Archive for the ‘Guest Preachers’ Category

January 14


By Marsh Chapel

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The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Reverend Andrew E. Kimble, Director of Online Lifelong Learning Boston University School of Theology

August 13

Sink or Swim?

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 14:22–33

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The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Denominational Counselor for Anglican/Episcopal Students and Lecturer, Harvard Divinity School

July 30

The Likeness of Being

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

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The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

-The Rev. Dr. Stephen Cady, Senior Minister, Asbury First United Methodist Church (Rochester, NY) 

July 23

On the Law

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:21–30, 38–48

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The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

-Mr. William Cordts, MDiv., Alumnus of the Boston University School of Theology 

July 16

Summer Camp and the Reign of God

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

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-The Reverend David Romanik, Rector, Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest (Abilene, TX) 

June 25

Making Sense with Matthew

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10:24–39

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The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley:

Good morning, Marsh Chapel! It is so good to be with you and back in Boston. Our deep thanks to Bob, Jess, Karen, Jonathan, Scott, Justin, Heidi, and Chloe for the invitation to preach and the hospitality here at our beloved alma mater. It’s been a few years since we’ve lived in Boston and served on the staff here, but we are still connected, even across the distance; that is what community can do. 

Wooh, Soren, we just really won the lectionary lottery for this summer preaching series on Matthew and the Costs of Discipleship, huh? Swords, slavery, sin, separation from family. Soren, how do you think about how to deal with difficult biblical passages? 

The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler:

For nearly a decade, I’ve had the privilege of wrestling together with difficult sacred texts with Jewish colleagues at Hebrew College. And for the last five years, I’ve navigated difficult Christian texts as the instructor of Hebrew College’s Introduction to Christianity course. I’ve learned that we navigate difficult texts best when we do so openly and in community and in dialogue with one another.

It is out of those shared commitments that I flew into Boston last Sunday to participate this past week in a concurrent meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews (the ICCJ) and the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR). The ICCJ is the umbrella organization of over 30 national Jewish-Christian dialogue organizations. Founded as a reaction to the Holocaust, “the ICCJ and its member organizations world-wide over the past seven decades have been successfully engaged in the historic renewal of Jewish-Christian relations.” In recent years, the ICCJ and its members have promoted Jewish-Christian dialogue and provide models for wider interfaith relations, particularly dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

“The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR) is an association of centers and institutes in the United States and Canada devoted to enhancing mutual understanding between Jews and Christians. It is dedicated to research, publication, educational programming, and interreligious dialogue that respect the religious integrity and self-understanding of the various strands of the Jewish and Christian traditions. [Its] members are committed to interreligious dialogue, the purpose of which is neither to undermine or to change the religious identity of the other, but rather seeks to be enriched by each other's religious lives and traditions.“

The gathering of approximately 150 people, from over 20 countries, was hosted by the Boston College Center for Jewish-Christian Learning and Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership. The conference theme was “Negotiating Multiple Identities: Implications for Interreligious Relations,” and, of course, our meeting coincided with the national holiday of Juneteenth.

There were plenary sessions and academic lectures, interactive workshops (which included shared text study), various opportunities for critical engagement with the arts, and excursions across the city for deeper learning. Marsh Chapel was one of several sites around the city that hosted conference participants this week. 

As I mentioned, there is much in Jewish and Christian sacred texts that we choose not to read often or altogether skip over in the regular cycles of our appointed weekly readings. One workshop I attended titled, “’By the Waters of Babylon’: Intersectional Readings of a Classical Biblical Text” focused on Psalm 137 and shared several new multi-media resources on the themes of exile, homecoming, retribution, and justice from an international digital Psalms project, Book of Psalms: Calling Out of the Depths, hosted by the Miller Center at Hebrew College. Together my colleagues Dr. Andrew Davis, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Boston College, and Rabbi Or Rose, Founding Director of the Miller Center at Hebrew College, explored their shared study of the Psalms and their engagement with this Psalm and others with classrooms of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish students in the BTI over the last several years. We read together the full text of Psalm 137 in Hebrew and in English, and after the second reading of the Psalm, a participant in the workshop, an elderly Jewish woman who has been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue work for more than 50 years exclaimed, “I never knew the last two verses of this Psalm!” She had sung other parts of the Psalm in different Jewish liturgical contexts, but not these final two verses, which are translated in the NRSV as

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

These words are never set to music. The workshop participants wrestled with the value of these words. The leaders of the workshop shared various rationalizations of the text, including by Augustine, that the author of these words must not have meant them literally. Nevertheless, on their face, they are quite terrible. At best, these final verses give voice to the experience of rage in the midst of oppression. The workshop leaders attempted to contextualize the likely context of the authorship of the Psalm, but ultimately concluded that a literal enactment of the exclamation of the Psalm is inconsistent with the other values and commitments espoused by Jewish and Christian communities. In short, our sacred texts are the products of particular people and contexts. Sometimes we simply don’t understand the full context of the text, and sometimes, the texts themselves are just problematic.

