Archive for the ‘Services Honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’ Category

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

January 17

Angels of God

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1: 43-51

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It is not only an ethical imperative that directs us to love our neighbor.  To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick and visit the prisoner.  Should we do these things?  Yes, we should.  Is it our Christian duty to do them?  Yes, it is.  Is this a moral imperative for us, to follow the teachings of Jesus?  It is so.  Then is this the gospel, the good news for today, for the Lord’s day?  Well, we might say it is not the whole of the Gospel.  In the Gospel, not only an ethical imperative, but also, and more so, a divine gift awaits us in Jesus the Christ.  You will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Let us receive the divine gifts of this day, in the midst of all manner of personal, communal, national and cultural challenges.

Over the last 15 years, in concert with a tradition dating back several years before, we have honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. upon this Sunday.  Often, though not this year, this is also the Sunday at the opening of Spring term, a kind of winter Matriculation.  Year by year, we have tried to probe the depths of our legacy, our inheritance, here at Boston University and here at Marsh Chapel, of the voice, mind and heart of Dr. King, whose beautiful, unique and aspirational monument greets us upon Marsh Plaza.  Over the years, voices in concert with his have been lifted here, on the third Sunday of January, prophetic, true, and loving voices: those of the Rev. Dr. Walter Fluker (four times), Mr. Christopher Edwards, Esq., the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley, the Rev. Dr. Peter Paris, Ms. Liz Douglass, the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi, the Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman,  and also the Dean (three times), including last year, January 2020,  in our service celebrating the opening of the Howard Thurman Center (along with Dean Kenn Elmore and Director Katherine Kennedy).  (April 2018 also included 10 days of events and services, fifty years after King’s assassination, culminating in sermons here at Marsh Chapel by Cornell William Brooks and especially of Governor Deval Patrick.)  For Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday this year, this fifteenth year, we listen solely to the voice of King himself, in words all, including every undergraduate, should want to read and know and hear, out of Martin Luther King’s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The work of ethics can open a world us to a world of angels. When you feed the hungry, then you may be christened.  When you clothe the naked, you yourself may be given a confirming gift.  When you welcome the stranger, it may be own joy in eucharist that emerges.  When you heal the sick, you might just find your own anointing and absolution.  And when you visit the prisoner, it is your own soul that is fed.   We are directed ethically to the periphery of life (hunger, nakedness, loneliness, illness, abandonment) so that our ethical zeal can carry us higher.  John knew well, perhaps best in Scripture, that morals and ethics only take us to the foothills.  There is a great high mountain before us.  We find our way toward this height when, by surprise, in the midst of our work and duty…we are accosted by God, by the angels of God.

So, it is, for those who will hear, some nearly sixty years later, words from Martin Luther King, in the finest document remaining from the civil rights era, his Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Those in prison, from Paul of Tarsus to Nelson Mandela, have long had wisdom to share.  They have time to think, and so, something to say.  The finest document from the civil rights era, now nearly sixty years past, is this letter.  Its burden of truth, carried in soaring prose, is largely conveyed in these words:  impatience, justice, time, love, disappointment, and hope.  In the quiet of this winter weekend, with all that swirls about us across this great land of the free and home of the brave, let us carefully meditate together on the gospel as heard through these words from Birmingham.  For we too, now in January 2021, sorely need the nourishment of impatience, justice, time, love, disappointment, and hope.

As we enter the next chapter of American history, the central, lasting, troublous, challenging matter of race, of racism, of anti-racism meets us head on and head long.  This is not only an ethical set of issues.  Rightly seen, rightly heard, this can be a gift of God to us.  Perhaps, at Marsh Chapel, as a University pulpit, we have both the responsibility and the opportunity to place some of this near future work in the context of angelic words, none finer than those of Letter from Birmingham Jail.  On completing the Ph.D. I went to our neighborhood college, a young Jesuit school, and asked to teach.  The Religion Chair, a wonderful woman and Tillich scholar, a former religious, said, ‘You want to teach?’  So, she assigned me the Introduction to Religion Course, which I taught for two decades there, everything you never wanted to know about World Religions, Judaism, Christianity and yours truly.  I asked about the curriculum.  That is up to you, she replied.  Except here (she looked over at a photo of Daniel Berrigan) we always require the Prophet Amos, and Augustine’s Confessions and…Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Wise counsel.

