October 31

In Memoriam

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 6: 20-31

My study of theology began in 1976 at Broadway and 120th street in New York, a fine avenue, if not quite Commonwealth Avenue. There walked in those days on those streets the ghosts and memories of saints past, like Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel, one from the Union Theological Seminary and one from the Jewish Theological Seminary. In fact, the story or myth or legend was that on fall afternoons and evenings, Niebuhr and Heschel could be found walking, and talking, in the 1950’s, as they circled Grant’s Tomb, and strolled along Riverside Drive, and lingered in the shadows of Riverside Church. It is just that kind of refreshing and leisurely stroll I would like, metaphorically speaking, to take with you this morning. I would like to remember two saints, and to imagine their conversations.

You probably know Niebuhr, or at least his serenity prayer about patience, courage and wisdom. You may remember too that Heschel was the greatest voice of his generation, and century, to interpret the Hebrew prophets. Micah 6. Amos 5. Isaiah 55. Hosea 11. He said, ‘the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments’ (repeat). With humble confidence and confident humility, in books and lectures and articles, Heschel taught a generation the unique, sui generis, power of the prophetic tradition. I like to think of Reinhold and Abraham, of an afternoon, celebrating difference, honoring diversity. They probably would not have used that phrase. But their conversation, and others like it, holds a part of our future. In thinking about All Saints, Heschel and Neibuhr came to mind. In Memoriam. With you I meditate upon them today.


I wonder if they discussed difference, considered diversity in the past? If they did, they would have recognized that diversity often precedes unity. E pluribus unum, says our dollar bill. Out of many…one. Diversity comes first in history, and in religious history. Huston Smith and Stephen Prothero could help us to remember this. Their books, a generation apart, are nonetheless equally contemporary. Smith is a perennialist, Prothero is not. Meaning Smith highlights the similarities among religions, but Prothero emphasizes the differences between them.

Yet what sometimes escapes careful notice emerges at the intersection of diversity and history. In religious history, diversity regularly precedes unity. In earliest Christianity, to take one example, diversity preceded unity. Before there was one canon of Scripture, there were many books. Before there was one central authority, there were many city congregations. Before there was one unity of doctrine, there were many and various expressions of faith. I think often of my teacher Cyril Richardson, who brought this understanding to bear on his students. The 27 books of the New Testament show startling diversity. Four gospels, all distinct, especially the most radically different, John. 14 letters somehow connected to Paul (including Hebrews here), all very different, especially the 7 authentically Pauline. Throughout the collection, a range of expression of resurrection, which Valentinus (for someone and something completely different), in his Treatise on Resurrection, called ‘a revelation, a transformation, and a transition into newness’.

Diversity came first. So, difference does not surprise, astound, alarm, or confound us. Difference does not frighten us. Hold that thought. Difference does not shake us. We expect it. It is in our history, after all.


I wonder if Heschel and Niebuhr talked about diversity in our time, in this the late modern period? If they did, on those autumn and spring late afternoon ‘paseos’, along the Hudson, they might have brought up Howard Thurman. Thurman preached and taught in the 1950’s. He did so here in Boston, right here in Marsh Chapel. I tell my students about Thurman, my predecessor at Marsh Chapel, by saying that he was ‘100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, which puts him still 50 years ahead of us’. In those years, people would go one Sunday to Trinity Church to hear Theodore Ferris, and the next Sunday to Marsh Chapel to hear Howard Thurman, and the third Sunday to Harvard Memorial Church to hear George Buttrick. And the fourth Sunday they stayed home, I guess.

My father graduated from Boston University School of Theology in 1953. I wonder if they were the voices of Buttrick, Thurman and Ferris which echoed in his memory as he wrote the poem ten years ago, titled Preaching:

Preaching is not Bible study, but
It does require Biblical understanding

Preaching is not theology, but
There must be theology in it.

Preaching is not biography, but
It does require an understanding of people.

Preaching is not teaching, but
It is instructional.

Preaching is not social ethics, but
It must point to social responsibility.