I raise this because I think that today’s passage from Genesis merits at least a bit of attention today. Had it not been the chapel’s summer practice to read all four lectionary texts, I would likely have omitted the Genesis text from the liturgy today. In any event, in our Genesis text, our author recounts God as condoning Abraham’s decision to cast out his wife’s slave, Hagar, and the son she had born for Abraham. Sarah’s ownership of Hagar and Abraham’s sexual access to his wife’s slave are, perhaps, issues for another day, but we have in Genesis today, a recollection of God affirming Abraham’s decision to cast out Hagar so that her son cannot inherit from Abraham alongside Abraham’s other son, Isaac. The heroization of Abraham in the Genesis text is at one of its lowest points in today’s text. It seems that the author can find no other satisfactory reason that Abraham would agree to cast out Hagar and their son than that God reassured Abraham it was a good idea because God would bless and multiply Ishmael’s offspring and make of him a great nation?! This is not a flattering depiction of the divine, and Abraham is not winning any points in my book with his decision today.

But the rest of the pericope recollects God coming to the aid of Hagar and Ishmael when their water had run out, and Hagar was certain that her young son would perish. God’s mercy is on full display in the latter portion of the pericope, but that doesn’t make the former portion any less problematic. As a United Methodist, I read scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. Tradition and experience tell me that the text’s characterization of the divine in the initial verses of today’s passage in Genesis is either simply wrong, incomplete, or perhaps asserted for some other narrative purpose. Plain readings of hard texts do a disservice to the complexity of the tradition and our own religious experience, which brings us to the Matthean text today.

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley:

What a difficult set of readings for these times, and what a difficult set of verses to make sense of in Matthew. Here in Matthew 10, we find ourselves in the midst of the instructions from Jesus to the disciples as He sends them out to travel from place to place, proclaiming the good news, healing, and casting out demons as they go. These logia, these sayings gathered in Matthew 10 partially echo bits of Mark and Luke, but their compilation here and their full content are unique to Matthew’s gospel. Matthew finds it useful to collect these teachings and present them without significant commentary, leaving us to make sense of them. And they make about as much sense smushed together as sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, a noncanonical gospel in which the narrative of the gospels are left out in favor of a series of sayings, such as  “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death." Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All."

The point of sayings like these in Thomas, and like our passage in Matthew today, is to get them, faith seeking understanding, the goal is the contemplation of them; they are constantly elusive, or troubling, or astonishing, but there is also something powerful about them, there is something about the eternal to them, and they invite constant return.

You might feel some of these passages in your bones in these days. I know I do. After all, this is a time of division and polarization. You might have friends or family or former classmates or colleagues you can’t talk about politics or faith with any more; or maybe you can’t as often without conversation devolving into conspiracy theory or conflict; or maybe you can’t really talk at all.

It’s also a time of disaffiliation in our own United Methodist denomination. Across the United States, and to a much more limited extent around the world, some of the most conservative churches of the denomination have left the denomination. I have heard texts like our gospel reading today used to justify these departures. I have heard interpretations of passages like Matthew 10 in these conversations along the lines of, isn’t Jesus saying, with verses about hating your family, and division, and persecution at the hands of religious authorities, speaking straight to our moment and endorsing disaffiliation? Isn’t a text like Matthew about holding fast to a pure, unadulterated, gospel that must be preserved, defended against constant attack? Isn’t this text all about leaving?

When hearing interpretations like these, and the swirling disinformation amidst disaffiliation, I am reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Krister Stendahl, Lutheran Bishop, Harvard Divinity School Dean, and New Testament Scholar. One of the last things he wrote was a short essay, titled “Why I Love the Bible.” I assign it every year in my introduction to the New Testament class. Stendahl says he loves the bible because “The Bible is about me, and the Bible is not about me.” Stendahl first loved the Bible because it was about him, it spoke to him, it formed his faith and the way he worshipped and prayed and the hymns he sang. It was personal. But then, Stendahl learned to love the Bible because it was NOT about him.

“This was the time when I was naïve and arrogant enough to identify with the people I read about, or whose writings I read…. It was about many other things—in the long run, much more interesting things. It was about many things in many distant lands, from many distant ages…. Now it spoke to me from a great distance, of centuries and cultures deeply different from my own. And it began to be, just by its difference, that the fascination grew, that it had a way of saying to me, there are other ways of seeing and thinking and feeling and believing than you have taken for granted. And it just added to my love—for love is not just fascination. When I short-circuited my reading in those earlier days of having it just be about me, I slowly learned that this was a greedy way to deal with the richness of the scriptures.” (Stendahl 2007, xx).

