaim it. Freely given that we might be free. So Christian, Mark this day. Choose Grace. Choose Resurrection. Proclaim Renewal. Live in Resurrection.  

Soar we now where Christ has led, Following our exalted Head, 

Made like him, like him we rise, 

Ours the cross, the grace, the skies.  

Alleluia. Alleulia.   


RAH:  As one for whom Christ died, and for whom God has raised him from the dead, now in the hearing of this good news, you have responsibility. You are free. You have the power to respond. Our past has been forgiven and our future has been opened (Christ has overcome sin and death). But that leaves you holding the bag, if not the burial cloth. Ability to response, response-ability, is forever set loose on Easter.  

I heard again our own Inner Strength Gospel Choir, in their 50th anniversary celebrations and fellowship and concert this weekend, in their honoring of our own Herb Jones in 20 years of leadership, and their response and responsibility to one another, over decades, and to faith welling up from that resurrection ‘inner strength’.  Mark this day! 

I talked with a young couple not long ago, just after their son was born. Early in the morning the contractions began. Panting and blowing and praying and waiting, the birth progressed. Suddenly-miracle! - ruddy and pink and crying and blinking there appeared a new born. You can revisit that moment, that sense of the miraculous.  Mark this day! 

I remember devotions in a meeting, given by a young man who has a telescope. When he was nine his neighbor taught him about the heavens. On a clear night he would call over next door, "Mikey come on out. I've got my scope. It's clear. Let's listen to the stars." Listen to the stars…Mark this day! 

I read Isaiah Berlin on his life mission. "Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached; in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force: so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, and so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established." Is there a time in history in which, we would have been more receptive to the mission of softening collisions?  Mark this day! 

 I hear the voice of Harry Belafonte, bringing us southern charms, warm breezes, music for dancing and dreaming, a voice for the ages, now given over to heavenly rest, to joy, to resurrection.  Mark this day! 

Therefor let us ever trust Him 

And build upon his Grace 

For He has bestowed upon us 

What now delights us forever 

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

April 23

Reflections for Earth Day

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 24:13-35

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Good morning! It is good to be with you again on this Sunday filled with April showers (or downpours as the case may be).  

We live in an era during which most of our lives are mediated through screens. We order goods, interact with others, and even learn new skills from our computers, smartphones, and the like. Person-to-person interaction might be more limited than any other time in history – even transactions that take place in person can be mediated through an app on your phone. I, for one, am an avid user of the Dunkin’ app to get my coffee on the go, limiting my interaction with others to only having to go into the store to pick up my beverage and leave.  

One thing about having so much of life distilled to screens is that it can distort your expectations. People can photoshop images to make themselves look completely different. Businesses can display an item claiming certain qualities that are not, in fact, true. Step-by-step tutorials may overestimate your abilities, or have unclear directions, leading to undesirable outcomes. For example, you might be familiar with the idea of Pinterest Fails, or the meme of “Expectation vs. Reality” or “what I ordered vs. what I got” in which people display the way something was supposed to look or turn out and then how it actually appeared. It’s such a popular concept that there’s a whole Netflix series, “Nailed it” that features armature competitors attempting to recreate professional-level baked goods. Personally, I can’t watch that kind of show without cringing, but a lot of people enjoy watching it. The same expectation vs. reality distress is realized through online ordering. A photo online doesn’t necessarily match the item in reality. The memes associated with this phenomenon are meant to evoke a laugh – the reality is so unlike the picture-perfect expectation image that you have to wonder what went wrong in the manufacturing process; or how someone could possibly sell something so unlike the product they are advertising. In any case, people set their expectations high and are disappointed when they are not met. 

As we live into this Easter season, we are greeted with the familiar stories of Jesus’ appearances. We know how these stories go, and what to expect from Jesus and those he is revealed to. First to Mary at the tomb, who did not recognize Jesus until he said her name. Then, in last week’s gospel, Jesus appeared to the disciples in the room in which they were hiding on the evening of his resurrection. Thomas at first missed out and then witnessed the resurrected Christ after his friends told him about Jesus’ return. Here again this week, we return to the day of resurrection. Cleopas and the other disciple are walking the road to Emmaus, deep in conversation about the topic of the day, Jesus’ death at the hands of the authorities. 

Walking, whether to get somewhere or for pleasure, requires time. For many, in today’s world, it seems like an inefficient way to get around. However, walking as a means of transportation has some benefits to it, aside from improving your health. It's amazing what kinds of conversations you can have on a walk with someone. Something about the constantly changing background, the movement of your body, the physical closeness without touching, and perhaps even the ability to not have to look someone in the eye as you speak allows for conversations to flow. It seems easier in the movement of the moment to share plans and expectations, to discuss the goings-on of the day and the frustrations, the joys, to share in a moment with someone.  

During their walk, the disciples encounter a stranger who we know to be Jesus. Surprised that this person has not heard of the major news of the day – Jesus’ death and resurrection – they proceed to not only narrate what happened but to share their hopes, their expectations, of what Jesus as the Messiah would have meant to them. In verse 21 we hear their expectations “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.” They understand that Jesus was to be a redeemer. That he was to be raised on the third day, as he had promised. But perhaps their expectations of what a redeemer should look like, what the process of redemption would be, wasn’t in line with what the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There was no sudden transformation, no complete shift in reality that upended the order of things. Instead, life went on as it had, or at least it felt that way to them. There wasn’t any proof that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, at least not any that they fully trusted (the women did see him, but the disciples didn’t seem to trust their account…which is a whole other sermon). Their hopes were dashed. They retreated from Jerusalem back to Emmaus. 

Jesus, meanwhile, continues to do what he has always done in his ministry. He teaches. He interprets the scriptures for them from the time of Moses so that they might come closer to understanding what God is doing through Jesus. Much like preachers of today, Jesus is helping to clarify the scriptures for his audience, even if they don’t fully understand the message. There are many times when we might feel as though the scripture is too dense for our understanding. That the word alone may not be enough for us to understand God’s nature. The good news is that Jesus meets us where we are and reveals God’s nature to us even if we are do not fully understand. Jesus takes the time to teach the two disciples on the road to Emmaus what the meaning of the scriptures are in regards to his own presence on earth. He does not require them to enter a special location, to come to him, to offer something for this knowledge. Instead, he shows up walking alongside them. 

Like so many times throughout the scriptures, these disciples continue to miss the point of what they have learned and observed throughout Jesus’ ministry.  They do not sense that he is the person they had come to know through his teachings and actions throughout the land. They are unaware as to the reality of the situation. The gospel’s retelling of this encounter tracks with how Jesus is presented in Luke – never quite what anyone is expecting. Upending and reversing the expectations of what a teacher and a leader should do and be for others. 

The disciples who are walking along with Jesus, hearing him speak and interpret the scriptures with regard to himself, are so caught up in what they think the Messiah should have been or should have appeared to be that they fail to see what is around them. It is only after they have their eyes spiritually opened during the breaking of the bread that they understand who Jesus is and that he is standing right in front of them. Just as quickly, he disappears, not giving them a chance to engage with the risen Christ. In their reflection afterward, the comment on how they felt when Jesus was in conversation with them on their walk. They felt something, a burning in their hearts, but ignored that feeling because it didn’t align with what they were expecting. Sometimes our physical intuition guides us toward the direction of what might not be reasonable, but what is spiritually significant. 

