March 1

The Marsh Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 8:31-38

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‘Because it is Hard’

Rigor.  The Marsh Spirit is a rigorous one.

A visitor today to the cradle of liberty, the home of the bean and the cod, coming by air will walk underneath a bright portico at Logan Airport, adorned with the countenance of a familiar President, whose term of office was tragically foreshortened.   He is pictured pointing out a rocket on the launch pad.   You cannot help but pause. John F Kennedy.  Boston Airport.  A new frontier.  A profile in courage.  (To boldly go where no one has gone before, a phrase we recall this weekend especially.) An entrance into a new place.  A New England place.  Like the Gospel itself, a new space, a newness of life. The familiar Presidential Boston voice simply says:  ‘We do not choose to go to the moon because it is easy to do so.  We choose to go to the moon because it is hard.’ (It recalls OWHolmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference…)

The Marsh Spirit, your way of being, visible and virtual both, embraces challenge, with rigor.

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 spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture.  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.  Rigor is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life, and Secularity.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture, in this winter of our discontent.

We salute, by the way, in this most rigorous winter, those among us who have with most rigor endured the winter.  The UPS woman climbing a snowdrift.  The janitor plowing at 4am.  The childcare worker arriving early and leaving late.  The man brewing coffee after 3 hours on the T.  All have been inundated by the same amount of snow, but not all have struggled the same amount with the snow.

But in earshot of the Gospel, a question looms.

What if the real ice of 2015, the actual storm and snow of this winter of 2015, the existential blizzard of this season where not meteorological but theological, not weather but whether or not, not snow and ice but thinking twice, not nature but grace?

What if the snow is the easy part?  What if the real storm falling upon us is nihilism, nihilism sweetened by hedonism?  What if our challenge is not meteorological but theological, not natural but cultural, not material but existential, not physical but spiritual?

Scripture: Paul and Mark

In the midwinter of 1979 Jan at sixth months pregnant became very ill with an ovarian cyst.  The physician in NYC told me that he was not sure either—child or mother—would survive, but the surgery was not optional.  Both survived, and we moved suddenly away from school to church, to find our way into ministry and life.

That spring, commuting to finish courses, I met my teacher Lou Martyn in the Union Seminary Quadrangle.  He handed me a book as gift, one of John Knox’s books on the early church (Knox of 20century not of the sixteenth).  I cherish the gift now forty years old, which became a kind of sign for the future, then altogether unforeseen.

I returned this week to Knox on Romans.  To hear what he did hear, here. Like my later teacher NT Wright, Knox took on the hard passages, including this one from Romans.

I marvel at the beauty and mystery of this section of Romans 4, on which Rev. Fleming Rutledge preaches so bravely here last spring:  ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (resurrection first, then creation).  Hoping against hope.  (such an odd phrase)

I marvel at the phrase, ‘hope against hope’.  I marvel at its assertion of a hopeless hope, of hope with no prospect, no rationale, no ready support.

I marvel that faith is faith, your faith is your faith, when it is what you are left with, all you are left with, like two young people awaiting surgery, or like an older poet awaiting death.

I marvel that faith is reckoned as righteousness, that what stands up in hope against hope is the faith of Abraham.  Abraham before circumcision, Abraham the father of multitudes not just the religious, Abraham the father then of believers everywhere.  No one can keep the whole law.  Every life includes failure, error, mistake, and misjudgment.  All of us stand in need of grace, pardon, forgiveness.

I marvel at the ordering here of resurrection first and creation second, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Do you notice?  For Paul here resurrection comes first, then creation, not in a temporal but in an existential sense. Resurrection is the grounding of creation, the grounding of the ground of being.  When Paul writes of God, he writes first of the God who raises the dead, and only second of the God who creates.  I marvel at this.  Even if Paul has somewhat altered the original meaning of Genesis (Knox: This story of Abraham suits the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews, with his somewhat different idea of faith, better perhaps than the purpose of Paul).  The father of faith relies on humble trust in God’s mercy and power, as distinguished from reliance on good works. Hope against hope.  To continue to have hope though it seems baseless.

And with this welcoming word, Paul can sing and soar in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that.  We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Mark sounds similar:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the for sake of the gospel, will save it.

You recognize that this is the voice of an early preacher, whose words Mark has placed in retrospect upon the lips of Jesus.   We see Jesus looking back through the cross, as did Mark.  We hear Jesus through the din of the passion, as did Mark.  We know Jesus through the rigor of trying to follow after him, even if we are long way behind, as did Mark.

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’  and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).


What if our cultural storm is as much a challenge as our natural one has been?  What if the real snowstorm is this:  our cultural languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise (repeat)?  What if the real ice and wind are in an invisible nihilism, not just the nihilism of academic and student life, but a blowing ice wind of nada…a sense that nothing matters, a sense that nothing counts, a sense that nothing lasts, a sense that nothing is real, a sense that no one is for real (repeat)?  At its worst, academic and student life can become a nihilism, a nihilism sweetened, if that is the word, by hedonism.  But students and teachers come from homes and families, like everybody else, and their culture, this culture, is only a dim reflection of a larger one, a subset within subsets.