I love the Bible, and I love wrestling with difficult texts because I am honest about their distance. The Gospel of Matthew, written perhaps in 80-90 CE, emerges from real crisis. Both what becomes Judaism and what becomes Christianity emerge in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The Gospel of Matthew vividly shares collective memory about this cataclysm, and those who compiled, circulated, and told these stories about Jesus did so with real risk in mind and communal memory.

Some Christians around the world are more proximate to experiences like that today, but here in the United States, this is simply not the case, despite disinformation to the contrary. Hear it from this Christian, United Methodist Pastor, Christianity is not under attack in the United States in 2023. Living in a religiously pluralistic and democratic society with folks who disagree with you, and facing consequences for your speech in public is not religious persecution. Not getting to censor public libraries, public schools, and other public goods does not mean you are being silenced. Jesus and his disciples knew real persecution, and those who first circulated our gospel today some half century later knew what could happen from a violent empire. Why is the constant appeal of a persecution narrative so appealing, any evidence to the contrary? The story of Christianity and the cross makes meaning out of loss, finds power even in its powerlessness, and finds a way to make community even when faced with suffering. These are some great building blocks for theology that can help us find meaning, power, and community today. But the lens looks different when our backs aren’t against the wall, to paraphrase Howard Thurman. These building blocks can be built out of true, to craft a theology that thinks that losing is winning, and that being under threat means you are somehow blessed. Then there is incentive to overlook whether you might be backing some folks against a wall, or to flip the script so that you are always the persecuted, faithful remnant, constantly on defense against the world. 

Because I love the Bible, and notice my distance from it, I have freedom to find proximity to it again. Matthew calls us again to contemplate these teachings.

The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler:

Jen, I think Thurman’s own reading of the Bible, his love of it, his distance from it and others’ commentaries on it, and his ability to find proximity to it offer a glimpse of understanding the Matthean text today.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of convening and moderating a panel discussion about the life and work of the Reverend Howard Thurman, the distinguished African American preacher, writer, educator, and pastor, who played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement and who was a groundbreaking interreligious and cross-cultural leader, a leader that the Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill is fond of describing as one hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago. Together with three Thurman scholars, my colleagues Nick Bates, the recently appointed Director of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground at Boston University; the Reverend Dr. Shively T. J. Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University’s School of Theology; and Rabbi Or Rose, we screened a recent brief documentary about Thurman and discussed Thurman’s work and legacy. On Friday, Or published an article in Patheos reflecting on the panel and the long relationship of his mentor Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Thurman and other Christian religious leaders.

Or writes:

“I first learned of Howard Thurman some years ago from my beloved teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (d. 2014), founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement. Long before Reb Zalman (an informal title he preferred) emerged as a modern Jewish mystical sage and international religious figure, he began an idiosyncratic spiritual journey that took him from the more insular world of HaBaD-Lubavitch Hasidism into dialogue with an array of practitioners from the world’s religions.

“Among his earliest and most influential interreligious and inter-racial interlocuters was Dean Thurman, whom he first met in 1955, as a graduate student at BU’s School of Theology. By the end of that academic year, Reb Zalman lovingly referred to him as his ‘Black Rebbe’ (the customary term for a Hasidic master). In describing Thurman’s influence on him, Reb Zalman said that his BU mentor caused him to ‘redraw his reality map.’ To put it plainly, the emerging (already off-beat) Hasidic rabbi had not yet met a non-Jewish religious figure like Thurman, whose intellectual, pedagogic, and pastoral abilities he would come to admire deeply. In the ensuing years, Reb Zalman would meet several other individuals and groups, like the great Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton (d. 1968) and his Trappist community, who would further alter his perception of non-Jews and of non-Jewish religious traditions.

“Part of what impressed Reb Zalman so much about Dean Thurman, was the fact that his love and reverence for Jesus of Nazareth led him to conclude that all human beings are children of God, and that there are many ways—all imperfect—to live meaningful and conscientious lives in relationship with the Divine.”

Ultimately, I think that is what our Matthean text is getting at today.

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley:

That deeply personal and personalist claim that we are all children of God draws my eye to two other places in our gospel today. These are also at the heart of the gospel: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

And a verse after our reading ends (sometimes the lectionary limits our imagination), Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” 

Soren and I recently returned from our home conference, the West Ohio Annual Conference, the messy middle of United Methodism, which has always wrestled with politics, theology, ethics, in ways that represent the multiplicity of voices that occur when community gathers together. At this last annual conference, over 200 churches completed a process to leave the denomination, bringing our total numbers over the last year to about a quarter of our collective. But we also voted, for the first time ever, and albeit aspirationally, to welcome LGBTQ+ folks into ministry in our conference; such a vote would have been unheard of even five years ago.Over our days in a convention center in Dayton, we sat at several 10 person tables, over a hundred in the cavernous room. You never knew if you’d sat next to someone about to disaffiliate or someone in conference leadership, next to someone from the Appalachian foothills or the heart of Columbus. We met folks who represent the full spectrum of United Methodism there, and our conversations help me to make sense with Matthew.

