Archive for the ‘Mr. Jonathan Lee, Associate Chaplain for Student Outreach’ Category

October 8


By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:33–46

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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer… Amen.  

 In today’s Gospel reading, we pick up where we left off last week as Jesus debates the chief priests in the Temple mere days before Jesus’ eventual arrest and crucifixion. After having his authority questioned, Jesus presents three parables to the chief priests. The first one, as presented to us last week by Rev. Chicka, is a parable about obedience and disobedience as Jesus blames the chief priests for not listening to and believing the words of John the Baptist.  

 Today’s parable also takes center stage in a vineyard, and to be honest, it’s quite gruesome. A wealthy man built a vineyard, leased it to some tenants, and then went off to another country. When the harvest season came around, the man sent not just one, but two, waves of servants to collect the harvest, but both sets of servants were brutally murdered by the tenants. Finally, the man sends his son as his personal envoy, but even the son is brutally murdered.  

 For us Christians who are familiar with the narrative of Jesus’ upcoming death and resurrection and for Jesus himself, who knows what will befall on him in a few days, the symbolism is apparent – Jesus is the son sent to the tenants, i.e., the chief priests and authorities, who is about to die at their hands. After the parable, Jesus summarizes his rejection and soon-coming exaltation with a quote from Psalm 118 –  

 ‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;[f]
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’ 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the corner stone… Now I have to admit that when I read this passage, I realized that I didn’t know what a corner stone is. Like, from context and general readings and even how it kind of sounds, I understand that the cornerstone is something important and something foundational. But what is a corner stone really? What significance, what power, does the image of a corner stone have for Jesus, for the chief priests, and by extension for us? 

For those unfamiliar with the term or its history, a corner stone is one of, if not the key, foundational stones in the construction of a building. Until the development of modern construction techniques and materials largely made this process obsolete, the corner stone was the first stone set in the building process and helped guide builders make sure the rest of the stones of the building are level and square, determining the building’s site and overall orientation. Given the corner stone’s structural importance, it’s only natural that people began putting symbolic significance onto the stone as well. Ancient civilizations would offer sacrifices, such as wine, water, or even blood on a cornerstone to ensure divine and lasting strength and fortune for the building. This tradition evolved within Christian communities as relics of saints and martyrs were placed inside the cornerstone of a church to invite a patron saint’s blessing onto the church and its community.  

This tradition of placing important artifacts inside a building’s corner stone continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. By then, the corner stone was no longer a literal foundation that physically holds up the building, but more so a symbolic or even spiritual foundation – of the ideals, hopes, and dreams that go into a building’s construction and use. Some describe the corner stone as a seed, as the bundle of instructional DNA and energy from which a building would germinate and rise.  

All this talk about corner stones is fine, but maybe it’d be more helpful to think and talk about a literal corner stone that is, oh 200 feet from where I stand. Nestled in the southwestern corner of this building’s exterior wall & hidden between various bushes and trees about 3 feet from the ground is the corner stone of Marsh Chapel. I would invite anyone who has never paid attention or seen the corner stone to take a moment on your way out this morning or during your next visit to Marsh Chapel to find the cornerstone.  

It has a fairly simple design. Carved out of the same stone as the rest of the building, the corner stone displays two pieces of information: on the left side is inscribed A.D. 1949, the year in which the corner stone was laid. To the right is the University Seal. On the outer circle of the seal is the name of the University along with the years of the university’s founding as well as the establishment of its current charter, 1839 and 1869 respectively. Meanwhile, the inner circle of the seal displays a portrait of the City of Boston and the State House dome on Beacon Hill. Connecting these two circles is a symbol of the University’s Christian heritage, the Holy Cross.  

So, you might be curious – what is inside Marsh Chapel’s cornerstone? Take a moment to consider what might be inside – what might be Marsh Chapel’s symbolic and spiritual foundation? Well, I’ve brought a sledgehammer with me today and we’re about to —- NO – Thankfully we don’t need to tear down the walls of Marsh Chapel to find out. According to Daniel Marsh himself, BU’s 4th president and namesake to Marsh Chapel, inside the corner stone is a bronze box with several contents that are meant to represent the foundation, the then soon-to-germinate seed, of Marsh Chapel.   

Some notable contents of the box include several University documents, a book written by Daniel Marsh himself, as well as a Methodist hymnal, an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a copy of the Catholic text, An Imitation of Christ, and a Siddur, a Jewish Prayer book. All of these contents locates the Chapel and its mission in the context of a larger university with a larger ecumenical and interfaith spirit.  

However, the most symbolically important resident of the little bronze box according to Daniel Marsh is a copy of the King James Version Bible. Now, I can say confidently that I do not remember the last time I have read the work of someone so passionate about the Bible as Daniel Marsh (if you’re curious to see read it yourself, you can find his words in The Charm of the Chapel found on our website).  

