Sunday
January 29

The Bach Experience- January 29, 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:1-12

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The text for this sermon is not available. For the text and translation of the cantata, please open the January 29, 2023 bulletin in a new tab.

 

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

 

Sunday
January 22

On the Beach

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 4:12-23

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Today we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Sea of Galilee.  He sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending.  This stylized memory from the mind of Matthew kindles our own memory and hope, too.

That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue.  The excitement of beginning.  The promise of another start.  The crisp, cold opening of the year in January.  Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the beach, along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.

He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness.  Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched.  There is little to nothing of history here, but what there is says so much!  There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets.  One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate.  These boys are on their own.  They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence farther north, with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working folks.  Young, young men.  Simon already has a nick-name.  A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun.  Peter, the Rock.  Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float?  On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, flirt with the Palestinianas a little, take time to take life as it comes.  Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows.  They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life.  For they have left home.  One envies their youth and freedom.  They have taken to the little inland sea, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh.  You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire.  You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that sense of presence and gladness, that first light feeling.  Those nearly pure dawn moments of almost rapturous illumination.  Those moments of connection.

The day your BU acceptance letter came.

The afternoon of BU Commencement, four fast years later, 25,000 in attendance.

The evening you came out to your parents.

Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand.

Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel.  Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said.  But they were there, in tie and dress.  They were there, in public and in church.  They murmured, and they murmured piously.  And how did that feel Dad? Mom?

Your day of matrimony.  Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter.  Do you? Do you?  I do. I do. They do.  My, my. And what was once a simpler world, now has further complexity and creative power.  A new creation.

Your retirement party.

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose.  That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.  That is an inkling of gladness, of presence.

A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee…

Our denomination once had a thriving ministry in China.  When we forced out of China in the 1940’s, something vital left our church.  But you can still feel the first light of mission in the halls and rooms at Scarritt College in Nashville.  Oriental ornaments, paintings, sculpture, gifts, symbols of connection and love.  We grew up with the family of Tracy Jones, in Syracuse, who himself had been raised as missionary child in China.  As had Huston Smith, who taught across the river at MIT. Our first parsonage, in Ithaca, had once housed Pearl Buck while she and her husband were back on furlough, from China.  Have we begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?  Have we forgotten the love we had at first?  Have we stayed close enough to that dawn light, and those first light experiences, to stay fresh?  Have we an inkling of, of…the gladness of faith, the presence of God?

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.  Said the saint, ‘love…and do what you will.’

Peter and Andrew, of course, are casting, casting nets.  They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, no angst.  They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers.  They are not perfect and not perfectible. They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all work, all life, all evangelism is imperfect.  But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.  To miss the dawn, the first light, is to miss the fun of faith!

Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light is always on, to come along to worship with you.  Do you enjoy, benefit from, appreciate worship here, come Sunday?  Then, of course, you will want to share that enjoyment, benefit and appreciation, by inviting someone to come too.  Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good….

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  So, maybe they are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out.  It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”.  Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino.  Yes, they will follow!

But down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat.  A different story, a different set of brothers altogether.  James and John.  Known as the sons of Zebedee.  Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name.  But these two are known by their father’s name.  They haven’t left home.  They have not yet acquired that second identity.  When you won’t leave, won’t move, you won’t find, you won’t grow:  you’ll miss, you’ll miss the experience of really being alive. Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat.  All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show.  All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach.  The late night parties.  The bonfires.  The singing.  The swimming.  And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee.  They are lathered, covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and Coppertone.  And they are trapped.  Under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have not even emerged.  Every day, in the back of the boat.  And what are they doing?  Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain.  Are they casting?  No.  Are they fishing?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode.  Mending.  At dawn!  Of course, nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service!  The fun is in the fishing!  The joy is in the casting.  The happiness is in the evangelism.  And there they sit, sober Calvinist souls, mending.  Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John…

Today we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter.  This passage has a little passion (the Baptist) and a little nativity (Nazareth). The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.

Here is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Gandhi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa, back when, with our missionary friends Mark and Lynn Baker. This is no predestinarian quietism, which has taken over parts of American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions:  cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful!  Augustine:  Hope has two beautiful daughters:  anger and courage.

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first.  Without Christmas you can’t see Easter right.  Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  But who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and continues in Epiphany, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas\Epiphany is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Epiphany is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Holy Week.  And the Christmas\Epiphany images are the worker bees in this theological hive.  Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did, and so died the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What lovely news for us at the start of a new year.  The passion too of Christ.  Theologically, globally, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have seen passion this year.  Now comes dawn, the light, Epiphany, Christmas\Epiphany again to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers.  It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they.  I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat.  Perhaps his heart went out to James and John.  No, I am sure Jesus’ heart went out to James and John, as it does now to so many 20 year-olds.  So, he stops, Jesus stops, and he asks, Jesus asks.

That is the great thing about an invitation.  All you can do is ask.  Do ask.  Ye have not because ye ask not.  And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live, to live and to leave…and so to live. Too many people live half asleep.  Too often we don’t live life, life lives us.  Like these two knitting in the back of the boat.  Half asleep.  Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines!  And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them.  Maybe upon you, this morning.  Do you hear Jesus’ voice this morning? Watch.  It is a first light moment.  See James, see John.  First one, then the other, stands and moves.  Under the shadow of that paternal presence, under the sound of that maternal imperative of home.  They rise.  And they move toward First Light.  They are about to grow up.  AND THEY LEAVE HOME! Wonderful!  And what do they leave behind?  You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out.  They leave behind the boat…and their father.  We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves. (repeat)

Will this world grow up? Will we find a way to live together, all eight plus billion of us, and to drink from the same cup? This text, strangely like the Gospel of John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light.  Not color, now.  Light.  Color is great, and good.  But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet.  It is light that we will need into the 21st century.  We finally all drink from the same cup.

I am told of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy.  He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk.  After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted.  No, he said, why?

Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, we only have one cup, so if you don’t mind, we’d like it back.

