March 18

Coming to the Light

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3: 14-21


My grandmother’s way of expressing faith took an interrogatory form. She asked of herself, and others: Are you walking in the light?

My favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know’.  It is small but it flies on mighty wings.  It expands our lives to include spaces within us, as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny earth hangs suspended…(Wislowa Simborka)

We are on a Lenten journey together, from sensation to reflection.   We want to be and become mindful, mindful of who we are, who are meant to become, what we are doing.  We want to match our eager activity with an equally vibrant awareness.  We hear the words of Scripture, so let us also come to the light and inwardly digest them.  We respect the tradition behind us, including our Lenten conversation partner Jacques Ellul, so let us learn there the things in whose light we see light.  We reason together, here and now, so let us reflect on the here and now, on ourselves in community, as we walk in the light.  We have experience, sometimes surprising experience, of moments of light, and we shall name one here today.


The third chapter of the Gospel of John places the Incarnation of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, at the heart of the Gospel.  God loves the world—not just the church, not just the disciples, not just the religious, not just religion.  God loves the world.  The Bible tells us so.

The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two spiritual issues, the two existential battles in your salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism.  How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek?  The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia.  Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.  Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ.  Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.  John led the way.  John is the most courageous Gospel.

Let us move slightly, right now, from sensation to reflection.  How does it happen that we hear from John today?

We hear from John today because of the lectionary.  The lectionary is a shared selection of Biblical readings, used by most Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and mainstream churches.  For each Sunday one Old Testament lesson, one Psalm, one New Testament Epistle, and one Gospel reading are chosen, and used, as regularly we do here at Marsh Chapel. Next week we shall reflect further on the lectionary.

We pause here on the trail from sensation to reflection in order to reflect on our own sensible experience—including in worship, here and now, in the hearing of the Scripture.


From Scripture we move to tradition. This Lent we are in conversation, at the intersection of Christ and culture, and particularly of faith and technology. One voice from a generation or more ago may help us:  that of Jacques Ellul.

Jacques Ellul was born in 1912 in Bordeaux and spent most of his life there. He was a professor of law and history at the University of Bordeaux, and lay theologian in the French Reformed Church.  During WWII he was active member of the French Resistance and later became mayor of his home town. He authored three dozen books on law, culture, technology, theology, faith, prayer, the Bible and history.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he opposed the Nazis.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he held firmly to a high and rugged Christology.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he decried the willingness of more liberal theologians in Germany and elsewhere to knuckle under first to the Kaiser and then to the Fuhrer.  Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, he saw in his own experience the dire need for a Christ against Culture, as well as a Christ transforming Culture.

Ellul, though far less well known than Barth and Bonhoeffer, nonetheless well suits our annual Lenten attention to theological voices and perspectives more conservative than our own here.  Ellul identified Karl Marx and Karl Barth as two lifelong conversation partners, and the importance inherited from both of a dialectical or spiraling hermeneutical manner of thinking and speakings.

That is, you can learn a great deal from those with whom you disagree—sometimes more from them than from your fellow travelers.  When it comes to opponents, as Yogi Berra said, ‘you can observe a lot just by watching’.

Ellul predicted the cultural impact of emerging technology.  He bears some re-reading in our time.  Most of what he predicted early on (1964 in English Translation) in his The Technological Society, has become the shared air we breathe.  Listen as we did last week to a second Ellul litany of sorts, in more autobiographical tones, a compilation and exemplification of this thought, placed here in the form of a psalm or an aria, and to be heard in the manner in which we hear those
The man of the present day does not believe in his own experiences, judgment or thought.

Our age is distinguished by a Lack of awareness, and by Enslavement of the intelligence to technical methods.

We need to Rediscover the meaning of the neighbor, of the ‘Event’ and of the Holy: The intervention of God in human history in Jesus Christ.

In youth I was  poor, and our home had no music, but…

‘I learned what unemployment is with no assistance, with no hope whatsoever, with no help from anywhere.  I learned what it is to be sick with no government medical care and no money to pay the doctor or the druggist.  I remember my father spending his days looking for work.  Given his abilities, I felt that was an absolutely stupefying, incredible injustice that a man like him was unemployed.’ 5.

Dialectics includes contraries, does not exclude them.  A new historical situation emerges, integrating the two preceding factors with one another…both have vanished giving birth to a radically new situation.

The goal is to live the human freedom within the freedom of God. Logically the two cannot be reconciled, but dialectically, one can live with them.