According to Daniel Marsh, and I quote, “Literally the Bible is in the corner stone of the Chapel. Figuratively it is the corner stone of the Chapel and of the University and of any civilization worth saving.” Marsh traces the importance of the Bible for Marsh Chapel along with the Bible’s importance to the United States of America and western society as a whole. Marsh writes that, “Knowledge of the Bible is indispensable to anyone who would understand the genius of America… American democracy itself rests upon the Biblical doctrines of human worth and brotherhood… knowledge of the Bible is indispensable to an adequate comprehension of the great literature of the world…”  

Simply put (also in Daniel Marsh’s words) “the Bible energizes as well as inspires.” For Daniel Marsh, the Bible is the foundation of the morals and spirit of this country, it is the foundation of his own personal morals and spirit, and so, by being placed in the corner stone of this very building, the Bible is meant to be the foundation of the morals and spirit of this Marsh Chapel.  

For me, this all makes sense. I can see and understand from both a Christian and a more secular point of view all the different ways in which the Bible has molded our collective and individual characters & cultural understandings while also calling us to a higher power and to a higher purpose. For a building like Marsh Chapel that lies at the intersection between the secular, the sacred, and the scholarly – the Bible is a perfect symbol to place as its cornerstone.  

HOWEVER, I also think that to focus on the Bible as the corner stone of Marsh Chapel misses the entire point of the message which Jesus & the Gospel writers were trying to convey in today’s reading. While Daniel Marsh is correct in his evaluation of the Bible as a worthy symbolic corner stone for Marsh Chapel, in so doing he also risks reducing the Scriptures into a kind of philosophy textbook. Marsh writes about how placing a Bible in the corner stone would teach someone opening the time capsule 500 or even 1000 years from now all they would need to know about Marsh Chapel. Sure, they might learn something about our values and beliefs, would they really get a sense of who we are? 

The Bible is more than just a textbook. The Christian faith is more than just a set of rules and guidelines – it is not just a philosophy or a system of ideas and arguments or some spiritual vision for life that can be learned by reading. To be a Christian is to have a living, breathing relationship with Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and with God. The Bible is not just a book with interesting characters that talks about morals; it is a guide for how to honor God, honor ourselves, honor humanity, and honor the greater community of Creation in personal relationship.  

Today’s parable from Matthew highlights the centrality of a personal relationship with Christ vis a vi personal rejection. At the heart of this parable is the murder, the personal rejection, of the son of the landowner. The tenants did not seize and kill an idea, a principle, or a system of doctrine. They seized and killed the landowner’s son, a person. In the same way, Jesus, the son of God, was about to be seized and killed.  

The symbolism of the vineyard, the landowner, and the evil tenants would not have been lost to the chief priests of Jesus’ time. The image of God as landowner and Israel his vineyard stretches back to the Prophet Isaiah such as in Isaiah chapter 5 where the wicked who misuse God’s vineyard bring judgment onto the land. The chief priests would be more than familiar with the prophet’s writings and could easily make the connections between Isaiah’s words and Jesus’ parable. No wonder that when they realized Jesus was speaking about them that the chief priests wanted to arrest him – Jesus was accusing the chief priests of disobeying God and becoming the object of God’s judgment.  

What the chief priests could not see from the parable, however, was the relationship between Jesus and God. But by rejecting Christ, by wanting to arrest him, the chief priests were acting just like the tenants in the parable and just like the wicked ones referenced in Isaiah chapter 5. And by rejecting Jesus, the chief priests would ensure that the vineyard would be taken away from them and given to a people who would accept Jesus, who would accept the landowner’s son and maintain the relationship between landowner and tenant. As Jesus says in his quotation of Psalm 118 – The stone that the builders rejected has become the corner stone – the relationship that the chief priests and authorities rejected will become the foundation for a people of God who will produce the fruits of the Kingdom of God. This corner stone, this relationship with Christ, is not just some symbol of our faith but a foundational piece of it. It is the first stone placed in the building process, the one we refer back to in order to make sure the rest of the building blocks are level and secure. And try as they might, this stone cannot be broken by anyone or anything that falls onto it. Although this corner stone will be rejected by some, “it is amazing in our eyes”.  

Our other Scripture readings today work in tandem to highlight the personal relationships that are at the foundation of our faith. Our Exodus reading is of one of the most famous passages from the Bible – the 10 Commandments. On the most surface level, the 10 Commandments are a set of rules and regulations to define right behavior, to clarify the boundary for right versus wrong. Dig a little deeper though and the 10 Commandments are a guide to help the people of Israel honor God and honor one another.  

After bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, God’s main agenda was to re-establish the covenantal relationship with the Jewish people, and the 10 Commandments are the key terms to that agreement. God could not have the Israelites worshipping idols or desecrating the Sabbath day for to do those things would get in the way of them better knowing him. Likewise, God could not condone murder or adultery or coveting for to let those flourish would destroy the very community itself.   

Meanwhile in our Epistle reading, Paul writes about how he had the utmost confidence in himself and his flesh. He was a virtuous member of the household of Israel – God’s chosen people. He was an expert of the law and zealous in his persecution of a group of people whom he believed to be outside of the righteousness of the law.  

Yet whatever gains I had, Paul writes, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For HIS sake I have suffered the loss of all things … for I want to KNOW Christ and the power of his resurrection. As he describes it himself, Paul’s sense of an earned righteousness, of an earned rightness, before the creator of heaven and earth is nothing compared to a living relationship with Jesus Christ himself. The things that used to be Paul’s corner stones – his circumcision, his obedience to & knowledge of the Torah as a Pharisee, his identity as a member of the tribe of Benjamin – all these things rooted in history that were the foundation of his self-identity are worthy of giving up in the face of a complete and intimate relationship with Jesus. And by rooting himself in the corner stone that is his relationship with Jesus, Paul is able to press on towards the heavenly call of God.  

Returning now to the corner stone of Marsh Chapel. What do I believe is the true foundation of Marsh Chapel? Well – the corner stone is all of you listening right now here in this room. It is all of you that are joining us over the phone or on the livestream or later this week in the recording of the service. It is in the members of the choir, our staff, our livestream technicians. It is in the students who are here for worship, the students who work in our office, the students who join us for community dinner or for tai chi or create space. The corner stone of Marsh Chapel is our community & our relationships with one another – it is the people who find a place to belong and to BE here in Marsh Chapel that make this space a special one.  

Without any human-to-human relationships, this building would be an empty & hollow shell. We could have the finest decorations, the finest music, & the finest preaching and reading of scripture, but without any relationships holding it all together, what would the point be for any of that? If we were to ignore all the possibilities for relationship here in Marsh Chapel, would we not run the risk of being our own version of the chief priests from this story who rejected the blind and deaf, who rejected tax collectors and the prostitutes, who rejected John the Baptist, and who rejected Jesus Christ the Messiah himself?  

At the core of these relationships, however, we also need a relationship with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, and with God. That is our faith after all – to have this intimate relationship with the Three-in-One. How do we cultivate this relationship? This is where the Bible finds its place as our cornerstone as Daniel Marsh intended. The Bible is not a textbook on morals or philosophy, but a guide to knowing God! It is a living, breathing text through which God’s very nature can speak to us. Through the Bible as well as through prayer, worship, and service in community, we learn how to form and nurture a relationship with the ultimate Creator. This relationship with God’s self, then in turn teaches us to cultivate deeper relationships with one another.  

The foundational power of relationships stretches even farther into larger university life here at BU. A particular note for our student community – I recently went to my fifth-year college reunion this past summer. Overall, I had a pretty good time – it was nice to see be back on campus, to see my classrooms, and reminisce about all the experiences I had in college. But the real reason that I went back to that reunion – and this is the same reason that most everyone I spoke to gave me when I asked why they did (or in some cases, why they didn’t) attend our reunion – was this: I was there to see people, to see and spend time with the special friends who I spent four years with in college who would also be returning to campus. I was there because of my relationships. 

What I’ve learned about college in the years since graduating is that college is not simply about your classes or grades or that fancy internship you get the summer between your junior and senior year – this time is about your relationships with your class mates, with your friends, with the faculty and staff. When I think about all the things that I enjoyed about college, my strongest memories are those that highlight the special friendships that I was able to build. Inversely, when I think about my lowest moments of college, and many of my friends have agreed with me, those memories are ones where I felt the loneliest and most isolated.  

As we collectively journey deeper into the fall semester and this fall season, it is important that we remember how foundational relationships are to all that happens here in this Chapel and here on this campus. As the nights get darker, the weather gets colder, and the exams and assignments start to multiply, it can be easy to lose sight of or forget the things that help to support us. What is your corner stone, your foundation, when times become challenging? Is it a philosophy or some vision of life? Or is your corner stone a relationship – one with a friend, a family member, with God – that can hold you no matter how difficult times might be?  

For the students as you all as you face the challenges of school work, begin your exams, and make plans for the spring and summer – For Marsh Chapel as we welcome new hires, begin new forms of ministry, and look to celebrate our 75th anniversary – For Boston University as it welcomes both an interim and permanent president along with all the challenges a change of leadership can bring – For all of us as we face the many joys and sorrows of life, separate or together – Let us return to our foundation, to our cornerstone, and move forward with faith, knowing that we are held and supported by a God who promises life and an abundant harvest.  


-Mr. Jonathan Byung Hoon Lee, Associate Chaplain for Student Outreach