February 1

The Marsh Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

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Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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One:  Black History Month

First.  Those listening from afar might want to know that Old Man Winter visited Boston this week.   Those of you in Paris, Buenos Aires, San Diego, Tokyo, Beijing, London, Charlotte, Buffalo, and Miami who have connected with the Marsh Spirit in liturgy, music and homily, and support us from afar, might want to know that we have had a blizzard here.  On Tuesday, in the thick of it, I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, grateful for the hard work of BU staff who kept roads and sidewalks and the Marsh Plaza clear.  I saw, but then thought I was mistaken, that our new coffee shop across from CAS appeared to be open.  It was!  Then I knew the truth of the wisdom saying that essential and emergency services in Boston include the police, the hospitals, the fire department—and Dunkin Donuts (☺).

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue,  wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan, even secular spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture, but Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Secularity  is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life.  And today, the Secular.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture.

It is in the ordinary, the extraordinary ordinary of early February, in the ordinary of Capernaum, the ordinary of the synagogue, the ordinary of teaching and learning—that of a sudden, it can be, there is amazement, and healing, and trust.  What is this—the Markan secret unfolds.  Capernaum—at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee—of the gentiles, those coming to faith.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure–Challenge and change—a costly discipleship.  Fame spreading now, but a fickle crowd and a fickle fate await—the crucified Christ. A maniac healed—apocalpytic encounter.  (Remember the 5 fingers of the Markan gospel).

Voices come in many tones.  Sandy F Ray.  Gardner Taylor.  James Forbes.  Edgar Evans Crawford.  Howard Thurman.  Sojourner Truth.  Harriet Tubman.  And some closer to us in time and space, some closer to home.  Nikki Giovanni gave us creation in January.  February is Black History Month.

Some deep winters ago later, Jan and I drove with a few others down to the Eastern shore of Maryland.  We went there to attend the funeral services for our friend, and Bishop, Violet Fisher’s father, William Henry Fisher, who at age 87 had died early on a Sunday morning, after he had gone over to his church to turn up the heat and ready the sanctuary for worship.  It was important for our congregation to be represented in bodily support of our Bishop, whom we love.  But it was more important, for Jan and for me, to be with a friend, at the time of leave-taking.  After all, all the other departures of life, with their laughter and tears and valedictions, foreshadow the final departure.  So the benediction closing our weekly hour of worship.

We traveled easily following our map and directions.   Because I had a sense that we could do even better than the given directions, I took some alternate routes on the Peninsula.  In fact, these alterations, mid-course corrections, did not make the trip down any shorter.  We were not altogether lost.  Certainly not disoriented enough to actually stop and ask directions.  Nothing of that sort.  Just an hour or two of further sightseeing.  Anyway, since we had already gone out of our way on the way down, I just followed the directions home.  Jan slept, and as the sun set, it fully dawned on me just how much our dear friend had left behind to be in ministry with us. Not all the stories of Black History Month are played out on a global stage The scene from Mark is an idealized one.  Yet, over time, the Voice still calls to command, and, over time, people of faith summon the courage to leave, to change, to turn.  To leave the south for the north.  To leave home for others.  To leave family for ministry.  To leave dad for the joy of service.  To leave the energetic black church for the earnest white church.  To leave the lengthy eclectic worship for formal, liturgical order.  To leave familiar foods and sounds and rhythms and sights for a colder clime.  To leave, to leave.  “Immediately they left their nets”.  How lightly we weigh others’ sacrifice.  It takes courage, a gift of faith, to turn and move, and itinerate.   It is isn’t only the globally known people who make a difference.  My colleague Phil Amerson reminded me this week of the line in Middlemarch:  Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great.  It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”  In ministry we remember to honor the hidden lives and remember the unvisited graves.

Two:  Presidents’ Day

Second.  Paul exhorts his feisty Corinthians to watch for what causes another to stumble.  ‘If it causes my brother to stumble, I shall not do it.’  He makes an even broader claim.  The point of life is not to know but to be known.   One is known by God in love, and that is the point, not to know but to be known.   We know a lot.  But when it comes to life, to the big things of life, to sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness, we have to go on faith not on sight, and if we think we know we do not know.   Our recollection of the guiding Presidents in deep winter Lincoln and Washington, who had to step out with faith, brings a dim reflection of the truth in holy, ancient writ.  Washington freezing at Valley Forge.  1777. Lincoln shot in the Ford theater. 1865.  One God from whom and one Lord through whom.  We are trying, every trying, to keep a sense of cultural humility, in and through the strains of history.  February is the month of the Presidents, as well as Black History Month.  These two may be distinguished without being set in opposition.  We honor those who served and so built our country.

