December 5

Down by the River

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 3: 1-12

Cold River

To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk at least once down by the river Jordan. It is cold outside, down here along the banks of the roiling river of life. It is uncomfortable outside, down here along the banks of the rushing river of truth. It is dark outside, down here along the existential river of soul, of salvation, of all that is sacred. And there is more.

A river, especially the Jordan, is a symbol of the edge, the end, the last things, the purpose of life, the end of time. Says Ecclesiastes, ‘All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full’. My beloved Antonio Machado, whose verse strangely comes back to me after years of my own wandering, says the same: “Nuestras vidas son los rios que van a dar a la mar” (Campos de Castilla).

For down by the river, we hear John the Baptist. To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk down by the river Jordan. Here, lurking and skulking and sliding about in the dark recesses of the heart, here is a voice, crying in the wilderness. It is the voice of conscience. The voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Down, down, down by the river.

John rankles and offends, because he challenges us to start over. He is dressed in camel’s hair, the smelliest of clothes. He eats locusts, and wild honey. Here is a voice. Not pretty image, not contrived appearance, not considered attire—but voice. Not face, but voice. John in the dark, cowering along the caves of the riverbed, crying. His is the voice of conscience, by which we are brought outside of ourselves and made to hear what we may not want to hear. And there is more. His voice reverberates today, down by the river. Let’s go outside, let’s go down and listen to him, on our way to Bethlehem.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.


Before we lay our gifts at the manger altar, we will want the chill challenge of a thoughtful, thinking faith. In the long run what is not true cannot be good though it may be news. John the Baptist comes around at least once a year to remind us so.

We can be thankful for those laboring at night in the lonely libraries and cubicles and offices nearby, to stretch our understanding that it might embrace our faith which is seeking that same understanding. Theology matters.

Many this autumn had the fun and the privilege to listen at a faculty retreat to some of the newest, youngest adventures in thoughtful reflection on faith. Words from the wise, words to the wise.

One young biblical scholar reminded us: The Christian Bible…has never been stable; each book and collection has undergone a long process of transmission and reception that continues to this day…The Bible remains a living document preserving not only a diverse body of texts but also the priorities of those who have transmitted it.

One young psychologist of religion reminded us: We are disposed to misunderstand. We live in a pluriverse, a conversation across the boundaries of different lands. We witness the inevitable but not necessary collapse of ambiguity into certainty. Sometimes, especially when we are trying truly distinguish cruelty from care, we need a sense of ambiguity. We may need to return again and again to Nicholas of Cusa and the ‘doctrine of learned ignorance’.

One young historian reminded us of the central role women have played in global missions: empathy is like oxygen. When you feel somebody experience you deeply, it is like air, like oxygen.

One young philosophical theologian reminded us: as we look at
religious experience we have to hold ourselves accountable to empirical research.

An older, wiser teacher, reminded this academic circle of an
academic peril: We sometimes mistakenly think that if you can get it down on paper you don’t have to live it.

Some of you will have had the benefit of those who showed by example how to think about faith, how faithfully to think. We want to live in our own version of the memory Tony Judt had of Manhattan decades ago: “Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered”. (NYT 11/8/10) I hear his sentence as ecclesiology. So too the church: a crossroads where original minds linger.


Your hands are touching and helping others.

Our students have now each year for four years engaged a citywide CROP walk to combat world hunger. Our Methodist fellowship has worked this autumn at the Cooper Mission in Roxbury. Our partnership with the University and with Habitat for Humanity has just recently completed the $50,000 initial fund raising needed so that a house will soon start to be built. You have continued to prayerfully support Refugee Immigration Ministries. The student ‘servant team’ continues to provide service both among students, and in leading students to service. Some of you will be heading off for a week of Alternative Spring Break service next year. As a congregation you continue to support the BMC food pantry. In short, ‘hands on’ forms of service continue to thrive here at Marsh Chapel, thanks to the lay leadership offered in these many areas.

Real change is real hard, but change can come. Dr Alonso in three years as Superintendent of the Baltimore City schools is seeing improvement (NYT, 12/2/10). He has closed failing schools (26 out of 198), fired 75% of the principals, cut suspensions by 50%, fired up community participation, balanced responsibility with authority, instituted performance based teacher compensation, and taught his staff to refer to students as ‘scholars’. Where there is a will there is a way.

What we love, we should love ardently. Service helps us ground our faith in action, and thereby protects us from betraying the life into which we have been called. Tragedy is to betray the life into which you have been called, or the profession into which you have been called, or the calling into which you have been called.

Our current generation of students excels at participatory service ministry, and teaches its value by example.


In the winter we learn to stay warm. At night our eyes are sharpened to see shapes in the shadows. When we experience diminishment we also hold more closely those things which mean most to us. With age comes wisdom.

Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow. In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one. At the kitchen table. Over coffee. In a parking lot. Within a small office. At the hospital. At school. With lunch. In a nursing home. In the barn, at dusk, milking time. In the sugar house. On a tractor.

I am told of a pastoral visit, of the following sort.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view. Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you? Oh, it is not necessary. Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy. But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psa
lms? My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying?…Yes. Oh, it is not necessary. I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life. But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir. Would you like some of the hymns recited for you? Oh that is not necessary. I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night! I found my faith singing, you know. It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church. I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust. But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit. Oh, that is not necessary. We can have communion if you like. It is so meaningful to me. I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee. After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly. But I still could get grace in communion. But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in all ministry in our region. (You will say, surely not in the summer. I take the summer off, for that reason!). Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today? As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?…Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others? And what of the youth? Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love? Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it? A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China. And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation? It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?…Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

As Howard Thurman wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

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

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