August 30

Set Sail

By Marsh Chapel

Mark 7

Click here to hear the sermon only.


Four winds blow across the prow of every pulpit on every Sunday morning. One rises up from the venerable lungs of Holy Scripture, formed in the tradition of the church. A second gusts out of the very experience of the actual congregation within which the pulpit, like a great mast, stands up and stands out. The third swirls and rushes from the institution or denomination of origin—the kindred family of the community. A fourth and last blows from the bellows of the history of a land, a country, a people, a great continental wind. Sometimes they all blow hard at the same time. Then there is a kind of homiletical hurricane. This Sunday is such a day.

Four winds blow here, and now. One is the teaching from Mark about what matters, counts, works and lasts. A second is the experience of this congregation, which has breathed life into a long discussion through the summer and concluding today, of Darwin and faith. The third is a great sea tide of freshman students coming into Boston University, four thousand noses and eight thousand eyes that are changing the world as we speak. A fourth, the last, is the experience of grief, across our country and particularly in our region, at the loss of a great leader, a last lion. Sometimes the four winds combine. Then there is a sort of homiletical hurricane. This sermon is such a combination.


Our lectionaries of local church, of country, of institutional connection are preceded, in our practice, by the lectionary of Scripture. For us, the Scripture is primary as a matter of practice. It is primary because it functions so for us.

Our readings this year are from Mark. You will want to know what we can say, then about Mark’s community. The community gave birth to the gospel and the community is the primary focus of the gospel, its intended audience. It is a community, by the way, facing and dreading persecution. Mark may have been written in or near Rome, something before 73 ce. His fellow Christians are gentiles in the main, not Jews. He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract, nor an ethereal piece of poetry. His is rather a ‘message on target’, as someone once said.

Today’s lesson from Mark is about table manners, pots and pans, cleanliness. We pause to note that cleanliness is not an insubstantial issue, neither socially nor religiously. John ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ Wesley, and our very own flu plagued age remind us so. Further, the influence of the mind and heart upon the outer world is clear, and has been clear from ancient times. Yet at one level ours is nonetheless an inauspicious text. We know from other sources that Jesus stepped aside from the inherited requirements of the law. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Yet lest you doubt the severity, the radicality of this dictum, you may want to refer to the highly critical, remonstrant comments about it which University Professor Elie Wiesel made last fall. Declaring all foods clean allowed the inclusion of the gentiles, as this text affirms. For Mark’s community, largely gentile as the necessary explanations fit for non-Jews proves, this issue was inordinately important. So, too, is it for us. It is the early planting, the seed, the taproot of just inclusion. Not the outward, but the inward, matters, lasts, counts. Not the color, not the gender, not the orientation, not the inclination—but the heart. In this sense, as Paul writes in Galatians, Christ is the end of religion, thanks be to God. As Philo wrote, true defilement is injustice (Marcus, I, 453). Here are the headwaters of the great river of the tradition of responsible liberalism. ‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ And so much more. Resistance to this liberalism of the heart began early, starting with Matthew’s retake. Matthew mightily mutes Mark (see Matthew 15). The mutation continues to the present day (Marcus).


A second wind curls around Marsh Chapel today. Over ten weeks this summer we have listened for the gospel as a series of preachers have probed the truth of the gospel at the intersection of Darwin and faith. I had the personal pleasure to read through all the sermons in this series during the past week. I am thankful for the fine work of my colleagues, our guests in this pulpit this summer. I urge you to read through these sermons, found on our website. There are as fine and as full a treatment of this aspect of our responsible Christian liberalism as you can find. They will constitute the second edition of MOTIVES magazine.

Our purpose has been evangelistic. Over time the gospel of truth is both gospel and truth or it is neither gospel nor truth. What is untrue cannot in the long run be much comfort. So one woman, Joanna Mang (NYT, 5/10/09) well wrote:

“It is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church. But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than the longing for unconditional comfort”

Of course I reserve one last word on the subject!

For those of faith, it will be important to remember Jesus’ admonition, ‘be ye wise as serpents, innocent as doves’. Science and religion can nourish each other, and, in fact, deeply need each other. Those who have been seized by the church’s confession—you and you all—have also a particular task, a job if you will. It is the work of antinomy and the task of dialectic. That is, future discipleship is not a matter of faith or Darwin, but pointedly a matter of faith and Darwin. As these sermons in composite teach us (as a whole that is, rather than as individual offerings), we rely both on wisdom and on innocence.

Let us name the Darwinian antinomies, the dialectics of faith, in our own experience. There is silence. There also is mystery. There is knowledge. There also is ignorance. There is transcendence. There also immanence. There is the subjective genitive. There is also the objective genitive. There is the via negativa. There is also the negation of the via negativa. There is creation. There also is redemption. As two eyes make one in sight.

We commend the gift of faith to you convinced of the truth of Darwin. Convinced of Darwin’s truth, we commend to you the gift of faith.


There is a third wind blowing today.