Preaching is one vehicle God has chosen
That can grow life.

Preaching is humbling,
And Rewarding!

In all cases and places, those hearing Ferris, Thurman and Buttrick would have heard echoes of a recognition that diversity includes the poor. ‘Those at the dawn of life, those in the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life’. The disinherited. This morning, we might especially recall those displaced from their homeland, at various points in history. Those who wandered. Those who became strangers. Those who were refugees. Those who became immigrants. You too once were so. Remember. In memoriam.

Thurman spoke about ‘common ground’. John Dewey spoke about ‘common faith’. Today at Marsh we talk about ‘common hope’. But Thurman wrote a book and scores of sermons on ‘The Search for Common Ground’. He hunted for those places of connection. “People, all people, belong to one another”, he taught. For this Thurman is well remembered. But Thurman also emphasized the distinctive, the particular, and the individual. He especially highlighted the plight of those ‘whose backs are against the wall’. Long before the slogan about ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’, Thurman was probing the need and experience of the poor. His best book is ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’, in which one finds a consideration of present diversity, including those whose backs are against the wall.

Our present understanding of difference, of diversity, which we offer in memoriam, provides an ample space for the emerging claims, the just claims, of those most in need.


I wonder if Rabbi Abraham and Pastor Reinhold took time, in their wandering ‘tertullias’, for some imagination about diversity and difference in the future?

A sense of diversity into the future provokes an attitude of prayer. One thing about a walk, either along the Hudson or the Charles, is that it keeps your feet on the ground. You are not free to see the world from 30,000 feet in the air. You see things up close.

In 2003 this country trag
ically entered into a war that for the first time in our history placed us outside of the bounds of inherited understandings of just war. Religious traditions have made space for pacifism, on the one hand, and just war theory, on the other. The latter, particularly in Judeo Christian tradition, has emphasized war as a last resort, as an international or communal imperative, as a response to unjust incursion, and with attention to proportionality and reciprocity. This was our heritage as a people, as well. But in 2003 we entered a campaign that was pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, reckless, immoral, post Judeo-Christian, and wrong. So, some seven years later, now we find ourselves in standing in the need of prayer.

The world’s great religious traditions have everything to offer to us. Here are the treasure troves of the languages of lament, hymns of compunction, psalms of contrition, poems of regret, and prayers of confession that we shall need again to fulfill our human being, our being human. Dealing directly, on the ground, feet on the ground, with diversity provokes prayer.

One aspect of this prayer, provoked by tragic mistake, is the outworking of prayer in action. Here is on example. Refugee Immigration Ministries, under the leadership of the Rev. Ruth Bersin, is offering us water to slake our thirst for compunction, the bread of life to feed our deep need for confession and pardon. For this reason, we at Marsh Chapel have strongly and happily partnered with her since 2007.

Prayers are deeds. And deeds are prayers. Diversity provokes prayer as we enter an unforeseeable future. As Heschel wrote, ‘when I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people’.

With Huston Smith, I tend to the see the similarities, the perennial, lasting common ground. Maybe you do too. There is a spirit of wholeness, one expression of which is our judeo-christian tradition.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion. We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns. All six billion.


I remember sitting in chapel, at McGill University, in the autumn of 1981. The preacher was my teacher, for whom I was teaching assistant, until very recently the Bishop of Durham, NT Wright. He stunned us by saying that just before service his wife had telephoned. Anwar Sadat had been killed.

Sometime read again the way prison changed Sadat. Time in prison changed so many in the course of history, from Paul to Martin Luther King. Sadat wrote eloquently about the quiet and inner peace that he found, which led to his courageous leadership, which led to his death. He wrote, ‘I should like them to write on my tomb: he has lived for peace and he has died for principles’ (repeat).

May we live for peace, and give ourselves to lasting principles, including these: diversity precedes unity; diversity includes the poor; diversity provokes prayer. May we live with clear memories of those who have given us saintly versions of living.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

Leave a Reply