March 7

A Touch of Green

By Marsh Chapel

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John 2: 13-22

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Queen Elizabeth

On Christmas Day, two months ago, Queen Elizabeth spoke from Buckingham Palace to her country, and, indeed the whole world.  Carried along on clear, crisp, elegant prosed, and given voice in the Queen’s own ‘King’s English’, her homily evoked a profound, powerful hope.  May there be still many years in which we all shall hear her voice from Buckingham Palace.  As my friend says, in late pandemic, late COVID, we hunger for ‘indicia of normalcy’.  Well, Queen Elizabeth and her long life, Queen Elizabeth and her steady presence, Queen Elizabeth and her regal voice, Queen Elizabeth and her gracious aging, gives us such, such ‘indicia of normalcy’.  Think of her as young girl in war torn England, in bombarded London.  Think of her as a Queen in youth, supervising the elderly Winston Churchill, brilliant–and un-supervisable.  Think of her steady presence, her non-anxious presence, for most of us through our whole lives to date.  She was coronated before I was born.  May there be many more of her addresses at Christmas.

People more need reminder than instruction.  Looking toward 2021, she reminded her country, and, indeed the whole world, of the calling to kindness.  The Queen’s primary image, the heart of her reminder, the crux of her peroration, was drawn from Holy Scripture, from the Bible, a brief mention of the Good Samaritan.  Her application to interpret the parable was neither unusual nor novel:  love your neighbor.  Neither unusual nor novel, but so powerful, so true, so good, so right and so beautiful.  Notice:  the message relied on a liberal biblical theology.  Her short speech was founded on a shared, common language of life, known across the globe by adherents of many and no particular religious traditions, known uniquely in the Bible, a source of shared personal and social ethics, and of the very shared common tongue that, more than nearly anything else, we shall need, to get by.  The Bible is a great, global code.  We shall need a common tongue, a common language, a common personal and social ethic, as a globe, around the globe, to survive the 21st century, and to deal savingly with nuclear weaponry, climate pollution, and pandemic, this one…and the next.  And here stands Scripture—not as confessional requirement, but as reliable grammar, syntax and spelling, for a shared future.  Marsh Chapel, every Sunday you give the globe four lessons and fifty-nine minutes in sermon and song, of this common tongue, interpreted in a global, a liberal biblical theology.

My friend, deciding about his life, says, ‘it is a road to Damascus moment’.

My friend, hearing the broken Hallelujah of Leonard Cohen, can better bear his own grief.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

My friend, quoting Lincoln, he says, remembers ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’.  But Lincoln did not write that, did he.  He learned it in a great code, a tome perhaps more meaningful to him than any other, though he hardly ever went to church. The Bible is still—unsurpassed–a great code.  We shall need a common tongue, a common language, a common personal and social ethic, as a globe, around the globe, to survive the 21st century, and to deal savingly with nuclear weaponry, climate pollution, and pandemic, this one and the next.  Just as old Elijah said to Jezebel, you better start to learn your lessons well.  To the shared great code, Queen Elizabeth repaired, to start the year, as 2021 opened.  You remember, a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves…

St Patrick

You remember. In Lent, we remember.  “(Lent) is for people who know what it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in (Lent), yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of (Lent) is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy.”(Thomas Merton)

Our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. Patrick.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In the next 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),  John Calvin (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), summarized with the help of Paul of Tarsus (2016).  Then in this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we have preached with, and learned from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen (2017) Thomas Merton (2018) John of the Cross (2019), Teresa of Avila (2020).  Other years, it may 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 by Lent 2020, we were listening in prayer for grace in the life, voice, heart, poetry and spirit of Santa Teresa of Avila.  I had prepared to preach with Dorothy Day this year, 2021, and spent some of the summer reading her biography.  Another year, maybe next, 2022.  But something about this past year, something about life in Boston it may be, something about the events and outcomes of late autumn, something about immersion in the home of the bean and the cod for several years, something, a touch of green, something brought the patron saint of Ireland forward.  St. Patrick will help guide is for Lent 2021.  A touch of memory, shaded in green.

John 2

Speaking of memory.  Our lesson from the fourth gospel gives us memory, in and through which we prepare.

The long weeks of patience, wandering, and wilderness which form our yearly Lenten pilgrimage prepare us.

Notice that John has rearranged the furniture of the gospel. He has placed the temple cleansing at the outset of the story.

We become who we are by daring to decide. We discover the power of imagination by daring to find the courage to decide.  Choose.  Choose!

Some years ago, in the aisle of a darkened sanctuary, and following a dark re-enactment of the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, a ten-year old, guided by his mother, came forward and asked, of the Jesus so depicted, ‘What did he do that was so wrong?’ What was the linchpin for the move to the cross?

Well, I said, or perhaps mumbled something about blasphemy and something about treason.

But Matthew, Mark and Luke, the gospels other than John, mark Jesus’ downfall at the temple. As he attacks inherited religion, as he cleanses the temple, his doom is sealed. In John, it is the resurrection of Lazarus, long chapters later, which seals his fate. But John too sees the power of decision in Jesus’ appearance in the temple. In fact, in the second chapter, John opens with Cana, and the promise of incarnation enshrined in that wedding, and closes with the temple, and the forecast of the cross, the hour, the word, which is his abiding interest. Jesus is himself the temple which others will destroy. Here, he gives his new view of the future, not to be awaited somewhere in the clouds. It is taking place now in the life and destiny of Jesus. All throughout, throughout his life, and throughout your own, there is the struggle, this struggle, his struggle, for truth and grace. This is Jesus’ struggle. He becomes himself, his own most self not his almost self, in dealing with decision, in this today’s decision to affront and confront inherited religion.

Faith is finding the courage to choose. Faith is dealing with decision.
Memory is our aid here. Remember Proust comparing ‘the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other… the golden gate of imagination’ (RTP, 401). Memory feeds imagination. Faith is finding the power, receiving the power to choose, to reflect on choosing, to take responsibility for the choice, to learn with choosing, and to address the consequences of choice. Dealing with decision means dealing too with regret and failure. This too is faith in action. Listen again to the regret in Yeats’ poem…

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort…
Observant old men know it well

This year, intermittently when not reading Mark, we will scale a far greater promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination. Yes, choosing diversity and inclusion. Yes, and also, choosing unity and mutuality. More personally, this Gospel helps those who struggle with dislocation and disappointment. The Bride in Cana experienced dislocation, and so have you. The Bride of Christ experiences disappointment, and so have you.

John features Jesus in mortal combat over all of these. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. That is: in all, He brings the dead to life.  Jesus brings the dead to life

In poetry, St. Patrick greets us, with just this strength, strength for decisions, strength for the journey.

Breast Plate

St Patrick was British by birth, you will remember.  He lived and worked in the fifth century c.e., the dating beyond that obscure.  By legend and tradition, he brought Christianity to Ireland, of which he became the patron though uncanonized saint.  He survived capture and slavery, and guided by his own visions, his own touches of green, he evangelized: ‘never before did they know of God…but they became the people of the Lord’.  Of many, there is one chief, telling clue to the truth and depth in the wilderness journey of Patrick.  That is, he was unafraid to incorporate pre-existing Irish beliefs and symbols into his teaching about Christianity and his offering of faith, as was the author of the Gospel of John, who himself was unafraid to incorporate pre-existing Gnostic beliefs and symbols into his teaching about Christianity and his offering of faith.  St. Patrick is best known for his glorious poem, his ‘breastplate’ to which we return in later Lent.  Hear a few verses:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension…

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me..

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.


In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, a baptism, a wedding, a funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.

Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts…

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

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