We all finally drink from the same cup. The more funerals you attend, the more clearly you will remember.  We forget it at our worldly peril.  If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another.  We have more in common, as climate change, nuclear danger, European warfare, governmental malfunction, denominational turmoil, and personal angst remind us, all around the globe, than we do in difference. We have far more in common, in unity, than we do in difference, in diversity.  Give us light.  Give us light.  Give us light. Dear God, give us light.

Have you faith?  You are going to need some this coming year, 2023.

At first light, at dawn, we may with happiness remember this.  The protagonist of M Robinson’s Gilead, (we will have Robinson here to speak April 11) an old pastor in the Iowa town of this name, spends Sunday mornings, at dawn, praying alone in his church.  He loves the morning hour.  He waits with baited breath for the church to begin to fill up, to fill in.  He basks in the first light of day.

He knows, you do too, that we are going to need some faith.  Some faith, some faith, some faith… this year.  Others will, too.  How will they find faith in Christ without a church family to love them, without a church home to nurture them:  without you taking a moment to say, ‘I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday at 11am—why not meet me there?’

That is the dawn, Peter and Andrew, that is the real joy of faith:  sharing it.  That is the dawn, James and John, that is the real joy of faith:  sharing it.  Would you like to have some fun this week?  Look around for dawn breaking out, on the beach, and kick up some sand.

Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts!

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

 

Sunday
January 15

Love As Action: Reflections on the Philosophy of Dr. King and Howard Thurman

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1:29–42

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This sermon was given in honor and celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Jr. Weekend 2023.

The text of this sermon is unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

-The Honorable Judge Christopher Edwards,

Friend of Marsh Chapel & Member of the Marsh Chapel Advisory Board

Sunday
January 8

An Epiphany Reflection

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 2:1-12

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Good morning. Well, we made it through another holiday season. In this past week, many of us have taken down our Christmas decorations and reclaimed space taken up by Christmas trees, restoring our living spaces to their normal appearance. Indeed, here at Marsh Chapel, our festive greenery and tree have been removed, reminding us that the Christmas season has ended. Most of us have returned to our regular schedules after holiday celebrations, gathering with friends and family, traveling (or attempting to travel, in some cases), and perhaps having the time to lose yourself in the ease of a week without a schedule (if you are so lucky to have had that time off). As we readjust to life in 2023, a new year, we can easily fall back into the routinization of our existence. Wake up, feed ourselves and maybe others, commute to/from work, go to work or school, have some time with others, tend to ourselves, go to sleep. Life in January, in sometimes the coldest time of the year in Massachusetts, although not this year, can turn into a drudgery.

This time after Christmas can be somewhat of a letdown. I’m reminded of my mother, who always bemoans the fact that society wants her to move on so quickly from Christmas as soon as December 25th is over. Many folks take their decorations down on December 26th. Holiday programming stops on many tv networks shortly after the 25th ends. People move on to preparing for the new year and leave the giving nature of Christmas behind. But here, in church, we are reminded that Christmas tidings are just the beginning of our church year. As has often been quoted by Dean Hill time and time again, Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” reminds us that once the celebrations of the holiday have ended, our work as Christians starts.

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among others,

To make music in the heart.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, a day which typically signals the end of the Christmas season. While Epiphany was on this past Friday, January 6th, as it always is, today we will recognize our entry into this season of the church calendar. Epiphany is the time in the church year when we focus on the manifestation of God’s grace and love in the world and have time to reflect on what Jesus’ presence in the world means for us.In the lectionary, the list of appointed readings set for each Sunday in the church year, typically this Sunday is a celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. Often, unless there is a separate church service set aside for January 6th or if Epiphany happens to fall on a Sunday, we don’t hear or read the texts appointed to this day.

Perhaps that’s why our understanding of the Magi’s travels to Bethlehem have been somewhat distorted over time. How many of you didn’t really pay attention to the gospel as it was read because you thought, oh, I know this one, it’s one of the greatest hits from the Bible? The wise men go to the manger and they bring Jesus gifts. How many of you were a little surprised hearing Matthew’s account of this well-known story? The truth is the account from Matthew is more political than we remember, while also vaguer about timelines and the identities of the magi.

The story of the magi may have indelible memories for us. Some may think of the nativity scene figures of three men carrying gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, sometimes depicted as kings or “wise men” coming from the east to pay homage to the baby Christ child in the manger. In my family growing up, we were very careful with the nativity scene. Our figures were made from olive wood; the manger itself made of natural materials including moss and sticks. Baby Jesus didn’t arrive in the manger until Christmas Eve. The wise men certainly did not arrive from the East until Epiphany. The timing of these apparitions made clear to us the story of Christ’s birth and the significance it would hold for the whole world. The figures were more than just a decoration; they were an educational device used to remind us that there was a progression of events leading to the revelation of Christ’s divinity and kingship.

While our traditional understanding of the three wise men still offers us a valuable account for recognizing the importance of Jesus’ birth, the source material offers us much more. First, the story doesn’t say that there were three of them. The magi aren’t identified as men. They aren’t identified as kings. They aren’t identified as “wise” even. Some scholars believe that the Magi followed Zoroastrianism, or at the very least, they were astrologers. They consulted the movement of the stars as a guide and as a way of interpreting the world around them. In their day, they were not as revered as we might assume, but instead were outsiders from the mainstream. Their approaches to religious observance were not the norm, especially coming into Jerusalem and eventually to Bethlehem. For them to be the ones to recognize Jesus for who he is speaks to the kind of ministry Jesus will lead, reaching those who are on the margins of society. Their appearance also speaks to God’s power, as they heed the message told to them in their dreams to not return to Herod, but to go another way home after visiting Jesus. God comes to them, even though they are not affluent, powerful, or members of the Jewish community.