Why is it the breaking of the bread that helps them finally fully understand who Jesus is? Now, we may automatically connect Jesus breaking the bread with our own ritual acts – the familiarity of Holy Communion. An experience in which we expect to feel a closeness to Christ. It’s  unlikely that these disciples would have been at the last supper – at the end of this scripture passage they return to the eleven who, while in hiding, had been a part of that meal. Cleopas and the other disciple would not have made the connection with Jesus’ words to the disciples about the bread and wine having significance after Jesus’ death. In this circumstance, the breaking of bread was an everyday occurrence at a meal. It is in the familiar and mundane that Jesus is revealed for who he is. The combination of the hearing the scripture explained and the physical act of the bread being broken provides the basic sacramental theology essential to worship. Jesus comes to us not in some grand and glorious fashion, but in the basic practices that constitute everyday life. Walking, talking, eating. Christ comes to us not in some glorious triumphant return, but in a place least expected. Alongside us, at the table. 

This may lead us to question: where are we encountering Jesus? How is God present to us today? What are our expectations about our relationship with God? 

As you probably know, yesterday was Earth Day. A day when we are encouraged to think about our care for the Earth. Many people take time to volunteer in cleanup events, like the one hosted along the Charles River each year. Others take time to educate themselves about their local flora and fauna, or at least spend some part of the day outside. We are often entreated to reflect on the beauty of the Earth, on pristine wilderness. Protection of nature seems to be “out there,” far away from our lives. In church, we are reminded to be good stewards of creation, especially on this day. I mean, if we can celebrate the earth on this one day a year, we’re covered, right?  

You know I don’t believe that. I suspect many of you don’t believe that either. Many of us recognize the challenges that climate change is already creating in our country and around the world. Take for instance, the record rainfall in California in the past few months. Or the flooding in Fort Lauderdale that dropped over two feet of rain in a twenty-four hour period. Or the drought conditions in Northern Italy.  Our climate and weather patterns are already shifting. Climate change is no longer a future problem; it is a now problem. But it is so overwhelming, we might imagine that if we continue to go along with our everyday patterns of behavior, we won’t actually have to face the consequences. 

For example, in a poll done in 2021 by the Yale program on Climate Change Communication, an estimated 72% of Americans believed that climate change, or global warming, is happening. However, when asked if global warming would harm them personally, only 47% agreed. So it’s happening, but it won’t bother me. It will however bother other people, like other U.S. citizens (59% agreed to that statement), and those in developing countries (68% agreed to that statement).1 Many believe that it is too late for them to have an impact on climate change – younger generations have more energy and excitement around the issue, so therefore they will be the ones who will “figure it out.” The expectation is that climate change, although a reality, will not be something we need to personally contend with. 

The truth is, because we are all connected to the earth and its systems, we will feel the effects of climate change. It will cause prices to increase on goods due to floods or droughts in food-producing regions. Our weather patterns will also change, creating extremes in heat and cold. While many of us who are not on the margins of society may feel that we can easily adapt to these changes, those with fewer resources will bear the brunt.  And although we might hope that the earth might heal itself or that other people are going to solve the problem, we must face the fact that we have to do something. Human beings are the biggest problem. We are also a part, not separate from the creation. 

Our ways of life, particularly in the developed world, do not encourage us to change our behaviors in light of climate change. Much like the disciples who have an expectation of what Jesus’ return and redemption will look like based on their own experiences and status quo ways of thinking, we have a hard time envisioning a world outside of our current experience. Most people are not willing to give up the conveniences that we have become accustomed to in modern society. If you remember back to the beginning of this sermon, I, too, enjoy the convenience of picking up a cup of coffee that comes in a disposable container from time to time. Change, especially drastic change, is scary, and the realities of climate change are so overwhelming that we’d rather not think about it. 

I posit to you that the anxiety we experience about climate change is much like the burning the disciples experienced when they heard Jesus teaching. We sense within our bodies that we should be reacting or acting to the situation, we just aren’t sure what that is, so we avoid it and pretend as though it isn’t there. We also may feel isolated in those feelings. However, we are not alone in our fears. There are many others around us who share these same feelings. While the future may not be what we expected, there is possibility of renewal and resurrection. We may be hoping for some obvious answer to the problems of climate change that will fix everything quickly without demanding too much of our time and energy, but in actuality the answers might just be standing right in front of us. We might just have to slow down, unplug, and fully sense the world around us as a part of us. Go for a walk. Have a conversation. Learn something new. Share a meal. Feel connected. 

In an article in the New York Times from January of this year, the well known environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben was interviewed with a young climate activist, Xiye Bastida, about the future of the climate movement. The point of the article was to bring together the experiences of over 30 years of activism through McKibben with the growing climate interests of Gen Z represented by 20 year old Bastida. Both noted that the single most important thing that is needed in combatting climate change is hope that is grounded in action. Bastida reflected on what she sees to be her purpose in leading activism at such a young age. She states: 

“I love this quote that says the way that you spend your life is the way that you spend your days. Every single choice that you make builds up everything about your legacy, and who you are, and the purpose that you’ve put in your life. So I know that every single day I have agency. And I know it’s the simplest concept that the future is made of our present actions. But when we really think about it, we’re not just living our lives; we can actually shape the way in which other lives are lived. That is a responsibility that I have taken. And I want my life to have been a joyous life, so I am modeling the world that I want to see.”2 

It's true that this is a simple idea – the things we do today will shape our future. The attitude of not just living our lives but realizing that we have agency to shape the kind of world we live in makes sense. Expanding that idea beyond the self if what is needed for the future of our planet, however. It is in our attitudes and actions every day that can lead us to effective change. 

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we know that the impossible is possible. Not only that, we know that God is present to us in the most unexpected of places, even death on a cross. If we are open to moments of connection with others, including the world that we are a part of, we embody the risen Christ. When we respect the creation, we enact the love shown to us through God. Resurrection is not an escape from this life to some other existence. It is the fulfillment of life leading to the full redemption of the entire cosmos. Resurrection encourages us to be in community, to share the good news, to break bread with one another and listen fully to how we can be in service to each other, including the earth. It may not be what we expected, but it is what we need. 


-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

April 16

After Ten Years

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20:19-31

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Our shared faith provides a particular kind of memory, a powerful kind of prayer, and a persistent kind of love as hallmarks of Easter morning.  Do they mark your life?  Do memory, prayer and clothe life for you? 

 The gospel is resurrection in memory, in prayer, and in love. What empty space, what unoccupied tomb, abides in your life for these three, and the greatest of these—love? 

 We set forth to do the work of facing grief with grace, failure with faith, hurt with hope, and death with dignity.  And thee?  Is that work begun, continued, or completed?  The Word brings you life, uplift, a lift for living, even into the teeth of death, so you may face, face down, and live down death. 

 Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  The last enemy destroyed is death.  We all, finally, shuffle off this mortal coil…   God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. (J Bennett).  

