October 18

Whose Service is Freedom

By Marsh Chapel

There are many reasons for appearing in church. To some of these we may be able to attach descriptions and meanings. There are historical reasons. Family traditions come to mind. There are sociological reasons. Cultural influence, in some regions at least, comes to mind. There are psychological reasons. The very human needs for meaning, belonging, and empowerment come to mind. There are theological, philosophical reasons. Curiosity about life and fear of death come to mind. There are many reasons for coming to church, come Sunday.

On Parents’ Weekend, on a college campus, there are many reasons for coming to church. As a Parent, you may want to offer a prayer of thanks, a hymn of praise, that things have gone so well so far, for your beloved son or daughter. As a Student, you may want to include your Dad or Mom in part of the weekly rhythm of life, here, to say ‘welcome’ to your spiritual home. As a Professor or Administrator, you may want to stand alongside others in the community of faith, as work progresses across midterm valley, in the community of learning. Or, withal, you all may just want to enjoy a time of singing, a moment of peace, and a good, free lunch. On Parents’ Weekend, on this college campus, there are many reasons for coming to church.

All these reasons are good reasons.

Yet, stirring in the early part of the sermon’s development, and just now in your own thought and heart, there may be another awareness, too. I think there is. For all the goodness of all these reasons for worship, down deep or at least deeper, there is something else at work. I ask you to search for a minute, in your own soul, for this something else. While you are looking around, down in the recesses of the soul, let me call up a familiar story.

Make Way For Ducklings

This story is about intimacy, about closeness, about nearness.

It is a story that many parents and children together have enjoyed. The story is set in Boston. As a matter of fact, it is set right here, along the Charles. It contains the usual suspects. A family on the move. A hunt for suitable housing. Various dangers and perils. Changes in direction, changes in location. Some good people along the way. This story offers connections to Beacon Hill, the Public Garden, the Back Bay, Charles Street, our shared River, and that lastingly typical feature of Boston, MA, traffic. As I view the congregation, I imagine that a few parents and a few children, here today, enjoyed this story together. Isn’t it wonderful to be sitting inside the book of Robert McCloskey’s story? Rather than holding the book, the book holds you. That is one great thing about Boston. Here you see Mrs. Mallard, right on the river. You step alongside the Garden, and its little island. You ride the tour boat, rather than seeing it sketched. You dodge the cyclists, and the autos, yourself. Be careful. You may not be able to fly over the State House, with its copper dome, but you can walk right up to it. By the Longfellow Bridge you can spot the cozy place for molting. You can say hello to Michael the policeman. And when jack, kack, lack, mack, nack, ouack, pack, and quack come toward you, on the esplanade, you yourself can ‘make way for ducklings’. And when you and others take your life in your hands crossing the street, at Arlington and Beacon, you can hope that Michael will be there to help, as he so consistently, unfailingly was, in the book. When Michael calls Clancy from Mt Vernon Street, at a pay phone, or maybe now on a cell phone, you may overhear the call. You are here. On the pond you may see the Mallard clan, heading home to the little island, where Mr. Mallard sits waiting. (He never did do very much in that story did he?) You may say to yourself, on your Sunday afternoon stroll through the Public Garden, “The ducklings liked the new island so much that they decided to live there. (Some of them even decided to go to college down the street.) All day long they follow the swan boat and eat peanuts. (College is a kind of subsidized freedom). And when night falls they swim to their island and fall asleep. (A little past dusk, most nights, by the way).

This is a story about closeness that for many years has given people, maybe you, an experience of closeness. A story about intimacy that has caused an experience of intimacy. A story about nearness that has evoked a real experience of nearness.
Parental Swimming Lessons

I do not mean to idealize family life. ‘It takes a long time to raise parents’. The road is a rocky one. The journey has its own perils, every bit as fierce as the river, the tour boat, the traffic, and the garden. For parents, to become parents of adults, as adult parents to young adult children (you see how complicated this gets?), have to learn new swimming lessons, on the river, in the pond, under the bridges of life. Parents have to take swimming lessons. I know. I had to get wet myself. Once you send your child away, you need some new swimming lessons.

You need the prone float of trust, that kind of faith that trusts in letting go. That makes you a beginner. You need to learn two strokes, and swim with your mouth closed. (Ah, I see you get my meaning). Sometimes the tongue is for biting. That makes you an advanced beginner. You need to master the crawl, front and back. To control your self control, for only self control is real control anyway. It is the only control any of us really has. Enjoy it. That makes you an intermediate. You need to show power for distance swimming, and to avoid triangles, that is, when you need to talk, to talk directly. (Avoiding triangles is the basis of the University’s policy about communication with parents of students, by the way). Then you are a swimmer. After a while your adult child may come to you with a question. People, including children, only listen when they are ‘coming toward you’. There may be a question. ‘Dad, what do you think about…? Ah, sweet moment. You have moved into a coaching role, and have become an advanced swimmer. And when your own children go through their molting stages, and find a mate along the river bank, then you will relate as one parent to another. That may be the most important parenting you do, parent to parent. You have become a lifesaver.

In our previous pastorate, we saw all three of our children depart for college. All went to Ohio Wesleyan. After we dropped them off, we drove home to Rochester. The tears flowed from Columbus to Cleveland. The tears flowed from Cleveland to Buffalo. The tears flowed from Buffalo to Rochester where, drenched, we stopped. After the first such bath trip, my wife decided that the next year, and every year following, she would host a dinner for mothers whose ducklings had flown the coop. They gathered, ate, drank, laughed, cried, and went home the better for it. They are still doing so, under new leadership. They are helping each other with swimming lessons.