In contrast, King Herod stands as a threat to Jesus. Herod rules over the land and has political ties to Rome. He feels threatened by the arrival of one who is the Davidic Messiah, a child whose coming seems to be foretold in the scriptures. Additionally, it is not only Herod who is frightened by the news of Jesus birth, but the whole of Jewish society, particularly the chief priests and scribes. They understand that this occurrence has significance when looking at the scriptures. A change in the status quo of the power dynamics could be happening if the news about Jesus’ birth is true. Herod and all those in charge don’t know what this will mean for their status.

The Magi appear in Jerusalem because they assumed royalty would be born in such an important place. When offered the chance to help the Mag, Herod provides them with a sort of quid-pro-quo. In order for them to get the information they need, Herod requests a report back from these traveling astrologers. Upon confirming the location of the birth of such a child through the chief priests and scribes, Herod instructs the Magi to return to him with his exact location. He states that it is so he may also go pay homage to this king. We know, however, that Herod has ulterior, harmful motives for this information. Herod’s power is threatened by this new King. His fear in losing his power will later lead to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape his cruelty after he orders all the male children 2 years of age and under to be killed.

This retelling of Epiphany is much more violent and political than what we share in our basic nativity scene. But it highlights the fact that God’s incarnation through Jesus subverts the powers as they stand. Nothing about Jesus’ birth or this interaction with the Magi is how it should be if it were dictated by the norms of Jewish society in this timeframe. The arrival of Jesus is a shakeup, a disruption of power. As we observed throughout Luke’s gospel in the previous church year, the reign of the kingdom of God comes to lift the lowly, free the prisoner, heal the sick, and seek justice for the oppressed. The light that Jesus brings into the world illuminates the dark places and allows us to see things how they really are. It is able to bring those from afar, who are completely foreign to God’s reality, and show them the God’s power. It demonstrates what power and corruption can do; the violence it can bring out in those who feel threatened or those afraid of change. It shows every day people that they can and should have hope because God loves the world so much that God becomes incarnate.

The  Rev. William Flippin Jr., an ELCA pastor in Southeastern Pennsylvania, sums up this subversive story more succinctly that I can:

“Jesus, the light of the world, starts life as a political refugee. Our Savior is spirited out of the country on back roads traveling RWM (that’s riding while a Messiah). The infant Jesus is given a head start by the magi, pagan people of color, who defy an imperial edict and disobey King Herod’s command that they report back to him after completing their visit to the infant Jesus, thereby involving themselves in civil disobedience and political subversiveness.

In the light and darkness of Epiphany, we are called to be spiritual and political activists, to perpetuate the true revelation that Jesus is the light of the world—the light that not only illuminates but also reveals and uncovers those things done in the dark.”[1]

One other thing that might seem obvious to us, but is reiterated through our scripture readings today, particularly in the gospel and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is that the incarnation brings together people of all backgrounds. Epiphany is about revealing the true nature of Jesus, his divinity and status as “Lord of all” as the magi, who come from a distant land, have Jesus’ holy nature revealed to them. Indeed, the whole of Matthew will end with the Great Commission, to “make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19) In Ephesians, Paul emphasizes that the message of the gospel is for the Gentiles and that it is his task to deliver it. The message of the grace of God comes for everyone, not just those who hold power. God’s care for the world as a whole is what brings Jesus into being.

As an increasingly globalized community, the message here is to not create divisions over belief or identity, but that the kingdom of God is available to all. The kingdom of God is unlike anything we can imagine, but it has the power to unite rather than divide. Let us not be sucked into the language of insider and outsider, but rather willing to receive others and meet them where they are. God reveals the location of Jesus to the magi through the stars – an aspect of their own tradition. God meets the magi where they are in order to reveal God’s self to them. There is no expectation that the Magi will listen or necessarily follow what God does as there is no coercion present in the story, but God appears through a dream to issue a warning. They choose to accept and recognize the nature of what is presented to them in the form of the Christ child. Jesus’ birth creates a new way of being for the world continuously, something we also experience in our own baptisms, as each day we live into the reality of being claimed as God’s own.

Epiphany then, is not just a day on the Christian calendar. It is a whole season that urges us to constantly be aware of the unfolding and illuminating discovery of God’s manifestation in the world. It is a global invitation to come face-to-face with the revelation of God in the world. The frenzied feeling of the holiday season may be behind us, but it is the threshold into a season that brings to light the ways in which God shows up in the world through Jesus. Our task is to take the hope found in a child in the most unlikely of circumstances who comes to redeem us and use it to fuel our desire to realize God’s kingdom on earth.

What will be our epiphany experience this year?  Will it be sudden, like the star appearing in the sky to lead the magi? Or will it be a slow unfurling, like the way God continues to show love and grace in the world? Maybe we’ve already had experiences like these in our lives. Have we been willing to share these portions of our faith journeys with others, providing an entry point into our spiritual lives for people who may have yet to experience God’s presence in their lives? How can we meet people where they are to share in God’s love and have epiphany moments of their own?

One way that we can prepare ourselves for our personal or collective epiphanies and be reminded of those we’ve experienced is through worship. Hearing the scriptures, really listening to the way Jesus ministers to others can help us to better connect ourselves with God’s presence in our world. At times, this might be challenging, as Jesus’ ways cause us to resist his message because it challenges our conceptions of ourselves. It may call on us to question powers that be, powers that benefit us, for the good of those who are oppressed. It may cause us to completely change course, as God’s appearance to the Magi led them home a different way. But at the same time, it may reveal something new to us that will help us to alter our worldview to one that is closer to God’s Kingdom. Remaining open the possibilities of the hope found in the birth of Jesus. When we encounter those epiphany moments, whether they are sudden or drawn-out, we can better identify God’s work in the world.

We come back to Thurman’s writing again. The work of Christmas is found in Epiphany. The ministry we can offer to others through seeking justice, shedding light on systems of oppression, helping to heal the broken, finding peace. At a time when we are returning back to the routines of our lives, making ourselves available to spontaneous epiphanies or to recognize those slowly developing epiphanies in our lives.

