March 29

The Heart of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:17-44

Click here to hear just the sermon


Someone asked last week, after our virtual worship service, about the meaning of the word ‘fallow’. “I had to look it up”, he said. “What does it mean?” A grandmother’s long-ago High School graduation gift, Webster’s Dictionary, answers: Fallow. Land plowed but not seeded for one or more growing seasons to kill weeds, or make the soil richer…The plowing of land to be left idle thus…left uncultivated or unplanted…untrained, inactive (esp. of the mind)…To leave land unplanted after plowing…to ‘lie fallow’, remain uncultivated, unused, unproductive…for at time. For a time, our time is a fallow time. You need not fear the fallow. You need not fear a fallow time. Come Sunday, a handful of worship leaders alone in an empty chapel, and an invisible but vibrant virtual congregation praying and singing along, we are honest about the fallow, our fallow time. Nevertheless, as Karl Barth would say, we are here to hallow the fallow. You are listening to hallow the fallow. You need not fear the fallow. You are offered strength to hallow the fallow.


For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager three-week interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God, to hallow the fallow. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11. In 90ad, some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things–who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence.
You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Christian yearning for a faith amendable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back. Even—especially—in a virulent epoch.

Remember, what carries Jesus to the cross, in the Gospel of John, is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Not the cleansing of the temple, but the resurrection to life of Lazarus, in the Johannine narrative, brings the advent of the cross. Jesus is crucified because he claims divinity, and embodies divinity, in this Gospel. This makes a bit of sense of the placement of this reading just before Holy Week, rather than just after. ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ does not capture the gravity and eternity of the moment, but it does give the average hearer a point of orientation to John 11. John Ashton wrote fiercely of this Gospel: Conscious as they were of the\ continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not (only) with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity (199) The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins). For the two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues of salvation today. The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre-eminently embedded in John, is a form of dislocation—our shared condition March 2020, dislocation–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. These two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own. March, Lent 2020: how shall we live in faith? How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the ennui in distance, necessary and preventive? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second. Both mean choice. Both bring us to the summit of freedom. Once every three years, interrupting Matthew, we hear the great passages—Nicodemus, the Samaritans, the Blind Man, Lazarus. Hear the Gospel, John 11: We have the freedom to choose and to move:

  1. From fear to love.
  2. From spiritual blindness to spiritual sight.
  3. From life to spirit.
  4. From isolation to community.
  5. From home to health.
  6. From rainbow to firmament.
  7. From control to freedom.
  8. From spiritual hunger to hungry spirituality.
  9. From nationalism to patriotism.
  10. From denominationalism to ecumenism.
  11. From death to life.

In an Atlantic article this week, honest to the bone about our peril today, and rightly rejecting all thought that churches will be ‘full by Easter’ and other mendacities, Ed Yong nonetheless affirms: One could also envisage a future in which America learns a different lesson. A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causes people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen (Z) kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change. In 2030, SARS-CoV-3 emerges from nowhere, and is brought to heel within a month. MAY IT BE SO.


Our Lenten Sermon Series, concluding today, has engaged in conversation with St. Teresa of Avila. From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. In this decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition. With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008). In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year. Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome? For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list. We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018, turning last year 2019 to St. John of the Cross. Now, Lent 2020, we have listened in prayer for grace in the life, voice, heart, poetry and spirit of Santa Teresa of Avila. The heart of our Lenten theological conversation partner, 2020, Saint Teresa of Avila, her mode of prayerful, joyful living is found in… Recollection: collecting the mind’s facilities and faculties so as to be consciously present, to and with God. Discovery: The discovery of the self in and through ‘conversation’ with Christ is a discovery of the kinship with God bestowed by grace; and this is a discovery of an ever-expanding space of human growth in love and understanding…the turn inward to find God in the soul…the soul is like an infant at the breast…God’s will is that we become agents of love… Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving after communion is the center of spirituality Humility: ‘ I was humble enough to conceive of the humble Jesus Christ as my God’…For STOA not forgiveness but becoming a forgiving person is what matters…‘There are days on which one word alone distresses me’ (SO TRUE) Compassion: Not to judge one’s neighbor is one of the chief points of monastic virtue, in the eyes of the 4 th and 5 th century desert fathers of Egypt. Learning: STOA assumes the role of the teacher of Scripture, at a time and in a place when this was unheard of…she is an imaginative reader of Scripture and by her example shows the right of women to undertake this…hers is a fully incarnational pattern of spirituality Struggle: She was given to melancholy, and was a chronic depressive…left to itself, melancholy breeds madness…She further struggled, ‘having responsibility for a large number of volatile and often disturbed souls in the new communities of the reform Candor: ‘The point of real self-knowledge is to become free of the self…to turn attention to God in prayer…God’s will is the life of practical charity in community…obscure unease (Matt 19) is a saving grace…depression, illness, misunderstanding—these also keep alive a proper uneasiness…herein one finds strength for a longer journey…and for the disjunction of effort and grace… …pensamiento vs. endendimiento… Listening: God summons us into the castle…’like a good shepherd with a whistle so gentle that even the sheep themselves almost fail to hear it’ (beautiful). Simplicity: her instruction about prayer: use few, simple words…the pain of present circumstances, the moral and spiritual horror of the world…the compulsive self-destructiveness of people…and, THE BUTTERFLY… Prayer is home- coming…’There is a pervasive awareness of something begun, something promised, and the wait for it to come to fruition is agony. Love: Her prayer vocabulary includes: gift, beyond, locutions, ecstacy, visions, keeping Jesus before our eyes, to the height of ‘spiritual marriage’…the soul (deep), the spirit (high)…the point, ‘the birth always of good works’, and the soul’s forgetfulness…especially, ‘her well-loved fusion of the supposedly distinct vocations of Mary and Martha, established as the highest stage of spiritual growth… Rowan Williams, whose book, TERESA, has in part guided us this month, concludes for us: ‘In Teresa, mysticism is demystified. Like SJDLC, she emphasizes not moments, but ‘stages in the movement Godwards…decay and recomposition of available models of religious meaning…a hunger for illusory soliditiy…mystics (more than others) need a religious tradition Upanishad: monist; Gita: personal…STOA internalizes a wide range of Christian themes, myths, images… Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, SJDLC …these provide ‘points of orientation, touchstones of integrity…and then broad comprehension…


To conclude, this week we received many prayerful notes. One read:

Good Morning Bob,
I pray you and the entire chapel staff are well and keeping safe. I just wanted to drop-in virtually to say hello and let you know that I have listened to the services by podcast but am missing community worship. I look forward to the day that we will worship together again. Thank you for your presence and your prayers, I appreciate you. Blessings to you and your lovely wife.

To which, this response:

Dear (Friend)
Thank you for this prayerful note, loving and honest. I share your sense of loss. It is a fallow time. It will be a lasting reminder of how precious every Sunday together is for us. But it will be a while still before we can return. So we will hold each other close in prayer, and do kindnesses, as you have done in writing.

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

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