  1. Let us meditate on impatience:

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear… with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark jab of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million  brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and (we) are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

  1. Let us meditate on justice:

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all".

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust... Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

  1. Let us meditate on time:

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (those) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation…Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

  1. Let us meditate on love:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

  1. Let us meditate on disappointment:

I have looked at (our)beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices…

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great- grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

  1. Let us meditate on hope:

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom…They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.  

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny…We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Angels of God, ascending and descending…Hear the Gospel in the voice, the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., meditation on impatience, justice, time, love, disappointment, and hope.  You and I will need some measure of divine impatience with what is wrong, in this next year.  You and I will some measure of divine justice to seize what is right in the next year. You and I will need some measure of time, Kairos time not just Chronos time, to do the right things in the right ways at the right times in the next year.  You and I will need some measure of love to bring meaning to work in the next year.  You and I will need some honesty about disappointment, and its depths, to endure the challenges of the next year.  And most of all, you and I will need some measure of hope, that which we do not see but wait for with patience, in the next year.  May God bless us all.

Let us pray:

In a season of stagnation, dear Lord, make us impatient.

In a season of unfairness, dear Lord, help us yearn for justice.

In a season of delay, dear Lord, cause us to prize our time.

In a season of decay, dear Lord, inspire us by love.

In a season of disappointment, dear Lord, grant us courage to be.

In a season of desire, dear Lord, may we hope for what we do not see.


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

January 19

A Natural Grace

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 49:17

1 Corinthians 1:19

John 1:2942

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‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’


O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
    thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
    and art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me behind and before,
    and layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high, I cannot attain it.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
    Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there thy hand shall lead me,
    and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to thee,
    the night is bright as the day;
    for darkness is as light with thee.

Spirit in Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

In this, the 139th Psalm, a very favorite of Dean Howard Thurman’s, you hear two, or perhaps the two, central features of his teaching on Spirit, nature and grace.  And they come together so smoothly, so seamlessly, that you might just speak of them together, as a natural grace.  Today as we welcome our beloved and esteemed guests, today as we recognize and honor Martin Luther King Jr., today as we step even further to recognize the shaping mentorship and influence on King of Thurman, and today as we recognize and celebrate the inaugural of Boston University’s fine new Howard Thurman Center, we might just do so with…Spirit.

Scripture dazzles us, if we are alive to it.  Notice here that Jesus needs no introduction to Peter:  he knows his name already, without being told, like he knows yours.   Notice here the closeness of the Gospel writer to the Baptists—not American or Southern or Old Regular Baptists--but those who were disciples of John the Baptist, but came over to follow Jesus.  Was the Gospel writer a Baptist before he became a Christian? Notice what does not happen.  In every other Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John, but not here.  Notice the dog that does not bark.  No.  Jesus steps away, dry as a bone.  Spirit ever trumps sacrament, and gospel ever trumps church in John.  Jesus is not baptized in John (the Gospel) by John (the Baptist), unlike in the other three gospels.  The Baptist knows and honors Him—bears witness to him (martyr in Greek) but Jesus does not stoop, deign, or allow himself to be baptized.  Here is inheritance, but inheritance with innovation at its heart.  Here is religion, but religion with grace, a natural grace, at its heart.

Spirit in Scripture.


So too, Spirit in Tradition.