In conclusion, I’d like to share a prayer offered by the Women of the ELCA in their resource, “Epiphany: Unfolding the Discovery.” This prayer is meant to serve as a guide through this holy season, urging forward in hope. May we find hope in each day as we settle into this season of Epiphany, when our lives return to their normal hustle and bustle and it is easy to overlook the ways in which God is revealed.

Let us pray:

May we each day open the window of our worlds, inviting the fresh Light of Epiphany to flood us with hope, to bring us fresh insight, and to fill us with grateful joy. May we see the world around us with new creation eyes, filled with potential and brimming with promise. May our lives be a continuous unfolding into God’s grace, revealing new vistas that expand our faith horizons. In Jesus’ name, we pray, and by his name we are saved. Amen.

[1] Rev. William Flippin, Jr. “The Revelation of Epiphany,” Living Lutheran, January 6, 2017. https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/01/the-revelation-of-epiphany/

 

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

Sunday
January 1

Christmas Strength

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 2:13–23

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The dawn is breaking, slowly, over the snow-blanketed city.  You have assembled yourself for the morning, with your coat and hat and mittens.  You stand like a medieval knight with his standard, you with your broom or shovel in hand, and dawn is breaking slowly, say in upstate NY, say in Buffalo, a week after the great snowfall.

Shakespeare knew the beauty and terror of the dawn:

The grey eyed morn smiles on the frowning night

                  Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light

                  And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels

                  Form forth days path and Titan’s fiery wheels

                  Now ere the sun advance his burning eye

                  The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry

The great poet and playwright knew, as was said of our Lord in his earthly ministry, knew the heart of man.  He knew the complexity of moral judgment.  He knew the ambiguity of corporate and governmental life.  He knew the strange subterranean interplay of spirituality and sexuality.  He knew the elusive mobility of truth, which, to be spoken, requires a lifetime of rapt attention, and sometimes years of isolated pain and imprisonment. What this country may need to start a new year is neither a chicken in every pot nor a good 5 cent cigar nor a plain, new, fair, or square deal, but, a rivetingly taught course or two in Shakespeare!  Or Paul of Tarsus.

As you start, at whatever dawn you face, ponder this Good News:  Christmas gives strength to start.  A new year?  Strength to start.  A new path?  Strength to start.  A new relationship?  Strength to start.  A new diagnosis?  Strength to start.  A new commitment?  Strength to start.  A new situation? Strength to start.  Christmas offers strength to start.

In the first place, we may plainly affirm that together we find a shared strength at Christmas.

We listen to the words of St Matthew, the story of the Magi, and we hear them as God’s Word.  The words of Scripture are “holy” in that they stand over against us, they take the measure of our self-deception, they outlast our passions and defeats and very lives.  These verses will live longer than we, and rightly so. They will still be heard when we will not be. They will be heard when YOU will not be. So,  they have the power to help us to begin the service, the day, the week, the year, looking out in Christmastide at a new year.

The words of Scripture start with the whole of life in view and with the end of life in view.

We too must make our various beginnings, and so we are not displeased to find here an inspired manner of entry.  By example the Kings assert strength to start.

The passage opens the year with joy, and leads us into a new vocabulary of love and delight. Words of wisdom, that the Kings celebrate, and which will adorn the Gospel as the gospel unfolds.  These words are meant to become our living vocabulary, dictionary, glossary.  We are to learn them again as the New Year unfolds:

Grace

Peace

Thanksgiving

Saints together

Gifts-charismata

Guiltless

Fellowship

In Christ

God is faithful

Oh, that we would bathe ourselves at the outset of each day in such a shower of strength!

For you, all of you, have been found in a new situation.  You are “in Christ”. You have been seized, at least for a worship hour, and so maybe for a lifetime, by the confession of faith that is the confession of the church.

Start the day strong—much will befall to challenge by dusk.

Start life strong in childhood—much comes later to unsettle.

Start with laughter and play in summer—much in autumn proves more difficult.

Start this New Year with strength, and like a skier carried along by gravity, you will pass by and over and around the bumps.

Start this week and each week with the hearing of the Holy Word—much that is less than holy will greet you later.  Go to church on Sunday.

In the second place, we may plainly affirm that the gifts of Christmas are reliable in time of need, are firm in the face of danger.  They make us confident when we need to be and inwardly secure when we have to be.

Whether we are young or mature or old, whether we are babes in Christ or approved in Christ or wise in Christ—we make our starts with strength, recognizing that, as one author began one famous book, ‘life is hard and life is a struggle’.

For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the people of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.  I once said to my father, a graduate of Boston University in 1953:  ‘this is not fair’.  He replied as you would have done:  ‘whoever told you life is fair?’

Life is not fair, not by a country mile.

Not fair to those who suffer untimely loss

Not fair to those stricken with unexpected illness

Not fair to those whose limbs are taken and torn

Not fair to those who should have been chosen

Not fair to you

Time and chance happen to all.

Not fair to those of whom our south Texas weekly internet congregant, and theological poet, Rev. Milton Jordan, writes:

Imagine Joseph’s difficult decision. He and Mary have a child less than two weeks old. They do not have any documents to prove they are married. Visitors who have heard rumors of this new heir in David’s line have come to see for themselves, and they report that Herod has also heard these rumors. Joseph knows what this means, and he knows how few options he has.

With few resources, perhaps a gift or three from some of the visitors, Joseph takes Mary and their newborn child and strikes out across the country looking for safety in another land. Imagine them now, their few resources long spent, at a crowded border crossing asking for asylum in this foreign land.  

Is this not fairly the heart of the simple gifts we shall share in a moment at the Lord’s Table, and at the Lord’s behest?  It was a borrowed upper room, not a paid for condo, in which the meal was shared.  It was a circle tinged with betrayal, not a safe protected team, within which he washed feet and lifted cup.  It was an evening before defeat, not a twilight of victory past, during which wine and bread were given.  It was lack that gave way at last to hope, treachery that was the doorway to a later hope, suffering, the suffering of the cross, that made way for the hope in which we now stand.  It was Jesus giving himself to us in sacrificial love, in a week when we may have known disrespect, betrayal, and insult.