On the day of disaffiliation votes, we sat next to an elderly white man in khakis and a polo shirt. He looked deeply grieved, and his tag identified him as a local pastor. Quietly, and carefully, in the breaks between votes, he told us that he was a pastor for many years in the Wesleyan Church. He joined the United Methodist Church, he said, even though his full credentials wouldn’t transfer and he would spend a lifetime pastoring part time and for lesser pay on the side because, “I wanted to be at a bigger table.” I wanted to be at a bigger table, and that’s why, he told us, even though many friends were disaffiliating and many churches in his rural part of the state were disaffiliating, he and his small, part time congregation held fast to the United Methodist church. “I want to be at a bigger table.” 

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Even the hairs on your head are counted. 

Another day, after historic votes on LGBTQ+ inclusion, we sat for the service of ordination and retirement next to an African American man and woman who were lay leaders at their historically black church in Dayton. The woman was a retired teacher, which she told us meant she had more time for work for the church and community. During the service, it is customary to stand for an ordinand or retiree whose name is called if they have influenced you. One of the longtime LGBTQ+advocates, a pastor of the conference and a partnered, now married gay man, retired this year, the same year that this vote was taken. I made eye contact across my table when we all stood for David’s retirement. “He is our brother,” she said quietly. 

We don’t know who will sit with us at the Lord’s table, but when I hear the verse about families divided, I hear it alongside these teachings, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, even the hairs on your head are counted,” and I think that following Jesus means that sometimes we might need to welcome folks that our parents might not like.We might end up at a bigger table than we expect. 

I’m not really sure I can fully make sense of these verses today, Soren, but maybe I can make some sense with Matthew. Logia like these aren’t meant for single use, single meaning only talismans, no more than other biblical or extra-biblical sayings you might find meaningful. To paraphrase a parable, They are like a lost coin found again, turned over in the hand to notice a new glint, a rough edge, a smooth face, joy and delight and intense focus all at once. 

Do not be afraid. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. 

I want to be at a bigger table. He is my brother. 

Let those who have ears to hear, listen. Amen. 

-The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley, Assistant Professor of New Testament Vanderbilt Divinity School

-The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler, Director of Recruitment and Admissions Vanderbilt Divinity School

June 11

St. Matthew’s ‘Workquake’

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 9:9–26

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Good morning! I’m so glad to be back with you at Marsh Chapel, and to participate in this sermon series on Matthew and the Cost of Discipleship.

 The writer Sue Monk Kidd reminds us of the root of the word “crisis,” in her essay “Crossing the Threshold.” She writes:

 "A crisis is a holy summons to cross a threshold. It involves both a leaving behind and a stepping toward, a separation and an opportunity.

"The word crisis derives from the Greek words krisis and krino, which mean 'a separating.' The very root of the word implies that our crises are times of severing from old ways and states of being. We need to ask ourselves what it is we’re being asked to separate from. What needs to be left behind?"

~ Sue Monk Kidd, from the essay “Crossing the Threshold,” in “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter”

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus encounters three people in crisis. For two of these, the leader of the synagogue whose daughter has died, and the woman with the hemorrhage that won’t stop, these are health crises, and they are acute. Jesus is their last hope. The leader of the synagogue is in the middle of an emergency: his daughter is already dead, but he has faith that if he can just get Jesus to lay hands on her, she will live again. For the woman with the hemorrhage, we are told in the Gospel of Mark where this story also appears that she had seen many doctors, who had not been able to help her at all. For both the synagogue leader’s emergency and the woman’s debilitating chronic illness, Jesus is their last shot at healing. And he does raise the man’s daughter from the dead, and the woman’s touch of his cloak does stop her hemorrhages.

These are such dramatic and powerful stories, that it would be easy to skip over Matthew, there in his booth. Matthew doesn’t actually say anything to Jesus that is recorded here, or ask anything of him. Instead he responds, immediately and whole-heartedly, to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. And that’s how we know he is in crisis: because he just leaves his booth by the side of the road, and never goes back! He has one brief encounter with Jesus, and he leaves his old life behind, for good! There’s a lot of talk in the media these days about so-called “quiet quitting”; this is “loud quitting”!

Now we are reading the Gospel attributed to Matthew, and this is Matthew’s story. It’s just a few verses, and Matthew himself doesn’t say anything in words. But walking off the job communicates a lot. Matthew has had what the writer Bruce Feiler calls a “workquake.” Some of you may remember Bruce Feiler’s bestselling book Walking the Bible from a number of years back. He also recently wrote a book called Life in the Transitions, where he coined the word “lifequake,” to describe points of crisis where our lives seem to open up and rupture, as in an earthquake. In Feiler’s new book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in the Post-Career World, Feiler focuses on “workquakes,” the crises or significant turning points that people have over the course of their careers. He urges his readers to examine their own “work story,” and, for those seeking deeper meaning and purpose from their work, to ask themselves questions about their past, present, and dreams for the future that can help them to chart a new course in their careers.