 Seek ‘the Living One’, He who is more alive than all life, whose life is the marrow of being alive.  Why do you seek the Living One (ton zonta)—a title perhaps, a Person, for sure, an announcement of Christ, crucified and risen.  All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding… 

 ‘The marks of the new age are present hidden in the old age.  At the juncture of the ages the marks of the resurrection are hidden and revealed in the cross of the disciple’s daily death, and only there…this is what the turn of the ages means, that life is manifested in death’ (JL Martyn, of blessed memory, in 1967, Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages).   

 We need not over-preach.  We still walk by faith not by sight.  We still see in a mirror, dimly.  We still have this treasure in earthen vessels.  We still hope for what we do not see.  The resurrection follows, but not replace the cross. 

  Paul gives no indication that he is familiar with the doctrine of the empty tomb.  There is not the remotest reference to it in any of his letters, and his conviction that the resurrection body is not the body of this flesh but a spiritual body waiting for the soul of man in heaven makes it improbable that he would have found it congenial (Gilmour, IB, loc. cit.) 

 Grace comes with the morning, every morning.   So walk with the women, walk with me too, let us walk together through the Gospel in sermon.  And if you get done with the sermon before the sermon gets done, if you are finished with it before I am, have no fear, do not worry.  Just wait a bit, and I will catch up with you!   Some of you will arise inspired, and some of you will awake refreshed, and both outcomes are worthy outcomes! 


We do not know what a day will bring.  True this is of every day, but truer of some days than others.  Focus for a moment on the ‘gravest’ of days you have known.  Someday I would like to hear of it. 

 Patriots’ Day 2013 was such a day, 10 years ago.  We learned first hand in this neighborhood about the visitation of death, tragically known again in Brussels and around the globe this week.  Spelled D…E…A…T…H. Not your imaginary friend, but an equally omni-present invisible enemy… 

 That Monday began with brunch and celebration, and ended with terror, and needless slaughter and (humanly speaking) unforgivable horror.  Our staff opened the chapel later for the throngs walking, T-less, by.  Water, refreshment, prayer, counsel, they gave.  One runner came very cold and was shrouded with a clergy gown, all we had to offer, a shepherd’s outfit.  What a week.  Tuesday brought us to the plaza, come evening, in vigil, to honor and reflect.  Wednesday, in this chapel, and also at other hours in other settings, gathered us for ordered worship, prayer, music, liturgy, Eucharist and sermon.  Thursday we heard President Obama, on a familiar theme, ‘running the race set before us’.  Friday at home we watched televised news.  Saturday we listened for the musical succor of Handel’s beautiful Messiah, right here.  The Monday next we gathered again for a memorial service, for our deceased BU student, Lu Lingzi.   

 Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.   

 You remember death.  Your neighbor.   Your hourly companion.  You spell his or her name D…E…A…T…H. Easter morning is about intimations of life, the Living One outlasting death.  Paul:  As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  Behold: a glimmer of light in the dark, a rumor of life in death, an angel reclining in the tomb.  

Memory gives us life.   

If there has been ever an age that more needed better memory than ours, I know not what it would have been.  Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.  The past is not dead, it is not even past (Faulkner, whom I have been re-reading this year) 

During that week journalists from around the globe contacted us, and others, across the university.  Many, perhaps most, called or wrote from Asia.  Some needed commentary for radio news or other newscasts.  The main newspapers across the country also sent reporters. 

 On Wednesday, the office took a call from the Philadelphia Enquirer.  Could someone meet their man and his photographer at the steps of the chapel, to help convey something of the nightly vigils, services and informal prayers of the week.  We picked a mid-afternoon hour.   In the April sunlight the interview began.  Suddenly the photographer dropped his camera and shouted:  Bob.  Bob.  Bob.  His name is Clem Murray, a high school classmate and friend.  He and his girlfriend Mimi Sinopoli were the ‘class couple’ because they were the most beautiful couple, a truly stunning twosome.  I had seen neither for forty years (1972-2013).  I had heard that they married in college.  Somehow, he recognized enough of my former self, hidden behind the current condition of my condition, and recognized my name.  He let go of the camera for a hug.  We finished the interview and photo.  I turned then as they were going to ask, ‘So how is Mimi?’  You only know the really awkward moments too late.  They come up after you, like alligators out of the Florida swamp.  Clem said nothing.  He didn’t need to.  I could see what he was holding back in his face and eyes.   He just shook his head and shook.  “Two years ago she died of cancer”.  In the midst of life we are in death, every moment.  All I could see of her was a white graduation gown, a little cap and tassle.  Three decades of marriage, three children, all things bright and beautiful, and then a malignancy unto death.  Clem waved goodbye.  A kairos, not a chronos moment… 

 We held, together, a memory of life, that made life, that gave life, that made alive.  In the very presence of death.  It was a resurrection memory.  A living memory takes you out of the present and into a living past.  It was a resurrection memory.  And perhaps the most powerful personal conversation I have known. 

 Marcel Proust with his madeleine moment teaches us best:  a single minute released from the chronological order of time has re-created in us the human being similarly released…situated outside the scope of time, what could one fear from the future...(these are) resurrections of the past (Proust, RTP, II, 992, 996).    

 Memory gives us life.  

Prayer gives us life.    

A week after the Marathon, you may remember, we memorialized our student, Lu Lingzi.  This service was held, as had been the memorial for President John Silber the autumn before, in the George Sherman Union.  Two thousand attended, with an unknown number around the globe watching and listening by cyber cast.   The service proceeded, word and music, after careful attention and planning by musicians and clergy.  We heard the Gospel of Mark and the Analects of Confucius.  We listened to instrumental and choral music.  We grieved, remembered, accepted, and affirmed, together.  The family, eighteen or so, and dressed in black, sat in the front row.  As the service ended, from the next row, I could see and hear a susurration along the family pew.  They then were meant to move to the gathering and greeting room, but no one stood.  Further conversation moved up and down the row, in a language I could not of course understand.  I feared:  have we forgotten a eulogy, or left out a reading, or skipped over an anthem?  No.  It was something else.  After a moment, the family, dressed in black stood as one, moved as one, turned as one, and faced the congregation and the world.  A long quiet ensued.  Then, as one, they bowed at the waist, and held the bow.  To honor the gathering, to honor the moment, to honor the life, to honor Life, they bowed, in silence.  It is the most powerful liturgical moment I have ever known.  It was a resurrection prayer.  And it is perhaps the most powerful liturgical moment I have seen. 

‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’ (A Heschel).  We should repeat this three times a day. 

Prayer gives us life.  Prayer is a mode of existential gratitude.    

Love gives us life.   

The next Sunday, April 28, turned out to be a nice, warm early spring day.  As the sun came up, we looked forward to a day of rest and worship, a chance for a return to normal. 

About 1 hour before the Sunday service, our chaplain came in to the office to say, ‘We have another one’.  It took me some moment to understand and internalize the fact of another death.  She had died tragically in a fire, caught in an upper room.  Her mother would be coming up from NYC on the bus later that evening.  The police would have informed her of her daughter’s death.  Our Dean of Students, Kenn Elmore, and his associate and I planned to meet the bus.  That evening we awaited a delayed Greyhound, talking a bit about the week past.  We pondered how best to greet the grieving mom.  It was decided I would meet the bus, and greet her as she came down the steps, to offer our heart felt condolences, and start the trek over to the hotel.  The noise of the terminal, the lateness of the hour, the long weeks of terror and loss, and the approximate presence of death itself settled on us, and gave us that quiet of the soul that sometimes overtakes us. 