Whatever harsh word you now have reason to hear and overhear, hold on.  It is not the last word.

Start with that trust and strength.

Paul suffered shipwreck and lash and hunger and despond.  Yet he could still sing with confidence:

 If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…

                   He who has begun a good work in you will complete it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ…

                   Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?…

                   It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ…

                   He is the beginning, the first born from the dead that in everything he might be pre eminent…

                   For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes.  For all the promises of God find their Yes in him…

Resolve to choose and memorize one of these verses of hope wrought in struggle, in 2023.

Whatever silence and despair now accompany you, hold on.  Your lasting friendship is in Christ.

Martin Luther recounted his many attempts to find peace with God through self-discipline, through religious duty, through acts of contrition, through his own works, until at last he collapsed.

At last, he found his way out from the harsh word of command from authority to obedience, and out into the meadow of hope in a calling word from wisdom to happiness, from the Kings to the Christ.

“But this availed me nothing; nor did it free me from a fearful and dreadful conscience…This is God’s Word… this one thing God asks of you, that you honor him by accepting comfort; believe and know that he forgives your transgressions and has no wrath against you.”

We learn late or early that without explanation rain falls on the just and unjust alike. In time of trial, though, you may start again with strength.  You have the love of God, the Gospel of Christ, the Grace of the Lord, the baptism of the church, the prayers of the church, the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, the sacrament of communion, the word of absolution, and the decision of faith.  Use them, rely on them, let them buoy you up, in time of trial.  What more do you need?

In the third place, we may plainly affirm the strength that comes from beginning with the end in view.  Though they found him an infant, one who does not speak, they saw him a King, One whose voice rings out to all the world.

This Christmas Sunday reminds us that the Lord Christ is both Alpha and Omega.  When at last we set down our various tools and trades, when at last we have lost our eyes and ears, when at last our final paycheck has come, when at last the various dawns have given way to dusk and dusk and dusk—here too we are in Christ and nowhere else, of Christ and no one else.  Somehow all the little subplots and sufferings of this present time are going to find their full place and point in a greater story, the day of God, the life-span of Jesus Christ.  Today is God’s, and tomorrow is God’s, too.  Earth is God’s, and heaven is too. Somehow, somehow, somehow…

So, we need and want to be together, with and for each other, come Sunday, right here, right now.  To know one another, to love one another, and then, at last, to remember one another. As our Haines, Alaska internet listener, and obituary composer, State Writer Laureate Heather Lende put it:

Writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living, my neighbors, friends, husband and five children, and this place, which some would say is on the edge of nowhere, but for me is the center of everywhere (If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name , p, 9)

Only such a hope can sustain travelers like us, who seek wisdom and who seek love, even as that hope has sustained the church for sixty some generations. Such a hope strengthens the Magi:  unsung saints and heroines, and those whose names recall a sure Christmas strength.  Some are enshrined in Scripture:  Matthew, Paul, Mary, John. Some are known in Tradition: Ghandi, Heschel, Sadat, Teresa.  Some are from closer experience: John Dempster, Frances Willard, Daniel Marsh, Lawrence Carter. And one, more sung than unsung now, greets us on this plaza every morning, with birds in flight, emblematic of a real Christmas strength. Only such a hope could have strengthened Martin Luther King on August 28 1963 in Washington and all the long bitter way to April 3 1968, his last earthly night: “I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land…So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.”

At Christmas, you start with confidence about the end. You are strengthened to start in the hope of Jesus Christ.

Christmas strength.

Strength in Christ.

Strength in times of trial.

Strength with hope for the end.

Put on the whole clothing of Christ!

As you stand at the dawn of the rest of life…

We will put it in terms familiar…

Put on the whole wardrobe of Christ, as you seize your shovel:

Put on the sweater of grace

Put on the boots of peace

Put on the mittens of thanksgiving

Put on the tuke of fellowship

Put on the scarf of faithfulness

Put on the snowsuit of sanctification

Pick up the shovel of salvation

And the ice-pick of hope

And the salt of happiness

For today, by grace, you are given a Christmas strength.

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

Sunday
December 25

A Boston Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1:1–14

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Merry Christmas!

The text of this sermon is unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

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

Sunday
December 18

The Beginning of the Gospel

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 1:18-25

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You may be trying to find your spiritual footing. 

Other than the emergence of language itself, the stumbling child’s movements in learning to walk are perhaps the most tender in memory.    Adults learn to walk in various ways too.  I watched my father, nearly killed by an infection, and bed-bound for months, learn to walk again.  While I can see his first steps, baby steps at age 80, I would not be fully able to convey the power of those steps.  

You too may be trying to get your balance, to find your religious footing.  As with so many things, the decision to try is the main thing.  We learn to walk at different ages.  

On Ground Hog Day each year I set aside an hour to skate with students on the Frog Pond, though this year at the rink at 41 Park.  Some of those from South Carolina and Texas are just learning to skate.  They have the most fun.  

One day this late autumn the wind was swirling on Bay State Road, catching up the leaves in little multi colored cyclones, and twirling them around.   It was raining red an orange, yellow and brown, whipping the leaves to the cheek.  Then coming toward me a young woman, seeing the swirl, herself dropped her books, made a pirouette, and twirled in tandem with the leaves.  One loop, two loops, three…  I judge it was the right response to the wind. 

In an age and setting that demeans and diminishes mystery and history, she danced.  She found her footing, along our street.  She was learning to walk, in the spirit. 

 Yes, it is important to take it slow as you begin.  On the open path among leaves no step has yet trodden black, it makes sense to takes things slow.  A sermon about taking such primordial steps, should take a slow pace.  Don’t you think?  A sermon about, say, the beginning of the Gospel. 