All around us the sounds of a new freshman class, 4100 young men and women, remind us of an emerging future. A local church has a denominational extended family—Catholic, Baptist, Quaker, all. We have a deep root in the Methodist tradition which from 1839 gave life and growth to Boston University. Yet it is the University itself, more than any denomination or other tradition, which truly is our extended family. Today our family grows by a leap and bound.

Our service of hospitality begins with every freshman. A long term hope, harbored here, is that every freshman would at some point in his first year receive a pastoral contact or visit from the minister of his self-identified tradition, should he have one, or from a chaplain of the Chapel should he have none. To greet another person by name is to honor the human being of that person, to honor the essential beauty of that person. To greet another by name is to name the name that is above every name in that
person. We are an urban community. We are a northern campus. We are a large community. We are a multifaceted largely secular institution. So, we have every reason to strive to be 200% as human, as hospitable, and as welcoming in our treatment of each other as might be the case elsewhere.

Our service of hospitality begins this week. Nor is this service the province only of those assigned to student work. It is your work, you who have identified with the ministry of Marsh Chapel. These young women and men are all our children. They have been blown ashore to a campus that can be daunting, even to most mature. They swim in a culture that is not flowing only with milk and honey, with compassion and kindness. There is a harshness to the river in which they swim, one with another. At its worst the cultural river becomes a sewer. It is hard to blame the fish for the quality of the water. You may make every difference, this week and this year, to an eighteen year old, who some day will be your age.

Three years ago, this week, a young woman from Atlanta came to worship. Our ushers somehow discovered that she had been an usher in her home church. In a human way, they welcomed her to community and to service, and for three years she helped by ushering to lead our service. Last May the usher team celebrated her graduation in a special dinner. She is in a way still with us, even though right now she is in graduate school in Michigan.

An invitation opens a door – to music, to service, to study, to fellowship, to ministry, to community. You have that invitation to offer to a young person who may be trying to develop as an adult with a modicum of personal integrity, a minimum of personal irresponsibility, a measure of personal happiness, a mode of personal honesty. There are many students who are looking for a haven in a heartless world. There are many students who really would like to find happiness and community without having to drink to excess to find it. You hold by invitation to the blessing of that haven. I implore you to use it to your advantage and to theirs.

As their little boats set sail, give them a beacon, a lighthouse, a safe harbor, an awareness of all the wind blowing in the rigging.


Behold yet another, a fourth wind, setting down upon us this morning.

Our region and this country are grieving the loss of a great leader. For those listening from afar, we invite your imagination to settle into Boston for a moment. This is your city, too. Streets teeming with well wishers, from the North End to Faneuil Hall to Mission Hill. Voices, many many voices, lifted in emotion and in reflection. Feelings of pride, loss, grief, gratitude. Boston is the cradle of liberty. This week, though, it also feels the cradle of justice, or least like the longing for justice. This is not a partisan longing. It is as old as the Scriptures, as someone once said.

The winds of loss and grief blow upon us too, here at Marsh Chapel. I look out at the marvelous windows of this beautiful nave. I am struck by just how much longing for justice is enshrined in their beauty. John Wesley greets us here. Abraham Lincoln greets us here. Francis Willard greets us here. Boston University was born out of the longing for justice that welled up in the people called Methodist, a poor people: miners, sailors, laborers, farmers. Its history is replete with inclusion of the excluded, those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadow of life. Marsh Chapel is charmingly beautiful, beautifully simple, and built to remind us of our rich shared history, but also our particularly history as people who knew hardship, knew poverty, knew exclusion. “A wandering Aramean (an Anglican field preacher if you will) was our father”.

We grew up with some set, simple habits. You did too. Here is one. At dinner no one is offered a second helping until everyone has had a first helping. I find it interesting how hard it seems sometimes for us to remember our table manners.

We heard Caroline Kennedy movingly remember the history tours her uncle Ted, whom we honor and mourn this week, gave his nieces and nephews. They went to Antietam and Gettysburg. They went to New York and New Jersey. Of course they came to Boston and walked the Freedom Trail and learned the history of the cradle of liberty. Why do we teach history? So that our stories may be tethered to the best hopes and finest courage in our past. So that our story may be part of the full, one story of common faith, common ground, common hope, and common grace.


When our children were young we would sometimes take a summer trip. Often we went to New York City. Then one year we decided for some reason to come to Boston, and a love affair with New England began that has grown more intense with every year. That summer we stayed in Hyannisport and swam in the ocean. One day we came to the Kennedy memorial. It is a beautiful spot, right on the water. It happened to be a sunny day. Our daughter was nine years old or so. I see her again, walking the circumference of that memorial spot. The wind from the sea, the boats bobbing in the breeze, the leisure to reflect, these I see feel again as well. She walked the embedded quotation, around and around. “I believe America should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”. I believe that too. So do you.

To set sail toward a new rebirth of wonder
To set sail toward a new rebirth of compassion
To set sail toward a new rebirth of justice
To set sail toward a new rebirth of peace
To set sail toward a new rebirth of morality
To set sail toward a new rebirth of generosity
To set sail toward a new rebirth of love

There is a good wind today. In Scripture. In Church. In University. In Country. It is steady, strong wind. The wind gives us our chance to set sail.

~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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