 In the bus rolled.  The mother came down the steps carrying a beautifully decorated box, holding it with both hands.  

“I want to greet you for the University and express our deepest sympathy and heart felt concern” I said.   

 She replied, “Where is my daughter?  What hospital is she in?  Please take me to her, so I can see her and talk with her.  I want to go and see her.  Where is she?  How is she doing?  I brought a rice cake.  See.  In the box.  It is her favorite.  Rice cake.  I know it will make her feel better.” 

 Honestly, at every phrase I tried to say, with honesty and kindness, that her daughter had in fact died the night before, caught in an awful fire.  Apparently she did not understand the police, or they did not speak clearly, or someone else in the family took the call.  I tried everything.   But she could not understand, or could not hear, until, at last, she looked up and hard and asked, ‘You mean…she…is dead?’  Yes. 

There is a phrase in the Christmas gospel about Rachel weeping for her children.  That Bus Terminal echoed with the chilling, haunting, painful cries of a mother who rightly could not and would not be consoled, as Rachel could not.  The reverberation of her sobbing across that urban nighttime cacophony I can hear still.  Nothing I said helped.  Nothing I did helped.  Nothing I could offer her could she receive.  We sat on a bench, the wailing stronger still, the cake and box on the floor, the gathered friends lost in grief.   Then she stiffened, her arm in mine becoming taut and cold.  Perhaps she was going into shock.  Everything I tried—counsel, prayer, listening, scripture, all—was of no avail. 

Then from her other side Dean Elmore simply surrounded, enfolded her.  He put all of his body and arms all around her, as she wailed and stiffened.  He held her.  He rocked her.  He embraced her.  And little by little, sob by sob, she began to relax.  And little by little, breath by breath, she began to loosen up.  And little by little, held tight, she came through it.  Her lament lessened, her limbs loosened. Out up from the tomb she came.   A physical unspoken compassion brought her through, from death to life.  It was a resurrection love, compassion, embrace, grace, freedom, care, acceptance, mercy, pardon, peace, inclusion.  It was a resurrection love.  And it is perhaps the most powerful very public, pastoral ministry I have witnessed. 

 Unamuno:  warmth, warmth, warmth;  we are dying of cold not of darkness; it is not the night that kills, it is the frost. 

 Six years, at the time of our dad’s death, Elie Wiesel sent a note.  It was love physical, compassionate and personal, and as with all resurrection love it made a difference.  It concluded: we have a saying in our tradition, ‘may you be spared another further hardship’. 

Love gives us life.  

Memory. Prayer. Love. 

‘The marks of the new age are present hidden in the old age …this is what the turn of the ages means, that life is manifested in death’ (JL Martyn, Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages).   

 Easter, this season, is memory, prayer and love, creation, redemption, sanctification, Father, Son, Spirit, life in death.  And life in death holds out a promise of something grander still, life after death. 

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

April 9

Let the Glory Out- Easter 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 28:1–10

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Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out. (E Markham).

Holy Week Poem

After the falsehood of Palm Sunday.  After the shadows of Tenebrae.  After the betrayal of Maundy Thursday.  After the torture of Good Friday.  After the silence, the emptiness, of Easter Vigil.  Now.  Come Sunday.  Come Easter Sunday…The Lord is Risen!  He is risen indeed. 

But let us take care in our comprehension of our intention of our inspiration for our consideration of our inclination toward our apprehension of resurrection.  On this glorious day.  The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross.  As the poet wrote: 

…Defeat may serve as well as victory, to shake the soul and let the glory out… 

My predecessor Dean Robert Cummings Neville, who preached beautifully last evening and is with us this morning, bequeathed me in 2006 the former desk of the former—fourth—President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, now the desk for the Dean of Marsh Chapel.  Rectangular, 4’by 2’, the desk has only two drawers, one filled with hand written notes of thanks, encouragement, rejoinder, critique and love; the other one filled with a potpourri of desk type things—pen, calculator, tape, scissors, all.  In the back corner are pocket sized books.   I was flying to meet our son for his birthday, an annual mid-winter joy, and wanted a very small gift for him, meaningful but fit for flying without adding to him a burden going home.  Somehow President Marsh’s desk beckoned. In the back corner I found an old pocket collection of prayers and poems, which had been my dad’s during his early days as a military chaplain, given to him in 1958 by the Methodist minister in Denver Colorado.  It seemed perfect for our son’s birthday, and portable, and a further connection to his grandfather.  And a kind of binding of the generations, which becomes more important, as the years progress.

Looking through the book, on route to our birthday celebration, I was startled by a poem by Edward Markham.  Memory does not afford how, originally, I came to know the poem.  Markham was a faithful social activist, poet laureate of Oregon, who died in 1940, and best known for his social gospel poem, The Man with the Hoe.  But this prayer book poem, short and terse, somehow brought clouded memory, somehow past connection:

Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out…
Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture,
Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.

Easter is the victorious faith to live on, to struggle on, in the aftermath of defeat.  It is the music lesson that teaches you to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.  So, our exiled Jewish forebears wept, but remembered, cried aloud, but stayed true, gave gruesome lament, but still, but yet, held on, with the faith and power together to live with and through defeat:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down, and there we wept…
when we remembered Zion.
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Hear Good News!

God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

(Fear not for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here.  He is risen as he said.)

“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…”(The Death of Adam, 227-229, Marilynne Robinson)

From mid-March on, the Markham poem haunted.  And as Holy Week approached, more so still.  More so this week.  After…the falsehood of Palm Sunday.  After the shadows of Tenebrae.  After the betrayal of Maundy Thursday.  After the torture of Good Friday.  After the silence, the emptiness, of Holy Saturday.  Now.

I believe in the resurrection, both its history and its mystery.  But to convey its power as well as its meaning, the church has been trying to do for 2,000 years, come Easter, come Sunday.  Resurrection is resurrection…of the dead, from the dead.  Yet, the reality of death in all its masks never, ever leaves us, and should not be left at the door come Easter, for the sake of the preaching of the resurrection itself.  The resurrection follows but…does not replace…the cross.  Defeat may serve as well as victory, to shake the soul, and let the glory out.

Maybe that is particularly stunning and gracious news for a culture that bows the knees at victory, even when the facts show defeat.

Betrayal, disrespect, ingratitude…these things are real and are not washed away, not even at Easter.  Sin, death, meaninglessness…these things are lasting and are not erased not even at Easter.

To repeat: Easter is not mere victory.  Easter is the victorious power to live with defeat.  Easter is not mere victory.  Easter is the victorious faith to live on, to struggle on, in the aftermath of defeat.  Easter is the music lesson that teaches us to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

Your mother said, ‘when life gives lemons, make lemonade’.  She did not mean that lemons are sweet.  They aren’t.

When Martin Neimoller cried out… First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me…his cry was an honest lament of faithlessness, of utter defeat, amid a faithful call to justice.  He did not thereby claim that injustice had ended, or would.  It abides.

Robert F. Kennedy stood in the rain in Indianapolis, 55 years ago, to speak with tragic honesty about the murder of Martin Luther King: My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."  He did not forecast the coming of the kingdom in short order.  And it did not come, and King’s death presaged his own two months later.