Many women and men who do not regularly darken doors of churches are nonetheless trying to find spiritual footing.  I believe that a Sunday sermon, of all things, can bring the balance needed for the walk of faith.  In fact, if the sermon cannot, what can?  Like the bullfighter with the cape waving, like the boxer circling to find that one opening, like the private detective waving the flashlight in the cellar, here we are, everything at stake.  As Paul sang, To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Will somebody please lend a hand?  Someone is trying to learn to walk.  I have been humbled to see people to learn to walk, especially in the imagination.  As a matter of fact, I think I saw some of you there. 

 If you are going to walk, you will need light to see your way.  It is dark in December, dark in Advent, dark as the readings shift from sunny Luke to dark Matthew, dark as the church begins another liturgical year, dark as finals befall, dark, dark, outside it is dark.  Dark as when Joseph slept, and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. 

 So let us look for light in which to walk. 

 Look up.  Light falls to illumine the path, THE WAY, ahead.  Look.  Let us walk in the light of the Lord.  How many times this week have you touched something nearly 3000 years old?  Well, Isaiah’s words are that old, or nearly so.  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel 

 Year by year as I hear again read these Isaian prophecies, they seem annually ever farther off.  They just seem so improbable.  I give you pollution, pandemic, Putin, prejudice, pistols, politics and pain.  And yet, the aspiration remains, the promise and prophecy endure: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel 

 Isaiah is not exclusively full of promise, though promise is the heart of today’s reading.  Isaiah predicts doom for the people of God.  Isaiah is like Amos and Hosea and Micah.  These were old and popular verses, to which both Isaiah and Micah repaired.  The oracles of judgment upon the people of God, which both precede and follow our lesson today, underscore one particular ailment within the body of God’s people.  This is a lesson we may do well to keep steadily before us.  One primary impediment to relationship with God is injustice.   Repeatedly all of these early prophets return to this single theme.  The relationship between God and people is torn, rent asunder, by mistreatment of the poor.  We will want to hear this as clearly as possible, as we find our footing, along the walk of faith.  It is not only true that justice is desirable.  Justice itself is marker along our path, a way of walking in the light.  But it is not an end in itself.  It absence is not desirable, but for a fuller reason.  Injustice impedes our walk in the light.  Injustice interferes with our relationship with God.  Doing justly is meaningful because…it leads to God. As bad as injustice is in its own right, its damage to our relationship with God is far worse. 

I believe this is why the pulpit of Marsh Chapel has resounded for so many decades in attention to the weight matters of justice:  Littell and the holocaust, Thurman and race, Hamill and war, Thornburg and cults, Neville and creation, Hill and a common hope.  My predecessors knew well that you have to look up in hope, look up in dream, look up in desire, look up in expectation.  To find our footing going forward we need the light that comes from a sense of possibility, a sense of promise.   Along comes Isaiah to remind us: 

There will come a day when the swords of terror are beaten into the plowshares of learning, the swords of conflict into the plowshares of cooperation, the swords of division into the plowshares of communion, the swords of despair into the plowshares of promise.  That is, in Isaiah, judgment is not the last word.  Without a sense of a final horizon of hope, without a sense of the love of God, without a sense of the prospect of lasting meaning hidden somehow in history, without a word to guide us about the latter days, no matter how far off, the muscle for the daily struggle deteriorates.  You’ve got to have a dream.  If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true? 

 Look up in hope, in promise. 

 Look down.  Look down every now and then, too.  In the quiet of late autumn, in the dusk of late Advent, we will want to look down at ourselves, not on ourselves but at ourselves.  We are listening to three ancient lessons, trusting that in their interpretation, we may find some light for the path ahead. 

 In his great letter to the Romans, whose greeting lines we hear today, the Apostle Paul offers his wisdom for living, to a church he has yet to visit.  As in Isaiah, the words are meant as advice for groups, for the chosen people of God and for the called people of God, for Israel and the church.  The Apostle’s advice is very earthly.  It causes us to look at our shoes, our actual manner of walking.  In fact, the advice sounds like it had been written as a challenge not only to culture at large but also to college culture.  The verses form a cautionary tale.  I think that almost every week there is someone here or listening from afar who may be ready to hear Paul’s greeting.  In fact, Marsh Chapel and places like it may simply stand as silent witnesses to the hope that students may emerge from their studies, and professors from their teaching, without undue regret, without too many regrets.  We all carry regrets.  None of us is perfect.  Including you.  And me. But if we love one another we will want them to be fewer rather than more.  Paul warns in his greatest letter, about regrets. 

What warning would we add today? 

For those of us working nearby young adults in this era, the manner and meaning of instrumental communication is a serious issue, or set of issues.  We are the grownups on the lot, and yet we are largely immigrants to a land far more native to our students.  In some cases, we are still back in the old country.  How are we going to bring to bear the wisdom of the ages, in the twitter age?  Are we attentive, curious, honest, straight, kind?  Or do we hang back, and let things take their own course?  I pose this not as a question for sudden answer, yours or mine, but as a lingering, daily, annual point of meditation.  How much blackberry and how much blackberry pie?  How much Facebook and how much face time?  

 For St Paul, learning to walk, to find faith, a personal faith, the walk of faith, for him salvation is close at hand.  He still feels the heat of the apocalyptic end, coming he expects in his lifetime.  Yet note for the all specificity of his warnings in the letter later (drunkenness, debauchery, quarreling) just how open, how free is his advice:  ‘put on Christ’.  And what, we may ask, does that look like?  He has no need to say, for he has said so just prior to our reading; ‘love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to the neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13: 10) 

Look down.  Polish your shoes.  Watch your step.  A walk in the light requires a careful step, as responsible stewardship. 

And look out.  Look out!  Isaiah lifts our gaze.  Paul lowers our gaze.  Matthew lengthens our gaze. 

I believe that many people, perhaps you among them, are looking for ways to find their spiritual footing.  You may nod a quiet affirmation, with Isaiah, to the need for promise.  You may whisper a quiet agreement, with Paul, for the need for discipline.  But our third lesson, our Gospel, may at first seem less helpful.  It may in fact be less helpful. 