Our own growth here at Marsh Chapel has affinities with these lines from Ellul.
Our emerging ecclesiology at Marsh Chapel blends a Tillichian rapport with culture with a strong view of the Word, the Sacraments and means of Grace, and the Sabbath.  We protect Sunday and its emblematic, exemplary, epitomizing gifts, but within a fuller six days of grace—service, education, and fellowship—embedded in the culture at large, and particularly the University culture.

Our emerging pneumatology at Marsh Chapel blends a regard for the movement of Spirit in art, music, science, theater, poetry, and all the lasting gifts of civilization, with a strong and protective sense of the church:  the church challenging the failures of culture, applauding the heights of culture, entering the heart of culture, enjoying the graces of culture.

Our emerging pastoral theology at Marsh Chapel blends a high regard for the myriad gifts and services available, near and far, for those in need, with a limited but irreducible affirmation of the sacramental rites and sacerdotal duties shared in the community and lead by the clergy.

Our emerging ethics of technology at Marsh Chapel blends a full use of all the means of production available to us (we are nearly completely paperless, with the exception of the printed Sunday bulletin and the printed semester termbook, both of which could be replaced in the future, though we are not currently planning to do so), with a profound recognition, more reflection than sensation, more awareness than activity, more mind than fingers, of the need to harness these tools to the benefit, not the belittlement, of the human being.


Let us apply our Lenten theme to ourselves here in the intersection of actual and virtual congregations that is Marsh Chapel.  While we do not stop usually to x-ray the body of our divinity here, we are nudged to do so today.  Marsh Chapel is both like and unlike other churches within the Great Church of Jesus Christ around the globe.  In the same way that you and I are both unlike and like each other (unlike say in gender, race, ethnicity, age, shoe size and bank balance; like say in mortality, fragility, longing, need, sin, salvation, service), so Marsh is both like and unlike other communities of faith.

We are most similar on Sunday.  John Wesley identified the true church as the place where the Word of God is rightly preached, the Sacraments are duly administered, and service is rendered to the neighbor.  Our life here strives to reach his definition.  So a 60 minute of worship.  So means of grace in Adult Study before worship, in Bible Study and fellowship after worship.  We hope that the thanksgiving, confession, affirmation and dedication of our worship service exemplify, define, epitomize, perfect and guide our living for the next six and one half days.  In addition, these gifts are extended around the globe and across New England by internet and radio.  While this series of sermons seeks to challenge us to be mindful about the intersection of faith and technology, there is hardly a place or community more actively, regularly committed to their mutual enhancement than Marsh Chapel.  Hence, we who are so invested in the newer forms of technology—radio yes, but also podcast, Facebook, texting, twitter, and all—have the most responsibility to see such use become as faithful to Christ as possible.

We are most dissimilar during the week.  Let me be specific.  We fear the danger of sitting on a whale fishing for minnows.  The whale is Boston University, and we are riding its torso.

Take teaching, didache, a crucial matter in most congregations.  Yes, I could as I have done elsewhere offer three Monday nights of instruction on a theme, say Judaism in the modern world, following a light dinner.  Or, I could offer a light dinner three Monday nights in November, and then take you to hear Elie Wiesel on Judaism in the modern world, some 100 yards away, and for free.  The first is fishing for minnows, the second is riding the whale.

Or take service, diakonia, a crucial matter in the life of faith.  I could organize a schedule of service days for our students and encourage attendance.  Or, as we have just finished doing, we could send our students for seven days of community service through the Office of Community Service, which by the way grew out of the Chapel, during the tenure of Dean Thornburg 25 years ago.  Our own—minnow; the Universities—whale.

Or, take fellowship, koinonia, a crucial matter in church life.  We could sequester ourselves—Monday night men, Tuesday women, Wednesday children, Thursday couples—or we can grab the whale by the ears and sail, taking men to a basketball game, women to the Sloan House, children to a Palm Sunday event.   We can immerse ourselves in the life of the full community, so that the boundaries between church and society, faith and culture, Christ and community are ever more blurred and fluid.  The other night ten of us were at a University dinner.  All had some connection, from active to peripheral, with Marsh Chapel.  Afterword one creative soul lead us to some further, not fully Methodist, refreshment.  There were people in that circle who never in a month of Sundays would have engaged fellowship with a church group on a Saturday night.  But in that organic and genuine invitation, even the least ‘churched’ fellow had true koinonia, true shared fellowship, with some of the most faithful people in Boston.  Didache, diakonia, koinonia—these crucial inherited forms you are renewing, week by week.  The Marsh Chapel experiment in church renewal is happening on your watch.  It is quite distinctive.  If you are not watching you may miss it.

