August 24

Rebirth of Wonder

By Marsh Chapel


Who would not smile to return home to this pulpit?

I ought to pay you for the privilege of standing here, let alone speaking here.

I am told that Winston Churchill called Commonwealth Avenue the loveliest street in America. From the vantage point of this Chapel Nave, on a glorious summer Sunday, in the embrace of a loving congregation, within earshot of all New England, it does certainly seem so. Commonwealth. Our commonwealth. The street where you live, at least, the street where your spiritual life quickens. Commonwealth, lovely Commonwealth.

And I am not even pausing to honor, to celebrate the physical beautification of our avenue, our promenade, spacious street, our Commonwealth.

Walk up to Marsh Chapel from Arlington some Sunday afternoon. Like today. Say hello to those you meet in the park:

Arlington St.: Alexander Hamilton

Berkeley St: Gen. John Glover

Clarendon: Patrick Andrew Collins, Fireman’s Memorial

Dartmouth: William Lloyd Garrison

Exeter St: Samuel Eliot Morrison

Fairfield: Women’s Memorial (Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone, Phylis Wheatley)

Gloucester: Domingo Sarmiento

Charlesgate: Lief Ericson

All these stories, these biographies, carry us along Commonwealth. They tell us a little bit about who we are. They remind us. They point out shadow and they point to light. They point out shadow and they point to light.

Soon, this fall, we shall give ear to the announcement of a fuller commonwealth. We will allow the guidance of the lectionary to point us toward Philippians, Paul’s loveliest letter, the loveliest street, if you will, in the far off land of Pauline literature. I am told that Philippians is the loveliest street in Paul. There we will meet statues in memory of exemplary people, as the first verse of the letter reminds us. Paul. Timothy. The saints in Philippi. The overseers. The deacons. Turn the corner a few streets, I mean chapters, later. Epaphroditus. Euodia. Syntche. Syzygus. Wonderful! We shall scour, scour the syllables of this epistle, awaiting announcement of a fuller commonwealth.

You can recall, I know you can, the epigrammatic fullness of this new land, this fuller commonwealth, announced in the letter to the Philippians, which, in a few weeks, our lovely lectionary will deign to show us.

There is a resonance to beauty. That is why Winston Churchill recalled our Commonwealth. And that is why we remember Paul singing from prison to Philippi:

I thank my God…for your partnership in the Gospel.

Rejoice in the Lord always.

The Lord is at hand.

If there is any excellence…think about these things.

He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Stand firm in spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind.

Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.

God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Whatever gain I had I count as loss for the sake of Christ.

I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.

I know how to be abased and I know how to abound.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Again I say rejoice.

Let all men know your forbearance.

For all the joy and sparkle of these verses, they cannot finally overshadow Philippians 3:20. I bring it as your focus for the preaching of the gospel in this season. And why would I not? How could I not? How could I keep it from you? How could I keep from singing?

Philippians 3:20 (RSV): Our commonwealth is in heaven.

Ours is a heavenly commonwealth, a divine commonwealth. Our true home, our homeland, our real citizenship, our land, our mother tongue, our real selves, in short, our commonwealth is heaven. Along our own Commonwealth Avenue, to this spiritual commonwealth we shall train our ears, and tune our hearts, and attach our wills in this season.

For Paul and Timothy found a rebirth of wonder, and so can you. Paul and Timothy found a rebirth of wonder, and so can we. Wonder seized them. They called it ‘apocalypse’. Wonder is a close, not exact, not precise, not final, not exhaustive, not conclusive, but a close rendering. It is good news for a world that lacks not for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder. (Chesterton).

Two experiences brought them home to wonder. One was an awareness of shadow. The other was a delight in light.


Ah, shadow. I remember standing with JAT Robinson, a year before he died, standing in the lovely autumn shadows of University Street in Montreal. He said: ‘as I get older, I am more attentive to the shadow that hovers over our life’.

You might think of sin by way of shadow.

There is an insidious shadow, barely visible, but present. You can barely see it, if at all. You can barely hear it, if at all. Its approach is poetry in motion, fog on cat feet, coming quietly to the back door, dressed to kill.

Most marriages are in far less danger from the occasional direct assault of envy or lust than they are in danger from the quiet dying away of the bond itself. No time spent in talk, and holding, no play, no rest. A year, three, ten. Little cat feet, and suddenly, insidiously, the roof falls in. Most souls are in far less danger from the occasional direct assault of a temptation, to gamble wages or to steal by lying or to take advantage of the weak or to murder a partner, than they are in danger from the nearly silent approach of lifelong addictions. To alcohol. To drugs. To work. To food. To…just what is it that you cannot live without this week? Most churches are in far less danger from the occasional direct assault of a fire, or an unmanageable political conflict, or the machinations of a single verbal arsonist, than they are in danger from the slow, secret advance of unloving habits of inhospitality. God knows, as does the shadow, that it takes time, time, to ruin a home, a soul, or a church.

Or a country.

A direct attack usually incurs a direct response, wise or foolish or both. As Niebuhr showed, groups know how to defend themselves, from labor unions to nations. While you and the neighbor barbecue into the end of another summer, or generation, look around and see if the shadow Paul and Timothy noticed, with which they wrestled to death, lurks around you. The indirect advance of shadow stalks the heart, the dream, the soul. The imagination. And then, slowly, inexorably, one forgets. Have you forgotten the love you had at first? That is a question found in the Bible. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? That is a question found in the Bible. Slowly, delicately, shadow overtakes the love we had at first. Slowly, delicately, shadow bargains the soul for the worl

What profit is progress if its price is the loss of community? What profit is the desire for unlimited goods if its price is the loss of what matters? What profit is the spiritual commitment to ‘MORE’ if such a gain means a loss of real life? What does it profit a main to gain the whole world, if he loses the love he had at first?

So Leslie Dunbar: “we must live together as a people bound together by ties of mutual respect, not as a people armored against each other”.

So Vaclev Havel: “Hope is not prognosis, but a willingness to work for what is good”.

In words like these, we see behind the shadow, past the shadow, a glimmer of light.


Ah light. Light shines in the memory of your true commonwealth. Direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. Paul and Timothy and others, drenched in shadow, saw light. They had a rebirth of wonder.

I put it to you in formula: “when conviction is quickened by imagination there is action that makes a difference”.

Our commonwealth is in the sunlight. In wonder. We may need a little illumination of imagination today! We may even need an Imagination Proclamation about life together, about community in the age of progress, about health for the soul, about the dance between soul circumstance! Shadows covering the imagination can imprison every bit as much as the Roman cell did so to Paul. Our commonwealth is in the sunlight.


If the prisons in this country were half-empty and the streets free of vagrants.

If every generation received a better education than the one that preceded it.

If every man or woman who wanted a job could get one, and not one person was thought ‘redundant’.

If schools and hospitals and churches and charities were overfunded.

If men and women were getting along so well that abortion and abuse were virtually unheard of.

If budgets, public and private, were set with a clear eye, a frugal eye to the future, without being based on borrowing from the next generation.

If the measure of success in this great country were formed not against the question of individual progress, but against the desire for the common good.

If democracy, not only of voice and vote, but also of education and endowment and employment and environment were our song.

If we could go to bed at night, not as those who all the day have been rivals for position and power and privilege, but as those who have worn an easier yoke and a lighter burden, that of real community, as those who have helped one another.

If the criterion for medical care were simply, ‘how sick are you’.

If the communal virtues, the signposts of health—responsibility, frugality, a sense of limits, respect for authority replaced those of mere success, ‘progress’.

If every kid around the world had enough to eat.

If the love of Jesus Christ, and the fear of disappointing Him, and the hope of meeting him in glory, and joy of working in his fellowship were all that we deeply wanted, all that we deeply needed?

Imagine that.

Too idealistic? Really?

What does it profit…

Have you forgotten…

Our commonwealth is…


Friends. We shall need to choose our course, our homeland, our citizenship, our commonwealth, our home, our horizon. This fall, and this year, the Apostle Paul will remind us. Our commonwealth is heaven. May it be so, and may we live it as so.

George Bernard Shaw, as usual, had it close to right: ‘You see things as they are and say, ‘Why’? But I dream of things that never were and I say,
‘Why not?’

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

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