 You may wonder why a church, or this chapel, would have read such odd passages during the month of Advent, in these last few weeks, about the days of Noah, about sudden disappearance in field and mill, about thieves in the night, about the coming of the Son of Man.  Why do these ancient, foreign, strange chapters from the history of our religious families still occupy our attention?  After all, the fervent first century hope that the end would come before the first generation had passed away was disappointed.  Why listen any longer to these predictions?   

 The meal is over, and we are left with leftovers. 

 The apocalyptic language and imagery which appear here in Matthew and in Luke, and may have simply been taken over from contemporary Judaism, are made to serve, in this Gospel, another purpose than in their original serving.   Eschatology becomes ethics.  Expectation about the end is made to serve a moral point:  be ready; watch.   In our funeral service we repeat in our prayers, ‘we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present’.   

Like Christmas dinner with an ornery uncle or disapproving great aunt, these Advent passages, which were the ancestors of the language of our whole New Testament, can prove hard to have around, but they also have stories to tell, and wisdom to share.   

 Like a strange uncle, they can remind us of how unexpectedly things can change.  “I lost everything I had in the depression”.  Like a feisty aunt, they can challenge us to be ready, “I never thought that day that I would meet my husband on a train to St Louis”.  Like a cousin we seldom see, they can jolt us because they look like us and sound like us when they say, “If I had known then what I know now I would have acted more quickly”. 

 You need those family memories, those familial warnings.  Look out!  Be watchful and mindful and careful. 

 You just never know what a day will bring. 

 It is not enough to generalize or specialize. We have to improvise.  You will probably need to ‘look out’ and improvise a bit too, now and then. 

 You may be trying to find your spiritual footing.  It is in fact hard to get started, in anything, and really hard in anything that really matters.   

 Walk in the light of promise.   

 Walk in the light of discipline. 

 Walk in the light of readiness. 

 If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. 

 Today’s sermon is a sermon for those of us who are trying to find our spiritual footing, to get started, to learn the walk of faith. 

 Sometimes the people who say or think they have the least faith in fact have the most.  I am not most interested in how many psalms you can recite, though I implore you to learn some.  I am not most interested in how many hymns you know by heart, though when you are ill or alone they could be saving companions.  I am not most interested in how many religious books you have read, though learning and piety are meant to live together.  I am not most interested in how many church services you have attended, though there is no better way to grow in faith, no better way to learn to walk, none.   

 But I am interested in this.  Are you putting one foot ahead of the other?  Are you trying?  Are you concerned about it?  Are you walking?  Are you walking in the light?  Are you letting some of the sunlight of promise fall on your shoulder?  Are you letting some of the inner light of discipline carry your feet along?  Are you watching for that unexpected ray of inspiration, burst of imagination or challenge to investigation? 

 Not:  are you running?  Not: are you winning?  Not:  are you starring?  Not:  are you succeeding?  Not:  are you finishing?  Just this:  Are you walking in the light? 

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

Sunday
December 11

Lessons & Carols 2022

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to view the complete bulletin including all readings and lyrics

 

The service of Lessons and Carols is made up of carols, musical offerings, and scripture readings which tell the story of the Incarnation. A complete text of the readings and the lyrics to the carols and anthems is available in the bulletin, posted above.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Sunday
December 4

Advent Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 3:1-12

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The text of this sermon is unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

 

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

Sunday
November 27

Ready and Steady

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 24:36-44

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The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough.  We cannot see or know the future.  We ought to live on the qui vive.  Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic.  Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come.  Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last.  Song and Scripture, sermon and prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come this very morning. 

What is less clear is the meaning of the coming of the Son of Man.  What is the nature of this coming?  Who is the person so named?  What difference, existential difference, everlasting difference does any of this make?  What did Jesus actually say here?  On what score did the primitive Christian community remember and rehearse his teaching?  Did Matthew have a dog in this fight?  How has the church, age to age, interpreted the passage?  We shall pose these four questions to verses 36 to 44 in the 24th chapter of the Gospel bearing the name of Matthew, and then apply the verses to ourselves. 

Jesus.  Jesus may have used this phrase, though most judge that it is a later church appellation. It may have been both. This phrase, coming out of Daniel chapter 7 (did Jesus hear this read and hold it in memory?) and the stock Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, was as much a part of his environment as the sandals on his feet, the donkey which he rode, the Aramaic which he spoke, the Palestinian countryside which he loved, and the end of time which he expected, in the contemporary generation.  Did he understand himself to be that figure?  We cannot see and we cannot say, though I think it unlikely.  That is, Jesus used the phrase, most probably, but not of himself, most probably. It is Mark and the author Enoch who have given us the ‘Son of Man’ in its full sense, and it is Matthew alone among the Gospel writers who uses the ‘coming’ in a technical sense (so Dr. Perrin, IBDS 834, and others).  The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would expect, than we would *think or like. 

Church.  Mark, Luke and Matthew carry forward these standard-end-of-the-world predictions.  Our lectionary clips out the mistaken acclamation of 24: 34, just two verses ahead of our reading, but we should hear it:  Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Like the waiting figures in the Glass Menagerie, the earlier church has hung onto these blown glass elements while awaiting a never returning person, like that telephone operator, ‘who had fallen in love with long distances’.  They preserve the menagerie in fine glass of hopes deferred that maketh the heart sick.  That generation and seventy others have passed away before any of this has taken place.  We do not expect, literally expect, these portents any longer.  Nor should we.  They are part of the apocalyptic language and imagery which was the mother of the New Testament and all Christian theology since, a beloved mother long dead.  The Son of Man was the favorite hope child of that mother.  A long low alto aria this.  Yet we should, and do, hear these apocalyptic passages.  They are a part of our shared, family history. 