John Fetterman of Pennsylvania checked himself into the hospital this winter for depression, and is returning to life.  He does not thereby deny the horrid anxiety and loneliness of despond. It remains.  Anxiety and depression and alienation and disconnection remain, and must be battled in resurrection spirit.

Strangely, after days, the memory of where we may first have heard the poem, or a snippet of it, emerged.  From December 2000. Al Gore indirectly cited Markham’s poem 23 years ago after the drama of dangling chads and the 566-vote loss of the Presidency in 2000, mentioning that his own father had often cited it.  That must have been part of my dim memory of the verse. He did not deny the hurt in defeat.  He had the greater motive:  to sense in defeat a portal to glory, and in his case it came, over time, in his work, early work, even early prophetic work, on climate.  In the winter of 2008, along with Professor Peter Berger, of blessed memory, Marsh Chapel hosted a screening of Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.  He did not mean that political dishonesty had ended.  It hadn’t.

We have all known defeats, whether in relationship, in illness, in acceptances, in elections, in selections, in trusts, in, well, in life.  Yet they have a far side beyond all the trouble.  After one defeat, with grace and love, a mentor sent a note saying, ‘You were not denied…you were spared.  Not denied but spared’.

And yet, in all these moments, for all their trial, there was…what shall we call it? Call it resurrection.

Easter is the unkillable possibility of the Christian life, the power and empowerment of authentic human life, the un-maskable potential in every space and every place, for love.  Easter is the resurrection of possibility.

In a strange resurrection way, those who have given us our greatest blessings, our lasting victories, have done so knowing in full the lasting sting of defeat, in our own past.

Those who gave us Boston University in 1839.

Those who gave us the Chautauqua movement in the 1870’s.

Those who gave up the names and properties of their own denominations in Canada to forge with others the United Church there in 1925.

Those who gathered the bruised and beaten religious survivors of World War II, and created the World Council of Churches in 1948.

Those who kindled the student movement of the 1950’s.

Those who welcomed the globe into the ‘aggiornamento’ of Vatican II in 1963.

Their faithfulness in and through suffering gave life, to many, and to you and me.  Without those five movements we would not be here today, not in this shape anyway.

One friend brought an Easter memory this week:

“As I conducted the Good Friday Communion Service in (one) stark setting, I always noticed that the scent of the Easter lilies (always delivered Friday morning) drifted across the hallway into the sanctuary. What marvelous symbolism! While looking at the veiled cross and stark communion table, worshippers could not avoid breathing in a sweet reminder of Our Lord’s victory over tragedy and death.

Over the years, I have been privileged to know a good many people who have been able to sense Easter during the Good Friday’s of their lives, and were therefore enabled to move through dark days with dignity and hope. Thank God for the scent of Easter!” (The Rev. Gordon Knapp).

Sursum Corda! Hear the Easter Gospel! ‘Defeat may serve as well as victory

To shake the soul, and let the glory out’!

In the words of the Canadian Creed:

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

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

April 2

Going Public- Palm Sunday 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:1–11

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Is it time to go public?

Look around at the parade. A throng has gathered, to worship the Christ. Some are holding palm branches, and waving them. There are musicians, lifting voice and heart in praise. Children have their place as well.

We cannot see everything clearly. Is he riding one beast (Mark\Luke) or two at once (Matthew)? Was the parade his choice, or did we just come of our own volition? What is the point of this public display, this pyrrhic victory when we can foresee Friday? Why was transportation left to the last minute—doesn’t anybody plan anymore? Everything is in a cocked hat, at sixes and sevens, in confusion.

Is this really a time to go public?

Jesus meets us today in the public realm, in the city, in the heart of our actual life, smack in the middle of it all. Picture his entrance into Jerusalem—amid confusion, riding on the humblest beast, acclaimed by those who will later crucify him, a lone figure, in a small city, in a forgotten time. Humble is his public appearance.

“He who believes in Christ must find riches in poverty, honor in dishonor, joy in sorrow, life in death, and hold fast to them in that faith which clings to the Word and expects such things.” (Luther). repeat

And today? In our cities of urban might, air travel, commuter congestion, teeming business, overweening human achievement—utterly humble in comparison is the Christ of Bethpage, carried on a donkey, who appears with nothing to commend himself—except the preaching of his Word. Nothing to support him. Except. Preaching. Nothing but the preaching of the Word.

It is risky to go public.

For several summers as a lifeguard in far off land and a far- away time, along a beautiful long glacially cut Finger Lake, I watched boys and girls at summer camp meet and get acquainted and then become friends. And then sometimes, well, become more than friends. And then, sometimes with a mixture of reluctance, dread, excitement and worry they would declare their attachment and hold hands and go public. We see the same thing on an afternoon walk at Boston University, along Commonwealth Avenue in the springtime. Hand in hand, two by two, making a statement, going public, going public, going public. A risky business.

Going public is a risky business. Going public is risky.

This Lent we have considered faith and life. We have learned from the cautions of Augustine of Hippo:

He taught us, face God by fully facing yourselves.

He taught us, love God with fierce, physical, muscled, sensuous, jealous, eager, personal love.

He taught us, you are what you read.

He taught us, freedom of the will requires the freeing of the will.

He taught us, the city of God is not merely the city of man with the volume turned up. It is history and mystery. If you can depart college with some appreciation for both, the years will not have been in vain.

Going public with the gospel of love and forgiveness is risky business. Going public with concerns about our time is risky business. Going public about one’s identity and sexuality is risky business. Going public about death is risky business. Private struggles can be hard enough. Think what happens when they become public.

Long ago in another setting, twenty-five years ago, we started broadcasting our worship service on a small radio station, and had our first written response, some weeks later, two pages of kind eloquence, penned

longhand. I grant this one did not expand our congregation immediately because he wrote from the County Jail. He was in the slammer, the hoosegow, the calaboose, the pokey, the big house, the gray bar hotel, in stir, up the river, doing time, behind bars, jailed, imprisoned—but… aren’t we all, one way or another. Aren’t we all to some measure, doing time in our own private self-made cell block? It’s risky to go public. You just don’t know who might respond, do you?

An energetic couple wants to expand their business. So, they place their stock for public purchase to raise the capital they need, the IPO goes out on Monday and they are capitalized by Friday—and thereby risk their control of the company, their future solvency, their own wellbeing. Is it time to go public, and take a measure of risk?

Forty years ago, a phone call came to the parsonage at 2am. A young father of four, a local businessman, was closing up his restaurant business for the night and wanted to talk. The two men met at 2:30am in the church itself, right down in the front of the sanctuary. He was as agitated a man as you have seen before or since. He asked to smoke, and, anxious and confused himself, the pastor allowed it. He was known in the church board meetings—he arrived late and spoke loudly. Though he was one of the leaders, he was a private person. But that night he decided to go public with his besetting problem. It was destroying his business and his health. That night he risked going public, and so crossed from death to life. He spoke to somebody. He confessed. He went public. And, by grace, he found a new and good life. He became a new man. Saved. But it took the risk of speaking, of self-disclosure, of, well…going public.