Will this relatively or somewhat unique model of church growth work?  We are seeing strong evidence that it can and will—in worship attendance, in annual giving and tithing, in deepening relationship, in experiences of vocation, in  recognition of the chapel’s voice.  There are dangers and challenges.  This model inevitably takes a long time—it is covert, it is shaped by a University calendar, it is very free.   You do not have to come to an Administrative Council meeting for three hours on Tuesday, by the end of which, in exhaustion, you will vote for anything just to get home.   You do not have to raise funds by a rummage sale, or argue about the pastor’s health insurance, or vote on a budget.  But you do have to ride the whale.  And that means seizing the moment to learn, to serve and to love.  After the postlude today, take a minute in or near your pew to greet someone and speak a word.  You may learn something.  You may serve some cause.  You may help someone.  For someone else that three minute conversation may be their most personal and healing of the week.

This Monday night, in a dinner that included learning, service and fellowhip, I saw, I mean I saw what the model of renewal at work in Marsh Chapel today can be.  But it will take a heap of time.

Experience (Frank Deford, NPR)

The light of Scripture, of Tradition, of Reason illumines also our own experience.  We know it when we see it.  When reflection outpaces sensation, when thoughtful mindfulness embraces action, we know in experience about coming to the light, whether in church or in culture.  College athletics are a crucial part of higher education.  One can learn, grow, improve on the court as well as in the class.

An apocalypse of grace can arise outside of church, right in the heart of the culture.  Athletics, college athletics, instituted as important part of college experience on the basis of the Roman proverb, ‘mens sana in corpore sano’, can provide the setting.  Maybe you heard Frank Deford’s story last week:

When last we left the NCAA, it was February madness, colleges were jumping conferences, suing each other, coaches were claiming rivals had cheated in recruiting — the usual nobility of college sports.

And then, in the midst of all this, the men’s basketball team at Washington College of Chestertown, Md., journeyed to Pennsylvania to play Gettysburg College in a Division III Centennial Conference game.

It was senior night, and the loudest cheers went to Cory Weissman, No. 3, 5 feet 11 inches, a team captain — especially when he walked out onto the court as one of Gettysburg’s starting five.

Yes, he was a captain, but it was, you see, the first start of his college career. Cory had played a few minutes on the varsity as a freshman, never even scoring. But then, after that season, although he was only 18 years old, he suffered a major stroke. He was unable to walk for two weeks. His whole left side was paralyzed. He lost his memory, had seizures.

But by strenuously devoting himself to his rehabilitation, Cory slowly began to improve. He was able to return to college, and by this year, he could walk without a limp and even participated in the pregame layup drills.

So for senior night, against Washington, his coach, George Petrie, made the decision to start Cory. Yes, he would play only a token few seconds, but it meant a great deal to Cory and to Gettysburg. All the more touching, the Washington players stood and cheered him.

That was supposed to be the end of it, but with Gettysburg ahead by a large margin and less than a minute left in the game, Coach Petrie sent Cory back in.

Nobody could understand, though, what happened next, why the Washington coach, Rob Nugent, bothered to call time out. The fans didn’t know what he told his players there in the huddle: that as quickly as they could, foul No. 3. And one of them did. And with 17 seconds left, Cory Weissman strode to the free-throw line. He had two shots.

Suddenly, the crowd understood what Coach Nugent had sought to do. There was not a sound in the gym. Cory took the ball and shot. It drifted to the left, missing disastrously. The crowd stirred. The referee gave Cory the ball back. He eyed the rim. He dipped and shot. The ball left his hand and flew true. Swish. All net.

The crowd cried as much as it cheered.

The assistant vice president for athletics at Gettysburg, David Wright, wrote to Washington College: “Your coach, Rob Nugent, along with his … staff and student-athletes, displayed a measure of compassion that I have never witnessed in over 30 years of involvement in intercollegiate athletics.”

Cory Weissman had made a point.

Washington College had made an even larger one.


My favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know’.  It is small but it flies on mighty wings.  It expands our lives to include spaces within us, as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny earth hangs suspended…(Wislowa Simborka)

We are on a Lenten journey together, from sensation to reflection.   We want to be and become mindful, mindful of who we are, who are meant to become, what we are doing.  We want to match our eager activity with an equally vibrant awareness, rooted in Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

My grandmother’s way of expressing faith took an interrogatory form. She asked of herself, and others: Are you walking in the light?

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

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