The Marsh pulpit brings into duet mind and heart, the academic and the religious, the university and the church, knowledge and piety.   We are not alone in this, or at least, not quite alone just yet.  So, come Lent, each year we lift up a conversation partner for our preaching, one out of a different tradition from our own, one out of the Calvinist tradition, so embedded in New England.   So in other years, Marilynn Robinson, Jacques Ellul, Atonement Doctrine, Karl Barth, Himself (John Calvin), and this year Jonathan Edwards.

The Calvinist emphasis on divine freedom and divine predestination and divine creation and divine scripture are different emphases than those within Methodism on human freedom and human will and human history and human interpretation of scripture, by tradition and reason and experience.  But we learn most from our adversaries, our conflicts and our mistakes.  So, come Lent, we wrestle with others, like Edwards.

Edwards is remembered, for instance, for a fine sentence, a rigorous one at that: Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.  Yet his hourly eschatology, Johannine in shape (‘the hour is coming and now is’), like the favorite phrase of our dear and recently departed professor and colleague David Carr, ‘our present future’, has a much deeper root in the mind of Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest native theologian.  It is rooted in his glorious understanding of grace, and the proper response to grace, his glorious vision of beauty, and the proper life in response to beauty.

Today we will simply remember his painful denouement in ministry.  He preached for thirty years from his grandfather Stoddard’s strong Northampton pulpit, and lit the fires of the great awakening there.  But he departed from his grandfather’s decision about holy communion, and that cost him his pulpit.  Edwards began to require a confession of faith, an examination for church affirmation of faith and membership, and thus access to the Lord’s table.  For this decision, His congregation and the larger church threw him out.  He spent the last years of his life in ministry to a few farmers and many native American in Stockbridge MA—not the big church you see on the main street there, by the way, but a little chapel in west Stockbridge.   He was an outcast at the end, perhaps the greatest theological mind in our history.   In his last year he agreed to take on the Presidency of a small college in New Jersey, Princeton by name, and straightway died in his first month of smallpox.

Is Holy Communion, to paraphrase Pope Francis, to be understood as a reward for the perfect or medicine for the weak?

One of the statutes—this may sound odd to you—of one brand of practical theology so called today, is that for theology truly to be theology it must be utterly divorced from the life of the church.   As we begin, with Edwards, we note that his work arose exclusively within the experience of pastoral life, the demands of weekly preaching, and the rigor, the rigor of ministry on what was then the western front.

Rigor, he knew.


Friends, look about you.  Look around.  Listen.  All around you hear voices calling you to new life, rigorous life.  See and hear what is even more blessed than hours of video games, even more enjoyable than another tour of Facebook, even more beautiful than surfing the interweb (☺) even more serious than cyber-culture.


Many of you heard such a voice in the choir’s heroic singing last evening of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’.  I pity any who did not hear the singular power and powerful beauty of the music.  Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice unto him with righteousness.

Tower of Learning

Or just look around you for a moment.  It is cast in stone, in the architecture of Marsh Chapel, so like the Pittsburgh buildings, Heinz Chapel and the Tower of Learning, completed ten years before the beginning of plans for Marsh Chapel in Boston.  Daniel Marsh was from Pittsburgh.  We learn by imitation.  He was imitating what he saw and remembered. Pitt Tower of Learning:  They shall find wisdom here and faith – in steel and stone – in character and thought – they shall find beauty – adventure – and moments of high victory.


Or consider this week’s Boston University production of WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school.   Some years ago she wrote one play.   It was a success.  She was asked to write more, but she demurred.  ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade.  I have all I want to do with these young minds here.  One play is enough’.

Hers is about death and life, a sort of commentary on Romans, and on Romans 4.   The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program.  At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course.  Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care.  ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say.  ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.  Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma?  It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point.  For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Boston University’s Judy Braha gave a sterling, rigorous performance of Vivian Bearing at death, here on Tremont Street in Boston this past week:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest academic men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death.

Bob Dylan

Or think of Christopher Ricks of Boston University, after years of labor, who now has  published 960 pages of Bob Dylan’s poetry, the lyrics to his decades of songs.   I wonder how long it took?  You might want to read it in the Library since it weighs 13.5 pounds, is 13 inches square and three inches thick (NYRB 2/19/15).

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody ever thinks too much

About desolation row

Sometimes we have to hear something more than once.   I noticed for the first time this winter how the triads of the fruit of the spirit, in Galatians 5: 22, fall out in rhythmic cadence, one and two and three beat, step, syllable:  1. Love, Joy, Peace.  2. Patience, Kindness, Goodness.  3. Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control.

Rigor.  Yours is a rigorous spirit, Marsh Chapel.

Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.

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

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