Meanwhile, back at the Mount of Olives, Jesus is riding through his time and ours. He rides, and, as he rides, he evokes, then and now, a spirit of mystery, holiness, awe, wonder and heartfelt hosannas. Why does he risk the public hour? Will he risk death, rather than be untrue to his calling? Why does he appeal to a public that will not hear? Why does he approach religious leaders who will not listen? Even today, the public realm does not need to recognize him, if he is inconvenient. He is still on the donkey today. Nobody has to go to church. It’s not like jury duty, where once every three years you get summoned. No. Nobody is required to go to church. But everybody is invited. Not required, but invited.

Is this any time to go public?

Have we deeply understood the meaning of this morning? God has gone public today, with a lavish and happy love. God has gone public today, coming and coming, standing in the heart of life arms wide and saying: “Here I am. Love me.” God has gone public---behold the risk, behold the risk of rejection, behold the danger, behold the cost, behold the power, behold the glory, behold the Living Christ!—gone public in order to redeem us. This is a personal, public appearance. This is Palm Sunday.

God does not holler advice from a comfortable distance.

God does not wage war by pressing buttons and drinking vodka as death arrives by missile hours away.

God does not even stay sheltered in the comfortable confines of a religious tradition. God does not depend on our religious traditions, as meaningful as they may be. Not on Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, God goes public.

God gives us freedom from fear, freedom from death, freedom from slavery to time, freedom from identity worries, freedom from guilt, freedom from a joyless heavy conscience. And what one of us would not want what God gives—a happy heart, a glad face, a clear conscience? Today, in Jerusalem, God goes public.

And in Boston, so may we, beginning today.

We have been willing to attend the concert but not buy the series. We have been willing to audit the course but not register and be graded. We have been willing to sit in the stands but not put on the uniform. We have been willing to hear the sermon but not to live it, as Justice Holmes did and remember the sermon all week with five additional words: “I applied it to myself.” We have been willing to give but not tithe, greet but not welcome, ATTEND BUT NOT INVITE. Until today.

When I listen to the congregation sing, and Justin play and Scott’s choir offer praise, and the Thurman choir bring joy, and my colleagues read and pray, and this congregation raise hymns…When I look at this magnificent sanctuary and its stained glass and beautiful appointments and majestic transcendent arches…When I feel the spirit of joyful service and earnest learning that attend our meetings on the Lord’s Day…When I think of those we have buried these past three years, and how

they lived and died to represent the heart of the gospel and the heart of this Chapel….I have only one question: Why would a single seat be empty?

Today, we are on the verge of going public. You can feel it. You are ready, or nearly so, and Matthew 21 gives you a nudge.

I think it has to do with the slightest word in the lesson from Matthew: “your”. “Behold your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on an ass.” Your. Your. Your. There comes a time when we suddenly realize something. Faith becomes personal. This confused parade… is for you. This humbled King rides…for you. This week of life and death and life beyond death is…for you. When your heart receives Jesus, then it is made strong, fearless, ready for every day and every night. And then you will go public. Not from compulsion. Not by compulsion. No. But with ease and grace. Faith bears fruit in good works of every kind.

Is it time to go public?

Hope that is seen is not hope. And faith that is merely private is not faith. When it come to faith, as with money, you only have what you give away. Here is the Palm Sunday Gospel: come to church next Sunday, Easter Sunday, going public. Come to Easter worship because the message of Palm Sunday has sunk in. Come to Easter service because you have happily and genuinely invited someone else to come, too, and you promised to be here to greet them. Christ has come to us in public that we may go public for others. Faith is always and forever faith shared.

Is it time to go public? Then—go. Jesus has come to us, we can go public too. How? Not with drama. No drama needed. No drama required. But going public means doing so in a genuine easy way that comes to hand. Through a note, a prayer, a phone call, a curbside conversation, a watercooler suggestion. Like our friends the Laubach family used to say of literacy, each one reach one. In faith, let…Each one reach one. Each one reach one. Each one reach one. You need not worry about the result. God will take care of that. But to ride into Jerusalem, the Lord needs a donkey or two, a colt or two, the humbler the better.

Is it time to go public?

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

March 26

Augustine: City of God

By Marsh Chapel

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John 11:17–45

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Recently, it may have happened, that one friend stopped another on Marsh Plaza, Lent 2023, just in front of the sermon sign board.  To his friend he said, Have you heard Hill’s last sermon on Augustine?  Not pausing for more than split second, the friend replied, I sure hope so!  I really do hope so!  With gladness, let us report you have only 19 minutes before that hope is fulfilled.   

Regarding hope, as it happens, Augustine himself, in his magnum opus, The City of God, had much to say: “As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this “with patience;” for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure.” (Bk 19, Ch 4).  As the Visigoths finished the sacking of Rome in 410ce, and then moved on to the rest of the Empire, Augustine wrote (413-422) this magisterial teaching about the future, about history, about good and evil, about the city of God, the heavenly city, in contest with the city of ‘man’, the earthly city.  As Augustine moved on from his earlier interests in Plato (‘the individual teacher does not make the truth, he finds it) in Aristotle, Cicero, in the Manicheans, in the Neoplatonists, on conversion he began to immerse himself in the Holy Scripture, under the preaching of Ambrose, and his thought took on steadily and continuously the shape of a full biblical theology. (In our time, we sorely lack a full throated, liberal biblical theology:  its lack is among other things at the very root of the fracturing, right now, of my beloved United Methodist Church). Our last Lenten sermon in conversation with Augustine is thus in conversation with his last work, lengthy work, work of a lifetime, The City of God: Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” (Bk 14, Ch 28)  

In Augustinian fashion, we come toward him, and with fervent desire we trust to the saving Gospel itself, this morning, through the blessed land of Holy Scripture, and Augustine’s prized favorite, the Gospel of John. 

For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager few weeks interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11.  In 90ad, 60 years after the cross, some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things–who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence.  You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Christian yearning for a faith amenable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back. Even—especially—in a virulent epoch, or even, as today, for us, in a post-virulent one, where the virus has not, yet, let go. 

Remember, what carries Jesus to the cross, in the Gospel of John, is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Not the cleansing of the temple, but the resurrection to life of Lazarus, in the Johannine narrative, brings the advent of the cross. Jesus is crucified, here, because he claims divinity, and embodies divinity, in this Gospel. This makes a bit of sense of the placement of this reading just before Holy Week, rather than just after. ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ does not capture the gravity and eternity of the moment, but it does give the average hearer a point of orientation to John 11. John Ashton wrote fiercely of this Gospel:  

Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not (only) with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity (199) The Gospel of John and Christian Origins.  The new religion that soon came to be called Christianity…  

Ashton: The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins). For the two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today. The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre-eminently embedded in John, is a form of dislocation—our shared condition March 2020—March 2023, dislocation–for John the movement away from his mother, his motherland, Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion. 

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.  

These two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of Christ’s return. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. March, Lent 2023: how shall we live in faith? How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down oour ennui, our sloth in imagination. More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second. Both mean choice. Both bring us to the summit of freedom. Once every three years, interrupting Matthew, we hear the great passages—Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Blind Man, and, today Lazarus. Hear the Gospel, John 11: We…YOU!...have the freedom, a bit in contest with Augustine, to choose…and to move: 

  • From fear to love. 
  • From spiritual blindness to spiritual sight. 
  • From life to spirit. 
  • From isolation to community. 
  • From home to health. 
  • From rainbow to firmament. 
  • From control to freedom. 
  • From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality. 
  • From nationalism to patriotism. 
  • From denominationalism to ecumenism. 
  • From death to life. 