Matthew.  To his credit and to our benefit Matthew makes his editorial, redactorial moves, to accommodate what he has taken from Mark 13.  The point of apocalyptic eschatology is ethical persuasion, here and in the sibling synoptic passages.  Watch.  Be ready.  Live with your teeth set. Ready and steady, ready and steady. Let the servants, the leaders of Matthew’s day, be found faithful.   After 37 excoriating verses directed against the Pharisees in chapter 23, white washed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness—the hard truth about religion at our worst--and after 43 further verses in chapter 24 of standard end time language, Matthew pulls up.  He stands and delivers his sermon.  You must be ready.  Steady and ready, steady and ready. The figure of the future is coming at an hour you do not expect.  Hail the Matthew tenor. 

Tradition.  Immediately the church scrambled to reinvent and reinterpret.  Basso profundo. One example, found early in the passage, will suffice.  Of that day no one knows, not even the Son.  Except that some texts take out ‘even the Son’, in deference to Jesus’ later and higher Person.  It is, finally, and except for occasional oddball readings, like that of the Montanists in the second century and the fundamentalists in the twenty first, the church’s view that apocalyptic language and imagery convey the future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable. The future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable… 

To sum up: As soon, here at Advent 1, the edge of the church’s new year, as we reach out to grasp the future, it has slipped past us, already flying down the road to the rear, into the past.  The present itself is no better, because its portions of past and future are tangled permanently together.  We do have the past, neither dead nor past…or do we?  Memory and memoir spill into each other with the greatest of ease.  One agnostic admitted that music, performed, was his closest approximation of God, the presence of God, the proof of God.  Gabby Gifford showed her history of healing this past week, crowned in music, music that resurrects memory and empowers speech.  Somehow, she persevered.  In week with 6 dead in a Walmart in Virginia, 5 in a gay night club in Colorado, 4 on campus in Idaho, and 3 on a team bus in Virginia, all far more preventable than we have yet found the national will to make them, we think on those so maimed and those so lost.  We need music to carry us, to carry us toward the true and the good and the beautiful.  And to keep us steady and ready, waiting for an opening, a moment when something can be voted, passed, done.  Music can carry our deep memory, including in worship.  The ordered public worship of Almighty God on the Lord’s day is not a matter of indifference.  It carries the models of saving intervening words and soulful intervening notes that may just see us through.  We shall listen in a moment to a beautiful anthem, with rapt attention.  One trusted Christian—it may have been you—sensed grace and grace in the grace of worship, unlike any other. Every moment is a veritable mystery.  Music is a veritable mystery.  So next week, we shall hear:  My body and My blood, these are veritable mysteries, so named mystery, sacramentum, to this day.  How shall we respond? 

Sleepers awake!  There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive!  There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life.  You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you.  It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole.  Begin.  You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self.  It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do.  Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works.  Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work?  Do so.  But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being.  Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment.  You are being sold a bill of goods, here.  Be watchful.  It takes time to self-interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’.  Begin.  You do not have forever to experience Presence.  It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made.  It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach.  Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s, your spirit, not someone else’s.  Begin. 

You must be ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

For example.  How do you deal with hurt that comes from a person you deeply love, a relationship you truly enjoy, an institution you firmly affirm, or a friendship you lastingly cherish? Was yours a contentious Thanksgiving feast?  It is one thing to think about pain, permanent or passing, that comes in collision with others whom we do not know well or care for.  These traffic accidents are perhaps to be expected in the rush hours of relational experience.  When we do not know one another, or not well, we can miss cues and generate miscues that those more familiar would avoid. Not knowing you I did not know and would never have expected that you are an avid Yankees fan, and if I had I would never have said what I did, directly, about the Yankees.  Well, I probably wouldn’t have done.  But what about the church you deeply love, when disappointment comes from the pulpit? What about that lifetime friend who says something unpleasant and hurtful?  What about that employer, whom you revere and admire, to whom you give both creativity and loyalty?  What about that community group whose organizational needs you have selflessly met, that then makes a statement or takes a decision that causes you pain? Or, what about the country you love, when its voice, its choice, deeply disappoint?  In short, what happens when those you love hurt you?  How do you deal with that? 

You must be ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

Perhaps you will irrupt in the moment, lash out in reaction, without any due process of reflection, because the moment needs it, and you have or feel you have no choice.  Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.  Be angry, and let not the sun go down on your anger.  This may cause more problems than it solves, of course, but you may have had no choice.   

Or, you may sense that you just want to put some distance between yourself and your source of pain, institutional, relational, or personal.  A little time, a little distance, a little pause, a little absence.   Thence a cooling off, it may be, not a squaring off.  In some measure that may suit you and the challenge.  You did not start it.  You do not need to take responsibility for it.  Shake the dust from your feet.  Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. (You see how tough it can be even, especially when you know the Bible, to pick out the right Bible verse!)  The trouble is still there, though it may just dissipate on its own.  Not all battles have to be fought.   

Or maybe you want to just listen. You know, like animals do, they just curl up and become a log or a part of the scenery.   Let life go along, and let the conversation play out.  You do not need to oppose.  You do not need to repose.  You can just pose in silence.  You can offer the silent treatment—present but quiet.  This could work, though there is a quality of falsehood about it.  It may depend on just how substantial the fender-bender was, how hurtful the collision, how extreme the traffic accident.   Silence alone has limits to its beneficence.  Still, as the man said, ‘I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt’.  Sometimes it is better just to keep your own counsel, and play dead. 

You must be ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

On the first Sunday of Advent, you are reminded, you have though at least one other option.  Fight, flight, play dead if need be.  Yet you might also, well, wait.  We are approaching Advent, are we not?  Wait upon the Lord.  That is, you might think through what happened, both putting the best and worst lights upon it.  You might pray about it.  Hold it in prayerful thought.  You might think out a couple of sentences that you would caringly use, should the institution, relationship, or person provide an opening for that.  And then you would have to ‘hurry up and wait’.  Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.  “You know, I have had that interchange in mind since it happened.  Honestly, for whatever reason, it did hurt.  But given the love, joy, happiness, meaning and help you give me over so much time, it is just one brief solar eclipse that comes once a decade, when all else is sunshine. Thanks for mentioning it.” 

Call it an Advent Gospel, an advent admonition:  

You must be ready.  Steady and ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

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