Perhaps Matthew is a good patron saint for these pandemic and post-pandemic times, when four and a half million people left their jobs in 2022, following a trend of what economists call “quit rates” increasing steadily and significantly for the past several years. Feiler argues that many Americans are now rejecting the narrow definition of success that was handed down “by parents, encouraged by . . . neighbors, [and[ reinforced by  . . . culture,”  questioning its values and challenging its assumptions. People are looking for other measures of achievement than “more, higher, better.” And, they are resisting unjust, inequitable, and discriminatory systems and structures in the workplace that devalue and demean their contributions. We are seeing a resurgence in the labor movement, not just on the factory floor, but in corporate behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, and also, it should be noted, among graduate students and non-tenure track professors, including at the School of Theology of this very University.

What made Matthew walk off the job in the middle of his workday? It’s clear that Jesus was not offering him a competitive salary with benefits package. Quite the opposite! What kind of internal crisis was happening in Matthew’s life, that led to this abrupt and permanent break with his profession?

Since it wasn’t about money or status, it must have been about meaning and purpose. Maybe before Jesus showed up at Matthew’s booth, he had heard about this wandering rabbi and wonder-worker who preached that his mission was to bring good news to the poor, to heal, and to set prisoners free. Had Matthew’s toll booth become a prison?

And yes, it’s likely that Matthew was not, as the NRSV translates, a tax collector, but in fact a telones in Greek, a toll collector. That helps explain why Jesus meets him on the road, and why he’s in a booth! And for those of you youngsters in the congregation, there was a time when there were real live toll collectors inside the toll booths . . . and when you paid tolls with actual coins. Does anyone else remember manually rolling down the car window, in order to toss quarters into the toll booth receptacle?? Good times.

I will not share all the scintillating details with you from the lengthy article I read on first century taxation, except to say that Matthew, as a toll collector, was probably more of a lower-level functionary collecting smaller tolls and taxes, rather than someone with more clout in the direct employ of the Roman empire.

Which begs the question: “toll collectors and sinners”??? What’s with that recurring biblical phrase? Apparently, toll collectors were notorious for being dishonest. They were the used-car salesmen of the ancient world. And while they generally not big shots, it probably didn’t help their reputation that they were functionaries in the Roman Imperial system.

Matthew then has Jesus over to his house for dinner. (This is what the gospel of Luke says, in Luke’s version of the story.) But the low esteem in which his former profession is held causes scandal, and the Pharisees ask Jesus’ other disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with toll collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answers, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

The counter-cultural thinker Alan Watts wrote, "See, I am a philosopher and if you don't argue with me, I don't know what I think. If we argue, I say 'Thank You', because owing to the courtesy of you taking a different point of view, I understand what I mean, so I can't get rid of you." I am not a philosopher, but I am from New Jersey, and so I can relate to this. (pause) I grew up in a place where ordinary conversation can seem pretty combative to people from other parts of the country!

And I think that Jesus is in a similar environment. In my years of reading the Bible and preaching, I’ve come to see these ongoing conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees in this light. Their discussions or arguments can get heated, in the way that the discussions of philosophers or political junkies get heated. The Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples, and here the disciples of John the Baptist show up too: they are all working out what they believe in constant conversation and argument with each other. They are debating each other, criticizing each other, and ultimately challenging each other. I see them more as frenemies, than enemies, through much of Jesus’ ministry. They have a lot in common.

So Matthew’s presence as a disciple causes scandal, and then John’s disciples pop over to ask why Jesus and his disciples don’t fast in the way that they do. And Jesus gives two parabolic answers, one pretty straightforward, the other not. First, he says they do not fast because no one fasts during a wedding celebration—Jesus is the bridegroom, and when he’s gone, his disciples will fast. Jesus’ presence has ushered in a new age, and his good news to the poor, healing of the sick, and release of the prisoners is a Messianic celebration.

And then he has two more sayings: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Okay, what? [This teaching is obscure enough, that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary edited it out of today’s reading; but I thought it was important enough to edit back in, and so you lucky folks get extra Bible to chew on today. Marsh Chapel, now with 20% more parables!]

Jesus has been challenged as to the kind of person he allows to join his disciples, and to how they practice their faith—and he gives this as an answer. Why, and what does it mean? And, what does it mean for us?

First, let’s notice what Jesus does not say: he does not say that new clothes are better than old clothes; and that new wine is better than old wine.