What we have experienced, endured since March 2020, now three years ago, may be as rugged and necessary a preparation as possible for Augustine’s last work, The City of God. 

Here Augustine sets out his greatest hope, that what was hidden may become clear, what delighted not may become sweet…this belongs to the grace of God.  He sees and foresees a lasting, perhaps interminable, conflict between two cities, one of love and one of self, one of heaven and one of earth, one of grace and one of sin, and, over time, for him, ne’er the twain shall meet. 

Here Augustine--in the shadow of the goths ascendant it is hard to forget-- conveyed an increasingly dark view of the future, of the potential perils and calamities of human activity, long and very long before the splitting of the atom, long and long before the blood-soaked victims of modern weaponry today in Ukraine, long and long before the sudden advent of potential technological dangers in AI, long and long before the measured advances of climate change, long and long before the myriad consequences of social media, Augustine saw through a glass darkly: All human beings sin, some are afraid to correct the sins of others, God inflicts suffering on all to correct. “They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal.” (Bk1, Ch 9). 

Here Augustine sets out his fullest theology of history, his greatest expression of hope: “But God foresaw also that by His grace a people would be called to adoption, and that they, being justified by the remission of their sins, would be united by the Holy Ghost to the holy angels in eternal peace, the last enemy, death, being destroyed; and He knew that this people would derive profit from the consideration that God had caused all men to be derived from one, for the sake of showing how highly He prizes unity in a multitude.” (Bk 21, Ch 22) 

Yet, more emphatically, here Augustine severely doubts the capacity for human goodness, for the human being to do good.  As Joseph Buttinger put it:  For Augustine, God alone is the cause of every human movement toward good…Augustine pointed to the inescapable conditioning of all moral activity by the situation of the agent, outside of whose control are in general not only the presentation of the object, but also the kind of feeling that the presentation excites.  Augustine found it increasingly difficult to leave room in his doctrine of grace for a genuinely free response on man’s part to the Spirit’s gift. (Encyclopedia Brittanica, vol. 14, Macropedia, 329—a priceless set, given me long ago, by a complete stranger).  In that this pulpit diverges from him. It makes one wonder whether, as old age advanced, Augustine reverted or returned to his youthful sojourns with the Neoplatonists and Manicheans, his dualistic earlier loves.  For them, as for the late Augustine, the human will is not efficient, but deficient. 

Here Augustine presages what our fifth-generation personalist BU PhD Professor Lloyd Easton at Ohio Wesleyan, long ago reminded us of Karl Marx saying, history moves with iron necessity towards inevitable results.  And George Santayana, at Harvard: those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. And William Faulkner: The past is not dead.  It is not even past.  You may fear or dread ‘The City of God’ because of our fallibility, because of its length and inscrutability, and because of our pervasively human spiritual disability, evident, daily, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  Augustine, remembering the pear tree, would understand.  

Our grandmother had a pear tree in her back yard, and long-stemmed pear picker, which at her death came my way.  It was a beautiful tree, surrounded in memory by glad hours of her presence, her sense of presence.  Augustine remembered a pear tree, not for a sense of presence, but for a sense of absence. For from his youth he carried the simple memory of boys shaking down a neighbors’ pear tree, not from need or hunger, but rather: For of what I stole I already had plenty, and I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself, and the sin…we took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs…our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden…the evil in me was foul, but I loved it. (Book II 4). We too know the shadow that shadowed Augustine all his days.  Like Citizen Kane and ‘Rosebud’, his religious genius also carried an existential shadow, which is, on the one hand, his blessing, and on the other hand, his curse, for us; on one hand his arrow hitting the mark, and on the other his lasting mistake, his ‘noxious legacy to theology’ (Buttinger). One day on a Montreal sidewalk long ago, and just months before his own death, British Bishop and New Testament Scholar JAT Robinson said, to me, what lingers for me is the sense of shadow, the shadows that continue to stalk us.  Shadows stalked Augustine too. 

I take a slightly different message from my own experience of a pear tree. Our grandmother, a rather more modest Methodist one.  It was a beautiful tree, surrounded in memory by glad hours of her presence, her sense of presence.  Presence in daily goodness.  Presence in humble service.  Presence in enjoyment of family.  Presence in a little harvest, a little fun, a little enjoyment of the very simplest of pleasures.  I wish that Saint of Hippo, Augustine, had known her.  Maybe in the great beyond they have met, and talked, and learned together.  At least she did know, and use daily, his prayer, with which we began this Lenten series, and now with which we end it:  Great art Thou O Lord, and greatly to be praised. Great is thy power, and thy wisdom is infinite. Thee would we praise without ceasing, for our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. 

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

March 19

Augustine: Pelagius

By Marsh Chapel

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John 9:1-41

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*Due to the length of the worship service, the original text of this sermon was condensed. Therefore, the recorded sermon will differ from the text below. 

John 9 is about dislocation.  It is about the expulsion of a small group of Jewish Christians from a traditional synagogue.  One word, 9:22, holds the whole gospel of the day, ‘out of the synagogue’. They were cast out of the synagogue, dislocated, a fearsome hurt now known by many directly, in illness, in separation, in isolation, in loneliness and dislocation.  And known better, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, by those of us who may just acquire a little more sympathy, a little more compassion, a little more care, for those in need, as we swirl through this season of need.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ce), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in the community (90ce), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community.

The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ce.  The story he tells comes from 90ce.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The opponents are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When others criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless…your voice.

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as a community gathers itself in its new setting (think of the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah, the Cherokee in Oklahoma, and every entering class each autumn at Boston University) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two-level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.  Especially, in John 9, through dislocation. Tell me sometime about your worst lived dislocation.

    Into our existential dislocations today strides this year’s Lenten conversation partner, Augustine of Hippo, in and through his own momentous conflict with Pelagius, a conflict let us say between Pelagius and the freedom of the will, and Augustine and freeing of the will, freedom vs. freeing.  Our teacher Professor David Lotz, UTS 1976, guided us skillfully through Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius.  One readily remembers the thrill of the lectures, the skill of the lecturer, and the chill of a new and challenging claim to truth.  With gratitude I rely today on the abiding memory of his classes, and the scrawled penciled notes of his presentations.  Take heart, BU teachers, lectures, well honed, live for decades, as do Dr. Lotz’s today

    Pelagius’s biography is scarce.  He was apparently a monk of either British or Irish origin, who appeared in Rome near the year 400ce, lecturing as a moral theologian.  Pelagius was shocked by the overly pessimistic views of the human capacity for good, which he found prevalent in Rome at the time.  Rather, he judged that human beings could know and do God’s will.  His refrain was, Give what you command, Lord, and command what you will.

    Pelagius insisted on human responsibility and moral choice.  Such responsibility and such moral choice, inevitably entailed unconditional free will.  Without freedom of the will, there can be no truly human responsibility, nor any serious moral choice.  If sin is inevitable, he reasoned, then the nerve of moral responsibility is severed.  Furthermore, both the Old and New Testaments (the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, Moses, Jesus) expect and command…perfection.  So far, he sounds like a pretty good Methodist to me.  And therein lies the problem.