As the 1991 Gulf War began, we were meeting on Sunday nights, moving from apartment to apartment, with a group of graduate students.  I remember very little about this fellowship, from more than 20 years ago, other than its convivial spirit, its population by forestry students—know as ‘stumpies’—and it production over time of several marriages.  It also produced the single most unusual love “poem” I have heard, which came in the aftermath of a summons to leave.  Keith met Amy in this group.  They were both stumpies and both competitive lumberjacks and both very bright and very attractive young people.  One night Keith was extolling the glories of ‘his girl’, to a few of us—her beauty, diligence, kindness, spirit.  She came from a large family farm near Cooperstown and he from a similar farm in Medina.  Keith offered his love poem, reminding us that they had met in the lumberjacking competition.  With eyes glazed over, voice low and loving, with heart pouding, to all the rest he added:  “and she is also a great lumberjack…and man can she chop!”

I had their wedding in Hartwick Seminary some years later.  I think of the two of them as two of the finest young people that the Empire State has produced.  Like the early church, I remember almost nothing of detail, expect the word, “chop”.  A pungent saying, like, “fishers of men”.  In those winter months of 1991, Keith bade farewell to us, as a member of the Air Reserve.  He was summoned and he summoned the courage to serve. I honor even revere his courage to turn, to change, to leeave.  You and I know that many others today, some from our own extended family, have also summoned that kind of courage.   In ministry, we recognize the crucial importance of face to face groups.

Three:  Groundhog Day

Third.  The Book of Deuteronomy, the second law, or the second rehearsal of the law contains very little that  has not already been written in the other Books of Moses.  Hence ‘deutero’.  At the heart of our reading there is embedded a firm conviction of the possibility of speaking and hearing.  Something can be said, and something can be heard.  We carry some seasoned doubt in our time about this.  There is after all so much said and so much to hear.  We are awash in endless, cacophonous information.  But here, as in the gospel of Mark, the ancient writer rings a bell, sings a song, tells a tale with confidence in the possibility and power of real speaking and realm hearing.  The reading ends with what we might rephrase as a clear warning not to go against your own conscience.  You trust the prophet whose words come true.  And your voice, day by day, can bring an intervening, prophetic word (Numbers 11: 29)  In ministry, we live to serve the living Word.

That afternoon of blizzard snow this week several waves of memory swept in.  We were raised in 200 inches of snow a year.  The day’s cascade and nevada brought alive the clear memory of the full liberty snow brought us, in those far off years and humble villages.   Snow brought a physical liberation to 11 year olds and others.   The freedom to hike and walk unencumbered and alone, in a cold wonderland.  The freedom, sled in hand, to go over to Library Hill, then up and down and up and down until the street lights came on.  The freedom to skate on the Swan Pond or elsewhere, to play hockey there, to glide and cut and shoot.  The freedom to build forts, tunnels, caves, hideouts in the mammoth drifts.  The freedom of play, fully alive on a Snow Day (someone should write a book about it), and partly available every winter day.  In 1966 we had something like 2 weeks off from school, in the blizzard of that year.   No one wanted to hunt you down in the bitter cold of January, so you were free, free to do what you wanted until you were frozen solid.   Then home to sit on top of the heat register and thaw out.  Groundhog Day is the best holiday of the year, and comes in the month of February.

That year spring did come, at long last, as it does most years.  Enjoy the winter.  Spring has its own rigors.  One May afternoon, with some early summer warmth and a garden about to go in, with school winding down and summer opening up, my Mother had me sit on the back stoop of our parsonage.   Spring brings change, following the freedoms of winter.

Now Bobby I want to tell you something.  Your sisters don’t know yet.  We have lived here in this house since before you really remember, and it has been a good place.  Most places are good, and most people are good, too, once they come to trust you.  That’s one thing you learn in life.  Most people are good people.

I paid as close attention as I could, given my desire to get over to the lot and play baseball.  It all seemed a little odd.

Anyway, son, I need to tell you something.   This will not sound like a good thing but it is a good thing, and believe me when I tell you it will be fine.  We are going to move.  We are going to leave this house in June.  We are moving to another town.

Now I was listening.  And now I heard words I did not fully understand.  Move.  New house.  Bishop.  Itinerant system.  Annual Conference.  And also I found I could not see very clearly.  Something was in my eyes.  My eyes were getting blurry and wet and red and I could not see too well.

But Bobby it will go fine.  I promise.  You will find new friends.  You will have a new school.  You will have your own room.  You will see.  When school starts in the fall, you will be excited to go to a big, new school.  And it will all go well.  I will be there.  Your dad and I will make sure it goes fine.  I promise.  I will need your help with your sisters and little brother.  I know you will help, won’t you?

And so it was.  The word came true, as Holy Scripture says the word of a real prophet does.  It all worked out fine.  Why some have trouble hearing the divine voice in soprano or alto tones I have never understood.  The prophet spoke and it came to pass.

We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  We are in God’s hands.  So it behooves us to share one another’s sorrows.  We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.

We believe in God:

who has created and is creating,

who has come in the true person Jesus,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others

by the Spirit.


We trust in God.


God calls us to be the Church

The Body of Christ:

to celebrate Christ’s presence,

to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.


In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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