So here, Jesus is not saying that his new ministry and mission is supplanting or replacing the old. In fact, these are sayings about how to preserve the old garment, and the old wine.

These are sayings about craft: about the choices that a tailor and a vinter would make. A tailor would not sew new, unshrunk cloth to old preshrunk cloth, because it would further damage the garment instead of mending it. A vinter would not put new wine, that would still be fermenting and so creating gasses and expanding, into old wineskins: because the old leather has already stretched as much as it can stretch, and the skins would burst and ruin everything.

In other words, the new materials are flexible and elastic; they can stretch. They can adapt. The old cannot effectively receive the new, because the flexibility is gone.

Jesus is talking about craft, and the tradition of craft. Tailors make new garments, and repair old ones: cloth is precious, and nothing is wasted. Vinters make new wine, and age old wine, and sell both, at different prices. And, new wine ages and becomes old wine, and the craft of winemaking continues.

These sayings are not about replacing the old with the new. They are about carrying on the tradition and the craft.

Jesus is saying, new movements cannot be contained in the systems and structures of old movements. They need their own containers. They need systems and structures that can still adapt and change and change shape as necessary. And that this is not a break with tradition, but an essential part of carrying on tradition. Jesus is saying that he is not the kind of rabbi that the Pharisees are, and he is not the kind of prophet that John is. His mission and his ministry are different. And so are his disciples. And it is best not to try to force them into containers that won’t hold them.

His disciples are people like Matthew—people who have become dissatisfied, people who are searching for relationship with God, people who have come to a crisis point in their lives where they need to make a change. Who want to find purpose and meaning in their work and in their lives—who want to be on the side of the liberators and not the oppressors. Who are no longer fine with the status quo—because of who gets left out and left behind.

And the religious communities of Jesus’ day were not able to accommodate people like Matthew. In fact, they did not want those people around at all.

We in the Church are also having a collective lifequake,  a collective workquake. We are in the midst of a crisis—of decline, but also a crisis of identity, and a crisis of formation. We are in a historical moment, made more acute and urgent by the pandemic, where it is not at all clear how our faith traditions will be carried on to the next generation. Churches are struggling and closing, longtime church members are dying and not being replaced, our church buildings are often too big and too old to maintain. Most of our congregations are in survival mode, with little energy for those outside their doors.

And Jesus says to us: stop trying to sew a new patch on an old garment. Stop trying to force the new wine into old wineskins.

Our systems and structures need to change. Completely. No more retrofitting; “redevelopment” is not enough. You need new containers, for what the Holy Spirit is doing in your midst right now. We need to think differently about community, about formation and education, about worship, about mission and identity and purpose, about leadership and responsibility and governance—and about buildings.

Or, you are going to lose it all. The craft, the tradition, the gospel, will not continue in the places they have been.

This is the cost of discipleship in our own day: do we hold on to what we know, and let nostalgia continue to corrode our congregations until there’s nothing left?

Or do we follow Jesus into a new way of being church? With new disciples, who weren’t there before—but who long for good news, healing, liberation—and authentic relationship with God.

It’s our choice.

“The very root of the word implies that our crises are times of severing from old ways and states of being. We need to ask ourselves what it is we’re being asked to separate from. What needs to be left behind?"”

I’ll look forward to being back with you in August, to continue this conversation.

In God’s name, Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Denominational Counselor for Anglican/Episcopal Students and Lecturer, Harvard Divinity School

January 15

Love As Action: Reflections on the Philosophy of Dr. King and Howard Thurman

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1:29–42

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This sermon was given in honor and celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Jr. Weekend 2023.

The text of this sermon is unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

-The Honorable Judge Christopher Edwards,

Friend of Marsh Chapel & Member of the Marsh Chapel Advisory Board

August 14

Judgment and Grace

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:49–56

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A written text of this sermon is currently unavailable.

-Mr. William Edward Cordts, Friend of Marsh Chapel

July 31

Litmus Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:13–21

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Have you ever used a litmus test? A litmus test is a test using a special colorized paper. You dip the paper into a liquid and the color of the paper will change to blue or red, depending on whether the liquid is an acid or a base. The blue part of the paper will turn red if placed in something acidic and red paper will turn blue if placed in something basic. Many schools use the litmus test as a hands-on science experiment for students. It’s a relatively easy science experiment for kids that is still fun.

The term litmus test is used more broadly as a way of determining whether something will pass or not. It is widely used in politics, especially concerning court justices and presidential candidates. Hot button issues can be polarizing litmus tests which supposedly determine party affiliation or other meaningful political information. A lot of times certain issues become a sort of litmus test for things like dating, friend groups, or voting. Litmus tests are also used in churches. What is a sacrament, how often should communion be celebrated, and do you baptize or dedicate an infant? Calvinism or Free Will? Depending on the results of a litmus test during a sermon, we might tune in more closely or think harder about what we should have for lunch. The simplicity of a litmus test is helpful for making quick decisions. It recognizes that our pre-judgements often shape how we experience what is going on around us.