    Pelagius argued with vehemence that commands, and commandments, would not have been given, if they were not able to be followed, if they were not followable.  That would be cruel and unusual.  He further argued, here one could say like Immanuel Kant, that an ‘ought’ entails a ‘can’.  If you ought to do it, then you can do it.  Again, anything other would be cruel and unusual.  The human being has the freedom to obey or to disobey the divine command(s). Posse peccare, posse non peccare, the ability to sin and not to sin (Augustine will later counter that this was true of Adam, but no longer true, not true of you and me).  Even further, Pelagius rejects the idea that the human will has ‘an intrinsic bias toward wrong-doing…after the fall’.  He, Pelagius, is thus a ‘creationist’, believing that the soul is immediately created by God at birth.  He does admit that with the human creature there has come along, has come down over time, a ‘habit of disobedience’.  There is no congenital evil, there is no congenital sin, in the child.  Hence, for Pelagius, and now we come to the crux of the matter, the heart of the argument, the sacrament of baptism was a sanctification, but not a means of grace, not a means of regeneration.

    We might jump in here to say that in the Empire wide argument that followed, Pelagius lost the day.  He lost to…your friend and mine for Lent 2023, Augustine of Hippo.  Why did Pelagius lose and Augustine win?  The answer in part is that Augustine took to heart, took seriously, and made heartfelt and serious sense of…baptism.  And to some further extent of…the virgin birth. Augustine made sense of the church’s practice, the church’s cultus.

    Now Pelagius did not assert human autonomy.  The argument between Pelagius and Augustine, at least to this human sermonic interpreter, with whom, saints preserve us, you are stuck for the moment, for these 22 minutes,  their argument was far more nuanced than sometimes it is made out to be.  For Pelagius, grace is necessary…to achieve perfection. And this is the crux of the disagreement.  For Pelagius, the ability not to sin, posse non peccare, comes straight from nature, from the ‘necessity of nature’, which is…get ready for it…implanted by God the Creator as a GIFT. Whoever disparages nature disparages God, because God is the Creator, the maker of heaven and earth, of nature itself.   For Pelagius, in addition, grace is also the revelation through reason of God’s law, which is instructive in holiness.  Like a good Renaissance philosopher, like a good modern liberal, like, well, let us admit it, like a good Methodist of any stripe, Pelagius sees God in all creatures great and small, in the words of  James Herriott.  Further, he finds in the human reason, in human rationality, evidence of man as God’s image.  For Pelagius, grace works in a limited way, as forms of external aids (Moses and Jesus), to the human will.  The human being is good and free, free and good, but can always use a little help from friends.  Going further, Pelagius’s understands predestination (what will later become for Augustine even double predestination, and an entirely different matter) as (simply, merely) foreknowledge of merit.

    The bottom line: One can if one will, one can if one will, observe God’s commandments without sinning.  You can if you think you can.  (Here we notice a hint or echo of that powerful positive thinker Methodist and graduate of BUSTH, Norman Vincent Peale: You can if you think you can…of whom, remember, Adlai Stevenson said, ‘I find Paul appealing…and Peale appalling’). Sinlessness can gradually and progressively be attained by…strenuous efforts of the will.  Sinlessness remains a possibility, especially as it is infused by an intense awareness of God’s majesty.  Go and sin no more.  Should you need an example, you have before you Jesus Christ.  Christ sets the norm of holy living.  You will have to admit that on this rendering, Pelagius makes a pretty good case for what many of us, much of the time, mostly believe.  We believe in and celebrate the freedom of the will.

    Pelagius writings were distributed and widely read between 380ce and 410ce.  His supporters included Celestius, and, one of Augustine’s most formidable opponents, Julian the Bishop of Eclanum.

      Enter Augustine of Hippo, 354-430ce.  Augustine’s own thought had been worked out long before the Pelagian controversy.  The fight with Pelagius merely allowed him to fill out the implications.  That is, Augustine thought that Adam, Adam was created perfect, and Adam’s will, Adam’s will was in conjunction with God. Vita ordinate…an orderly life, an ordered life.  The body is ordered by the soul and the soul is ordered by God.  Adam, Adam possessed the ability not to sin.  God had granted Adam a grace of perseverance.  And grace was already and fully operative in paradise.  Otherwise, Adam would soon have sinned, early rather than late.  Adam’s only weakness, his only malady or imperfection or shortcoming was his creatureliness.  This was an ontological weakness.  So how could Adam fall, sin, fall short? Because he is a creature, his nature is that of a creature, he is imbued with creatureliness: Adam is contingent, mutable, ex nihilo, made out of nothing.  So, in that fateful moment of weakness, and on the prompting of his own pride, on the prompting of his own pride chose to turn away from God.  And that curse has now passed to the whole of humanity.  The human being, man is massa damnata, ‘a condemned crowd’. 

      The essence of Adam’s sin, according to Augustine, is that we all participate in sin and guilt, we all participate in sin and guilt.  In that we are all actually one with Adam.  Augustine does not explain actually how sin is passed on, whether by ‘the seed’ (‘traducianism’) or otherwise, expect to say that the soul is handed down ‘by parental conception’. As Romans 5: 12 says, ‘in whom all have sinned’.  (Except that the Greek text reads, ‘because all have sinned’ (here at least Augustine’ argument is based on a mistranslation.)

      For Augustine, though, creation is not evil.  Creation is good.  Creation is not evil but good.  Yet creation is sullied by Adam’s fall.  Adam’s accident, let us say.  Sin is lack, sin is non-being.  Nature has been scarred but nature is not depraved.  Yet as a result of the fall, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, we have lost our freedom.  We have lost the ability not to sin.  We are not able not to sin.  We have lost our liberty (libertum), but not our ‘liberum arbitrium’.  We continue to choose.  We know this from our experience.  But…free will always and inevitably on its own chooses the evil, due to its perverse nature.  Hence…grace is an utter necessity, an absolute necessity, without grace we are absolutely lost. Grace is the divinely given power to avoid and conquer sin.  Not freedom, but grace.  Not creation, but re-creation, then, is what we need, not creation but redemption.  Not the freedom of the will, but the freeing of the will. And this can come about only through God’s grace.  For grace prevents us from doing evil (gratia praevenia), prepares us to do good, and helps us in the actual doing of good (gratia cooperans, gratia sonneans (healing grace). After all, remember Romans 7: ‘the good I want I do not, but evil I do not want, that is what I do’.

      Here Augustine finishes the case.  We experience healing grace throughout the course of our lives…in the church’s sacraments.  It is grace therefore which equips us to do the good.  Perfection is never wholly attained (here Wesley goes out the window).  The disease of being human, of being alive is never completely cured.  Justification is progressive sanctification.  Through Scripture!  Through Apostolic Tradition! Through Faith!  Through Personal Experience!  Here Augustine, a most autobiographical theologian, faces God by facing himself, and sees without a shadow of doubt that as he looked back on his life he could not explain the shape it took…without recourse to grace.  ‘Let me be chaste…but not yet’.  Augustine, in this sense, is the supreme Methodist, an utterly autobiographical theologian.  Not his own freedom, but God’s freeing love, saved him.  With Augustine, though we may not entirely see things his way, at a minimum this Lent, let us cherish God’s freeing love, God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

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