In absence, the absence of children becoming adults, they are learning about a new kind of intimacy, a new kind of closeness, a new kind of nearness.

Spiritual Intimacy Mark 10:35

Some minutes ago I asked you to think about your presence here, and its fountain and origin.

Gain or loss of one kind of intimacy can sometimes kindle a desire for another kind of intimacy. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. In more than one way…

I tell you about Mallard closeness, McCloskey intimacy for a reason. I reflect with you about parental swimming lessons for a reason. Here is the reason. I want to invite you into another kind of intimacy. In fact, lurking somewhere down deep or deeper, I think you are waiting for such an invitation. It may be the very reason you are in church, today, or any Sunday. The intimacy of human love is a foretaste for the intimacy of divine love. How can you love God whom you have not seen if you have not loved your children whom you have seen? Better: having loved your children, or your parents, you are ready for another kind of love.

In our Gospel, Mark 10: 35, something is conveyed that I usually miss, in this familiar reading. Perhaps you caught it. It is the desire for a spiritual intimacy.

James and John are rightly chastised for their spiritual one-up-manship, but not for their longing for intimacy. Usually this passage is read as a warning against pride in authority. So it is. ‘May our pomp not be pompous’, as one said this week. ‘Whosever would be great among you must be your minister ’. True greatness is found in service. And ultimately, Christ offers his life as a ransom for many, for the many, for the nations, for the church, for humanity, for the whole inhabited earth. Place and position, Jesus defers to God. ‘It is not so among you’, says the Markan Jesus, contrasting earthly tyranny with churchly love. Later editors thought this was a bit much, and so recast the sentence: ‘it will not be so among you’. But the word of Christ seems to mean what it says. In reality, that is, where you are truly yourself, at your realest real, at depth, in reality, ‘it is not so among you’. When you come to yourself.

James and John are chastised regarding position and authority. But not for their longing to be near him, to sit by him, to be close to him. This desire is the most striking feature of today’s Gospel. ‘Let us sit next to you, right and left’.

They want to be near Him, in whose service is freedom. They want to know that kind of lasting intimacy. They want the intimacy of faith. For sure, they are less than fully prepared for the cost. But their desire is not scorned. Far from it. Their desire is honored for what it is, the very heart of life, of being human, of being alive. They know what they most want: the intimacy of faith. I think you do too. I think most people do, even though we go a long way around Robin Hood’s barn to find it out. We long for the peace of faith. We long for the joy of faith. We long for the confidence of faith. We long for that intimate, close, nearness, which is the experience of the divine, maybe the only experience of the divine we can ever have, on this earth. ‘Belief transforms’ (Proust, RTP, 644).

Childlike is this longing, childlike this hunger.

Soon we will be at Christmas. We will sing familiar carols. One is a children’s carol. Our daughter sang this in a little country church, on Christmas eve, when she was four: “be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care; and fit us for heaven, to live with thee there”.

A Path To Intimacy

How does one enter such intimacy?

Our reading directly tells us.

Through service. Closeness comes through service, and intimacy, through service, and nearness, through service.

If you love Him, why not serve Him?

This is the strange gospel paradox, the cruciform paradox of the good news. Those who are last, they shall be first. Those who are poor, they shall be filled. Those who serve, they shall be greatest…. Because they shall be closest, nearest, most intimately joined, to Him.

Last Sunday a friend invited me to go with him to a nearby nursing home. There we with visited with a Christian gentleman, who is struggling with his health. We sat together. We quietly conversed and conferred. Some part memory, some part experience, some part humor. A gentle autumn wind lifted the maple branches outside. We closed with prayer. In that simple moment, there was a true intimacy, a nearness. In the direct discourse. In the need and in the presence. In the careful attention, from all to all. In the very ordinary, very traditional, very regular moment of a Sunday visit in a nursing home.

Do you desire a closeness in life and with life? A nearness? An intimacy? Is this hunger, longing, craving—known to James and John, and known across the ages—yours as well?

Four years ago we were invited to come to Boston, and to enter this pulpit. Among the powers that drew us here, was the chance to labor in the shadow of Howard Thurman and to preach from the pulpit he once filled. Thurman was the first Dean of Marsh Chapel. In the work of grieving and departing from one setting and entering another, I was telephoned by a friend and parishioner. In 1950, in San Francisco, she had heard Thurman speak. On the basis of that experience, she devoted her life, over the next forty years, to service in the YMCA. I asked her what she remembered. She said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Some weeks later she made an appointment, and came to the office, with an envelope in hand. In the envelope, there was a poem about a duck, speaking of ducklings. ‘He read this poem’, was all she said. Later came this note, “I have held sending my thanks to you while I located ‘The Little Duck”. You do not need to live in New England to love it, but it does help. The fact that I heard it through Howard Thurman’s beautiful voice adds to it for me”. The ‘little duck’ is a poem about the freedom of a duck floating on the waves, written in 1947 by Donald Babcock. Here are verses from that poem…

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic
And he is part of it
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is
And neither do you
But he realizes it
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him.
I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.


About three hymnals ago in our church, there was a short prayer that was used with some regularity. It was a prayer in intimacy, for nearness, with closeness: ‘Our Heavenly Father, we adore Thee, whose name is love, whose nature is compassion, whose presence is joy, whose word is truth, whose spirit is goodness, whose holiness is beauty, whose will is peace, whose service is perfect freedom, and in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life’.

If there is a kindling of heart leaning toward nearness, fan the flame.

If there is a longing of heart for closeness, feed the desire.

If there is a hunger for an intimacy, a vital connection, nourish the need.


The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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