As a science project, a litmus test is straightforward. The results are either acid, base, or neutral. The paper shows the results of what is present. It is a fairly objective process; however, when the idea of a litmus test gets applied to other realms, like politics and theology, the process becomes much more subjective. That means that our experiences, identity, and other elements factor into the process. The results are rarely as straightforward as acid, base, or neutral and almost always some element of choice is involved. The subjective element allows for nuance and situational aspects to be accounted for, but too often the limitations of subjectivity are taken as objective fact. What I mean by that is something grounded in the perspective and experience of a person is taken as truthful constants; rather than, as something interpreted from a particular point of view. Interpretation always extends from who we are. It extends from our points of view, even as it comes back to shape our point of view. What we see in a text or in life, is partly influenced by our experiences of life.

To give this a concrete context, think about the national debates over what is currently written about in history books, especially with regard to race and racism. States and school systems around the country are banning and altering curriculum in dire dystopian fashion. On the one hand, this is wrong, untrue, and harmful. And on the other hand, it is actively shaping the point of view of younger generations so that their experiences of the world are marked by a certain understanding of the world and events. When I was in high school, a history teacher made it a strong point that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. We were told multiple times that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. We lost points on essays and exams if we claimed otherwise. We were told the Civil War was fought “to preserve the Union” and over “States Rights.” To use this litmus test from history is to lose all nuance and complexity over past events while allowing a present system of injustice to persist.

The stakes are high when it comes to history books, which is why the conflict is so important and strong. The danger is not only misinformation but a complete inability to engage truthfully with the past so that present oppression can continue. Prior point of view largely impacts present understandings and experiences of the monuments. And this is where the metaphor litmus test breaks down a bit. Because of elements like choice and experience, a litmus test outside of science it is not simply a means of determining acid, neutral, or base. It is often a choice to interpret the information or experience filtered through prior beliefs. The metaphor litmus test is popularly used as a way of testing beliefs or views on a matter. In practice, the litmus paper interacts with a solution to show you what type of solution is present, but in everyday practice, the litmus test actually reinforces preconceived beliefs to avoid honest and difficult engagement. While there are necessary reasons for this detachment, especially the survival of people constantly threatened by policies and views of others, there are consequences. Rather than deny point of view, experience, and subjectivity, we can account for the ways they influence us as we engage in discourse, especially the ways we approach differences.

Colossians 3:11 says, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” While some of the particular markers of identity may not be readily recognizable to modern readers, the summary solidifies the point. “Christ is all and in all.” Some have taken to interpret this text as a denial of earthy identity. The only identity that matters is that which we have in Christ. Others have cited this text as a defense of color-blind approaches to race and racism which deny the significance of race or the presence of modern racism. For these approaches, difference is an obstacle that gets in the way of unity. In a vacuum, these approaches might have more merit than detriments but in our actual context, they have more detriment than merit. They become a litmus test, a tool which denies difference an opportunity to flourish. They also deny subjectivity to marginalized people and creates maladaptive identities in those with power. Our unity in Christ does not come at the cost of diversity and uniqueness. In fact, it is our differences and uniqueness which lead us even further into the divine mystery. At the same time, our unity and diversity in Christ also does not claim that all experiences of the world are equal. Some, lead toward justice and equity, while others lead toward hate and oppression. Perhaps, a better litmus test for politics and theology would be one that determines whether the course is loving or not. If only it were that simple…

The prophet Hosea lived in a contentious time in Israel’s history. He was a contemporary of the prophet Amos, whose words against the rampant social injustices are so strong. Amos denounced those who hoarded wealth unjustly and those who participated in harmful economic policies which kept the poor in poverty. Amos was especially critical of those who did so with a veneer of theological legitimacy. Those who built large barns off the backs of the poor, all the while, referring to their wealth as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus’s parable, and Hosea’s message to these people are similar. That which is given, can be taken away and God desires justice not sacrifice. God desires faithful obedience not gifts that are lessened by how they were acquired. Hosea warned that the Assyrians would be a means of God’s justice for the injustice he witnessed. Where Amos rallied for social well-being and justice, Hosea emphasized faithfulness and knowledge of God. Two prophets, each revealing a part of God’s heart. Each complementing the other and trying to guide a people to live justly.

As you know, Old Testament prophets were not people who possessed crystal balls that could predict the future. They were God’s messengers, often in words and deeds. They discerned the word of the Lord and passed it along to the people. But this was an interpretive enterprise. The life of the prophet, the experiences of the prophet became a part of the interpretive process. The prophets were not passive people who recorded a voice they heard from beyond but active interpreters of their historical and social situations in light of their understanding and encounters with the Divine. The Word of the Lord came to them, but they were intimately involved in discerning and interpreting the Word. More often than not, the prophets of the Old Testament responded to their social and historical situations rather than making predictions about the far-off future. This means that prophets were far more human than popular imagination can make them out to be but also that we are invited to the same interpretive activity of the prophets. We interpret and discern the time we are in, in connection with others and the faith of ages past.

