October 19

A Knock at the Door

By Marsh Chapel

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At this time in the year, at Boston University, we meet with parents and students who are on the cusp of coming and going, sending and being sent. It is a bone jarring moment. It is reality, the reality of time and eternity, change and love. Most of our words to parents and students are meant to convey our sincere commitment to excellence, our attention to detail, our trustworthiness, if you will, as an institution and as individuals. The message is sincere and true, important and timely. This is a good place, and your sons and daughters will be here among good people. So we say, week by week. We mean it and it is the truth.

But another reality of Parents Weekend, for parent and student, is not about us at all, but is about them, about feelings, feelings wrought by coming and going. We also should speak of and to them.

I see parents with their freshman children and I overhear feelings.

There is a feeling of gratitude, so thick you can see it in the air. I do not mean only the word of thanks that one more teenager is leaving home, one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry, though I suppose that is there, too. I mean the feeling that comes with a gasp in the throat, ‘thank you’. I mean the feeling of seeing, my goodness, 18 years have gone by, and here, look, look at that young woman, that young man, my son, my daughter. These parents have seen Fiddler on the Roof thirty years ago on Broadway, but they only understand it this summer. It is a feeling of thanksgiving, for life, for youth, for children, for family, for affection. Every now and then, you catch a smile on a dad’s face, a lightness in a mom’s eyes, and you know gratitude, a real feeling.

There is a feeling of loss, too. In fact, loss is next door neighbor to gratitude, funny as that is. I don’t mean only the loss you feel with the first tuition check sent, though that is truly a real feeling. In these summer meetings, I see sometimes a parent turn away, with eyes brimming, a private moment that even as a pastor I feel unworthy to engage. I know that feeling. We took all three of our children from Rochester to Columbus, to drop them off at a small Methodist college for small Methodists. We dropped them off at Ohio Wesleyan and then drove home. All three times I thought the tears would stop by Cleveland, but they didn’t, or the time we got to Erie, but they didn’t, or at least in Buffalo, but they didn’t. In some ways, they haven’t stopped yet. You feel a prayer on the lips, when you say, and you must say it and mean it, ‘goodbye’.

There is a feeling of hope as well. You cannot be around many hundred eighteen year olds and turn a cold heart to the future. That much energy brings its own promise and these parents feel it. At matriculation in two months we will sit in front of 4000 young hearts, 8000 young eyes and ears and hands, 4000 souls. When they cheer together there is a tingle, a mixture of awe and fear and wonder, like the feeling of a ten foot wave breaking right in front of you. ‘Bless you’ we say and pray, and so do our parents. There is a new day upon us and it brings a sense of promise.

Now our parents have other things to think about and bigger fish to fry than to connect their feeling (far more than sentiment or emotion by the way) with the birth of Boston University. Yet these three feelings of gratitude and loss and promise created this school in 1839. Oh, John Dempster and the other 19th century founders would have used other, more religious, more technically theological terms, but the feelings were exactly theirs too, as they served as midwives at the birth of Boston University. In place of gratitude, they would have spoken of grace, prevenient grace at that. In place of loss, they would have spoken of itinerancy, the spiritual journey that is the heart of life. In place of promise, they would have invoked the gospel word of freedom, in the name of the God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. But the feelings—that is, the realities—are the very same.

With such feelings we meet the beginnings of Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians and the beginnings of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The authority of Jesus’ ministry is today transferred to disciples, ancient and modern. Both passages ask us about vocation.

To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.

‘Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.’

Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours. Which part of this ministry draws you?

Where does your passion meet the world’s need?

What are you ready to risk doing, to plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest?

What are you going to give yourself to, to offer your ability, affability, and availability?

Who calls you, who called you, to your own real life, your vocation? We began this spring to gather people here at the University to ask them this. Who gave you your sense of direction, vocation in life? Robert Pinsky revitalized poetry by asking communities to gather and read their favorites. We are trying to revitalize vocation by asking communities to gather and remember their mentors. What about you? Here are three examples.


Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

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

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’.

Vocation leads to God. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine.


Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide. But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on t
he lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a Rochesterian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. Several times in the 1980’s I thought of driving over here to visit him. But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago. Lasch said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.”

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Vocation leads to God.


Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, whose vocations lead to God:

At the end of my first year at the Rochester Theological Seminary, I became assistant to the minister of the First Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. I was to assume the duties as pastor during the month that the minister and his family were away on vacation. I would be on my own. On my first night alone in the parsonage I was awakened by the telephone. The head nurse of the local Negro hospital asked, ‘May I speak with Dr. James?’. I told her he was away. ‘Dr. James is the hospital chaplain’, she explained. ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’

In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’.

‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’.

In a few minutes I was on my way, but in my excitement and confusion I forgot to take my Bible. At the hospital, the nurse took me immediately into a large ward. The dread curtain was around the bed. She pulled it aside and directed me to stand opposite her. The sick man’s eyes were half closed, his mouth open, his breathing labored. The nurse leaned over and, calling him by name, said, ‘The minister is here’.

Slowly he sought to focus his eyes first on her, and then on me. In a barely audible voice he said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen.

We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Vocation leads to God.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand when your passion meets another’s need. Jesus empowers his disciples. Vocation leads to God.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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