And we have our traditions here, one of which is the observance of this special Sunday, in this particular space, with its particular Marsh history, across six deanships.  With Franklin Littell, the first Marsh dean, 1951, and one of the founders of Holocaust studies in the USA, we share an uncompromising willingness to challenge national government and leadership, for the sake of the gospel.  With Howard Thurman, 1953, our most famous dean, we share a confidence in universal truth, a search for common ground, and a delight in natural grace.  With Robert Hamill, 1965, we share a fierce commitment to human, to civil rights.  With Robert Thornburg, 1978, we share a nuanced appreciation for the intricacies and wanderings of Methodist church bureaucracy.  With Robert Neville, and his emphasis on Go the Creator.  With Robert Hill, the current dean, we share a regard for biblical theology, Paul Tillich, common hope, and hymn singing in four-part harmony.   All together, our tradition is one of a common hope. We have seen hope come alive, moving from chapel to university to community:  Community Service Program, LGBTQ L Douglass, ISGC, Howard Thurman Center, Global Ministry, and others.

A tradition in hope buoyed by many voices.

The voice of John Wesley.  Methodists are like everyone else, only more so, the saying goes—a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley).

The voice of Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”. Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Today especially the voice of Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” 

The voice of Martin Luther King.  Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our Plaza.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote:  “We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All seven and a half billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All seven and a half  billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All seven and a half billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All seven and a half  billion. We all age, and after fifty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All seven and a half billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All seven and a half billion.”

Spirit in Tradition.


So too, Spirit in Reason.

Reason can have the deepest range in Spirit.  Think of Robert Francis Kennedy, late a night, in the rain, at the Indianapolis airport, April 4 1968, speaking from memory and from the heart.  Looking back this week, what is striking is his reliance on spirited reason.  Reason in the rain.

Robert Francis Kennedy, Indianapolis, April 4 1968:

I have bad news for you…

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice…

In this difficult day…we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love…

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times…

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land…

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world…

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people

And so also Thurman.  Read or re-read this winter The Search for Common Ground, With Head and Heart, and Jesus and the Disinherited.It is the spirited reason, the life of the spiritual mind of Howard Thurman that still invigorates us:

Crown: This is how Jesus demonstrated reverence for personality…He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.”  (Disinherited 106).

Harmony: As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

Unity: There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Wisdom: Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53) 

Mind: ‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

Child: ‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  (JATD, 53).

Spirit in Reason.


Spirit in Experience, and we mean here spiritual experience.  Whence ideas and imagination?

We are driving along a blue highway, Route 20.  Conversation pauses.  The rolling hillsides, now sprouting corn, alfalfa, beans, wheat, and hay, are like their own tidal waves, their own sea scape, in green not blue.

An idea arrives, related to ‘conversation’.  Two books by our MIT neighbor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, have guided some of my thought about this.  We hope to meet her in person sometime.  Her voice is a crucial one in this conversation about conversation, and she is only the span of the river away.  A thought:  why not invite her, Dr. Turkle, to come to Marsh Chapel and engage in a dialogue sermon?  The conversational form of the sermon would itself accent our emphasis upon conversation, as would her voice, presence, and knowledge.  The work on conversation could include a pulpit conversation with perhaps the current intellectual leader in thought about conversation.  An idea, maybe a good idea, has arrived, as the green sea fields of young corn roll by.  But no body has done anything about it.  Yet.

Where did that idea come from?  Non liquet:  it is not clear.  Whence such an idea?  How does a new prospect—here, the possibility of a pulpit dialogue—come to life?  The leisure to drive and be bathed in silence, along with the occasional personal conversation, certainly allows space and time for such a thought to land in the mind.  The further distance from daily, office or campus routine and rhythm, so important to the work of sermon development and any other composition, adds a further support.  Perhaps the familiarity of the route, the drive itself—a road the car could meander on its own, so regular are the trips—gave a lulling quietude that became the womb of gestation for thought.  ‘My best sermon ideas come while I am shaving’ once said James Forbes.   Yet the moment of insight, of new thought, the arrival of an idea comes on its own with our without a well-manicured airport, runway or landing strip.  Whence an idea?  What is going on when we think?  Or when we think we are thinking?  Or when we think about our thinking?  Whence an idea?

Or whence imagination?  How, of a recent evening, did a current political campaign unearth the memory of 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 (here slightly updated), in the mind of a Boston preacher?

The Lord said to them:  You need another leader, and I have provided one for you.  Go to Bethlehem (or was it Iowa?) and see.

So, they went together as a party.  And along the way they held many and great debates. And they saw Eliab, also named Joe, but the Lord had not chosen him.  And then they saw Abinadab, a good Jewish fellow also known as Bernie, but they heard the Lord had not chosen him.  Then they saw Shammah, also known as Elizabeth, but their guide said the Lord had not chosen her either.  And then there seven others:  Klobachar, Steyer, Buttegieg, Booker, Harris, O’Rourke, and Bloomberg.  But these were not what they needed either. I look not on appearance but on the heart, said the Lord.  And that was the end of the list.  There were no more candidates.  And they sat down by the olive tree, or was it a New Hampshire maple tree, or was it a Georgia peach tree, and they sighed, and they murmured, and they groaned, and they sorrowed, and they gave in to melancholy.

But then someone said:  Are they all here?  Well, said someone else, I think that’s all of them.  Then one said, is that right?  Isn’t there anybody else.  And the reply came, well, I mean, there is one other, but he is really young compared to all these, and he has been busy taking care of his family and flock.  He is a good shepherd, a good governor, in that way.

And the party said, after yet another debate, Send and fetch him, for we will not sit down until he comes here, or we at least see him on TV.  And so, they went and fetched him.  Now he was ruddy.  And he had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.  And the Lord said: Arise, pick him, for this is he.  His name is David, also known as Deval.   So, they thanked Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Klobachar, Steyer, Buttegieg, Booker, Harris, O’Rourke and Bloomberg, and, in a big party meeting, they picked Deval.  And the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, also known as Deval, from that day forward.

Whence such whimsical imagination?  Who knows.  We know this, though, as my son the basketball coach repeats and repeats:  It is not how you start that counts.  It is how you finish.  Life is full of surprises.

That is spirit in experience.

Spirit in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  All of them will take you closer to Howard Thurman, to Jesus, and to your own most self.

Close To You

You can get close to Howard Thurman through










Gathering, Meaning, Belonging








My friends, the doors of the church are open!  Thurman wrote: “The ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior.  The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance.  Death would be a small thing I felt in the sweep of that natural embrace.”

‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’

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

October 14

A Service in Remembrance of the Life and Legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Marsh Chapel

January 14

Plenty Good Room

By Marsh Chapel

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John 14:1-7

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A text copy of this sermon is not available.

-The Reverend Dr. Walter Earl Fluker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology

January 11

The Moment Between Chaos and Creation

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:4-11

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In the Beginning….this is a phrase we hear so often when we read the scriptures. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. It seems especially appropriate to uplift the very beginning of our canonized scripture-Genesis 1:1, at the beginning of a New Year. We are a society of resolution, of movement, of goal-setting. At the beginning of each new year we resolve to lose weight, watch less TV, be more productive, and take on various tasks and endeavors that are often forgotten by the early snows of February. This year, I was so over-zealous that I wrote in my journal 12 different resolutions I wanted to accomplish, and then divvied them up and assigned them separate months-like 12 little Lenten projects throughout my year. This urge to be productive, planned, and off and running this time of year runs deep in our bones. In many ways the rush of things, the ebb and flow of the tides of our lives are inescapable and unending. Even in the cyclical endlessness of life, we still have this deep yearning for beginnings.  We find the need to begin each year anew-but our beginnings are often hurried, rushed, hustling-and bustling us to newer things, better selves.

So it is important for us to consider what happened in THE BEGINNING? Genesis 1 reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters.”The translation of this passage, historically and due to the elegant language of the King James Version has often been understood as “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and earth”-giving the impression that God created something out of nothing, a common latin phrase for this creatio ex nihilo. This would mean that there was nothing before God first created the heavens and the earth.  But many Hebrew and old testament scholars see the Hebrew as perhaps being more grammatically accurate to say ‘God began creating the heavens and the earth’,  in this reading of the text the passage would hold the notion of God creating out of chaos-the latin term for which is ordo ab chao. This translation would imply that the universe already existed, and God creates purpose, order, and light within it. Creation, then, is in fact, a re-ordering of an already chaotic universe. It is this ordo ab chao reading that I want us to spend some time with today.

In Genesis, this universe is a formless void, a watery deep swirling and teeming with disorder, chaos, with no purpose and no life. The earth is wild, it is unknown, it is a dark and watery abyss. And yet, there is this moment in between ‘the beginning’ and God saying ‘Let there be light’. There is a quiet moment between the chaos of that world below and the creation yet to come. In that space, in those moments the wind, which in Hebrew is the same word for the spirit, ruah, is hovering, brooding just above the earth, sweeping across the water. I love this image- like a hen protecting her eggs, the holy spirit, broods, clutches, hovers above the abyss. The divine spirit encompasses a chaotic earth, waiting for that moment of birth, that moment of beautiful creation. IN our world today, when we experience chaos we crave creation-we feel rushed and urged to manage, order, begin again, start anew, dissolve and resolve and move forward from the chaos in our lives with immediacy. But in the same way there is a breath between 11:59 on New Years Eve and 12:00 a.m. on New years day, there is a space in between.  There is this one beautiful moment between chaos and creation where the spirit of God is so near to us, hovering over us, urging us to give into the beauty ahead of us.

Every year, we observe merrily as Christ is born in a manger on a chilly night amidst the hay bales and the donkeys (and if you have ever seen the film Love Actually-you know there were at least a couple of lobsters present at the birth of Jesus), we follow the star with the Magi and bestow gifts and grace upon our gentle Jesus. And suddenly, out of nowhere, liturgically it is Christ’s baptism Sunday. Last week, the Magi were bringing frankincense, myrrh, gold on a young toddler, and this week we see a fully grown, adult, Jesus going into the wilderness to seek out John the Baptist and begin his ministry. Before Jesus’ extraordinary life and teachings can begin, we find this separate moment that is neither here nor there, neither childhood, nor grown Rabbi-but a space in between. A quiet moment at the river, A chance for renewal, a baptism. John the Baptist is emanating the prophet Elijah by wearing camel’s hair and baptizing people in the wilderness. This image of wilderness is supposed to remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the exodus. Wandering, lost, and barely surviving in desert heat, the wilderness for us is an image of chaos.

And yet Jesus seeks out John in that dry wilderness, in that chaos, to be baptized by him. In the Jewish tradition at this time, baptism was a source of renewal into the covenant of Israel-a repentance of sins so that one could be washed clean to join once again the people of God.  Also at this time, the Jewish tradition of baptism was widely self-service. People would go to the water and baptize themselves, by dipping their head under water, or sprinkling themselves with water from head to foot. They simply needed to be baptized in the presence of a prophet, like John the Baptist.  But when Jesus approaches, he asks John to baptize him, the physicality and vulnerability of this gesture cannot be overstated. In the space between the chaos of the wilderness and the creation of Jesus’ life as Rabbi-as minister, in that quiet moment, in that space-Jesus is held in the arms of his fellow human and washed clean. In that in-between moment, the same God that calls forth life from the primordial deep and dark waters in Genesis 1, calls Jesus to new birth out of to the waters of baptism.

Sometimes, creating that space between chaos and creation is not always easy for us, sometimes we need someone to help us center down. We fill our lives up with meaningful work, deep relationships, and required daily tasks and often, even at the beginning of a New Year, don’t give ourselves a chance to reflect, to really linger in reflect. Howard Thurman, who was once Dean of this Chapel and preached from this pulpit for many years, was a mystic man of faith, a compassionate mentor to many, and a slow searching man. I read earlier this week a story in Dr. Walter Fluker’s book “Ethical Leadership” about Howard Thurman and his relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman writes in his autobiography that he often had gentle premonitions, deep soul-callings, to engage with people who were in a time of trouble. When he  was 29 years old, just a young, fervent, and fiery preacher talking about justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing. Thurman felt a deep spiritual need to go to him, to visit with King in the hospital.  During his visit Howard Thurman urged Martin Luther King to take even more rest than the doctor’s prescribed,  he urged him to take 4 more weeks to be exact to reassess his purpose, try to understand his cause, to rest his body spirit and mind, and to find healing.  King did heed his advice, and unique to the rest of his life, adopted a brief time of quietitude, meditation, and stillness. He delivered no speeches, went to no meetings, and did not take up agenda items for the civil rights movement at that time.  After the time had passed, he was re-invigorated towards the cause of the civil rights movement with clear and determined understanding of his purpose and mission within the organization. And the rest as we know, is history. The moment between chaos and creation offered Dr. King a chance to find his own renewal, his own sense of presence in the Spirit.

When one of my students found out that I was preaching a couple of weeks ago they asked , “you are going to use Rilke again, aren’t you?” (I couldn’t tell if she was exacerbated or excited-but I mostly was thrilled she remembered one thing from my previous sermons), so as I have finished up my year-long journey with Rilke as a spiritual guide, I will include him again. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the human nature to rush and press on despite the need for stillness, despite the need for a space in between, Rilke wrote-

We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.

I find that our world is plagued with moments of voidless dark, watery abyss, dry wilderness. In the face of an ever-present cultural racism, mass incarceration, Ebola, The recent attacks on a newspaper in Paris, France, and the numerous other tragedies on our screens, in our newspapers, and on our hearts,  -how could we deny the deep and foreboding presence of chaos in our world? Rilke reminds us that we need these moments between chaos and creation, where the Spirit hovers over us, waiting to be pulled in, touched,  embraced, and intertwined with our spirits. When we forget to create this sacred space and time, we can get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the chaos or overwhelmed by creation. I remember when I first read in the news about the tragic and terrible school shooting in Peshawar Pakistan, where just a few weeks ago, over 140 school children were murdered in an act of terrorism. I saw this picture in a news article of a pair of empty shoes laying on a bloodstained school auditorium floor and I became completely overwhelmed with grief in the chaos of that terrible act. I cried, and thought of all the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and of the parent who must have helped to tie those shoes in the morning. I truly felt that I was grieving, and at a loss for our world. I saw the darkness and the voids of abyss and felt overwhelmed.

When I got into my office the next day I had a phone call from a thoughtful and courageous Boston University student, who was from Pakistan and she wanted to organize a vigil, a time for prayer, silence, and presence amidst such atrocity. The student said that in the face of not knowing at all how to cope with this, a vigil seemed ‘just the right thing to do right now.’ So the next night, in the middle of exam week, I gathered with over 50 students-most of which were from Pakistan or had family from Pakistan-and we created that in-between space. A space between the chaos of violence and the creation of hope-it was simple, it was quiet, it was a lit candle, and a tearful prayer, and a lesson on peace from the Q’uran.  I felt so full of the spirit in those moments, so close the brooding bosom of God. I am so grateful to those student leaders who called together for this moment of vigil prayer. I knew that the time for creation would come-the time when I would want to find hope and purpose and ways to help create a sustainable solution for the terror that often plagues our world and our children, but just then-that cold December night just before Christmas-I needed to abandon the chaos, and delay the creation, to exist in the in-between moment of stillness, peace, quiet, solidarity, and prayer to be reminded of how close the Spirit is to us, and how much we can rest in the Divine when we are in need.

This moment in between chaos and creation is not a passive moment, or meant to be seen as a privileged moment of removing yourself from the situation and ignoring the reality of a broken and bleeding world. Rilke’s poem says “only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” The word tarry is not a passive word - but an active verb. It is synonymous with the word Sojourn-to live temporarily. These in-between moments are not places we can stay, but still places where we should actively live. Furthermore, this is not an easy action - holding yourself in this temporary stillness is sometimes more difficult than jumping from chaos to make order.  In this action between the moment of chaos and creation we have the opportunity to be opened up in transformative ways. To tarry in the in-between is not doing nothing, it is doing something. Let the noise subside and in the silence and the stillness be ready for the sound of God, be ready to be found, be ready to be made new, re-created in the truest way. Only from the silence a word is spoken, only from the stillness, is a movement created.

-The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

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