By nature of their inclusions in our Scripture, it can be easy to miss that the prophets were not always accepted by the people. They did not always champion popular views and they frequently engaged in polarizing prophetic ministry. What Hosea claimed of God was not readily accepted in his day, partly because there were other prophets who made opposing claims to Hosea. It is not surprising that a study of the prophets shows that often the most popular prophets, those who do not have books named after them in the canon, were the ones who predicted good things for the people and required very little change.

Some of these other prophets made their claims by virtue of other deities, like Baal as the Hosea reading says, but some prophesied differently from the canonical prophets and still in the name of YHWH. When we peer beneath the surface of our prophetic literature, we see communities in tension over how to interpret the times and God’s involvement in the world. We see different voices, sometimes even competing voices vying for legitimacy. Just as those who put the biblical cannon together had to ask, which prophets authentically spoke for God, we too have to discern between the myriad of voices in the present who claim to speak about God in our time. This is no easy task.

Hosea’s prophetic ministry began around 745 B.C.E. The book which bears his name utilizes many metaphors to discuss the relationship between God and God’s people. Metaphors are helpful in that task because we need something which helps us describe in human speech something that is greater than human speech. While still limited, metaphors help us grasp the mystery of the divine. Hosea uses the parent-child metaphor for God and Israel throughout the book and in the passage we read today. “11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The passage continues to note the ways God nurtured the people of Israel. Mention of Egypt and the Exodus, teaching Ephraim to walk, holding the people in arms, and providing healing.

We see that Hosea claims God is not only a parent to Israel but a good parent. A parent who loves and cares, a parent who helps develop the child into adulthood. God is faithful in steadfast love for the people. Hosea draws from the covenant tradition here. His imagery is either a reminder or a further development of God’s covenant with Israel in the wilderness after Egypt. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” This is the level of care that many would desire from their God. Love, care, and nourishment. If you have taken care of a parent, child, or pet perhaps you can relate to the connection between love and care.

But, Hosea also claims that the people were not steadfast in their faithfulness to God. “11:2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” Because of their unfaithfulness, Hosea warns the people that they will return to Egypt and that Assyria will rule over them. Hosea speaks of God’s love and God’s steadfastness but also of impending wrath and destruction. Hosea sees the historical rises of Egypt and Assyria as a real threat to Israel but interprets it in light of his understandings of God’s desired faithfulness. In other words, Hosea interprets the international scene from theocentric and Israel-centric standpoints. He engages the past and the history of the people to interpret the present.

When I teach this passage to Old Testament students, we take a long pause here to discuss the connection between history and the present with God’s action. Many students are quick to embrace Hosea’ theological methodology, connecting events around him with beliefs, and engaging the times with God. Sometimes these events are specific and other times they are more general. Such efforts, I think are commendable. Because I believe God is active in Creation, I too want to make sure my beliefs and theology reflect the possibilities opened by that posture.

However, after some time, I like to play the devil’s advocate with them. I bring up examples of pastors who have made claims of God in the aftermath of events like Katrina or Supreme Court cases which I assume are in opposition to the student’s beliefs about God and Creation. They usually see the difficulty. When Christians claim God is not bound by the pages in a book but active in the world, much can be claimed of God that is not noble, true, and right. When Christians claim the totality of Euro-American centric theologies, even ones grounded in the genuine experiences of those peoples, harms take place. But then the question rises, how do we discern the word of the Lord among the cacophony of those claiming to be prophets?

There is no litmus test to determine definitely just as the people of Israel had no litmus test to determine a true or false prophet. It is one reason; we speak of being cautious while making universal claims about God and all the unknowns. With the biblical witness, we have the advantage of time and those who have discerned for us in the past. We look back as modern interpreters who can discern and interpret God’s activity over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. Scripture guides us through the past and offers direction for the present. I do not think we should not be tempted by approaches to Scripture that claim to speak absolutely about absolute matters. Scripture does not speak in one voice but in many. It is among its many voices that we are called to witness the work of the Holy One. This invites us to discern, the multiple voices and traditions present within our tradition, even as we recognize that not all voices are good. Just as ancient Israel had to discern which prophets to listen to, we too are invited to this process of holy discernment among the myriad of voices claiming to speak for God today.

Perhaps, a key to a healthy Gospel is not so much the absolute surety of a litmus test but an openness to keep dipping beliefs and experiences into the living water as a means of being transformed into God’s likeness. It might mean we need to change pre-conceived notions and deeply held convictions, but it might just start us on a journey to a more equitable and just world. Led by the hope of the Gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH